The Real McCoy


What a freak: everything went perfect and we were off to Aconcagua! We heaved on our enormous backpacks, and I wore a belly pack as a counterweight. We each had 40 kilos of gear, for 18 days, but we were not to hire mules; that would be cheating! We recrossed the highway bridge over Quebrada de los Horcones, and started on the path. Marc said "Now I know what a snail feels like." We crossed gorgeous meadows with a variety of flowers and a lake. The warden at the park entrance did not need to check our permits; it was the same guy who wrote them. Trains of mules passed us on the dusty trail. These sterile hybrids combine the power of the horse with the perseverance and surefootedness of the donkey. Climbers, many using ski poles, were coming wearily down from the mountains.

We were doing the so-called normal route: beginning with a gradual climb up the Horcones valley to the classic base camp at Plaza de Mulas 30 kilometers from town, then up the northwest face. This route is not considered technically difficult, so we could do without ropes and climbing anchors.

Mountains of various hues and shapes presented an endless display of nature-art. We were in awe at the increasingly barren and weird landscape as we ascended. It is beyond me how Canadian climber Patrick Morrow could have written about the boredom of the walk up the Vacas Valley (a similar route on another side of Aconcagua), and the dreariness of the route above their base camp.

Marc and I are both individualists, each carrying our own gear, completely independent. We were surprised at how similar our gear was. We had identical neon-pink Scarpa Vega mountaineering boots. We went the same pace and got tired about the same time. The difference was that I was going ultralight, but Marc had some canned foods, fresh fruits and vegetables, heavy pots and pans, and used more fuel. Camp was by a row of 25-meter-high eroded pinnacles.

Jan. 17: Rehydrated and cooked freeze-dried beef burgers provided a hearty breakfast. I tried, for the first time, the technique of food caches to take some weight off my back. I put assorted foods into a large Ziploc, then dug a hole 15 centimeters deep with the ice axe. I marked the spot with three white pebbles arranged in a triangle on a rock, and mapped the adjacent stream, trail and tent sites in my note book.

We saw the source of the millions of rabbit droppings all over the place. Six of the sources scrambled across the valley. At the confluence of the upper and lower Horcones rivers (horcone means a fork for supporting a fruit tree branch), we crossed the ravine and the flimsy bridge. Marc the amateur geologist pointed out the moraines, stratifications, magma intrusions and explained how they formed.

We went up the gravel slope to camp by some beautiful rocks, delighted to be at the foot of Cerro Aconcagua at 3700 meters.

From here on, I planned to ascend at an average of 300 meters per day. At this rate, serious altitude sickness is unlikely. The ascent was to be "alpine style," as opposed to "expedition style" (ferrying loads to higher camps then returning to sleep lower). Frankly, I have yet to be convinced of any advantage of repetitively retracing a route, draining the magical discovery of the mountain. Sure the pack is heavy if you move everything up in one load, but that slows you down to just the right speed to guarantee you will not gain altitude too fast, nor get exhausted. This style is practical on a route under 45° of inclination and allows enjoying a new camp environment essentially every day, in 300 meter altitude increments.

I let some muddy brook water settle overnight to make it drinkable.

Jan. 18: People recognized us as Canadians by the huge loads we were carrying. It seems our countrymen have acquired a reputation of obstinate ruggedness. The river spread into multiple veins that we crisscrossed all day and neither of us escaped without a soaker. The many mule carcasses were not very encouraging, especially to the mules. Their flesh was more mummified than decayed in these high desert conditions.

Jan. 19: While packing up, a gust of wind blew Marc's tent away. Fortunately, it was still in one piece when he retrieved it in a ravine. Above the steep section of trail lies Plaza de Mulas (4200m): an international "city" of 75 tents and a new hotel, supplied by a helicopter whizzing up the valley several times a day. The amount of comfort, even luxury, it offered seemed totally incongruous with the inhospitable landscape. As for the tent city, it was surrounded by piles of trash and lakes of pungent mule piss and I wanted to get the hell out of here. Such is the impact of over 1500 humans attempting Aconcagua this climbing season, with only a minority of them making approaches on other routes.

Shortly beyond, we crossed a brook emerging from the snow that was just up the hill. I guessed this would be the last chance, so I stripped, and washed with my tiny cloth. I shampooed and poured the freezing water on my head to rinse. I wonder when Marc will wash? Marc considered how fun it would be to climb Cerro Cuerno (horn)(5462m), a colorful pyramid poking out of the Horcones glacier. I asserted, "Well, I'm going for the Real McCoy!," and the proposal ended there.

