Preparing for the ExpeditionAconcagua 2002
An account written by Glenn Gardner
This is a detailed account of the 2002 expedition of Aconcagua as I saw it. April of 2001 found me in Colorado Springs planning on our families move to Buenos Aires, Argentina in the Fall. Of course, I have always heard of the wonderful mountains of Patagonia in the Andes, and therefore began to look into which mountains might be nearest to climb. I heard of Aconcagua…a significantly high mountain that was supposed to be the king of the Andes…I then thought…maybe I’ll climb it. When we moved down here I brought a few basic pieces of my mountaineering gear but realistically did not imagine going on an expedition so soon. We arrived in BA on July 18, 2001 and were met by Mr. Snowden and waited for a teacher named Jason Bellaire. He arrived and we loaded our stuff into the cars and headed for BAICA, the school where we would be teaching. When we got there Jason saw my backpack and questioned if I wanted to climb…of course I said I was interested…in what? ACONCAGUA! he said. I thought, why not…and began to ask him about his climbing experience. I learned he was from Colorado and was not overly experienced but seemed pretty sure this was a climb he wanted to do. I enjoyed the conversation and we left it alone.
Several weeks past by and school began, Jason and I talked more and he seemed really serious about doing this climb. I, of course, was not going to talk him out of it, but was concerned about a climb of that magnitude with such a small team. That is when Dr. Stricker mentioned Dr. Terbush. He said he had a lot of climbing experience and would probably love to come. I was eager to meet the man, myth, and legend…and soon I would at International Bible Church. He seemed steady enough, and very competent. I checked him out, and he passed. Military for sure…Navy I would find out. One week I mentioned the climb to him…He smiled and said “Sounds like fun” not very serious, but not a definite “no”. The plan was still very thin and not much had materialized.
While watching Vertical Limit Nadja and I talked and she said, knowing me better than I often know myself, “you can go, but you can’t be stupid and only if Dr. Terbush goes too.” I couldn’t believe it. My wife gave me permission and I hadn’t even asked. A little discussion followed and we decided on a maximum budget. I told Jason the next day, and he told me Patricia, his wife, had also given him her blessing. Wow, this might actually happen. The catch…Dr. Terbush!
The three of us talked at church a couple of times and Doc showed a little more interest. We pleaded with him and he seemed to relent. Deron Peterson heard of the possible plans and wanted to be in on things if they began to materialize. Claudia Stohr, also at church, wanted to be included if possible. A representative for Columbia outdoor gear here in Argentina, she would be a source of clothing that we all would surely need. With the five of us we began to realize we had the right size for an expedition team, and we began to get a little more serious. We began to research the mountain and the conditions we might face, etc. One great source would be a Lt. Col. Frank Mastrovito who would be going up a couple of weeks earlier than when we might and we would get a lot of info from him. Then, 911, the US attack, we all stood still and realized our plans were not in our hands alone. The seriousness of such an attack would definitely have large ramifications and we all knew it would probably affect us here. We found out that the Military climb was called off and that Frank would be interested in climbing with us if we should still decide to go. That is when Doc made us lay our cards on the table. After a mens breakfast the four of us, Deron, Jim, Jason and myself, sat down and committed the entire thing to the Lord and His will.
Feeling that things were moving, I began to get up at 5:00 am to run a short 2 K which seemed tortuous and I wondered if I would ever get back into shape. Morning after morning I would wake and run…chased by dogs, splashing in puddles, tripping over loose tiles in the morning light. What a start. Then…the test. We would all get together at Dr. Terbush’s house on a Sunday afternoon, and move into the next phase…commitment and a 3 mile run and dip in the pool. I wondered how I would stack up…feeling pretty out of shape.
The day we all waited for came, and the run was a simple go, we clicked as a team from the start. As we ran we never let any member fall behind. If they did we would circle back around like geese and fall in behind them. This was particularly encouraging since none of us knew if we might possibly be the one who would fall behind during the climb. Frank was a stocky little guy and seemed quite able, but a little desk ridden. The rest of the group, excluding Doc, were green, but capable so I reckoned. We showed what little gear we had with us…discussed the time frame of the climb, and decided it would be a good thing. Conversations were long and varied that evening and we all headed home wondering whether we were really ready for this kind of thing.
