A Culinary and Cultural Guide to ACONCAGUA Plus other stories of mountain idiocy, medical emergencies and more…
By John D. Alley
Seattle, Washington USA
February 3 – March 9, 2003
The 2002 – 2003 ski season in the state of Washington never really materialized so I chose not to buy a season pass. Thus it seemed like a good idea to leverage the unencumbered lift ticket funds and buy a plane ticket to Mendoza, Argentina and aim for the top of Aconcagua (22, 841 ft.). I headed out alone as a short notice trip like this is not conducive to recruiting local climbing partners with jobs that require regular attendance. My goals were simple: to have a good time and make the best of the conditions the mountain and weather would present to me and to get a pack mule with pretty eyes as I knew the trail in would be long, dusty and lonely.
I had thought about climbing the standard route of Aconcagua for the past several years and went as far to purchase R.J. Secor’s book on the mountain and it routes. It is not a great book but it is the only book. I read dozens of trip reports found on the Internet and felt that I had a good understanding of what to expect. The trip provided me the opportunity and excuse to upgrade and replace some of my ageing and worn-out gear. My planned summit day would have me leaving Camp 4 under a full moon weather permitting. The Argentine economy was holding steady at 3 pesos to the dollar for the past few months so I front loaded the trip with a few days to visit Mendoza and the local area and have a week of recovery time in Mendoza or Santiago, Chile at the conclusion of the climb.
The city of Mendoza is the staging area for Aconcagua, as you must purchase your climbing permit here before heading up to the National Park entrance. The climbing permit for mid season is U.S.$120 and it is a bargain when you consider what is provided. With a population of a million people, Mendoza is impressive for its small town feel. Few buildings exceed three stories as the city lies in an earthquake zone and most residences are single story dwellings. Most North Americans and Europeans expect to encounter third world conditions and are surprised to find a modern city with all the amenities of its cosmopolitan bigger sister Buenos Aires.
Founded in 1561, it is one of Argentina’s oldest settlements boasting world-class wineries, restaurants, shopping and museums. Although it is located in the desert foothills it is kept green with an amazing system of canals supporting thousands of large trees and watering scores of parks. One only has to walk 5 to 10 blocks to encounter one of the many park plazas that were planned in the mid 19th century. The streets are clean and for the most part safe as Mendoza has a relatively low crime rate. I observed the streets being swept at midnight by workers using eight-foot palm fronds. Although most vehicles run on diesel the pollution level only gets annoying in the late evening as the city fills up again after the siesta around 5 to 6 o’clock. The litter and pollution can in no way be compared to Calcutta or Mexico City but I was told that Buenos Aires is a misnomer as its air is not very good.
BEEF IS KING
Argentina has been able to produce more food than it can consume which has made it a very successful exporter, especially during the World Wars. It has an abundance of beef for the following reason. In the 17th and 18th centuries the Spanish brought cattle to the vast grasslands of the Pampas, got their butts kicked by the locals and retreated to Europe leaving their herds on the plains. This is the closest thing to nirvana for cattle as there are no predators other than the occasional Gaucho and free food was everywhere waist high so they didn’t even have to bend over to eat the grass. The beef from the Pampas is rightly considered wholly organic, as they are all grain and grass fed with no antibiotics. The only intervention by man is the inoculation for hoof and mouth disease and the trip to the slaughterhouse.
I soon learned that eating beef was the Argentine national past time. Every family has an "asado" or outdoor barbeque in which beef, goat, lamb or chicken in smoked on a medium heat mesquite fire. All restaurants cooked with this type of natural wood process or they would be out of business. Vegans and vegetarians are an endangered species in this county because salads and fried potatoes can get very old very fast.
My first and best meal in Mendoza was at my hotel, El Portal, where I was served filet mingon Malbec (a local wine) which was a steak about the size of a 12 oz. pop can, covered with ruby red Malbac wine sauce. I could cut the steak with a fork and the meal was accompanied with a large mixed salad, fresh French bread, and fresh creamy mashed potatoes. Cost US$6.50. I ate steak two to three times a day for the duration of my stay in Mendoza.
