Apr 2, 2003
David Rich 1600 Words
K i l l e r A c o n c a g u a
I first saw a killer view of Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the Americas, which is to say South, Central, and North America, from the puny mountain top of Mount Campana, halfway between Chile's two most scintillating cities, Santiago and Valparaiso. Charles Darwin described his experience in climbing the minor hill of Campana on August 16-17, 1835:
The mayor-domo of the Hacienda was good enough to give me a guide and fresh horses; and in the morning we set out to ascend the Campana, or Bell Mountain, which is 6400 feet high. The paths are very bad but both the geology and the scenery amply repaid the trouble....We unsaddled our horses near the spring [1000 feet below the top], and prepared to pass the night. The evening was fine, and the atmosphere so clear, that the masts of the vessels at anchor in the bay of Valparaiso, although no less than 26 geographical miles distant, could be distinguished clearly, as little black streaks....We spent the [next] day on the summit, and I never enjoyed one more thoroughly. Chile, bounded by the Andes and the Pacific, was seen as in a map. The pleasure from the scenery, in itself beautiful, was heightened by the many reflections, which arose from the mere view of the grand range.
My time on top of Mount Campana, skipping a guide or horses, was crystal clear and sunny. Aconcagua stuck up like a jagged tooth above the white-capped Andes, which stretched north and south as far as I could see, on this day for a hundred miles each way. It looked as if someone had gotten all their teeth pulled except for a single incisor jutting high above the white gum line of the Andes. Charles Darwin's view of Aconcagua from Campana was similar:
The volcano of Aconcagua is particularly magnificent. This huge and irregularly conical mass has an elevation greater than that of Chimborazo [in Ecuador]; for, from measurements made by the officers in the Beagle its height is no less than 23,000 feet [actually 22,864 feet]. The Cordillera, however, viewed from this point, owe the greater part of their beauty to the atmosphere through which they are seen. When the sun was setting in the Pacific, it was admirable to watch how clearly their rugged outlines could be distinguished, yet how varied and how delicate were the shades of their color.
I figured I should toddle over for a closer and even more killer view. I couldn't believe my eyes—my god, what a road. The main pass from Chile to Argentina is a fifty-mile climb up a trillion switchbacks where even Michael Schumacher couldn't have slid around faster than ten miles per hour, especially behind the permanent convoy of a thousand eighteen-wheelers. The only redeeming features were two: the views and the fact of pavement, one of only three passes paved along the 4000 miles of the Andes, all from Chile to Argentina or Bolivia.
The Chilean-Argentinean border is somewhere inside a tunnel over two miles long. I stopped immediately after emerging into Argentina, because I had to climb up to see the tacky statue of El Christo Redentor placed on the very top of the old road, pre-tunnel at 14,000 feet. The statue was erected in 1904 commemorating King Edward VII's decision fixing the border between Argentina and Chile, settling an acrimonious dispute in 1902. Great views swept from the top after a two-hour climb during which another fifty people drove up the lousy dirt road and covered me with dust. Aconcagua, five miles away, was nowhere to be seen, the view blocked by an unnamed nondescript hill. I hastened down and drove the five miles, which included one mile off the main highway, and parked at the trailhead for Aconcagua.
Aconcagua's trailhead presents a jagged visage of the fearsome beast, permanently glacier-capped, gleaming another 14,000 feet straight up after I'd dropped 5000 feet from El Christo Redentor, perfectly reflected in Lago los Horcones. I was equally staggered by the rainbow surroundings.
Darwin described it thusly:
Shortly before leaving the mountains, there was a very extraordinary view: red, purple, green and quite white sedimentary rocks, alternating with black lavas, were broken up and thrown into all kinds of disorder, by masses of porphyry, of every shade, from dark brown to the brightest lilac. It was the first view I ever saw, which really resembled those pretty sections which geologists make of the inside of the earth.
These spectacular hills were slashed by truly unearthly colors, vivid greens, oranges, yellows, reds, and chartreuse, maybe even some lilac, stark naked dry hills reminiscent of Tibet. This was perhaps why the director of Seven Years in Tibet (forget the movie but the book is superb) filmed the opus here, in this weirdly colored canyon that spawns the mighty Rio Mendoza for which Argentina's third largest city, a hundred miles downstream, is named.