A few weeks went by, I began to run in the evenings to help out more with the kids in the mornings. I was feeling a little better physically but emotionally really drained. I had some feelings of doubt as to whether or not I should even be leaving my family and trying a semi-dangerous climb. I felt that God was preparing me and telling me that this trip would somehow allow me to get my life in focus and so with the peace that only God can provide, I pushed on!
After some brief after church discussions we all decided to meet at Docs house the following Sunday at 7:00 am for a group run. We met that day in a downpour. We all ran regardless of the rain and it was perhaps one of the best runs to this day during our training. We all had fun running and it was quite peaceful in the rain. We ran the next Sunday as well, except without the rain. Frank met us there without any sleep and left due to some tight muscles…too much dancing at the Military Ball. The next week Doc was gone and we all decided to all meet on a Sunday morning at 7:00 down by the Tren de la Costa with our packs on to do a little group training. That morning, Claudia, Jason, and I met followed by Frank later on since he was not sure what station to look for us. We walked up and down some stairs and began to investigate which ones would give us the best work out. The day was not real exhausting and we decided to increase the load in our packs and to try for a more aggressive pace. The following Sunday we did just that, aggressive with 40+ kg in each pack,,,was more like death to the calves. “Good Though” the words of a logger joke that Doc had told us during our run in the rain earlier began to have its place in our group. We decided that we over did it a little and settled for about 25 Kg per pack and were at it again the next week. This time Doc was with us and saddled to go! Our group was beginning to form.
The week days went something like this: Mondays and Fridays were long run days…6-10 K and Wednesdays were either more stairs with Jason or leg weights. I wanted to be more aggressive in my training but just was unable to find the additional time it required. Claudia seemed to be keeping the best running plan going of all of us. Jason and I were hitting the stairs pretty regularly with periodic wind sprints up a hill called “grannie runs” nicknamed because of how slow we ran. This may be the source of the hip and back pain the two of us would later have on the mountain.
A second meeting set forth the exact dates and it was decided that Jim and I would head the food planning. This seemed like an easy enough deal but the logistics of the entire trip had to be thought through before one meal could realistically be planned. (We would later find most of this planning thrown out due to the luxurious accommodations provided to us through the Argentine Military unit in Puente del Inca.)
I began to scour the internet for sites pertaining to climbing Aconcagua and other Andean climbs. Coupled with personal experience I slowly put together what would become the equipment checklist for the expedition. Some of the reports were conflicting…some saying that crampons and ice axes for the normal route were superfluous and not needed. Others said they were mandatory as well as one 8 mm climbing rope for climbing during poor weather. (A choice we left behind, but may have allowed us to consider a summit bid the day we descended). I then spent even more hours looking over web sites for the serious bargains on climbing gear. Most of us needed to purchase clothing for extreme temperatures. Everything I read about the mountain was to expect temperatures down to –25°C near the summit…we encountered temps in that range at Nido de Condores and reports were that temperatures dropped well below –50° in the Canaleta. I think we were still prepared since we were perhaps a little overdressed rather than underdressed. I tend to be a cautious over-planner rather than a featherweight climber. (Again to my pain as I limped into Nido the second time with a 30 kg pack)
The list sent out to everyone yet we were still unsure of the route and were wondering if we needed to find a guide. It sounded like we might have some assistance from the Argentine Unit but we did not want to put our cards on it at that point. Again to the internet. This time looking only for pictures and maps and anything that might clue in the route. There were many fine pictures and by downloading them into a Powerpoint presentation and fine tuning the different angles, I felt like we did not need a guide. After the many hours I viewed the photos I felt like I had been on the mountain before. One hundred and twenty three different photos of the route provided me a reconnaissance plan and the route seemed to be a paved highway to the summit as long as the weather would hold. The truth was I knew I could find my way on the mountain…but I did not know the weather patterns and that still worried me.
