Mountains and Malbec
Bracketing a trip to
Some time when I was about 12 I learned
that Cerro (Mount)
The seven summits:
Our goal, for reasons I, in retrospect,
don’t quite remember: Cerro Aconcagua.
The mountain is situated in Parque Provincial Aconcagua in the High Andes
Cerro Aconcagua from Santiago-Mendoza flight, the higher North peak is to the left
We made arrangements with Aconcagua
Trek. We met the group in
Getting the climbing permits in Mendoza (1000 pesos in high season)
We set off on January 16 by shuttle from
Checking permits at Horcones Ranger Station: Numbered garbage bag
Leandro, Finn and Jose Maria;
guides, Martin and Damien in background
It later became apparent that the trek in had been designed by Martin as a series of progressing physical and acclimatization tests. The first was the generally easy trek in from the Ranger Station—probably troubling enough if one wasn’t acclimatized to the altitude. The pleasant rolling walk on a generally rocky trail leads up the lower Horcones valley towards Confluencia. The fearless birds were a highlight—at Confluencia they would even come into the mess tent and steal crumbs during lunch.
Nancy and group on trail to Confluencia Grey-hooded sierra-finch on the Lower Horcones Valley trail
Confluencia is the first camp in the Horcones valley. It consists of a series of “permanent” camps set up by the trekking companies with kitchens, mess tents, and sleeping tents or domes. There is running water carried by plastic pipe from higher up the Horcones Inferior valley. Independent travellers camp on the margins. Confluencia is at 3410 m. The elevations of features in the Parque Provincial Aconcagua vary depending on source. For consistency those herein are those from the official guide to the provincial park.
Confluencia (3410 m)
The à la carte prices at Confluencia seem reasonable, considering everything’s been packed in by mule: 2 litres of water for US$6, a litre bottle of soda for $11, a bottle of champagne for $20 and a litre of vodka for $40. You can get a shower for $8 (gas canisters are toted in, so the water is warm) and, apparently for the truly unprepared, a sleeping bag can be had for $10 a night.
The group at Confluencia: Damien, Leandro, Finn, Jose Maria and Nancy
We did get in a few games of volleyball
before the sun went down: a personal altitude record of sorts (3410 m) and a
confirmation that altitude wasn’t really going to be a problem (after all we’d
Volleyball at Confluencia
The next of Martin’s tests was an
acclimatization day hike without packs up over 4000 m up the Horcones Inferior
valley alongside its degrading glacier to the scenic viewpoint at Mirador where
the great South Face of Aconcagua loomed.
The South Face is one of the great mountaineering challenges. There are higher walls in the world, but few
Tough footing in the Horcones Inferior valley The South Face of Aconcagua from Mirador: 3000 m of rock and ice
We could see snow blowing off the peak. From 4000 m the mare’s tails of snow efflorescing off the peak looked harmless enough, even picturesque. We were later to discover that as we watched from below, at the high camps everyone was hunkered down in their tents all day unable to move up or down—some fighting the gale to save their tents from collapsing, or worse.
Walking back out to Confluencia with our backs to the South face, the character of the valley was more apparent: lovely cushion plants in flower, the rotting mass of the Horcones Inferior glacier with the eponymic river emerging from a tunnel at its snout.
Cushion plant in the Horcones Inferior valley Snout of the Glaciar Horcones Inferior
Leaving Confluencia, it was on the way up
the Horcones valley that Martin’s strategy became obvious—test us to see how
much we could take. The first day to
Confluencia was just a three-hour hike and even the route to Mirador and the
South Face wasn’t much of a challenge—not that he gave any quarter in terms of
pace and rest—but the multi-hour slog up the Horcones valley was the chance at
a first real test. Down to the Rio
Horcones river, then up and over the moraine, and finally into the valley, half
of it over the ankle-testing cobbles of the Playa Ancha, and with Martin
setting a quick pace with only three rest stops meant that our energy resources
were pretty much tapped out by the end.
Not much real time for photos—just kilometre after kilometre of trail
(and no trail where the braided river had left nothing but cobbles). The trek into base camp at Plaza de Mulas
covers 35 km up the valley of the
Bridge over the Rio Horcones Horcones valley
Trekking in the Horcones valley Playa Ancha
Plaza de Mulas acts as the base camp for
We were in two-person tents. It was cold—our water bottles froze solid overnight—but we were comfortable enough swaddled in our down sleeping bags.
