If you have enjoyed our other trip reports, you know that Brandon is a man of many words when it comes to climbing. In this report I will try to be as thorough as he, and include details that will be useful to other climbers and impart the thoughts and feelings that will help you understand what this expedition was like.
On December 22nd we set out for Mendoza, Argentina for what we hoped to be a successful climb of Aconcagua. Our friend Brett Wamsley, who we’ve climbed 14ers with in Colorado, decided to join us to see what this high altitude expedition stuff is all about. His fiancé, Maura, came for the trek into base camp with the intention to stay there while we attempted the summit. We planned the trip for months, though it was mostly Brandon doing the preparations and legwork. He arranged the logistics through Fernando Grajales Expeditions, which is the same outfitter he used when he climbed the mountain back in 2006.We were disappointed to discover that mid-December is the only time that you cannot get the flight for 60K frequent flyer miles on American Airlines but rather 120K. In the end we found a decent price straight from Eagle Airport, through Miami, to Santiago, Chile and then on to Mendoza. In addition, it is considered peak season on the mountain so the permit prices increase as well. But alas, being a teacher, Christmas and New Years is when I have time off, so that is when we planned our climb. Officially, the climbing season is between November 15th and March 31st. This is mainly because of two factors, first because of weather conditions. It is summertime in Argentina making the climate more stable on Aconcagua. Secondly, because it is when there is availability of the necessary logistics (mostly the mules).
Our flight from Santiago, over the Andes Mountains, into Mendoza was amazing. The Andes Mountain Range, at 4,300 miles long, is the longest range in the world and a spectacular sight. Getting into Mendoza we shuttled to Hotel Nutibara, which turned out to have a nice pool and an antique gym. Arriving on the 23rd of December we thought perhaps we could make some headway on our grocery shopping or obtaining our permits. We soon found out that the daily siesta would have all banks and stores closed, so we took to the local custom and got some shut-eye.
The next day we set out to acquire our permits and it was anything but an easy process. There is an online form that we were able to complete at our hotel, but if you know ahead of time you could do this from the states. Onward to the bank to get out the cash needed, we discovered that Argentinian ATMs limit you to 2000 pesos a day. This quickly turned into a multi-day process. In addition, we learned that it is best to bring cash when traveling to Argentina. The exchange rate is significantly better on the black market and it also would have avoided the hassle and fees of the ATMs. Using credit card is not a great option because there is a 20% tax added on. This was a bit frustrating, because in the past when we have brought lots of cash traveling abroad we end up not exchanging it, but using credit card or ATMs because usually those are the better option. C’est la vie! After a bit of guesswork we got our food for the trip from Carrefour (the local grocery store), and went back to Hotel Nutibara for some pool time. With temperatures nearing 109°F it was tough to sit in the sun but refreshing to cool off in the pool. That evening we found the only restaurant without an expensive Christmas Eve special and had an “interesting” steak and potato dinner, accompanied by some really warm red wine – not quite the Argentine cuisine we had hoped for, but a meal nonetheless.
On Christmas Day we explored the city and got a bit of r&r since everything was closed for the holiday. I went for a jog through the main city park where tons of families were out listening to music, dancing, and having picnics. We went out for a nice dinner, not breaking our habit of being the first ones to arrive at the restaurants as they opened around 9:00pm.
The following day, on the 26th, we got up and finished the process of acquiring our permits. The next step was to find the “pago facile” to pay for the permits, then take the receipt showing payment to the permit office to actually get the permit itself. As soon as we completed this, we packed up our stuff and caught our shuttle for the 3 hr drive to Pentitentes. Mendoza is a wonderful city, but for us a few days in any city is enough. As soon as we arrived in Penitentes we went out for a hike to stretch our legs. The town of Pentitentes is at about 7,500′ and in the company of a stray dog, we hiked up to a point about 10,000′ to get a great view of the area.
Our hotel, the Ayelan Lodge, was reminiscent of the hotel from “The Shining.” It is a large old 70’s ski lodge that felt quite secluded out in the mountains. However, it is run by a Brit, Steve, and his Argentine girlfriend, who were incredibly friendly and have done a great job with the place. The food was excellent and they have a lot of renovations in sight. We slept in the following morning and set out with our day packs from the Punta de Vacas trailhead around 1:00pm.
