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.

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