These boots were made for hiking

PENITENTES-02You cannot conquer Aconcagua on a day trip, so Madeline Blasberg sets off from the lofty Ayelen hotel to reach her own summit.

Merely sitting next to Luciano felt like the only bit of credibility I had as a climber.  Unlike the hordes of athletes bustling through Ayelen Hotel, I was not preparing to summit Aconcagua – only to enjoy (or survive) a day-long hike in the Penitentes region of the Andes.
Steve, British expat and manager of Ayelen Hotel, had organized a walk for us with Luciano, and tasked him with the challenge of proving that the mountains weren´t reserved exclusively for wilderness elite.  But the hike wouldn´t begin until the next morning.  Which meant that for the next 12 hours I would roam the hotel´s grounds – complete with 49 bedrooms, stocked bar and common room, gorgeous mountain views and a restaurant to stop even the most determined climber dead in his tracks.
As far as mountain fare goes, the chef at Ayelen delivers what can only be described as Argentine soul food: generous portions of quality cuisine full of local flavor.  So there I sat, in a dining room of Aconcagua enthusiasts, sitting before a table laden with tomorrow´s climbing calories: pancetta wrapped lamb served with wild berry sauce over a bed of roasted rustic potatoes, pappardelle pasta with shrimp and octopus in an herbed butter sauce, and for dessert a chocolate Marquise with wild berries and cream.  The next morning, after a light breakfast in the hotel´s dining room, I laced up my hiking boots and found Steve, who introduced me to my guide: Luciano Badino.
Luciano´s credentials as a mountain guide did more to set my teeth on edge than to bolster up my confidence.  Twenty-two Aconcagua summits and the uncanny way he repeatedly joined “Mt. Kilimanjaro” and “easy” in the same sentence.
“The city tour, the wine tour – everybody knows about them, but something is missing,” Luciano told me, “the mountain is missing.”  So he led me out the door of this mountain retreat on the road to Chile to find it. A quick jaunt up the road and we began our trek, heading towards a mountain rock formation known as Los Penitentes, named after their resemblance to penitents, kneeling and praying toward the sky.  To my surprise, the first obstacle I faced was not from Mother Nature, but instead came in the form of what only loosely resembled a bridge.

“He repeatedly joined “Mt. Kilimanjaro” and “easy” in the same sentence”  

The so-called bridge was a hodgepodge of thick metal cables, weathered planks of wood, a few pieces of sheet metal and a handful of wire to hold it all together.  I ducked under the first wire cable and stared out at the patchwork junkyard bridge.  For a moment I teetered on the edge of deciding whether to follow Luciano out into mid-air, or head back to comfort of Ayelen.  But in the end Luciano´s confidence pulled me across to the other side.

From the first step Luciano set the pace.  A languid, steady pace that would have looked like a small, poorly dressed funeral procession had anyone been around to take notice.
“You get many hours of walking in silence and introspection when climbing, that you´re not able to reach in your everyday life,” he said. “You leave completely physically exhausted, but your mind, your mind leaves absolutely open.”
I would later learn that he was right, but at that moment my mind was focused on the sound of the glacial stream that we seemed to be following.  It bobbed and weaved through various boulder obstacles, threading through the landscape.  But mostly, it served to refill our water bottles and lull us into a kind of hiking trance.
A trance abruptly broken by Luciano´s suggestion to hike to the top of a neighboring peak.  Half-way up, the slope and terrain turned distinctly more challenging.  A familiar chill of fear trickled through my veins, as my brain rattled through a series of worst-case-scenario calculations.  I imagined dormant landslides whisking me down the side of the mountain – and then suddenly there was Luciano´s hand suspended in mid-air, waiting for me.  I shot him a quick eye-roll, took his hand, and stepped forward.
PENITENTES-03“This is the only sport where there exists no applause,” Luciano said. “What you achieve here, it´s very personal.”
As Luciano says, “the mountain is for everyone.  For every fitness level.  The only requirement is entusiasmo.” Enthusiasm I´ve got, but my legs still quiver when I tell them to step onto a perilously perched rock ledge.  I still sweat and pant and look for a place in the shade to take a breather.  But I get there.
Standing at the top of the un-named mountain, I could see the peaks of the Tres Gemelos, three twins mountains, and the winding river, and the switchback trail we had followed upward.  I braced myself against a large pink boulder, and took quick inventory: body – exhausted, mind – a little blown away.
After gathering our composition and taking a good break, we headed back to the common room of Ayelen, where Steve meets me with a cold beer and a trepidatious smile.
“We did it,” I confirm, taking the beer out of his hand and slumping into the nearest chair, trying to find a delicate way to wipe the sweat-encrusted dust from my face and neck.

“This is the only sport where there exists no applause”
Over my left shoulder I hear the cling of beer bottles, and turn to see a group of 8 Brits settle into their second round of drinks.
“They just summited Aconcagua yesterday,” Luciano tells me, “and hiked down today. That´s a long walk.”  Did he just refer to the Aconcagua descent as a long walk?  Suddenly my eight hours start to dwindle into insignificance.
Until I remembered something: I could listen to their stories of harrowing maneuvers, bitter winds and strings of endless steps upward – but I´d rather have the gentle burn of my exhausted muscles than borrowed awe from someone else´s adventure.

Surprisingly, the mountains look different to me on the ride home.  My eye immediately goes to look for the safest route to the top, and I imagine the zig-zags I would cut into the slopes.  The city feels different too.  My apartment feels smaller, the air a little less delicious, the sky a little farther away.  But I remember how to get back: forty-five pesos for a ticket on Buttini Bus Company and a few knocks on Steve’s door.  It’s only uphill from there.

Recommended Gear

Because the mountain climate can change rapidly, and without warning, dressing in layers is a necessity.  Otherwise a good pair of hiking boots, a brimmed hat, sunglasses, sunscreen and hiking sticks are usually all the gear that’s necessary.

Other Popular Routes

Many other hikes are available in the Penitentes area.  More difficult treks require advanced skill or the accompaniment of a guide.  A quick chat with climbers and staff at Ayelen is the best way to choose the appropriate route.

  • Hike around and up Cerro Penitentes (3-7 days)
  • Hike up Cerro Leñas (8 hours)
  • Hike up Cerro las Cañas (6 hours)
  • Los Puquios (6 hours)

If you’re interested in trekking around Penitentes and finding a piece of the mountain life, contact Steve at: ayelenreservas@gmail.com, subject line: Trekking. He can organize a guided hike and overnight stay at the hotel to rest up, feed up and acclimatize.

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