Cerro Aconcagua (Argentina)

2-Feb-99

By: Erik Siering


Last summer, Matthew Richardson and Nile Sorenson raised the idea of climbing Aconcagua, the highpoint of South America. The notion gelled as we bivouacked at the base of Norman Clyde Peak in August; our large SPS group had run out of daylight in descending the NE face. So Matthew, Nile and I chose to join the "select" estimated 4,000 climbers attempting to scale Aconcagua in 1999. It seems that less than a tenth are successful. Some perish each season due to poor judgement or inadequate skills.

The Ruta Normal (Normal Route) is a strenuous non-technical climb, though challenging due to the high altitude and the extreme temperatures and winds. The approach is from the Horcones Valley, through northwest scree and snow slopes, up the west side to the summit. At the outset, we'd decided against the Polish Glacier route due to the longer approach, icy conditions, and lower probability of success. We spent 13 of our 16+ allotted days on the mountain. Conditions were opportune despite a snowstorm that kept us in high camp for two days. The accumulation of snow actually made the climb more enjoyable and scenic. We averted altitude complications by our conditioning and a deliberately paced ascent.

Our preparations began in earnest last October. Conditioning was maintained by scrambling up nearby Mt San Antonio as frequently as we could. A winter camp atop Mt San Gorgonio field-tested our gear. We approached Aconcagua well-versed, drawing on RJ Secor's excellent book "Aconcagua: A Climbing Guide," the first-hand experiences of many climbing friends, and information readily available on the Web.

In fact, all of our travel arrangements were made online. We thus researched our flights, and later contracted with David Vela's Andesports for local support. Our ground costs exclusive of meals were $495 apiece, a reasonably good deal. We provided our own equipment and food for the self-guided climb. Nile negotiated by email with the guiding services to provide for our basic needs:

- transportation between Santiago and Los Penitentes, and to/from the trailhead

- lodging in Los Penitentes before/after the climb, two nights total

- mules to carry baggage to/from base camp, two mules each way

- white gas fuel and a climbing permit ($120 each), saving us a trip to Mendoza

- storage of equipment at the hotel and at Plaza de Mulas base camp

Our UAL flight departed Los Angeles on Monday afternoon, arriving in Santiago, Chile via Miami on mid-morning Tuesday. Chilean authorities assessed us each a $45 entrance fee. U.S. and Canadian citizens are special... our governments reciprocate the favor. The hired shuttle met us at the airport. We had seven heavy duffles between us. Matthew had extras for post-climb sightseeing in Chile. The van was to be private, but it also picked up four US climbers at the airport and in town. The others were attempting the Falso de los Polacos (False Polish) variation from the Vacas Valley.

It was a scenic drive through Santiago's outlying areas, high into the Andes Mountains. Our efforts were unsuccessful in reviving the altimeter of Matthew's new Suunto watch, which had inexplicably died. Prior to the tunnel at Paso de Bemejo (12,670') that joins Chile and Argentina, we paused at the lakeside Portillo ski resort. This was guarded by sleeping Saint Bernards. The border control stations were time-consuming. At last, we were in Argentina for our first sight of massive Aconcagua. After photo ops at Puente del Inca and the climbers' graveyard, we arrived at the Andesports hosteria. This is at the otherwise deserted off-season Los Penitentes ski area (9000'). We ate empanadas with dinner ($25 per person), packed our gear and fuel for the mules, and coordinated trip logistics with our hosts, David and Monica Vela. Two mules would carry our six duffels the next day to the Plaza de Mulas. We'd take two days to hike the Horcones Valley with light packs.

Here's a summary of our climbing itinerary, with statistics:

Day 1: Backpack through Horcones Valley, camp at 12,000' (4.25 hrs, 12 mi, 2200 ft gain)

We casually set out at mid-morning from the trailhead (9800'). The Guardeparque ranger checked our permit and registered trash bags that we were each given. We had to pack out all of our refuse. The lower Horcones was greener than the arid landscape I'd anticipated. Views of the towering peaks were inspiring. We passed the junction to Confluencia camp. Here we met exiting hikers, shell-shocked in appearance. They reported of high winds and a severe storm the preceding week. Tents had been leveled in the upper camps, no recent successful ascents been made, and a Korean and a Croat had perished (fallen or frozen?) in the icy Canaleta, the 1300-foot 33-degree chute below the summit.

Somewhat chastened, we reached the unremarkable landmark of Piedra Grande (Big Rock). We made our camp further on, near the Quebrada Sargento Mas. A solitary boulder on the side of the valley served as our windshelter. The free-flowing glacier melt was full of red, muddy silt, thereby resembling coffee. We perfected a technique of pot-settled, coffee-filter strained, hand-pump filtered processing. During our water duties, a pair of Croats with bandaged, frostbitten hands passed by on a descending party of mules.

