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Part 2 – The Disaster to the Transandine Railway

In January 1934 the Buenos Aires world was startled by the news of a cataclysm in the form of a phenomenal flood of the river Mendoza, through whose valley forms the international communication to Chile, as carried out by the Transandine Railway. The newspapers on January 11 gave an advanced account of the washout of bridges and track, damage to the hydro-electric plant which supplied the current to Mendoza and the part destruction of the Cacheuta Hotel, a select holiday resort.

Later reports state that the wash carrying huge blocks of ice came by way of the tributary valley of the Tupungato, which with the Cuevas Valley forms that of Mendoza at Punta de Vacas station and therefore the railway above that point of confluence was unaffected.

The Transandine Railway is within Argentine territory and administered by the Pacific Railway Company; accordingly that company fitted out a party who investigated the matter in February. The labours of that commission are no affair of the author and it is not his object to record second hand information.

It was not until April that the author was commissioned to visit the region and give an opinion on the disaster and its cause.

The lateness of the season did not allow much time for preparation as, should the weather have broken, the passage up the unfrequented Tupungato valley would be impassable; indeed, on occasions in May the railway line has been blocked by snow several metres in depth. A couple of months earlier, when no danger from snowfall would have existed, the trip would have been a joy ride and as he could not duly endanger those who accompanied him, not to be caught himself, the obvious decision was to get away at once.

A trusty henchman, James Lynch, who had shared many adventures with the author, was available and when the situation was explained to him and he was asked if he cared to take the risks, his answer was: “Sure, if it’s to hell itself I’ll go with ye”. Not altogether an unambiguous compliment.

A few hours sufficed to collect a few articles of kit and reconnaissance instruments and we were away by the next train to Mendoza.

From Buenos Aires to Mendoza it is a dreary journey of about 1105 kilometres across trackless plains but with every comfort of the modern railway. The train leaves the Retiro Station at 10:45am and at 6am the next morning rolls into Mendoza where in the ordinary course of events passengers westward bound for Valparaiso and Santiago in Chile change to the Transandine line of 1.0 metre gauge.

The city of Mendoza has been described to the British public in several works of travel and by more able pens than mine and, as this narrative is principally concerned with the unbeaten tracks of the Argentine, it is not my intention to dwell long upon well known places already many times described.

The city lies to the immediate eastwards of the Andean range which abruptly changes from mountains to plains without the customary foothills which is a characteristic of the Andes southern territories. It has a population of about 80,000 and dates back some 200 years. Completely modernised and embellished it is one of the handsomest colonial cities and is the centre of a grape growing industry and hubbub of political contention common to all Argentine towns.

From here San Martín, in the war of independence, set out with his army and his formidable march across the Andes, over altitudes of 4,000 metres and where the rarefied atmosphere not only makes the tourist puff and blow, but lays him up with “apuna” (mountain sickness). Tough fellows these soldiers must have been and very different in faith to many of our commercial magnates of today, as was proved by their decisive obliterating victory over the Spaniards after their descent into Chile.

Another historical even, but less glorious, was the earthquake on Good Friday (I believe) of 1861 at the precise hour when the cathedral was packed with the devout and probably with others too. The heavy roof and walls collapsed killing almost everyone within its precinct, and thousands in the town and borders; 19,000 was the estimated death toll. When I was in Mendoza in 1912 heaps of rubbish still gave up human bones, which I witnessed when work on restoration was then proceeding.

Our base for kicking off into the mountains had been determined at Puente del Inca, a station on the Transandine railway [xx] kilometres above the confluence of the Tupungato and Cuevas mountain streams, where the Transandine railway has a large hotel and establishment which is a holiday resort in summertime but closes down during the winter, as so far the company has failed to attract pleasure seekers where the snowfall reaches a depth of 8 metres (say 27 feet) and with the minus temperatures that may be expected from an altitude of over 3,000 metres.

The Transandine railway having been washed away over various stretches to within a few kilometres of Mendoza, Puente del Inca had to be reached by motor car over roads which made considerable detours amongst the mountains and which served for the transport of cattle to Chile. Nothing eventful occurred in that journey of some eight hours for the distance of 165 kilometres.

On arrival at Puente del Inca we met a party of engineers who represented the hydro electric power company and who had just returned from an endeavour to reach the district of the source of the disaster and had come to grief in the Tupungato valley. They had lost several mules and equipment when crossing the torrent of that name and only succeeded in reaching Puente del Inca in deplorable condition. Their experience and advice to us was not encouraging; indeed, on all sides the opinion expressed was that an attempt to reach the glacier that had caused the trouble at that time of the year was approaching madness. Such comment could not but cause me to reflect deeply. Should I restrict my investigation to the destroyed railway and desist from that of the cause? During 28 years in South America no instances had arisen where reason had to be given why an objective could not be attained and the prospect was not pleasing to have to do so now. I feared that kind of return more than the going on, the decision was therefore made.

