Exploring the Andean heights: Cerro Mercedario Expedition

Tomas IchasoFebruary 21, 2017


Karl and Veit, two German friends, conquered Mercedario, one of the highest summits in the Andes range. Guided by Weny, they enjoyed a challenging expedition during last December. Read Karl’s fascinating narration, and discover this remote and pristine peak!

After climbing Aconcagua 31 years ago, as part of a long climbing trip in South America, it was always my dream to come back to the area and climb Cerro Mercedario. It caught my eye looking north from Aconcagua. I also liked the idea of climbing a remote, beautiful mountain, offering solitude and wilderness.

Very fortunately, Veit Bommer, a friend of mine from my hometown Miesbach (southeast of Munich, Germany), agreed to come along on the trip to my great delight. Although it was his first high mountain expedition, Veit did excellent. He was a fantastic climbing partner, always funny, and a very positive travel companion.

Laguna Blanca
Laguna Blanca

After researching on the internet, I contacted Explore-Share, and Tomas quickly responded. He put me in touch with Gabriel Fava, EPGAMT guide. Gabriel soon wrote back, indicating that either he or his colleague Weny Sanchez would be able to be our guides.

Weny, who fortunately speaks English very well, organized all of the details and food. She sent us all the necessary well thought out information. We got picked up in Mendoza (after missing the flight to San Juan) by Weny and Anibal (wonderful guy, who is also a guide and works with Gabi and Weny) on December 19th, 2016.

The following day, we drove north for four hours (through beautiful scenery and getting very interesting information about life in Argentina), until we reached our starting point, Refugio Laguna Blanca at ~3020 meters.

Stunning scenery along the way
Stunning scenery along the way
Cerro Mercedario from the East
Cerro Mercedario from the East

At Laguna Blanca, we felt the altitude a little, and discussed our plan for the first few days. The idea was to bring half of the equipment and food to the basecamp Cresta Blanca at ~4300 meters, and then return. The next day we would bring up the rest, and spend the night at Cresta Blanca.

When moving to higher altitudes, climbing high and sleeping low, is in general a critical strategy to best adjust the body to high altitude, minimizing its negative effects, like headaches and trouble sleeping.

The following day proved to be pretty long and tiresome for me especially. I brought too much extra clothing and food. I was not used to carry that much anymore, as compared to when I was young and well trained. Ideal is a maximum of 20 kg. I had about 27kg, which was too heavy, especially for the long ascent.

The climb was spectacular, with the pre-summit of Cerro Mercedario visible after about two hours:

pre-summit of Cerro Mercedario

At the Cresta Blanca basecamp we stored the equipment and headed back down.

The next day we brought the rest of our food, tent and equipment, and spent our first night at the base camp. The scenery was amazing, and we felt that the expedition was truly starting.

Weny told us about the importance of drinking 4 liters a day at minimum. She always made sure that we ate and drank enough, and felt o.k. in the morning. Our well-being was always on top of her mind. It is fair to say, that without her excellent guidance, we would have made several mistakes, especially regarding good acclimatization and properly judging the weather and wind.

Veit and Wenny putting up the tent at BC
Veit and Wenny putting up the tent at BC

Weny checked the weather forecast via satellite phone twice a day, to make sure that we would not get caught in high wind and bad weather.

After a day of rest, we brought half of our supply to Pirca de Indios at ~5150 meters. It was a fairly easy hike (about 5 hours), but we started to feel the effects of the thin air. We left our supply and headed back down to basecamp, which took about 2 hours.

The scenery was fantastic, and the feeling of solitude and calm tremendous.

View from Pirca de Indios to the North-West
View from Pirca de Indios to the North-West
With Weny at Pirca de Indios high camp, looking south (Mercedario behind the mountain)
With Weny at Pirca de Indios high camp, looking south (Mercedario behind the mountain)

The next day (December 24th) we went back up to Pirca de Indios, already noticing our bodies acclimatizing.

The weather started to change in the evening, and the wind became very strong. The storm made for an exhausting night.

We disassembled the tent in the morning, and headed down to base camp. It was just in time, before the snow storm arrived.

Approaching snowstorm at Pirca de Indios
Approaching snowstorm at Pirca de Indios

Summit Day

Because of the weather forecast, we rested the next day, and decided to go all the way to the second high camp on the following day (December 27th), so we could summit on December 28th. This was the only good opportunity for summiting, as the forecast predicted high winds on the day after, and later on.

It became very clear, that the high winds are the main obstacle to reaching the summit, aside from getting well acclimatized. Again, it was crucial that Weny received good weather updates twice daily.

We climbed to Pirca de Indios, picked up the tent, had lunch, and continued to the second high camp La Ollada (~5760). We arrived in the late afternoon. The scenery was breath taking, and the wind minimal. We fully realized that we had been extremely fortunate.

The night sky, with the crips and clear Milky Way and all the stars around, was stunning.

View from La Ollada high camp towards the south - Mercedario's main summit all the way in the back, partially covered by clouds
View from La Ollada high camp towards the south – Mercedario’s main summit all the way in the back, partially covered by clouds
View to the north-east from La Ollada high camp - Barreal and the sand lake (all the way at the right) visible in the valley.
View to the north-east from La Ollada high camp – Barreal and the sand lake (all the way at the right) visible in the valley.

We got up at 4 a.m., Weny prepared the water (2 liters per person) and breakfast and made sure that we were feeling good with no headaches, and well prepared for the climb ahead.

Morning view to the East
Morning view to the East

We started at 7 a.m., what turned out to be, a long, and beautiful ascent.

With almost no wind, we reached the summit (~6770 meters) at 3 p.m.  The last ~300 meters had been quite slow, but with enough pauses (20 steps, then 20 breaths), it was fine.

The summit view was fabulous, the weather terrific. Aconcagua in the back to the left of Veit and I – the two of us feeling thrilled:

Mercedario Summit view

Heading back, we reached La Ollada after about 3 hours.

The next day was calm and gorgeous.

Veit in full relaxation mode, feeling great and happy
Veit in full relaxation mode, feeling great and happy

We then made our way back down to Pirca de Indios, where we had a great lunch. After that, we further continued to base camp.

The next morning we took it easy, had a long breakfast, and went back to Laguna Blanca, where Anibal picked us up. We drove to Barreal and stayed at the hotel El Aleman. We then said goodbye to Weny, who did a fantastic, but certainly not easy, job during the whole trip. Anibal brought us to the airport in San Juan several days later.

The German owner of El Aleman, Berni, is a wonderful and funny guy. Berni was extremely helpful during the next days there, showed us around and we had great conversations about Argentina and the world in general. The food prepared by Berni and his very friendly wife was always outstanding.

All in all, the trip could not have been better and more enjoyable.

At Explore-Share we were happy to help Karl and Veit in organizing their trip to Argentina. Contact us if you want to leave on an adventure like this one, or check all the information on Mercedario in Gabi’s program.

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