Day 2: Backpack to Plaza de Mulas, camp at 14,100' (4.5 hrs, 10 mi, 2200 ft gain)

It was a cool and clear morning. We passed campers in the desolate terrain at the site of Refugio Ibanez, before the pronounced rise in the trail. Near the ruin below Old Plaza de Mulas, there were dessicated carcasses of mules that had fallen from the precipitous switchbacks. Nile examined their bones and teeth (he's an orthodontist). The Horcones Glacier came into view. We skipped the 0.5 mi side trip to the Hotel Refugio. Rodrigo, our base camp host, met us at the two Andesports tents. He kindly permitted us to use the large tent, usually reserved for guided clients, for cooking as well as storing our gear.

The services have established pit-toilet latrines among the colorful assemblage of tents. As a result, the bustling base camp is far cleaner now, in contrast to the befouled upper camps. The water source was glacier melt from above camp. Plaza de Mulas actually sits on a moraine atop the glacier itself. Water flow was clear in the morning, floury with silt later in the day. We filtered, but most did not without consequences. We had brought two tents, a NF Mountain 2-man and SD Stretch Dome 3-man. Only the light and cozy 3-man tent went to the upper camps. My new MSR Dragonfly stove was inoperable. It tested fine at home, but its pump valve had stuck, damaged during the mule carry. We relied on Matthew's trusty MSR XGK. Our camp was adjacent to the Guardeparque and medic tents. Their weather report was simple, but accurate. They monitored Easter Island to the west in the Pacific, and forecast the conditions to Aconcagua three days later.

Day 3: Light carry to Camp Canada, camp at 14,100' (2.5 hrs, 4 mi, 2100 ft gain)

We backpacked supplies up the steep trail. At Canada, we met Jack from Jackson Hole, Wyoming. His partner Chris was ill from altitude although they'd been acclimatizing for over a week at base camp. Stronger climbers Tony and Scot, a Scots and Aussie respectively, were here too. There was snow. Water is otherwise not available.

Day 4: Heavy carry to Camp Canada, camp at 14,100' (3.5 hrs, 4 mi, 2100 ft gain)

We moved up more food and gear. Jack and Chris were advancing the next day, and told us we'd get their tent site. After returning to base camp, we visited the nose of the Horcones Glacier. We watched ice climbers and eyed the inclement weather higher on the mountain. Nearby icy Cerro Cuerno (17,920') looks like an impressive climb. Incidentally, "The Stone Sentinel" is a book recommended for highly entertaining reading.

Day 5: Move to Camp Canada, camp at 16,200' (2 hrs, 2 mi, 2100 ft gain)

Jack and Chris moved out and we set up. Canada is a small camp, with an open latrine beyond a rock outcropping. Watch your step! Spirited Brazilians came in waving their national flag, with an assortment of flimsy tents and recorded music. One fellow, who couldn't speak English, read Secor's guide. We slept lightly at altitude. Nile vividly dreamt that night of the business opportunity of a "pancake house" (IHOP?) at Canada.

Day 6: Heavy carry to Camp Berlin, camp at 16,200' (4 hrs, 8 mi, 3000 ft gain)

Our plan accelerated by leapfrogging a carry to high camp. We first used our ice axe and crampons approaching unattractive Nido de Condores. Poorly placed tents amid the snow-covered detritus. Here we met Roger and Bob from Houston, Texas, who'd been acclimatizing on the mountain for weeks. They told us of their former teammates Bonnie and Ian. Bickering over control led to a parting of company before the past storm. From barren, windswept Nido the summit seemed near due to the foreshortening at altitude.

The nice, new Berlin Hut was built by the Pfalz German Alpine Club in Feb 1998. But it already had an enormous trash pile, and the roof was weathered and tattered. The three older small shelters, "Berlin," "Libertad," and "Plantamura," were filthy and littered. Yet they were occupied. People will do anything to avoid carrying a tent. We passed an incoherent, stumbling climber afflicted with altitude sickness being led down on belay. We cached our gear, and spoke with descending summiteers. A climber was seen working out by marching straight up the vast scree field known as the Gran Acarreo (Long Haul)!

Day 7: Move to Nido de Condores, camp at 17,750' (2 hrs, 2 mi, 1600 ft gain)

We left a duffle with the extra provisions at Canada. The Brazilians were playing Led Zeppelin as we departed. At Nido we reused the snow walls of a previous site, the best of the scuzzy lot. The Brazilians came in later in the day. We learned that the dead climbers' bodies had been evacuated. It dropped below freezing in the sunshine by 2:00 pm.

Day 8: Move to Camp Berlin, camp at 19,000' (1.5 hrs, 2 mi, 1300 ft gain)

Roger shared his camp with us near the Berlin Hut. It was the only snow and waste-free site. We melted snow and settled in, basking in the warmer afternoon. Climbers descending from the summit told us that two Americans were in trouble up above. We spotted a group descending the Canaleta at 19:00. Scot and Tony arrived tired at dusk, having summited. They confirmed Jack and Chris were doing poorly on their way down. We hoped they could at least reach the shelter of Refugio Independencia ruin (21,000').

