Our Expedition through the Andean Mountains
As some of you know, Every few months I travel to Argentina to help out with the Vines of Mendoza and enjoy some great wine and steaks.Â Unfortunately I donâ€™t get to go out and tour and see the wineries too often, but this time I was lucky enough to be in town when Pablo, one of the Vinesâ€™ founders, had arranged a two day trip through the Andean mountains to the border of Chile.
Before I get into the details, I want to be clear:Â It was great and Iâ€™ll remember this trip for the rest of my life.
We were to drive to the national park, about 30 minutes from our vineyards, the Vines Private Vineyard Estates (which are about an hour outside of Mendoza), and then drive part of the way up the first mountain to about 3,000 meters.Â We would then get on horses, climb the rest of the way up the mountain and cross a pass at 4,500 meters.Â Weâ€™d then ride to some lodge in a valley stay overnight and come back the next day.Â It sounded like fun, and as I said to Bryan the night before we left:Â Â â€œ5 hours on horseback - How hard could it be?â€Â Famous last words.
4 of us spent Friday night at the cabins at our Private Vineyard Estates in the Uco Valley.Â Iâ€™m sure enough has been written about the cabins â€“ but Iâ€™d never really seen the sunrise coming up from East and lighting the Andes in the morning.Â It was magnificent.
We then met the rest of our group and headed to the mountains.Â We had a bit of trouble getting into the park â€“ if any of you want to go, donâ€™t forget to bring your passports.Â Thanks to Matt, Pablo and especially our blond, Emily, we were able to get through the security checkpoint.Â Walter, our guide, met us about three-quarters of the way up the mountain with our horses.Â After an hour or so of getting organized, we mounted our horses and set off.
We started off like this:
We ended up like this:
The trip starts with a climb to the pass.Â Itâ€™s a little steep and for those of us with minimal horse-back riding experience, was a little tough.Â We climbed along narrow paths next to gigantic vertical drops. Scary.Â It was also bloody cold.Â But we were all excited and were having fun.Â After about an hour of riding, we made it to the top.Â Our guide stopped me at the top to fix my saddle and by the time I got back on the horse, most of the others had moved on.
My horse, Seabiscuit, took a few steps and moved through the pass and paused.Â Since the group had moved on, I didnâ€™t see anyone in front of me to follow.Â Now imagine the toughest Double Diamond ski run youâ€™ve ever taken.Â Then imagine it, say, 50% steeper.Â Then imagine there wasnâ€™t any snow on it â€“ just rocks.Â Thatâ€™s what I saw.Â My reaction, that rang out loudly through the Andean mountains:Â â€œAre you people F$#@ kidding me?â€.
Seabiscuit, luckily, wasnâ€™t scared.Â He just turned down and started plodding down the path (if you could call it a path) while I hung on for dear life, cursing Pablo for organizing the trip with every step.Â Meanwhile, to add to the experience, frigid cold air was snapping at me and I was having trouble breathing at 4,500 meters.Â Â Plus my IPOD decided to start playing Tom Pettyâ€™s â€œFree Fallingâ€.Â Â Ah, the memoriesâ€¦
We finally made it down to the base of that mountain and started off to the lodge.Â Â Now the way the trip was described to me was that weâ€™d climb the mountain, cross the pass and take a short ride to where weâ€™d be staying for the night.Â That was all true, except for the word â€˜shortâ€™.
When you make it down that kind of slope you get a kind of adrenalin rush â€“ you think you can handle anything.Â Â Unfortunately, the wind and the cold kind of kicks that out of you after about twenty minutes.Â We were all tired.Â In fact, at one point Emilyâ€™s horse decided to lie down â€“ with Emily still on board.
The scenery was amazing.Â The mountains and valleys were out of a movie â€“ just magnificent unspoiled wilderness.Â Â I got a little uneasy when I saw the horse bones that littered our path and when I saw a giant bird circling.Â Our guides assured me that it was a condor, not a vulture.
It was tough.Â Last time I was on a horse for any extended period of time was the Carter administration.Â Needless to say, I was hurting.Â Every step Seabiscuit took was like a kick in the groin and I kept thinking that any chance I had of ever having kids was over.Â My back was sore and my knee was locking up.Â By the end of the five-hour trip I was way behind the rest of the crew, needing a 12 year old guide to keep my horse from bolting on me.Â Luckily, Pablo stayed back with me to keep my spirits up. Thanks Pablo.
