Leaving Dublin on Thursday afternoon we were in Mendoza at 17.00 on Friday after stops in Milan and Buenos Aires.
Saturday was spent shopping and sorting food and at 9.30 on Sunday we were on the road to Mercedario in a four wheel drive with Marcos and Rafael (picture) from Aventura San Juan.
Our first 100kms were on the main road to Santiago in Chilé
. At Uspallata we stopped in the strangely named Tibet Bar and had our last sit-down meal for the next 2½ weeks. We immediately left tarmac and took to the dirt road which runs up a valley 5km wide between the older pre-cordillera to the east and the younger Andes to the west to Barreal.
After about 50 or 60 km on this road at a steady 100kph , except where we crossed the beds of dry rivers intersecting the road, we turned onto a single lane road similar to a forest road in Ireland. Parts were like a good Irish forest road and parts like a bad one. This road followed the Rio de Los Patos and then its tributary Rio Blanco (picture) to El Molle where three buildings abandoned by Rio Tinto but not yet totally derelict provided shelter. (picture)
A tire on the four wheel drive in which we travelled went flat just as we arrived at El Molle. Excellent timing. We discovered later that on the return journey Marcos and Rafael were forced to climb out of the window of the jeep after it became stuck when boulders shifted under it when fording the Rio Colorado. The water was over the doors. They had to get help to tow it out.
Day 1. To base camp
Early the next morning the arriero (arriero is the mountain counterpart of the gaucho of the pampas) arrived with three mules to bring our gear to base camp.
This was a 5/6 hour tramp (picture) up the remains of a mining road which was abandoned 20 years ago and which followed the Arroyo La Laguna. Although in parts it was as good as the better parts of the Table track, in other parts it had completely vanished under scree and boulders.
The sun was almost directly overhead in a cloudless sky and the only shade in the whole day was under one boulder and later in a derelict building. Temperatures were probably in the thirties.
On the way we passed the spectacular Laguna Blanca, (picture) which in spite of its name was a beautiful turquoise colour possibly because of the deposition of copper salts on its bed.
Eventually we arrived exhausted at our base camp at Guanaquitos (3650m) where we soon had our tents pitched and stoves roaring. Welcome food was quickly wolfed down and we were in our tents by 20.00 to escape the cold as temperatures plummeted when the sun set.
Our arriero stayed the night at Guanaquitos and used his time to check the horse and mules' hooves and replace some of their shoes. It is important to be self-sufficient in the wilderness.
Day 2. Walk to camp 1
We expected the arriero to be gone the next morning but instead he was still there and headed up the mountain instead of going down. This was soon explained when he came back with the baggage of a party of 5 or 6 climbers. One of these at least was Scot and he gave us a rundown on their successful ascent and told us that there were only three people on the mountain ahead of us. They continued on their journey down and we were at last alone.
This aloneness is a feature of Mercedario. (picture) On Aconcagua there are always big numbers of climbers around and trained, acclimatised rescuers on call at all times. Mercedario is a different experience. We met only the Scots and several days later we met the other party on their way down. Apart from these we saw nobody else and had no communication with the outside world.
In the event of an emergency it would have been a Lug walk to make contact with anyone who could contact any possible rescuer who would have come from San Juan, almost 220kms away. For some this isolation is exhilarating, for others it can be oppressive and threatening. I must say that I enjoyed it.
It would have been possible for us to set our base camp higher than we did but we felt that, coming from sea-level, it would be better for acclimitisation to start at the lower level
Our day was spent following the Arroyo Cuesta Blanca to locate the site for our first camp which was at El Salto, 4100m. Quarter way up we passed the base camp of the two Basques and one Chilé
an who were further up the mountain.
At first it was a steady walk beside the river following a mule track. Then a steep climb up a moraine brought us to a small nook between a craggy mountain and a moraine. Here we set up camp 1, protected from any wind and beside a stream of clear water. Carrying only snacks for the day we reached the spot in only about 3 hours. It was when we were nearing this camp that we had our first encounter with small patches of snow from the previous winter.
