I am hoping to climb the Alps’ 50 prominent 4000-meter peaks as quickly as possible this summer, and have started a fundraiser to help cover the cost of this expensive project. I will write a book about the attempt, available in electronic and print format to backers. If you have already contributed, thank you! If not, please consider doing so and/or telling your friends.
Cerro Catedral is more of a small range than a mountain, a sprawling collection of lakes and granite spires southwest of Bariloche. Most of the spires, including the highest, the Torre Principal, are too hard for me to climb unroped, but Catedral Sur is a walk-up by its easiest route, and a moderate scramble by its northeast ridge. It proved to be a pleasant outing, and a long-ish day from the wonderful national park campground at Lago Gutierrez. It also turned out to be my last scramble in the area, as I was forced to flee the next day from the world’s rising COVID-related panic. I got a reasonably early start after breakfast, throwing my down jacket in my pack against the morning cold. The previous day’s storms had dropped temperatures dramatically, and it would take a couple days of sun to warm back up. I mostly walked the rolling trial around the lake toward the Arroyo Van Titter, jogging here and there to stay ahead of a group of locals who walked surprisingly fast and stopped less than I did. My mountaineering pack, the only one I have on this trip, has no stash pockets, and my water bladder is completely non-functional, so I had to stop and take off my pack every time I wanted to eat, drink, or remove clothing. I look forward to getting back to, if not the States, then at least my daypack. I easily left the other hikers once the trail started climbing steeply toward the Frey hut. This was a good, no-nonsense footpath, steep and only somewhat eroded. I began meeting others descending as I climbed, mostly local hikers probably headed home after spending one or more nights in the region’s huts. Cerro Catedral has several; while Frey is the most popular with climbers thanks to its proximity to the Aguja Frey and Torre Principal, the others form an apparently-popular multi-day loop. Along the way, I passed another unusual structure, a refuge or food stand built under a giant boulder. The hut featured the most American crowd I had encountered in a long time, including an older couple visiting their daughter, who was down in South America for some kind of internship. I talked to them for awhile, then met Isaac, a young climber from Seattle who was also in the area for school-related reasons. He had flown down without his rack, and was not having much luck joining another group of climbers at the hut, so I invited him along on my scramble up Catedral Sur. It sounded like it wouldn’t be too hard; the hardest part might be figuring out which peak it was among the many ridges and towers. We followed a use trail to a pass a short distance southwest of the hut, then stared around in confusion for a few minutes. There were dozens of spires of various heights on the ridges around us, none obviously the highest, and we had only various low-resolution maps. We eventually set off descending across the head of the next valley over, and soon found cairns and a good use trail, suggesting we were on the correct route to something. It was fortunate that we found the trail, because the brush is both dense and woody, making bushwhacking somewhere between bloody and impossible. The trail passes under the closest large slab, then climbs toward a cluster of impressive spires, including a large flat one called the Campanile Esloveno. I thought Catedral Sur would be to the left of that, but I could not pick out an obvious summit. We headed vaguely left up talus with the occasional rock step, eventually reaching a saddle near a wildly-overhanging tower on an indistinct ridge. The tower is striking enough that I am sure it has a name and has been climbed, but I can’t imagine ever doing so without throwing a rope over the top and prussiking up. The climbing slowly got trickier as we progressed, with a bit more class 3 here and there, and while the ridge never grew truly sharp, there were fewer opportunities for escape. The ridge finally became truly tricky and ridge-like just before the summit, where there are a number of progressively larger and more difficult gendarmes. I immediately went into peak-bagger mode, bypassing the first few to the right while Isaac, true to his climber nature, went straight over the top before seeing how much easier I had it. One of the last few gendarmes, I tried a couple of approaches before finding some low fifth-class shenanigans to the right. My scrambling game was rusty after months of choss, but it came back quickly. The other side was dismayingly steep, covered in crunchy moss and a bit of fresh snow. We found our way off, but decided to skip the last one or two, traversing around left to the base of the imposing summit block. While it looked impossibly vertical from this side, it turned out to be just a bit of fourth class on the other, and we were soon on the summit. After climbing in a t-shirt on the protected ridge, I was shocked at how cold it was in the wind, and was soon glad I had brought my down jacket. I was anxious to get back to camp at the lake, but the view of the other needles was phenomenal, with glacier-covered Tronador looming behind them some twenty miles away. Though only 11,500′ high and 41 degrees south, it holds some impressively large glaciers on this side. We finally headed back, down-scrambling the summit block and then scree-skiing the peak’s easy north slope. There is a perfect campsite here near some huge boulders and a small stream, surrounded by all of the towers a Real Climber could want, but we saw only one tent and no people. Once back at the hut, I quickly said “goodbye” and began hike-jogging back toward camp. My pack was awkward jogging the flats, but I wanted the miles to pass quickly.
I had initially planned to ride on to a camp along Lago Mascardi, but it was late enough that I opted to stay another night. While it was calmer and warmer, it was also a weekend, so I had a group with a bunch of noisy kids on one side, and a couple who were very bad at building a fire for their asado upwind of me, smoking me out as I ate my usual polenta with eggs and vegetables. I played with the herd of four camp kittens in the morning, trying not to let their sharp little claws puncture my flesh or give my down jacket yet more leaks as they climbed all over me and my laptop. Then I took off a bit later than planned toward the far end of Lago Mascardi and the trailhead for Cerro Bonete, another peak closer to Tronador.
Something like twenty miles into the ride, just after turning off onto a dirt side-road, I learned that Argentina had closed all of its national parks due to COVID-19. For the present, this just meant that most of the peaks around Bariloche were off-limits, a disappointment I could get past. But the longer-term implications were more worrisome: if Argentina was already shutting things down so indiscriminately (and, I thought, senselessly), there would doubtless be other restrictions coming. I thought it might be best to cross back to Chile as soon as possible, where there would be no more borders between me and either my flight out, or at least the American Consulate in Santiago.
