Day 15 Exploring another valley

The mining road continued up the left hand branch of the river from base camp and we decided to follow it up to see what was up there and get a closer look at that side of the mountain.I went early and followed the true left bank of the river. Dermot and Joe said they would start later and not go so far. As I went upwards I came to where the mining road had once crossed the river via a now long departed bridge. I decided not to cross and to continue on the same side.

The day was interesting with magnificent scenery. Eventually I came to a place where three upper branches of the river came together. One was your usual glacial torrent, another a deep red colour ( we were later told that this was caused by salts of molybdenum in the water) and the third a luminous turquoise due to the copper salts deposited on its bed.

The colours of the surrounding scree slopes and the rocks sticking out of the scree varied from pink through various shades of red, yellow and brown to black. (picture) The river cut a ravine through deep layers of variously-coloured till and on either side mountains reared above. On the left was the black shape of Cerro Negra and on the right the Caballito Glacier (picture) on the east face Mercedario with a rock outcrop high on the glacier which formed a perfect picture of a little horse.

Suddenly I froze in my tracks. There on a track on the other side of the river, about 300 or 400m away a man was walking. Carrying only a light day bag he moved along quickly down the valley. At one point he appeared to wave to me but never hesitated and continued down and away from me until he was gone out of sight. This was impossible. We knew there was no one else on the mountain and nobody was camped down the valley. He must be camped higher up the valley but it made no sense for a person to go walking down valley with a day bag, everyone goes walking upwards and not downwards. It was impossible that he had come across the mountains from another valley with only a day bag. No explanation made sense. I sat on a rock, totally shocked and wondered if I was hallucinating. Now I knew how Robinson Crusoe felt when he saw Man Friday's footprint.

I continued up valley for another while and then returned by contouring on the valley side and following the bounding ridge back to the tents. On the way I passed a boulder on which the Padova section of the Italian Alpine Club had recorded the fact that they were there in 1975. There were a few empty wine bottles there, possibly a further souvenir of their presence.

Back at camp I breathlessly told the story of the mystery man I had seen but Joe just laughed and asked if I had not recognised him. While I was poking into corners he had walked up quickly, crossed the river and followed the mining road upwards and downwards, waving to me on the way. Really I would have preferred a more interesting explanation.

Day 16. back to Mendoza?

When we got up the valley in which we were camped had a new appearance. Clouds were rising and clinging to the sides of the mountains. The sun was shining higher up around us but what seemed like early morning mist did not disperse but hung swirling around, higher than us, in the lower part of the valley.

The arriero was due to bring us down first thing the next morning so some of today would have to be spent packing. We did not know if he would arrive that evening or first thing the next morning but in either case we needed to be ready for an early start.

We had a leisurely breakfast and forgot about the weather as we started sorting stuff to be bagged. Suddenly we surprised to see three people approaching. When they got nearer we recognised Marcos and Rafael and were soon introduced to Marco's brother who accompanied them.

They explained that the arriero would not come up because of a difficulty with bringing mules across a river and that they had decided to come up and replace the mules by carrying our loads down. They planned to attempt to climb the mountain in March from the bottom in one day and felt that this would be good training. They had come up from the road head in 2 ½hours (We spent 5 or 6 hours walking up the same way) and explained that we needed to be down by 1.00 so that we could get the jeep across the Rio Colorado before 4.00 after which it might not be possible.

We assembled our gear quickly and the three " mules" sent us on ahead while they sorted it into suitable loads. Three-quarters way down Marcos caught us with a monstrous pack on his back and we were fully stretched to keep up with him till we reached the jeep. The other two arrived within the next 20 minutes.

When everything was loaded we left El Molle on the dirt road which would bring us to Mendoza that evening. We planned to have a free day there and would fly out early on the morning after. We had only gone 3 or 4km on the road when it started to climb above the Rio Blanco. An older road had run beside the river in this narrow part of the valley but was washed out and now we went over higher ground.

We had not climbed far when we met our first problem. The clouds we had seen that morning were evidence of a change in the weather and while Marcos and co. were up the mountain collecting us a torrential thunderstorm had hit the lower valley and washed earth and mud across the road. Although it was nowhere more than 1½m deep it was of the consistency of readymix cement and there was no way to get the jeep through it. In parts the water had washed away part of the road and only barely left enough room to pass.

Rafael drove back to El Molle and in 2 trips brought up enough planks, sheets of steel and even the springs of a bed so that we could get the jeep through the block which only stretched for about 500m. After 2 hours we had passed the hazard and piled into the jeep to go on.

We climbed up on the road cut into cliffs of till until we rounded a bend and there in front of us was a 2m wall of rubble with a deep gulley between it and another similar wall. The floodwaters had surged down the mountain and completely cut and blocked the road. Only a JCB could clear it.

This was a real problem. We had 2½ days to flight time, 30kms to travel to the nearest possibility of help and no communication with the outside world. Marcos decided to walk out in search of mules to come back to the 4WD and move our baggage and suggested that we should camp on the spot. After a pow-wow we decided we would not camp but continue walking to the army post, 30 km away at the bridge at Junta dos Rios.

We packed sleeping bags, bivvy bags and carrymats, but no food, and set out on the journey. It soon became clear that there was no hope of getting the jeep out without major engineering works. The next 5km of the road over high ground was blocked by a succession of mud banks and cuttings. We passed this and reached lower ground, closer to the Rio Blanco before night fell.

