Sverre Aarseth
Mountain skyline
All-Round N-Body Guy, Mountaineer and Wild-Life Enthusiast

Expedition report: Tupungato and Mercedario 2003

On 15 February I stepped off the plane from Buenos Aires 24 hours delayed and jumped straight into a jeep bound for the mighty Tupungato. Fortunately my companion - Don - had stocked up on the necessary items of food and fuel. It only remained to take a side trip to collect the permits and a few hours later we reached the road-head where the mule and arriero were waiting. The narrow path on sandy slopes took some getting used to even without a carry. We reached our first campsite after four hours and slept under clear skies. Next day we faced a new hazard in the form of a river crossing where I was glad to borrow Don's ski poles. Camp was by a flat expanse of green which was too damp for habitation but much enjoyed by the horse and mule. At 3200 m we were now half way to the top.

We set off early for base camp since the arriero needed to return. At first altitude was gained slowly along a wide river bed which required jumping across a number of tributaries. It became more hilly and our pace slowed down. There was no trace of our packs at the most likely campsite and the only choice was to ascended a scree slope. We reached level ground next to some penitentes and found our packs near a memorial cross at 4200 m. By digging a hole below the penitentes it was possible to scoop up half a cup of water at a time. Next morning we made a carry to camp 1 via a steep and narrow ridge which provided considerable wind chill exposure and a delicate traverse on unstable scree. After a 2 hour 30 minutes carry to 4700 m we explored the next stage which revealed a snow field of small penitentes.

When moving up next day the wind was bitterly cold and even my last layer was not enough. It took an effort to secure the tent with plenty of rocks. By a stroke of luck there was running water in the afternoon. Following an overnight snowfall, we stayed inside for a while before setting off. After gaining 350 m we put the packs down and explored a bit further by crossing a field of penitentes. A suitable campsite was located at 5100 m and the packs were brought up. The final camp was made at 5800 m on day 7 when we were unable to recognize the trail. However, after levelling some scree the tent floor only showed a small slope. Next day was the statutory rest day. After a leisurely start, with sunshine hitting the tent, we headed up the most obvious way. Eventually we encountered a steep snow field which proved trying when my crampon came off. This effort brought us to 6000 m before turning back but at least the greatest difficulty appeared to have been overcome. Resting back in camp, we were rewarded with splendid views towards Aconcagua as well as our next objective, Mercedario.

On summit day we set off at 6 in moonshine but cold conditions. After negotiating the first snow field we were faced with a steep rock section which was avoided by traversing, whereupon it was possible to advance with care. Then followed an easier snow field which gave rise to expansive views. The slow progress reflected our lack of acclimatization and it became clear from the GPS that we would not reach the top which appeared to hide behind gentle slopes. As a compromise, we took an easy path up to some distinctive red rocks for a fake summit picture. We were now at 6210 m and sadly had to abandon hiking to the real summit at 6540 m in ideal conditions. On the way down I had a really scary experience with loose crampons in the soft snow due to a nut coming undone.

Next day we needed to descend in order to meet our mule transport the following morning. A team of four guides had established themselves on another site and were curious to hear our news before moving up. In the morning the arrival of the arriero was eagerly awaited. Well past the agreed hour we collected some emergency food plus sleeping bags and prepared to set off just at the moment our man appeared on his horse. Now we had a seven hour hike which was only interrupted by a brief stop at the Tupungato thermal pool near the end. However, the temptation to have a swim in the lukewarm and slimy water was resisted in spite of the need.

The final walk-out at separate times provided ample time for contemplation. Only one anxious moment remained when the correct descent to the river with its only land bridge had to be located, whereas the mule crossing was upstream. During the morning ascent this steep section had been coated with thin ice which commanded respect. Safely across, I lay down on the grass and listened to the music of the powerful river. Some three hours later I found the jeep driver fast asleep and soon had a tasty fruit in my hand. During the drive to Santiago in our warn-out state we discussed a more modest objective instead of the planned fourth highest peak in the Western World.