We had about 80 kilos of gear on the mules a few hours ahead of us. It was a gorgeous day, but after a little while on the dusty windy trail, it began to seem like a bit of a slog. Sun protection was essential and despite the heat, it felt better to be in long sleeves and light pants. Crawling into my sleeping bag that night at Pampa de Lenas I felt pretty content. I’ve always loved the first night of an expedition with the logistics behind us and the stresses of everyday-life far away.
Even with an earlier start, the trek to the second camp was hot and windy. I’m not sure I have ever hiked somewhere so dry, and coming from Colorado that says a lot. The camp at Casa de Piedra is exposed and not even much of a camp at all, but the redemption is that right before getting into camp we had a gorgeous view of Aconcagua.
We woke earlier than expected the third morning, as the gauchos were ready to pack up the mules and head on to base camp. This meant we needed to pack up our tent and all our gear. Begrudgingly (more so on my part than anyone else’s) we scurried to pack up in the early morning chill, debating keeping our down layers on and just carrying them ourselves, or shedding them in order to send them on with the mules. Once the gear was gone, there was not much left do to but sip some coffee and wait for the sun to come and warm us up. We set out for a chilly stream crossing and continued on up the Relinchos Valley. It was definitely the nicest day of hiking as it felt like we were finally gaining elevation and making progress on toward the mountain.
Base camp at Plaza Argentina was not too crowded when we arrived as there were only a few dozen tents and a number of larger tents for the various outfitters. Apparently the past month had been really snowy and windy without many successful summits. We decided to take a rest day at basecamp. Both Brandon and I had been fighting off colds and we figured having a day to acclimatize and rest might do us good. As always, climbing mountains provides an opportunity to meet incredible people from around the world. On our rest day we had the chance to meet numerous climbers, porters, and rangers throughout the camp. One of the groups we met, and ended up leap frogging throughout the climb with, was Dominique, a guide from Quebec, and his two clients Serge and Isabella.
On our rest day we also had to check in with the base camp medical doctors and pass the bill of health to climb the mountain. This is a more recent development on Aconcagua to have to clear a medical check. While it is frustrating to some, the intent is justifiable. As Brandon said in his blog post, Aconcagua is an underrated mountain. Despite the fact that there are “trekking” routes up to the summit, the high altitude and unpredictable weather make it a formidable climb.
On the 31st we carried gear to camp 1 at 16,200′. The trail was mostly loose sand and scree, skirting some penitentes at times. The elevation gain began fairly steep out of base camp, became a bit more rolling, and ended in a steep headwall just below Camp 1. Although we had been kept awake the night before by the partying Gauchos, the climb felt good and we were happy to be making progress. The route allowed great views back down to base camp, along with Ameghino and the east face of Aconcagua ahead of us the whole way. The return to base camp was quick and easy, followed by a celebratory New Year’s Eve dinner with our new friends from Quebec. I’m not sure any of us saw 2013 roll in at midnight, unless we were going by east coast time.
On January 1st we had another gorgeous weather day. We packed up at base camp, said goodbye to Maura, and moved on up to Camp 1. Despite our large packs, the climb was easier the second time around. Not sure if this was due to acclimatization, a good nights rest, or knowing the route and what to expect, it was probably a combination of all three. At Camp 1 it took a little more effort to get water. By mid-afternoon the water gushing down the mountain from the glacier was so filled with silt that it would clog a filter immediately. Instead we found some offshoots in the penitentes and created small pools to filter water from. These pools worked in the evenings, but were unfortunately frozen over in the morning. Starting at Camp 1 we also had the pleasure of beginning to use our orange bags, issued to us for carrying out our human waste. The tent became a bit cozier with the three of us sleeping head to toe and suddenly a sloping tent site was an issue to contend with.The next day we carried gear up to Camp 2 at 19,200′ at the base of the Polish Glacier.
This climb began with a scree switchback up to a saddle between Aconcagua and Ameghino. At the saddle we were blasted with a strong wind and the remaining thousand or so feet of elevation gain was a bit tougher contending with the wind and beginning to feel the altitude. Camp 2 affords gorgeous views of the Andes and being at the base of the Polish Glacier just 3,600 ft below the summit was really exciting! The return down to Camp 1 was extremely fast as we cut off a lot of the switchbacks and simply plunge-stepped down the scree fields.