I rode back to Bariloche to see what information I could find, learned that Argentina had closed its borders to incoming Americans, then biked on to camp on a side-road between arms of Lago Nahuel Huapi. The next morning I rode to Villa la Angostura, checked out the situation again, and was alarmed by the rate of new flight cancellations, quarantines, and other measures. I rode on as far as I could, getting through the Argentinian side of the Paso Samoré and into Chile before being forced to camp behind some maintenance sheds when the wet cold made my hands too weak to keep riding.
The next day I stuffed my wet tent into my dry-bag, rode to Osorno, and took an overnight bus to Santiago. I had no trouble finding two bike boxes — one for my bike, and a second to mutilate into a trailer box — but after packing things up in the street, I had more trouble finding a large enough vehicle to take everything to the airport. Eventually, with the help of an enthusiastic cabbie, I mutilated the bike box into the back seat of a compact taxi, shoved everything else in on top and in the trunk, and made it to the airport by mid-afternoon.
I was seriously disgusting at this point, but fortunately Ted came through with a free room at the airport hotel, where I could shower for the first time in a week, recover a bit, and create a trailer box. Recipe: cut a bike box open, fold it over taco-style over the trailer and a bunch of other stuff, cut off the ends, then apply half a roll of duct tape; finish by paying a guy at the airport $10 to wrap the mess in plastic. I had no scale this time, but the bike box came in at 20 kg, the “trailer” at 23, so my two ridiculous boxes both qualified as acceptable “sporting equipment,” and therefore flew free. One long flight half-full of often-masked people later, I was back in the States, ready to face whatever comes next on my (sort of) home turf.
With my trip nearing its end, I was not sure where I wanted to go after Pucon. One option would be to make a loop north to Llaima and Sierra Nevada, taking a scenic back road through araucaria forests. This would take 4-5 days, after which I could return to the Panamericana and catch the bus from Temuco. Another would be to head south through the Siete Lagos region, crossing over to Argentina via the Paso Hue Hum to San Martin de los Andes, then back to Chile via Paso Cardenal Samoré to Osorno. The road south of San Martin is supposed to be one of the best short bike tours in Argentina, and if I made good time, I would even have time to see Bariloche. I was getting tired of volcanoes, so I chose the latter, pushing back my return flight to give myself some time to explore the Bariloche area’s supposedly better rock. It felt good to be on Chilean asphalt as I rode around the south side of Lago Villarrica, but I quickly tired of the concomitant traffic. This continued after I turned south at the city of Villarrica, so I gambled on a side road supposedly containing two short stretches of dirt. The paved sections were glorious and almost car-free, and I enjoyed tooling south in no particular hurry. The dirt was another matter: while it was not as washboarded as the Argentinian stuff, it was loose in places, and steep enough that I crashed once going downhill before learning that I had to walk my bike down the steeper sections. I was planning to camp in Neltume or Puerto Fuy, but I made slower progress than expected on the rolling road, and instead stopped at a nice camp-spot by a river next to Lago Panguipulli. The water looked clean, with no upstream lakes or settlements, there were blackberries all around, and I would sleep better at an undeveloped campsite, undisturbed by lights and neighbors. I took my time the next morning, reaching the ferry across Lago Pirihueico around lunch. The lake, around ten miles long with steep wooded hills rising directly from its shores, reminded me somewhat of Lake Chelan in the Cascades, where I had taken the ferry to Holden to climb Bonanza and Fernow. I noticed a female cyclist as I bought my ticket, but did not disturb her, instead heading over to an eatery by the lake for lunch. It cost more than I would normally pay — about $5-6 — but the scrambled eggs with ham and cheese and fresh bread were a nice change from my normal diet of polenta and Mantecol. The lake is only at about 2000 feet, so it sees little snow in the winter, but nearby Volcan Choshuenco is home to a significant glacier on its east side, clearly visible from town. I looked for the cyclist while we lined up to board the ferry, and found that she was traveling with her partner and two children, now aged four and six. They were nearing the end of a three-year journey from Fairbanks to Ushwaya, which they have written about on their excellent website (sorry, only in French and German). They were both carrying full panniers, and Daniel was also pulling a two-wheeled child trailer. His rig was unimaginably heavy, apparently weighing something like 200kg including him and the kids. We talked all the way across the ferry, while the kids ate and bounced around the boat. Marilyne is French, Daniel German, and the kids were barely speaking age when the journey started, so they already spoke at least three languages, and perhaps four, though I did not hear any English from their time passing through the States and Canada. Both were friendly, but while Daniel was somewhat quiet, Marilyne was surprisingly voluble, doing most of the talking on the ride.
They were understandably slow, so I left them on the other side of the ferry, foolishly hoping to make it to asphalt in San Marcos de los Andes by evening. However, the road was classic Argentinian ripio, and the rolling hills slowed me to a crawl. Worse, I was having to stop every couple of miles to detach the trailer and re-tighten my rear quick release. I had had this problem occasionally on rough roads earlier in the trip, but it seems to be getting worse. I am otherwise happy with my trailer, but because of this problem I will probably switch to panniers for any future tours.
