We hike (briefly towards) Aconcagua, the highest peak outside of the Himalayas
The sky was cloudless, a bright shade of blue made richer by lack of ozone. My polarized sunglasses changed the tint, making the mountain in the distance seem to brush the very stratosphere. The reality is not far off: its summit is a lofty 22,841 feet above sea level, the highest outside the Himalayas. To climb it takes at least eleven days, and though not technically difficult in the mountaineering sense, altitude sickness and famously unpredictable weather means almost 40% of attempts never make it. Although it has only claimed about a hundred lives, far short of the three hundred of Everest, Aconcagua still goes by the moniker “Mountain of Death.”
Indeed, it looked intimidating behind its smaller siblings, looming like a white Mordor in the distance, the end of everything.
We had left our hotel in Mendoza that morning a little over an hour ago, driving past Embalse Potrerillos, the reservoir that provides all the water for this famous wine region along the old Transandean railway route that once linked Argentina with Chile. It was barely dawn, but as the largest body of water in the area the reservoir is a major local source of fun as well, and on the way back we saw families picnicking, swimming and sailboating. Our guide informed us that all forms of recreation are permitted except anything that requires a gas engine, so as to keep the water clean.
Yesterday was spent ambling from winery to winery, sampling Malbecs, Cabarnet Souvignons and blends of the two in various proportions. My palette falls woefully short of being able to appreciate the differences between those robust wines fully, though I do highly recommend trying a Malbec rosé, if you can ever find one outside the region.
As we drove that day beyond the range of the reservoir, however, the landscape quickly changed from a sun-soaked-Tuscany vibe to something much more like the Curiosity rover’s recon from Mars. Occasionally we passed the ruins of a train station or the railroad itself, but mostly it was wasteland.
Once we hit the mountains, we ascended quickly.
The white peak and the blue sky, combined with the yellow shrubbery of the dry Andean plane did a fairly good job of mimicking the colors of the Argentine flag flapping enthusiastically in the wind as it welcomed us to Aconcagua Provincial Park. A bust of someone’s head… San Martin? (always a good guess in Argentina) stood next to it, staring at us wide-eyed, his paint flecked from the weather as if he had just returned from the summit himself.
I could feel the rays of the sun cutting mercilessly through the thinner ozone onto my bare skin. Two layers of sunscreen were not enough to prevent the back of my neck from burning on one side. As I walked up a light incline my body struggled to adjust to the oxygen levels. When we finally reached the end of our baby hike, which marked the beginning of the real hike, I was out of breath.
One the way back we stopped at Puente del Inca, a natural rock bridge and thermal spring complete with Route 66-esque tourist trap souvenir shops. A church sits near the foot of a nearby mountain and the ruins of a hotel lie farther down. In an act of seemingly divine intervention, a mudslide came down the mountain, missed the church, and destroyed the hotel.
Across the street was an army base, and we saw soldiers training, presumably for the unlikely but ever present danger of a Chilean invasion. Provided, of course, that Aconcagua doesn’t kill them first.