Lost in the Andes

Trip Start Sep 22, 2007
Trip End Nov 10, 2007

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Flag of Argentina  ,
Friday, October 12, 2007

The wind has picked up, the temperature has dropped, the sun has disappeared, and we´re in a white-out. At 3500m on a saddle between Arenales and Lomo Blancas on the Argetinian pre-cordilla, a pleasant afternoon´s hike on the mountains has become a dash off the mountains for survival. Our guide Humberto nods quickly as we suggest abondoning the summit of Arenales and heading back to the refugio at San Antonio. The two British lads with us, Tom and Hasan, in jeans and trainers, are poorly equiped for the vicious turn in the weather. Humberto leads us on a shortcut that will get us down the mountain as quickly as possible. Within about 10 minutes its depressingly obvious that we are lost.

We decide to go trekking in the Andes after spending too much time in buses and gazing at well preserved inca mummies in museums. A bit of adventure is what we´re after. We book up with a travel agent in Mendoza for 3 days trekking from a rufugio called San Antonio at 2500m altitide, and just a couple of hours west of Mendoza. For A$ 495 each  fully inclusive (about GBP 80) it sounds like a bargain.

Our first day´s trek is a gentle walk up from the refugio to the valley of Las Vergitas at 3200m where we are surrounded by 4000m to 5000m peaks. Except that we can´t see them because the clouds are shifting and the snow is falling gently. We don´t really mind though because there´s something magical about walking during light snowfall. Our guide Silvia sets a really slow pace that helps us acclimatise to the thin air up here. The fourth person in our group, Nacho, is an experienced moutain guide and has climbed Aconcagua (6950m) over 90 times. This trek is like a walk to the corner shop for him. I can´t understand his presence on this tame trek until it becomes clear that he and Silvia are dating.

The first night in the refugio is cozy as Christmas. Carolina, our host, has just me and Rachel to look after. We eat a tasty dinner by the roaring log fire with snow falling steadily outside.

In the morning we expect the weather to be cold and grey, but the skies are completely blue and the 15cm of snow that has fallen makes the mountains look sharp and tall and close enough to touch. What better day for a 5hr hike to the summit of Arenales at 3600m? After a late breakfast we are joined by Tom and Hassan who have popped out from Mendoza just for the day.

With Humberto the Brazilian mountain guide leading, we set off with an optimistic pace to climb Arenales. We enjoy taking photos in the snowy landscape and Hasan excitedly comments that he expected to be walking on dry dusty tracks, not snow.

As the weather turns suddenly nasty just a few metres from our destination, the ebullient mood in the group rapidly turns sour. A bit like receiving bad news at a great party. As it becomes clear that we are lost, everyone´s survival instinct kicks in and a rush of adrenaline prepares us for action. Humberto´s plan to take further shortcuts to recover our location leads to us getting more lost. He complains that his compass is not giving good readings due to the iron in the rock. I suggest we retrace our footprints in the snow, but with a combination of pride and bravado Humberto is sure we can walk out without having to walk back.

For miles and miles we walk down steep snow covered valleys. Never can we see more than about 50 metres ahead. The fog is like a depression hanging on us. The boys feet are completely frozen in their soaked trainers, but fortunately its only their feet that are cold. Rachel and I put on every last layer we have with us, and we feel warm, but scared at the prospect of spending a night outside in the mountains. I am torn between backtracking and following Humberto. I decide its a better bet to follow Humberto even though his experience is in serious doubt.

Humberto assures us again that he can get us out. At about 5pm we calculate that we have 2.5hrs daylight left. We finally get below the snow line and walk amongst some thorny scrub down a river valley. At 6pm we find an empty shepherds hut, which consists of three sides, one formed by a giant boulder, and a corrugated iron roof. Our mood lifts as we realise we could stop here, albeit in some discomfort, for the night. We eat an extremely late lunch to celebrate. Humberto is so upset at his guiding cock-up that he can´t eat at all. He also knows that his job is on the line if the emergency services are called in to locate missing trekkers. He apologises and tells us its the first time in over 47 treks up the mountain that anything like this has happened. He tells us that even on Aconcagua, where he has guided several expeditions, he has never, ever, got lost. 

After eating, we decide to press on down the valley to see if we can reach a road or gain an insight into where we are. Progress is impeded by streams that have gouged out steep sided gorges in the glacial moraine. Frustrated, but full of adrenaline-fuelled energy, we have to back-track several times to find a way through.

Nature has a perverse sense of humour, and as we tramp down the valley, the skies clear and stunning views of the otherwordly Andes open up. Humberto is convinced that we will arrive in a small village shortly. We start to follow a discernable horse track. Our fears start to lift and Rachel allows herself to take a photo of the mountains ahead. At dusk we finally see the rooftops of a village called El Salto. Its a relief that we are not going to be spending the night outside.

Humberto´s phone now has a signal and he calls Eduardo, the boss at San Antonio to come and collect us. We fool around and laugh about the situation that we just escaped from. We are relieved and we feel lucky to have avoided an extremely unpleasant night out in the mountains. We are also completely knackered after 9 hours of flat-out, full speed hiking with no stops. We haven´t been drinking enough liquids so we´re really dehydrated.

Next morning we´re bright eyed and bushy tailed and ready for more adventure. With Humberto (no Tom and Hasan today) we retrace our steps and find out where it all went wrong. We branch off to the summit of Lomo Blanca at 3850m and take some lovely photos from the summit. Such a contrast today. Humberto has regained his confidence and thanks us for going with him. We are safely back in the refugio at 4pm.

But really, it was getting lost that was the real adventure. I sort of hope it happens again sometime.
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