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General: this page and the next one describe the Piuquenes crossing. A detailed map and GPS readings are also available.

Fri 4 Feb: Manzano–Yaretas (24km, 1630m ascent)

The

Views up and down

road, rocky ripio, heads relentlessly upwards following a steep valley. Backwards there are views over the endless plains of Argentina like the sea. We meet the military Lemos refuge after 6km – we don’t know whether it is possible to stay there – and the Portinari refuge after another 4. This is where border formalities are conducted. The gendarme is friendly. Some climbers are camping on the grass outside. There is a map which we should have photographed, worthy of Herodotus in its accuracy. It claims a road as far as the Paso de los Piuquenes (although vehicles are not permitted to use it) and assigns the pass a height of 5100m.

Further on, the road crosses the main stream at the Puente el Salto where me make lunch and bask in the sun.

We resume riding, passing the Scaravelli refuge at about 3100m. Close to our destination the road forks, with the left turn leading to Yaretas and the Portillo Argentino. The signpost gives 2km for Yaretas; the true distance is 1.4. There is a burnt-out bus on the way.

Yaretas is a real, which I suppose means grazing ground. It is a flat meadow beneath an old terminal moraine at 3500m. We set up camp.

Notes: the average gradient for the day is in excess of 7%; our average speed 4.8 km/h. We might have been able to arrange for the mules to meet us earlier and carry our luggage from Manzano.

Sat 5: Yaretas–Real de la Cruz (approx 24km, 1000m)

The

A motley crew

mules appear in the morning as we clear up camp. We hadn’t known how many we would get because we hadn’t known how many we needed; we left it all to Don Rómulo. We were surprised and delighted by the magnificence of the train which rode in: 6 mules, 2 arrieros (muleteers – Ernesto and Roberto) and a small dog with no name. (Tracey reckons that some of the mules were in fact ponies.) We hand the panniers to the arrieros for loading and wait for Don Rómulo to turn up as he has promised. He arrives in a jeep with a companion, perhaps his brother.

We

Climbing

are used to muleteers walking with their beasts in the Himalayas, but that is not what happened here. Ernesto and Roberto had mules to ride and mules to carry the huge steaks they dined on and the cartons of wine they washed it down with. They made a cracking pace from the start, and we were never able to keep up with them. Don Rómulo drove to 3800m where the road becomes impassable to motors owing to a small washout. He waited for us there before turning back.

We

Views up and down

made our way gamely upwards, the bikes lightened of most of their load, but the ripio becoming stonier. Above about 4200m so many rocks have fallen onto the road that it becomes impossible to ride, and we do a lot of pushing and carrying and cursing. The road eventually ends and the final approach to the pass is a zigzagging mule track, snow-lined for us.

The

Portillo Argentino

pass itself is a notch in the skyline – a doorway into another world. We reckoned its height as 4335m, very close to the figure shown on maps. It traps the snow. We looked through it into the valleys beyond and resumed our journey.

The

Descent

Co. Pirámide

arrieros had warned us that the descent was stony, and so it proved. It was a long way down to our night stop at the Refugio Real de la Cruz, and we didn’t ride much of it. At first the trail weaves over moraines and occasional snowfields; later the sandy soil makes better paths, but they are still strewn with small boulders.

All

Yellow Mountain

Tunuyán valley

the way down there are views of the mountains bordering the valley: glaciated volcanoes, rocky buttresses, and even a yellowish conical peak.

Near the bottom the path forks. The trail to the left follows the Tunuyán downstream; that to the right crosses a small tributary, climbs a shoulder giving excellent views, and drops down to the Refugio at 2850m.

The refuge itself is unmanned but palatial. The furniture is basic but there are iron bedsteads and sponge matresses and food left behind by previous visitors. We make ourselves comfortable and pretend to find our pasta as appetising as the steaks the arrieros are barbecuing.

Notes: we left Yaretas at 9.30 and arrived at Real de la Cruz at 17.30. Managing the bikes on the descent was made needlessly difficult by our having a complete set of tools in the panniers. It might have been useful to be able to replace an inner tube, but the rest of the tools could have been taken by the mules.

I don’t know where the path downstream leads to. Presumably there is some obstacle to following the Tunuyán valley down to the plains, otherwise there would be no need to attack the Portillo Argentino. Maybe it simply crosses the Andes slightly to the south at the Paso de las Nieves Negras.

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