At the top of the world in Argentine Andes Peaks: Lofty mountains thrill, enchant travelers to the region where the movie 'Seven Years in Tibet' was filmed.

October 19, 1997|By Todd Shapera | Todd Shapera,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

In the cooling air of the early evening, as we entered Argentina's fertile Mendoza valley, the Andes began to soar over the horizon. We followed the sunset and soon were enveloped by a mountain canyon that followed the banks of the Mendoza River, with its sweeping bends displaying flashes of white water.

About 20 miles farther west, we turned onto a bumpy, steep dirt road to reach the remote hamlet of El Salto. Here, our $55-a-night cabin sat on a small, verdant plateau surrounded by high peaks. I couldn't imagine a more idyllic spot, rivaling for beauty anything have encountered in the Alps or Rockies. Packed into the province of Mendoza are more than a dozen 18,000-foot peaks, including the hemisphere's highest, Aconcagua, at nearly 23,000 feet. Colorado, by comparison, counts its 14,000-foot summits. Even more appealing, though, was how rustic the landscape remained, unscarred by condominiums and resort life.

This region was the staging area for the newly released Brad Pitt movie, "Seven Years in Tibet." Based on the 1953 book by Austrian mountaineer Heinrich Harrer, it chronicles his extraordinary journey from a World War II prison camp in India, through 20,000-foot Tibetan passes in winter, and finally to Tibet. In Lhasa, Harrer tutored the young Dalai Lama and then fled in 1950 when China invaded.

The Argentine government permitted filming in the Andes over strong protests from China, which fails to recognize Tibet as an independent state or the Dalai Lama as its leader. Harrer's newly revealed Nazi connections may detract from the spiritual power of his story, but they can do nothing to tarnish the magical Andean setting where director Jean-Jacques Annaud filmed and where we vacationed.

We began our days sharing breakfast and sipping mate, an Argentine tea, at a picnic table under the morning sun, with frosted peaks in view in every direction. We passed the first days exploring the stream beds and mountain trails leading from our cabin. In time, we ventured from this unrivaled back yard to explore by car, raft and foot. Horseback and cycling options also were available.

In midweek, we set out for a visit to Aconcagua. The 90-minute drive followed a curving road along the Mendoza River canyon. Dry mountains surrounded us in a rocky and sandy painting of red, pink, yellow and terra cotta, with patches of emerald-green poplars in the valleys. As we approached the Chilean border, we were slowed by a handful of military checkpoints. (When we returned after dark, the inquiring soldiers were nowhere to be seen.)

En route, we passed through Uspallata, director Annaud's staging area, to which he imported some 100 monks, as many lay Tibetans and dozens of yaks for the movie. Even in this remote location, Pitt was such an attraction that $60,000 in security fencing had to be erected around his home.

The road continued to gain elevation as we passed under newly constructed tunnels that seemed far safer than the cliff-side options visible from the window. We paused to see the modest ski hill of Los Penitentes, whose base is at 9,000 feet, and a natural bridge formed by sulfur hot springs at the final settlement of Puente del Inca. Then we rounded a bend. With no fanfare, no scenic overlooks, and no road signs, there she loomed -- Aconcagua's glistening glacier, soaring some 13,000 feet over the highway.

Brochures from some U.S. expedition services portray Aconcagua as one of the world's few high peaks that does not require technical climbing ability. However, underplayed in those claims is how each body, no matter how well-trained, will adapt to the thin air above 16,000 feet, even without 100-mile-an-hour winds and temperatures that can plummet to 40 degrees below zero. In the weeks before our climb, one Japanese and two German climbers had died from the effects of high altitude -- one from coronary edema and two from cerebral edema.

But Aconcagua exerted a spiritual gravity on all of us. Full of adrenalin and awe as we rounded bends for closer looks, we were in a state that masked the aches and fatigue we would feel the next day. As nightfall approached, we didn't want to turn around to return to our car -- our only option. As we descended, the angled and soft late-day sun cast a breathtaking interplay of light and shadow on the facing peaks, bringing their jagged contours into relief. Nearing the bottom, a team of supply mules charged past, herded by a pair of mounted campesinos.

In the fading light of the day we made a final stop at Puente del Inca's cemetery, where tombstone inscriptions, some from European climbers at the turn of the century, provided a reality check for the day's events.

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