We started up the steep slope to some huge rocks, and carved tent platforms in the scree with our ice axes.

Below Canada Camp


I had "alcool" Kool-aid and chips, enjoying the view of the glaciers and small lakes at the end of the valley. I felt great. Marc came over and we talked about astronomy and space exploration under clear southern hemisphere skies featuring the large and small Magellanic clouds (satellite galaxies to the Milky Way).

Jan. 20: We trod along slowly among a maze of trails up the steep slope. In this alpine, I mean andean zone at 4600 meters, we breathed heavily and took frequent rests. The view of the summit we were striving for was always obscured by intervening cliffs. We were told we were "very close" to Canada camp, but I never trust a subjective distance. After we'd labored making tent platforms, we heard voices from the established camp just above us!

Jan. 21: Some Americans were retreating before their feet would freeze. We slogged on, but breathing became difficult despite the reducing weight of food in our packs. I frequently adjusted clothing because of intermittent wind and clouds.

At Cambio camp on a small plateau at 5300 meters, we settled for the first time where we were not the only party, and didn't have to carve out a tent platform. We worked feverishly nonetheless before the ominous clouds would lash out a storm. While erecting my tent, I laid the fly on the ground, but despite the precaution of putting a rock on it, a wild gust of wind blew it away. Marc ran to rescue it, since I dared not let go of the rest of the tent. We had to be swift and work between gusts. I collected a dozen large rocks and secured all twelve stakes including four guy lines, each three meters long. What work! I often had dizzy spells. Marc built a meter-high rock wall. My experiment of melting snow in a translucent Nalgene bottle left out in partly sunny conditions resulted in some water. I collected the trash left around our camp despite my headache. Marc claimed a pretty bad one too. We witnessed a sublime sunset among complex clouds.

Jan. 22: Marc's tent fly had torn to shreds and our numbered garbage sack had flown away, so violent had been the wind. We continued on snow, and it was not long before we arrived at Nido de Condores (condors' nest), a large plateau with five-meter spires of crumbling rock where most parties make camp.

This site is marked at 5560 meters on the Capellas map, but my altimeter only read 5100 meters, meaning we were over a day ahead of the acclimatization schedule. I was upset at its gross error because back home, I had painstakingly calibrated it against a real mercury column using a graph of air pressure vs altitude derived from a mathematical standard atmospheric model. I had fashioned a vacuum jar and simulated all altitudes using a manual vacuum pump. Little did I then realize that the graph was only accurate for that theoretical "standard atmosphere", which assumed the temperature at 5560 meters to be -21°C, whereas it was a balmy 2°C up there. The lesson is that temperature drastically affects atmospheric pressure at these elevations.

I started cleaning up the site beside the one Marc chose, but when I realized I was picking up shit, I went a bit further. The condors have left the area likely because someone shitted in their nest. I bombproofed the tent again, remembering to concentrate on breathing deeply throughout the task. It dipped to -20°C that evening.

Jan. 23: The wind had split the zipper apart, so I had to squirm out from under the tent door to go for a crap in the freezing cold. I had the decency to bury it even if I had to chop a hole in the frozen soil with my ice axe. This was the fourth morning of melting snow to two liters of water, but it now took a long one and a half hours, and the generator (fuel tube) had to be preheated with "fire paste." As usual, I added an iodine tablet to each liter. I started keeping bottles of water under my clothing in a special belly pack, that I had custom built to avoid the classic mountaineer's dehydration due to freeze-up of their water. I tackled the zipper problem. It's amazing how I managed to retrack the slider and sew, wearing gloves and scratched dark glacier goggles.

We would be staying here another night, so we spent the afternoon going 200 meters down a 45° snow slope, then climbing with crampons and ice axe.

Climbing on Aconcagua


"Climb low, sleep high—isn't that the opposite of a famous mountaineering rule?," Marc asked. "Well, me and rules... " We picked our way among rock pinnacles in the afternoon soft snow, gasping for air. I concentrated on breathing only through the nose, to prevent my throat from becoming parched and losing its lining, not to mention my lungs. In this desiccated thin air, this technique also has the advantage of conserving body water.

Marc complained that his tent was colder, now that its fly was scrapped, so he requested that we share my tent from now on. I was forced to reveal to him, "I have a problem with your, um, smell."

Jan. 24: The climb to Berlin camp (5950m) broke my 5700-meter altitude record from Pico de Orizaba, Mexico.

