Argentina: Valle de Colorado ski exploration (Cerro Mercedario)

To be honest, I’m not even sure where to start with regard to writing about this trip – it was super challenging on multiple fronts, but in retrospect incredibly rewarding.  By the time I left, I had made the agreement with myself that this was my last Argentina trip, and now I’m dreaming of my return.  I suppose that the reason I can write about the whole experience at this point is that I feel a return of my deep sense of joy, aliveness, gratitude, and presence that didn’t necessarily characterize this trip for me . . . for much of it, I felt lost, like I didn’t even need to be there, didn’t love Argentina like I used to, could take it or leave it, didn’t have the hunger and drive that have always characterized my approach to skiing, and life for that matter.  I still don’t know if I was just reacting to the conditions we found, or if it was where I was at that manifested those conditions into the trip we had – I suppose it’s some combination of the two, and the reality is that it doesn’t really matter.
So, what is the reality of Argentina 2011 and the Valle del Colorado ski exploration?  I think if I had to sum up this trip in a word, the only one would be “intense.”  What other way to describe the landscape, the rockfall on our climbs, the terrain, the conditions, the access, the logistics?  Then there was being in these extreme conditions while also being pretty sick and developing my favorite “death cough” in the high-altitude dryness . . . intense.
I always said that if I ever lose myself, I’ll go to Argentina.  This year, I didn’t feel like I did much finding, but in the retrospect of pictures and memories, as well as seeing how life has gone since then, I did just that.  My memory now is of the rawness of the trip – raw beauty of the location, raw adventure of being so remote in a foreign country, rawness of vulnerability.  Reflections on rawness make the trip feel perfect and beautiful.
I also look back and see accomplishment.  While we may not have skied the prize of Mercedario, it really wasn’t right for us, and so I’m glad we didn’t go.  Same for Polaco.  While it’s natural to wonder or judge in retrospect, I am truly happy with our accomplishment of the steep lines and the amazing couloir off of the 18,500′ Cerro Negro summit that we skied . . . I’m glad we came back safe, given the amount of rockfall and object hazard we found.  I’m glad we came back friends, and having made new friends in the mountains.  And, I’m so glad I went . . . really drives home that you never regret going . . .
So, with all that said, I guess I’ll share the pics and tell the story . . . enjoy the view!


After a few days in Mendoza for food and fuel organization and waiting for Graham’s lost luggage, we were off to the sleepy town of Barreal in San Juan provence and then on to the Gendarmaria outpost of Santa Ana where we began our walk up the Rio Colorado.
Graham with Santa Ana behind him
Amazing erosional effects on the walk in
Las mulas con el equipo


Our first night in Las Vegas – finished at dark, barely finding the mules and our gear – wouldn’t have been the end of the world if we hadn’t, but it was nice all the same, if for no other reason than fixing the holes that had developed in our sacks from transport.
Una mula 🙂
Our first view of Pico Polaco with the valle del Colorado just around the corner
And then the Mercedario with her glorious south face appeared
El valle del Colorado
Skiing was a bit contrived to put it lightly – the sliver of snow heading up above Graham (on a water run since there was no running water near camp) to the ridge was our first ski line, topping out at about 16,500′


The plateau of Cerro Negro – in past years, all these lines have been filled in and skiable, but there were only a few that went . . . we ended up skiing the “obvious” line in the center, hiking along the ridge to the summit of Cerro Negro at 18,500′
Home sweet home
Our first day, I felt super sick, so just went on a mellow stroll up to the Italian Glacier.  Our beta was that this glacier would be skinnable, but it was instead a super gnarly icefall . . . lovely day to be out for a walk, taking naps in the sun, and exploring for non-silty water sources 🙂


The not-so-inviting Italian Glacier


Oh, hello Mercedario . . . the face looked okay upon our arrival , but  got sequentially blasted by the wind until lit looked like a shining sheet of neve . . .


Graham in our kitchen . . . luxury!
Another view of “home” with Pico Polaco in the background
Graham part way up our first run – cool line, even if the snow wasn’t inspirational 🙂


view across the valle


Graham struttin’ his stuff . . . perhaps a little bummed he’d forgotten his gore tex


Aesthetic alpine views, amazing color contrasts


Skiing 🙂


The next day, we went to recon the potential route to Pico Polaco


We got to scope this awesome line off the Negro massif .. . .  we ultimately climbed and skied looker’s left of the ice/glacier tongue . . . a super aesthetic and unique line


Loving the color contrasts





The rare treat of clear water . . . we did a lot of carrying water on this trip . . .


Headed up our Cerro Negro couloir . . . we definitely returned to this spot just as it was getting dark . . .


Looking happy . . . if only I knew the awaiting pain of a 6500′ climb at altitude 🙂


Graham on the tongue


making progress up Negro . . . Cerro La Ramada in the background


Made the ridge!  Built a cairn so as to find the right couloir on the way down!


Me on the top-out of our Cerro Negro couloir, en route to the summit – I think the ridge was around 17,000′
Lovely ski conditions heading up to the summit . . . took a lot of wind out of our sails since Mercedario looked similar from a distance
Summits deserve high fives!  Ansilta Range in the distance
Graham still had energy on top!  Mercedario in the background – I had originally thought this west face just behind him might also be skiable, but it was an obvious sheet of ice


It’s about the down . . . losing light 🙁


The ski was pretty sweet actually – good placa snow, nice fall line, amazing couloir walls, and we finished  just before it was too dark to enjoy
Fox in camp the next morning . . . this little guy was responsible for  lost peanut butter, dulce de leche, and other food items that we did our best to protect . . . wily little sucker!


