Nevado de Famatina

Famatina in the background


Nevado de Fatima, or Cerro General Manuel Belgrano, is a barely-6000m peak on the eastern edge of the Andes, near the small town of Famatina. The range surrounding the peak contains gold, so the region has a long and troubled relationship with various foreign mining concerns that continues to this day. The standard route on Famatina starts with a road climb to about 4300m on a road to an old British mine, active from the 1900s to the 1920s. The ore was transported to the town of Chilecito, at 1100m, by a remarkable cable car built (naturlich) by Germans.

Morning view of red cliffs and (not visible in photo) Famatina

I waited for it to cool off, or at least for the sun to get a bit lower, then rode 20km or so northeast from Patquia before camping at a litter-infested pullout a bit before dusk. There was more traffic than I had expected on what I thought was a side-road, but I managed to get a decent night’s sleep. In the morning, I woke to see some bright red cliffs near one side of the road, and the snow on Famatina’s summit over 60 miles away.

Some flower

Without a headwind for a change, I made decent time up the gently-sloping valley, passing from desert wasteland to desert just high and cool enough to grow olives and grapes. That, plus the constant sight of Famatina slowly growing closer ahead, made the ride much more pleasant than recent days. I paused at a gas station in Nonogasta to cool off, then continued to Chilecito, my first “real” town in awhile. Unfortunately it was Sunday afternoon, so the town was mostly shut. I got an ice cream cone for the first time since I was a kid, and killed time in the shady town square until a few things opened at 6:00. By then, however, I was sick of the place, so I bought enough groceries for both ride and climb at the one supermercado open on Sunday evening (run by some Chinese), then continued up the road a ways to camp off a dirt side-road.

No means no!

I was slow on the short climb to Famatina the next morning, where I stopped at a grocery store to buy more climbing food. I upped my Argentinian junk food game here by discovering their version of marzipan: 250g bars of peanut butter, oil, eggs, and sugar that pack an impressive 5000 cal/kg. I bought a few of those and some sugar-coated peanuts, then went in search of WiFi. My first stop at the ACA gas station was a failure, but my second, at a local place, turned out to be a huge and unanticipated success. The gas station owner and his family were all super-friendly, their WiFi was fast, and I got a free shower along with my half-pizza and sugary drink ($2.30 total). He even offered me a ride up toward Famatina that evening, which I politely declined, wanting to move under my own power when possible.

Unridable road

The road is described as “4×4 only,” but that can mean many things, some of which I can ride with a trailer. Unfortunately this road turned out to be more than I could handle. It starts out paved, then turns to decent dirt for awhile, except for a short washout. Just before Los Corrales, however, it turns truly ugly where it crosses the Rio Capayan via neither a ford nor a bridge. Trucks were apparently driving in the river for 50 yards, while someone on a motorbike pushed his ride through various shoals. I scouted ahead on foot, deciding that the road looked decent enough on the other side to justify pushing my bike through the mess. This worked for about half a mile, after which I gave up pushing on a steep, loose, rocky climb that I would probably have to walk down as well. I found a nice flat spot on an abandoned side road, made camp, then fell asleep dreading the 18-24 miles on foot to the La Mejicana Mine.

Famatina comes into view

The next morning, I shoved 3.5 days’ food into my pack, locked my stuff up out of sight, then started trudging up the road. After another half-mile of climbing, I saw that it once again became rideable, so I dropped my pack and went back for my bike. As soon as I got there, I realized that dropping my pack also meant dropping my key. Cursing my stupidity, I returned to my pack, at which point I lacked the energy to make another trip back with the key. In retrospect, it was probably better not to bring the bike: while half or more of the remaining road was rideable in both directions, the rest would have been seriously unpleasant, including extended sections where trucks simply follow a rocky/sandy wash lower down, and a dozen or more stream crossings higher up.

The day was warming quickly, and while I knew there was some water ahead, I did not know how far it was. Thinking I saw a seep to one side, I dropped my pack, grabbed my bladder and filter, and headed down into a dry wash. Unfortunately the wash was dry all the way to the Arroyo Ocre, named for its ochre color and content. I filtered a bit, but found it almost undrinkably metallic, making the river flowing next to the road essentially useless as a water source.

My unsuccessful bike and water excursions had cost too much time, and I was not feeling optimistic as I trudged on through the desert toward the still distant-looking Famatina. My situation improved when I found a small seep or side-stream of fresh water next to the road. I stopped in the shade to dump out the metallic stuff I was carrying, rinse my filter, drink my fill, and pack a full three liters of the good water. I was just about to head out when a Hilux containing four passengers and a driver pulled up. The driver asked me where I was going; they talked amongst themselves for a few seconds, then offered me a ride. I hesitated only a second or two before throwing myself and my pack into the bed. It felt like cheating, but I did not feel guilty.

Dirt canyon

It turns out that my good luck continued: the driver, Eduardo Luna, was a sort of local tour guide, taking four tourists from Buenos Aires on a day-trip to the mine. The tourists even spoke fairly good English. He stopped to point out several attractions along the way, including some sandstone formations reminiscent of Painted Desert, a steep-sided dirt-canyon, and some formerly-inhabited natural caves. Most importantly, we stopped for lunch at the last clean water before the mine, 5 miles and 1500′ below. Seeing that I had nothing but marzipan (plus polenta, powdered milk, oats, and oil), he generously offered me a cold-cut sandwich and a peach from his own tree.

Playing on the old tram

We stopped around mid-afternoon for a tour of the old mine, at the top of the long tram. Here I learned a bit about how the tram worked: some or all tram cars would bring up water from Chilecito, which they would dump in cisterns before being filled at one of three hoppers, then weighed before heading back down the mountain. I also learned a bit about the history, including tensions between the locals and mining companies, and a supposed vault toilet system designed to prevent miners from smuggling out gold nuggets by swallowing them. Eduardo pointed me to the start of the route and to an abandoned building where mountaineers slept, warned me against trying to summit in one day, then took off back down the hill. The building was a bit nasty, but did not seem to have a rodent problem, so I threw down my ground-cloth, pad, and bag, sorted gear for my summit push, then killed some time before cooking and going to bed early.

Nevado de Famatina

Sunrise on Famatina

I slept intermittently, waking to listen to the wind and peer out at the bright moonlight outside, which set before my 5:00 alarm. I had a comfortable breakfast inside the building, then started off by headlamp, heading a bit downhill to pick up the switchbacking dirt road leading to the ridge northwest of the mine. I followed the road a bit, then took a more direct climber- or guanaco-track when it became maddeningly flat, to reach the broad ridge around 4700m. As I climbed, I watched the sun rise on Famatina above and, eventually, the tram and various mine roads below.

Dawn heading up Famatina

The wind, which had never quite died out overnight, was unexpectedly intense for just after sunrise, and I stopped in a relatively sheltered spot to pull up my buff, put on my goggles, and slop sunscreen on my nose and lips, the only exposed skin on my body. I tried to follow the main branch of the mine road west along the ridge, which cut across the south, sheltered side of most bumps. I hoped the wind was caused by some differential warming between the sunny and shady sides of the ridge, and would calm down as the sun rose, but it only seemed to be getting worse.

Emerging between two bumps, I was almost knocked off my feet and into the outer berm. I retreated behind a bump and considered my situation. I had enough food for another two days, so I could wait for better conditions, but I did not want to kill time all day down at the mine. I was warm enough, and getting knocked off my feet on non-technical terrain was not dangerous, just unpleasant. I waited for about a half-hour, periodically checking around the corner to see how the wind felt, then committed myself and continued staggering up the road. Either the wind had calmed a bit, or I had learned to better accept it.

The road ended shortly before the “Lagunita camp,” a pathetic couple of flat but unsheltered spots next to a tiny lake and snowfield, each around ten feet long. There was a tent there, tied to a dozen rocks, amazingly still intact, and possibly containing the three Argentinian climbers Eduardo had mentioned, but I did not say or hear anything as I passed. The wind worsened slightly as I continued upslope, and the ground became looser, but there was a trail to follow and plenty of daylight, so I continued my slow ascent, uselessly checking my progress up the contour lines on my phone.

Laguna Turquesa

I eventually reached a saddle, and traversed left to the ridge, from which I could see some lower, sharper peaks to the south. I continued along the trail until it disappeared, then continued up the slope and ridge, trying where possible to kick steps in the horizontal stripes of wind-packed snow, which felt easier than climbing the semi-stable talus. Topping out on the broad 5800m plateau, I saw several small and unimpressive frozen tarns, and wondered if one was “the beautiful Laguna Turquesa.” The summit lay behind another headwall, this one with a small permanent snowfield or glacier. The right-hand side looked climbable, so I headed in that direction. Most of the way to the glacier, the actual Laguna Turquesa finally emerged, larger, less frozen, and more beautiful than the pathetic things I had passed. Sitting just above 19,000′ on the barren and frozen plain, almost completely unfrozen except for a small ice shelf along part of its shore, it is a truly remarkable feature; given the ambient temperature, I am amazed that it remains liquid.