Berlin Camp


By the time we reached the huts, I was exhausted, and Marc had arrived some time before. The two huts built by Germans are the Berlin and the Libertad, whereas the oldest and smallest one is the refugio Plantamura, named after Nicolas Plantamura who in 1934 became the first Argentine to have reached his country's summit. It must have been some horrible wind that tore the roof off the Berlin hut. They are surrounded with the highest piles of trash in the Western Hemisphere. I glanced in one of them. It looked like a dark dungeon full of zombies. Marc would sleep in there. I was not at all in good shape, but I labored effectively on my tent. My first-ever loss of appetite in the mountains only lasted a few hours.

Jan. 25: Marc came to my tent to tell me he was leaving right now for a summit bid with three guys. I said "Good luck," without even getting out of my sleeping bag, thinking he was crazy to try the summit, 1000 high-altitude meters higher, from here. I also thought "Is it something I said?," and that was the last I ever saw of him.

I continued solo with all my gear and proceeded beyond Petrablanca Camp (6150m). At 6250m, I selected a tiny camp spot against a wall, which had a half-meter hole opening to a grand amphitheater.

Aconcagua 6250m camp


I was within view of the trail and saw that someone was being carried down. That evening, I had a fantastic rush of pleasure from a) a spectacular sunset over perfectly clear skies with a splendid view of range after range of mountains including Mercedario, 6770 meters high and 73 kilometers north, b) a pristine, private and fascinating camp spot, c) a single spiked Kool-Aid drink (a little goes a long way at high altitude) and d) the solo experience invoking a deep sense of being one with the awesome mountain. Had I then known that the guy being carried down was dead, I might have been sobered up a bit. Forty-four-year-old French doctor Claude Dubois perished a few days ago of pulmonary oedema; he drowned in his own fluids accumulated in the lungs. Aconcagua had lived up to its reputation as a "killer" mountain.

Jan. 26: With much food consumed and cached, my gear was now "down" to 31 kilos. The climb to Independencia at 6550 meters was easier than the insane task I undertook of building a rock platform against a wall rather than pitch up by the hut where it was more windy.

I had just finished and was completely bushed when I heard a guy yelling "¡Socorro!" coming down the snow slope. He had white lotion smeared thickly on his lips. He complained that he felt ill and his two partners had yet to come down. The only remedy for altitude sickness is to go down, so that is what I told him to do, while I prepared to go after these stupid characters who had been impatient with acclimatization. I was relieved to see them coming down, sparing me the toil.

The chick peas for supper had been soaking all day in a plastic jar and had doubled their volume. This is a technique that I devised to save time and fuel for cooking. In this low air pressure, the water boils at such a low temperature that you can dip your finger in and leave it there a few seconds. It is, however, hot enough to cook pre-soaked rice, beans or peas. Adding powdered soup makes a tasty meal.

Jan. 27: As I attempted to melt snow, the treacherous wind loosened some tent stakes. The cramped platform lacked space to install respectable rocks. I was obliged to move the tent before it would fly away. I impatiently attempted to move it fully assembled since this was already the highest camp, and I was only going a short distance to the flat spot beside Refugio Independencia. As the wind wrestled with it, I gasped for air, then some people magically came to help me. After the two hours spent hurricane-proofing the tent, it was too late for a summit attempt, leaving me lethargic and demotivated. The hut, a tiny "A frame," is likely the highest building in the world, but is nearly useless with part of the roof missing.

Independencia hut


My lone tent beside it was probably the highest in the Americas. I was well into the "death zone" (over 6000m), but my insensitive perception remained impervious to the wandering soul of Claude Dubois, which had been released from his body on this very spot a scant few days ago. Six others this season would roam Aconcagua's slopes, unhampered by bodily limitations.

I prepared everything for tomorrow's summit bid: snow melted, supergaiters and crampons on the boots, and snacks ready. I brought the water bottles and damp face cloth in the sleeping bag and wore most of my clothing, including the down parka, keeping relatively comfortable as the temperature plummeted to -25°C. The vapor from my breath crystallized on the walls of the tent, and as they flapped in the wind, frost sprinkled over everything.