I saw a potential camp-spot next to Lago Lacar on the map, and was dismayed to find that it was a popular and clearly-signed day use area with a park ranger. As the sun sank, I slogged up a climb away from the lake, camping in the first open spot next to the road large enough to hold my tent. I continued to San Martin the next day over more rocks and washboard, regularly stopping to fix my quick release. They were grading the road near town, but even the freshly-graded part was not great, and they apparently did not intend to roll it after grading, so it would soon return to its miserable state.I hung out at a gas station for awhile, using their internet to catch up with the world and try to plan my summer, then knocked out most of the climb out of town. There appeared to be several organized campgrounds between San Martin and Villa la Angostura, but there was plenty of water and wild camping, so I found a good spot with a fire ring and log to sit on, and had a nice, quiet evening. My head-start made for another short day to Angostura, along one of the best stretches of cycling on my trip. The road between San Martin and Bariloche passes many large lakes, with gently rolling forest between them and low peaks farther off. For once the mountains looked as mountains should, with lakes at their base, then trees, then grass and rocks above treeline. I encountered numerous cyclists along the way, a couple of whom were even pulling Bob trailers, the first I had seen on my trip. I did more internet-ing in Angostura — planning a trip on one continent and organizing a fundraiser on a second, while traveling on a third is hard enough without a pandemic — then paid too much to stay at the neighboring campground. Angostura and Bariloche are quite touristic, with Chileans visiting from over the pass, and prices are accordingly high. The final ride to Bariloche was fifty easy miles around the huge Lago Nahuel Huapi, the first 35 or so with a wicked tailwind. I started late and stopped often to take pictures or admire the view, and still made it to Bariloche by mid-afternoon. The last part of the ride, from the intersection with route 237 to town, was made somewhat unpleasant by traffic coming from the city of Neuquen, and the town was far too large and busy for my taste. However, I could see the storm approaching over Cerro Cathedral to the west, and it was forecast to rain the next day, so it would be home for a little while. I found the closest campground to town, and once again paid too much to sleep.
An upset stomach kept me from sleeping well, I was feeling no better in the morning, and I was out of instant coffee. I unenthusiastically swallowed some hot chocolate for breakfast, then packed up, popped some metronidazol, and got on my way down the hill toward Pucon. It was a cold descent on the shady side of the range, and steep, making me glad I had not crossed this pass the other way. When I finally reached the valley floor, the views opened up and I was finally able to see the shape of the terrain. It reminded me a lot of the Skagit Valley in the North Cascades, with sparse, moldy farms on a flat valley bottom, and trees growing on impossibly-steep slopes to either side. There were even wild blackberries growing along the road, and some shops advertising salmon. The only incongruous element was the huge volcano rising behind me at valley’s head.
I tried some berries, then nectarines and fruit juice bought in one of the small tourist towns, but my appetite needed more time to recover. I decided to take a easy day, riding only about forty downhill miles to Pucon, then climb Villarrica from town on the next. There are several campgrounds in this sizable tourist town, which offers watersports on Lago Villarrica in the summer, and skiing on the volcano in the winter. I chose one that advertised WiFi, then settled in to catch up with the world. In classic Argentinian fashion, though I was now in Chile, the hot water was only on between 7:00 and noon, and 7:00 and midnight, so I waited impatiently to take a comfortable shower, then quickly ate and tried to sleep as my neighbors started their evening revels.I still felt off the next morning, so I slept in, then headed down to the beach to watch the humans frolic in the water. Evidently the Argentinians share the Mexican suspicion that humans sink like bricks, so swimmers — waders, really — were only allowed in a few roped-off sections. The rest of the lake was open to everything from jet-skis to sailboats, and there was even a paraglider overhead. It looked like they rented sailboats to amateurs, which made me wonder if there is a tug boat that comes around at the end of the day to collect them from the lake’s leeward shore. Next I wandered around town running errands and playing tourist, drinking overpriced coffee at a German-themed cafe, then sat in the park to write postcards. Though it had no WiFi, the park was a pleasant place, with plenty of shade, various flowers, and hawks that strutted around the ground like pigeons. Finally I swung by the Conaf office, where I learned that I needed crampons, ice axe, boots, and… a printout of my AAC membership, which is just as ridiculous as a radio, but a whole lot cheaper. Fortunately I had a PDF of my AAC membership card on my phone, and no one noticed that it had recently expired. (It was nice knowing you, AAC, but the Schweizer Alpin-Club is probably a better deal for me this year.) I woke in the dark the next morning, and started riding for the ski area as soon as it was light enough for cars to see me clearly around 7:30. The paved road to the park boundary is brutally steep, so I was glad not to have the trailer, though I was still slow with my heavy pack full of mountaineering gear. I stopped in at the office, where I learned that the rain had scared off the other climbers, so I would not face the crowds I had seen in photos despite its being a weekend. I also learned that I needed a helmet (bike helmets are okay) and there is a $5.50 entry fee. Paperwork complete, I was off up the dirt, which was mostly less steep, but still a grind. I locked my bike to the trailhead sign, put on pants over my tights for decency, then took off hiking up the ski slopes. Following Biggar’s instructions, I followed the left-hand chairlift, thereby both finding a nice use trail and avoiding the Conaf guard parked at the top of the right-hand one. Signs in both Spanish and German at the top of this lift warned that it was Very Bad to continue without permission and proper gear. The trail continued above, passing some weird concrete structure on the way to the glacier’s base. It had looked from town that there might be a dry route all the way to the summit, and there may be, but it would still at the very least involve a bit of sketchy scrambling on volcanic cliffs, then acres of spiky choss, so I changed into boots and crampons, took out my axe, then started up the glacier, following an old boot-pack. It had been awhile since I had used this gear, but I managed to keep the spiky side down. I was depressingly slow for the altitude, though, not sure whether to blame my recent intestinal bug or my generally run-down state. Rounding the bend toward the upper glacier, I was surprised to see people in bright-colored clothing descending from the summit, and patted myself on the back for doing everything according to the rules. Reaching the top of the glacier, I found a dozen or so people hanging out eating lunch. They seemed to be one large guided group with at least two Americans, one Frenchwoman, and two local guides. I dumped my crampons and axe, made use of my French until it crashed into my Spanish, then continued to the summit. Apparently the lava is high enough to be visible from the rim in early February, but by early March it had retreated and was well out of sight, though I thought I heard a couple of splashes. I certainly saw plenty of fumes, though, which smelled horrible and burned my eyes. Still, I made a full circuit of the summit crater to tag the highpoint (which is apparently verboten). Along the way, I got a good view of the large and crevassed south glacier, passed right by a few steam vents, and crossed some strange new rock that looked a bit like crevassed ice. I passed the tourists as they took off their crampons below the glacier, then had a nice scree-ski back to my bike. From there it was a fast, fun coast back to the campground, where I spent an unprecedented third night before continuing south.
