Mountain Moniker

Gilda Isoardi climbs with Andean pioneer Lito Sanchez and learns the art of naming your own mountain.

Its 6am in the morning and we are in a hurry. Our improvised refuge near Puente Del Inca where my boyfriend Miguel and I spent the night under a spectacular starry night has to be quickly dismantled and chaotically thrown into the car. We have an appointment with Lito Sanchez, a living legend in Mendoza mountain climbing and we are late. A little higher on the ravine to the right lies the Route 7, where last night dozens of illuminatedtrucks crossing to Chile looked like glowing worms in the dark. Not very far away I’m able to spot the lights of a car that slowly approaches us. We are meant to meet Lito at

La Casucha del Rey, one of three remaining shelters that were built three hundred years ago to provide protection for whoever crossed these altitudes (among them Charles Darwin). All of a sudden a voice from the road screams at us. “Miguel, is that you?”
Relieved we recognize Lito´s voice and rejoiced that our climbing day is starting as it should.

The idea is to climb Navarro Sur, a 4,696 m peak that stands almost at the limit with Chile. The mountain is not particularly technical but neither is it easy, mainly due to the snow field dotted with penitents that covers most of the route and also by the distance that separates the mountain from where you actually start to walk. Most of these peaks have none or few ascents and have recently gained more popularity thanks to the book Peaks between 3000 and 5000 Metres written by Pablo David Gonzales.

“Ahi! You came fully equipped!” exclaims Lito, paying a quick look to our crampons, picks and helmets. I felt a little embarrassed. We were clearly nerds straight out of mountain school standing next to a man who long ago threw away the manual. He was wearing simple boots, had his bare hands inside his pockets and carried a light backpack. His double boots where hanging around his neck in a bag. He reminded me of the 19th Century pioneers that named these mountains Potrero Escondido, Quebrada Blanca, Río Juncal Valley and Plomo River Valley. Back then Edward Fitzgerald, Walter schiller, Robert Helbling and Frederich Reichert explored the area maybe more with geological enthusiasm than mountaineering zeal. They achieved impressive first climbs, some of which took like 30 years to be repeated. Recent books such as that by Pablo David Gonzales or The Forgotten Ice Fields by Glauco Muratti, have spiked new interest in the area, especially the area between

Las Cuevas and Tupungato ravine that is attracting both experts and beginners. Lito Sanchez is one of them. He is the first Argentine and Latin American to step foot on the eight-thousand metre peak Dhaulagiri and the first Latin American to climb Cho Oyu in winter.

He is also the Argentine with the most Aconcagua summits up his sleeve. In the last ten years alone he has conquered and named eight summits.

“Did you bring a change of shoes? Asked Lito, referring to a river crossing we had forgotten about. In the end there was no need to worry as two immense flat rocks had fallen from a crest above the river that allowed us to cross without getting our feet wet – a gracious little detail considering that the water is scarcely three degrees and fast flowing. This bridge I’ve been told is known as “the  smuggler’s bridge” referring to those that use it to cross through the Navarro ravine from Chile and avoid customs, a pursuit that has never lose interest among Argentines.

Lito Sanchez.

The road continued like a snake up the hill to the right. We stopped happily in a spring to fill up our bottles with freshly snow melted water. As we reached the entrance to the ravine, a valley shaped after a hanging glacier opened gently allowing us to see “Los Gemelos” (twin peaks),

“Bonito” peak and the “Navarros. In most of the Andes it is possible to find very interesting rocks in form and color but I think Navarro ravine takes it to a different level. It’s the kind of place where geologists would walk with their eyes on the ground. There are green cooper stones, dalmatians look-alikes, shiny gypsum and yellow and red sandstone to name just a few.

As we progressed further in, Lito unveils the mountains to us, “ El Puntudito”, called like that because of its Sharp Summit , “Gemelos” (twin peaks) one next to the other of course, “Navarro Norte and Sur (where we are heading to) and a little one which he look at in particular. Between

Santa Elena and Navarro Norte there stands a singular little mountain, whose climb seems nothing but easy. Narrow Canals that lead nowhere, weathered rock and the edge that should join it with his neighbor Santa Elena has no continuity.

“This mountain.” said Lito with a sparkle in his eye, “doesn’t have a name yet.”

For the next two kilometers he studied the mountain face, took pictures and plotted possible routes.

“And if we climb it and put a name to it?” He suddenly exclaimed.

We stared at him perplexed. Wouldn’t anybody like to name a mountain? In a world where everything seems to be already stamped and labeled, Mendoza still has some unclimbed and nameless peaks. Patience and determination are required since conquering these summits is no mean feat. Yet it is the only way to earn the right to name them.

Between the two giant peaks Aconcagua and Tupungato lies an immense field that still has much to be discovered. To give a name to a mountain is a delicate matter. Apart from reaching the summit first it is always helpful to have a bit of taste – definitely not the case with sport climbing routes such as “Malbec”, “My Girlfriend Leti” or “Arriba los Choris” close to Potrerillos. Expert Dr Evelio Echeverría recommends descriptive words that refer to the mountain’s shape, color or location. Also suitable are names that recall important people like national heroes or first explorers but only if they’ve already passed away (something that is not always respected).

Ascending El Morro Overo, Qda. de Navarro

Another important detail is that these  names should always be in Spanish with an exemption for native languages. In reality these solemn rules are no always followed. “Presenteseracae” or “Alma de Diamante” (two national rock songs) stand out proudly in modern mountain naming. “Ancestral” is one of the latest mountains to be named by Lito and though it doesn´t strictly apply to the rules you cannot deny its poetry.

Back on the mountain he took our hesitancy for a no and dropped the proposal. Instead we kept climbing our original route, following Lito as if he was a mountain guru, showing us the path he knew instinctively. The mountain becomes a harmless enjoyable adventure.

Eastern view of Penitentes Mountain

It’s a glorious sunny day and the silent ice fields extend all around us. We can clearly see the mountains on the Chilean side. Two peaks are remarkable to behold – “Parva Del Inca” with its very angular shapes, and of course, the “Stone Sentinel”, screaming out its altitude difference.

As we reached the mini summit, we realized sadly that an abrupt fall in the wall laid between us and Navarro Sur. The fact that we are standing in “Morro Overo” is unknown to us at that point. The views are amazing but we ar not at all happy as we cannot make it to our most desired summit. Lito seems a bit frustrated. He had attempted Navarro the previous weekend without success and he is determined not to fail again. Far away “El Puntudito” looked like it would have been an easier option, and the little peak with no name still stood defiantly among its conquered neighbors.


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