Jan. 28: I couldn't get up until the sun had blazed a greenhouse effect in the tent, so I was off to a shamefully late start at 10:30 a.m. First up the short snow slope, then back on scree, gradual at first, then steeper and steeper. When you start sliding back, that is the beginning of the notorious Canaleta—like climbing a slope of ball bearings. Although Aconcagua is not a volcano, it had uplifted ancient layers of this crumbling volcanic slag. A Mexican passed me, had time to summit, and head back down, before I had even reached the col between the south summit and the higher north summit. He told me I should have followed the rocks on the right, but it was too late. I was totally spent. I made had it to the col, and absorbed a marvelous view of the awesome 3000-meter cliff of the south face, and its colorful glacial valley to the Horcones river. Clouds loomed in, wiping out the view, and pouring snow. I was devastated and retreated only 70 meters of altitude from my goal.

My consolation was knowing that the first recorded ascent was only realized on the sixth attempt over three weeks in 1896-97 by Swiss guide Matthias Zurbriggen. His exploit also shattered the world climbing altitude record of the time. The British expedition leader, Edward Fitzgerald, never made it, being overcome with nausea and exhaustion so severe that he became unable to walk and was forced to roll down.

It seems that even the Incas didn't make it; in 1985, a mummy of a seven-year-old boy was discovered at only 5300 meters, whereas on other mountains, the Incas usually left their sacrifice to the gods at the summits. The children were gorged with chicha corn beer and coca leaves to ease their pain while they were forced to die of exposure. Climbers of the Andean Club of Mendoza stumbled upon a burial site below Co. Piramidal (6009m), a subsidiary peak on the southwestern ridge of Aconcagua, as they were forging a new route. They spotted piles of stones configured in two semicircles and a circle. On closer inspection, they were astounded to see the top of a skull exposed above the ground. They returned with archeologists from the University of Cuyo, Mendoza, who excavated and removed the 500-year-old bundle. The blankets were adorned with yellow Amazonian parrot feathers and embroidered with geometric and bird designs. They also found several gold, silver and sea shell statuettes of llamas and clothed male human figures with little bags containing coca leaves. They opened the blankets a year later revealing the freeze-dried boy whose skin was coated with red pigment. He wore an Inca tunic and sandals, and a necklace of multicolored stone beads.

I met an Argentine, who was still going up. He asked if he could camp in my tent after he would return, but I was not in the mood to see someone without a sleeping bag turn into another Aconcagua mummy beside me, so I discouraged him. Back at Independencia, someone had abandoned his packsack by the refuge despite that the sack was only lightly loaded, including a wallet complete with money. Another sad story, it seems.

I obsessively prepared for another attempt tomorrow, melting snow in the dark freezing cold and shining the headlamp into the tiny aluminum pot to gauge the water level. This now took almost two hours with the meager oxygen-starved flame of the Coleman Peak 1, but it had my praise for working at all.

Jan. 29: Some asshole had taken a shit right in the hut. Back to the Canaleta, and with a vengeance. I cramponed up adjacent snow slopes making my own route, laughing at the poor souls fighting the scree. As the brilliant sun softened the snow, my foot sometimes sunk in deeply, but anything was better than that scree. I crossed the trail when the snow streaks continued up on the right side of it. Suddenly, I lost my footing and started accelerating down the slope! I jabbed the ice axe in the snow and successfully performed a self-arrest, but I was terrorized. I panted and my knees trembled from the fright for some time. Further, I took off the Footfangs to climb solid boulders to the col. The height of each step varied so I had to vary the number of breaths per step. It worked out to about one deep in and out per eight centimeters of rise. Traversing the knife-edge col, I took care not to walk on the edge, for fear of falling through the lip of snow. Propelled by the momentum of the quest, I climbed the steep but sure-footed north summit trail, until I saw people caressing a meter-high tin cross adorned with offerings.

Aconcagua summit cross


It was like a dream. I wasn't certain this was the absolute summit because in the fog and clouds, the land seemed to rise, or was it a plateau? I walked over there, but perceived no slope, so this was it.

Other climbers gathered by the cross, so I was inhibited to express excitement. I just sat in the snow, overwhelmed with the deepest emotional experience of my life. It was intense beyond description and tears flooded the glacier goggles for maybe a quarter hour, totally salting and fogging them up. It was a profound expression of affirming my meaning of life and of being able to do anything. All the difficulties, principles and ideals that I had built into the expedition had built up to this ecstasy to which even the best orgasm pales in comparison. Only one third of aspirants ever reach this goal even with the aid of trucks, mules, guided groups, the hotel, and supply ferrying.

I explored the slightly sloped snowfield toward the Polish Glacier in the eerie fog that came and went. As I returned panting up the slope, a stranger among a group yelled "Come here!" and congratulated me. Such is the solidarity of mountaineers. The one I asked to take my photo must have had a frozen brain, judging from the poor centering he mustered.

