Cerro Mercedario

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Dan Lowery

Adventure Traveller

  1. Age: 25
  2. Nationality: Australia
  3. Where was your adventure?: Argentina
  4. How many days was it?: 30
  5. What type of adventure?: Climbing
  6. Give us a general overview of your adventure:
    Cerro Mercedario at 6,770m is the fourth highest mountain of the Andes range and the highest peak in the province of San Juan. Mercedario is located approx 80km west of the township of Barreal and 100km North of Aconcagua, the highest peak in the southern hemisphere. Mercedario offers several lines of ascent upon its multiple faces ranging from the technically straight forward north face to the highly technical and demanding South & West faces.

    The South Face of Mercedario was the objective of our December 2004 expedition into the Valle del Colorado with acclimatisation ascents of Cerro Ramada 6,400m, Cerro Alma Negra 6,120m and Cerro Negro 5,600m.

    The team consisted of 3 Australian and one German mountaineers – Dan Lowery, Jonothan Edwards, Kylie Bisson and Andre Gruenwald. The teams experience ranged from very experienced, though it was one members first expedition in the mountains. The expedition took 10 months to research, plan and organise all aspects of the trip with the team arriving in Mendoza, Argentina in early December with several hundred kilograms of gear and supplies in accompany.

  7. Was it difficult?: yes
    Why or why not?
    Jonothan and I got up at 3.30 am after a really good sleep, I couldn’t really be bothered with the climb but forced myself out of bed. We took about 30 minutess to get dressed and set off toward the route. It wasn’t very cold, the night before had been really chilly. We took our time in ascending the scree gully and arrived at our cache as the dull glow of dawn tinted the horizon. We sat and ate a few museli bars before putting on our harnesses and preping our gear. We started off toward the route just as the first rays of sun hit the tops of cerro ramada.

    We were still quite a distance from the start of the route, we scrambled over the glacier and rock debris for about 40 minutes until we finally reached the lower snow slopes. We strapped on our crampons and checked out the route. It looked incredibly steep in a few sections, we sat quietly contemplating what we were in for, snapped back to attention by the dull thud of rock hitting the snow around us. The glaciers above had already started to melt and rocks were falling out and plummetting down the route. We looked at each other with a look of, “this shall be intersting and started up towards the Rimaya crevasse.”

    The 200m to the Rimaya took us about 30 minutes to ascend, we could hear rock falling all over the small couldersac gully we were in. We moved to the very right of the route and looked for a place to climb over the Rimaya. The Rimaya was very large, from the bottom lip to the top was about 2 vertical metres, and the crevasse was about 10m deep with a snow floor leading to even deeper in the crevasse. Jono climbed over first using rock and ice, as I moved over to his position my left boot punched through the edge of the crevasse, my ice ax saving me from falling in.

    Carefully we climbed up, using double axes on the hard ice, the ice was vertical for the first 5 metres or so and the exposure was awesome. Beneath our feet we could see all the way to the bottom of the route some 200m below. We moved onto easier ground toward the centre of the route, rocks were still falling down every few minutes, we decided to stick closer to the right hand side and near some small rock walls to avoid the falling debris.

    About 200m further up Jono sat and rested on a rock ledge, I reached him about 5 minutes later, as I was standing on the edge chatting about the rock fall and if we should keep going, he said to me “turn around now” as i looked over my shoulder a basket ball sized rockbounced down the ice at an incredible speed just about 2m from where I had ascended. We sat on the rock ledge and checked out the route above, for the next 200 – 300m, we would be on snow but we could see large fingers of ice above. We considered turning back, I was not feeling 100 percent confident about the climb, but didn’t want to pussy out. We kept moving up.

    We reached the first serious ice about 12 noon. There was no way around it, by now the rock fall had all but ceased, the occasional small pieces still passed us by, but were not a real threat as we could see them well in advance and move out of the way. The ice was rock hard, I had taken one technical axe and one non technical axe with me, the non tech axe was having a lot of trouble biting into the ice, it was too lite weight and bounced off the ice most strikes. I resorted to hooking into small holes and cracks around some of the rocks. We passed by some rather large seracs that lined the middle of the route and stopped at another rock band. We knew there was a slope of snow that ran off to the right side of the route on a seperate couloir that would lead us to the summit, however we couldn’t find it.

    The route was now at about 50 degrees, mostly ice with small patches of rock and snow. I was starting to feel pretty tired, I stopped and ate a muslei bar and continued up. Reaching a section that was in excess of 60 degree ice I asked Jono if he would mind belaying me. With only one axe that I was confident in placing and being as tired as I was, I was grateful when he obliged. I ascended the section, without incident. We stopped ontop of a large rock and had something more to eat. I was out of water now, Jono had less than half a litre also.

    At 2.30 pm we were finally above the serac line, we still didn’t know how far we had to go to get to our snow slope and we had several false alarms around a few corners. We continued to scramble up 50m of snow ice and scree, the exposure to our east was huge, almost 2000m to the valley floor. Base camp was a tiny dot amongst the other rocks. I was very thirsty by now, by gauging using the surrounding peaks we figured we were nearing the top, but couldn’t determine how much longer. I called out to Jono about 20m above to make some water, when I arrived at his position he told me the stove wouldn’t work for some reason.