Famatina summit

I thought I had almost reached the summit, but it was actually a fair struggle away. I slowly meandered up the headwall right of the maybe-glacier, trying to stick to snow that was soft enough to kick solid steps but not to punch through, then continued my slow-motion progress across the lower-angle ground above, passing at least one false summit on my way to the cross. My guidebook and map say that Famatina is 6097m high, but it felt subjectively more like the locally-accepted elevation of 6220m. From the summit, I could see two slightly lower humps immediately north and west, Cerro Negro Overo nearby and, hazy in the distance, the high peaks of the Puna de Atacama far to the north. I quickly took some photos and terrible selfies, then retreated to relative shelter to spend a few minutes looking down upon the mine and Chilecito, some 16,000′ below. I will never completely get used to the massive scale of the Argentine side of the Andes.

As always, the way down was quick and pleasant. I plunge-stepped down the softening snow where I could, crossed to the saddle, then skipped and almost ran down the trail to Lagunita camp. I passed the Argentinians along the way, moving slowly uphill to yet another miserable camp at the saddle. One explained that they planned to summit and return to town the next day, and would radio their driver, implicitly offering me a ride. I thanked him, then continued back toward the mine. Slightly below the Lagunita, I passed two guys from Mendoza, moving quickly with poles and daypacks. They asked how long it had taken me to summit from this point, then continued toward the summit themselves. It was early afternoon, which made me briefly question their tactics, but I soon changed my mind: they were moving well, the weather was clear and, if anything, less windy than when I was ascending, and they had 6-7 hours of light. It turns out that they probably managed, with a 4×4, to go town-to-town in a long day, showing me how to do these peaks right.

Source of the Ocre

I reached the mine around 3:00, and briefly sat around debating whether to hang out waiting for a ride with the other party. I had plenty of reading material on my phone, but I am not a patient person, so I packed up and hiked the five miles to the first water source to make camp. I remained half-awake to see the party of two drive by around 9:00, then got a decent night’s sleep low enough to be out of the wind. The next day’s desert road hike was less unpleasant than expected, as the road remained in the shade until near the dirt canyon, and I was back in town around 3:00 PM.

I stopped at the gas station, where I talked a bit with the owner, took a shower, and ordered a sugary drink, fries, and “lomito especial” (thin beef, ham, cheese, and fried egg) in my ongoing effort to bulk up for the Atacama. The owner closed the place around 4:00, encouraging me to hang out outside and neglecting to ask me to pay before leaving. Despite repeated warnings about keeping an eye on my stuff, and actual experience having my saddlebag stolen, Argentinians seem remarkably trusting. I answered emails, downloaded fresh podcasts, and did some writing, then left to run a couple of errands (new earbuds and fresh food) before returning around 6:45. I paid the owner’s daughter for lunch and some candy ($5 total), then rode until sunset before making camp in a pullout and cooking dinner.

Rodeo and Ischigualasto

There are not many appealing peaks between Las Flores and Fiambala, so I was looking at several days of pure riding, much of it through widely-spaced low-elevation towns where the afternoon temperatures get close to 100 degrees. After a very short ride from Las Flores to Rodeo, I had hoped to relax for just a single afternoon, then knock out the remaining 325 miles to Fiambala in four days.

However, a combination of everything being closed for New Year’s Day, and some compound stupidity on my part, kept me in Rodeo an extra day. Fortunately, what could have been a nearly trip-ending screw-up turned out better than I had any right to expect. First, the crowding in my campground on New Year’s forced a friendly family from Jachal to share my table and use my grill. Not only did they feed me dinner — imagine pizza cooked on a grill, but with the crust made of meat — but Carlos pointed me in the direction of Ischigualasto Provincial Park, an area that looks like southern Utah, and has some of the best early dinosaur fossils in the world. Second, I ran into Simon again, retreating with his tail between his legs after having nearly succumbed to a flash flood on the Paso Agua Negra.

With these two developments, I decided to take a slightly longer route east through Huaco and Patquia before heading north. Ischigualasto was a bit of a disappointment, as one can only see the place as part of a guided group; this protects the fossils and rock formations, but is not my style. Fortunately a mother and son had room in their car for me on the vehicle convoy tour (they wouldn’t let me ride my bike, and the shorter bike tour misses all the interesting stuff). The park delivered the southern Utah sandstone scenery I had expected, and even had a nice campground for $3.30 per night. While there, I met an Argentinian bike tourist heading the other way with a truly ghetto touring setup. Despite riding a clunker, carrying polished rocks which he sold to pay his way, and looking to be in his fifties, I was impressed to learn he was averaging about 120km per day.

I got a relatively early start for once, and almost made the 105km to Patquia before the regular afternoon east wind started. With the next town far away, water sources uncertain, and afternoon temperatures well into the 90s, I decided it would be a good time to hide somewhere with air conditioning and internet. Here are a few photos from the ride and park.

Majadita

Majadita from Olivares


Majadita, only slightly higher than Cerro los Olivares, is the highpoint of the Cordon de la Majadita, a subrange near the Paso Agua Negra. After Olivares’ talus hell, I was looking forward to doing most of the climbing on the peak’s large north glacier. While it was more difficult than anticipated — these are the high Andes after all — it was still a big improvement. It also seems to be much more popular, with many tent platforms along the way, and even a use in places if you know where to look.

Stashed bike at Pirca Negra

I was happy to spend two nights in the same place, and was lying half-awake in my sleeping bag when I heard a truck approach and stop, and someone get out. A man called out a couple of times, so I got up and poked my head out. Apparently they had just stopped to make sure everything was okay — ¿Todo bien? Si, todo bien. — and returned to the highway. It was past time I got up anyways. I took my time packing up, debating whether to take a side-trip to Argentina’s second-highest pass (some in Peru and Bolivia are higher), just to say I had ridden the whole thing, but my fatigue plus gathering clouds convinced me to simply head to the next peak. I had initially hoped to do it from the road in a day, but after the Olivares experience, felt it was wiser to do some of the approach the day before.

Flood plain leading to Majadita

I rode down the pass to the stream and side-road I had noted on the way up, then pushed my bike a couple of hundred yards off the main route before repacking, and locking the bike and trailer on a rock shelf off the road. I continued up-road a short distance on foot, then followed a mostly-guanaco trail with occasional cairns from where it crossed the stream. The trail soon disappeared into a flood plain, but the way was obvious, and the tent platforms on flat spots, plus cairns indicating trails bypassing narrow spots, convinced me I was in the right place.

Biggar suggested camping near 4600m, but I found a good spot closer to 4400m, slightly above the junction of several streams descending from the glaciers above. I was tired, and the camping prospects above did not look encouraging, so I stopped there, set up my tent with the narrow side to the wind (which immediately shifted), then killed time reading, trying not to exhaust my meager remaining food (thanks, Nati!) and serving as a human tent anchor for the rest of the afternoon. I suspected that the next day would be long, with a 6000-foot climb, the hike out, two gear transitions, and a forty-some mile ride back to Las Flores, so I set my alarm for 5:00, prepared a fresh batch of milk-and-chia slime (learned from two Germans in Peru), then finally bored myself to sleep.

Messed-up glacier toe

I woke a bit before my alarm, downed my oatmeal, and headed toward the glacier by headlamp, hoping to find a trail I saw cutting across the hillside the previous afternoon. I never found it, but the talus was blessedly stable for a change, so my ascending traverse was mostly painless. I glanced around for tent platforms around 4600m, finding none, then continued my steady uphill progress. I figured I would eventually hit a glacier, at which point it would no longer matter if I was “on-route.”

Sunrise on the glacier

As headlamp time ended, I found myself on a slight ridge just below the glacier’s current end. The tongue extending to its right was badly broken up, so I descended, then continued along a scree ridge between two branches of Majadita’s large north glacier, looking for a point where the glacier’s surface was smooth enough for efficient travel, and its edge was climbable. Crossing another small depression to the left, I finally found one near the source of one of the glacial streams. I rued my early start as I fiddled with my crampon straps in the glacier-cooled wind, my hands becoming slower and clumsier as I threaded them through the buckles and tightened them. I steeled myself to grip the cold metal of my axe, then followed the watercourse up onto the glacier’s surface. As soon as I was on flatter ground, I shoved the axe between my shoulders and balled my hands up in my gloves. I watched the sun slowly creep down the slopes to the west, anticipating its double warmth when it finally reached me on the glacier.

