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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.