American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Tolosa

  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1946

Tolosa

Arthur B. Emmons 3rd

ON a previous visit to the vicinity of Aconcagua in the Argentine Andes during February, 1944,1 our party had passed close beneath the imposing buttresses of one of the principal peaks bordering the Horcones Valley on the W., whose great cliffs and hanging glaciers dominate the lower end of this wild valley. Although one of the more accessible mountains in this area, both from the Horcones and Las Cuevas Valleys, Tolosa has received comparatively little attention from climbers. The apparent reason for this is its moderate altitude in comparison with Aconcagua, highest mountain in the Americas, whose towering ridges overawe the scene and have attracted to themselves at least twenty successful expeditions and probably many more not so successful, as the small cemetery at Puente del Inca bears grim witness. As a splendid peak, however, Tolosa still manages to hold its own, both by virtue of its steep walls and its position of relative detachment from other and higher peaks many of whose summits reach altitudes of 19,000 and 20,000 ft.

One of the earliest, if not the first, ascent of Tolosa appears to have been that of the Baroness Moyandorff, accompanied by the Swiss guide Pollinger, in 1902, accomplished from the N.E. along the main ridge rising from a col connecting with the Forked Peak. This same route was successfully followed by Mervyn F. Ryan and three English companions in February, 1925. Several further ascents were made during the 1930’s, while the most recent was that of Lieutenant Emiliano Huerta, Sergeant Aníbal Martiniz, and two other companions in 1941. All of these latter ascents had been accomplished from the E. by the direct route up the couloirs which give immediately onto the summit.

As on the previous trip, I was to be accompanied by Theodore Crombie and Miguel Cáfaro, plans being made to foregather at Puente del Inca on the Transandine Railway by February 16th, 1945. This time we were forearmed with at least some previous knowledge of local terrain and weather conditions, as well as being far better equipped than on the former occasion. It had been decided to concentrate our efforts immediately upon Tolosa and, if successful, we would spend anything that remained of our two weeks vacation in an attempt on El Cuerno at the head of the Horcones Valley, the latter being a precautionary idea which, in the event, proved to be unnecessary.

Insofar as could be determined, all previous ascents of Tolosa had been accomplished from the Horcones Valley on the E., several exploratory attempts from the S.W. and W. having been made in previous years, including one by Ryan, who told us that conditions of terrain on the Las Cuevas slopes were extremely unfavorable. We therefore decided to follow the usual route.

Accordingly, at 9.00 a.m. on February 17th, the day following my arrival by train at Puente del Inca, where Crombie had been awaiting me, we started for the Horcones with six mules, having as our baquiano Pastén, a well-known local figure who had ascended Aconcagua on two occasions and who had also been up Tolosa some seventeen years before. Unfortunately Cáfaro had been delayed in Mendoza at the last minute and was unable to join us until later.

To our surprise, the party immediately ran into difficulties with the Provincial border officials, who were not inclined to permit us to enter the Horcones Valley because of a recent decree forbidding anyone from climbing on Aconcagua without special permission from the authorities of Mendoza Province. This decree had been occasioned by the disastrous outcome of the Link Expedition of the previous year, in which four members were lost on that mountain, resulting in much expense and difficulty in efforts at rescue. However, after some insistence on our part that the two of us were not going to attack Aconcagua, but in reality only Tolosa, we were allowed through the barrier.

As the party turned N. into the Horcones, the magnificent southern ramparts of Aconcagua rose glistening with new snow at the head of the valley, as always truly a most exhilarating spectacle. Our riding mules made fast work of the twelve miles to the mouth of the subsidiary valley descending from Tolosa. After climbing some 1500 ft. over easy slopes, we crossed the rocky bed of the stream to the north side of this valley and set up our base camp in the shelter of a terminal moraine at an estimated altitude of 13,500 ft., six hours’ ride from Puente del Inca. Pastén was requested to report back in five days and departed immediately with the mules.

We had brought sufficient provisions and fuel for our entire two weeks’ stay, as well as complete equipment for at least one higher bivouac, being prepared to acclimatize ourselves and lay siege to Tolosa at our leisure. Our first setback came almost immediately when we had to spend the entire first evening battling with the recalcitrant primus stove, whose pressure cap had been repaired with solder that promptly melted off.