Claudia e-mailed us telling us that she had met with an Argentine military officer who had led many expeditions up Aconcagua and he would meet with us to discuss particulars. His name, Alejandro. Frank confirmed to us full Argentine cooperation and involvement which meant possibly having a guide or at least someone who would cook for us down at Plaza de Mulas. We met at Claudia’s flat and had pizza. Alejandro looked over our plan and discussed various items with us. He gave us a sense of “You can do this-- there is just not much to it.” We were able to get the slide presentation I had put together working on Claudia’s laptop and we all sat around as Alejandro went through the slides with us and discussed things pertaining to the many pictures. We felt so encouraged and that we were not going to need a guide.
Time was running out and we still had a lot to accomplish. We began to train harder and more frequent knowing that we only had one and a half months left until we departed. We began to debate how we would all get there and Jason said he had a friend who was a travel agent who would give us some quotes. I left all that up to them and trusted all would work out. December was nearing and the primary detail was that Jason, Claudia, and I had a significant amount of equipment in the states needing to be brought down to Argentina. Deron was going to the states and offered to bring down some things for me. My parents took the items to him and he brought them down when he came. I still lacked a few very important items. I had ordered a Marmot Aguille sleeping bag and after it arrived, I changed my mind for a Kelty one priced $150 less and with a lower temp. rating. Due to the change, Daron was unable to bring down the sleeping bag. He did tell us though that his wife, Beth, would be going to the states in early December and we could bring some things down with her. Jason ordered his things and his parents dropped them off at my folks house in Duncanville after some pursuasion. The plan was to take the things to Beth and she would bring them down. After some trouble with the Airlines we were told that Beth would not be able to bring down an extra bag and we needed to find another way of getting our things down here. Both Jason and I realized that without the gear, we might not be going. My brother in law John Prince told me that his parents would be happy to bring down some things and would be coming in around the 20th of December. I took him up on the offer and my parents sent the things to Tennessee to be brought down with the Princes. After my things had been sent on, Beth let us know she could bring down the extra bag after all and so Jason now had a way for his things…It all arrived safe and we were back on the ship again.
Training continued normally and Frank opened his home to us after the workouts for a breakfast of facturas and Mate. There we discussed the details of the military involvement in this expedition. It seemed that although the Argentine military was extremely interested in helping us with the cost of the trip, the desperate economy left them with no choice. They could not help out financially. However, they were willing to let us use their facility in Puente del Inca and would be willing to provide a guide and a cook for us. They were also mandating that if we were to go with them we would need to establish a level of command within our group. Captain Jim Terbush would of course be our leader and highest ranking military among us.
One final meeting took place while Jim was in the US. It was during that meeting that we went through all of our equipment, made lists of things still needed, etc. We were definitely prepared as far as gear went, but we were still unsure of our physical level of preparation. Doc would be returning from Colorado a few days before our scheduled departure date of January 5, 2002. He would bring the few remaining items and then we would be off.
Jason Bellaire and his travel agent supplied us with tickets to Mendoza via Dinar and a return trip by sleeping bus. With tickets in hand I felt much better and it looked like things were ready to go. One problem, Doc arrived and to his chagrin had forgotten Claudia’s boots and Jason’s down jacket. Thank the Lord for express mail. The items arrived the day before we left.
I spent several hours packing and repacking all of the gear and food I was responsible for taking. We were limited to 1 bag not weighing more than 15 kg. Mine weighed in at 32 Kg. I expected to have to pay overweight. Everything packed tight and I was set and ready to go. Deron and Beth would pick me up at 5:30 am Saturday.
I knew I would be leaving Nadja with the kids here in Buenos Aires and the recent demonstrations weighed heavily on my mind. I did not want her to have any extra problems. Friday morning, the day before we would leave, the car sprung a leak spraying coolant all over the front of the car. An easy fix, I thought, but finding the replacement part proved to be impossible and I was forced to put a temporary remedy in place. The Sunday before we had returned home to find three men cuffed and laying on the side of the street across from us. They had attempted to rob the house but had been caught. I had to completely entrust my family to the protection of God and that was humbling.
