First on the agenda was the recruitment of company. Joe Lyons ignored my first cast but quickly returned to the fly and snapped it, also bringing along Dermot Wall. So we were three and the show was on the road.
We needed to get maps showing how to get to our mountain, decide how much time we would need, book plane tickets and local services, assemble the gear and go.
We decided not to follow Milne's route on Tupungato because it involved crossing a high pass to get to and from the foot of the mountain. We chose instead the northern approach from Punta de Vacas. This meant that we could fly to Mendoza, get the public bus to Punta de Vacas, hire mules to bring our gear in and out from Tupungato, travel from there to Mercedario by 4 wheel drive and eventually back to Mendoza by the same means.
First call was Joss Lynam, fount of all maps and all knowledge, who said ":Where are they?": when I asked him about maps of Tupungato and Mercedario. Shortly afterwards he came back to say that he had drawn a blank and gave me a few names to check on the web. This brought no joy, a webtrawl of mapsellers, the Argentine and Chiléan equivalents of the Ordinance Survey, NASA, Old Uncle Tom Cobley and All brought no joy and no maps. We could have contacted one of the guiding and outfitting services in the area who could have helped us out but this seemed like cheating. The whole purpose of the exercise was to do as much as possible ourselves through personal contacts and not just buy in services.
While this was being done we realised that we had better book our flights. We discussed our availability and eventually drew up a schedule which showed that we could do what we wanted, if there were no hiccups, in about 24 days and we booked to leave in late January and return in mid February.
With this out of the way we went back to the search for information. I contacted Iain Ballesty in Santiago, a longstanding and now expatriate member of the IMC, who trawled locally for information. He found a web site with details of the approach to Tupungato from the Chiléan side but not a lot more. Although this looked interesting it could not be fitted into our time allowance so we went back to the fine combing of the web. Iain gave us addresses of local climbing web sites and through their links we broadened our anecdotal knowledge of the mountains but got no maps.
Finally in December it was time to swallow our pride and approach an outfitter for help. Our enquiry to Fernando Grajales brought the information, on the 31st December, that the 3 day approach from Punta de Vacas is no longer possible for mules and that the alternative approach would take 5 days each way. Given our skin-tight schedule and the fact that the crossing of a high pass to get to and from our mountain was unacceptable this meant that our plan for two mountains was out the window and we now had to pick one or the other.
This was a major problem. Most of us, if plonked down in an unknown valley surrounded by mountains and asked which we wanted to climb, would have difficulty making up our minds. We usually chose our objectives on the basis of their history, books we have read or stories told by friends. Without these personal recommendations there is often very little to help us choose between one or the other (unless one is unclimbed). So it was with Mercedario and Tupungato. We knew little about them and were short of reasons to chose between them but we were flying out in 3 weeks time and had to decide quickly. Probably because it is the fourth-highest peak in South America Mercedario was our choice.(picture)
We now were in the happy position of being 3 weeks from going away and all we had to do was book our hotel in Mendoza and arrange transport from there to and from the mountain (unlike Tupungato the road head is not on a bus route).
We picked the hotel from the South America Handbook 2004, booked by email and got confirmation 4 days before we travelled. We were a bit cautious about picking the outfitter as prices are based on what the foreign customer is prepared to pay rather than on average wages in Argentina. So we headed back to our Chiléan contacts who recommended San Juan Aventura, describing them as ":climbers, good people": in one of the greatest understatements of all time. They were magnificent people. With 10 days to go we contacted them by email and instantly had everything in place, including permission from Rio Tinto Mining to use their private road into the mountains.
All systems were go.