Mules were to be had at Inca but muleteers were not so easily obtained. Eventually two of those who had accompanied the “Pacífico” party in the summertime agreed to join us but at five times the normal rate of pay. Their demand was not unreasonable and stout and capable fellows they turned out to be. I wonder how often would success and kudos for the boss man of anything have been turned into failure were it not for the devotion of the underlings whose names and actions are seldom known beyond the immediate circle of the party. It is to be wondered at, that such spirit and sacrifice is fast becoming stamped out when recognition is only dished out to the boss of a show, whatever the show is, the remainder being pawns in the game, but suffering equal if not greater hardship and risk. They are not forgotten because they never appear on the surface to be remembered; syndicates and companies do not require or appreciate sentiment in the report of their commissions.

It should be stated here that until the present year, the region of the watershed of the Tupungato, through which valley the flood descended, had not been visited since it was explored by S.Reidhart and his companions in 1909.

No time was lost at Inca. We arrived there on the evening of April 11th and we commenced to move over the mountains at sunrise on April 13th. The party consisted of the redoubtable Lynch, the two muleteers, Beiza and Reginaldo and myself with eight mules in all, four for riding and the other four with light packs.

Five leagues on the slopes of the mountains, Los Leones, we passed the site of the disaster to the Panagra plane San José, one of the fleet which conducts the air service between Buenos Aires and the United States. That plane had been missing for two years. I understand that Reginaldo , who had been employed on the previous expedition, saw indications which sufficiently aroused his suspicions to determine him to ride out after that party’s return. He found the wreckage embedded in the permanent snow at the foot of the mountains mentioned with the corpses of its seven passengers and pilot decapitated, presumably as a result of the impact of the machine striking a rocky prominence. They were taken by mule back to Puente del Inca just before our arrival at that place.

The first night out we bivouacked on an affluent of the Rio Tupungato, having traversed 50 kilometres from Punta de Vacas, the point of confluence of the rivers Tupungato and Cuevas. That night a mule disappeared and rather than wholly distribute its load amongst the other three, a certain amount of kit had to be left behind.

To follow the course of the flood was impossible owing to the precipitous washout, so that morning, the 14th, a further detour over the mountainside was inevitable before we could again strike the Tupungato. That second detour was a distance of 40 kilometres in order to gain another ten. That day we descended a precipice, not at all a pleasing experience. Led by Beiza, the muleteer/mountaineer whom I expected to see topple over at any moment, with Reginaldo bringing up the rear; the two Gringos, Lynch and myself, being in between these sportsmen. How Beiza tuned ¾ of a circle on nothing more than the equivalent of a staddle-stone to me was an enigma and, what was worse, I had to follow him on the principle of being afraid [to be seen] of being afraid. That “windy” incident had to be followed by many similar ones before the relief of easy-going welcomed us.

In such cases any attempt to guide the mule is not only useless but increases the danger; those sure-footed animals will follow in the tracks of another. It is the leading one and rider that have to do the dirty work. Whether I offered up a prayer on completion of that particular descent now escapes my memory. Lynch must have been very near to doing so as his remark to me was “Well, we can’t be so very evil or else the Almighty would not have missed a chance like that!”

Shortly afterwards, when following the contours along a mountain side of some 175 ft my attention was attracted to a lump of stone of about twice the size of a football, hurtling down the mountain slope about 300 yards away, like a small shell. We were in single file and close together; it looked as though one of us was bound to catch it. I wondered whether it was going to be Beiza’s mule in front of me or Lynch’s behind me. Thoughts move rapidly on such occasions and the stone was travelling rapidly above. I realised that the stone had chosen my mule, which must have also appreciated the situation; he just stood stock still and the rolling stone bounded between his front and hind legs. The omen was good as it looked as though the gods were on our side.

On reaching the Tupungato the second time we found no difficulty in following the course of the flood wash up that valley as far as its confluence with a mountain stream that features in Reidhart’s report as Las Taguas. Our course was up the latter valley and in order to convey an idea of the configuration, we were flanked on the right by the Cordón Chocilla of 5,280 metres (17,318 ft) and the Cerro Pollera of 6,238 metres (20, 450 ft) on our left. Here we bivouacked at sunset of the 14th, amongst springs of sulphurous odour. Whether it was the rarefied atmosphere or the fumes? I awakened during the night with my tongue stuck to its roof and nostrils contracted. I stumbled about in the darkness to try to find water but everything was frozen. However, a little ice gave a loosening effect to allow respiration and I re-rolled myself in the blankets once more and was soon in the land of dreams. Were my companions similarly affected? I know not. The mention of petty inconveniences always seems “de trop” on such occasions. There ain’t no panel and there ain’t no doctor, so what’s the use?

