I am pleased to report success on 6,964 meter (22,834 foot) Aconcagua, the highest peak in the Americas and the second highest of the "seven summits". It started as an idea over a beer in Potosi, Bolivia, and ended with the reality of standing atop the highest point in the world outside of Asia. Although it was a gruelling, very tough experience, and I wouldn't go up there again for a thousand dollars, it is a very rewarding addition to my experience in South America.
The summit! On top of the Americas!
James and I arrived in Mendoza not knowing much about the route or the mountain, or the options for scaling it, so it took a bit of research in the area to get everything sorted out. At first it seemed we would need a guide to reach the top, but a short reconnaissance trek to the bottom of the south face and meetings with actual climbers convinced us that we could do it independently and save $1200. I had some climbing experience, having dealt with high altitude in northern India, and had bagged some lesser North American peaks. James only had a small New Zealand volcano under his belt. Just a pimple, really. Not to worry, though. If it's too easy it's not so interesting, right?
The reconnaissance hike included an excursion to the base of the south face, as sort of a test for our acclimatization potential at over 4000 meters. It was truly an awesome sight: 2800 meters (!!!) of near vertical crumbling rock with huge ice seracs hanging down, with the occasional avalanche crashing down and making am enormous cloud as the ice shattered on the ledges below. How anyone can ever climb this escapes me. Yet, as we were sitting around our camp, which we set up around two other, unoccupied tents, in the afternoon we heard "hola!" shouted as someone obviously hadn't expected our tents to be there. I came out of my tent to say hi and when I asked the guy if he was trekking up here too he said, "naww, mate. Oi just cloimbed that bugger!" in a thick kiwi accent. He pointed to the formidable face, and my jaw dropped. He, Sean Waters from Christchurch, had spent a week on the normal route of Aconcagua acclimatising and then came back with his friend and climbed the French route on the south face. Quite a feat! To me it looks basically unclimbable, WAY too difficult and dangerous. It is a hundred times more imposing than anything we have in Colorado, yet he pulled it off, it took about four weeksd start-to-finish. And he was the most modest, nicest guy in the world, which impressed me that much more. He gave us plenty of good information on what we could expect on the normal route, and gave us some insight on whether or not an expensive guide was advisable for us or not. One thing he casually mentioned is that on his route, very near the summit there are two dead climbers, hanging frozen on their ropes for over a year already. Although we could not see them on the normal route, he had to climb right by them which was a bit less than pleasant.
The mountaineering gear was easy to rent in Mendoza, and mule transport of gear, food and fuel to base camp was easy enough to arrange as well. The whole cost of our independent expedition was no more than $400 each, including the $120 climbing permit.
We trekked for two days to "Plaza de Mulas", base camp for the Aconcagua normal route. As the route rises from 2700 to 4300 meters along this stretch, it means trouble for a lot of unacclimatised climbers. We heard of a few that were evacuated with pulmonary edema after just arriving at base camp! I had troubles myself, and had to take frequent rests to avoid overexertion. Without the altitude it would have been a straightforward hike but the altitude factor is what makes some climbers come to grief on the normal route, and I was fully aware of that. The "cemeterio de Andinistas" (I don't think I need to add a translation here) near the entrance of Aconcagua Provincial Park serves as a constant and quite sobering reminder of the potentially ruthless and unforgiving nature of this high-altitude environment.
Feeling the altitude on the trek to base camp.
A typical scene of the long trek to base camp. Looks a lot like Ladakh in this area.
Realizing the importance of adequate acclimatisation (I realized it first hand through painful dry-heaves), we stayed in base camp for three full days, taking one day to do a load carry of food and fuel to camp 2, at "Nido de Condores". Base camp could get somewhat boring, and the lack of good food and amenities, and the constant wind and relative cold made me anxious to get going and get higher up on the mountain. The toilet facilities were largely responsible for that, too. There were plenty of people at base camp, with full-blown expeditions from Ireland, Sweden, Denmark, and some other countries. There were some independent climbers, but most went with an expensive guided climbing service. Although these groups enjoyed milanesa or other delicacies for dinner, (the smell of which almost made me want to shell out the extrra cash) and real coffee and scrambled eggs for breakfast while I strtuggled to keep plain oatmeal down, I kept reminding myself that a month's trravel budget was saved by doing it our way. Besides, I think it is more rewarding doing the climb independently.
