Argentina 2008


Mountains and Malbec



Bracketing a trip to Antarctica we spent a few weeks in Argentina.


Some time when I was about 12 I learned that Cerro (Mount) Aconcagua was the highest mountain in the world that one could summit with minimal technical aids.  Indeed, the mountain, in Argentina’s Andes, is touted as the world’s highest trekking peak.  And, at 6962 m, it is also the highest peak in the southern hemisphere, the highest in the western hemisphere, and the highest peak outside Asia.  It one of the seven summits (i.e., one of the highest peaks on each continent)—the highest after Mt. Everest.  A compelling allure for many.


The seven summits:

  1. Mt. Everest (Asia): 8850 m (there are 164 peaks in Asia, in the Himalayas and the Karakoram range, that are higher than Aconcagua)
  2. Cerro Aconcagua (South America): 6962 m (there are 43 peaks in South America higher than North America’s Mt. Denali)
  3. Mt. Denali (North America): 6194 m
  4. Kilimanjaro (Africa): 5963 m
  5. Mt. Elbrus (Europe): 5633 m
  6. Vinson Massif (Antarctica): 4897 m
  7. Puncak Jaya (Oceania): 4884 m


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 in Argentina, close to the Chilean border. 



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 Mendoza (an easy-connecting flight Toronto non-stop to Santiago, Chile to Mendoza).  Lead guide, Martin and assistant Damien, Finn from Denmark, Jose Marie from Spain, Leandro from Argentina.  At first indication, we may have been out of our league athletically.  Other than simply being older and less lean, Finn and Jose Marie were marathoners.  Leandro had trained by climbing a 5000 m peak.  Finn and Jose Marie had climbed Kilimanjaro previously and Jose Marie was intent on the seven summits.  Finn had cycled down from Bolivia with his daughter (who was to have joined the group but came up with a medical problem that could have been aggravated by altitude).


IMG_0001 getting permits in Mendoza Aconcagua 2008

Getting the climbing permits in Mendoza (1000 pesos in high season)


We set off on January 16 by shuttle from Mendoza on the main trans-Andes highway linking Argentina to Santiago, Chile.  First stop: dropping duffels at the mule depot near Las Penitantes.  Mules would carry the mountain and cold weather gear in to Plaza de Mulas.  An overnight at one of the Las Penitantes ski chalets and then to the Horcones Ranger Station to have our permits checked and to pick up the personal litter bag.  These bags are numbered and, in the interest of controlling litter, must be returned to the ranger station on exit.


IMG_0007 checking permits at Horcones Ranger Station Aconcagua 2008           IMG_0167%20garbage%20bag%20Aconcagua%202008

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.


IMG_0011           IMG_0016 comesebo on trail Lower Horocones Valley Acongacua 2008

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.


IMG_0024a Confluencia  Aconcagua 2008

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.


IMG_0037 the group at Confluencia  Aconcagua 2008

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 left near-sea-level Toronto just four days before). 


IMG_0040a P1180603 Volleyball at Confluencia Aconcagua 2008

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 enough, and Aconcagua is so much higher than its surroundings it outdoes many of the great Asian peaks in sheer (pun intended) grandeur. 


IMG_0067%20tough%20footing%20in%20%20Horocones%20Inferior%20valley%20Aconcagua%202008           IMG_0048%20South%20Face%20from%20Mirador%20Aconcagua%202008

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.



Winds at South Summit


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.


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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 Horcones River.  The guidebooks suggest the route from Confluencia should take 8.5 to 11 hours.  We stumbled into Plaza de Mulas in 6.5 hours.


IMG_0083%20bridge%20over%20the%20Rio%20Horocones%20Inferior%20Aconcagua%202008           IMG_0088%20Horocones%20valley%20Aconcagua%202008

Bridge over the Rio Horcones                                      Horcones valley


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Trekking in the Horcones valley                                   Playa Ancha


Plaza de Mulas acts as the base camp for the Normal Route on Aconcagua.  It consists of a series of camps set up by the trekking companies: kitchen and mess tents, supply depot and tents for the trekkers.  Independent trekkers set up their tents on the periphery, but can use the trekking companies’ services à al carte.  The camp is set up each season with a permanent camp staff and is broken down and carried out on mule back at season’s end to avoid being carried away by the inevitable snow avalanches. 


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.


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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.


IMG_0138%20mule%20skinner%20at%20Plaza%20de%20Mulas%20Aconcagua%202008           IMG_0026 mule trails near Confluencia  Aconcagua 2008

Muleteer at Plaza de Mulas                                           Mule trails near Confluencia


Aconcagua looms over Plaza de Mulas.  And the base camp crowd is a combination of trepidation and excitement of those preparing for the ascent and the exhilaration of those who had just (successfully) summitted.  We shared meals with an American team, a large group of Russians and a pair of Serbs.  One of the characters was a solo Welsh climber who had summitted and then, back at Plaza de Mulas, polished off three bottles of wine in celebration (apparently he’d been berated for the bottle of brandy he’d had at the high camp before the summit)—Canadians were fine, but no love for the English, and Scots obviously shared a common animus.



Northwest Face of Aconcagua at sunset


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.”


IMG_0121%20Hotel%20Refugio%20Aconcagua%202008            IMG_2122%20High%20Camp%20Annapurna%20Trek%20Nepal%202008

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.


IMG_0111%20toilets%20at%20Plaza%20de%20Mulas%20Aconcagua%202008           IMG_0165%20helicopter%20at%20Plaza%20de%20Mulas%20Aconcagua%202008

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 Canada, which is nothing more than a few tent circles tucked in behind a rock promontory at about 5000 m.  A rest and then upward again.



Nancy ascending from Plaza Canada (5050 m)


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 Canada in that time.