Crevasse zone

The Majadita glacier is surprisingly large and complex. The lower part was easy and safe to cross, and I ascended as quickly as one does above 5000m. The middle was more complicated, however, and probably less safe. The glacier is a broken mess on the left, and cut by large crevasses in the center. I stayed near the center, weaving around crevasses and crossing them on frozen penitente bridges. I did not think much of it until near the top, when I got a clear view into a couple of the larger holes, and saw the underside of the snow bridges. Fortunately I was crossing early in the morning, but I thought it might be best to find another way down.

Upper glacier

I stayed on the glacier as far as I could, finally climbing perhaps 100 vertical meters of scree to reach the summit. I found a post, and a sort-of register containing a single entry from a winter ascent a few years ago that mentioned “viento blanco”. Fortunately it was clear for me, so I found a spot out of the wind to enjoy the views. Cerro los Olivares in particular looks much better from this angle, with its eastern glaciers on display.

This was hell

I though it would be much faster and safer to descend the scree slope right of the glacier, and this tactic worked for the first thousand feet or so. I even found a faint use trail. Unfortunately the fun ended toward the middle of the glacier, where angle-of-repose scree drops directly to a field of knee-high penitentes. Both were wretchedly slow going, but I took some solace from the fact that I still found bootprints: someone else had suffered as I did.

Edge of glacier

I eventually reached the right-hand side of the glacier’s toe, and found a couple of tent platforms and a better-defined trail. Checking my map, I realized that this was probably the 4600m camp mentioned in the guidebook. However, the trail was loose enough that I was glad not to have climbed it with my overnight gear. I packed up camp as quickly as I could, hiked back to my bike, yard-saled my gear again, and was off down the pass by late afternoon. The only calories I had left were powdered milk, which I poured into both of my waterbottles.

My original plan had been to continue to Rodeo, another twelve miles past Las Flores, but that was clearly not happening. I had the expected headwind all the way down the pass, but momentum was on my side, so it was not a problem until the final flat miles to the customs station. I stopped to get stamped back into Argentina, swung by the store to buy random food, then returned to my familiar campground. There was a soccer game going on, which was not great, but also a fellow bike tourist and English-speaker, which was much more pleasant. Simon was a retiree from England, stretching out his savings until he was eligible for a British pension. He had been in South America much longer than I, traveling on a much more touring-oriented bike and working on various farms. It seemed like a pretty good retirement if you ask me…

Cerro los Olivares (13h)

Cerro los Olivares from Majadita


At 15,650′, the Paso Agua Negra is one of the highest in the Andes, slightly higher than the Paso San Francisco near Ojos del Salado, and only (I think) surpassed by a few passes in Peru. It provides convenient road access to at least two 20,000′ peaks, Cerro los Olivares and Majadita. I successfully climbed both in a four-day trip out of Las Flores, though not on the schedule I had planned, since Olivares in particular was significantly harder than I expected.

Starting toward Paso Agua Negra

Leaving at a reasonable hour from Las Flores, I made the short ride to the aduana just outside of town, gave one of the guards my passport, explained my plan, then waited while he made a phone call. He sent me to a customs officer, who typed some stuff into his computer, then gave me a four-day pass to the border region. Clock ticking, I was on my way. The Argentine government has put in an impressive amount of engineering for the dozen or two cars it sees per day, and the road is paved and gently-graded up to about 12,800′. From Las Flores at 5900′, the first few thousand feet climb the almost-invisible but very-perceptible slope of the desert floor to the mouth of the Agua Negra valley on mediocre to terrible pavement.

Oasis below guard station

Having seen an old map that showed the road as dirt, I was worried that I would have a long day, but the pavement dramatically improves as one enters the Agua Negra, and a steady tailwind made progress even faster. I stopped a bit before noon under the only trees I had seen all day, then continued a short distance to a gate and guard post. One of the guards motioned me inside, where he inspected my passport and asked about my plans. After he radioed those plans to someone, and had me sign two copies of what might have been a liability waiver, I was once again on my way, with more permission to spend four days in the border zone.

Nice road…

I grabbed another liter and a half of water at the only Water Saint I had seen so far, then continued up-canyon. Thanks to the tailwind, new road, and fresh listening material downloaded in Las Flores, the long climb was a pleasant cruise. There is even a clear spring partway up, so one does not have to strain the thick, muddy water of the Rio Agua Negra. The pavement ends where the valley flattens out, so I actually sped up a bit on the dirt. I saw signs warning of road construction, and a grader ahead, so perhaps the rest of the pass is on its way to being paved.

Upper dirt road

Just before I caught the grader, someone in an SUV going the other way motioned me to stop. A young Argentinian woman jumped out of the back seat, and while the driver waited with some obvious impatience, she explained in Spanish and then English that she had been traveling by bike. Unfortunately her bike had had some irreparable mechanical failure somewhere on the other side of the pass, so she was hitching a ride into town. It seemed like a bold and impressive thing for a woman to be doing alone, but I did not say anything; maybe solo touring is more common than I thought here. As a fellow bike-tourist, she understood my simple needs, giving me some extra food and a hug before jumping back into the car and driving off.

Colorful peaks behind camp

The good cheer was well-timed, because I was soon back in the headwind zone, which turned the gentle and slightly washboard climb into a grim slog in my lowest gear. My turnoff up the Arroyo San Lorenzo coincided with a sign for a tunnel, of which there was no other evidence. Perhaps it is slated to be built once the paving project is complete. Thanks to recent mining activity, the road up San Lorenzo is in fairly good shape, but the headwind and 7500′ of climbing in my legs told me that it was time to camp. I briefly inspected the premade windbreak of a ruin right by the road, but the combination of trash and proximity to the highway convinced me to move on. I found a nice spot in a flood plain a few hundred yards up the canyon, pitched my tent, and set my alarm for 5:30 before reading myself to sleep.

Cerro los Olivares

With a slightly higher bike trailhead and a slightly lower summit, I expected Olivares to be the easiest of the two summits; I was badly mistaken. Though there does not appear to be any active mining in the valley, there is an extensive system of dirt roads leading all the way from the highway to the toe of the small glacier at its head. Biggar briefly describes the standard route as climbing to the left of this glacier, then traversing south to the summit. While he also suggests that the east glacier should be a moderate climb, I liked the idea of leaving my ice axe and crampons in camp.

Thank God for the road

The San Lorenzo valley is several miles long, and between the altitude, fatigue from the previous day’s ride, soft ground, and the road’s meandering, it took longer than I had expected to reach the toe of the glacier. Despite its wandering, I was extremely grateful for the road, as the whole valley looks like a pile of loose mine tailings, and would have been agony to climb cross-country or on guanaco paths. I did not see any mine trucks or pits, though there was some monitoring equipment and signage possibly suggesting some exploratory drilling.

Small glacier to avoid

I was only at around 4800m at this point, and slightly worried about how long the day might be as I headed into the untracked scree. I was hoping for a bootpack on the standard route, but Olivares apparently sees very little climbing activity: I saw no tracks for the rest of the day, nor tent platforms at the supposed high camp around 5000m. Trying to avoid dirt-covered ice near the glacier, I aimed farther left, climbing horrible scree toward some rock that I hoped would be somewhat more efficient. It was all slow going, made more frustrating when I reached the first (of many) false summits, a point around 5850m, and realized two things: first, I would have to lose 50-60m to get back on-route; second, had I continued farther west before heading north, I would have been on lower-angle and much more stable scree instead of the angle-of-repose nightmare I had just climbed.

False and true summits from 5850m mistake

Back on-route, things went about as well as could be expected. The scree and talus were still loose, and I was moving as slowly as expected at the altitude, but I no longer had to use my hands to make upward progress, or to step in the same spot multiple times before things stopped moving. Unfortunately, it is almost two miles from the first false summit to the true summit, all of it above 19,000′, and there are several glaciers or snowfields I had to avoid. (“Snowfield” in the high Andes usually means “penitente hell.”)

North from summit

Seeing the distant summit from the first false one, and almost out of food, I almost gave up and returned to camp. However I slogged on, going around or over obstacles, and finally reached the summit plateau with its weird little rock pinnacles. To the south was a lower sub-summit, its east slopes covered in steep glaciers. To the north, I could see the endless false summits I had traversed, some unknown peaks in the distance, and the prominent Cerro Las Tortolas, another 20,000′ peak that I had decided not to climb for logistical reasons.

Glaciers south of summit

I had seen a road crossing the saddle to the east, with a possible clear scree descent from the ridge, and decided to try to return that way instead of retracing my steps. I retreated past the first false summit, then descended to around 5700m, looking for a path between the glaciers on Olivares’ east face. Unfortunately this premature descent led only to glacier, and I was forced all the way back up to 6000m to rejoin the scree path I had spotted on the way up. This worked well for a few thousand feet, with nice, deep, skiable scree. The rocks were large enough that they would have punished my ankles in running shoes, making me grateful for my clunky mountaineering boots. Though they are usually overkill in other ranges, I am finding that the ground in part of the Andes is often nasty enough to make them worthwhile.