We rested there for a while and then climbed a couple of hundred metres higher before descending again to base camp.
Here we learned the value of cooking and eating before the sun set. Immediately it disappeared behind the mountains the instant chill made eating outdoors uncomfortable and drove us into our tents and sleeping bags.
Day 3. Carry to camp 1
When we got up in the morning we saw signs that our camp had been visited by guanacos during the night. These relatives of the llama are almost as common here as deer are in Wicklow and we were amazed to see signs of them up to about 4,000m in areas where the vegetation was so sparse that we wondered how they found enough grazing to make their journeys worthwhile.
We loaded up with all of the food and other equipment which we intended to bring higher on the mountain and set off up to El Salto.
This time we were much slowed by our heavy bags and the altitude and we were relieved to reach the site of camp 1. (picture) We dumped our loads and rested a few hours here before setting off back to base. Our practice was to help our acclimatisation by staying as long as possible at our high point each day before returning to a lower altitude to sleep.
Day 4. Move to camp 1
When the sun hit our tents we were up and out and packed up a two-man and a one-man tent, plus our cooking and sleeping gear. We stowed things we would not need until our return in a tent which we left at base. Then for the third time we trudged up the valley to settle into camp one at 4,100m.
When we got there the sun was beating down, as it did every day, and we found that there was no shelter from its fierce rays. Our sheltered nook was like a cauldron. There was no cooling breeze so our tents were too hot for comfort. Eventually we located a shadow under a rock outcrop where we sat until the sun relented and then we hurried back to cook dinner before the cold set in.
It was from this camp upwards that we had to bring water into our tents at night as it would freeze if left outside. The great feature of this whole area was that , because it is desert, we could leave surplus gear outside the tent all night and it was always bone dry in the morning. A far cry from the War Against Dampness which is a feature of camping in Ireland.
Here at 4,100m was the highest point at which we saw guanaco tracks. Obviously they were mountaineering guanacos because there was absolutely no grazing for them and no obvious reason for them to be there.(picture)
Day 5. Carry to camp 2
Because our days had been short and easy and we were gaining height at a very manageable rate we decided to continue up to our next camp at Cuesta Blanca.
We started with a steep 200m climb out of camp 1 and then crossed the floor of a higher valley whose walls carried extensive snow patches. It seemed that the glacier which shaped it had only relatively recently receded. Here we picked a site for camp 2 at 4,400m.
As we sat there it became clear that we were entering a much colder zone. Even in the sun we were not as hot as at lower heights and had no need to hunt for shadows for shelter. When the sun went low the duvet jackets came out of hiding.
The barometric pressure at camp 1 that day was 648mb, about two thirds of the normal pressure in Dublin.
Day 6. Move to camp 2
We moved tents and all to camp 2, a relatively easy affair, and we were soon settled in there.(picture)
In the mid-afternoon we saw three people coming over the lip of our valley from higher on the mountain. One kept to his left and descended quickly heading lower and carrying a monstrous sack . The other two traversed to their right and then attempted to descend over difficult ground. One of them moved very slowly and soon fell behind in a field of penitentes. He seemed to make no further effort to descend. The other started to climb down very slowly over rock outcrops and penitentes. We figured that they were in trouble so Joe headed up to the left to help the slower of the two while Dermot and I went to give any help we could to the other.
It took Joe nearly an hour to reach his victim who was almost at a standstill. He relieved him of his heavy sack and led him back up and around to the correct descent route. Dermot and I had little to do because our victim made her way down relatively quickly and did not need any help.
When we met her we found that she was a Chilean climber with two Basque men. They had been successful in reaching the summit. The Chilean had a GPS and knew the right way down but her partner insisted on taking another line and ran out of steam. After a short rest they headed on down to their base camp and left us as the only people on the upper part of the mountain.
That evening we were surprised to see a mouse scampering in the rocks near our tents and were amazed that it could live at this height. The area was completely barren and there was almost no climbers' rubbish as a food source. This was partly due to cleanliness of previous climbers and also to the fact that very few people pass this way.