On summit of Aconcagua


They left, then I had the 6960-meter top of the Americas and the Western Hemisphere all to myself. Many of the world's great mountaineers had stood here. Clouds completely obscured the horizon, but nearby snow-shrouded mountains were clear. I photographed 36 images, consisting of the entire panorama of 360° in four bands: sky, horizon, close, and ground. These are to be glued together on a 30-centimeter-diameter transparent semisphere to recreate the entire visual field. I tried to light a celebratory cigar, but the lighter laughed at the oxygen supply being 40% of that at sea level. I made an entry in the summit logbook that was wedged in the rocks. Some people had scribbled entire pages with cold, trembling hands. Marc had remarkably reached here four days ago on January 25, on his first attempt—congratulations. Two independent guys can't stick together for long. After over an hour of divine time, my left brain reminded me to start heading down to my tiny shelter.

A wave of rocks and boulders followed me down the Canaleta, often putting me on my butt. My fourth night at 6550 meters probably set a seasonal record. To my intrigue, there was still no one else camped here at Independencia, implying that it is standard practice to do the grueling climb to the summit from Berlin Camp. No wonder people die up here—they exhaust themselves to death!

Jan. 30: I yelled out a good Québecois swear word when a gust of wind blew the snow-melting pot and wind screen down, extinguishing the flame. I refused to go in the tent to continue, remembering the case of the two Koreans found dead from carbon monoxide poisoning, so I went to the hut and moved the frozen shit. My nose-breathing proved to be an effective water conservation technique. I required only three liters of water per day, saving melting time (1/2 to 1 hour per liter at 5000 to 6550 meters) and fuel (125ml of naphtha per snow-melting day).

Back down at Nido de Condores, I collected liquid water from a hole, but it tasted of sulfur and my stomach complained. That evening, I finally had a chance to celebrate the expedition success with a "pineapple-alcool" drink and the cigar.

Jan. 31: Someone had removed the marker rock over my food cache #3, so I had to dig up the area to locate the Ziploc. I traversed a splendid field of thousands of ice pinnacles called nieve penitentes (snow repentants), some two meters high.



These stately spires, reminiscent of processions of white-draped Spanish repentants marching on Holy Week, are the result of scorching radiation upon snow, in cold high-altitude regions where there is a dry season and the sun reaches a high angle. The snow literally evaporates, through sublimation, this keeping the penitentes cool, and resulting in very little water runoff. They point exactly to the sun at local noon, casting no shadow. The snow at ground-level may completely disappear, leaving the pinnacles isolated on bare rocks.

It took minutes, not hours to put up the tent in the cozy valley at the foot of the Horcones glacier.

Foot of Horcones Glacier


The river rushes straight out from under the ice. Although the glacier is only a short distance from the beaten path, no one else bothered to take a close look. It is pathetic how most people are in such a rush that they don't take the time to look around. Few people are explorers at heart.

Feb. 1: Exploring the glacier was surreal. As I weaved across a labyrinth of ice pinnacles, streamlets flowed everywhere, creating twisted gullies. The price I paid for poking around in there was a twisted knee, imposing a limp as I packed out. In need of a bath, I jumped stark naked into a small azure lake. It's amazing how fast I can wash in 5°C water. In such a majestic setting, the cold water was not a discomfort, but rather an invigorating sensation. Descending from Plaza de Mulas, I came across the shattered remains of a helicopter rotor, a possible explanation for the conspicuous absence of their flybys. I told the tale of Aconcagua hardships to two guys from Chicago who were going up, by showing my hands. There was dark, dead skin on the fingers, multiple cuts on the knuckles, and cracks in the folds of the skin from the sheer cold. I explored the old hotel that had found itself in the path of a charging avalanche. Its ruins had been uncovered after its assailant had quietly melted away. Some distance further, I hesitated to jump over a stream, contemplating the pain in my knee. Like a miracle, the water level in the stream dropped before my eyes allowing an easy crossing. Puzzlement turned to panic when I saw a wall of muddy rocks flowing toward me. After I had assessed the extent of the rock slide, I approached, stared and listened in amazement as the wet rocks clattered along, continually changing the character of the ravine, and stranding people on the other side. What a show erosion put on!

At camp a safe distance away, the mud so contaminated the Horcones river that a centimeter of silt had decanted at the bottom of my water bottle after settling overnight.