A new kind of evil

The fun ended at the stream at the base of the slope, which presented a fresh Andean hell: angle-of-repose scree leading directly to penitentes, in turn surrounding a meandering glacial torrent partly bridged by uneven ice and dirt. Thankful that I was at least heading downhill, I side-hilled my way down to the junction with the main stream, where I grabbed some surprisingly-clear water, then took a path up to the old road. The road appeared to be abandoned, but was in good shape until the long traverse east above the San Lorenzo valley. Where it finally became near-useless, I bombed straight down the scree-slope to the valley bottom, following a faint guanaco track. From there, it was a straightforward if exhausted walk back to the road, and to my tent. I had originally planned to move camp down the road to the next trailhead at Pirca Negra, but it was almost 7:30 and I was feeling wrecked. There was no way I would summit another 20,000′ peak the next day.

Antichristmas

Antichristmas


I had hoped to climb Cerro Ansilta 2, the almost-6000m highpoint of a range near Mercedario supposedly approached via Calingasta and a dirt road along the Rio Ansilta. This would involve a short ride from Barreal, then an unknown ride to base camp and probably two or three days climbing Ansilta 1 and 2. I had expected Calingasta, a somewhat touristic town at a road junction, to be a better base camp than Barreal. I was therefore disappointed to find that it had almost no internet, and a truly pathetic grocery store that had a whole aisle of yerba maté, but lacked such basic staples as oats, chocolate, and peanuts. Making the best of a poor situation, I bought eggs, vegetables, cookies, a kilogram of dinner rolls, and 750g of “Dulce Calingasta,” a giant bar of gelatinous fruit-flavored stuff. I then hung out in the shade in the town square, waiting for it to cool off and deciding what to do.

I totally raided this

I had planned to take RP 412 to Las Flores, a 130 km ride, but it looked like some 60 km of it might be dirt. On a whim I asked at the gendarmeria about route options, and was told that 412 was a 4×4 route, and that my best choice was a 180 km route via RN 149. I decided to chip away the first 40 km of that in the evening, camping at my last guaranteed water source along the Rio San Juan. After some initial dirt due to road construction, the combination of a steady descent along the river and a raging tailwind made the miles fly by, and I was soon across the big bridge where the road leaves the San Juan. The river was thick and muddy like the Colorado or Rio Grande, so rather than dealing with it, I raided a water/garbage shrine next to the bridge. Hopefully the water was meant for travelers such as myself, and I did not call forth the wrath of the patron saint. One of the eggs had broken in the top of my pack, so I got to spend some time dealing with that before making a dinner of vegetable and egg soup with dinner rolls. Yum.

Well-stocked water shrine

The next day began with me paying for my fast ride down the San Juan with a 3000-foot climb into a brutal headwind from the east. I still do not understand the wind directions here, but at some point while traveling east across the range, the prevailing wind direction seems to shift from west to east. I am not sure where this point is, but I suspect that my future ride back west across the Atacama may be slow and painful. I fought the wind mostly in my granny gear, finally reaching a particularly large roadside shrine at the vaguely-defined pass. It featured a sheltered picnic table, a fire pit, and even a Christmas tree. I took this as a sign to take a break and choke down some Ducle Calingasta and my few remaining peanuts.

Lots more of this

The headwind remained the same on the other side of the pass, but was far less annoying going downhill, and I reached the road junction without too much frustration. From there it was a daunting 97 km to Las Flores, but fortunately no longer against the wind. The road heads north and east through a couple of valleys, in which the wind seemed to come from the east and southeast. This made my second 3000-foot climb of the day much more pleasant than the first. A man in a pickup truck stopped and offered me a ride near its base, but I politely declined, partly out of pride, and partly because I had plenty of time, water, and energy. I was thorougly sick of the vile Dulce, but in a stroke of genius I had added Nestle Quik to both of my water bottles, both masking the plastic-y taste and providing delicious calories.

Back toward the mountains

This pass was mostly similar in appearance to the last, climbing a subtly-inclined desert plain, but did narrow in its final few kilometers, following a dry streambed to emerge on a high plateau. The “welcome to Iglesias” sign, with its guanacos and greenery, hardly matched the sere surroundings, but presumably such things existed elsewhere in the province. More importantly to me, the rest of my day would be downhill. The tailwind that had pushed me up the pass turned into a steady headwind at some point, but the descent was steep enough that I did not care as I made my way to the village of Iglesias, stopping along the way for a phone call (finally, 4G service!). I could have stopped there, but chose to crank out another 10 km to Las Flores, an equally tiny village with the two distinctions of having a campground on my map, and lying at the junction with my next side-trip up the Paso Agua Negra. Though almost everything else was closed for Christmas, the gas station and campground were open, so I could buy myself a treat and sleep in peace.

Calories are calories…

I took a rest day in Las Flores, not prepared to head straight back into the wilderness. The gas station and town square both have usable WiFi, and most of the town has decent cell coverage, so I was able to catch up with the outside world. The grocery store has the basic staples, though they are weirdly all behind the counter, so you have to ask the shopkeeper for them one by one. Uncomfortable with this kind of shopping, I forgot a few things in my hurry to escape, and had to supplement my food with a last-minute junk food run to the gas station.

Cerro Mercedario

Guanaco and Mercedario


At just over 22,000′ (about 6710m), Cerro Mercedario is the eighth-highest peak in the Andes, less than 800′ shorter than Aconcagua. Its scale and remoteness are hard to grasp for someone familiar with the mountains of North America and Europe. Mercedario rises 16,700′ from the valley to its east at 5200′, where the little town of Barreal, almost fifty miles away in a straight line, is the closest civilization and pavement. Only Denali, Saint Elias, and perhaps a few other peaks in Alaska and the Yukon have similar scale. The summit is visible from town, and from nearly the entire 45-mile bicycle approach.

Coming off several days in Mendoza at 2500′, and nights in Uspallata and Barreal, both around 5000′, I was somewhat wary of altitude sickness, despite never having experienced it. I therefore broke the climb from the end of the cycling at 7500′ into three roughly 5000′ (1500m) sections, camping at Guanaquitos around 12,000′, then Pircas Indios around 17,000′. This involved a lot of sitting around in my tent, and I neither had trouble sleeping at high camp, nor experienced a headache or nausea on summit day. My climbing performance was similar to what I experienced in Peru, with my rate of ascent slowing to about three breaths per vertical foot, or a bit under 1000′ per hour, above 21,000′. In retrospect I probably could have done the entire thing with a single camp at Cuesta Blanca around 15,000′, so I will try to break future long ascents into something closer to 2000m chunks.

Typical RP 149

Ruta Provincial 149 runs along the eastern side of the Andes, connecting various base towns from Uspallata north. The stretch from Uspallata to Barreal, the closest town to Mercedario, is about 115 km, made longer by 36 km of dirt in the middle. This dirt is fortunately mostly well-graded, but still features numerous washboard sections, and much fine dust that collects on everything. My trailer’s dry-bag seemed to keep it out, but both me and my bike were absolutely coated, no doubt contributing wear and tear to both of us. The road is mostly flat, but crosses a very gentle watershed boundary before descending to Uspallata on merciful pavement. A slightly late start, plus the dirt, plus a headwind from the north on the final descent made it a full day for me.

Mercedario and the Ansilta peaks

Barreal is not on a major highway, or even at a road junction, so it is much more of a backwater than Uspallata. Everything on the single commercial street is closed from sometime after noon until 6:00 PM, and the grocery stores are small and strangely stocked. The one I chose had a dozen kinds of yerba maté and lots of Christmas goodies, but no dried fruit or instant oats. I settled for a kilogram of salted peanuts, some kind of oat powder intended for breading chicken, and a bunch of polenta, at an astounding five thousand calories per dollar! Neither of the two hardware stores seemed to carry white gas (naphtha, universal solvent, bencina blanca) for my stove, so I planned on a couple of cold meals in case I had to melt snow for water. I am slowly figuring this place out, but I have a ways to go.

Mercedario from approach road

After a night at the municipal campground (hot showers, large pool, electricity, $2.70/night), I exited the south end of town, then almost immediately turned onto the dirt road leading up the Rio Los Patos to Laguna Blanca. The road crosses the broad desert valley, then closely follows the river as it cuts a canyon through some foothills, gradually climbing the whole time. The branch following the Rio Blanco was in better shape than I had been led to believe, but a brutal headwind made the ride past Las Amarillas to Los Molles take longer than I had expected.