Plaza de Mulas (4350 m) Plaza de Mulas Cerro Cuerno (5462 m) above Plaza de Mulas
We caught up with our gear which had been carried in by mules. The muleteers had the entire gaucho accoutrement: berets, chaps and knives in their sash belts. The mule traffic up the valley does have an impact: multiple trails were visible everywhere and erosion an evident problem in places.
Muleteer at Plaza de Mulas Mule trails near Confluencia
Half an hour from Plaza de Mulas is what purports to be the highest hotel the world, Hotel Refugio (4370 m). We may be dealing with semantics here: on the Annapurna Trek the guest house at the base camp for Thorung La at Thorung Phedi is at 4450 m and the High Camp guest house is at 4880 m, far higher than Hotel Refugio—maybe it’s that second floor that makes it a “hotel.”
Hotel Refugio (4370 m) High Camp on the Annapurna Trek, Nepal (4880 m)
Facilities at Plaza de Mulas are fairly basic. The camp kitchen turned out large quantities of palatable food: pizza and pasta, heavy on carbohydrates. But the toilet facilities were challenging: a covered booth over a 45-gallon drum, with an open squat hole in the floor, large enough to fall through. After dark the hazard was constipating—nowhere to shine the head lamp, perform functions, and be sure of one’s footing and aim. Cleaned every morning, but still pretty grotty.
On the same subject, all the human waste is ferried out of Plaza de Mulas by helicopter—one service paid by the park entrance fees.
Toilets at Plaza de Mulas Helicopter at Plaza de Mulas ferrying a 45-gallon “honey barrel”
After a day’s rest at Plaza de Mulas the
plan was for a load carry to the camps at Plaza Canada and Nido de Condores,
caching food and fuel for the push up the mountain two days later. Other than Nancy becoming disoriented on the
way up and Martin having to be convinced that this was not the first symptoms
of cerebral oedema and just her usual lack of direction and fear of getting
lost, the first part of the climb was fine.
We cached food and fuel at Plaza
The scenery was spectacular. Eventually we were looking down to the tops of 5000 m peaks.
Glaciar Horcones Superior and Cerro Cuerno (5462 m)
More of Martin’s testing: we made good
time, climbing from Plaza de Mulas (4350 m) to Nido de Condores (5560 m) in six
hours. The large Russian group we had
seen at base camp only made it to Plaza
By the time we’d reached Nido de Condores we were in a mild blizzard. Nancy and I had our wind shells and (light) gloves but were cold—I began to worry about my fingertips. But Martin hadn’t really suggested any cold-weather clothing in reserve (another test?) and others were suffering more than we were. A quick cache of the rest of the supplies and we headed down.
Approaching Nido de Condores
Martin lead us straight down the scree—twisting, wrenching, pounding my 60-year-old knees. It hurt. And that with now-empty packs. After the summit ascent we’d be descending more than twice as far down the same scree slope and with full packs as we carried all the equipment down. I took about an hour more than the others to descend. All the way down, I had fears of injury or more permanent damage.
The scree decided it: I wasn’t going to
chance the pounding. No use giving up
the rest of a lifetime of basketball with the possibility of doing something
serious on the descent. And besides, as
bags are an effort to ensure that human waste does not contaminate the high
camps. Winter snows do clean things, but
the accumulation in past years had been a serious problem. There is sketch in a research paper (Kreck,
Nancy descending in snow with Plaza Canada in background The knee-killing scree
Our decision held in the morning. Martin and Damien encouraged us to rest and
then continue with the group on the three-day ascent to Refugio
We had been well prepared for the
altitude. Back in Plaza de Mulas after
the ascent to Nido de Condores my oxymeter readings were 99 percent at
rest. Martin didn’t believe it was
possible. We never did reveal the
secret. Our son-in-law, Ka-Hung’s
brother runs a company Altitudetech (http://www.altitudetech.ca)
which markets a high altitude simulator.
