2004 expedition to Aconcagua (6962 m)

Acclimatization in the Cordón del Plata


The Cordón del Plata is a mountain range somewhere between Mendoza and the Aconcagua in Argentina. It is very suitable for acclimatization because:

  • It is easy accessible (road)
  • There are good places for camping
  • It has the right altitude (3000-4000 meters)
  • There are possibilities for summiting some of the 4000 and 5000-meter peaks.

In Mendoza we found an adequate new topo guide of the range: Montañas de Luz, Cordón del Plata, by Alejandro Geras, ISBN 987-43-6846-2, November 2003, 193 pages.
We were lucky to have good weather. It was sunny almost every day. We had no rain or snow. It was only freezing in the El Salto camp at 4200 meters and only during nighttime.
Around the Piedra Grande camp you can see many guanacos, a kind of lama.
Try to avoid the weekends. The Mendoza locals go climb the mountains in the weekend and it can be quite crowded up there.


The Cordón del Plata is located in the Cordillera Frontal range. The place to start is the mountain and ski resort (well, this is a big word for it) Vallecitos, 90 kms from Mendoza. Since there was no regular transport from Mendoza to Vallecitos we hired it from Rudy Parra. We got a minibus and driver for $180. He drove us all the way up to Vallecitos and picked us up for the return trip 6 days later.

It is a 3-hour drive via Potrerillos. The last part is a dirt road. Vallecitos is at the end of the road at 2900 m. From there you have to walk.

We arrived around lunchtime, the weather was sunny and our backpacks were heavy (25-30 kgms). We were glad that we knew that our first campsite would be at 3200 meters, 1 hour from Vallecitos.

1st day, campsite Las Veguitas (3200 m)

On the hottest part of the day we started our climb to Las Veguitas. First we used a dirt track, which starts to ascend in a W-direction directly behind Vallecitos. After about 30 minutes we had to cross the river and climb steeply to the meadows of Las Veguitas (aka Vegas Inferiores). Las Veguitas is at about 3200 meters and we got there in about 90 minutes. It is a spacious meadow used by cows, mules, horses and hikers. There is plenty of water and there are plenty places to camp.

Since it was already after midday and we were not really used to weight of the backpacks, we decided to make a late afternoon stroll (without the heavy load) a few hundred meters up. Marja and Antonio felt well, Otto suffered from a minor headache. We all slept well though that night.

Piedra Grande2nd day, San Bernardo

The plan was to climb San Bernardo (4450 m) the next day. We saw only one steep track going up. No zigzags, just straight up. It was quite strenuous and Otto was still not feeling 100%. At 3800 meters he decided to stop and return. Marja joined him, but Antonio was way to far ahead and continued his climb. At about 4000 meters he returned as well.

3rd day, campsite Piedra Grande (3500 m)

The third day we moved to the next campsite. It took us almost 2 hours to get there. Piedra Grande is a big rock, under which there are two holes in which you can sleep, but there are many places to pitch your tent as well. There is no water nearby. You have to descend to the riverbed and look for small currents that have clear water. In order to climb high and sleep low, we decided to climb to the base camp of Cerro Vallecitos en Cerro Plata. This base camp (El Salto) is at 4200 meters.

It was quite foggy and windy that afternoon and Otto, still not feeling well, got behind. However everybody reached El Salto. El Salto is a small camp with a permanent refuge (big tent). In this refuge you can get a meal, drinks, everything. After resting we went down again and Otto went straight to bed, because of a headache.

4th day, Stepanek

Our initial plan was to move up to El Salto this day. However, due to the headaches of Otto we decided to stay on the same altitude and rest a little. We went down to the riverbed to get some fresh water. Instead of going back to the tents we felt it to be a good idea to ascend the Stepanek a little. We crossed the river, passed the Stepanek/Adolfo Calle campsite, and continued the trail up the mountain, which was as steep as the one of San Bernardo. Otto was going well today. We climbed up to 4000 meters. We returned to the Piedra Grande camp in the afternoon. In the afternoon the river was more difficult to cross because of bigger amount of water.

