The Banderita is the mountain above La Falda, and it is the mountain that the Weber-Loomis 4 have climbed more than any other (I can count at least seven times, the first few with Zeke in a backpack. You know, one of those kid carriers, not literally inside a backpack.).
What we write of today is something completely different – a bold post-supper ascent of the Banderita, a venture nearly unthinkable to most Argentines, who have supper between 9 and midnight. Our plan was to eat an early supper, then head up the mountain, summiting by sundown. We planned to go fast and light, leaving behind camp stove, tents, and board games (though this author, unbeknownst to other members of the team, did sneak David Halberstam’s 800-page history The Fifties into his pack), meaning that we would be forced to bivouac in the open overnight.
Our team had been chosen carefully, with each individual chosen for their particular skills as well as their ability to work well together. Leon, the eldest, was calm and steady, always prepared, and has spent more time on the Banderita than any native of Pennsylvania we know. Leticia was chosen for her logistical skills and her ability to keep the group together and on task. Anna and Zeke were along for their youthful energy, contribution to morale, and interest in nature. This author was added to the team by a sponsor for reasons unclear to the other team members.
Three members of the team set off at 6:30pm from Base Camp Francia (BCF), with two more following shortly after. The first part of the ascent is a mile and a half through the small village around BCF, during which the trail ascends from 3080 to 3500 feet. We joined forces at El Chorrito, where a small stream coming down the mountain meets the road. After a brief discussion, we decided the summit attempt was on. Over the next two miles we would gain another 1250 feet of altitude, reaching the summit at 4750 feet. Well-prepared by recent daytime ascents of the Banderita and Uritorco, we made good time. We passed two parties coming down from the summit, and though friendly greetings were exchanged, they were unfamiliar with our plans for an overnight bivouac and seemed concerned about our late start. But we forged on, enjoying the cool breezes and relatively mild evening sun.
As we neared the summit ridge, though, these cool breezes turned into a hard wind that blew us sideways when its gusts were strongest, making our goal of summit-by-sunset out of reach. As it was, we were high enough to enjoy sundown over La Falda, and we reached the summit about 15 minutes later. We had arrived in less than two hours, which would have been good pace even without sleeping bags on our backs.
The wind was blowing hard at the summit. We would later hear that at BCF the wind had also picked up significantly, causing consternation among those remaining at base. As we scouted a bivouac site, we were pushed around by 40mph winds which made much of the mountain untenable. We finally found a relatively level spot west of the summit slightly sheltered from the wind which also gave a view over La Falda and the valley. It was a clear night, and to the south we could see all the way to Lago San Roque and the lights of Carlos Paz.
We were happy with the choice not to bring tents; trying to erect them in this wind would be difficult. A few inches off the ground, though, the wind was calmer, while still enough to keep the mosquitos at bay. We lay under the night sky, watching the stars come out, though the lights of La Falda below meant that these were nothing like the stars at Condoriri, two months ago and almost 10,000 feet higher. I woke several times in the night, once to find Zeke had slid down the slight grade and was mostly into the grass at the edge of the precipice. I pulled him back up to our platform, which had the effect of pulling me down, but getting myself back up wasn’t difficult.
I woke at 3:40 to find the wind calmer and a few mosquitos buzzing around my ears. My default strategy was to wait until the buzzing seemed at its loudest, and then slap myself in the ear at maximum velocity. I’m not sure if this killed any mosquitos, but it passed the time until I fell asleep again.
I woke for good at 4:50 to predawn light and an increased wind. None of our team had been swept off the platform in the night. By six there was enough light for a few chapters of The Fifties concerning Werner von Braun and the American rocket program post-WW2. Soon Zeke and Leon were off to take pictures of the sunrise on the east side of the summit, and not long after that we were eating yogurt, granola, and bananas, as well as some very welcome cold coffee that Leon had thought to pack.
We headed down by an alternate route, following the Chorrito for much of its descent of the mountain. This route entails more rock-scrambling than the traditional ascent but offers opportunities to dip ones feet in the creek whilst snacking. By 11am we were back at BCF, a bit weary but delighted to have spent a night outside on the mountain.