Cerro Tupungato (Argentina)


By: Dong Jones

Doug Mantle and I went on the fust commercially guided trip to Cerro Tupungato in February 1997. Tupungato is on the border of Chile and Argentina. At an elevation of 6,570 meters (21,555') it is one of the 12 Andean giants above 6,500 meters. The climb took two weeks, much of which was spent acclimatizing. The route we took was the North Ridge. Since we were south of the equator, things were reversed, so it was summertime, and we encountered very little snow. The trip was run well, the weather was good, and we reached the summit on Feb. 17th. The following is a brief account of our climb.

We flew from LAXE to Miami and then to Santiago Chile (elev.2, 000') on an all night flight, arriving the morning of Feb.4th. We met the other team members at Santiago Airport: our guide, Greg Wilson from Idaho; Tom from Connecticut; and Dave from Texas. Add the two Dougs, and our Chilean guide Vivian (who we met the next day), and the group total was six. Soon our private driver arrived in a van, loaded the gear, and drove the five of us to the Hotel Fundador. Doug and I spent the day sightseeing in Santiago.

On Feb. 5th we hung around the Fundador until Vivian arrived. She and the driver (a nice guy whose name I never got!) both worked for Azimut 360, a Chilean tour service that specializes in outdoor adventures. So we hired Greg who hired them. Anyhow, we loaded the van for the drive to the trailhead. The drive was uneventful until we reached the end of the pavement at the entrance to a power plant, which was blocked by a locked gate. Vivian spoke with the guard, and we were allowed to pass. We continued on for about 12 more miles on a good dirt road to its end at a meadow where the muleteer and his stock resided (elev. 6, 900'). Here we unloaded the van and camped for the evening.

The first day of the 3 day hike to basecamp was Feb.6th. We started hiking the undulating trail ahead of the mules up the massive canyon of the Rio Colorado. It was hot and dusty. We crossed the river once (on a bridge!) on our way to the first night's camp. We ended up at 8,600', not much higher than where we started, but the gain for the day was double due to all the ups and downs. We continued to 10,600' the next day (with many ups and downs), and arrived at basecamp on Feb.8th, elev. 14,000'. Totals for the 3 day hike in I estimated to be about 9,000' gain and 25 miles. To describe what I saw during the hike in, I'd have to start by saying that this was a very arid landscape; I saw not one tree during the hike to base. And the reddish-brown rock reminded me of Mars. But its starkness was beautiful. The rivers were also brown, not clear like those of the Sierra. We also saw several condors and one very large rabbit. At basecamp we were surrounded by impressive 5,000m peaks one greatly resembled Mt. Robson, complete with glaciers and icefalls.

At basecamp, which we shared with only one other group (5 Columbians), we set up our tents, and basically took it easy for the rest of the day. To obtain water, we walked about 200 yards to a ravine that flowed nicely each day. The trick was to get the water at about 9AM. Before that, it was frozen. From about noon on, the flow increased dramatically, and the water would become very silty. The weather was very pleasant during the day, but it was cold at night. On Feb.9th, a scheduled rest day, Doug and I hiked up to 15,100' (Avocet Elevation) and took a break by some penitentes before returning to base. The next day, the group made a carry to 16,000' - Camp 1. Most of this hike was on what we would call a "use" or "crude" trail. At about 15,500, the south face of Aconcagua (about 50 airline miles away) dominated the view to the north. It was very impressive. Tuesday, Feb. 11th was another rest day. Two German climbers arrived in basecamp. The readers of this are now probably thinking that this was a very slow pace. It was indeed, but it was the reason that everyone made it to the top. While two members of the group had climbed 8,000m peaks (Greg and Doug), I hadn't been much higher than Mt. Whitney. So I was grateful for the chance to acclimatize. To charge up a peak of this magnitude without being prepared could lead to serious trouble. This mountain is only 390m lower than Aconcagua.

On Feb. 12th, we moved to camp 1. Three members of the group had Avocets, so we determined the elevation to be 16,000'. We were now on Tupungato's north ridge. A nearby melting snowfield provided us with water, and Greg ingeniously "dredged" a "canal" of sorts to bring the water, which flowed from about noon to 5PM, to our camp. After the typical hard work of setting up the tents, rock walls, etc., we relaxed and enjoyed the views of Aconcagua's towering south face. The next day we made a carry to camp 2. Beyond camp 1. The route was directly up the north ridge. There was no trail, but the difficulty was still Class 1. However, the carry to camp 2 was difficult due to thin air and cold wind. We made the drop, and did not linger. Upon our return to camp 1. We noticed that the Germans had arrived. They were travelling very light and did not even have a tent. The next day was another acclimatization day at Camp 1. Still, the weather was incredibly good.