El Salto5th day, El Salto (4200 m)

Because Otto was okay again, we moved to El Salto. We decided to carry only one tent: the Mountain Hardwear Trango 3.1. We left the TNF Westwind for storage of unused equipment in Piedra Grande. A few hours later we arrived in El Salto and set up our tent. Since we had a blue sky we made an afternoon walk to La Hoyada (or Ollada) at 4500 m altitude. That night we 3 shared the tent. Otto could not sleep very well and moved out of the tent at 2 a.m. It was freezing a little. Nevertheless, he slept quite well for the rest of the night. So did Marja and Antonio in the tent.

6th day, descent

In about 90 minutes we walked back to Piedra Grande were we had something to eat. From there it would take us 60 to 90 minutes back to Vallecitos where our bus driver would be waiting for us. After we had passed Las Veguitas we had to cross a small river. Unfortunately Marja injured her right foot and could not continue anymore. However, fortunately an ‘arriero’ with his mules was just coming up. He was ‘willing’ to lend one of his mules for 100 pesos (30 euros/dollars).

So with Marja on the mule, Otto as an arriero and Antonio carrying two backpacks of 25 kgms each we continued our way down and arrived in Vallecitos at around 1 p.m. The initial idea was to go directly to Puente del Inca because we wanted to start our trek to the Aconcagua base camp the next day, but now Marja could hardly walk, we went back to Mendoza for 2 days of rest.

Access to trailhead

After the 2 days of rest, we took the bus to Puente del Inca. It was a 3-hour drive to get there. In that area, there are many hotels and hostels to stay the night, but we decided to use our tents and had already made an arrangement with Rudy Parra including a place on his campsite in Los Puquios. In the afternoon, we sorted out our luggage; we put all the stuff we needed for the hike to base camp in our backpacks. The things we needed after we reached base camp we put in the duffels. Mules would carry these duffels and we would see these back at base camp.

Punta de Vacas1st day, campsite Las Leñas

Again, we started our climb on the hottest part of the day, because our drive to the beginning of the route (Punta de Vacas) was quite late. We still had not learned from the acclimatization; our backpacks were still far too heavy (20 – 25 kgms). We had not thought of the possibility to let the mules walk with us every day, so they could carry our tent and sleeping bags too. We walked along the river and it was going up and down and up and down. It was quite a strenuous walk and we were happy to reach the side valley, because according to the map the campsite would be very near. Unfortunately, the map was not right about that and it took two more hours from there. We arrived at campsite Las Leñas after 7 hours of walking. At this campsite we had to show our permits and all the three of us got a garbage bag, because you must carry all the litter you made out the park. At the campsite there was a tap with drinking water, we did not have to search for water. Antonio, who had left his tent with the mules, slept behind a wall of rocks, so he had no trouble with the wind.

2nd day, campsite Casa Piedra

To Casa PiedraThis time we started early with our climb to Casa Piedra. The path continued along the river and after half an hour we had to cross the river by bridge.  The rest of the day we remained at that side of the river and it was a long day-trip again, nearly flat this time, but a long distance and it was quite windy. Finally, we could see the tents of the campsite and the whole trip took us 8 hours. A few hundred meters before we reached the campsite we had the first look at the Aconcagua; it was quite impressive! It was again busy at the campsite and the ranger thought it would be raining that night, but fortunately he was wrong. Some people went to the river to find the best place for the river crossing next morning; it seemed to be a difficult choice.

3rd day, base camp

River Crossing AntonioWe were not the first group that left the campsite for the river crossing, so we could watch the others having troubles with the water. They went through the river on different places, so when we got at the riverbank we just chose a spot of which we thought it was good enough. Antonio went first, so Otto could make pictures and then Otto and Marja went together. The water was very cold (icy) and our feet (in our teva’s) hurt quite a lot, like many fine needles were stabbing in your feet and legs. Otto thought he had made it, began dancing (to warm his feet) and asked for a towel, but he had still one part of the river to go. There also was a Canadian group and they went on mules through the river, saying that we were real die-hards. We only thought: ‘sissies’. After the river crossing the sun came over the mountains and everyone got warm again. Antonio walked with a Canadian girl and Otto and Marja went together. There was a steep climb and a second river crossing, but the river was very narrow a this point and the sun was burning. After the river crossing it was still a long and windy way to the base camp, we kept walking along the river, climbing all the time, but not very fast. We arrived at base camp after 8 hours of walking and Antonio, who walked faster than Otto and Marja, had reserved two places for our tents. It was a big camp with some permanent refuges (big tents).