I got a reasonably early start around 7:30, both because Lanin is a decent-sized climb from the campground, and because the office would still be closed, so there would be little chance of a ranger seeing me out the window. The route starts out as a dirt road, much better than most I had been riding, then turns into a footpath. Along the way, there are various signs identifying the trail-side plants, and one listing the long list of required equipment to scale this dangerous summit. I had perhaps one of the required things, but I could also see from camp that the entire route was dry. I had turned on Strava for the first time in awhile, so while I did not go all-out for speed, I did jog a few parts of the path, and tried to maintain a reasonable effort. After crossing the flats to the peak’s base, the route climbs an old lateral moraine called the “fish spine,” then switchbacks up toward the first refugio. The loose, sharp volcanic talus would be a nightmare to climb in its original state, but fortunately there is a good path, with the occasional sign or painted arrow to keep people on course. The refugio was more developed than I had expected, with several semi-permanent tents in addition to the orange building described in the guidebook. I did not see anyone outside, but tried to pass quickly, discreetly, and at a bit of a distance. I had expected distinct up- and down-trails, but there seemed to be just one general confusion of paths, none of which was particularly well-suited to travel in either direction. I passed the higher yellow hut, seemingly unused, then crossed a talus slope to reach some solid rock. It was the first such I had touched in a long time, and it felt good to do a bit of Colorado class 3 scrambling on the final climb. I passed two other groups on their way down, and was impressed that they managed not to knock loose rocks on me. The summit is a small, partly glacier-filled crater, with the highest point being somewhere in the crunchy ice on the far side. I easily walked over in my running shoes, taking care not to try to wedge a leg in a small crevasse crossing this bit of glacier. I took a look down the more glaciated south side, then tried to identify the surrounding volcanoes. Villarrica and Quetrupillan, along my intended route to the northwest, were closest and easiest to identify. Llaima is a high, sharp point farther north. The ones farther south were harder to pick out, both because of distance and because I was looking at their less-glaciated northern sides. I finished off my Mantecol in a sheltered spot, then took off back down the rock rib, walking quickly down the steep, sticky surface. I carefully avoided kicking rocks on the group I passed, returning their favor, then took a much quicker line down the scree to the right of the ridge, rejoining the trails where they crossed toward the yellow hut. I passed another group just above the lower refugio, then acted casual as I walked through camp. A ranger waved at me, and I waved back in a friendly way, kept my headphones in, and kept moving. I passed an army party on the trail below, resting and sweating in their fatigues and clunky boots, then found a nice down-path bypassing most of the switchbacks. Since it was hot out and I was wearing my mountaineering pack, I did not feel much like running the lower trail, but I occasionally jogged a bit out of boredom. I saw a ranger truck where the trail crosses the road, and waved to the owner as I passed. He seemed a bit more interested in talking to me than the previous one, though, and I saw another ranger ahead on the trail, possibly trying to prevent my escape. Had someone reported me? What kind of trouble would I face?
Clearly someone had turned me in — probably the ranger at the refugio — and they both had me dead to rights, and had gone to a remarkable amount of effort to hunt down a single rogue hiker. I told him I had only gone for a little hike up to the refugio, but he probably knew I was full of it, and in any case, no one is allowed above the flats without the required equipment, or at least without an arbitrary subset consisting of at least boots and a radio. I had seen people near the summit without the supposedly-also-required ice axes, with boots no better on any surface than my trail runners, but… rules are rules.
He made it clear that he was giving me a citation rather than a fine, then spent a long time filling in a form detailing my crimes. He unfortunately had forgotten to insert the carbon paper between two sheets, so he had to recopy most of it before finishing via carbon. He signed it, had me sign it, and then, for some reason, had two random passing tourists sign as witnesses after he explained to them that I was a criminal. Then we each took a copy and went our separate ways. It was a strange experience, but pleasant and effective as far as encounters with law enforcement go: there were no guns or threats, no extortionate fines, and I left feeling more ashamed than resentful. I still believe the rules for Lanin are utterly pointless, but would be more likely to follow them in the future. Not wanting to pay for the useless campground or see the rangers again, I packed up and made my way through customs, then passed a couple of lakes before finding a spot to camp on a side-road on the wet Chilean side of the mountains.