On the morning of the 15th we followed the course of the flood wash up the Taguas valley to another confluence, that of the streams of the Rio del Inca and Rio Plomo and continued its track up the latter valley. After traversing eight kilometres up the Plomo valley we rounded a bluff and beheld a glacier athwart the valley. Such was the rarefied atmosphere that it appeared to be only two or three hundred metres distant and its height about eight metres. What illusion! The distance proved to be two kilometres whilst the vertical dimension of the glacier varied between 80 and 100 metres.

What had happened may be briefly described:

The glacier had “run” from the Cerro Juncal (6,110 metres), whose peak was distant from us eight kilometres, forms a boundary point of the Chilean border; it appeared much nearer. The glacier had come to rest against a bluff of the Chocilla mountains and had splayed out on a fan-shaped form to a width of 600 metres.

On climbing the Chocilla mountainside we obtained a panoramic view of the whole situation [see photo]. Obviously the glacier, in its downward passage, had forced masses of moraine 20 metres in depth to dam the Plomo valley, the glacier following on to superimpose its weight and thus compress the moraine. The waters of the melting snows of the previous summer, whose normal escape was by way of the Plomo, was therefore locked in to form a lake on the upside of the glacier. Here was a contest between the increasing head of the waters of the lake and the stability of the dam formed of moraine and ice. The formed force had to win eventually and did win, as is known from the disaster, the moraine being bored out and with it much of the ice from the underside of the glacier. Once the waters of the lake were released the glacier subsided [see photo] to take the place of the moraine, leaving a cavern for the normal flow of the river Plomo. Lynch and I penetrated the cavern for some 50 metres [see photo] getting ourselves very wet against a strong stream and somewhat cold. As we could not proceed beyond that distance and being somewhat frightened of the disintegrating of the ice from the roof of the cavern, it seemed there was no further object to remain, except that of curiosity.

The sectional area of the rupture through the moraine appeared to have been 300 square metres so the volume of water must have been released at a discharge of about 3,000 cubic metres per second. However, the technical aspects involved do not form part of this narrative.

Once the object of our mission was complete, concern for our return was of primary importance to us. We had ranges of mountains to re-cross and a falling aneroid prompted no delay. The rations and forage when we started out was sufficient for one day only. I trust that my readers will not judge me as a dangerous fool to be in charge. It must be appreciated that great difficulty had been experienced in obtaining the two muleteers and the few mules, therefore the adventure had to be organised as a rain and not as a barman’s show.

We commenced our return at dawn on the morning of the 16th and by nightfall of the 17th we had accomplished the kilometres over precipitous country, having been in the saddle for 28 hours out of the 36, an excellent test for the stamina of the mules.

We found the hotel at Puente del Inca in full preparation for closing down for the winter, indeed the staff were to commence to leave next day. A hot bath was a welcome change that evening and once dinner was over, a comfortable bed was not long in claiming at least one, if not all, of our party.

Next morning I believe, we all shook hands with ourselves as we awakened to see that the weather had broken and a blizzard was in full blast and my thoughts went out to those mountains and what our predicament would have been had we been a day later in our return.

Our job was not yet finished as we had to report on the ruined railway but that part of our obligation offered no anxiety as we should be always on the beaten track. As a car was leaving for Mendoza that morning, we bid adios to our intrepid companions, the two muleteers, and set off with our light kit on board. From Puente del Inca to Uspallata, a distance of 70 kilometres, the road closely follows the railway and river. Therefore from Puente de Vacas, where the Tupungato river brought down the flood wash, the passenger can view the washouts. Thence for several kilometres passage within the valley was impossible for vehicular traffic and indeed on horseback.

Our perambulation from Mendoza has little interest for the layman; it was simply an inspection of bridges washed out and track destroyed.

(Copy from report, page 9, para 2 onwards but omitting dry technical stuff)

As the Transandine railway was not a successful undertaking from a commercial point of view, private capital for its reconstruction cannot be expected to be forthcoming, the more so as the other once prosperous railways in the Argentine have depreciated 80-90% of the par value of their ordinary shares. Unless conditions are extended to those railways to allow them to pay a fair dividend, it is difficult to imagine who would subscribe further capital for railway construction. Unless that is done, any hope of the restoration of the Transandine line from that course is indeed remote.

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updated: 29 January 2014