My half-assed wall

I met the road crew there at 7500′, where the road begins climbing in earnest to Laguna Blanca at 9800′. While it remains well-graded past the lake, the road was too steep for me to ride with a trailer, so I decided to camp at Los Molles. This would leave me a bit under 15,000′ of climbing to the summit, conveniently broken into three similar-sized chunks by established camps. I amused myself for awhile building a wall against the savage downriver winds, then hiked down to the river to fetch water, getting sprayed in the process as the wind kicked droplets off the rapids.

Inadequately-secured bike

I got a lazy start the next morning, packing up, locking my bike to the trailer, then starting out up the road to Guanaquitos. The road follows Laguna Blanca’s outlet stream, which is blessedly free of settlement thanks to the lake above. The stream is a 30-foot wide strip of greenery in a vast desert wasteland. The wind persisted as I hiked past the lake and along the gravel flats above. There were a handful of miners up here, with one busily destroying a hillside with a grader for no apparent reason. At the abandoned refugio the main track turns right, while the standard route continues upriver on an old road that is little more than a trail.

Guanaquitos camp and Mercedario

Guanaquitos camp, at 12,100′, is well-named, as the combination of water and greenery draws dozens of guanacos, generally timid, sometimes in herds, sometimes alone. I set up my tent in one of a half-dozen flat spots surrounded by inadequate walls, tied a dozen or so rocks to it to keep it from blowing away, then twiddled my thumbs “acclimatizing” for the rest of the day. Whether backpacking or climbing, I prefer to be moving while it is light, so I found this aspect of high-altitude mountaineering frustrating and wasteful.

Dry valley above Guanaquitos

The next morning I packed up and headed for Pircas Indios, my high camp at 16,900′. I followed a trail with some bootprints but mostly guanaco tracks along a side-stream, then on up a dry valley past a few penitentes toward some small glaciers. Pausing at an intermediate camp below the headwall for a snack, I was surprised to see another climber slowly making his way up the trail. I caught him partway up the steep climb, and was delighted to learn that he was a fellow mountaineer/cyclist — what are the odds? We hiked together and talked in mostly Spanish for a few minutes, then I left him on the gentler climb higher up.

The Russians

Perhaps a half-hour below camp I ran into three more people: a Russian couple and their seven-year-old daughter, out for an acclimatization trip. They spoke limited English, but sounded very experienced, and the daughter seemed happy (for a Russian) traipsing along behind with her mittens tied to her wrists. They told me that it was savagely windy above camp, and that I would have to melt snow for water, which made me worry about my limited gas supply. But Pachamama was smiling on me: not only was there flowing water below a small glacier five minutes from camp, but someone had left a liter bottle labeled “bencina!” at one of the tent platforms. It smelled about right, and was very flammable, so I topped off my fuel bottle.

High camp

I tied my tent to even more rocks, then rested for awhile inside before hiking uphill a bit to talk to the guy I had met on the way up. He turned out to be an Argentinian gardener who scraped together enough money each year to do a summer bike/mountaineering tour. He was unsure about whether he would go for the summit the next day, waiting to see how he slept and felt in the morning. We talked until it got cold, sharing maté (it’s ubiquitous in Argentina, but I refuse to come back as That Guy, and will stick to instant coffee), then he lent me a local guidebook by Aníbal Maturano, a local mountaineer with many first ascents in the Mercedario area. It is written in Spanish and English, with each paragraph followed by its translation, making it not only a good source of information, but a fun way to improve my Spanish if I had had more time with it.

Clouds over Barreal

I woke up to my alarm at 5:30 on summit day, made oatmeal from the half-frozen water in my bladder, then started for the summit with a near-empty pack around 6:20. Sebastian had started maybe a half-hour earlier, and we traded encouragement when I caught him near the normal high camp at 19,000′, at the foot of the La Ollada glacier. Above, clear up- and down-tracks follow a broad ridge left of the glacier. I slowly made my way up the switchbacks, moderating my pace with the altitude. I was taking one breath per step, but shortening my steps, taking two and eventually three steps to gain a vertical foot. Behind me, a layer of clouds in the Rio Los Patos valley hid the view of Barreal; ahead, I had clear views of the Ollada glacier and the long northeast ridge.

La Ramada and Aconcagua

The trail traverses the right side of the ridge, so I was sheltered from the wind almost until the summit knob, and therefore warm enough to climb in just my t-shirt and mid-weight hoodie. It was windy enough for me to be glad of my goggles on the summit, but seemed no worse than at my previous three camps. I took in the views of nearby Ramada, Aconcagua in the mid-distance, and unknown peaks to the north and east, then sat on the sheltered side of the summit to eat some peanuts. After taking about 4h15 to ascend, I headed down after about twenty minutes, passing Sebastian about 200m below the summit.

Descending above Ollada

The down-tracks were loose and fast, so I was back to camp between noon and 1:00. I thought of waiting for Sebastian, but he would probably be a couple of hours behind, and I was impatient to finally use the whole day. I packed up, then made a forced march all the way back to my bike at 7500′, reaching it shortly before sunset. I camped in the abandoned building, which was somewhat more sheltered than my makeshift wall, too exhausted to realize until the next morning that someone had stolen my saddlebag. Seeing no one but miners and a handful of mountaineers, I had not thoroughly hidden my bike, simply stashing it out of casual sight behind a wall. The saddlebag contained all of my bike parts and tools, which are critical but fortunately mostly easy and cheap to replace.

I was in a sour mood on the return to town, riding the dirt road without the massive tailwind I had earned. I stopped at the mine office to ask if they had seen my saddlebag, but didn’t expect to see it again. Just a few miles before the pavement, one of the passing 4x4s waved me to stop, and someone jumped out. It turned out to be Kristap, the Latvian I had met at the San Bernardo hostel on Cerro El Plata! I gave him my contact info this time, so we may be in touch. Who knows, I may even see him again on another peak as I make my way north? I finished the ride back to Barreal in a much better mood, checked into a fancier campground (only lukewarm water, but a kitchen, $5), then bought spare bike parts and some real food. In terms of elevation, gain, and distance, Mercedario is one of the hardest peaks I intend to climb down here, so I was pleased to tag it in 4.5 days with no major difficulties.

Cerro de la Gloria

Statue silhouette


Cerro de la Gloria is a minor hill on the west side of Mendoza with a good view of the city, and a convenient target of opportunity when everything is closed on Sunday in this very Spanish country. In theory, my itinerary could have taken me straight north from Uspallata, as the only mountaineering reason to visit Mendoza is to obtain an Aconcagua permit. However, Mendoza would be the last real city I would see for a month, and I had heard that it was one of the nicer large ones in South American, so I dedicated a few days to a side-trip.

The ride from Potrerillos to Mendoza was a big improvement over what I had experienced so far. For the first part, I left the truck route of RN 7 to follow RP 82, a two-lane road that follows the Rio Mendoza more closely than the main highway. There was the usual headwind, but it abruptly turned into a tailwind when I exited the river valley west onto the plains. As I got closer to Mendoza, I was surprised and pleased to find green-painted dedicated bike lanes (“ciclovias”) which allowed me to avoid most of the city traffic on the way to my randomly-chosen hostel.

Plaza de Armas fountain

I was substantially less pleased when I reached my hostel. The one in Huaraz had been fairly quiet and mostly inhabited by mature and interesting people, but this one was another matter, overcrowded with party kids. I had been pleased to find a dorm bed for a bit over $5 including breakfast, but when I entered the 6-bed room in the middle of the afternoon, I found two girls passed out on lower bunks, and someone’s clothes drying on the ladder leading to the least-bad upper bunk. Since I was on an early-rising mountaineering schedule, and had a ton of gear that needed to be sorted and reorganized, this was less than ideal. At least the WiFi worked, so I could find a better place to stay the next night.

You know someone tried…

After a night of mediocre sleep in the hot and overcrowded bunk room, I woke a bit after 6:00 and went downstairs, where I found two Australians still talking and going through liters of beer. I couldn’t help but smile at their heroic endurance, but they also reinforced my desire to get out of this place. I had paid the “big bucks” (a bit over $20/night) for a private room in another randomly-chosen hostel nearby, to which I rode around noon. This one, Hostel Estacion Mendoza, was much more my style, smaller and less crowded, with an older clientele and staff who actually lived there, as opposed to bored kids with keys to the beer.

San Martin park path

It was early afternoon on a Sunday, so everything was doubly closed for both religious and siesta reasons. I spent the rest of the day checking out the city by bike. I first rode up Cerro de la Gloria, where I checked out the elaborate war statue and met an older couple from Chicago. Then I spent some time touring around the large park near its base, with many bike and running trails popular with the locals. Finally I checked out a couple of the smaller parks, including the Plaza de Armas, then returned to the hostel to shower. It was one of those weird showers where you just close the bathroom door, stand on the floor, and get everything wet, but it was hot and got me clean.