Exceptionally heavy snow lay on all of the upper slopes, the result of a devastatingly heavy snowfall ten days before which had closed both the Transandine highway and railway and had brought near-disaster to a military expedition then on Aconcagua searching for the bodies of the Link party. Anticipating that heavy snow in the western couloirs of Tolosa would make a direct approach to the summit difficult of not impossible, it was decided to follow Ryan’s longer route from the N. col, which would enable us to attain the main ridge line at a lower point.

Leaving camp at a comfortable hour on the 18th without loads, we carried out an exploration of the approaches to the N. col at the head of the valley. After several hours over great mounds of moraine, we approached the base of the steep cliffs of Tolosa’s eastern flank and turned toward the right into a basin lying at the foot of the col. Here is found a small glacier which descends from below the great multicolored towers of the Forked Peak (16,672 ft.)2 that rise from the N. end of the col, nieve penitente being very much in evidence.

Keeping somewhat to the left of the lowest point of the col where the descending crest of the ridge was badly broken, we scrambled for an hour over very steep scree and rock slopes which put a severe strain on our untrained lungs. After half the slope had been negotiated and no site for a bivouac discovered, we made a quick descent to camp.

Following a day spent in base camp because of a snowstorm, we again set out for the col on the 20th, this time weighted down with sufficient supplies to establish a bivouac and to make our first attempt on the summit. For the first few hundred yards we were aided by the two mules brought up that morning by the baquiano accompanying Mrs. Crombie, who had sportingly paid us a brief visit at the base camp from Puente del Inca. At about 4.00 p.m. the weather, which up to this point had been fine, began to deteriorate, a heavy wind blowing through the col and driving before it snow-bearing clouds. A site for our small tent was found part way up the slopes in a tiny nook perched close beneath the towering black crags of the eastern escarpment of Tolosa. It was a sheltered spot at about 15,500 ft., somewhat below the altitude from which, because of the length of the proposed route, we had hoped to make our final take-off. After building up a platform and securing the tent, we crawled in to do battle once more with the primus stove.

The wind and snow continued throughout the night and, coupled with our lack of acclimatization, made sleep exceedingly hard to achieve. The following morning the weather appeared to be worsening, while the temperature had dropped to 22° F. When by 9.30 a.m. no change for the better seemed in prospect, we collapsed the tent and, leaving all of our gear, returned to the base camp where we found about three inches of new snow. Towards evening the weather cleared, although the high wind continued from the W., blowing plumes of snow over the summit ridge of Tolosa onto our proposed route on the lee side. At sunset we were rewarded with the astoundingly beautiful sight of the great rock walls of Aconcagua freshly powdered and now radiant with the delicate shades of the alpine glow.

On the 22nd in preparation for a new attempt, we again returned to the bivouac, which had now been nicknamed the “Nido de Polios" (Chicken’s Nest) in contradistinction to the more ambitious advanced camp of the various recent Aconcagua expeditions, “Nido de Cóndores.” Although the weather had settled fair, broken late-afternoon clouds swept through the col under the pressure of the prevailing westerly wind.

The following morning we breakfasted at 6.30 and managed to get away by about 8.00 o’clock. The steep scree slopes above the bivouac proved very trying indeed and we took to outcroppings of rock where possible. After following a gully which paralleled the base of the huge rock buttress on our left for about 500 ft., we came out on a series of wider snow slopes at whose lower edge the ground fell away abruptly. We were now well above the N. col, on the other side of which the rugged pinnacles of the Forked Peak hemmed in the valley head. As the gradient now became steeper and heavier snow was encountered, at times with ice beneath, we put on the rope.

Progress from here on was slow, particularly as a series of upward traverses had to be made to a point where the ridge could be reached above its most serious interruptions. The going was extremely heavy and at noon we were still below the crest. At this point I attempted to cross one particularly steep open slope composed of six inches of powder snow lying on a thin crust. Underneath this was a bottomless welter of unconsolidated drift into which I soon sank almost to the neck and from which I could extricate myself only with considerable difficulty, despite a secure rock belay from Crombie. The evident danger of a surface peel, as well as the sheer physical effort involved, caused us to abondon this line, and we were forced to continue to the ridge 200 ft. above by means of some steep rocky ledges along the base of a jutting wall.