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 troubled Nancy, above Plaza de Mulas you have to use a plastic toilet bag and present it back to the Ranger Station at Plaza de Mulas—I think the toilet facilities at base camp had made her a bit skittish.


The toilet 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, L.A., H. Guenther and C. Kopczynski 2000 “Saving Mt. Aconcagua: an environmental study” International Journal of Hospitality and Tourism Administration 1(2) 51-64) which points out the piles of feces among the tents.  (A good word for Scrabble™: the singular of feces is “fex”, but you’ve got to find the right dictionary).  The rumour at Plaza de Mulas was the bags were weighed when one turned them in with some undefined punishment if one was “light.”  The idea of the bags originated in Mount Denali in Alaska, but there’s no research as to what are the norms of feces production—besides, it’s not inconceivable that one could be fully constipated for a few days.


IMG_0155%20Nancy%20descending%20to%20Plaza%20Canada%20in%20snow%20Aconcagua%202008                                   IMG_0156%20scree%20above%20Plaza%20Canada%20Aconcagua%202008

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 Berlin (5930 m) on the following day, and, perhaps even to the summit.  But, we stuffed the duffels, left them for the mules and headed down the valley.


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 ( 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 Argentina and riding an exercise bike daily at similar levels.  We may have felt exhausted, famished and stressed at times, and the knees finally gave me too much trouble on the scree, but we never were short of breath.


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 2 a.m., eventually surrendering to exhaustion.  Happily, the climber’s eyes were recovered enough in the morning for him to find the high camp at Refugio Berlin in the morning.  We also ran into a young Japanese woman headed for hospital—on morphine for the pain and hands bound in bandages so that only her index finger and thumb on each hand were exposed, the other fingers, terribly frostbitten.


A trekker’s peak perhaps, but Aconcagua can cause real peril. 


On the way out we saw the result of a misstep (and the work of condors—which we never did spy).



Dead mule in Rio Horcones valley


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. 


IMG_0188%20braided%20stream%20Horcones%20valley%20Aconcagua%202008           IMG_0194%20Mike%20and%20Nancy%20in%20Horcones%20Valley%20Aconcagua%202008

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 hot springs that down into the Rio Las Cuevas.  José de San Martin led his army past (and, at least in legend, over) Puente del Inca on his way to join with Bernardo O’Higgins (in its incongruity, one of my favourite names in history) in the liberation of Chile.



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.



Nancy at San Ceyatano in Uspallata


Uspallata itself has some charms but it is mainly a stop on the Buenos Aires-Santiago road route.  An oasis of Lombardy poplars, it is close enough to the mountains that it was the centre for the filming of Seven Years in Tibet (in one Brad Pitt’s earlier starring roles)—the Café Tibet still sits at the main intersection.  We rented bikes and walked to the nearby attractions: Bovedas Historicos de Uspallata (a series of kilns used to produce arms for José de San Martin’s army and part of the historical Rutas Sanmartinianas), Cerro Tunduqueral (a petroglyph site), and the Seven Coloured Mountain (I did juice the colours in the photo up a bit, but after a rain, who knows….?).


IMG_0211%20Bovedas%20de%20Uspillata%20Argentina%202008           IMG_0215

Bovedas Historicos de Uspallata                                  Biking near Uspallata


IMG_0212%20San%20Martin%20Route%20sign%20%20Bovedas%20de%20Uspillata%20Argentina%202008                       IMG_0254a%20Seven%20Coloured%20Mountain%20near%20Espillata%20Aconcagua%202008

San Martin Route sign at Bovedas de Uspallata            Seven Coloured Mountain near Uspallata


After our trip to Antarctica, we did retrace our steps through Mendoza and spent a bit more time in the city.  It really is one of the two Latin American cities in which I’ve spent time where I could imagine living (the other: Curitiba, Brazil).  Nice parks, a central market, stores, pleasant neighbourhoods.  Since I did spend longer in Mendoza in 2007, just one photo for my ex-rowing friends.



Rowing club Mendoza


Order a steak in Argentina and you get a roast.



Bife de chorizo at Don Mario’s in Mendoza.


We decided to celebrate the joys of Malbec.  Malbec is the iconic Argentinean wine—a non-descript grape in France, it found its zenith in the area near Mendoza to become one of the world’s great grapes and the basis of complex flavour-full wines.  Deep red wines, almost black at times.  In Mendoza a wine-merchandising outlet, The Vines, offers tastings.  In celebration of Finn’s success on Aconcagua we tried a couple of flights and later went to a presentation and tasting by one of the wine-masters.  Add Malbecs we’ve tried at home, we’re probably approaching 100 different ones.  We never found a bad bottle—even a bottle we bought for US$1.40 in a supermarket was agreeable with dinner. 


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 Mendoza, the great wall of the Andes is visible to the west.



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.


IMG_1315%20jamons%20at%20La%20Posada%20del%20Jamon                       IMG_1378

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 Canada.


IMG_1330%20Fournier%20Winery%20Valle%20de%20Uco%20Argentina           IMG_1319%20lab%20Fournier%20Winery%20Valle%20de%20Uco%20Argentina%202008            IMG_1327%20Nancy%20and%20wines%20Fournier%20Winery%20Valle%20de%20Uco%20Argentina%202008

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.


IMG_1366%20Mike%20at%20Andeluna%20Winery%20Valle%20de%20Uco%20Argentina           IMG_1353%20grapes%20Salentein%20Winery%20Valle%20de%20Uco%20Argentina            IMG_1375%20medal%20for%20Pasionada%20wine%20Andeluna%20Winery%20Valle%20de%20Uco%20Argentina

Mike at Andeluna Winery, Valle de Uco                        Grapes at Andeluna Winery, Valle de Uco                    Medal for Andeluna Winery’s Pasionada