The climbing season in Argentina is during the summer for them and winter for North Americans and Europeans. During summer, the restaurants have outdoor sidewalk tables for lunch and dinner with dinner usually served between 9:00 p.m. and 1:00 a.m. The rules are that Argentineans do not eat a large breakfast but have a small croissant ("media luna" or half moon) with meat filling, coffee and perhaps a cookie. Lunch and dinner will be beef of course, however, due to a large population of Italians and Germans who have settled in the country over the past few hundred years there is a lot of spaghetti, pizza and ravioli offered on the menus. Not to worry, if you order a pasta dish there will be a steak on top of it when served.
I never saw a Chinese or Thai restaurant and it was difficult to find anyone serving fish considering you are only 80 miles from the coast of Chile. However, there are three McDonalds in Mendoza but they make burgers "hambourgesas" their way. The typical hamburger served at McDonalds or any local restaurant is not a ground beef patty but a thick circle of spiced meat more of the taste and consistency of very lean meatloaf. On top of the burger there is a large 1/2 inch slice of mozzarella cheese, a large slice of ham, lettuce and tomato with a fried egg on top, placed between slices of French bread. I never patronized McDonalds but merely observed. Hambourgesas were less than a dollar and were a full meal.
A cautionary note about Spanish definitions in Argentina. The Spanish language of Mexico and the Southwestern U.S. is often times confusing if used in Argentina. Chorizo is not a spicy chili sausage served with scrambled eggs but is a large sirloin steak about the size of a small pot roast, which most people do not finish. Beef is not carne but "bife" pronounced ‘bee fay’. My usual choice for lunch and dinner at the sidewalk cafes was "bife de lomo con papas, ensalada mixta y un empanada", literally translated as a beef loin cut with fried slices of potato, a mixed salad and a meat filled pastry which cost US$2.50. Only once did I get a tough cut of meat.
The restaurants I recommend as you first arrive in Mendoza are:
1. La Florencia Parrilla, located on the corner of Sarmiento and Peru
2. Don Otto, 242 Las Heras
3. El Portal Hotel (no side walk service) after 9:00 p.m.
Judge the rest of the restaurants by their level of cleanliness and the presence of the asado in the window. You should be able to see the food as it is cooked and smoked. They do not cook with chili in Argentina so don’t expect hot spicy food anywhere. I never did get a serving of rice or beans because pasta is the norm along with pizza. Do avoid the all-you-can-eat cafeterias, as their food is mediocre in quality although there is exceptional variety and quantity.
The food is cheap in Argentina along with most everything else due to the recent collapse of the economy. In late 2001 to 2002 the peso was 1 to 1 with the dollar but fell into a free fall to 3 pesos to the dollar. The locals blame crooked politicians for their economic woes and have reacted to the situation by absorbing the economic hit in the midsection and not freezing prices or adding zeros to the peso as Mexico did in the 1970’s. That is why the merchants are unable to bargain with tourists who think they are in a distant suburb of Mexico. This is why a steak dinner for $6.50 would cost $40.00 in the United States.
The best way to show appreciation for the great food and friendly service is to tip 20 to 30 percent for meals. It is best to pay the asking price of the merchants, as it would take an exceptionally parsimonious person to dicker when everything is being sold at survival prices.
Although northern Mexico and many Central American countries have let the siesta slip from their grip as they compete in the 21st century, Argentina has held tight to the tradition. It is easy to adapt to, as the afternoons can be hot and sultry. Of the few shops open from noon to 5:00 p.m. you will find many telephone/internet businesses whereby you can catch up on e-mail for just a few pesos per hour. The best side effect of the siesta is the traditional dinner hour being from 9:00 p.m. to past midnight. There is nothing more relaxing than a steak dinner at midnight accompanied with a glass of locally produced wine and the temperature in the mid 70s. Viva la siesta!