The ridge at this point, estimated at about 17,000 ft., was extremely narrow and dropped away sheer on the farther side (W.) into a deep couloir. After following the crest for about twenty yards, we stood beneath a tower which cut off further direct progress. I attempted to turn the tower on the W. but soon observed that the ridge beyond could not readily be regained because of ice- covered slabs. On the E. the side of the ridge rose in an unbroken wall from the névé which we had attempted to cross.

By persistent effort a way could undoubtedly have been forced around this obstacle. It was now 2.00 p.m., however, and we were still well below the northern shoulder of the mile-long summit ridge, whose entire length was yet to be traversed, including several difficult pitches known to have been encountered by the Ryan party. Furthermore the wind was rising sharply and bringing with it clouds from the Pacific. Retreat was decided on and, belaying one another down over the abrupt rock and snow of our laborious ascent, Crombie and I returned to the bivouac two hours later in a gathering snowstorm.

All hope of following the Ryan route and of climbing Tolosa from the Horcones side was now abandoned, in view of the very bad snow conditions which had prevented us from following his essential series of traverses along the slopes under the eastern crest of the final ridge. On the other hand we reasoned that the prevailing westerly winds would either have cleared the recent heavy snow from the western (Las Cuevas) side of Tolosa or at least have consolidated it to a greater degree than on the E. Although such information as could be obtained relative to the feasibility of an approach from the Las Cuevas Valley had all been negative, it was decided that there would lie our best chance under present circumstances. Accordingly, after an uncomfortable night of wind, cold, and snow at the “Nido,” we struck the bivouac and returned to the base camp with heavy loads by 1.00 p.m. on the 24th.

There we found Pastén and the mules, as per arrangement and immediately packed up camp for descent that same afternoon to Puente del Inca, to which we must return on our swing around to the W. of Tolosa. About five miles down the Horcones we met Cáfaro on a mule coming to join us, and the entire party continued on to the delightful comforts and food of the hotel.

A day of luxury and leisure was spent at Puente del Inca, including a bathe in the mineral hot springs for which the place is well- known. Only pessimistic reports were received from all with whom we consulted at the hotel regarding the western approaches to Tolosa, including Pastén. Cáfaro, however, had made a short trip into the upper end of the Las Cuevas Valley a few weeks before and he, at least, believed that it might provide a feasible route.

Pastén appeared at 8.30 on the morning of the 26th with our six mules, while eight nondescript dogs followed in his wake, something of a record even for local “volunteers”! We had a long ride ahead of us and pushed on up the Transandine Highway at a brisk pace under beautiful clear skies. Ahead rose Santa Elena (15,744 ft.), the often-ascended peak which stands above the Christ of the Andes in Las Cuevas Pass.3 We lunched at the barren little cluster of houses known as Las Cuevas, last settlement on the Argentine slope of the Andes and near the point where the railway plunges into the tunnel under the pass. To the W. the highway climbed out of the valley in a series of sharp switchbacks to the continental divide, while immediately above us to the E. towered the jagged rock pinnacles and hanging glaciers of Tolosa’s western defenses.

A few miles beyond the settlement of Las Cuevas, the valley widened into a lovely upland swale, now green as a result of the recent snowfall, and hemmed in on all sides by fine snow-and-rock peaks, many of them constituting the watershed between Argentina and Chile, conspicuous among which rises the great wedge of Caracoles (15,423 ft.). The character of the country in the upper Las Cuevas differs markedly from that of the Horcones region, being less severely stark and more alpine in its feeling. Crombie and I were thoroughly captivated by this new scene.