Pehuen nuts are about the size of a finger joint, incredibly fire-resistant, supposedly high in protein, and taste more or less like other pine nuts. They were a main part of the locals’ diet, which made sense as I looked around and saw them everywhere. I picked up a few and tried preparing them in three ways: boiling, roasting on my camp stove, and roasting wrapped in aluminum foil next to a fire. The last approach worked best, though baking or possibly steaming would probably be better. This being Argentina, though, I should have built a fire and put them in an old tin can.It was surprisingly cool in the morning, so I got a late start back around the lake, and was further delayed collecting a bag of araucaria nuts to experiment with later. The road along the Rio Aluminé was dirt, but in relatively good shape and slightly downhill, so I proceeded at a decent pace, then made much better time in the strange island of asphalt roads around the town of Aluminé. I stopped briefly at a shrine to Ceferino, some kind of local saint, then reached town mid-afternoon. It was hot, and this would be my last civilization for awhile, so I half-napped in the park while waiting for the stores to open. Sitting up and looking around I was surprised to see another bike tourist at the next table over. He turned out to be Francisco (or Pancho), an Argentinian man who had been touring for three years non-stop. He was headed north now, criss-crossing the border and hitting pretty much every pass along the way. Because he was traveling year-round, he had even more gear than I did, including two panniers of winter clothing he hadn’t opened in months. I had hoped to split the 200-ish kilometers between Villa Pehuenia and Paso Tromen into two equal portions, but delays talking to Pancho and finding the ATM in Aluminé (the shiny bank building is buried in a dirt-road residential area), I only made it a few kilometers farther, camping near sunset at a popular spot along the river. I knew I had a long haul the next day, so I managed to get a reasonable start. The river road was paved until it crossed a bridge, then turned to dirt and added regular rollers, which slowed my progress. Still, it was not bad as far as Argentinian dirt roads go, so I was in a decent mood as I made my way south. The road eventually leaves the Aluminé where it bends east, climbing around 1500 feet before dropping a similar amount to the junction with the Paso Tromen road. This could have been ugly, but I found that a road crew was working at that very moment to pave it. The fresh asphalt was incredible, and even the surrounding dirt was freshly-rolled, so the climb was much less of a struggle than I had feared.
Reaching the pine-treed summit, I stopped in one of the Argentinian roadside shelters (for hitchhikers?) to drink some water and have more sausage and bread. A nearby worker, toiling away by himself at some task and apparently bored, came over and offered me water, asking about my trip. He seemed to think it was a bit crazy, preferring to head into the mountains more sensibly by horse. I eventually continued, leaving the construction to be faced with the original washboard dirt for awhile, then finding more good pavement on the descent to the Tromen junction.
The heat was intense at this lower elevation, and the roadside springs I had seen to the north had disappeared. Too impatient to deal with my overused and half-clogged filter, I dipped my bottles straight into the river, despite knowing that it came from a large lake and passed all sorts of livestock. I had become used to drinking some pretty sketchy water, and figured one more time wouldn’t hurt. (I paid with a day of diarrhea 2-3 days later, but… worth it.) A herd of motorcyclists and the odd tourist passed me while I was at the river, but the road seemed pleasantly quiet.The rest of the ride went much as I had expected, though with the addition of a discouraging headwind. Lanin first comes into view soon after the junction, its cone divided almost perfectly into white and black halves by the edge of its southeast glacier. Most of the climb is gradual and well-paved, and would have passed easily in the morning before the wind and heat. The pavement gives out at the park boundary, though, leaving 10 kilometers of unpredictable dirt. The first few kilometers were freshly graded, and I though my work was almost done; I stopped for more river water, and thought better of scolding a family collecting araucaria nuts, which is clearly forbidden in the park. The last part, though, had not been improved, and was a sandy washboard that, with the headwind, kept me in my lowest gear despite barely being uphill.
Reaching the park office, I thought I would be a good visitor and register for the climb. He told me that I should come back at 8:00 the next morning (ugh, but okaaay…), that I needed crampons, ice axe, and mountain boots for the obviously-dry hike up the northeast side (yeah, got ’em, whatever), and that I needed a radio. A what?! Yep, I would need a radio to fill out the papers (I should have just lied and asked “what frequency?”), he did not have a loaner like the nice guys at Domuyo, and there were none for rent. Still in “good visitor” mode, I sulked out and rolled over to the neighboring campground, where I paid actual money for no showers, no electricity, and a crappy table. I stewed for awhile, then decided “screw you guys, I’m walking up and down your stupid mountain.”
The next peaks on my list were Domuyo and Tromen, two ultra-prominent extinct volcanoes in northern Neuquen, well to the south. I had suffered enough on Argentina’s horrible dirt backroads, so I decided to stick to Ruta National 40 for the commute. If I could count on anything being well-paved, it would be the main north-south highway in the area, and as this is not Chile, the traffic should be both moderate and friendly. Little did I know… Things looked good rolling out of Malargüe, and I even got a wicked tailwind on the descent to Bardas Blancas, where I stopped for water and talked to an Australian prospector on a motorcycle. Unfortunately, it turns out that about fifty miles of RN 40 between Bardas Blancas and Barrancas are some of the worst ripio I have encountered. Everywhere vehicles could go fast, it was savage washboard; elsewhere, it was either mounded-up loose gravel or jarring rocks. There was some interesting geology as I entered the volcanic region, including a cool basalt slot canyon, but it was miserable work. I had hoped to get to Chos Malal in two days, but instead had to camp one night in an abandoned building in the middle of the dirt section, then again in Buta Ranquil, a miserable little town east of Tromen. By the time I descended past the Tromen turnoff on my way into Chos Malal, after fighting a headwind for much of the day, I decided that I would only do Domuyo. I woke up in the dark around 6:00 the next morning, heard the same wind blasting away from the north and east, and decided to take the day off. It would be a headwind on the way to Domuyo, and the Chos Malal campground had decent WiFi and actually hot water. I had hoped to fix my rear brake, but my day off coincided with Carnaval, a holiday falling 38 days before Easter (WTF?) which I had never heard of, but which is important and widely observed in Argentina. Most businesses, including the bike shop, were closed, so I had plenty of time to sit around town in the wind, which kept up all day. The next day dawned calm, and after waiting for the bike shop to open so I could buy new brake pads, I started late for Las Ovejas. Though it starts