Posted by: Rob Viens | September 12, 2013

Charles Darwin: Peak Bagger

Let’s face it, Darwin was a “peak bagger”.  He loved to find the highest mountain in the region, climb to the top, and take in the views of the surrounding countryside.  For the most part these were always long day trips – covering 15 or 20 miles (~18-24 km) in one day. Some examples of Darwin’s “peak bagging” include Corcovado and Pedra da Gávea in Brazil, the Mount of Montevideo, an unnamed peak in Tierra del Fuego, and the the Cerro de las Animas in Uruguay (links will take you to earlier posts on these ascents).

On September 9th, Darwin (on the advice of his guide) headed off to “bag” Cerro Tres Picos in the Sierra de la Ventana.  In his diary, he describes the day’s adventure (or misadventure as the case may be):

“In the morning the guide told me to ascend the ridge & that I could walk along its edge to the very summit. — The climbing up such very rough rocks was fatiguing; the sides are so indented that what is gained in one five minutes is often lost in the next. At last when I reached the summit of the ridge, my disappointment was great to find a precipitous valley, as deep as the plain, separating me from the four peaks. — This valley is very narrow & the sides steep; it forms a fine horse pass, as the bottom is flat with turf, & connects the plains on each side of the mountain.— Whilst crossing it, I saw two horses grazing. I immediately hid myself in the long grass & began with my telescope to reconnoitre them, as I could see no sign of Indians, I proceeded cautiously on my second ascent. It was late in the day, & this part of the mountain, like the other was steep & very nagged. —I was on the top of the second peak by two oclock, but got there with extreme difficulty; every twenty yards I had the cramp in the upper parts of both thighs, so that I was afraid, I should not have been able to have descended; it was also necessary to find out a new road to the horses, as it was out of the question to return over the saddle-back. — I was thus obliged to give up the two higher peaks; their altitude was but little greater & every purpose of geology was answered; it was not therefore worth the hazard of any further exertion. — I presume the cause of the cramp was the great change in kind of muscular action from that of hard riding to still harder climbing. — It is a lesson worth remembering, as in some cases it might cause much difficulty.”

The modern route up Cerro Tres Picos (from http://rucaco.blogspot.com). At 4065 ft (1239 m) it is the highest peak in the Buenos Aires Province.

Cerro Tres Picos route

“The ice which in many places coated the rocks was very refreshing & rendered superfluous the water, which I actually carried to the summit in the corner of a cape of the Indian-rubber cloth. — Altogether I was much disappointed in this mountain; we had heard of caves, of forests, of beds of coal, of silver & gold &c &c, instead of all this, we have a desert mountain of pure quartz rock. — I had hoped the view would at least have been imposing; it was nothing; the plain was like the ocean without its beautiful colour or defined horizon. — The scene however was novel, & a little danger, like salt to meat, gave it a relish. — That the danger was very little was clear, by my two companions making a good fire, a thing never done when it is suspected Indians are near. — I returned by so easy a road, that if I had found it out in the morning I could have with ease reached the highest peak. — I reached the horses at sun-set, & drinking much mattee & smoking several little cigaritos, made up my bed for the night. — It blew furiously, but I never passed a more comfortable night.” (Sept 9)

Unfortunately my Spanish is not good enough to understand the commentary, but below is a YouTube video from a solo hiker who ascended Cerro Tres Picos in 2008.  I’m sure it is not the exact path Darwin took (and remember Darwin did not make it to the top), but it gives you a chance to experience what Darwin experienced on September 9, 1833 first hand. (Ain’t the internet a wonderful thing!)

I am particularly intrigued by the caves that the hikers camp out in. Darwin doesn’t mention them, but then again, he did this as a day trip. No wonder he was so worn out!

Author Eric Simons at the summit of Cerro Tres Picos.

Eric wrote the excellent book Darwin Slept Here, in which he physically revisits some of Darwin’s sites from the voyage (including bagging a peak or two himself).  I had a chance to read it earlier this year and would highly recommend it for those who like to Darwin.  Here is an article on the book from Seed Magazine.

For other peak baggers out there, you may want to check out PeakBaggers.com and their list of “high points” in Argentina. You know Darwin would have logged his ascents here… (RJV)

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