We then had a rest day at Camp 1 and spoke to Joel Gratz, from Opensnow.com, who assured us that Sunday, January 6th was looking like an ideal summit day. There usually seems to be a point in a climb when you begin to feel that the summit may become a reality. I won’t say that you become confident you will summit, because I am always wary to assume anything in the mountains. But often when you are making progress up high, feeling healthy, and get a good weather forecast it is a sign that things are beginning to align and your chances of summiting are good. In addition, we were able to spend an hour or so with our good friends Rob Casserley and Marie-Kristelle Ross who were dropping off their gear at camp 1 and returning to base camp. It was wonderful to see them, have a few good laughs, and know that we would cross paths again on the way up or down the mountain.
We returned to Camp 2 on January 4th. It seemed to be just us, Dominique and Isabella (Serge decided not to go on after the carry to camp 2). Many groups have started using the Guanacos route, which provides a 3rd camp and a shorter summit day. Consequently, the False Polish Route that we were taking, is less popular than it used to be. Sleeping at 19,200′ was not the most restful night due to headaches, wind, three people in the tent, and cold temperatures.
We woke to overcast skies but remained optimistic that the forecast would be correct and the winds would die down. The beginning of our rest day crawled by as we organized our gear and listened to Bob Dylan from Dominique’s tent nearby. Then suddenly, just when we were beginning to think about dinner, the afternoon became a whirlwind. Dominique came over to our tent with bad news, a weather forecast that predicted -30°F to -40°F summit temperatures with wind chill on Sunday, followed by a storm front that would bring 80km/hr winds at Camp 2. He reported that even if they were able to summit, he wouldn’t expect Isabella to be able to go from the summit all the way down to Camp 1, and he didn’t want to be caught at Camp 2 in such horrendous winds. Joel was unavailable to confirm this forecast, and we were faced with an onerous decision. Typically when climbing, the safe decision is the right decision. Before we knew it, we had packed up all of our gear and were heading all the way down to base camp.
The previous two descents had been remarkably fast and efficient, but this one was drawn out painfully long. With all our gear on our backs, spitting snow in our faces, and extreme frustration and disappointment it was one of the more difficult descents I’ve ever done. My mind was racing with everything from giving up on the Seven Summits altogether to optimistically trying to calculate what it would take to get back up to the summit if the weather were to clear.
As sad as it was to be back at base camp without reaching the summit, I fell asleep being grateful for so many things. I was grateful that Everest and so many of our climbs had worked out, grateful for Brandon who came all the way back to this mountain to climb it with me, and as I looked up at the summit where the wind was whipping, I was grateful to be at base camp and not up high in unpredictable weather. The following day turned out to be crystal clear blue sky and it was really difficult to not second-guess our decision. The most deceiving thing about big mountains is that it is a different world up high than it is down low.
As the day went on, Brett and Maura, Dominique and his group, started making arrangements to leave as soon as possible. But there was something in me that was not ready to let go of Aconcagua, not yet. We have rushed off mountains before and regretted it, and Rob and MK would be back at base camp the following day. I wanted to at least stay long enough to enjoy some more time with them as we rarely have the opportunity. Also, in the back of my mind I had a lingering temptation to head back up the mountain in our few remaining days. In negotiating the mule situation it was much cheaper and more convenient for everyone if we went out at the same time as the rest of the group. We were literally on a countdown from Dominique when he was going to let the Grajales people know if we were in or out. I just couldn’t leave the mountain without knowing that we had given it every last shot. So we called my parents on the satellite phone, asked them to check the weather and write down the temperature and wind speeds at various elevations for the next few days, and we would call them back in 10 minutes. It appeared that the weather was going to get increasingly better through Monday and Tuesday, with a clear potential summit day on Wednesday.
After a bit of deliberation, we decided to stick around and give it a go. We were already acclimatized, so we figured we could go to Camp 1 on Monday, Camp 2 on Tuesday, summit attempt Wednesday, back to base camp Thursday, hike all the way out to Penitentes Friday, and return to Mendoza to catch our flight home on Saturday. It was definitely a tight schedule, but the decision felt right. I knew that I would not second-guess this decision. Even if we were to return home without summiting, we would know that we gave it our all. Sunday we had a wonderful time hanging out with Rob and MK. It was great being with them and I think our minds were at ease knowing we had another shot at the summit ahead of us.