Day 7. Carry to camp 3
Our easy days were now over. The climb to camp 3 at Pircos Indios could only be described as arduous. After a short walk over the floor of the valley we started the steep climb, zigzagging over scree and rock outcrops to skirt penitente fields. (picture) It seemed that we would never reach the lip of the valley but eventually we did.
We were now in a different world. Up to now we had been following a valley shaped by ice and sculpted by water from melting snow and ice. The noise of running water was always present. Now we were in a broad valley with gently sloping sides and no noticeable features. Its floor was covered with smallish rocks almost like tiles and had all of the appearance of desert pavement. We had been warned that this valley is very exposed to storms from the west and this led us to conclude that its appearance was the result of wind erosion.
Here we trudged as if on a treadmill. Visible progress was very slow and altitude was making itself more and more noticeable. Eventually we reached the site of camp 3, a corrie opening sideways off the main valley. Here, at 5,200m we were very aware that we had stepped up our rate of ascent as we sat down exhausted to dump our loads. The height gain of 800m had a much more severe effect than our more conservative efforts lower down.
We were surrounded on three sides by the steep walls of the corrie on one of which was the remnant of the glacier which had carved it. We made our camp at the foot of this, near a hollow where a small stream of meltwater provided easy access to water. We selected a hollow in the moraine to protect us from any wind but this meant that the outlook from our tents was not one which could ever feature on a postcard - just rubble and sky. After resting for an hour we headed back down to camp 2 where we arrived tired and hungry.
Day 8. Move to camp 3
This was moving day as we left the mouse at camp 2 to his fate and carried our gear to C3. It was a repeat of the previous day's trudge and called for a turning off of imagination and just putting one foot in front of the other until we arrived at our destination where we cooked a hasty dinner and soon, exhausted, sought the sanctuary of our sleeping bags. Such are the joys of high altitude mountaineering.
The one consolation was that the moon was almost full and we were treated to the magnificent spectacle of the silvery landscape if we left our tents during the night. Of course it was better to bring the piss bottle to bed and not to have to get out in the cold at all.
The nighttime cold was intense and it was at this stage that I began to leave a few clothes on when I crawled into my sack at night.
A new feature at this stage was the hallucinations which I could summon at almost any time. All I had to do was close my eyes when resting and I could instantly conjure up a vision of what I can only describe as a wallpaper of faces. One of the faces would come into focus and approach nearer and nearer until it filled the foreground. It then began grimancing and became more and more grotesque until finally I dismissed the scene. This hallucination could be turned on and off almost at will when resting although it did come involuntarily on some occasions.
Day 9. Climb higher, sleep low
We decided to have a comparatively easy day and use it by climbing up the early section of the next stage of our route. This involved a couple of hundred metres up the side of the corrie to a ridge. This would assist our acclimatisation without being too stressful.
It did more than help our acclimatisation, it was a great morale booster. When we reached the ridge we swapped the enclosed world of valleys for a vast horizon where the surrounding mountains were now mostly below us and we could see most of our route to date spread out at our feet. The sun blazed down and we sat behind a small rock shelter for protection from the wind where we could comfortably admire the view.
After a few hours we descended to dinner and bed.
Day 10. A sort of a " rest" day
At this stage we were happy with our progress and we decided that this should be a rest day before moving to camp 4 at 5,900m. As the steps were getting bigger now the rest would be useful and we had plenty of time to get back to base camp before the planned return of our arriero.
After sitting around for a time we became bored with being enclosed in the corrie and decided to climb back to the ridge where we were yesterday and where the surroundings were more pleasant. This we did and were soon happy to collapse behind our windbreak. We were, as Joe described us, three tired little mice. (picture) It was pleasant to sit here in the sun soaking up the scenery and knowing that being higher on the mountain would help our acclimatisation without any output of energy. All was well in the best of all possible worlds. But this was not to last.
