Argentina is that faraway country that we associate with tango, soccer and Evita, but not many people have any idea of what a vast and diverse country this is. Argentina is the second largest country in South America that dominates the southern part of the continent. It is 3,600km long and 1,400km wide. Extending along its western border are the mighty Andes, the home to many 6,000m+ peaks, stunning glaciers and crystalclear glacial lakes. Mount Aconcagua at 6,962m dominates them all and is the highest mountain in the Americas.
The name Aconcagua comes from two words indigenous to the Quechua language, spoken by the Incas; it is derived from the words Akon-Kahuak, which means “Stone Sentinel.” The Andes separate Argentina from Chile but also keep out the moisture from the Pacific so that much of the west side of the Andes is a desert environment and trekking to Aconcagua base camp in mid-summer is very much like trekking in summer in Arabia.
Aconcagua is located within the Aconcagua Provincial Park, off route 7 and some 180km west of Mendoza, the wine capital of Argentina. It is at this juncture that any journey to Aconcagua begins, along the Horcones river valley and to the first camp called Confluencia some 8km to the north.
In this low part of the valley there is a preponderance of purple and yellow flowers and grassy knolls that look as if they are part of some welltended garden. But as we proceeded up the valley this soft landscape quickly develops a harder look with steep hill sides and deep and narrow river tributaries entering the valley from both sides. It exhibits the rugged geology of the Andes that have been eroded to expose the massive folding that took place millions of years ago.
Here the geology is mostly brown coloured with yellow becoming more dominant as we approached Confluencia but the lower slopes still remained tinged with green. In places, even in this mid-summer, in bottom of the valley we still find deposits of compacted snow. The track that we followed had many ups and downs and some river crossings but was generally well above the valley bottom.
In places it resembled a gravel pit that speaks to the nature of this geologically young river valley. The gravel is moraine deposited by ancient glaciers. As we meandered along the valley at every turn we saw a backdrop of the snow covered Aconcagua above a brown podium of rocky peaks that seem to pay homage to the master. The trek along this section of the route was relatively benign and pleasant and had no steep sections. A little excitement was provided every now and then by the passing mule caravans returning to the stageing point at route 7.
These powerful beasts that can carry up to 60kg have a habit of randomly breaking into a gallop for a few minutes at a time, raising clouds of dust and terrifying the unaccustomed newcomers. We quickly learned to step briskly to the side as we were intruders on their turf.
When we finally reached the first camp called Confluencia at 3,395m we saw an orderly array of multi-coloured tents set in a wide open area and surrounded with geologically magnificent mountains all around. Our guide Julieta had organised food and lodgings well so that we had a relaxed evening with good food and company and she made sure that tents were ready us for a good night’s rest in preparation for the real trek the next day. At this altitude, even in midsummer, once the sun goes down the temperature rapidly drops and using outhouse toilets can be somewhat daunting.
Likewise, a congenial gathering of trekkers and climbers tends to end early for the comfort of down sleeping bags. The route from Confluencia is two pronged and follows the Upper and Lower Horcones river. Confluencia is so named because it’s where the two branches of the Horcones river meet. The Lower Horcones river valley forks to the east and leads to Plaza Francia at 4,250m and the majestic view of the Aconcagua’s snowy south face. The Upper Horcones river forks to the west and leads to our objective, Plaza de Mulas or Aconcagua base camp at 4,365m.
The next day we trekked to Plaza Francia and back as part of our acclimatisation. The trek to takes 6 to 7 hours and we started early, but well after sunrise so it was not too cold. The Lower Horcones river is not much more than a trickle in a narrow valley through a huge pile of gravel left behind by the Horcones glacier. Above the gravel, one side of the valley has very steep sides that exhibit amazing layers of coloured stone laid bare by erosion and severe climate; the other side is less steep and the valley is wider.
As we progressed higher the valley widened out and there were layers of ice visible among the gravel. Higher still as we approached Plaza Francia a large part of the now wide valley bottom was glacial ice encrusted with gravel and looking like plowed furrows. These remnants of once massive glaciers are victims of the warming climate over the last several decades.
At Plaza Francia we were rewarded with the imposing view of the south face of Aconcagua. This was the best view of Aconcagua. The return trip was a lot easier although more dramatic with the spectacular geology highlighted by the sun that was now behind us, but we were still glad to get back to the comfort of Confluencia.
