Cerro Aconcagua (Argentina)

In High Places

By: Burton A. Falk


At 22,800+' in height, Aconcagua is note-worthy as both the high point of Argentina and of the entire Western Hemisphere. Since it was first ascended by the Swiss guide Matthias Zurbriggen in 1897, hundreds--perhaps thousands- of climbers from all over the world have been attracted to its rock slopes. As might be expected, a multitude of climbing guides and accounts of expeditions have been published in regards to the peak. S.P.S. stalwart, R. J. Secor, in fact, has authored what is probably the finest guide to Aconcagua currently (or ever) in print. The following article is not intended as competition for any previously published material. Actually, it would surprise me if it provides any useful information whatsoever.

Our climbing party, which assembled at the Santiago, Chile airport on a fine morning in early February, consisted of nine clients and two guides. The leader of the expedition was Greg Wilson, a twenty-eight year old guide from Rainier Mountaineering. His assistant was Andre Beuchat, a nineteen year old climber from Santiago, who two years earlier had become the youngest person to have climbed Aconcagua. After idling away the following day at Vina del Mar, Santiago's posh beach resort, awaiting the arrival of some delayed luggage, the third day we crossed the Andes at Uspallata Pass, below which, at the Argentinean border checkpoint, a boldly displayed sign proclaimed, "Remember the Malvinas" (the Falkland Islands), the Argentine counterpart to "Remember Pearl Harbor." So much for letting sleeping dogs lie. Continuing east another one hundred miles to city of Mendoza, we checked into a small coincidentally-named hotel--the Vina del Mar--an establishment which we were later to discover was more than just a haven for the weary.

At 8:30 p.m. that evening-early bird dining time in Argentina--we gathered at a downtown outdoor restaurant , where, after enjoying delicious steak dinners (about $3.50 each), our leader discovered that his wallet, containing $1,000 in cash, $2,000 in travelers checks, his passport, his return airline ticket and all his credit cards, had mysteriously disappeared. Launching a thorough search of the vicinity, we found the wallet--less the cash, credit cards and passport-on a roof outside the restaurant's men's restroom, leading us to believe that one of the restaurant employees was the thief. After spending an hour filing a police report, we returned to the hotel, where we soon discerned that the Vina del Mar was more house--if you know what I mean-than hotel. Doors banged open and slammed shut all night; beds and God knows what all thudded against the walls. Titillated by an assortment of grunts, groans and giggles, my imagination ran at full tilt until dawn's early light.

Next morning, we groggily drove to Mendoza's modem soccer stadium, where in an office located below the tiers we applied for and received our climbing permit. That afternoon we backtracked west to a hosteria in Puente del Inca, from which, the following morning, we departed on our approach to Aconcagua. Since we planned to climb the peak via the Polish Glacier, our path was up the Rio de Vacas--rather than the standard route via the Plaza de Mulas. Employing packers and mules provided by the renown Senor Fernando Grajelos, it took us three days to reach our 13,700' Plaza Argentina base camp. Bidding "adios" to the packers there, we then spent an additional five days (including a rest day) establishing Camp 1 at 16,500' and Camp 2 at 18,850' During this approach, our group of eleven split up into four tents, comprised as follows: Tent 1-- the two guides; Tent 2-- three members of the Colorado Mountaineering Club, all strong climbers, Tent 3 -- a grab bag, consisting of an attorney from Seattle; a medical student from Detroit, (whose parents, by the way, were Maltese), and a young, well-to-do lad, taking a break from his undergraduate studies at the 9. of Denver, whose motives for making the climb were never quite clear (one supposition was that his father had sent him off on the climb to grow hair"), and Tent 4--three older climbers including myself, the "old farts tent." One of my two tentmates was Jim Scott, my old friend and climbing pal, whom I have known since our kindergarten days together at Fern Ave. Elementary School in Torrance. Our tent mate, previously unknown to us, was Dick Norgaard, then a professor of finance at the U. of Connecticut in Storrs, now on the staff of the Economics Dept at SUNY Binghampton. Dick stands at 6'5" and wears a size 15 boot--the kind of guy you notice in a crowd. Possessing an analytical mind, Dick soon became interested in what sort of personality traits and/or physical characteristics, if any, a group of climbers might share. Although a group of eleven is admittedly too small a sample from which to draw any valid conclusions, he did uncover several commonalities --most of them to be expected, but a few being odd enough to deserve further inquiry, as follow:

  1. The group was entirely male and, except for our Maltese doctor-to-be, all of Northern European descent. 2. Of the eleven climbers, just three were married. True, one of the single climbers was engaged, but on the other hand, one of the married climber's union was on the rocks and was to dissolve shortly thereafter.
  2. Four of the group were left-handed; just a statistical abnormality or ?
  3. The average height of our group, including the alpine Norgaard, was a mere 5'9"
  4. Average weight--149 Ibs, somewhat lighter than the average American male.
  5. Average age-35-1/2 years old.
  6. Regarding education, everyone except our Chilean guide, Andre, who was scheduled to matriculate shortly after the expedition, had some sort of college background. Four in the group possessed advanced degrees.
  7. Dick's conclusions regarding the group's personality characteristics- excluding the U. of Denver student-were that "all were type A, all were extremely individualistic, all were very competitive."