4th day, base camp

Plaza ArgentinaThis was a rest day, sorting out our gear and doing some washing. The river near base camp was far from clear and had a grey/brown color. Antonio found a small clear stream on a bank in the river and that stream we used for our water reserve. He marked the stream with a cairn, so it was not so difficult to find each time. Sometimes the stream had moved a little and once there was no clear water at all, but most of the times it was good water. Moreover, it was also fun to get the water, because you had to jump over some parts of the river and sometimes they were very wide. We talked a lot about the coming days, how we would manage to get all the things to the next camps. And we made another plan, because of the heaviness/weight of our backpacks. At first we wanted to go down from the mountain via the normal route, but now we decided to take the same route back as we came, so we could leave some stuff at the basecamp. Otherwise we should have carried all our stuff with us.

5th day, to camp 1 (4980 m) and back

Through the penitentesThere was ice on our tents when we woke up at 7 o’clock. At first we sorted out our luggage, because of the changed plans. We put everything that we would leave in the base camp in a garbage bag and this bag was quite heavy, so we thought that the new plan was a good idea. After eating breakfast and boiling a lot of water, we packed our backpacks with food we needed on the mountain and with clothes we didn’t need in the base camp. At 9:45 am we started walking and it was a beautiful but strenuous walk. We made a lot of pictures on the way, so we didn’t go very fast.

After an hour we crossed the river and walked at the right side of it. The last part of the climb to camp 1 was the hardest. First there was a zigzag-path on the moraine and after that there were the penitentes, which took us about half an hour. You have to take big steps in the penitentes and that is quite hard at that height. In camp 1 we filled our duffels with our stuff and left it behind under some rocks on the slopes beneath the campsite. Other people had put their things at some camp-places, but when someone wants to put his tent there, he can put that stuff away, because putting a tent there is more important than just putting your stuff. On the way back we took the shortcut down the screeslope and this time we took the other side of the river. That seemed to be a shorter route than on our way up. The penitentes were slippery on the way down. Back in base camp we again had to boil much water before we could eat dinner (water for tea, water for soup, water for the food and water for the night). We also sorted out some things and used earplugs while sleeping, because of the noise of the wind and the neighbors.

6th day, to camp 1 (4980 m) and back

Camp 1Again awake at 7 o’clock and going up at 9:45 am. This time we carried fuel (5 liter) and some clothes and stuff like crampons, ice axe. This time we took the left side of the river, but it was quite hard to walk. Because this was the second time we went up, we walked better and faster than the day before, just because our bodies got used to the height and the circumstances. We reached camp 1 about one hour earlier than the day before and put our stuff with the other things in the duffels. This time we were back in base camp at 4:30 pm. There we ate soup first to supply our water level. We asked in the big tent of Daniel Lopez if we could leave one duffel behind with things we didn’t need on the mountain. No problem they said. After that we went to the doctor in the camp for a medical check and everything was okay, so we could go up the next day. We also asked for the weather the coming days and they were not sure of it. They thought that the weather would be good until Friday (it was Tuesday when we asked) and after Friday it would become bad weather. We decided not to cook for ourselves but ‘going out’ for dinner. We had a very good meal of spaghetti and bread in the big tent of Daniel Lopez.