with a 2000-foot climb, this stretch is actually a pleasant ride, with good pavement and little traffic. Nearing the first of two passes on the way to Andacollo, I was stunned to see… actual pine forests! I had not passed a single naturally-occurring pine tree in the mountains since arriving, and seeing something so proper and familiar was surprisingly moving. Dropping down the other side, I passed some cars stopped at what turned out to be a gushing pipe attached to a road-side spring, then stopped when I saw a car parked next to some volcanic cliffs. Looking around, I quickly spotted climbers at the base of a sport route, and stopped to watch the leader slowly make his way to the anchor. Trees, water, climbers… this was looking good. From Andacollo, I crossed another pass between two river valleys, then cruised up-river to the town of Las Ovejas. It was only 5:00, and Varvarco was just twenty-some kilometers farther, but the pavement ended, and I did not want to spoil a good day. Instead, I pulled into the municipal campground, where there was no one to collect my money, and bought some perishables for dinner. I then stopped by the tourist office, which had slow WiFi and very friendly staff, who gave me a schematic map of the area and, better still, an up-to-date map of Neuquen showing which roads were paved. It seems like there has been a big, recent push to promote tourism in the region, as the tiny herding towns of Las Ovejas and Varvarco, both on a dead-end road in the middle of nowhere, have shiny, modern tourist information offices. The next day, I was immediately thankful that I had not continued to Varvarco, as the road turns to washboard just north of town. A couple of miles in, I passed a grader in the middle of repairing it, and eventually moved over to the freshly-graded side. A truck pulled up next to me while I was stopped for some reason, and a woman in back asked if she could take my picture. I couldn’t see any reason why not, and was surprised when she produced a DSLR with a massive lens. It turns out that Estrella and her fellow passenger were working on an article for a tourist magazine, scheduled to come out in October. I spent ten minutes or so posing for photos, then continued my slow progress north as she sprinted ahead to get some action shots. This is not how I expected to get into a magazine… The road improved a bit after Varvarco, where it sees less traffic. Biggar describes a “rough track” leading from Aguas Calientes to the Domuyo trailhead, but there is now a well-graded dirt road heading there from about three kilometers earlier. I ran into the magazine crew there again, posing for more photos, then cranked out the climb to the trailhead around 2500 meters. I was surprised to find some sort of refugio or ranger station, and was just getting ready to inspect it when a buff military guy came out to ask what I was planning. I told him I wanted to climb Domuyo, and after ascertaining that I had warmer clothes than my bike shorts, he had me fill out a liability waiver and emergency contact form, and loaned me a radio (they do that sometimes down here). I asked if I could camp in the parking lot, and he invited me to store my bike in the shed, and sleep on a bed in the infirmary. The three guys stationed there had running water, electricity, and a (shockingly cold) shower; I was living large. I set my alarm for 6:00, cooked my usual glop, and tried to sleep early. My alarm got me halfway awake, and the bed collapsing finished the job. I loitered a bit in the luxurious electric light, then started off up the trail just after headlamp time around 7:00. I crossed a completely unnecessary bridge, then continued a surprisingly long ways up the south bank of a river through talus and old moraine, following the best of several cow-paths. I reached the supposed normal base camp at a lagoon and, as promised, I radioed base camp to reassure them that I had not fallen off the trail. I thought I had seen some tents slightly higher, and soon realized they were not tents, but three semi-permanent dome structures: a locked kitchen tent, plus dining and sleeping tents. It turns out that someone (the army? Tourist ministry?) has recently installed a refugio around 3000 meters in which you can pay to sleep. I found my (free) accommodations in the army shelter much more comfortable and sensible. There are two main trails above the refugios, and I chose the right one, which looked more like an up-trail. Domuyo would be every bit as miserable as Sosneado without the trails, but with them it was actually fairly pleasant, if long. The route climbs a ridge on the mountain’s south side, so it is surrounded by glaciers on both sides. The southeast glacier appears to be the largest, descending far into a valley leading back toward Chos Malal. From the ridge where it finally comes into view, the route climbs what can only be described as class 5 dirt. If it were not for several hundred feet of hand-line, this would be moderately dangerous without snow, as it would be hard to stop a fall. Thanks to the line, it is merely strenuous, since I did not have an ascender and had to half-drag myself up hand over hand. I was grateful to have the mountain to myself, because it would be foolhardy for more than one person to be on the line at once given the amount of debris inevitably kicked loose. Above the line, more steep trail leads eventually to the small, shallow crater, home to a small, half-frozen lake. From the summit, I could see other volcanoes in all directions, most of which I could not name. There was of course Tromen back to the southeast, looking brown and uninspiring; I was glad to have skipped it. To the southwest, I could make out two glaciated volcanoes toward the border, one of which may have been Lonquimay. I radioed down to say I was at the summit, hung out for awhile, then headed down. It was slow going until below the handline, where the trail is low-angle and soft enough to plunge-step through much of the scree. I took the other trail down toward the orange tents, finding that I had guessed correctly on the way up: this was definitely a down-trail. I skipped past the refugio tents, then stopped at the lagoon to grab some water. Four local men passed me as I was there, headed up to the refugio for the night. Evidently the army guys had told them about the crazy gringo out dayhiking the peak. I hung out talking to the head army guy for awhile, then decided I needed to take off. If I made it to Varvarco that evening, I could get back to Chos Malal the next day. It was downhill and not far, but there were two climbs where I knew I would be pushing my bike. Before I left, the army guy gave me a bag full of apples and pears, a kilogram of polenta, and some crackers. It was a mixed blessing, since calories are always welcome, but I was not looking forward to having an extra five pounds or so in my trailer. The forty or so kilometers back to Varvarco were as grim as I had anticipated, and I got there right around dusk. The municipal camping was once again unguarded, and I even had it to myself. I cooked a late dinner, then almost immediately passed out.
I made it to Las Ovejas by around mid-day, where I bought a bunch of ham and cheese to go with my crackers on the ride back to Chos Malal. It was hot, but I still enjoyed the smooth and quiet pavement, and there was plenty of water along the way. The spring between the two passes was downright crowded, with one guy even pulling up in a pickup to fill several five-gallon jugs from the pipe. This spring seems to be a tourist attraction in its own right.