APPROACH TO ACONCAGUA #1
I had to go through an outfitter to get a mule for the trek to the base camp of Aconcagua and randomly chose INKA Expediciones from several listed in Secor’s book. I considered it a crapshoot between the good, the bad and the possibly ugly. INKA was the first to respond to my e-mail and I decided to use their guide services to enhance my chances of success. I don’t consider myself a particularly lucky person, however, the choice of INKA proved to be one of the best decisions I could have made.
I linked up with two guys from New Zealand in their early 20’s who had just climbed Kilimanjaro, Mt. Blanc and some peaks in Russia, and an American in his late 40’s who got acute mountain sickness (AMS) at base camp last year and was back for a second try at the mountain with INKA again. I am 51 and a climbing instructor in the state of Washington, USA.
The first stop for all climbers should be the climber’s cemetery at the entrance to the park near Puente del Inca, the natural bridge. It is a sobering experience to see the final resting place of so many young climbers with the backdrop of Aconcagua serving as a tombstone. I didn’t count the graves but there were several hundred though many were not mountain casualties but people who wanted to be buried there who had a connection with the mountain. The majority of climbers appeared to be in their 20’s and early thirties and makes one wonder about the individual circumstances and causes of their demise. I informed my climbing partners and guide that if I met my end on the mountain that there was enough money in the bottom of my pack to pay someone to dig my spot in the rock. Why send a perfectly useless body back to Seattle when a free graveyard was provided in the grandeur of the Andes.
We all headed out for the first camp, Confluencia 11,480 ft. where we would camp and have a day climb the next day to Plaza Francia 13,940 ft. and camp one more night at Confluencia before heading for the base camp. This was in keeping with the climb high sleep low methodology.
One of the Kiwis had arrived with a chest cold and continued to cough, hack, spit phlegm and pressure blow snot on the initial approach and I was usually right behind him. I found it difficult to hold my breath during his episodes and gain altitude at the same time. After returning from the climb to Plaza Francia I awoke with a chest cold and fever, as did the other previously healthy Kiwi. I told them I was going to remain at Confluencia and use one of my rest days and would meet them at base camp the following day. Everyone else continued on.
A park ranger stationed at Camp Confluencia heard about by fever and came to my tent to verify my condition. Through a translator he told me that it was too dry and too high to get well there. He said I had the choice of getting up and walking out of the park today (alone) or they would gladly fly me out in the park helicopter in a day or two once I came down with pulmonary edema. For once in my life I decided not to argue with authority. I got well from a cold in the Himalayas at 13,000 ft. but the air there has more oxygen at that latitude of elevation and a lot of moisture.
I descended to Penetentes 8,860 ft. for 24 hours and decided to further descend to Mendoza 2,500 ft. and see a doctor and get some more antibiotics. I spent five days there and was in the process of informing INKA I was throwing in the towel, as my attendant ear infection would not equalize pressure. By chance I met a Canadian and Norwegian who were using INKA for the last climbing opportunity of the season and decided to at least go back to the park entrance with them knowing that I could abort at any time. INKA gave me a second shot at the mountain even though they had completed their part of the contract.
When leaving the hotel I encountered the two Kiwis who looked like they had just risen from the dead. They both made it to the base camp in spite of their colds and managed to do a carryover of gear to Camp 1 at Plaza Canada 16,000 ft. They both came down with pulmonary edema and were evacuated by helicopter from the base camp to the park entrance and then a 5-hour ambulance ride to the hospital in Mendoza. As they drew short breaths they said the doctor had told them their lungs would take a year to repair themselves, thus their upcoming climb in Bolivia was not going to happen. The cost of the helicopter evacuation and ambulance ride was covered by the $120.00 climbing permit.
TREATMENT OF MULES ON ACONCAGUA
My second approach to Aconcagua started with a good omen. One of my original goals of getting a mule with pretty eyes was realized. I named her Miss Mula and carried on a one-sided conversation with her mile after dusty mile. But alas, soon Miss Mula’s more than ample buttocks and thunderous thighs reminded me too much of an old girlfriend and I had to part company, leaving her behind in a cloud of boot dust as I pressed on ahead of her, never to look back.