Lightning flashed and thunder rumbled in the distance ahead of us as the storm continued on lower ground. On we walked, knowing that there was no hope of us crossing the Rio Colorado in these conditions but resolved to continue towards our eventual destination. We knew at this stage that we had 2½ days to travel 200km to Mendoza, that our baggage was trapped far behind us, that mules to carry it out had still to be found and it was doubtful that, even if found quickly, they could get in and out in the time available. We could of course, have sat down and worried but we were better off heading in the direction we had to go anyway.

Sometime late in the night we reached the Rio Colorado, which was now waist-high, and listened to the boulders rumbling as they rolled along its bed. There was no hope of fording it. Having reached an impasse and confirmed what we expected we went back a few hundred metres and bedded down beside the walls of a ruined adobe building. Here Rafael caught us. Having left his two companions to solve the problem he came ahead to " mind" us.

Only at this stage did we realise that we had eaten almost nothing since morning and had not had a drink since midday. This made the trek of about 500m to the Rio Blanco for water worthwhile. We gave no thought to the quality of the water. Finding the river was easy in the dark, we just had to follow our ears, getting back to find our bedding in the dark was another question. We succeeded and were soon asleep under the cloudy sky.

Day 17. Maybe today back to Mendoza

Up at dawn, we shared a cake which Rafael had brought and returned to the Rio Colorado. It was now only knee deep, even though still a torrent. We crossed it gingerly and set off on the last 5km to the army post at the bridge.

Here we sat down to wait and were welcomed by the soldiers who gave us cups of coffee and a plate of salami and cheese. We spread our wet gear out on the gravel and in no time it had dried in the blazing sunshine - just like in Connemara.

We waited and waited and nothing happened. There was no news from up the valley and no news from down the valley until a group of arrieros arrived and told us that the road was cut about 5kms below us. Rafael's promises that a truck would come from outside and pick us up began to sound hollow. After all, he had no signal on his mobile phone and we could not see how anyone could be aware of our predicament.

Late in the afternoon the military radioed a post in San Juan and asked them to go down the town to the head man of San Juan Aventura, Annibal Maturano, and tell him about the problem. We had no way of knowing whether or when the San Juan military would pass on the message.

Around 5.00 Marcos and his brother arrived, exhausted. They had met an arriero up the valley who could bring out the load but he needed clearance from someone in the outside world to do this. Marcos had spoken to the arrieros going up valley and they had agreed to tell the other that he could take our baggage and bring it out. There was so much lost in the translation that we were not 100% sure that we could really expect anything to happen. While we were talking Marcos collapsed, out cold for 5 minutes, exhausted by his exertion and the stress of the past 24 hours.

We sat around doing mental calculations of the value of our gear and the relative cost of air- and sea-freight and trying to predict how this would all pan out. All the options seemed to lead to us being losers but a further worry was that we now only had 36 hours to flight time and still had no idea how we would get to Mendoza.

Rafael insisted that a rescue vehicle would arrive to collect us about 8.00 so, clutching this straw, we set off down the road to meet it on the other side of the road blockage. Our way led down a canyon about 300m wide with rock walls towering 300-400m on either side. Even in our stressed-out condition we could appreciate that this was somewhere special.

When we got past the blockage we sat at the side of the road as it would be futile to walk for miles to save a pick-up a journey of minutes. We sat and sat and nothing happened. Darkness fell and nothing happened. Finally Rafael decided to continue down the canyon seeking a signal for his mobile phone. He left and we sat there and nothing happened.

Eventually a shadowy figure appeared out of the night, stood a few yards away where we could not see him clearly and told us that Rafael said that we should come down the road to where the shadow was camped. This seemed strange, why had Rafael not come himself? We thought for a moment and then picked up our bags and nervously followed the shadow into the night. About 400m down the road he led us into a camp of Argentinian soldiers who said that Rafael would be back shortly. They fed us lumps of delicious roast beef and we chatted away with them in a mixture of English and Spanish.

The story was that they were going up Mercedario with 16 mules to commemorate the death of the officer whose memorial we has seen at La Hollada. Tomorrow they would be joined by a general, father of the dead man, who would accompany them up the mountain. At least he was not an armchair general.

They assured us that there was no possibility of anyone driving in over those roads in the dark and that we could not expect rescue before the morning. We eventually, reluctantly, accepted that this was true and when Rafael returned, without having found a signal, we rolled into our bags and slept soundly

Day 18 Escape

The next morning we awoke at 7.00 and there was a pick-up parked amongst the army vehicles. Annibal Maturano had arrived. He had got our message at 20.00 the previous night and driven the 160kms from San Juan through the night and slept till dawn in the pick-up.

He soon loaded us (including Rafael) into the vehicle and we were racing back to Mendoza. The journey to the centre of the city took about 4 - 5 hours and we were back at our hotel at 13.00.

Interestingly, at Uspallata we were able to go into a " locutario" and phone and send emails home, confirming that we were well. Imagine trying to do this in Moate which is bigger than Uspallata

Annibal and Rafael then turned to retrace their journey to collect our baggage if and when it came out of the interior. When it did arrive by mule they loaded it into the pick-up and brought it to us in Mendoza at midnight, 8 hours before our flight home. They left us immediately and headed for home in San Juan where they arrived at 0300.

Consider that Annibal spent almost 20 hours out of 36 driving on dirt roads, that Marcos, his brother and Rafael did superhuman work, all to get us and our baggage off the mountain and you will understand why I felt that the recommendation we received that these were " Good people, climbers" was pretty weak praise. " Giants of the mountains" would be a better description if I can be forgiven for plagiarizing Gumminess ads.

Our adventure was over. It only remained to return to " civilisation" , which seems much less inviting or civilized after a spell in the high mountains.