Matthew stayed up to take photos of the sunset. We heard Jack descending late in the dark. Informed that Chris was far behind alone without a headlamp, the three of us and a Chileno climber retrieved him. Chris was incoherent and unable to support himself, in a state of exhaustion and with severe AMS (altitude mountain sickness). Jack was slightly better. They had light clothing, were out of water, and wouldn't have survived a night in the open. We warmed and rehydrated both climbers in the hut. Roger, dropping his summit plans, graciously offered his sleeping bag to Chris. Roger later roused us to treat Chris' pain and panic due to snowblindness. I bandaged his eyes, and gave him codeine to calm him to sleep. Roger, Jack and Chris descended to Nido the next day.

Day 9: Weather day at Berlin, camp at 19,000'

Weather forced a rest day. We rose early in anticipation, only to be greeted by a biting wind. It was roaring on the summit. The windchill was well below zero. As we went through the motions of preparing to climb, we noted our numbing extremities and crawled back into the tent. We passed the day dozing, melting snow, and shoring up guy lines and rockwalls to reinforce our tent. Matthew and Nile spent time on their trip diaries. Besides the pair of Brazilians in the hut, we were alone at high camp. A feeling of isolation.

Day 10: Weather day at Berlin, camp at 19,000'

Another weather day, and so another rest day. Snow fell throughout the day and night, accompanied by howling winds. Feeling restless, I was enervated by the extended stay at high camp. Nile and Matthew felt it was beneficial for the additional acclimatizing.

Day 11: Summit day from Berlin, camp at 19,000' (10 hrs, 8 mi, 4000 ft gain)

This was our shot! It was a clear and calm morning. A balmy 6deg F air temperature and several inches of new snow cover. Wind and snow had buffeted the tent during the night. It had been a fitful sleep. We awoke to precipitation inside the tent: despite venting, condensation had encrusted everything with ice. So we were off to a ridiculously late start at 9:30 am. Nile's motivation and Matthew's optimism overwhelmed my lassitude.

We tracked virgin snow through the Piedra Blanca (White Rocks). At Independencia, we met the only two other climbers, from Oregon. They had traversed from the Vacas. We broke trail traversing the Gran Acarreo, and slowly pushed up the Canaleta. Our progress seemed imperceptible. I set a turnaround time of 18:00. Weather began to develop. Clouds boiled up from lower elevations to the southwest. Nile and Matthew contoured up to the right, then left to the ridgeline. I made up ground by cutting directly across the head of the Canaleta. This was shorter, but exhausting due to unconsolidated snow on the rocks.

At 17:00 I met Nile at the ridge, as he turned back 300 feet below the summit. The weather had intensified to a near whiteout. Thinking of his family, Nile opted to descend rather than risk the implications of the blizzard. Matthew continued ahead, summiting after the climbers from Oregon. He also lightened his load, tossing his cookies. I hurried to the top before my turnaround time. The Oregonians wished us a safe descent as they departed. Matthew and I snapped photos of each other at the summit cross, using his camera. I'd mistakenly left mine below at Independencia (hypoxia?). Matthew proudly displayed the lucky crystal from his girlfriend Annemarie. It had worked. I had my Wailer Ski Club banner.

At 18:00 Matthew and I descended to the Canaleta. The fresh snow made for tricky footing on the steep incline. At the traverse, we met a lone ascending American climber with a full backpack. We tried in vain to disabuse him of his insane notion to camp atop the summit. Oh well, we never heard of him again. The clouds broke at Independencia, where we confirmed Nile's progress ahead of us by his glissade tracks. A beautiful sunset accompanied our arrival at Berlin by 20:00, shortly behind Nile. The Brazilians were our boisterous welcoming party. After a group photo and dinner, we crashed.

Day 12: Descent to Plaza de Mulas, camp at 14,100' (2.5 hrs, 6 mi)

Our descent was awkward, as we were quite laden in retrieving our supply caches. We passed many unsmiling climbers trudging upward. There was now much more snow on the trails. Young Argentine climbers clustered about and greeted our arrival at the Andesports tent. They coaxed us for cheap deals on our gear, a tactic that draws on the customarily burned-out clients of guided groups. Matthew eventually sold a Nalgene bottle, and Nile parted with a Ridgerest pad. We cleaned up, and repacked our duffels for the next day's mule carry. Matthew mixed up a tasty, effective TJ Pina Colada drink mix in celebration.

Day 13: Descent to Los Penitentes, hotel at 9,000' (7 hrs, 22 mi)

We hiked the length of the Horcones Valley to the Guardeparque, passing through Confluencia camp on the secondary trail. It was a lovely day. The lenticular cloud formations were fantastic. They looked like a fleet of UFO saucers. It was also a sure sign of the fierce Viento Blanco (White Wind). We were pleased to be off the mountain under these conditions. We chatted with incoming hikers, mostly Americans, gauging their probability of success. I met Germans that had helped construct the new Berlin Hut. Matthew and I debated Allende and Pinochet, to Nile's annoyance and spurring him to hike out faster. We capped our climbing experience with a pleasant dinner at Los Penitentes.


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