Saturday morning arrived with a cool, misty rain. Deron and Beth drove up at 5:30 as planned. I kissed my kids sleeping in bed and told Aarika I would be back soon. She told me she would miss me and gave me a hug. Ethan just slept on. A few hugs and kisses to Nadja and I was off to the Airport.
We drove up to Newberry airport in downtown Buenos Aires. The newly remodeled terminal was state of the art. We entered with all of our bags and Doc and Frank arrived at the same time. Claudia and Jason would arrive a few minutes later since their remis driver had forgotten to pick them up. Everybody accounted for, it was now time to check in. For four of us we were given the run around from counter to counter but in very short time we were all checked in. Due to the low volume of travelers with the slow economy we were not charged any overweight. Another answer to prayer.
We all enjoyed a cup of coffee and then headed upstairs to board. The flight was empty and was a great time to just relax from all of the last minute stress. We landed an hour and a half later in Mendoza to cool, clear skies.
Frank had arranged for the military unit in Puente del Inca to pick us up in a van and take us to Carrefour, a French “Wal-Mart”, to do our food shopping. The contact was waiting for us and we were quickly loaded into a large fifteen passenger military transport van. Frank had his first pay dirt on the trip and we were all indebted to him. We would soon be finding out that this man does not do anything half-way.
I broke the food list into three parts and assigned two person teams to each. We entered the store with a mission and with the exception of waiting for the bakery to bake the bread we needed we were done in one hour. Claudia paid for the food in LeCops a useless form of Argentine money she had been paid with back in BA but acceptable for food. (like food stamps).
We loaded the van up with the food and then headed over to the officers club for lunch. Pedro our Argentine contact had invited his girlfriend to also accompany us. We went in to a very nice officers hall and enjoyed a fantastic hot lunch served with desert of our choice. After we had finished, Pedro and his girlfriend, turned on the tango music and put on a show. Argentine Tango just for our table…Frank…you did it again.
Content and ready to get on our way, we piled in the van and headed up the road toward Puente del Inca. Normally a 2½ hour drive, we would turn it into a 3½ hour trip. About halfway, the driver of the van wanted to stop in at a little fire station and fill up his thermos with hot water for mate. We pulled over and he went in. 5 minutes later he returned and said we were all invited to join the asado the firemen were having. We all got out and greeted the strangers like family and then sat down drinking homemade wine and great tasting meat. They then showed us the entire operation including the rabbits and chickens they raise for food supplements. We left there feeling humbled by their open hospitality.
Arrival in Puente del Inca was a big thing. We pulled up and were formally greeted by the Unit guards and they showed us the gym they would be letting us use to organize our food and gear. They all helped us unload our things and food and then formally introduced themselves with a salute to both Jim and Frank. I really enjoyed the formality involved in the military introductions. Capitan Claudio Rossini would be in charge of the unit going up with us and he carried with him a particular sense of strength and respect. A man of medium build, roman nose, and eyes that meant business, yet a smile that was welcoming.
After we unloaded they showed us up to our bunk rooms and we were once again thankful for the provisions afforded to us by the involvement with the Argentine and US military. Some took a short nap but I couldn’t and headed down to the Gym to sort the food. Claudio came out and reminded me I didn’t have to do it all right then. Thankful for his input I went out and chatted with them for the few minutes remaining before supper.
Supper was served and we all came down to find more than just field chow…real food. We bowed for prayer and thus set a trend we would follow through out the entire trip. The prayer before meals seemed to have a uniting effect on us throughout the entire trip.
After supper, Capitan Rossini and the Major sat us all down and detailed the plan. Firmly he said we would do it according to their plan or not at all. With this we were a little shocked. What had we gotten into? Isn’t this our trip? However, as he detailed the plan we would follow we saw that it was practically the same as ours with one extra day spent in Puente de Inca and one less day spent up at Base Camp, Plaza de Mulas. So with our pride swallowed we accepted the chain of command and continued to listen to Capitan Rossini as he detailed what we would be doing the next few days. A little conversation followed and then we all hit the hay.