As we passed to the N. W. of Tolosa, a side valley opened to view on the right, descending evidently from the N. col upon the other side of which we had made our first attempt. Turning into this valley, the mules had a hard time in gaining an entrance because of the steepness of its initial slopes. However, after several hundred feet of scree lying at a high angle, the valley floor leveled off to some extent. Climbing along the lower edge of long cones of talus originating from a shoulder of Tolosa on the right, the mules experienced considerable difficulty in avoiding successive hillocks of rocky valley moraine. After an hour and a half, and despite the increasing grumblings of Pastén, we finally reached the upper basin beneath the col and at the foot of the N.W. face of Tolosa, where deep snow bogged the mules and prevented further advance. We had been in the saddle for seven hours and were glad enough to dismiss the mules and the eight dogs and set up base camp on a dry spot of moraine at about 14,000 ft.

The N.W. face of Tolosa from this aspect appeared rather formidable, being composed of a broad rock face more than three thousand feet high, cut vertically by deep couloirs and ragged aretes and broken, at intervals, by a series of slanting transverse terraces and slabs. Running along the top of the face was a steep rocky lip which cut off the view above. As we approached it from a distance, I had tried to make out a tentative route with the binoculars, following a series of snow leads up the center that seemed to indicate broad ledges and which finally appeared to connect with an expanse of névé below the final skyline wall. The face was enclosed on the left by the formidable ridge rising out of the N. col and on the right by a massive formation of sharp rock pinnacles and boilerplate, falling steeply away for a thousand feet or more. We were subsequently to have reason to remember this latter formation !

By 5.00 a.m. on the 27th we were breakfasting on food prepared the evening before and kept in thermos flasks. At 6.00, still in comparative darkness, the party began the long grind up the scree slopes a few yards from camp at the base of a great couloir. The temperature was 22° F., the sky clear, and no wind. Conditions were excellent, the snow crusted, even the scree being frozen. We made good time to the point where the couloir petered out onto some slabs 600 ft. above, and then swung to the left onto an arete which, to our dismay, soon brought us to the edge of a deep cleft whose near side overhung, and which had been completely invisible from below. These clefts were a curious and annoying feature of this part of Tolosa, being formed by the exposure and fracturing of successive layers of durable rock at a steeply-inclined angle and dipping sharply towards the W.

After a little reconnoitering, I managed to discover a break through which descent could be made to the bottom of the rift, where the soft snow that had collected there caused us considerable annoyance. Once across, a steep series of cracks and ledges permitted us to surmount the opposite wall and regain our altitude with the loss of about half an hour.

From here on, after one or two short pitches of rock, the series of snow leads which I had studied from below stood us in good stead, and as this side of the mountain was still in the shadow of the N. ridge, we pushed on as fast as possible in order to take advantage of the excellent footing afforded by the frozen névé. By 10.00 a.m. a point was reached just below a horizontal band of precipitous rock some 150 feet thick through which there appeared to be a thin crack at the top of our present snow slope. Since the welcome light of the sun had by now found our position, a few minutes' halt was called for a second breakfast.

Until now the party had been unroped, but as the gradient of the snow now increased to about 50°, with an abrupt drop-off below, we decided to rope up. I took the lead and found some difficulty in gaining a lodgement in the break in the wall, which was steep and lined with ice. After cutting steps for 75 feet, I secured a good belay and the other two joined me. This process was repeated and we emerged at the foot of the extensive upper névé for which we had been making.

Continuing on with as much speed as possible to make maximum use of the crust before it softened, we kicked steps diagonally upward, making for a break in the skyline wall below and to the W. of the northern apex of the main summit ridge. The snowfield proved much more extensive than had been anticipated and we began to run into pockets of powder snow which slowed us up appreciably and cost us much effort.

At the top of the snow slope far worse going was encountered. Here the steep upper walls of the face had been badly fractured and in the cracks and gullies the powder snow had collected to great depth. We floundered upwards for over an hour, taking to the rocks where possible, but receiving heavy punishment in our flagging energy. Our altitude was approximately 17,000 ft. and we could look across to the point on the sharp N. ridge which Crombie and I gained on our previous attempt.