The authors of many trip reports express concern about the treatment of the mules on the mountain. Although some mule tenders may be abusive to their animals it is not in their best interest mistreat their business assets. I had the opportunity to see the mule pens of INKA Expediciones and found the conditions humane and clean but they are only one of many outfitters.
Make no mistake about it being a hard scrabble life for mules on the mountain. The mules carry a 130+ Lb. load to base camp and return to their pens at Plaza De Inca never spending a night at altitude. The final one-mile climb from the valley up to base camp is littered with skeletons of mules that have fallen. That is the reality of their lives. If you are a believer in reincarnation I suggest you lead a holy and pious life because you do not want to die and come back as a mule on Aconcagua.
APPROACH TO ACONCAGUA #2
As I took the van ride to the park entrance my ear popped due to the negative pressure and for the first time in a week I could hear out of my right ear. I made sure my new climbing partners got to see the climber’s cemetery and knew my wishes. We arrived at the base camp without incident after going to Plaza Francia and Confluencia.
I had a tent to myself at base camp and realized it was the same one the Kiwis had used indicated by the dried blood on the tent wall six inches from the floor. It was located at cough level for their last night on the mountain. Fortunately, each passing day disappeared the evidence due to the dryness of the air.
During the first night at base camp I was awakened at 3:00 a.m. by the shouts of the Canadian that the Norwegian climber was in distress. He was unable to speak and wrote on paper that he had a severe headache and numb hands. We couldn’t find the guide and did not know where the camp doctor was located. MOFA (Mountain Oriented First Aid) did not prepare me for the symptoms I was seeing as he drifted in and out of an awake but vegetative state. The next morning the camp doctor was stymied, as these symptoms were not consistent with mountain sickness or anything else he had seen at altitude. The stricken climber sat in a chair mutely staring at the mountain as if he would like to stab it and kill it with his knife.
A storm was moving in with high winds so a helicopter evacuation was out of the question. The ride out would have been 20 minutes by helicopter but we instead had to tie him upright on a mule and the camp cook and a ranger walked on either side of the mule for the ten hour, 20-mile descent to the park entrance where an ambulance would be waiting to take him to Mendoza.
The full force of the storm hit the camp late that night and continued into the next morning. A quarter of the tents in the base camp were flattened sending people begging for refuge in the tents of strangers. It makes it kind of tough when you haven’t had a bath in a week or two and stink while begging for tent space.
Our tents held up but a 50 mph gust of wind blew into our tent filling it with fine dust and grit. The blast forced grit into the Canadian’s right eye and scratched the lens. As each hour went by he got progressively worse and it looked like I was going to lose my last climbing partner. His symptoms were similar to snow blindness but now the other eye was being affected. We went to the base camp doctor and he surmised that a virus had settled in and gave him some antibiotic eye drops and tablets. There was no charge for this as his services and medications are included in the climbing permit fee. His condition improved over the next few hours and we were good to go the next day. All of this took place on our planned rest day after arriving at base camp.
The rest of the climb went as planned with a carryover of gear to Camp 1 Canada 16,000 ft., a day to go to Camp 2 Nido de Condores 17,710 ft., a day to go to Camp 3 Berlin 19,680 ft. and then to the summit and return to Berlin for the night. On our summit approach we encountered an angry guide descending from Berlin who had quit his job because the employer would not send any support. He alone had been taking care of 10 climbers leaving them on their own. We met a climber from Bulgaria at 21,900 ft. who was one of those abandoned by the guide. He had spent the night at Independencia hut (which has no roof) and wanted directions to Camp Berlin. He was wearing a light jacket and a small daypack with no sleeping bag. I can only hope he made it back to one of the camps.
Summit day was sunny and clear with very little wind. I did not wear gloves for the 45 minutes I was on top of the Americas, which looks odd in the summit pictures – 22,841 ft. with warm but swollen bare hands. The guide said it was the best weather he had ever seen on the summit.
