This part of our story recounts our first foray into these lovely mountains, in which we spent 7 days climbing to an altitude of 16,500 feet.
This part of the trip was about like any summer hike into the mountains in the U.S, only we had been unable to find much info about the place. Our only resource was a crudely drawn map showing a few valleys and peaks - despite our looking all over Mendoza. No one knew of the place, and no one even knew how to get there.
Finally we found someone in a gear shop that knew the phone number of a person who could drive us up to the starting point. We called them, and with that we started buying food, organizing gear, etc.
We are enjoying the town very much. The people are friendly and the food is great
This is early winter in the northern hemisphere but for us it is early spring. So the temperature in Mendoza has climbed into the high 80's and the snow in the mountains is melting.
Day 1, After two days in Mendoza, we were driven 1.5 hours to a wintertime ski resort in the nearby mountains. There we shouldered our heavy backpacks and hiked for 1 hour up a steep trail to a lovely alpine meadow called Las Vegas (The Springs), and there made our first camp.
We were now at an elevation of 10,300 feet. As we live at 1,500 feet, and Mendoza is at 2,700 feet, that was quite a sudden jump in altitude.
The altitude is not important, but the jump in altitude is critical to how you feel. We had just jumped 7,600 feet, so were feeling the effects, i.e. a bit short of breath when exerting, and mild headaches. That was to be expected.
Contrary to our expectations, this time of year the ground was bare of snow. The meadow had a pair of spring-fed creeks that in places you could jump across. The ground was small rocks covered by sparse and stunted vegetation. At this latitude we were far above timberline, and nearly at the upper limit of the vegetation zone.
Facing east at the edge of the meadow we could see far down the steep mountains to the foothills and beyond to the flatlands. Turning around and facing west we could see glacier-covered peaks towering over us.
That afternoon we went for a short exploratory hike in the surrounding hills.
Day 2, we worked out of this base camp, and hiked with light packs far up into the mountains, in order to acclimatize.
At one point we were surprised by a pair of guanacos moseying across the trail just ahead of us. They moved behind an intervening moraine and we managed to get even closer by topping the ridge a bit higher.
Guanacos are interesting animals, to say the least, and this is the first time either of us had seen one. They live at altitude, and never go down, even in winter. They were about 5 feet tall, a beautiful tan color, and looked like a cross between a llama and an antelope. They showed no urgent fear of us, other than they were watchful of us.
On our second morning in the meadow we awoke in dense fog after a night of light rain. The fog was so dense that we had to erect small cairns every 50 feet en route from our tent to the trail so that we could later find our tent again.
Once on the trail the way was obvious, especially as we had hiked the same trail the day before.
Then a thousand vertical feet later we broke out of the clouds into a stunning clear sky.
We hiked to 13,800 feet and returned to our base camp, again to acclimatize.
Day 4. In clear weather we carried our camp, slowly, with heavy packs, along the same trail.
At 13,800 feet we reached an area known as El Salto (The Jump). There we could look east and far down the steep mountain to Las Vegas and beyond. Turning west, the same mountains towered over us, but much closer now.
We established a new base camp at this altitude.
Since we had been in these mountains we had seen very few people, but we had met the same few people on the trail every day. The idea with this part of the trip was to acclimatize to higher altitudes, hiking for many hours each day, but returning to base camp each evening to sleep at a lower altitude. The other people were following the same general plan and we became friends. Most notably there was one Argentinean, three Spaniards, three Germans, and two Belgians.
Day 5. We spent the day accustoming ourselves to this elevation and exploring the area above.
We also moved our camp a quarter mile up to a more pleasing site.
Day 6. We woke at 5 am, just after dawn, packed our warm and windproof clothes, then, finding a small pool of non-frozen water in the nearby creek, we filled our 1-liter bottles, and set off up the trail in earnest. The morning's sub-freezing cold was amplified by the cold wind. The sun hit the tops of the peaks and began to bathe the precipices above us in beautiful gold alpenglow.
We had been hiking in running shoes all this time, but today we were carrying our double climbing boots in our backpacks. In the early morning we stopped to change footwear and to put on some more clothes. At this point the wind was ferocious and the prospects of continuing much higher were intimidating.
The route was mainly over bare moraine rubble, punctuated occasionally by snowfields. Crossing the snowfields was problematic because they were covered with penitentes that averaged 12 - 18 inches high. Think of a series frozen stalagmites with no room for one's boots between them.
Also, the terrain was very steep, almost at the angle of repose, so one had to be careful not to slip and plummet off the mountain.
To our good fortune the wind began to diminish, and with clear sky overhead and absolutely stunning scenery all around, the climbing was a joy.
At 11:30 am we reached our high point at 16,500 feet at a col known as Portezuelo. In the far distance we could see Aconcagua. To the north, the mountain we were on rose another 2,000 feet above us. The wind had begun to pick up, so after snapping a few photos, we turned around and began our descent.
From our base camp at 13,800 to the col at 16,500 was a big jump in altitude, and for our present level of acclimatization, we dared go no higher. In fact, when we had descended to our camp we were feeling so much effects that we were reluctant to remain at even this altitude. And because our ride was to pick us up at the road-head the next day we decided to break camp and carry everything back down to Las Vegas.
After 13 hours of strenuous going we arrived at the meadow on the very last of our legs. We spent the next few hours resting and rehydrating, and felt no further effects of altitude.
Day 7. After a leisurely breakfast we actually relaxed for a few hours, awaiting our ride. 5 pm found us back at the road-head, loading our packs into the minivan. We were the only two passengers for the ride down.
What followed was especially noteworthy. The driver happened to be Alejandro Geras, a well-known climber. In our stunted Spanish we asked many specific questions about the mountains, the flora and fauna, and before long he seemed to take a special interest in us. The conversation was non-stop as Alejandro patiently answered our questions and corrected our grammar.
Reaching the nearest town, I pointed to an attractive part of the town situated on a high slope, and Alejandro said "I have a house there, would you like to see it?" We were interested in everything Argentinean, so we said, "We would love to see it." While driving through his neighborhood, we stopped to talk to one of his friends, Tony, who had worked in the United States for 30 years as a chef in NYC and Miami. He spoke no English, but was very friendly to us.
After Alejandro had shown us his house, inside and out, and answered my detailed questions about the house's construction, he treated us to something of a grand tour of the greater region of Mendoza, stopping every now and then to visit some interesting aspect. At one point we even met his brother who was working at a beautiful resort.
Then came the news that the resort had 80 guests scheduled for dinner that night, and the two cooks had not shown up for work. As Alejandro owned this restaurant, it was up to him to be the cook. Thus ended our grand tour. Alejandro had to drive us to our hotel post haste.
After showers and a change of clothes, we strolled a couple of blocks to a busy area of restaurants, and selected our favorite. We began asking the waiter specific questions in Spanish about the menu and the food. To our surprise, when the waiter brought our food, it was of absolute gigantic proportions. When we expressed our surprise, he looked furtively around, pressed his finger to his lips, and said "Shhh."
We're finding the Argentineans to be very friendly, and when we express interest in their culture, they will sometimes go out of their way to be helpful.
And so ended Jenny's and my first foray into the beautiful and intriguing mountains. It had been a very fun trip, and we had met friendly people. Another few days in Mendoza and we will be eager to commence our next Andean adventure (part 2 of 3).