It was 3,00 p.m. before the party finally gained the skyline ridge that descended to the N.W. from the summit crest line. The upper part of Tolosa from this position resembled a Chinese tile roof, with a wide field of snow lying on its gentler slope, below the eaves of which the mountain dropped away for thousands of feet out of sight into the Las Cuevas Valley, while the top of the roof was formed by the summit ridge on our left. We traversed at our present height for several hundred yards in waist-deep snow to a rib which had been blown clear. This soon brought us to the final summit ridge near its N. end, joining Ryan’s route perhaps a mile from our ultimate objective, although with little difference in elevation yet to be covered.

Fortunately the weather remained clear and there was little wind to worry us. The crest was narrow and broken by sharp outcrops of conglomerate rock which were passed on the W., the eastern slope dropping away abruptly for almost its whole length. Three quarters of an hour after reaching the crest we passed just below a prominent pyramid of rock constituting the N. summit, and were suddenly brought up all-standing at the brink of a gap several hundred feet deep that cut through the ridge at this point. Beyond rose sheer walls of black and yellow rock which appeared to cut off completely all access to the great surmounting blocks that form the S. summit. From Ryan’s description we had been warned of this gap, but were not prepared for its size nor for the obvious complexity of crossing it.

There followed a council of war during which it was unanimously decided that, due to the lateness of the hour and the long and complicated return trip which must be made, we should not risk going farther. It did not cheer us to know that the gap had been crossed by former parties as, at 5.00 p.m., we dejectedly ascended the last few feet to the top of the pyramid above us, approximately 18,0 ft. above sea level.4

From this point the S. summit appeared to he of almost exactly the same altitude, perhaps a hundred feet higher, although we had no means of direct comparison. To our surprise, here we found the “summit book” of the Club Andinista de Mendoza in which had been inscribed the names and experiences of those who had “successfully reached the top of Tolosa!” (sic) In addition, there were several small flags and other mementos, signifying that at least some mountaineers considered this the actual summit, a particularly interesting fact since their ascents had been made from the Horcones Valley where the route gave them complete freedom of choice as between the northern and southern points. The last signatures in the book were those of Huerta, Martínez, and their companions, who made the ascent in 1941. We could find no evidence that any party had climbed Tolosa from the Las Cuevas side, ours apparently having been a new route, at least as far as the record showed.

The view from Tolosa was superb. Aconcagua (22,835 ft.) rose impressively to the N.E. about ten miles away and, even at that distance, seemed to overshadow us. The great mass of Tupungato (22,300 ft.) could be seen far to the S. standing well above its neighbors. Looking S.W. in Chile a fine array of snowcapped peaks, culminating in Nevado del Plomo (19,849 ft.), and in the beautiful snowy symmetry of Los Leones (17,847 ft.), lay spread before us, fading towards the horizon into the grey-blue of the distant Pacific lowland. Far below, in Las Cuevas Pass, the binoculars picked out the Christ of the Andes silhouetted against the snow, while many miles to the N., beyond El Catedral (18,023 ft.) and El Cuerno (18,264 ft.), could be distinguished the massif of Mercedario (21,883 ft.) third highest mountain in this part of the range.

After spending nearly an hour in taking photographs, eating a light lunch, and inscribing the “summit book,” we retraced our steps along the crest in a rising wind. At the northern end we turned left down along the N.W. shoulder, skirting the face up which we had climbed that morning and determined to find a more direct and less complicated route down. We passed the heads of several deep couloirs, but rejected them as they looked steep and icy. Proceeding on down the shoulder, we were finally forced onto the face by the impassable walls of the great rock barrier, mentioned earlier, which cut across the ridge.

The descent was then continued through a maze of steep inter-connecting gullies cutting downwards through the great slab formation. As one gully petered out, we crossed into the next, until finally at 8.00 p.m. we found ourselves in a cleft 50 ft. deep whose true left-hand wall completely overhung us. It was now getting really dark, and the unpleasant realization struck the party that we were to be benighted in a rather unsavory situation, our altitude still being about 16,500 ft.

Working our way carefully down the snow-lined cleft for several hundred feet, it finally took a plunge over a precipice into the darkness below. There was nothing to do but to retrace our steps upwards until we could discover a break in the side wall of the gully. This I found in the form of a small ledge running horizontally outwards around the overhanging wall. Leaving my rucksack to be pulled up later and standing on Cáfaro’s shoulders, I managed to gain lodgement on the ledge, which was narrow and without adequate handholds, Crombie belaying me from farther up the gully. After about 20 ft. the going was easier, although in the dark I could not see what lay ahead. Reaching the lip of the gully, I found a good stance and soon brought the others up to it.