Afterward, I was making use of the spotty hostel WiFi when a woman at the next table in the courtyard said “hey, I recognize your bike.” It turned out that she was a translator from Buenos Aires who had been hoping to climb Cerro el Plata at the same time I did. However, thanks to time/speed/weather issues, she had only climbed Vallecitos. Both she and her friend (another translator) were smart, talkative, and of course spoke excellent English, so I had an unexpectedly social time.

The next day was for preparation: riding around town to find a few big-city things and generally preparing for a month of nothing but small towns and markets with idiosyncratic and limited selections. I added sealant to my trailer tire and extra guy lines to my tent, and dined on comfort food — fried cabbage and eggs. I also spoke to my friend in Spain via WhatsApp; as a move in Facebook’s quest for world domination and even more data, it does not count against my data quota. I was annoyed to have someone playing violin exercises while I was trying to understand a mediocre VoIP connection, then immediately regretted my irritation when I met the guy practicing, who was working/living at the hostel while preparing for a difficult and high-stakes recital to get into the national music school. He even put together a barbecue later, with sausages, grilled onions, and tripe.

Monument along RP 52

Tuesday morning I set out to return to Uspallata by a non-highway route, with a rushed and early start that robbed me of a chance to exchange contact information with any of the people I had met. My first attempt, via RP 13, ended shortly after my phone directed me along a dirt road through a garbage dump. I rode to the other end of the dump in the hope that things would improve, but they did not, so I rode back through, re-sampling its bouquet, and tried another option.

Villavicencio guard quarters

My next attempt, via RP 52 to its north, probably would have scared me off if I had known what I was getting into. After twenty-some miles north in an almost straight line, the road began climbing an alluvial fan, then turned up a dry river valley. I was running uncomfortably low on water, but fortunately I was able to refill at the closed guard station for Villavicencio, an old hotel or something that is now a weekend tourist attraction. Showing up on a bike earns you a lot of good will: despite blatantly climbing over the cerrado sign and disturbing the rangers’ lunch, they were happy to let me refill from their garden hose, and even talked for a bit.

Quite a road…

The road turned to dirt just past the hotel, and remained that way as it climbed to a broad 10,000-foot pass. This pass seems to have been the original route between Uspallata and Mendoza, and was used by San Martin, likely a deputy of Simon Bolivar, according to interpretive signs and interesting monuments along the way. Fortunately the climb was gently graded, so I was able to ride it at a decent pace, the road was spectacular in its own barren way, and there was almost no traffic. There were also ample distractions, including an old telegraph station, many guanacos, and an utterly fearless fox sitting on the shoulder of the road.

Unfortunately, the upper pass and part of the descent toward Uspallata were badly washboarded, making for miserably slow progress. However, it became semi-paved again partway down the Uspallata side, so I returned to my familiar campground at a reasonable hour, where the owner recognized me and gave me a discount. Knowing about the wood-fired hot water heater this time, I was able to have a hot shower before cooking a quick dinner, preparing sandwiches for the next day, and passing out in my tent.

Cordon del Plata

First view of Cordon del Plata


I had a mostly easy ride down the Juncal road, interrupted by the final, steep hill before the pavement. Some dogs came out to harass me from the nearby shepherd’s dwelling, and I tried Biggar’s advice to pick up a rock and act like I was going to throw it. To my amazement, they immediately understood the gesture and left me alone. I still had a lot of Paso de los Libertadores to go, starting with the striking switchbacks I had seen a few days earlier. Fortunately, they were graded more gently than the straighter road below along the Rio Aconcagua, so I was able to ride them all comfortably. A thumbs-up from a fellow cyclist and even a few motorists helped propel me up through “Curva 20” and beyond, passing beneath the single chairlift of what seemed like it would be a very limited ski area. There were several avalanche sheds, where I turned on my taillight, sprinted through, then stopped for a bit to recover.

West Libertadores switchbacks

I had hoped that the end of the switchbacks was near the top of the pass, but it goes on and on above. The old pass used to climb to 3700 meters, but in 1980 Chile and Argentina each bored half of a 3 kilometer tunnel, the Tunel Cristo Redentor, at just over 3100 meters. I was stopped somewhat lower, below the final long avalanche shed, by another worker, who loaded my bike and trailer into the back of a pickup — no bike rack this time. He then drove me to the tunnel entrance station, oddly told me to get out and wait there, then drove off with all my stuff. Great.

Big avalanche shed below tunnel

After a disturbingly long wait in the office, he returned with a backpacker I had passed lower down on the road, and we all went through the tunnel together. Along the way, I learned that the backpacker was walking all the way to Buenos Aires; after spending multiple days biking down the Rio Mendoza, I pitied the fool. Here we engaged in the first part of the Argentinian customs process, each receiving a piece of paper with a stamp. I tried to talk a bit more with the backpacker, then took off down the barren wasteland of the eastern Andes’ Rio Mendoza valley.

Not this time…

I stopped to take a photo by the Aconcagua park sign, then continued to the second part of the Customs process, the actual inspection, strategically located just beyond the Aconcagua turnoff. As I waited in line, I was worried to see an inspector tearing apart the bed of a pickup truck ahead of me, but apparently bike trailers are above suspicion, and the inspector sent me through with barely a glance. I passed through the minor settlement from which Kilian started his Aconcagua run, then continued downhill, eventually reaching the third part of the Argentinian customs dance, a checkpoint making sure that my passport contained a stamp from the customs inspector, who is easy to miss or avoid.

Typical Rio Mendoza

I had hoped to camp somewhere between Uspallata and Potrerillos, but the road was slow, as well as mentally and physically draining. The Rio Mendoza is bounded by high desert mountains on both sides, with the river itself mostly flowing in a steep-sided channel in a broad plain. Occasionally river or clear stream will join it from one side or the other, some in remarkably narrow valleys. The road generally follows the plain, but frequently climbs to get around ridges, and all of these climbs are slow with a trailer. Also, as I was to find over the next few days, there is always an up-river wind along the Rio Mendoza.

Funky hot water heater

After hours of fighting the headwind through a desert wasteland, being passed closely by trucks, and almost never being out of sight of a discarded pee bottle (“trucker bomb”), I was so happy to see Uspallata’s greenery that I immediately decided to stop for the night. I got some water at the tourist information office, then returned a short distance to a campground I had seen on the way into town. It had all the things I needed — showers, power, a place to stash my trailer, and internet — and some I did not — a peacock, ducks, and horses; I was happy to pay the $5. I unfortunately did not figure out that I needed to build a fire to get hot water, but it was hot enough outside that the lukewarm shower felt okay.

My plan for the next day was to bike to the end of the road for Cerro el Plata (male despite “plata” being female because it is the highpoint of the Cordon del Plata, and Cordons are male?) and hike in to base camp, similar to what I had done for Juncal. It was about fifty miles and net uphill, but it seemed like a good plan. I bought some new $4 sunglasses to replace my $10 Walmart glasses, which had finally broken on the way down from Juncal, then started off on the rolling road into the Rio Mendoza headwind. The trucks and trucker bombs were the same as the day before, but I had fresh listening material, so I didn’t mind too much.

Cerro el Plata from Potrerillos

I made reasonable time to Potrerillos, a small tourist town near a large reservoir, reaching the town park in time for a late lunch. I finished off the rest of the sandwiches I had made from a loaf of bread and a half-pound of ham and cheese, then sat in the shade to psych myself up for the 4700-foot climb from Potrerillos at 4700 feet to the trailhead. I was thinking of leaving when four Argentinians sat down next to me, an older man and two women who were talkative, and a middle-aged man who was not. The older man explained (I think) that he had had a stroke which slowed his speech; in any case, he spoke slowly and simply enough that I could understand a reasonable amount of what he said. The two women were also willing to make the effort to speak with a barely-Spanish-speaking gringo. We exchanged culture, hats, and food — my store-bought cookies for their grocery bag of mixed lunch meat and cheese — until I eventually had to tear myself away to begin the 4700-foot climb to the next trailhead.

Willkommen

I topped off my junk food supply at what passes for a grocery store in Potrerillos, then started the climb west along the river. It was a daunting amount of elevation (almost 15,000 feet from the lake to the summit of Cerro el Plata), but I made steady progress until the pavement ended. I could have handled the grade if it were smooth macadam, but washboard dirt turned it into an epic hike-a-bike session. I reminded myself that I had plenty of daylight to reach the refugio even at a slow walk, and resolutely plodded on. As with the pass into Argentina, the grade lessened when the switchbacks began, and I was able to ride to the park entrance station, where I stopped to sign in (no radio this time).