Dinner at Base camp: Choking down yeat another disgusting meal of pasta or some freeze-dried crap. Now I know how a toilet feels every day.
From base camp we moved up to camp 2 at Nido de Condores, skipping camp 1 because we felt quite good and strong. After 2 nights there, and one long, boring acclimatization day spending most of the time melting snow for drinking water, it was our turn for an attempt on the summit. The basis of our decision for going for the summit from camp 2 rather than camp 3, 700 meters further up, was that at camp 3 you hardly sleep at all. I guess the body doesn't allow it, and apparently acclimatization slows down drastically as well at that altitude. So why haul the entire camp up there, when you can just get up a little earlier and start out from the camp 2 for the summit? That is exactly what we did, and it worked quite well for us.
We normally waited until the sun hit the tent in the morning before emerging, it was just too cold otherwise. But on summit day we were up at 3:30, well before sunrise and got suited up and breakfasted for a 4:30 departure. There were a group of four of us: Jaime and Ivan from Santiago, Chile, teamed up with me and James for the summit attempt. After we reached Camp 3 at 6000 meters, the sun began to rise, warming up frozen toes and fingers and bathing the surrounding peaks in a beautiful orange light. We were high enough already to enjoy this spectacular sight of the surrounding mountains as we were fighting our way up the relentless steep rocky slopes. I snapped a few pictures but my SLR battery froze up with the camera out of my jacket for even a few seconds. None on this page, sorry!
At 6500 meters we came across a landmark on the route- the battered hut of Independencia, virtually worthless because of the destroyed roof. It was a good place to stop, take some liquids, and force a chocolate bar down my throat. I really didn't feel like eating ANYTHING, and it was surprisingly difficult to get it all into my belly and keep it there. I knew I needed it for the final, difficult push.
The small "refugio" at 6500 meters. But don't count on this thing for adequate shelter.
From this point on the route follows "the traverse", the only section for which we needed our crampons. The route crosses a snowfield before taking a sharp left for the strraight shot up the "canaleta", the crux of the climb and the final 300 meters or so below the almost 7,000 meter summit. It was at the bottom of the canaleta that I met Ang Dorje, a Sherpa climber from Nepal, famous as a very experienceed high altitude mountain guide and also well known for his role in the 1996 disaster on Mt. Everest and the subsequent Jon Krakauer book "Into Thin Air". He is an eight-time summiter of Mt. Everest and one of the most respected mountaineers in the world, and it was an interesting experience to talk with him for those few minutes.
Here's where the going got tough. The canaleta is the final push for the summit, and consists of steep, loose scree and snow patches. Two steps upward contribute only one step of forward progress. So for every step you take forward, you slide back a half step. Because of the incredibly thin air, each forward step requires about five breaths, and as a result you can imagine how slow this last bit is! Quite a few summit hopefuls are completely wiped out by this stretch and turn around. The fact that the summit is visible throughout the grueling ascent of the canaleta, yet seems to get no closer with each step taken adds to a feeling of mental anguish. The last 200-300 meters of the climb can take up to two hours or more!
Absolutely knackered, I dragged myself onto the summit, but instead of collapsing the endorphins were swishing around my veins and I was immediately overwhelmed by an unexpected rush of joy. I was almost teary-eyed. I thought I'd be too tired to really care and it wasn't THAT important anyway, but that is not how it ended up! It was a triumph for me, for whatever reason. I won't go into speculations on why this could be, but suffice it to say that climbing this high peak was worth every hard-fought, leg-burning, lung-busting step.
Just me on the summit. Victory!
I was the first one of our group on the summit, and had the summit to myself for about ten minutes. I doubt any Himalayan expeditions in Nepal were at or over 7000 meters at the time, so I was quite possibly the highest person on earth for those ten minutes. Interesting thought. I mean naturally high, of course. I don't want to get a flood of contestations from college students.
Jaime from Santiago approaching the summit
The whole climb took ten days start-to-finish, including the trek into base camp. Now we are back in Mendoza, making up for the ten-day-long lack of meat and wine in our diets. Two full days of recuperation are just about right. Everything on my body hurts a bit, including sunburns, twisted ankles, muscle aches and pains, chapped lips, etc. etc. Thick, oxygen-rich air and heaps and heaps of good, cheap food including fresh vegetables and fruits have worked wonders, though.
The bikes are coming out of storage tomorrow and we will continue our southbound journey to the end of the road. It's about time to get rolling again!
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