Feb. 2: An old board attached with wire to the bottom of my ice axe converted it to a cane. My backpack was painful because I lost so much weight that my clavicles and hipbones had lost their padding. During the long slow walk, I reflected on friendships back home and on a stream of experiences plucked from my thirty years in this life. It was pure joy to see small plants and to hear birds singing around camp after two weeks of absolute desert.

Feb. 3: Deviating again from the beaten path, I walked along the top edge of the awesome gorge for a spectacular view of Confluencia, where the rivers of the upper and lower Horcones glaciers converge. From there, I chose a camp spot far below, where crystal clear springs rush straight out of the rock cliff and get washed away by the thundering chocolate brown river. Throughout the night, I heard deep thuds from rocks shifting in the torrent.

Feb. 4: This warm place, surrounded with beautiful grasses and flowers, was so heavenly that I stayed another day to wash and repair clothing. Nearby, a 100-meter long slab of ground had recently begun tilting and sliding toward the river, forming a gaping crevasse.

Feb. 5: The motivation to get up at the crack of dawn was that I was completely out of food. My stomach started rebelling, probably from eating pepperoni sticks preserved with loads of sodium nitrite, every day for three weeks. Finally at the park exit, I showed my permit and garbage to the warden, lying about the numbered garbage sack being taken out by Marc when actually it had been taken out by a gale. The shock of civilization was brutal. A new huge Argentine customs hanger had just opened, so I had to go through the mad clearance process among crowds and buses even before I could get to the village.

The guys with secondhand information about where my gear had been tossed in the chaotic hotel basement, took a worrisome long time to retrieve it. After pitching up in a boulder field, I pigged out like crazy, then went for a sunset tour of the famous natural bridge.

Puente del Inca


The Puente del Inca is a natural wonder 19 meters over the Río de las Cuevas, a tributary of the Río Mendoza. It is stained bright sulfur orange and yellow. It was formed from the evaporation of mineral-rich water from a hot thermal spring beside it, then mankind came along and constructed buildings with about 20 rooms of hot baths and channeled the water in elaborate tunnels. They look a century old and lie in varying stages of ruin, from demolished to eerily abandoned.

Feb. 6: Still within view of Cerro Aconcagua is a cemetery of mountaineering accidents on this and many other Andes mountains. The monuments vary from rudimentary to an elaborate one with large bird wings constructed with welded metal strips. After Punta de Vacas, where attempts on Aconcagua via the Polish glacier start, a strong headwind annihilated any downhill advantage that my weakened body would have enjoyed.

A walk through a curved train tunnel, with its roof covered in soot, became a pitch dark eerie venture. Many narrow bridges and tunnels of the old road still stand by the highway. They intertwine with the railroad and the Río Mendoza as the valley changes from wide open to narrow gorge with multiple streams tumbling down the mountains. That evening, under a high bridge, I had the blues from being four days behind schedule despite my conservative route planning.

Feb. 7: Low clouds had sprinkled snow over mountaintops. Wind wildly whipped my collar string onto my helmet. Surprise, another cyclo-camper roamed the desolate landscape. This Argentine from Cordoba was going the other way to Rancagua to visit a glacier. His bike was disgustingly clean. At Uspallata, an oasis of poplars and weeping willows, I finally could phone home to report I was still alive. I endured a nosy police checkpoint before hitting the valley. It is dotted with sedge grass and thorny bushes—so thorny that just walking the bike to the Río Mendoza cost me a flat. I stuffed clothes between safety pins along the ruined tent zippers to keep out desert critters.

Feb. 8: I carried the bike to the roadside, and was returning to get the rest of the stuff, when I heard gunshots in the distance. The fourth bang was accompanied the shrill sound of a bullet whizzing by! I dropped to the ground scared out of my wits, and prayed to my protector for five minutes, allowing time for the idiot in the hills on the other side of the valley to bet bored or worried. They were behind rocks, but I did remember seeing a four-wheel-drive truck there last evening. They were satisfied with their menacing game because no other shots followed while I continued packing up in the open. I gather that they had been shooting to miss, but they sure gave this gringo some stories to tell.

"Peligro de muerte—frene" ("Danger of death—brake") is how an Argentine curve warning sign really spells it out. The emergence from the Andes to the pampas was shocking in its abruptness. (Pampas is Quechua indian for treeless plains around central Argentina.) The approach to Mendoza included hydroelectric stations, an oil refinery, lavish theme homes, discotheques, and much traffic. I heaved the bike up steep hotel stairs in the very commercial downtown.