Unfortunately the sky had begun to haze over and the moon, which was nearly full, had not yet risen. We now took stock of our situation and despite the fact that we had both provisions and warm clothes, rather than spend a night out it was decided to try to force a descent over the great slabs of steep boiler-plate which we believed lay beneath us. Unfortunately our one candle-lantern shed such a feeble glow that it was of no avail in the wild vastness of that dark mountainside. I decided to make an exploratory trip onto the slabs below on the end of our 120-ft. rope, firmly belayed by the other two. This procedure immediately began to yield results, for by following small snow-filled cracks, even in the dark I was able to make considerable satisfactory progress along a downward slanting traverse.

After belaying Crombie and Cáfaro to my position, one man moving at a time, we worked our way, rope-length by rope-length, down over 600 ft. of slabs, following small fissures in the rock and praying that they would not give out on us. But our luck held and at 10.30 p.m. when the moon came up behind the haze, our advance became more rapid. Long periods of standing in one position, holding a belay and trying in the darkness to direct those above to obscure hand- and footholds, was very cold work, and each of us breathed a sigh of relief as we climbed off the last pitch and stepped into a broad couloir at 12.30 in the morning. The remainder of the descent was made over long but easy snow and scree slopes, and the party reached the base camp at 1.45 a.m. after nearly twenty hours of almost continuous climbing. Being hungry, thirsty, and cold, we brewed ourselves a most efficacious hot potion before turning in.

The following day was one of ease and curing blisters, and of sunbathing, for our ambitions towards the array of fine peaks surrounding the camp were easily satisfied from a comfortable stance on the valley moraine. Pastén and the mules turned up early on March 1st by prearrangement, and we regretfully struck camp. The long ride down the Las Cuevas Valley to Puente del Inca was both nostalgic and, at the same time, filled with pleasant anticipation for the comforts of civilized life to which we were destined to return for at least another year.

At the hotel that evening we met Sergeant Martinez, who had just come back from a successful ascent of Aconcagua as a member of an Argentine military party of six men, led by Lieutenant Emiliano Huerta. A few hundred feet from the summit, they had discovered the bodies of Juan Link and his wife lying frozen on the open slopes, evidently where they had collapsed from fatigue during the great storm of that fateful 17th of February, 1944. The bodies were left there. From the records on the summit, it was discovered that the two climbers had, in fact, reached the top of Aconcagua. No evidence of Kneidl, the fourth member of the party to perish, could be found (the body of Schiller was discovered by Cáfaro last year).5

We were told by Martínez that he believed from his experience that the N. summit of Tolosa was the higher, although he had ascended the S. summit as well. He further confirmed the impression that ours had been the first ascent of Tolosa from the W. Unfortunately such local mountain records as exist apparently could not shed any light upon those two issues. Nevertheless, our holiday had remained most interesting and enjoyable, and any sleepless nights which we may have passed were not occasioned by a serious preoccupation with such technicalities.

1For a description of this trip, see A.A.J. v, 313. The elevations now given supersede those of the first article, which were derived chiefly from the old maps of Fitzgerald.

2So designated by Ryan’s party in 1925.

3Also called the Uspallata Pass.

4Argentine War Ministry (Instituto Geográfico Militar) maps show the slightly lower figure of 17,817 ft. for Tolosa, although the figure of 18,040 ft. was given to us by an official of the Club Andinista de Mendoza as being the one accepted locally. No accurate comparison appears to be available as between the N. and S. summits, although Martínez stated that his observations by aneroid led him to believe that the summit which we reached was slightly higher. Lacking instruments, we could make no claim in this direction. In general, the altitudes given in this article follow various aeronautical charts based upon data from the American Geographical Society, although other sources have been used where necessary. There is frequently a considerable disparity as between the altitudes indicated on the various published maps of this region.

5See A.A.J. v, 321.

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