One of the reasons for heading through Mendoza on this trip was to photograph Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the western hemisphere. Though I have little desire to actually climb the peak, I was hoping to do some hikes in the valleys around the peak. Unfortunately, however, we discovered that the park is for all intents and purposes “closed” until mid-November… something about too much snow and a frustrated military general getting tired of winter rescues.
So, with that option off the table, I researched the map, did some scouting on Google Earth, and decided that a good alternative plan would be to shoot a sunrise from Cerro Banderitas Sur, a 4184m peak across the valley to the south of Aconcagua park. It was quite an adventure to get up there!
Finding specific information about the conditions in the mountains around here was proving to be nearly impossible in Mendoza, as anybody who might know wanted to put us on one of their expensive tours instead of share information. So with almost no idea what to expect up there, we hopped on a bus to Penitentes, a little ski area along the pass that goes over the Andes into Chile. A 2km walk along the road brought us to this rickety bridge which led into the Penitentes valley.
I was imagining that we’d be full-on snow camping, but instead we were greeted by this dry and bleak Martian landscape in the north facing valley. My concerns about the snow were replaced by worries about the wind and whether our summer tent would hold up!
We could see on the map that there was a refugio (a hut) up in the valley, and were relieved to find that it was unoccupied and not locked. Though basically just a cement box with a makeshift bench inside, the protection from the wind was a total luxury! The tent would have been much colder, even if it could survive the relentless wind.
Most people who come here hike Cerro Penitentes, the 4356m mountain seen in the background. Our goal, however, was on the other side of the valley, and we spent our second day there doing a scouting hike to check out the route.
It’s a good thing we scouted the route because there was no way I’d have been able to find my way in the dark otherwise. We followed a ridge up to about 13,000 feet before getting to a dead end and turning back. I was able to scope out a different route up a snow-filled cirque that I would take to the top in the morning.
The next morning I woke up at 2:00am and started retracing our route in the dark. The temperature was brutally cold and I had to keep moving to stay warm, but go slow enough that I wouldn’t arrive too early and have to wait up top; it was way too cold to sit around – I would have frozen. Eventually I arrived at the 13,600 ft. saddle just as the dawn glow started illuminating the mountains. Though my fingers and toes were nearly numb, the sudden impressive sight of Aconcagua lifted my spirits greatly and I rushed to find a spot to set up the camera. As the sunrise light touched the summit of Aconcagua, I shot as many photos as my freezing fingers would allow, shivering but stoked to finally get my shot of the big peak!