At Camp 2, located at the base of the Polish Glacier, we found only a few tent sites, and these were small and snugged up close against steep rock walls. Unfortunately, we also found the rock-covered body of a young Argentine climber, a discovery that cast a definite pall over our team. Later we heard that the corpse remained there because it was unlawful to move a body until the circumstances of the death had been investigated on site by the authorities (Senor Grajelos, it seems, had previously gotten into hot water by bringing down another body without permission, and he wasn't about to risk losing his profitable franchise by doing so again). Since the climber's family and/or friends didn't have the wherewithal to reimburse the proper officials for venturing up to that God-forsaken 18,850' location, there the body remained, frozen solid, slowly desiccating in the dry mountain air.

After a day of resting and practicing ice axe techniques at Camp 2, we began our summit attempt the following morning, Feb. 18, at 3:15 a.m., when the outside air temperature was an icy -5 degrees. The first leg of our climb was a long ascending traverse to the south-east edge of the glacier, which we reached just as dawn was breaking. Later, about 8:00 a.m., somewhere around the 20,000' mark, we came across a team of Colorado climbers who were in the process of turning back Camped on the ice flow the previous evening, their leader had begun to exhibit signs of pulmonary edema, and that morning the group had decided to forego their summit attempt in order to get the stricken climber safely down to a lower altitude. By noon, at 21,000', 1 had begun to sound like a steam engine, taking three "pressure" breaths per step-and even at that I was starved for oxygen, In my journal, I noted, "I was exhausted and dizzy. The crampon tracks left in the snow by the climber on the rope ahead of me had become hypnotizing. They appeared to be Chinese characters, which, try as I might, I couldn't decipher. At 2:15 p.m., we reached the summit cairn, which I described in my journal as "a pile of rocks in the middle of a snow-free, rocky flat, about an acre in area--quite unspectacular. We stayed there almost an hour, taking photographs and congratulating one another, before beginning our descent. Because we'd had our fill of the Polish Glacier, we opted to follow the rocky standard route down the north side of the mountain, until we reached the battered Berlin Refuge. From there we traversed SE down around the peak, reaching our tents at Camp 2 at 8:30 p.m. just before dark. It was the longest, hardest day of my life. I was so tired, in fact, that I couldn't really appreciate the fact that it was finally over. That night, I had a odd high-altitude dream in which a man dressed in loose white clothing entered a small whitewashed room and sat on a white chair, the only piece of furniture in the room. Then I dreamed it again, then again and again-like a movie on an endless spool. Getting off to a lethargic p.m. start the next post-summit day, we descended only to our 16,500' Camp 1--near a field of Nieves Penitentes--which gave us a total of five uncomfortable nights above 16,000'. The following day, we continued down to our 13,700' "banana belt" base camp at Plaza del Argentina, where, to our delight, "the breathing was easy." Unfortunately, however, because we couldn't cross the swollen Rio de Vacas without horses, we had to wait there for three long days for Senor Grajelos' pack team to arrive and pick us up. During our wait at Plaza del Argentina, we killed time by:

  1. Exploring the area, and climbing one of the nearby 15,000' peaks
  2. Washing our underwear in glacial water that was even dirtier than our shorts (hard to believe).
  3. Almost persuading the climber whose marriage was in trouble (could it be that some of the strain was due to the fact that he had left his wife at home, ready at any moment to give birth to twins?) that he should name his offspring Kahiltna and Talkeetna.

On the day of our departure, heading back down the Relinchos Valley on our way toward the Rio de Vacas, we stopped for one final look back at Aconcagua. A lenticular cloud had formed over the peak that morning, and the downwind edge of the formation-the side toward us--was forming ever-changing claw-like shapes, similar to the spin drift in that famous Japanese wood block print of the storm-tossed ocean with Fujiama in the back-ground. Andre said the cloud was an indicator that the outstanding weather we had enjoyed was about to change for the worse. To me, it seemed as if the mountain had awakened at last, and that it was belatedly attempting to reach out and do harm to those of us who had violated its sanctity. Our two day hike to the trailhead was uneventful. We arrived at the hostel at Puente del Inca the second afternoon about 5 p.m., where we lined up to take our first showers in fifteen days. That evening we had to wait until the standard Argentine dinner hour of 9:30 p.m. to be fed. It was during that seemingly interminable delay that I developed my extreme empathy for the Donner Party.

The following day, heading for Santiago to catch an evening flight for Miami, our van first ran out of gas, then, after refueling, broke down due to an electrical problem. As we were all extremely anxious to get home, these delays were cause for major frustration. Fortunately, our plane was also late and, happily, we just made our connection.

My homecoming the following afternoon wasn't the triumphal event that I had expected, however. Although I thought I had adequately showered at the hostel on the previous morning, I was chagrined when an old friend, who picked Jim Scott and me up at LAX in his new BMW, suggested that he let us off at a car wash for a good steam cleaning. When we balked, he drove us back to Long Beach with all his windows rolled down. Sometimes even conquering mountain climbers get no respect.


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