Recovery day in the kitchen 🙂


And then the neighbors, Dave McCoy and Mark Angelos with their guides Indio and Coque, showed up


They were living just a little bit larger than us!


Amazing light over Mercedario . . . really a stunning mountain


Graham headed up to the cool glacier/ice line off of Negro
Me on the climb . . . approaching the ice tongue
super trippy to be climbing next to this huge ice/glacier chunk!  We had one tight section, but the snow stuck pretty well, so we were able to navegate it just fine . . . really cool place to hang out (despite the rockfall raining down us for the first bit of the climb . . . by this point, climbing in rockfall was really starting to fray my nerves!)



It’s about the down!  This was a super amazing line – a lot steeper than I thought originally – I really love the perspective in this photo!


Graham . . . and trippy ice formations



Did I mention I thought this ice was super cool?!?


The line really didn’t let up until the end . . . in fact, the apron was some of the steepest skiing


Ultimately we decided our best ski option would likely be Pico Polaco – it looked like it had a reasonably straightforward line on it, and we decided it was worth a try . . . so we carted super heavy packs a few thousand feet up to its base
Graham approaching horrible scree followed by 5th class scrambling with heavy packs . . . a really unpleasant climb!


But then we got to the Polacos glacier, which was one of the coolest glaciers I’ve ever been on!


Graham skinning up – we were lucky there was a ribbon of snow along the ice to make travel much more achievable!
Cool glaicer, trippy cool clouds
Heading up glacier . . . this place was badass!


Graham with Polaco and its ridgeline above him


Pico Polaco – we had intended to climb the line essentially below the serac . . . everyone told us it “never ” breaks and, although this angle doesn’t show it well, you don’t have to climb in the line of fire that long . . .


But the next day, we awoke to this sight – the serac had broken . . . and revealed some pretty shiny snow . . . we could also see that the upper mountain was a sheet of ice, making a summit descent nearly impossible.


Our glacial home . . .


We ended up climbing a cool line with another steep glacier in the middle of it, as opposed to heading up Polaco.  Given the condition of the summit, the hazard on the route, my lungs which were in pretty bad shape, and our lack of gear to protect the route, we decided to leave the summit for another trip.


At the top of our line – lots more snow deeper in the range. . . . maybe we could have chosen a better zone to explore . . .


Looking down on the valle del Colorado and out to Barreal


More cool ice to climb and ski with!


Graham on the descent
Little me, big world
Our line . . . we climbed and skied looker’s left of the ice


Graham skiing down the ice penitentes with a heavy pack . . .



Did I mention how other-worldly this place was?!?
Me skiing the valle del Colorado’s equivalent of “trees”
Looking back up glacier and at Pico Polaco


Negro and the cool line from a few days before


Polaco in alpenglow


Dave, our new neighbor, decided to go out early, and we opted to go out with him and get a ride out of the mountains and back to Mendoza to go check out skiing on Ruta 7


Back in the lowlands, heading out a different route than we came in.  Typical Argentine wind and a 1500′ climb I really wasn’t mentally prepared for!



A welcome sight . . . asado in a few hours!


An old ski club on the road out


Dave and Graham in the Nutibara lobby

Part 2 . . . skiing Ruta 7 area

Up to Ruta 7 near the tunel . . . I had looked at this peak a few years before, and have always had my eye on it . . .
Another cool looking line, a bit more up close in this picture . . . we looked it up on a map – Cerro Martienzo, named after a the pilot who perished in a nearby plane crash . . . 7 mile approach from the road and 6500′ climb


Although neither Graham or I thought Cerro Martienzo would be possible in a day, we both thought the other person thought it was possible, and were both willing to give it a try based on that . . . so off we went..  Unfortunately, Graham had inadvertently  left his skins up the valle del Colorado for the mules to bring later . . . made for a long bootpack!


Amazing rocks up high!


And then we made the ridge and were staring Aconcagua straight in the face – a really unanticipated and  humbling view . . . also makes it clear why they “great stone sentinel” is so called . . . an impressive piece of rock to be sure!!!


Summit self-portrait in more Argentine wind
Me on the descent . . . rolled in somewhat mellow, transitioning to super steep next to the ice (a developing theme), but this was the best snow we skied the whole trip, and the longest consistent skiing we had . . . a really cool day!
Graham found a super cool condor feather . . . all-in-all the day only took us 13.5 hrs and we made it back to the car by dark – not bad!


We had a later start the next day and were joined by dogs!
and we ultimately skied the centerline on that peak . . .  bummer was that the snow never softened – pretty brutal skiing!!


After our Ruta 7 ski days, we headed back to Barreal where we hoped to swoop in, pick up our gear, and head to San Juan to get to know the city a bit and take a different route back to Mendoza.  Argentina had a different plan, however, and we found ourselves waiting in Barreal all day, unsure of whether the mules would come due to a freak storm that had brought snow level almost down to town.  It had that eerie feeling of waiting for a plane in AK, and the potential to seriously derail phase 2 of both of our trips . . . but all’s well that ends well and at the very last minute (8pm on the night before I had to fly the next morning at 6am out of Mendoza!), the gear showed up.  Phew!
With that, Graham was off to Chile to meet a friend and continue skiing, and I was off to Buenos Aires.  A day of shopping, eating gourmet food, and seeing good friends, and I was off to Miami . . . thankful for a safe journey through Argentina.


Me and Patricio, a great friend from my 2009 trip . . .

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  1. Realmente los felicito por su blog tiene muy buena informacion, que la utilizaremos!! no se olviden de pasar por nuestra pagina, nos dedicamos a ski en cerro castor.

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