The next morning breakfast was served at 8:00 am. Coffee, cookies, jellies and bread. We began to get to know the members of the Argentine military that would be going with us. The night before Capitan Rossini had informed us that not two but six of his unit would be going up with us. Five men and one female Medic. As we began to get to know four of them we realized they were mountaineers just like us, the same desires, apprehensions, and concerns.
We put on walking clothes and went for a little acclimatization hike. A short walk down through the 5 buildings that make up the unit and the living quarters for the officers. We then walked down the highway for a little while “sight seeing” and then to the graveyard. This graveyard contained climbers that had lost their lives in the nearby mountains. Many were marked and had memoirs like “We will miss you Papa! your wife and two children” and “Forever in my memories, Mom and Dad”. Talk about tears! I had to walk away from the others to conceal them, but my two children and wife were not far from my thoughts to say the least. From there we crossed a small field and Capitan Rossini led us across a railroad bridge that crossed a small gorge and had missing planks and boards. After reaching the other side, Jim and I and perhaps the others as well, recognized that Capitan Claudio Rossini was checking us out. How would we respond to different situations? How steady were we? What things would he have to look out for? I took comfort in knowing that he was an experienced leader and this kind of thing was evidence. We continued to walk back along a mule trail to the sulfur springs and natural land bridge that is this towns name sake.
Upon reaching the heart of Puente del Inca once again, we looked at the ruins of a hotel destroyed by an avalanche many years previous. It had evidently been destroyed but a church that was actually closer to the mountains and nearer to the source remained untouched. One of those funny things that God does to show his sovereignty. We spent the remaining time looking at the sulfur springs and waiting for Jason and Claudia who took off on their own little venture looking for cool and interesting photos. We then headed back to the military chow hall for a great lunch and then siesta. After we woke up Jim and I sorted the meals and packaged them in zip loc bags for the meals we would cook at Nido de Condores. We really had too much food planned since the Argentine Military would only spend 4 days at Nido saying much more than that would be useless.
Claudio Rossini informed us that we would be climbing a smaller peak on Tuesday. Before supper he spent about a half and hour informing us what we needed to take since Santa Elena was 5000 meters in altitude. We then packed the necessary items and sorted the rest of our gear. Dinner was full of joking and laughing. We were beginning to bond as two separate teams. The dynamics of the teams were coming out. Both our group and theirs had 5 men and 1 woman. We had a variety of rank and experience amongst the military and it made for interesting conversation. Since Jim did not begin this trip speaking Spanish either Deron or Frank translated for him so he was not left out of anything except the jokes pertaining to him!
At 4:00 am we all awoke to get ready for a 5:30 departure for the base of Santa Elena. We took a military transport up to the Chilean border where we would then walk by foot up a road that lead us to a pass having a refuge and statue of Christ. Capitan Rossini established the order in which we would move. We walked slowly and methodically in the darkness, each of us thinking of the day ahead and anxious to be doing something pertaining to mountaineering. It was a warm day yet the breeze was cool and numbing to the face. I chose to use only one trekking pole and was quickly convinced they should be used in pairs as I watched Jim in front of me. These things were new to both of us.
The surrounding mountains were mystical. They were like cardboard cutouts only inches away. Even though the summits to most of the peaks towered over 16,000 ft I felt like I could touch them. The early dawn created a sense of peace but I couldn’t enjoy it. I had too many cups of coffee that morning and the need for relief was pounding with every step. Unsure of how strict the military order was I mentioned that I could use a pit stop briefly and with immediate agreement the entire line broke for the side of the road. Evidently I was not the only one in need. That helped to ease the false sense of tension I had and made the trek much more enjoyable. The sun had not yet reached the valley and we anxiously waited for the moment it would illumine the tops of the peaks with a pink then peach color.