I saw several signs warning of an “epoca de transhumancia” (epoch of transhumanism?) on the road between Chos Malal and Varvarco. This had me slightly concerned, but fortunately I was not accosted by any transhumans during my time in the area. The tourist information sign between Las Ovejas and Varvarco was not enlightening, merely saying that “the transhumance is a form of extensive livestock production.” Anyone have a clue?
Volcan Overo was supposedly an easy peak, with the remains of a mining tram and an old road leading most of the way to the summit. I ate breakfast while the army boiled more water in tin cans around a fire, then took off up-river by bike. Since most people go no farther than the old hotel, the road improved dramatically, and I actually enjoyed riding for the first time in awhile. A bridge has been washed out higher up, but the ford was only knee-deep, and without a trailer I could keep my bike dry. While it was mostly smooth riding to the old mining facility, the road up the mountain was more than I could handle. It is popular among dirt-bikers, so while most of it is not steep, it is too loose to be easily rideable. I stashed my bike behind one of the mine buildings, put the front quick-release in my pack to deter thieves, then took off walking. I started regretting my decision to walk when the road turned rideable again, but it was probably the right choice. The impatient dirt-bikers had cut a lot of the flat switchbacks, and I was able to do the same on foot. It was insanely windy, and I had to stop behind some boulders to put on my down parka and goggles. I reached another cluster of buildings on a flat spot in the early afternoon. One was being used as a refugio, and was still in decent shape, while the rest were missing roofs and doors. I sat out of the wind for awhile, then continued up the road. However, I still had a long traverse to reach the summit, and a long trip back to base camp, so I eventually gave up before the end of the road. Like Tinguiririca, Overo is a large mound surrounded by more impressive neighbors. To the north lie several (unnamed?) peaks with large glaciers, while Cerro Sosneado dominates the view to the south. I checked out the latter on my way home, scouting for the most likely route. With no army to disturb me, I got a good night’s sleep and was off by first light the next day. From the refugio, Sosneado’s summit is five miles away and 10,000 feet above — a big climb, but not unreasonable. Biggar’s route description for Sosneado, “easy by the northwest ridge,” is clearly nonsense, since the peak does not have a northwest ridge. However, I approached up the valley to its northwest, and found a few cairns and a couple of camps. Above the upper camp, I reached a saddle between the Atuel valley and a buried glacial remnant to the east, then turned up a northern spur of the peak’s west ridge. I found a bit of a use trail at first, but that soon disappeared, and I was left to fight the choss in its original state. I wasted some time trying to climb a large choss-tower before bypassing it to the left, then fought my way farther up the ridge. This appears to be the correct way to the summit, as it joins the west ridge east of an obnoxious and tricky-looking subpeak. However, it is a miserable slog up every kind of unstable choss. Just below the subpeak, I wrestled with a flat rock until it was stable enough that I could sit on it with care, then almost fell asleep on it. I was less than a mile and about 1500 vertical feet from the summit, but I just didn’t have it in me.
On the way back down, I decided to cut my losses and head out the next day. I had plenty of food to make the two-day trek to the plane crash (two days are necessary, because the Rio Atuel can only be crossed in the morning), but I had had enough. I lacked the will for a thigh-deep stream crossing and a long hike with an overnight pack. The wind that had tormented me the whole time finally died down the next morning, and even turned into a bit of a headwind as I neared El Sosneado and pavement. I stopped for a ham sandwich at the gas station, then rode back to Malargüe to recover and fix my bike. I had broken yet another spoke on the awful dirt road, so I figured it was time to have the wheel completely rebuilt.
Though the Sosneado valley was the wrong direction from Malargüe, I had several reasons to visit. First, it is home to two ultra-prominence peaks, Cerro Sosneado and Risco Plateado, only a few miles apart on opposite sides of the Rio Atuel. Second, Biggar’s guide describes the valley as scenic and a good spot for wildlife-viewing. Third, the abandoned hotel near some hot springs sounded like a great place to camp for a few days. My visit to the Atuel valley turned out to be rewarding, but not for any of these reasons.
It looked like about 110 kilometers to the hotel, the first fifty on pavement, and the rest on dirt for which, according to Biggar, four-wheel drive was “not really necessary.” Since several of the roads he described as requiring it had been moderate by bike, and since I would be heading west and up-valley, presumably with the afternoon upslope winds, I figured it would be a straightforward ride. I rolled out of the nice Malargüe campground late, making it to the gas station town of El Sosneado for a late lunch. The attached convenience store had WiFi, and the other patrons were eating some nice-looking ham sandwiches. I was not smart enough to realize that they had bought them at the butcher’s next door, so I ended up paying too much for a crappy gas station sandwich, a grapefruit soda, and some “Super Roly” alfajores. These were the kind I had bought way back in Potrerillos, and I wanted to see how they tasted without the mold. They also have a ton of calories.
