Students summit an Andes giant

When a group of nine Warner College of Natural Resources students, alumni and affiliate faculty departed to climb a mountain in Argentina they bid farewell to an easy winter break to embark on a trek filled with high altitude suffering.

Cerro Mercedario

Cerro Mercedario in the early morning light as seen from the approach.

Instead of holiday parties and eggnog the group enjoyed near constant wind, intense solar exposure, no showers for over two weeks, headaches and heavy packs. Their summit goal was Cerro Mercedario (21,981 ft. / 6700 m), the eighth highest peak in the Andes, located 50 miles north of the more popular Cerro Aconcagua. The mountain’s remote location, lack of other climbing parties and abundant wildlife drew the CSU Warner College Expedition to the peak.

Co-leaders Pat Rastall, director Pingree Park Mountain Campus and WCNR affiliate faculty, and Seth Webb, assistant Director Pingree Park Mountain Campus, WCNR alumnus and instructor, have both been to the Andes several times before and were intrigued with the unique challenges of the mountain.

‘Got lucky’

A guanaco (wild llama) on the ridgeline above base camp.

“Mercedario is known for high winds and ever changing weather patterns” said Webb. He went on to say that the expedition “got lucky on its summit day with a good weather window.”

Rastall echoed the fact that so few climbing parties shared the mountain,.

“We often felt like we had the whole place to ourselves,” said Rastall. “The abundance of guanacos (wild llamas) at our base camp was amazing. We felt like we were taking part in an Animal Planet episode.”

A demanding climb

The climbing, though non-technical, was demanding due to high altitude. But the group grew stronger through all the challenges the mountain presented. As recorded in the group journal by student member Dennis Wegienek, “When one of us had a sore knee, we all had a sore knee, we were a team in the truest sense. This is the most powerful group of individuals I have ever been a part of.”

With strong winds over 50-plus miles per hour a constant companion for the first 10 days on the mountain, the team decided to go for the top from a lower than usual camp at 17,000 ft. This would mean a single day push of nearly 5,000 vertical feet to reach their goal. Six of the nine members made it to the summit and were treated to a windless, rare view of the Andes from that lofty elevation. It took the group over twelve hours to climb up and down from their base camp.

Lifetime friendships

Rastall characterized the experience as a fantastic opportunity to grow as a team and create lifetime friendships.

“To top it off we had a chance to take in some of the ambiance and culture of Mendoza, Argentina and the surrounding wine country,” said Rastall.