We moved to camp 2 on Feb. 15th. The cloud buildup was much earlier than usual that day. When we arrived at camp 2, it was very windy, cold, and cloudy. Setting up was difficult. The Germans moved up with us, tentless. Late that afternoon it began to snow. We hung out in our North Face tents,and the Germans in bivy sacks. Originally, we were planning to make a summit attempt the next day. The weather dampened our plans. Fortunately, it did not snow for long, That night I had difficulty sleeping. Just as I would doze off, I would awaken with a strong need to breathe. I figured it out - at 18,500' (camp 2 elevation) there's not much air. As I would start to fall asleep, my breathing would taper off, and then I'd really be starting to become starved for oxygen. On the other hand, Doug slept like a log! The other thing I noticed was that my appetite was nil. I ate very little (not good). But I had no headache or other symptoms. So after a sleepless night at eighteen-five, the next day was a rest day. Greg went up to scout the route to the summit, and the Germans made a summit bid. The rest of us began to prepare for the summit. It looked like some weather was coming in, but nothing happened. Greg came back satisfied with having found the route, and the Germans a little later and successful. The wake up call was set for 3:30AM. To me it made no matter, because I never fell asleep.

Monday Feb. 17th we all started getting ready at 3:30AM. Doug and I had lots of hot tea trying to warm up for the dreaded emergence from the tent. We all began to head up the mountain at 5AM. It was downright cold - Zero degrees and windy. At first we hiked with headlamps up a gravel and talus slope. Then up some rock hard snow (crampons and ice axe). Then up more gravel and across an easy snow chute. We then traversed back over some minor cliffs and up to the "difficult" part of the route - a canaleta (class 2 chute). This was a difficult part for some party members, but Doug and 1, with our extensive experience with class 2 chutes in the Sierra, had no trouble. At the top of the canaleta, we walked up a slope to a caidera and took a break. We were at about 21,000'. Greg scouted one way and Vivian another. Tupungato has three summits so we wanted to find the easiest way to the correct one. As it turned out, the true summit was hidden. We all took Vivian's route to just below the top of a false summit, down to a saddle, and up to Tupungato's highest point, 21,555'. It was wonderful to be on top, high in the Andes with awesome views. There was even a cool register book that was over 50 years old (with lots of room left). Clouds were moving in, so we didn't get to stay for long. During the descent, one member of the party (Tom) began to have difficulties, so the descent of the canaleta was dreadfuily slow. We arrived in camp late in the afternoon and had to spend a third night at 18,500' (ugh). Due to exhaustion, I was able to sleep, but had no appetite. This turned out to be troublesome for me, because I felt weak during the descent to basecamp the next day. However, I felt better at basecamp and remarked "this is the first time I went to 14,000' to feel good!"

Feb. 19th, the muleteer returned and we hiked the 25 miles out (with about 2,000' gain from crossing canyons) in two days. The last day out was hot and dusty. Our Azimut 360 driver met us with cold beer and cokes, a nice touch. So, two weeks after starting up the Rio Colorado, we loaded up and headed for Santiago, tired, very dirty, but successful. I learned firsthand some important things about going to altitude. Key among them are staying hydrated, pacing oneself, taking those "rest" days to acclimate, and being patient. To rush a high Andean summit could be fatal.

Topos are available at the Institute Geografico Militar at Dieciocho 369 in Santiago. We went there and were able to get topos for Ojos Del Solado and Tupungato. They are fairly expensive. One final note, the people of Chile are very friendly. I really enjoyed my stay and encourage others to visit the wonders of this high Andean country.

Chilean climbers normally drive or take a bus to a place called Cuayacan, then drive, hitch hike or walk northeast to the end of the road at Alfalfal. From there they walk or hire mules for the 3 or 4 day trip to the northern slopes at the mountain, then up the north ridge. Take crampons and ice ax. The climb is normally done in a week to 16 days, depending on climber's fitness.

For Argentine climbers the ruta normal is from the small village and military camp of Tupungato. This takes about one week for the trip. Contact the Army at Tupungato for the free use of mules and information. The author tried the route from Punta de Vacas, but couldn't cross the river. One must have mules, if using this northern route. Another route possibility is from Tunuyan and Manzano Historico, to the Refugio Real de La Cruz, then north.

A popular climb for Chileans is Volcan San jose. Take one of several daily buses running from Santiago to Fl Volcan (on weekends there are buses to B. Morales), then walk and/or hitch hike up-canyon to where the trail begins. It crosses a stream going north, then gradually turns east. On the west slope is the Refugio San Jose. Route-find east above the refugio to the summit. Normally no ice ax or crampons are needed. The author did this climb in two long days from Santiago.

Another peak of interest is Marmolejo. 6110 meters. Make this climb from the Emboisa del Yeso, Pabellon and Piuquenes, 6152 and 6017 meters; are normally climbed from Yeso as well. Juncal, 6110 meters, is usually climbed from the north and from near the Portillo Ski Resort. Plomo, 6050 meters has Inca ruins near the summit.

Climbing is done between Christmas time and the end of March. Take ice ax and crampons for all higher peaks.

Santiago, Volcan Tupungato, and San Felipe, 1:500,000, from the IGM, 384 O'Higgins, Santiago. Or the book Guia de Excursionismo Dara la Cordillera de Santiano, in bookstores in Santiago.

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