It was too late to transition and hike to the high camp, so I planned to stop at one of the refugios — the park guard had recommended the second as the cheapest. I pedaled up some more switchbacks and turned off toward my intended refugio, but stopped at the first to catch my breath before a steeper section of road. A man and woman were sitting on the deck, and the man struck up a conversation. He turned out to be a Latvian guide named Kristep, with interesting mountaineering experience all around the world, so I decided it was worth the extra few dollars to stay at this refugio. I also met a Frenchman from Provence, acclimatizing for Aconcagua, and dined on a generous plate of beef and vegetables stewed in wine. All in all, it was worth the $20 for a bit of luxury.

I had a lazy breakfast the next day, then an easy hike up to base camp a mere 4800 feet above. After Juncal’s garbage-fest, it was nice to travel a well-beaten path through the scree and glacial debris. Along the way, I learned that I should have brought a cacatubo (poop tube — oops, sorry!), as the area is small and close enough to Mendoza to see dozens of climbers on summer weekends. I passed a minor tent city at the upper El Salar campsite, then continued to the smaller and somewhat windier upper El Salar, where I found a nice flat spot with a decent wall to pitch my tent, then killed the pre-dinner hours writing emails and listening to podcasts.

El Plata and Vallecitos

Saddle at sunrise

I had expected my sleep to be disturbed by a headlamp stampede, or at least by my neighbor’s preparations, but I woke naturally at dawn, ate breakfast, then headed out up the trail. The wind was mild at first, but grew stronger as I passed a higher, dry campsite, forcing me to put on my goggles. I had not heard them, but I unsurprisingly saw a group of climbers in the sun ahead of me, and started the work of catching them. I caught up at a little sheltered spot below the saddle between El Plata and Vallecitos, where groups stop to gird themselves for the real wind above. I stopped for a minute to mentally prepare myself, then passed them on the final climb to the saddle.

Aconcagua

I was warm enough moving in just my hoodie for awhile, but was soon forced to put on my parka, cinch down the hood, and pull my buff over my nose and mouth. There was more wind than I normally tolerate in the mountains, and I had to brace myself against a few of the gusts, but this was what I had expected in the Andes, and the air temperature was not too cold, so I continued upward, passing a group of five toward the end of the long traverse across El Plata’s northern bowl. To the west, I could see a decent-sized glacier, a cloud-capped Aconcagua, and a fearsome ridge of chossy pinnacles reminiscent of Palisade Crest in the Sierra, though of course much larger.

Oops

There was intermittent snow on the trail, but most of the previous days’ accumulation had been blasted away by the consistently fierce wind. I briefly tagged the summit, then found a sheltered spot to eat my last moldy alfajores and look down at the lake by Potrerillos over 14,000 feet below. Having more energy on the way down, I took a few minutes to check out the wreckage of a small helicopter just below the summit, then hike-jogged down the scree trail.

Vallecitos-Rincon ridge

The wind remained intense, but I had plenty of clothes and did not want to be bored killing time in the tent again, so I took a side-trip on the way down to tag Cerro Vallecitos, less than 1000 feet above the saddle. Well, sort of… I reached the cross to find that another bump 100 yards farther along the ridge toward Cerro Rincon was somewhat higher. This ridge, which I had though of traversing to make an elegant loop, was horrible serrated choss; reaching the highpoint would have required (at least) descending a couple hundred feet to the left, reascending a loose scree chute, then finding a path up some steep and certainly rotten rock. It seemed like too much work at almost 18,000 feet, so I just returned to camp. My tent was fortunately still there, held in place by the rocks tied to the guy lines, though it had shifted a bit. I reattached it to the ground, made a note to buy some accessory cord for more guy lines, then killed time until I could cook dinner without too much shame.

I had planned to climb Cerro Rincon by the easy route the next morning before heading out, but it was windier than the previous morning, and looked like it might snow, so I gave up on that idea. I packed up, nearly losing my tent to a gust, and returned to the refugio. As it was a Saturday, I passed dozens of people headed up, some merely out for the day, but many carrying helmets and all sorts of mountaineering gear. The refugio was unpleasantly crowded, so I isolated myself checking my phone and repacking my bags. When I was heading out, one of the hut employees asked me if I could pose for a photo with my bike and trailer for the hut’s Facebook page. Tooling around with a bike and trailer makes me something between a curiosity and a minor celebrity here.

Nevado Juncal

Juncal North glacier


… or, “In his first skirmish with the Argentine/Chilean Andes, Dr. Dirtbag earns a narrow victory.”

Nevado Juncal is a high peak south of the Paso de los Libertadores, the pass crossing the Andes near Aconcagua. When planning long trips, I normally start with a list of primary objectives, then look for “targets of opportunity” to break up the long commutes between these main goals; Juncal was one such. It is thoroughly my style: not quite 6000m, not technical, not on any list, and generally ignored by non-locals, despite being right on the way to Aconcagua. It is also one of the most brutal slogs I have ever done, climbing around 6000 feet of truly horrid scree, leftovers of shrinking glaciers, and penitentes to reach the high glacier saddle east of the summit. Still, the peak is home to the region’s largest glaciers, reminiscent of the Bernese Oberland, and the summit views of these and nearby Aconcagua are stunning, so it was not a wasted effort.

Private park road

I took my time waking up by the river, fought with the stove a bit, then ground out more climbing toward the Paso de los Libertadores, stopping to take photos of an old guardhouse before turning off just below the switchbacks on the dirt road leading to Juncal. My guidebook mentioned possible private property issues with this route, and indeed I saw signs indicating a “private reserve” ahead; hopefully that meant they would allow bicycle-riding dirtbags to proceed. It turns out that the reserve is basically a park owned by the descendants of one of the American mining companies who grabbed vast tracts of the Andes in the early 1900s, with a visitor center and small boarding house staffed by fairly knowledgeable young locals. The park charges nominal fees for entry and for each night camping, which I happily paid, as I prefer this use of the land to the exploratory mining being done (by another American company) just down-valley.

View down Juncal valley

I pulled in early in the afternoon, and was met by Martin, who allowed me to stash my bike in the tool-shed, and was interested to see what conditions I found, as he planned to climb it later in the season. He gave me a radio, took some money, and sent me on my way. I switched from bike- to hike-mode, which takes awhile, then took off up the popular trail to the base of the glacier. The trail passes a couple of “wetlands,” which in this part of the world means “anything green,” then reaches an unavoidable glacial stream crossing. With the significant day/night temperature fluctuations, these crossings can be trivial in the morning and quite severe by evening. This one was a bit less than knee-deep in the mid-afternoon, and safe to ford barefoot.

I continued past the crossing, not sure where I wanted to camp, and eventually gave up on camping at or above the glacier. After a shoe-soaking crossing to reach a non-silty water source, I retreated to a camp just past the water crossing that I later learned is used by the Chilean army. Another group was there, and offered me a tarp when I did not immediately put the rain fly on my tent. There was much miscommunication, which gave me the impression that they were leaving at 5:00 AM to go straight for the summit, some 2850 vertical meters away. That would be long but doable on normal terrain, so I was tempted to try the same.

To base camp

Roping up at glacier

I woke up at 6:00, ate breakfast, and saw that at least part of the military group was still in camp. I (wisely in retrospect) decided not to try to summit in a day, but instead packed up camp and made my way toward the glacier. I passed the army folks roping up at toe of the glacier, and mentally filed them as “clueless” for doing so on a dry, rock-covered valley glacier. After some shenanigans on the rock-covered left-hand side, I finally made my way to the white center, where the going was much easier, and steadily progressed toward the icefall at the head of the valley.

Welcome to my hell

I headed for the obvious break in the left-hand moraine, and found a few cairns and faint traces of trail. Unfortunately, I missed the place where the trail leaves the stream shortly above the break, instead following the creek to where it petered out in a talus-field. Hoping this was the “broad couloir” mentioned in the terse route description, I made my way up, wandering back and forth to find the least-painful path. Unfortunately “least” is a relative term, so I was from time to time reduced to crawling on all fours, or stepping 3-4 times in the same spot until the scree settled.

Rejoining route at penitentes

As the terrain above continued to look less hopeful, I puzzled over my topo and realized that I needed to be on the other side of a ridge. I made a horribly chossy traverse, a sketchy downclimb, and found myself clearly on the correct route, right below the penitentes that Martin had mentioned. These were no more than knee- to thigh-deep, so wading through them was not a major ordeal. Unfortunately the glacier-related misery continued above, with loose talus and mud covering old ice in the couloir, and the sides mostly too steep and rotten to be of use.