I took my time over lunch, downloading podcasts and taking care of business before an expected 4-5 days away from civilization, then grabbed some water and headed up the road. I soon found that while four-wheel drive might not be necessary, the road was classic high-traffic Argentinian dirt, badly washboarded everywhere it wasn’t too rocky for people to drive quickly. I saw some compact cars, but the drivers had to be slow, careful, and indifferent to their cars’ suffering. Also, unlike everywhere I had been in the Andes farther north, the afternoon wind came from the west. Things were looking grim.I had slogged about half the distance, and was sitting on a rock debating what to do, when a pickup stopped and the driver asked if I needed anything. I said I was fine, and we talked for a bit while his wife looked on from the passenger’s seat, and several small children waved from the back. They turned out to be heading back to Buenos Aires after a family vacation that seemed to involve an insane amount of driving. As he was about to leave, he asked if I wanted some water. I was low, and not looking forward to filtering from the silty river a few hundred yards away, so I said yes. From a cooler in the back, he produced not just water, but a 2-liter bottle of ice and a beer. That made my decision easy: I backtracked a hundred yards to a ruined barn that served as a bit of a windbreak and pitched my tent. Hopefully the wind would die down overnight. It did not. I folded my tent in the wind (I’m getting good at this), then fought another thirty kilometers of washboard and headwind to the hotel and hot springs. Both were disappointments: the “hot” springs were lukewarm at best, the hotel contained an unpleasant amount of trash and graffiti, and both were too crowded for my taste. I found a shady spot outside, where I sat to have a random daytime meal and read a bit on my phone. My leisure was interrupted several times by the wind blowing things off of where I had hung them from my bike into a nearby mud puddle. I was not loving life at this point, trying to figure out how best to spend the time and food I had invested in this excursion, when an older man approached and asked if I wanted to share his food. If you know me at all, you know that I would never decline such an offer. I then spent most of the afternoon hanging out with a pair of older couples from Malargüe, eating their steak, bread, and home-grown peaches, and exercising my still-pathetic Spanish. As usual, the men did most of the talking, but as they left, one of the women gave me a bag of bread, meat, and cheese for the road.
Biggar mentions a refugio a few kilometers up the road as a base camp for Cerro Sosneado, and I almost passed it by mistake before a group headed downstream clued me in as I was getting water from a stream. The building looked very military, and there were a couple of cars outside, but no one was home, so I threw down my things in one of the rooms and made myself comfortable. While I was in the middle of figuring out how to spend my days in the valley, several vehicles pulled up outside and, a few minutes later, guys in camo opened the door.
This is where things would have started going badly in the States, possibly involving extrajudicial proceedings, but fortunately I am in Argentina, so the soldiers just said “hi” and moved in around me. Representatives of the local mountain regiment were out for a training exercise and, perhaps as a side-hustle, were guiding some tourists to the Uruguayan plain wreck made famous for the subsequent cannibalism by the book (good) and movie (bad) Alive. I had read the book at an impressionable age, so it was exciting to be so close to the events decades later.
These being Argentinians, the first thing they did upon arriving was to make maté. I don’t particularly like the taste, which is something like strong, sour green tea, but I accepted a bit when offered, and have to admit that the system for drinking it is genius. It is sipped through a straw from the bottom of a small cup, so the leaves float on top and do not need to be filtered out. Hot water is poured into the cup a bit at a time from a thermos, so every sip is both hot and freshly brewed. If it gets weak, more leaves can be sprinkled in. I am picky about the temperature of my coffee, so I may have to try this with coffee grounds, though I promise not to be that guy who comes back from Latin America with a maté cup preaching its virtues compared to coffee (caffeine with the other chirality, maybe?).
The Ejercito Argentino are also a bunch of cowboys, so instead of boiling their water over a portable stove as I had done, they gathered wood, built a bonfire, then set a half-dozen old tin cans full of water in it. When one got hot enough, its owner would reach in with a leather glove to pluck it out and pour it into his thermos. A bit later, the really cowboy troops arrived leading a string of mules, which they would take up to the crash site. Not only are they amazingly capable on scree and talus, but mules are much better than humans or vehicles at crossing the area’s treacherous glacial rivers. Talking to one of the troops, I learned that the Rio Atuel crossing on the way to the plane is thigh-deep at mid-morning, the safest time to cross. I was pretty sure I could do it with a stick for balance, but… it was something to think on later.
The tourists seemed to be associated with a Buenos Aires law firm, so they mostly spoke a bit of English. One, a law student, spoke it particularly well and was eager to practice, so I had a translator and English conversation partner for the evening. He invited me to share their meal, which I eagerly accepted, though I was not yet hungry again. At this rate, I would leave the valley with more food than I brought in. Another of the tourists was well-off enough to have taken his daughter skiing at Aspen, which was shocking to me even in pre-inflation Argentina. Apparently I was hanging out with the 1%.A bit before dark (between 8:00 and 9:00 in this bizarre time zone), the grill-master took over the fire to begin the asado. They had attached a whole lamb (or kid, possibly lost in translation) and a substantial portion of a cow to a large iron grill, which they strung at an angle slightly downwind of the fire next to one corner of the building. With the grill properly hung, they tied an old cardboard box over the meat. With the back-end of the lamb on top and closest to the fire, and the beef on bottom, everything would cook at the proper rate in this arrangement. However it would take several hours, meaning we would eat around midnight. This was good news for my appetite, but bad news for my intended alpine start. Before the asado, there was a picado, i.e. appetizer, consisting of a large pile of commissary cheese and homemade sausage. There is apparently some rule about when one is allowed to start eating it, so I stared hungrily at it for most of an hour while waiting for others to dig in. Finally, sometime after 11:00, the meat was ready. Rather than grabbing plates and forks, everyone grabbed rolls out of a giant sack, tore them open, and cut off slices of meat with their knives, impressive 5-6″ things sheathed under the belt in the small of the back. Sawing away with my tiny, dull Swiss army knife, I felt even less manly than usual. The meat was delicious, and the supply was regularly refreshed as the grill-master chopped off newly-done parts.
Butchery complete, we wandered off to bed sometime around midnight. The tourists and other soldiers had taken the other rooms, while I was in with the cowboys. They spoke no English, and their Spanish was fast and hard for me to understand, so we did not talk much. While I topped off my increasingly leaky air mattress, they unrolled their blankets, put saddles at one end and boots at the other, and quickly went to sleep. There was no way I would manage the 3000-meter climb of Cerro Sosneado the next day, but fortunately I had other things to do.