But unless you're a skier, venture to Aconcagua only between November (a little early) and May (a little late) to its formidable trailhead. There you can follow the Rio Horcones, as do eighty percent of climbers, for an average of the two weeks it takes to climb this beast of a mountain. This is why each climber must buy a permit for 20 days, $120 from December 1 to December 14, and February 1 to February 20, or $200 from December 15 to January 31. The two weeks is mostly spent in acclimatization, getting used to altitudes from 14,000 feet and up and up and up to almost 23,000 feet, to the roof of the Americas.
The next morning I paid a hiking fee of almost two dollars for the day and headed up the trail toward Aconcagua, crossing the raging Rio Horcones on a rickety suspension bridge an hour later and then toiling steeply up and upward another three hours to reach La Confluencia, where a stream flows off Los Horcones glacier to enter the main Rio Horcones. I was already a third of the way up Anconcagua, as the crow flies. Well, heck, that meant I could pop on up to the top in another eight hours, theoretically.
Actually I could have made it to Plaza de Mulas in eight hours, the base camp for Aconcagua, and have slept in luxury at Hotel Plaza de Los Mulas, the highest hotel in the world, altitude-wise, not price-wise. The hotel is a hundred dollars a day full board with a view, or only thirty dollars without food which must be toted up by mule. A mule to carry your gear costs hikers $250 each, one-way. The hotel includes medical services at 14,000 feet, open December through February yearly. If you don't opt for the hotel, your tent must be manufactured and situated to stand the almost daily, one hundred-mile-per-hour winds with temperatures plunging to minus fifty degrees Fahrenheit. Thus if you decide to climb the beast of Aconcagua, take at least five or ten minutes to plan what you need to take along
Even so, you'll be far behind the first to climb Aconcagua, who was Italian-Swiss Matthais Zubbriggen in 1897. Eighty-eight years later the local climbing club (Club Andinista Mendoza) discovered an Inca mummy at well over 17,000 feet on Aconcagua's southwest face, proving the beast to be a pre-Columbian funerary site.
I about-faced from mummy hunting to one of Argentina's most interesting tourist sites, three miles from the parking lot for Aconcagua's trailhead, not knowing the beast wasn't through with me yet. The fascinating site was Puente del Inca, the bridge of the Incas that has nothing to do with the Incas though it's admittedly a remarkable bridge. Sulphur fumes rising from a half dozen hot springs had accreted into a broad chunk of bright yellow sulphur sixty-five feet high, seventy feet long, and ninety feet wide to span the burgeoning Rio Mendoza and form this natural bridge. You can bop across the bridge and take a hot mineral bath for free in an ancient series of baths, or stroll around taking incredible pictures, or check out the fantastically shaped sources of the baths and bridge. Naturally, I did all three, engrossed for a delightful two hours. Afterwards I escaped past the sellers of sulfur elephants and other souvenirs, east 1000 yards to another remarkable site.
A half mile east of Puente del Inca laid a nondescript cemetery, Cementario Andinos. At least it's nondescript until you get up close and begin browsing the incredibly worded tombstones right after noticing that the huge white cross on top of the small hill, which the cemetery surrounds, has a pair of hiking shoes hanging off it. The tombs contain the remains of climbers from all over the world; there is the Korean who "loved the mountain more than this world," a senator with a plain tombstone, and a general with a crypt covered with large brass eagles. Hundreds have failed to make it back down Aconcagua alive, proved by rows of pictures and climbing paraphernalia.
A widow stood at rapt attention in front of a plain stone engraved with curlicues. I chatted with Madame Regina in my broken Spanish for an hour. She was from Buenos Aires and every year for the last thirty-seven, since 1966, has made the trek to Cementario Andino, to visit the grave of her husband who was thirty-four years old when she last saw him alive, before he started up Aconcagua—Killer Aconcagua.
For the latest on this area check out www.aconcaguaadventures.com or enter "Mendoza Argentina Travel Agencies" on www.google.com, www.teoma.com, or www.surfwax.com. Mendoza is a lovely tree-studded city with a million inhabitants in the immediate area, offering every level of hotel, many fine restaurants, and most of Argentina's bodegas/wineries.