We had been sleeping at oxygen levels equivalent to over 5000 m for more
than a month before we set a foot in
Later we heard what happened on the day we would have summitted. Finn and Jose Maria successfully reached the peak; however, Leandro had begun to feel the effects of altitude just above Nido de Condores and had returned to Plaza de Mulas.
There were much more dramatic
incidents. One climber returned after
successfully reaching the peak, crawled into his tent and was found dead the
next morning. Another, party of a pair
climbing with two guides, ended up separated from the guides on the ascent as
they dealt with the other climber who began suffering symptoms of AMS. He continued on, removed his sunglasses and
went snowblind. He, fortunately, was
experienced enough to recognize his predicament and found enough snow to dig a
snow cave and crawl in. The guides
eventually noticed this absence and started searching, all the way to the peak,
and scoured the mountain until ,
eventually surrendering to exhaustion.
Happily, the climber’s eyes were recovered enough in the morning for him
to find the high camp at Refugio
A trekker’s peak perhaps, but
On the way out we saw the result of a misstep (and the work of condors—which we never did spy).
Setting our own pace rather than Martin’s quick march—what is the etymology of “martinet”? J —meant we had a bit more time to appreciate the scenery in the Horcones valley. The river is a braided stream which changes course so much that in a few days it had migrated right against the valley wall forcing us up the sideslope.
Braided stream and mule string in Horcones valley Mike and Nancy in Horcones Valley
A leisurely 35 km stroll and we were at the ranger station and Puente del Inca.
Puente del Inca gets it name from a natural
bridge stained yellow and orange from the sulphurous
Puente del Inca
An overnight in Puente del Inca and a bus ride to Uspallata, a bottle of Malbec and beef ribs at the parrilla San Ceyatano in Uspallata: back to civilization.
Uspallata itself has some charms but it is
mainly a stop on the Buenos Aires-Santiago road route. An oasis of
Bovedas Historicos de Uspallata Biking near Uspallata
San Martin Route sign at Bovedas de Uspallata Seven Coloured Mountain near Uspallata
After our trip to
Rowing club Mendoza
Order a steak in
de chorizo at Don Mario’s in
We decided to celebrate the joys of
Malbec. Malbec is the iconic Argentinean
wine—a non-descript grape in
Having toured some of the nearby wineries
in 2007, we decided to head south in rented car to the new wine region of Valle
de Uco. It’s hard to imagine a more
spectacular setting. The vineyards are
at an altitude of about 1200-1500 m. And
since the foothill ranges disappear just south of
Vineyards and Andes, Valle de Uco
The area is just developing as a destination. There’s little accommodation yet outside some of the large and ostentatious wineries (we stayed at the quaint La Posada del Jamon with its dining room festooned with individually numbered air-dried hams), but hotels and guest houses are under construction. We had a chance to see one conversion just being completed, an 8-room high-end guest house at the Antucura winery near Vista Flores.
Jamons at La Posada del Jamon, Vista Flores, Valle de Uco Guest house at the Antucura winery, Vista Flores, Valle de Uco
There are incredible monies flowing into
the regions for new wineries and vineyards.
We managed to visit a few. You
can get a sense from the pictures of the Fournier Winery of the efforts going
into development of the region. We
lucked out at Fournier—we were a tad late in getting to winery, so missed the
scheduled tour (we would have been with only two other people—that suggests how
new the area is in terms of attracting wine tourism). Instead we joined a pair of Chilean
journalists who were writing a feature on the region, and got the more thorough
version. No purchases here—fortunately,
Fournier wines are available in
Fournier Winery, Valle de Uco Lab at Fournier Winery, Valle de Uco Nancy and Fournier wines
The Salentein Winery is the best known and touristically-developed of the wineries. It has a spectacular facility, including a wonderful art gallery. Strangely, unlike other wineries we visited they don’t offer an opportunity to taste their better wines, so we left unimpressed.
Salentein Winery, Valle de Uco
We enjoyed the Andeluna Winery visit more. My sense was the winemaking was less technically “fussy”, but the wines we tasted were wonderful. Bottles for us and a bottle of their Pasionada for our daughter’s and son-in-law’s tenth wedding anniversary.
Mike at Andeluna Winery, Valle de Uco Grapes at Andeluna Winery, Valle de Uco Medal for Andeluna Winery’s Pasionada
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