After about an hour Joe decided that he would go a couple of hundred horizontal metres further, why I do not know. Nor did I care why, I just knew that if he was going I was going. Dermot reacted the same way and soon we were walking across the broad ridge in line, Joe, Dermot and I. The pace became a steady rhythmic plod and we went a lot further than just a couple of hundred horizontal metres. We reached what seemed like a suitable stopping point, the foot of an outcrop of rock on the ridge, but did not stop. Just plod, plod, plod. At this stage I began to wonder how this fitted in with a rest day and what on earth we were doing but the question was never asked out loud and so we plodded on.
It later transpired that Joe had started walking, looked around, saw that he was being followed and in true high altitude style continued walking without making any conscious decision to do so. Fortunately for me I am not given to following leaders to god knows where so, when we reached the flat at the top of the outcrop, I sat down and watched the duracell bunnies march onwards and upwards.
I watched, unbelieving, for what seemed like a half hour until they went out of sight around the ridge and I was left alone with the world. This was luxury. Alone at last. I enjoyed it while it lasted, expecting to see my companions returning at any stage but eventually I gave up and went back down to our camp.
It was late afternoon before Joe and Dermot returned and collapsed exhausted into their tents. They had kept going until they reached the site of camp 4 at La Hollada, 5,700m. What was intended as a rest day had become an exhausting marathon for them.
Day 11. Another rest day
It was obvious that Joe and Dermot would need a rest day after their exertions and I had no option but to take a second rest in their company.
We spent the day debating what we would do next. We should have carried to La Hollada today with the bare necessities and headed for the summit the following day. Although it seemed obvious that this would just be put back a day the prospect was no longer popular following the previous day's activities.
The drudgery of a carry seemed too daunting and the argument was for a single day to the summit from camp 3. Although this involved a height gain of 1500m there was a majority view that this would be easier than doing it in two stages. Such are the effects of lack of oxygen on our processes of logical thought.
We readied our gear for the next day and planned to get up at about 4.00a.m. Ready for a start at 5.00 at first light.
Day 12. Onwards and upwards
The day started badly. Our alarm had been set for 4.00 but not activated so it did not ring. We slept on to 5.45 and only got moving at 7.00.
We set off at a steady plod up onto the ridge and around into the gently sloping, snow-carpeted valley of La Hollada. Here we passed two mule skeletons (picture) and a memorial to an Argentinian army officer who had died on the mountain two years previously. We traversed this valley and started up the ridge which would lead us to the summit ridge where we would have to cross 6 false summits before reaching the highest point of Mercedario.
Altitude was beginning to take its toll but we still kept up a steady slow pace. At a rest-point at 6,000m Joe decided that the effects of the height were such that he could continue no further. We discussed this for a while and then Dermot and I wished him well on his descent as we made ready to continue upwards. We watched unconcerned as he headed back alone.
Onwards and upwards we went until we were in a small col at the foot of the first peak on the summit ridge. It seemed foolish to go over the top of this and then lose height on the other side so we decided to traverse to the right and reach the next col with the minimum expenditure of energy. This we did and as we went on we saw the true summit for the first time. Although it is hard to estimate distances in the high clear air, we judged that we had about 3km more to go and another 500m of ascent. The time was now 14.00 and our energy supplies were low. After struggling on for short time we gave in to the inevitable and decided to turn back.(picture)
It did not get any easier on the descent and we were two very tired men when we eventually reached the tents. We dispensed with the idea of cooking dinner and flopped straight into our sleeping bags.
Joe had made it back to camp with difficulty and was relieved to have done this.
Day 12 Descent to base
We still had time to make another attempt on the summit but were demoralised by the debacle of the previous days and decided to pack up and head back to base and this we did in one day. As we went we picked up rubbish and surplus equipment we had stashed on the way up so that our bags became heavier and heavier. Below camp one Dermot and I dumped some of our load and continued on down more easily.
Day 13. Picking up the bits
The only task this day was for Dermot and I to climb back up and collect our dumped gear and bring it back to base. It was a luxury to wander up lazily with no pressure but there was also a feeling of disappointment at having botched our effort.
Day 14. At base camp
Another rest day. We sat and talked and went for short walks investigating the area around base camp.