High camp

I finally crawled to the ridge to find a few truly spectacular bivy sites. There were no windbreaks on the exposed ridge, but the mountain’s shape seemed to keep things reasonably non-windy. I set up my tent, then went side-hilling in search of liquid water below some nearby penitentes. Most of it was undrinkably gritty, but with a bit of careful class 4 downclimbing I managed to find a relatively clear stream flowing down some rock. I painfully returned to the tent, cooked dinner, checked in with the office (Martin was gone, so I spoke to his partner Belén) and listened to podcasts until I finally went to sleep.

Al cumbre

Sunrise on Aconcagua

I ate breakfast at first light, then sidehilled around a bit trying to find the “other glacier” that would take me to the glacier saddle leading to the summit. Unfortunately it has badly decayed since my route description was written: the remnant is far too broken to be useful, forcing me onto the nightmare mixture of dirt, scree, and penitentes to its left. These penitentes are the real deal, being waist- to chest-high, and rock-hard in the morning. Climbing penitentes in this condition is an acrobatic process of stepping from saddle to saddle, generally staying above the intervening troughs.

Upper glacier

Finally, just below the broad ridge, I was able to get onto the real glacier and put on my crampons. There were two large crevasses, both passed to the left, and numerous smaller ones, mostly obvious and easily-avoided. I stayed on the glacier farther than necessary, hoping that it would be quicker than the volcanic sand and scree it covered. This involved some slightly steep snow and ice, but saved me plenty of mental energy. On the climb from camp to the saddle, I had been climbing so slowly that I wondered if there was something wrong with me. Once on the snow, I realized that the fault lay in the terrain, a mixture of all of the worst things a dying glacier can produce.

Rocks on summit ridge

I left the snow and ice near the highest reasonable point, slogging up some sand to intersect a faint trail, which I followed without incident to the summit. Well, “summit”… Biggar’s guidebook states that “the highest summit is the NE peak,” but the western one certainly looks higher both in person and on the map, and is marked on Peakbagger as the summit. Still, the NE peak has a register, and I lacked time and energy to traverse a mile of mixed snow and choss above 19,000′ to tag the other.

Glaciers to the SE

In any case, my summit had a superb view of the large Juncal North glacier, as well as a system of connected valley glaciers to the southeast reminiscent of the Bernese Oberland. It also featured a remarkably fancy register, a black composition book that perfectly fit in a large, metal “Banco de Chile” box. I read the list of names, a handful of parties per year dating back to the early 2000s, added my own solitary entry, then retraced my steps.

This was not fun

The upper scree descent was as fast as I had hoped, so I followed it as far down as I could before switching to the glacier, which went without incident. Unfortunately, the descent from there to camp was all sorts of awful. Everything had warmed up and melted, so I frequently slid on the mud-covered glacial ice, scratching my palms and having zero fun. Crossing the softened penitentes was more like a fighting game, as I tactically kicked, punched, and elbowed a path using a mixture of the valleys between them and platforms created by my destruction.

Back at camp, I packed up my tent, then made an effort to descent the “correct” route. I followed my ascent route through the lower penitentes, taking advantage of some decent boot-skiing along the way, then found my way through some slabby cliffs below the toe of the retreating glacier. From here the valley split in two, with both forks looking ominously cliffy. I glanced at both, then took the right, hoping that I could traverse out on that side to perhaps reach the old lateral moraine.

I eventually reached a precarious ledge with bulging rock above, from which I retreated after a cautious attempt. I glanced at other options, and was feeling somewhat dismayed when I saw a cairn on the ledge above the one I had tried. This was the key to the “official” route, which exits here to cross the right-hand wall of the old glacial valley. Lower down, I found a more distinct trail, and even some well-built camp spots near the glacier, apparently the 3700m camp mentioned by Biggar.

Walking down glacier

From there, I rejoined my old path near the cut in the moraine, then headed for the glacier’s smooth white center as soon as possible. My afternoon walk down the glacier was much more enjoyable than the previous day’s ascent; as usual, the glacier looked more impressive from above than below. Belén had mentioned that I had a spot at the moraine camp if I needed it, but I knew I could make it to the office before dark, and saw no need to make another camp. The stream crossing was at its fiercest, so I rolled up my pants and forded shoes-on; unfortunately the stream was slightly more than knee-deep this time, so my pants were soaked anyways.

I reached the office a bit before 7:30, where I got into an extended conversation with Belén, whom I had only met by radio. Among other things, I learned that the summit register box, like so much in Chile, is political: the chief of the Banco de Chile, a very wealthy and powerful man, had similar boxes placed on the summits of all the country’s 6000m peaks as an advertisement for his company. Since Juncal was long thought to be above 6000 meters, it was so blessed. We eventually got too cold to keep chatting, so I rolled down the road a bit to camp in a pullout, saving myself a few dollars.

Santiago to Rio Banco (70-ish miles)

Even Santa is sexy here


I had more than a day’s ride to the first interesting trailhead, so I figured I would grind out as much of it as I could on the first day. A number of factors made this fairly brutal: (1) I was carrying at least a week of food, and probably more, since I planned to be on foot for at least three nights, and could not resist my cost-saving urge to buy in bulk. (2) However much I completed, it would be net uphill. (3) My previous bike tour was after the Fall Equinox and relatively high, so the amount of warm-enough daylight limited me to 8-10 hours. Down here near the Summer Solstice, I have 15-ish hours of usable light. (4) In addition to the food, I was carrying my heavy Alps Mountaineering 2-person tent (a credible knockoff of a Big Agnes that costs over four times as much) and full mountaineering gear, making my full load (bike and trailer plus all my stuff) somewhere around 110 lbs. Time to get fit in a hurry…

I made the mistake of waiting for the hostel’s breakfast (white bread, cheese, ham, powdered coffee and milk), so I got to fight my way out of Santiago during the morning rush hour. My phone told me to take the freeway north, but the bumper-to-bumper traffic and signs clearly indicating that bikes were not allowed dissuaded me. I instead followed local streets and permanent-seeming detour signs saying “norte,” and eventually the city thinned.

From there I took the frontage road along highway 57. Two roadies passed me, which I took as a sign that I was on the right route for bikes, though it was hardly pleasant. The frontage road ended near Colina, and after unsuccessfully trying to follow some side-roads, I ventured onto the freeway, where I soon encountered a local cyclist. Despite feeling a bit western, it was good to know that Chile still operates by Latin American rules. Despite the trucks and high speed limit, it was probably safer than the local streets thanks to its wide and generally clean shoulders.

War monument

I made good time to the base of the hill before Los Andes, where I stopped at an empanada place. I ordered a shrimp and cheese and a local Mountain Dew knock-off; the former was mostly cheese and kind of bland, but at least it would give me energy for the climb. I slowly made my way up the broad, straight incline until I was confronted by a tunnel. I was ready to turn on my lights and have at it, but a tunnel guard waved me to stop. They take their tunnels seriously here, so after waiting awhile outside the office, my bike and I rode through the tunnel and over the pass in a maintenance truck. Talking to the driver, I learned that ferrying cyclists is a common, if not frequent activity. They even had a bike rack for the truck, despite bikes technically not being allowed on the road.

Evil brush

I was growing desperately low on water as I made my way toward highway 60, and looked longingly at a couple of streams passing below the highway. Unfortunately they were defended by fences, and any alternative route was blocked by incredibly spiny brush, some with thorns almost an inch long. Finally, at the top of a hill, I stopped at some combination truck stop and dwelling to fill my various water receptacles in the bathroom. I had expected water anxiety to be an issue in the Atacama, but did not expect my route to be so dry at this point.

Rio Aconcagua slot

Once on 60 (the Paso de los Libertadores), I was finally off the freeway, but still on a major trucking route. Sometimes the trucks were polite, but they would often pass uncomfortably close, and a couple of times I had oncoming drivers ignore me while passing, an unsettling experience. The road climbs steadily along the Rio Aconcagua, which passes through an impressive slot canyon at one point. It was mostly graded gently enough for me to cruise along in low gear, though I had to stop and rest repeatedly on a couple of steeper sections.

Nice campsite

At one point I was passed by two guys with ultra-light bike-packing gear. We talked for a bit, and I learned that they had come from Spain to compete in the Across Andes race, a bike-packing event starting and ending in Santiago. They left, but I soon met them again when one of them got a flat; hopefully my sealant-filled mountain bike tires will fare better. They passed me again, and I stopped to fill up water at a gas station before looking for a place to camp.

I soon found one next to the river that even had old fire rings — score! A small dog had been following me for at least a kilometer, despite receiving no encouragement and almost getting hit by several trucks (they seemed to care more about dogs than cyclists…). When I started to set up my tent, she walked all over my ground-cloth. I tried to shoo her away, but eventually let her lick out my tuna can while I ate dinner. When I refused to let her into my tent, she curled up right outside next to my head, where she stayed for much of the night. Dogs are strange sometimes…