The Upper Horcones Valley
The main push of the trek to Plaza de Mulas, the base of Mount Aconcagua, was still ahead of us the next day but after Plaza Francia we were better prepared. The route length from Confluencia to Plaza de Mulas is about 17km and there are no rest places along the way so once you start you have to keep going and you are looking at a 10 hour plus trek. We started early, at about 6am, in the semi darkness and it was very cold.
We needed all our warm clothes and stayed rugged up for the first hour until the first sun reached the tops of the surrounding peaks and began to spill into the valley. With the sun hitting the valley floor it soon became warm and then hot and then very hot. So off came the layers like peeling an onion so that we were soon carrying most of our clothes in our packs.
The initial part of the valley floor was covered with grasses and some flowers but this soon gave way to coarse bouldery gravel. The valley grew very wide and flat while the river became a series of rivulets connected together with cross channels resembling a river delta. This composite stream varied in width and in places covered almost the entire valley making it difficult to trek without having to cross some of the rivulets. Generally, the water was not very deep and I have seen photos of trekkers wading barefoot through the water, but the thought of stepping barefoot into a glacial stream made some torturous detours a preferred option.
As we progressed up the valley it became apparent that we were the only trekkers in this vast and seemingly endless valley where the only company were some mules heading in the same direction. I loved the feeling of having left the world and its hordes behind, at least while it lasted; of course, others who may have been faster and started later would begin to catch up with us.
We reached the end of the gravelly section of the valley by noon and stopped for lunch. By that time the temperature had reached 40C and a widebrimmed hat, sunglasses and lots of sun lotion were essential for survival, and off course we consumed plenty of water which we had carried with us, and which seemed an overkill in the freezing morning.
As the sun rose higher the mountains on both sides of the valley were painted in subtle hues of green, brown, ochre and yellow, with many shades of brown predominating. This being a summer season in Argentina, there was little snow to be seen except on the distant peaks. We discovered later that the summer snow line begins at Plaza de Mulas. At the head of the gravelly section the river enters a narrow gorge and we trekked on one side, high above. Here the track grade was steeper and the going harder; we were also getting closer to 4,000m altitude which did not help.
As we progressed upwards the valley widened again and acquired a classic rounded shape of a glacial valley with subtle hues of mushroom colours tinged with a variety of browns and dusty greens. The full beauty of this landscape was only apparent on our return, seen in the morning light and against an azure sky.
As we neared the camp we encountered a short but very steep section rising about 400m to the level of Plaza de Mulas. This really separated men from the boys and needed a tactical approach of short bursts of effort followed by short rests. I felt better on the way back when I saw the mule caravans struggling on the same section just as we had. Once in sight of Plaza de Mulas all the pain was quickly forgotten and there was jubilation at having made it.
Plaza de Mulas
Plaza de Mulas is a well equipped base camp for the mountaineers who plan to climb Aconcagua and they use this to set up their tents for a few days of acclimatising; they make day trips to lesser peaks that are still well above 5,000m, before embarking on the ascent to Aconcagua. The camp is a large area of moraine surrounded by mountains on all sides and at this time in mid January it was a sea of multicoloured tents making it practically a small town.
Different mountaineering groups were distinguished by different coloured tents which were a myriad of shapes and sizes. When we arrived in the late afternoon many of the climbers were sitting around in the open enjoying the warm sun. They were a congenial group and welcomed the new arrivals; of course, it helped that our guide was a seasoned veteran who knew most of the other group leaders.
For us, the base camp was the end of our trek and we relished the accomplishment and the brief enjoyment of the mountainous landscape. I had an unexpected special treat as the next day was my birthday and the camp cook baked me a cake for my most high level birthday ever. The most dominant feature at the camp was the snow covered Mount Cuerno with its chiseled cone shape that resembled the Paramount Pictures logo.
But we were here to see Aconcagua which we discovered was the large rocky massif rising steeply on the west side of the camp. On our arrival, in bright sunshine, this west face of Aconcagua was not a spectacular view and you could not readily sense the 2,700m elevation difference between Plaza de Mulas and the summit of Aconcagua or see the summit itself. However, as the sun was setting, its last rays painted the Aconcagua’s west face a glorious orange colour, and it dominated the landscape and showed itself as a truly magnificent mountain and a worthy champion of the Andes.