And it was demoralizing.Â Around every bend, I expected to see the lodge.Â By the time we forded a river, 4 hours into the ride, I had given up hope.Â I thought I might have died and had ended up in some cruel version of hell that involved an endless painful horseback ride.
Finally, we arrived at the lodge and, well, it wasnâ€™t exactly a lodge.Â It was called â€˜The Refugeâ€™ and was a building with a few giant rooms where people could camp out.Â We had a choice of staying in the room with the 40 Argentine soldiers or the one with the family who had brought their guitar and drums.Â We went with the second choice.Â Jime wanted to stay in the room with the soldiers, but we wouldnâ€™t let her.
Iâ€™ll briefly mention another memorable part of the â€˜lodgeâ€™: the facilities.Â Bryan described them as being comparable to a public restroom in one of the poorest parts of India.Â But dirtier.Â In other words, a hole in the floor.
The evening was fun.Â We had a wonderful asado and introduced some of the locals to that great American delicacy, barbequed marshmellows.Â Outside, the stars were magnificent.Â For the first time in my life I was able to see the Milky Way.Â But I was beat, so at about 11PM I climbed up to get in my sleeping bad in the room I was sharing with about 20 other people.
For the next hour and a half, I was treated to a concert by Mr. Guitar.Â Then I learned that when soldiers get drunk, they sing very, very loudly for hours.Â After about 2 hours of that, the soldiers stopped â€“ but then someone else started to sing outside our window for another hour or so.Â I got a GREAT nightâ€™s sleep.
Day two was much better.Â We spent a few hours outside waiting for the horses to get ready, exploring the area.Â We were in a valley, nestled in the middle of the Andes, near the Chilean border (I imagine our singing army friends were there in case of attack).Â The mountains were magnificent â€“ different colored rocks with snow-capped tips.Â It truly gives one an appreciation for nature and our magnificent planet.Â The rugged unspoiled beauty that we must try and preserve.Â Mike and I talked about how we were upset the 4 or 5 times we saw plastic bottles littering the path during the ride (of course we were too exhausted to get off our horses and pick them up).
We went back the way we came.Â The weather was much better and it was actually warm for the first couple of hours.Â I even ended up getting a hell of a sunburn â€“ I actually have a burn on the backs of my hands where they held the reins.Â This time my horse, Lady, was much friendlier to me and we got along wonderfully.Â Make no mistake â€“ I was still in pain.Â But Tylenol works wonders.
About 3.5 hours into the trip, we reached the base of the climb to the peak.Â It was freezing but Lady was determined to get me up there.Â Afterwards, I was told that everyone was amused at my cheering her on â€“ I kept crying â€˜Vamos Ladyâ€™, â€˜Câ€™mon Ladyâ€™ and â€˜Good Girlâ€™ very loudly.Â I thought everyone was egging their horses on too, but I just couldnâ€™t hear them because of the wind.
Anyways, it was a slow treacherous crazy steep climb through the snow-covered path to the pass.Â About four meters below the top, Matt, who was a few feet behind me, wondered what would happen if the horse just decided to quit at that point.Â That thought had been going through my mind for the last 20 minutes or so â€“ so I was REAL glad to hear it voiced.Â Not that I believe in jinxes.
So Lady and I reach the top and Iâ€™m ecstatic.Â Then we look over the top.Â Down in the distance we could see our cars â€“ but we couldnâ€™t see the path.Â It was steeper than the one we took yesterday.Â About 10 meters down Iâ€™m told I cried out â€œIâ€™m freaking out here, but I think Iâ€™m going to make itâ€ â€“but I donâ€™t remember that.Â I just remember praying a little and urging Lady to move slower.
Needless to say, we all reached the bottom in one piece. It will take us some time to recover â€“ but it was well worth it.Â Iâ€™d recommend the trip to anyone who comes to Argentina.Â The natural beauty of the Andean mountains makes it all worthwhile.Â My only word of advice:Â Be prepared for whatâ€™s in store for you.Â And wear lots of sunscreen.