7th day, to camp 1 (4980 m)

This time we stood up at 6 o’clock and it was quite cold outside. We put all the things we would left behind in a duffel and left it at Daniel Lopez’ place. We also left our walking boots behind and went up on our plastic boots. Antonio walked in front of Otto and Marja, because he was faster and so he could try to get 2 good spots for our tents in camp 1 (he also carried a part of our tent). He started at 8:30 am, Otto and Marja started 15 minutes later. This time we took the right side of the river again and although this was the third time we went up, it was quite heavy again. We ate a lot of cookies and chocolate and that gave us some energy. Finally Otto and Marja arrived in camp 1 at 1:30 pm and Antonio had found 2 good spots for our tents. After having a few cups of soup we sorted out the things that we could bring towards camp 2 this afternoon, like food and crampons, ice axe, rope, etc. At 2:45 pm we all went up again and our backpacks were quite heavy. We had to walk along quite a steep path. After two hours of walking we left our stuff behind in one duffel at the crossing of 2 paths, at a height of 5250 m and walked down with our empty backpacks …. that felt a lot better. In the evening it got quite windy and after the sun went behind the mountains (around 7 o’clock) it got also quite cold so going out for a pee that night was not much fun.

8th day, to col camp (5450 m)

Col CampThat night Otto made the decision that he hadn’t have much fun for the last two weeks and that he wouldn’t go any further. So we had a discussion with the 3 of us and Marja decided to stay with Otto. Antonio, who was strong enough, wanted to go to the top. Finally we decided that Otto and Marja would help Antonio to get to col camp (5450 m) by carrying stuff for him. After that they would go down while Antonio would stay the night at col camp and would go to camp 2 (5900 m) the day after and try to summit the day after that. So he could be back in base camp at Sunday-afternoon. Otto and Marja would stay in camp 1 after carrying the things for Antonio and go down to base camp the day after and wait until Sunday for Antonio. So we agreed, so we did it and at about 12 o’clock we went up to col camp.  Antonio took some food (for 9 days, which was the maximum time he had) out of the duffel, which still laid at the crossing and we went on to col camp. Antonio borrowed Marja’s down jacket and warm gloves, because he hadn’t that himself. After putting up Antonio’s tent it was time to say goodbye and that was a strange and emotional moment.

We agreed to have walkie-talkie contact at 6 o’clock and 8 o’clock this evening and 8 o’clock the next morning and after that every 2 hours until we couldn’t reach each other anymore. Otto and Marja went down again and brought the stuff in the duffel with them and were the whole day in doubt if their decision was a good one or not. Antonio went up again in the late afternoon bringing some stuff up to 5600 m, which was quite a heavy trip. At 6 o’clock there was no walkie-talkie contact, but at 8 o’clock Otto and Marja saw Antonio standing on a rock at the col and Antonio said through the walkie-talkie that he had made depot and that he felt good at the moment.

9th day, to camp 2 (5900 m)

Camp 2The next morning at 8 o’clock there was walkie-talkie contact again and Antonio told Otto en Marja that he felt a bit lonely last night and this morning. He was the only person at col camp, all the others passed by col camp without sleeping there. Antonio made breakfast and went up with all his stuff, up to camp 2 at a height of 5900 m. At 10 o’clock there was radio-contact for the last time and at that time he had just started his climb up to camp 2. This time it was quite a hard walk for Antonio too; he had to slow down a bit. In the afternoon he reached camp 2, put up his tent and went back to pick up the things he had left at about 5600 m the day before. In the late afternoon he made a stroll through camp 2 to find some people he could join to the summit in the night. He found an American and a Mexican guy and they arranged to get up at 4 a.m. the next day.

Summit day

IndependenciaAt 4 o’clock in the morning Antonio stood up, put on all his warm clothes, made breakfast, boiled water and waited for the others who were a bit slower. Finally they started their climb to the summit at about 6 o’clock. First they made the traverse and there were no difficulties at all; Antonio could have left his crampons and ice axe ‘at home’. There was some ice on the path, but they could walk normally on it, there was kind of path over it. At the end of the traverse they got the wind (and it was quite windy!) right in their faces and it became a struggle for a while. Antonio took a rest at the Refugio Independencia (6400 m) and here it was the first time he suffered from altitude sickness. He had a headache and troubles with his breath and heartbeat and that made him a little bit scared. But the American and Mexican guy were with him and they walked on after a short rest.