Two days later we get off the Mendoza bus at Uspallata and are met by Anibal who runs an adventure company in San Juan. Having done one of the hard climbs on Mercedario, he talks us into trying the standard route on the grounds that the approach is easier than Tupungato since it gains height the whole time. Next morning we reluctantly leave the beautiful oasis of Barreal and drive through some dramatic landscape by a primitive road to a mining support station. Here our arriero Gabriel is waiting with the mule and after chatting with several returning mountaineers we start our ascent in perfect weather. Although the whole route would look complicated traced out on a map, there seems to be only one way forward so we often wander along separately. The first part gains height rapidly but there were also some tricky scree slopes next to the soaring river. Eventually we were forced to cross over with a jump which just missed the other side. Further on the river came straight out of a huge sandy hill which acted as a dam for laguna Blanca. Beyond the lake we encountered numerous streams along shallow gravel tracks which had to be crossed in two directions. Finally an abandoned hut came into view, from where an old road led up to Guanaquitos camp at 3650 m. The tent was put up inside a beautifully constructed stone enclosure.

During breakfast we watch a herd of grazing guanacos within camera distance. Gabriel offers to bring our packs to the next camp where he is due to meet another party. This makes for an easy hike to Cuesta Blanca at 4200 m. A local guide who is bringing two clients down speaks of strong wind damaging the tent. We negotiate a pickup in eight days time and are again left with the mountain to ourselves. Having ascended 2000 m, day 3 is reluctantly set aside for resting. After a leisurely exploration further up, it is pleasant to be exposed to 80 plus inside the tent while contemplating the sobering thought of gaining 900 m with full load. The route ascends via switchbacks by narrow paths on dubious scree, skirting penitentes. After reaching half way at the col the visibility is restricted by snow flurries. Fortunately, cairns point the way to Pirca de Indios (5100 m) where we clear an adequate site. However, finding water is more problematic. The problem is solved by digging a hole near the glacier edge and waiting patiently for a cup to be scooped up. The night was windy and we woke to see the ground covered. The next stage consisted of more scree slopes, with Don making tracks in half a foot of snow. Somewhat ominously, my bones had begun to ache but I passed it off as a reaction to twelve hours spent in the bag. Following the steep section, we made an easy traverse towards the wide open spaces of La Ollada at around 5700 m where the tent was belayed carefully in an exposed position.

Although day 6 was designated a rest day, the pain in my bones did not let up. The day alternated with sunshine and white-outs, which made even small excursions problematic. At one stage the temperature reached 76 degrees and Don's pain killer provided some welcome respite. The evening brought on thunder and heavy snowfall which necessitated pushing the weight off the tent. I experienced my worse night ever for pain and had to bite my pillow in order to prevent screaming. The new day brought blue skies and calm conditions. The amount of snow scuppered our plans of moving up to El Diente at 6200 m, and any thoughts of finding the way along the tricky summit ridge to 6770 m had to be abandoned. Now the immediate problem was how to make a safe descent, especially since I was unable to walk more than a few steps. Once more, a pain killer enabled me to move, but my sunglasses were missing. The choice between saving my sight using blurred storm goggles and actually seeing the path was an easy one. In the bright glare I followed in the footsteps of my leader who was able to pick out the path covered by snow but luckily there was less snow on the steepest parts. Some 4 1/2 hours later we were back at base camp. It started to snow again and a flash of lightning was visible inside the tent.

More snow fell during the night, weighing down the tent. Because of our early return, there was no alternative but to walk out carrying emergency food and sleeping bag. Wearing only one shirt for the whole day turned out to be quite sufficient, although there was thunder in the air. During lunch break by the old camp we were watched by guanacos and treated to a condor flyby. Later we had some fun crossing the river delta which now carried more water. The big challenge comes at the final river crossing. After throwing my pack across I manage to jump most of it and a quick step saves me from slipping into the rapid flow. Don, who is considerably shorter, manages to pass his frame pack across; then I grab his hand and swing him onto the bank. This river crossing was undoubtedly the crux of the whole trip since wading was not an option. Although we are tired, the rest is an easy stroll and we reach the mining station at 2200 m before nightfall. A radio operator is able to contact our driver and we spend the night sleeping inside on concrete, surviving on our own rations.

Next morning we were surprised to see Anibal coming to the rescue after driving the long way from San Juan. However, our packs still needed to be brought down. While waiting we spent four nights enjoying the culinary delights and lovely garden of the Barreal hotel before the backpacks were recovered. As an extra reward, I extended my stay another five nights in Mendoza which brought back memories of Aconcagua celebrations from 1984.

Sverre Aarseth (14/10/03)


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