||...continued from Part I...
Starting on January 12th, we shuttled out of Penitentes a few miles down the road to the easily-missed trailhead for the Vacas Valley approach to Aconcagua. The Provincial Park system in Argentina doesn’t exactly go out of their way to advertise entrances to the park (unlike our National Park system here in the US). The trailhead appears in the middle of nowhere on the side of the road, marked with a single, nondescript sign:
Parque Provincial Aconcagua
Quebrada del Rios Vacas
Pampa de Lenas 2,800 m 5 hrs
Casa de Piedra 3,200 m 11 hrs
Plaza Argentina 4,200m 18 hrs
Other than that - not a clue that this was the park entrance. Beyond the sign, a dry, dusty trail led into a gently winding canyon and was gone in the distance. Slathering on sunscreen and shedding layers to combat the already-considerable heat of mid-morning, we headed off on a moderate, steady pace. The goal for today was the first formal camp, Pampa de Lenas. As the marker indicated and our guides affirmed, it was a 5-hour hike, and we were in no particular hurry as we ambled up the canyon and away from civilization for a couple weeks.
The day passed quickly as we climbed the gentle trail through the scree and rocks, alongside the Rio de la Vacas (Vacas river). The scrubby plant life and craggy hills actually reminded me of hiking high in the San Juans. Several times during the day, teams of mules passed us going both directions, shuttling ours’ and other hikers’ gear from the trailhead to the camp. We all marveled and the ease which the mule drivers managed their teams along the faint trails on steep terrain.
Pampa de Lenas is a semi-permanent camp on a small platform just above the valley floor, complete with a ranger station, running (and filtered!) water, and even a couple sit-down bathrooms! The plateau is dotted with campsites which were rapidly filling up with other teams. Still, plenty of room for the rest of us. Due to the warm summer weather and our still relatively low altitude, we opted not to bother with tents and just set sleeping bags up under the stars, which shone brilliantly even accompanied by a full moon. I marveled at the foreign sky, seeing constellations that I’d never seen before.
The next day was a continuation of the trek, onwards to Casa de Piedra, our second camp. The climbers’ trail continued to wind steadily upward through the narrow lowland valleys, then abruptly opened up to reveal an ancient, wide moraine / riverbed. A small dot on the riverbed in the distance resolved itself into our camp…an old stone hut overlooking a series of camp rings. Our guides abruptly stopped us and pointed across the valley and we finally got a chance to see our goal. Aconcagua’s icy summit jutted up between foothills in the clear, blue day. The Polish Glacier could be seen cutting a white gash down the right side of the peak. It was a BIG mountain, and still over 10 miles just from the basecamp at Plaza Argentina. We all stopped and stared for several minutes, snapping pictures and mumbling to ourselves “damn, that’s a big mountain” before finishing up the last quarter-mile to our camp.
Our mule train from Pampa de Lenas arrived shortly after we did and we were able to set up camp and start getting dinner prepped and getting ready for the next days’ trek to Plaza Argentina. Unlike Pampa de Lenas, the water source here was NOT filtered, and was in fact the Vacas River. Our guides made a specific point of warning us to treat ANY water source around here because of (and I quote) the “mules and Europeans”. As if to drive the point home, a quartet of German-speaking climbers ambled over to the river, stripped naked and dunked themselves in the ice-cold running water.
The following morning we packed up and prepared to head across the Vacas and follow the headwaters of the Relinchos up the narrow and steep valley to base camp at the 14,000 Plaza Argentina. The first obstacle of the day was the icy Vacas river. Just wide enough and deep enough to be problematic unless you’ve tipped your mule train drivers and they ferry you across by mule! First time I’d even gotten on the back of one of these things, and all I could think was “holy crap I hope the saddle’s been cinched down”. My compatriots showed similar mule-riding acumen as we all bounced inexpertly across the river. Awkward, sure…but dry!
The morning wore on with the rising sun heating the valley, and Aconcagua was now always visible ahead of us, a constant reminder of the work that lay ahead. By midday the heat was at the point where a minor stream crossing was a welcome excuse to remove our boots and let the shockingly cold runoff cool our feet. By early afternoon we had hiked above the vegetation line, across a couple massive flat moraines and into our base camp at Plaza Argentina.
...on to Part III - the Climb