Nevado de acay - 18766' - NW Ridge class 2
After attempting Cerro el Plomo and climbing Cerro Placas in the Santiago area in Central Chile, we took a break from climbing for a bit and took the bus east, over to Mendoza to explore the Argentina wine country. We enjoyed some excellent Merlot and other red wines on a self guided bike powered winery tour, and ate some amazing food. I tried the wine flavored ice cream, but wasn't a fan, however like in typical Argentina fashion, all the other sweets were incredible. They have the best sweet desserts and ice creak I've ever had. After a few days we continued north on a long bus ride to Salta, where we once again enjoyed some very fine cuisine, which was different than the rest of Argentina. We ran into a large honoring ceremony for all the police forces, many of which were women, which was cool to see. We hiked up the hill in the middle of the city and had a great view of the surrounding hills. Salta itself sits right at the edge of the more humid and tropical eastern portion of Argentina.
We then set our sights for some higher elevation territory once again, and took the bus up to San Antonio de las Cobres, a small town in the far NW corner of Argentina in the Puna de Atacama. The weather called for some rather stormy weather the next few days, so we decided to sit in town and explore around for a few days, then attempt to climb Nevado de Acay. Sitting at an elevation above 12,000 feet, it was a great place to continue acclimating. One interesting thing about San Antonio de las Cobres, is that the area naturally contains very high levels of arsenic, yet people have been living here for thousands of years. Scientific studies on the small group of people who have been living here for generations have shown they have developed a mutation in their DNA to flush the arsenic out of their bodies much faster than the rest of humanity. I found that really cool; needless to say though we didn't drink the water here!
We walked up the small hill above town numerous times, roamed through the town and explored the community center, and inquired what the best way would be to get to Nevado de Acay. We spoke with a local guide who has taken parties up to the summit, and he suggested we take the early morning bus that returns to Salta and have them drop us off at a specific spot on the road where we could then walk cross country towards Nevado de Acay. About 10 kilometers east of Munano on Highway 51, right at the southern end of a straight section of road immediately before it turns back east and begins ascending to the pass, at 4000 meters elevation, we got off the bus and began walking in a SW direction. We had all our gear with us (we left all the extra gear we wouldn't need at the hostel we stayed at in Salta), so we were prepared to camp for a couple nights if needed. The morning was very crisp and below freezing with frost covering all the desert plants so we wasted no time getting started. As the sun rose higher though it warmed up nicely and we soon found a dirt road we could continue following south towards the mountain. There was a fair bit of fresh snow on the mountain from the previous few days of stormy weather, and I since I only brought my ultralight trail runners, I was hoping much of the snow would melt on the first day as we approached. Even though the mountain was very, very gentle and a technically very easy hike, I knew that with its elevation of 5720 meters it would challenge us, as this would be nearly 1000 meters higher then Cerro Placas.
As we slowly got closer to the mountain, I saw what looked like a car driving down the road towards us, and about 10 minutes later, there were a couple guys headed out! We chatted for a bit and they mentioned they were from Salta, and drove all the way up to the high camp and slept the previous night. Due to the huge elevation gain from Salta however they weren't able to attempt the climb and were experiencing headaches. We pushed on, and followed the now more defined road, which we assumed would end at an old mine somewhere. We drew closer to the base of the mountain, where the terrain steepened, and right where the dirt road crossed past a colorful red and yellow rocky area at 4700 meters we decided to set the camp. We found where the two guys who just drove out camped, and they left a gallon of water there, which was very lucky as we initially didn't really find a good water source nearby. We explored around a while, but mainly set up the tent and relaxed the rest of the afternoon. I didn't get very good sleep that night, and to top it off, we were awaken early in the morning by another car that drove past us on the road, and then drove back out past us an hour later.
The next morning as soon as there was enough light to see we started walking again, continuing to follow the dirt road to see where it led. I spotted a good route up a broad ridge on the NW flank of the mountain, which appeared to bypass the steeper, and looser looking scree slopes directly on the north slopes. The road continued to switchback up finall ending at a tiny old abandoned mine shaft, which coincidentally sat right at the base of the broad NW ridge we were going to ascend. As we reached 5000 meters elevation, the terrain steepened and we scrambled class 2 talus at a painfully slow rate, taking just maybe 10 steps then having to stop to breathe. It had been a couple years since I had been this high, July 2016 being the last time while in Peru. When we reached 5500 meters, we emerged onto a flat bench on the ridge about 150 meters below the summit plateau. Here the snow depth started to quickly increase from a dusting to a few inches, and the final 150 meters up the NW facing aspect to the summit plateau was getting our feet wet having to post hole up to our ankles. When we reached the summit plateau, we made the mostly flat walk towards the highest point as the afternoon clouds began to slowly obscure our views. It is typical for clouds to roll in during afternoons here, so we didn't stay up there long.
As we hiked down the cloud formations actually became quite scenic. We retraced our steps back to camp and at this point I was getting a headache. We passed by a couple small structures that looked to be pre-Columbian, perhaps from the Incas or even earlier. Apparently Nevado de Acay was sacred for the ancient cultures who once lived these lands, and remnants of human activity is abundant on the summit and the various slopes.
I really didn't want to eat much that evening and went right to bed when we got back to the tent. The next morning, we hiked back out to the road, happy to be back down to 4000 meters. Knowing there wasn't going to be another bus until later in the evening going to Salta, we tried our luck hitchhiking. Not very many cars drive this road, so we weren't expecting anything, but amazingly after just an hour and a half a driver in a large work truck picked us up! He was very nice and was simply driving the truck on the job. He took us all the way back down highway 51 to the smaller town of Campo Quijano, and just a short collectivo ride from there got us back to Salta in plenty of time to grab a nice dinner in the city and relax a the hostel. We were just about ready to make the cross over into Bolivia!