SummitAlong the path there was one big rock and behind this rock they were out of the wind and could take a rest once more. Because this is the only rock which you can use as a shelter against the wind, it is quite a busy place; when someone goes on another will take his place and so on. When Antonio reached the beginning of the canaleta he had no trouble with the wind anymore, but now the trouble with the loose rock started. The rocks at the canaleta are not so small; when it is busy you must watch out for big rocks coming down from above you. But that wasn’t a problem for Antonio and his mates, because there were just a few people trying to reach the summit that day. But the canaleta itself was very tough and it took them hours to reach the end of it. And when they finally reached the end, it took them only 15 minutes to reach the summit. It was 2 o’clock in the afternoon and they had made it in about 8 hours. There was a great relief and happiness and they took many pictures of the magnificent views. It was cold and windy, but that didn’t bother them anymore. After 15 minutes they went down again. They felt tired and weren’t so fast anymore. They came back at camp 2 at about 7 or 8 o’clock, made dinner and went sleeping for a long time.

Diner11th day, down to base camp

The next morning, it was Sunday, Antonio put all his stuff together in his backpack, gave away some of the food and bars he wouldn’t need anymore and went down to base camp with Matt, the American guy, and the Mexican. It was a long descent and he walked down slowly, because there was no need to hurry anymore. Otto and Marja had a rest day in base camp and they were waiting for Antonio to come down. At 4 o’clock in the afternoon he finally was back in base camp and everyone was very happy to see each other again. It was time for a shower and a good meal at Daniel Lopez’: meat and papas fritas and beer of course. All the stories were told and we also could arrange some mules to go further down the next morning.

River crossing12th day, down to Las Leñas

We planned to get up early, because we knew that it would be a long trip all the way down to Las Leñas. Although we walked down it was a long distance along the river. But at 7 o’clock there was no sun yet, so we waited until 7:45 am to get up, put our stuff together, have breakfast and bring our stuff to Daniel Lopez. We started walking at 11 o’clock and that was a bit late we thought, but there was nothing to do about that. Antonio walked with Matt in front and Otto and Marja followed. We took the last pictures of the Aconcagua and the summit was in the clouds now. It took us more time than expected to reach the first river crossing, the easy one.

The second river crossing near Casa Piedra caused more trouble. Matt and Antonio took the same way as the first time we crossed this river. But Otto and Marja made a shortcut and had to go through the river twice. The second part was quite deep and had a fast stream, so pants out and moving very slowly hand in hand. Big rocks were transported by the water and hit them against their legs. But everything went well and it was indeed a shortcut. Pants on again and further on, it still was a long distance. Because of the bad weather in this valley Otto and Marja saw a big mud stream coming down from the slopes, moving quite fast towards the river. They passed the mud stream just in time, because a few moments later the mud was all over the path. They made some pictures of the mud stream. Finally they arrived at Las Leñas at 9 pm and Antonio had pitched their tent already.

Cappuccino13th day, back to Mendoza

This morning we indeed got up at 7 o’clock. After breakfast we checked out at the park ranger and we began our trip at 9 o’clock. We knew the way but found out that it again took us longer than expected. The sun was shining and it was a very warm day. We were not in such a hurry so we walked slowly. Antonio and Matt walked faster than Otto and Marja, so they split up very soon. And when Otto and Marja walked along the river, Marja again twisted her ankle. This time there were no mules, but fortunately there was the river and she put her foot in for a time.  It wasn’t getting thick, so Otto and Marja walked on after putting tape on the ankle and moving some stuff from Marja’s backpack into Otto’s backpack, so Otto’s backpack was very heavy now. From that moment on they walked way slower than before the injury, but everything went quite well and they reached Punta de Vacas without trouble. Antonio had been there for two hours when Otto and Marja arrived and he had arranged transport to Los Puquios already. The van was ready for take off; just a few pictures and then we went to the campsite of Rudy Parra to arrange the financial business. After paying 760 dollars, they brought us to Puente del Inca where we had to wait one hour for the bus which would take us back to Mendoza. We sat down on a terrace and ordered some real Western food ……

And so Antonio made it to the summit and back in just 13 days!!!