A CLIMBING PROTOCOL THAT WORKS
The guide services on Aconcagua have been in business for about 10 years and are maturing but have less experience than the Sherpa services in the Himalayas. The more successful ones have revised and developed climbing protocols based on their observations that many well-conditioned climbers failed to reach the top. Many would succumb to the mountain at base camp or camp 1. INKA Expediciones added an extra rest day to their schedule and two days of climb high and sleep low to help us flatlanders better acclimate to the altitude.
The following is their protocol:
Day 1 Travel from Mendoza to Penitentes 8,860 ft. A 5-hour bus/van trip to a ski area where you spend the night is an old ski chalet. This is your first exposure to the thin dry air.
Day 2 Leave the park entrance at 9,000 ft. and hike to the Confluencia Camp at 11,480 and spend the night. This is a 4 to 5-hour hike.
Day 3 Day hike to Plaza Francia at 13,940 and return to Confluencia to sleep. This is an 8-hour round trip.
Day 4 A long day trip to Plaza de Mulas base camp at 13,940 ft. This is a fifteen-mile, 8 to 10-hour trip involving many river crossings with a 2,000 ft. gain mainly at the end of the climb.
Day 5 Rest day at base camp Plaza de Mulas
Day 6 Carryover day to cache food and equipment at Camp 1 (Canada) 16,000 ft. Return to base camp to sleep.
Day 7 Climb to Camp Canada and spend the night.
Day 8 Climb to Camp 2 (Nido de Condores) 17,110 ft. and spend the night.
Day 9 Climb to Camp 3 (Berlin) 19,680 ft. and spend the night. Prepare to summit the next morning.
Day 10 Emergency day in case of bad weather (optional).
Day 11 Summit day with a 4,000 ft gain in 8 to 10 hours of climbing. Return to Berlin and spend the night.
Day 12 Travel to base camp and spend the night.
Day 13 Hike appx. 20 miles from base camp to the park entrance which is the longest day of the climb. Transportation back to Mendoza with a hot bath waiting at the hotel.
WHY 9 OUT OF 10 CLIMBERS FAIL TO REACH THE SUMMIT
The general consensus among the guides I talked with is that only 1 of 10 people who set out for Aconcagua make it to the top. The road to Aconcagua is paved and littered with many well-conditioned individuals who for one reason or another fail in their bid for a successful summit challenge. The main reasons I observed are:
1. Failing to become knowledgeable of the mountain and it caveats. There are hundreds of trip reports on the web. Learn vicariously whenever possible.
2. Old age and treachery will beat inexperienced youth any time. I met a 62-year-old physician from New England who told me he was in a 10 member guided climbing team for summit day. The younger climbers were charging for the top and flailing. He tried to explain the concept of rest stepping and pressure breathing but they would hear none of it. He and the guide were the only two who made it to the top.
3. Respect altitude. Little problems at lower elevations become major issues at altitude when your tolerance levels and patience are thin due to fatigue and low oxygen levels. Something as little as a thrown crampon will cause a person to want to quit moving, sit down and give up. A malfunctioning tent zipper can bring out a knife solving a minor inconvenience in a drastic way.
4. Arrive at the mountain fit. The American climber I met on my first ascent lost all of his steam at the canaletta 900 ft. from the summit. Although he had shed 35 Lbs. since the previous years attempt he still lacked the conditioning to close the final gap between desire and success.
Aconcagua can be a fun and rewarding experience if approached with proper planning and attitude. I will be glad to share further information with anyone interested in additional details at [email protected] There are other trip reports that I recommend which can be found at the Boealps Climbing Club home page: www.boealps.org search under Ron Fleck and Rob Kunz - Aconcagua. Also, see a trip report authored by Bill Fisher on the Internet. Go to Google and search for "Bill Fisher’s 1999 Aconcagua Expedition". Bill was my virtual mentor and was very dutiful in answering all of my questions via e-mail. Thanks again Bill!
It turns out that the Norwegian climber had suffered a stroke and is still unable to speak. It is not thought to be altitude related but the doctors have never ruled it out. He is currently in physical and speech therapy and is hoping for a full recovery.