    Shortly above we found what we thought was our snow slope leading to the east, we scrambled up some very loose rock with a big drop to the bottom on one side to reach the snow above. The slope was above 60 degrees, moving was tough, I was starting to feel dangerously tired. Jono had slowed down a lot too, it was obvious he was feeling pretty much the same as I. It was now more dangerous to descend than to continue to the summit. We knew we could walk off the other side of the mountain, however to descend would take many hours on very tricky ice and rock, with little protection with us, abseiling through the difficult sections was pretty much out of the question.

    After another 50m, I really started feeling tired, the slope was above knee deep in some areas, then only a few cms in othes with hard ice underneath. The slope dropped away a couple hundred metres before finishing at a very high cliff that we had spotted the day before, we needed to be very careful in this area, one slip could see us go all the way to the bottom. My mouth was bone dry, my tongue stuck to the top of my mouth, every movement was immense effort. I now realised I was in a very dangerous situation and began to panic a little. I had to controll my breathing, I found myself coughing hard and not being able to get enough air into my lungs, it was hard to calm myself, I began looking around for possible places that I could bivouac the night. The slope just didn’t provide anything suitable.

    I woke up to Jono yelling down to me from above, I had fallen asleep for only a few seconds, still leaning heavily on an ax. I couldn’t make out what he was saying. I continued searching around for a bivi site. I had with me only my down jacket. My gloves were soaked with sweat and already my fingers were numb, there was a real possibility that I might loose my fingers if I spent the night out, but I was beyond caring now. I concentrated on getting to a rock 10m above me in 10 mins, the first step I took I fell, the axe, still planted deep in the snow caught my fall, I was awake now! I reached the rock in a few minutes, and pulled myself up along side it. I could see Jono above, resting hard on his axe, he looked tired, moving only a few steps at a time. I played the game of moving x metres in x minutes until I reached the position Jono had been in.

    Jono must have got a second wind and was now 50m above me, I watched as he disappeared over a ridgeline, I called out for him to leave me the stove and that I would bivi the night, but he wasn’t able to hear me. I was more exhausted than I had ever been before, just to move a leg one step took an enormous amount of willing and energy. I could no longer hold my other axe, it felt about 10kg heavy, I unlatched it and watched it hit the snow and zip down out of site over the edge. I was now certain that I was going to have to spend the night on the face, my vision had started to get blurry and i just wanted to sleep. I gazed up the route, surely we must be near the summit now, Jono yelled down from above, I couldn’t make out exactly what he said but he sounded happy.

    I kept moving very slowly, reaching a rock band I had to crawl over and onto the snow above, it was deep here, upto my waist, I felt uneasy and trapped, I was just too tired to move, I got really cold and thought about how stupid the whole situation was. I kept going, the sun was low in the sky, I again rested on my ice ax and awoke to the sound of Jono’s crampons scraping across the rock to my left, he called out, “dont fall asleep 3m below the summit!” This was what I had wanted to hear, a sudden rush of energy came over me, the pyscological relief immeasurable.

    I stepped onto the summit at exactly 5.30 pm, it was a great feeling, I knew now that we would get down and be back in base camp within a few hours. Jono had made some water and handed me a litre, I took it all in one hit. We took the summit photos and started off down the other side of the mountain all within a few minutes. We arrived back in base camp after a hard descent at 9pm 17 hours after leaving that morning. I had little to eat and went straight to bed.

  8. Would you recommend this adventure trip to someone else? Why or Why Not?
    Definently. The peaks of the Valle del Colorado are an awesome destination for climbers and hikers. Low human traffic has left this region in a near pristine setting. A jewel in the heart of the central Andes.
  9. What do you wish you would have done differently?
    In hindsight, I wish I had trained a lot harder than I did. I would also have taken more food on the Cerro Negro climb, I really ran out of energy toward the end.
  10. What kind of advice can you give to other travellers going on this adventure?
    Train hard, most of the routes on these mountains are long and strenuous. Research your destination, plan well and ensure your team works together.
  11. What type of gear did you bring?
    We had a couple of hundred kilograms of gear, food, protection and like.
  12. Where is your next big adventure? Why?
    I’m currently planning a trip to Huascaran Sur and Alpamayo in Peru. These peaks have been on my to do list for quite some time, they’re quite spectacular. I’ve wanted to visit Peru for quite some time to see Machu Piccu so we’ll work that into the schedule.
  13. Did you travel before or after your adventure? If so, where?
    Due to heavy bookings on flight’s we had to fly from Sydney Australia to Auckland New Zealand, to Los Angeles, to Panama to Santiago Chile and overland to Mendoza Argentina. Quite a long way to get there, 3 days of planes and buses.
  14. On your adventure, what person did you most identify with?
    Indiana Jones

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