Last Great Unclimbed Mountains

Toro and the gold mine

I’m not sure if these titles sound like bands from the 70s or the title of a Tintin episode!  After being betrayed by the mule drivers and unable to climb Mesa, we received some good news – approval to drive through the gold mine to get to a mountain called El Toro (the bull).  We had to travel many hundreds of km along a road owned and maintained by the mine to get to the mountain, and to our knowledge (and theirs) they had never granted such a permission before.  We received our visitor badges:

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Once at the entrance of the mine, we had to sign more paperwork (remember we had already had a medical exam to make sure we were fit to travel along the road, and signed disclaimers and provided them with photos).  Our escort arrived, and we set off along literally one of the best roads in Argentina – no pot holes, super-well maintained, and in the middle of absolutely nowhere.  It seemed the mining company (Barrick) had decided to send a car with us the entire way, although at various points we’d pull over and get a different driver for another leg of the journey:

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The miners all have Hilux cars; these are the most rugged vehicles around and while our cars were overheating as we drive up to a pass at 4,700 metres, their vehicles were just fine.  The drivers were really friendly and chatty, and eventually we reached the main site of the Valadero  gold mine.  It’s absolutely colossal:

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with a hospital, a huge amount of accommodation, pool tables, shops, you name it.  Apparently the workers do 3 weeks on, 3 weeks off, and there are 1500 of them on site.  It’s honestly like being in Canada!  The loos had locks on the doors (something unheard of in Argentina), and a mirror, and even a hand-drier.  I haven’t seen a hand-drier for 2 months!  The wifi password was written on a flip chart in one of the meeting rooms, so I managed to steal it and connect…

We had a briefing with some really nice guys at the mine, who were interested in our project, and extremely helpful, offering us an accurate weather forecast, and giving us their contact details in case of trouble.  I gave them the link to my map, so they could see where the cars were at all times, and how our climb was going.  They even gave us coffee!

Ok, so time to set off.  We left the mining road and drove along a valley, crossing deep rivers multiple times (tested for depth first by me in my leggings and flip-flops).

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We made base camp at 3,200 metres, and quickly realised that our proposed route was not viable; there was a rocky section that looked technical high up, and we couldn’t take the risk of having to turn back there.  We decided to take a different approach, involving a 13km hike with full packs, and 1500 metres of altitude gain to get to our high camp.  We had to leave Jovani behind at the cars as he was feeling unwell, and we had a really arduous approach, passing a huge set of Incan ruins:

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before ascending to snow (worse, penitentes) and loose rock:

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It took my last 100 grams of dairy milk to get us up there (weirdly, Max kept falling asleep!), but 10 hours later we made it to a plateau we’d seen from google earth, and set up a beautiful camp:

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Pedro was pretty happy!

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Ok, which route to take?  The Chilean route (super-long, along a ridge) or a direct approach up a snow gully?  Pedro was determined to take the gully, so we did, and the first 500 metres of altitude gain were straightforward, with ankle-deep snow on reasonable gradients.

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This photo, taken early the following day, shows the nice, easy part of the snow gully – you can see our tracks if you look closely:

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Then things started to get bad.  The snow deepened to up to knee-deep, soft powder, and the gradient was extremely steep.  There were bands of rock, but it was loose, and the gradient was so steep we couldn’t ascend.  I had lead the first 500 metres or so, but Max and Pedro took over higher up and broke trail.

They did an amazing job, and eventually we reached the top of our wretched snow gulley….only to realise that it was a false summit, and we had another 700 metres of distance to walk, and had to descend, only to climb again.  I know 700 metres sounds like the sort of distance that you wouldn’t even think about, but after 7 hours and at 6,000 metres it’s sort of heartbreaking.  Eventually we made it to the summit:

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There’s a book to sign on the top with a handful of signatures in it, and the last expedition summited in 2009, showing how rare it is for anyone to climb this mountain.

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Our descent was rapid (straight down the snow gulley) although we discovered that our anti-balling plates weren’t exactly up to the job of coping with this quantity of soft powder:

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Our original plan had been to descend to the cars the same day, but we were exhausted and it was 6pm when we got back (12 hour summit push).  We were running out of gas (so couldn’t melt much snow for water or cook), so we slept and the following morning headed back down the mountain to meet Jovani at base camp.  This mountain had evaded Max for a long time, and we were delighted to have made it, although we all suffered.  The reflection of the sun from the snow over so many hours had burned my face, and even Max looked a bit red under his beard, although Pedro of course just looked tanned.  We left the gold mine the following day, and set off for Mendoza to recover and collect some supplies.

Those of you who followed our progress last year may be thinking that our cars were coping rather well on this expedition.  Well, en route, Conway ejected all of the gear box oil, leaving us on the side of the road.  Apparently some pipe had spontaneously disconnected as we were driving along a tarmac road.  Honestly – we’d just driven through rivers so deep that water was coming in the car doors, across incredibly rugged terrain with no roads, and Conway breaks on a tarmac road?  Well, thankfully we were just outside San Juan, and three hours later the boys had fixed the car and we were off to Mendoza for a well-earned shower!