Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Fellowship of the Mountain Goats

Cerro Aconcagua (above the hills of the Shire, it seemed)

Unfortunately closed for the season
Finally, FINALLY, I have found my way back into a tent. Granted, this time it’s a rented tent thanks to my beloved but out-of-commission Nemo Espri being back with my parents in Albuquerque, awaiting my return to repair it. Still, being tentless will not keep me away from my goal of trekking to an Aconcagua base camp! However, completely missing the memo on the end of the lower camp season will. My friends, Katie Gorman and Emily Seitz, and I set out on exceedingly short notice this weekend to Puente del Inca, a town of about eight buildings near the base of Aconcagua with plans to camp at Confluencia (3.300m) and day hike from there to the Plaza Francia Base Camp (4.254m).

Puente del Inca natural bridge
After Katie and I threw together food and rental provisions in a few hours before our late evening Friday class, the three of us headed out on a Saturday morning bus for a three-night weekend of backpacking, replete with Lord of the Rings references and singing at the tops of our lungs. Upon arriving in Puente del Inca, we stopped into a shop to get a map and met Mario, the owner of the shop, who turned out to be our biggest help of the weekend. Upon hearing our plan, he informed us that camping anywhere on the mountain, not just in the base camps as we had believed, was closed as of Semana Santa just a few weeks ago. We were two weeks late for even the non-full-tilt mountaineering season, despite there being zero snow anywhere below 5.000m, perfect temperatures, and beautiful weather. Now that we’re four hours away from Mendoza with our lives on our backs, what do we do? Well, leave it to Mario. He immediately sat us down and showed us a handful of fantastic alternatives to do over the next four days, so all was very much so not lost.

Hot tubbin': my efficient method of cooking in wind
Night after the gunshots
All three nights of our time in the high Andes were adventures in and of themselves. Our first was spent in Puente del Inca in some guy’s backyard designated for camping with picnic tables and a bathroom for AR$20 a person. All seemed well: I cooked up a pretty swell quinoa stir-fry with veggies and all, we scavenged for some firewood to make a fire, and pitched our tent as far away from civilization as we could, considering we, the three gringas, were the ONLY visitors in the entire “town.” After a fun night of chatting and such, we settled down to sleep with sounds floating down from elsewhere in town of what seemed to be quite the party going down. A few hours later, we all woke with a start to the pops of gunshots. All of us were still and terrified just as we heard three more go off. I was convinced it wasn’t a real gun, but still managed to scare myself to death by a combination of a man-looking shadow that had moved to the side of the tent with the moon and the sound of Emily moving her feet on the other side of the tent. Nonetheless, no one directly bothered the lone tent in town, and we were glad to bolt out of Puente del Inca the next morning.

Crossing the sketchiest bridge of all time
Back in Mario’s shop, he flagged us a bus to hitch a ride down the road to the one bridge across the river, saving us about an hour walk. Now finally away from civilization, we crossed easily the sketchiest bridge I have ever seen in my entire life and tore across the plain to reach the near-vertical wall of the Andes. It took us five hours to trudge our way along from 2.740m to ~3.300m, but it was one of the more beautiful hikes of my life and completely worth it considering we saw zero other humans (but two dead horses… which was rather ominous). After barefoot river crossings and far too many near trail collapses, plus Emily almost losing her sleeping pad down a cliff and into the river, we made it to Refugio Grajales. This clearly is very well attended during the season by the number of rock-walled campsites, but we had the entire plain to ourselves with a beautiful glacial river rapid as a direct water source and the sparse refugio as a wind block for our cooking (tonight was the winner for my backpacking stove experimentation: fancy soup packets are absolutely worth the extra peso or so).

Successful scrap wood campfire
Katie in the canyon portion of the valley
Barefoot river crossing

Halfway up the valley
Not too shabby to wake up to
We happily lounged around on our sleeping pads as the moon rose and the stars came out after a solid day on the trail—until we saw our first mouse. These mini-bears of the mountains have to be opportunists and guess what? We were the prime opportunity of the entire mountain at the moment. We immediately kicked into action and stuffed away the food into our packs and into the tent, the safest place available with bear bags not being necessary (we’re more concerned about mice than pumas, at this point). By the time we set up to make tea outside the tent vestibule, all was ready for the night, but we still ended up getting zero sleep. It is amazing how loud and terrifying mice can sound scurrying and squeaking around your tent all night long. I was lucky enough to be the one up against the side of the tent with the bags on the other side and Emily and Katie in the middle, so I had the lovely experience of feeling mice scampering next to me at my feet, my head, and my entire right side. Needless to say, I did not sleep at all.

The best of kitchen views
Clearly we avoided altitude sickness
Nevertheless, the next morning was easily the most gorgeous landscape I have ever had to cook with, and it was absolutely worth the sleepless night. We spent the morning day-hiking up towards Cerro Penitentes (4.356m), but turned back within a few hours due to very high winds that made the extremely steep and exposed ascent rather unsafe. Still, we had a fun time and some beautiful views, so we didn’t really mind not summiting. We got back to camp, saved our tent from getting flattened in the winds, and set off back down the way we had come the day before. Our previously five hour trek up now just barely took two hours down, thanks to altitude acclimation and few uphill sections, so we got to our next camp at the valley base super early in the afternoon. With the extra sunlight, we lounged around the nearby stream and rivers, drawing and napping in the sun, free of mice. All of us dropped the ball on finding cards before this weekend, so we got pretty creative with how we passed time and this final night was so much fun. Thanks to the mild lower-altitude night temperatures, we were able to hang out outside after the sun set to make tea and do some yoga on our sleeping pads. After crawling back into our tent, we spent the rest of the evening reading to each other from Emily’s book, The Best American Travel Writing, before falling asleep soundly, finally without rodents or gunfire.

Katie among the rushes at our last campsite

Mochilera amor
This was hands down my favorite weekend since getting to Mendoza, and it was wonderful to finally be back in my natural habitat and away from the city. It was ridiculously hard to drag ourselves back to Mendoza, and Katie and I had a pretty unwelcome return with the creepiest experience I’ve had yet in South America of being touched inappropriately and followed for a solid twenty minutes by a strange man. We finally lost him after a panicked speed-walk around the city we luckily know incredibly well, but that is a story for another time. All the more reason for me to want to get out of the city. Nevertheless, the weekend preceding that was spent with wonderful company in a beautiful place among the giants of the Andean Cordillera, so nothing short of perfect in my opinion.

Much love from the mountain goats of the Andes,
Moonrise atardecer above Los Penitentes ski valley and the giants of the Andes


  1. Have you read Peter Matthiessen's "The Snow Leopard"?

    1. I haven't heard of it, but I just looked it up on Amazon and it sounds like a great read--right down my alley!