The following days the treks up to Camp 1 and Camp 2 were much easier being fully acclimatized, even with our huge packs. Climbing just the two of us was so natural and easy somehow. We were quite lucky that at Camp 1 we got to be hermit crabs and simply move into Rob and MK’s tent that they had left there for their return.
Camp 2 was similarly desolate as our prior trip up there. We set up our tent and wandered in the direction of the trail to be sure we knew where we were going the following morning, as navigating the penitentes in the dark would be potentially frustrating. After some couscous that didn’t exactly settle well and a blustery night, we woke around 3:00am, had some instant cappuccino and oatmeal and set out by 4:45am.
Immediately we realized the breeze was warmer than we expected and stripped a lot of our layers off. The traverse out of camp went by quickly and soon we were at the saddle where the trail meets the Normal Route from the other side of the mountain. We encountered a number of guided groups, in trains of 10 or so people.
Before we knew it we had reached the Independencia Hut at 21,000′ feeling strong, though a bit chillier. I say “hut” loosely because although it is considered the highest man-made structure in the world, I’m not sure a roofless 4′ tall enclosure consists of a hut in my book.
Leaving the hut we crossed the Grand Accaro towards the Canaleta. Here we faced horrific winds and tiringly loose terrain. At a large boulder before the Canaleta, I put on more layers and Brandon left behind his pack. Although we enjoyed the gorgeous sunrise from the traverse, it now became apparent that the sun wouldn’t actually hit us until near the summit.
We began up the Canaleta, cold but strong, and made good time up the lower portion. However, my heart was racing and my mind began to race as well. I had a mild headache all morning and now with my heart racing I started to wonder if I was getting altitude sickness or if my heart could even handle this intensity of work. I knew it could be a fine line between tolerating discomfort and chancing something much more dangerous. Having only ever experienced mild effects of altitude, I wasn’t exactly sure where that line was. Brandon could tell I was nervous and unfortunately we were both aware of the eerie fact that on his last climb of this mountain he bypassed the body of a 30 year-old who died of a heart attack the day before just below the summit. He offered that perhaps we should turn, even though he was fine to go on. I definitely considered it, but I had flashes of our disappointment upon turning back just a few days earlier and I didn’t want to repeat that. I was shivering to the core and my heart was racing to keep me warm. I told myself if I could keep going until the sun hit us I would be okay.
Brandon was extremely patient and supportive, trying to keep us moving until I could warm up. When the sun finally did reach us it was remarkable what a difference it made. Although we were feeling a bit better, we still had a third of the Canaleta to go. The terrain shifted to more rocks and less scree. The remainder of the climb felt so slow, taking 3-5 steps then a quick rest to take a few deep breaths.
We continued until we finally crested the last boulders to the summit. We were the first two people on the summit that day with an expansive view of the Andes and stellar view of Aconcagua’s south summit. I had anticipated the summit being a bit touch and go, but we got a second wind from the adrenaline of being there. We spent nearly thirty minutes taking pictures, snacking, and enjoying the view as a few other groups reached the summit.
The way down was a bit tedious trying to navigate the groups heading upward. We returned to Camp 2 around 2:30pm for a 10 hr roundtrip summit day.
We ate, napped, saw Rob and MK’s group as they came into camp, then ate and slept again! The following morning we bid our friends good luck and farewell. They were on their way up while we were heading back to base camp. Coming down for the last time, we were grateful that we would not be returning to this mountain anytime soon. Our last day on the mountain was probably our most trying. We dropped off our gear for the mules and began the 27 mile hike out to the trailhead around 8:30am. The first third of the trek we descended quickly out to the Vacas Valley. Then the uneven terrain, heat, and dry air, combined with Brandon’s unbearable stomach cramps tested our endurance in every way possible. The final approach to the trailhead met us with fierce winds and we were well past the time we had hoped to arrive. We finally finished at 6:30pm for a 10 hr day and returned to the Ayelan Lodge for long showers, steak, and wine.
The following morning we got a ride back to Mendoza with just enough time to collect our belongings, go out for one last ice cream, and head to the airport for the long flight home.
With some perspective on the climb I began to realize that on our first go at the summit, we were sort of just going through the motions and on the verge of becoming too confident that we would make the summit. Our second attempt we enjoyed every minute of it, spending time with good friends and appreciating the mountain and each other. In the end the successful summit was the reward of our resolution. This mountain taught us a great deal about perseverance, self-knowledge, and having no regrets. It also reminded us how much we need each other to accomplish what we do.