Two of the Argentines would join us soon as we watched them far below walking steadily. Jorge Manresa and Marengo as he would be called were coming up to meet us. They were, however, not taking the switchback road we were walking on, they were coming straight up. Feeling a little winded myself I felt great respect and admiration for them as they seemed to catch up to us in no time at all. Once joined, Marengo would take the lead, this was “his” mountain as he called it. He quickly deviated from the road and took a straight up approach which would earn him a nick name “Directo Marengo” for the rest of the trip. We left the road and Deron’s questions as to what scree was would soon be answered. We climbed continuously on a fairly dense scree until we reached a large bed of drift snow that was well placed in our path. Testing it by foot it was too hard to cross safely and we plotted a course around it.
After circling the snow drift we arrived at the first benchmark, Cristo. Here there was a refuge and a very large statue of Jesus Christ that seemed to give the place an enchanted feeling. This was the old road to Chile and this area once served as the border control zone. We sought shelter from the cold wind along the northern wall and all sat down for a “ratito” which included lunch. Here I ate the wrong things. I ate my sandwich and should have stopped there, but instead I scar fed down a bag of chocolate covered peanuts that within 5 minutes were wanting to come back up for air. Feeling like my gut was no longer content I wanted to quickly get back on the trail to rid myself of the malady.
Soon we shouldered our day packs and left for the ridge trail. Roux, a strong but older sergeant, indicated the route we would be following as we stared up at the 5000 meter peak. The trail was a scree scramble and typical ridge climb. Loose rocks and the typical slippery spots were common yet we all moved quickly and efficiently. My stomach seemed to have calmed and I was feeling much more like myself again. We made our way to the base of a massive rock summit and then began the traverse. The traverse was loose scree and an occasional snow field. As we rounded the mountain to the south west face we encountered a ravine that dropped away into the valley far below.
Here Capitan Rossini was quick to point out that two years previous a military officer had made a hasty retreat in a snow storm and had slipped falling into the ravine and battered by the close walls as he fell lost his life. With those words in mind we cautiously ascended and traversed above the ravine.
We were gaining altitude quickly and seemed to be making significant progress yet Claudia seemed progressively slower. Capitan Rossini held back and emptied her day pack of the non essentials into his pack and then encouraged her to move on. It was during these stops that my stomach began to rebel. I felt like I just wanted to keep going and get to the top while I still had my lunch. Each step was more miserable and I wondered how everyone else was doing. Doc seemed to be moving like an empty freight train and Jason was as strong as ever. I began to feel symptoms of a headache but fought it away by overbreathing. The air was definitely thinner at 16000 ft. About the time I was really wondering if I would make it we were in sight of the summit. Here, we made the choice to let Claudia who was farther behind to come up from below and summit ahead of all of us. As she passed us to the summit I knew this group was unique.
We reached the summit and my stomach seemed to worsen then suddenly, after eating some bread, it felt magically cured. Telling Capitan Rossini, he said I was just hungry! I think he was right. We could see all of the neighboring peaks and Aconcagua towered still above us 30 miles to the north east. We enjoyed the 30 minutes on the summit then began to head down. I was ready and the trip down seemed at first to be problem free. Then we hit this long scree covered canaleta and all the way down it seemed one of us was slipping and falling. The scree was thick and we tredded with our boots much like tredding water which seemed to slowly propel us downward. As we neared the end of the canaleta, in the region above the ravine we were all to aware of now, Frank slipped! He slid down and seemed to be gaining momentum when Jason reached out and grabbed the back of his parka. We slowly got back together as a group and jokingly noted that if Capitan had not told us about the death earlier Frank would never have slipped there.
We trudged downward and across a valley to Cristo. There we took a water break and then moved off for the way home. Tired but still feeling fine we all moved on down the road to the large snow field that lay in the way. Marengo tried it and began to move onto it. It seemed very firm and we did not have our crampons or ice axes. I was feeling uneasy since a slip would cost one their life or at least produce substantial injury. At that moment, Capitan Rossini, seeing this also, called out to stop and retreat. We did not the extra risk and given the number of slips we had earlier chances were pretty high! We took the same route around it even though it cost us time we all made it safely. We then began to descend what seemed like an eternal sand dune. Never reaching the bottom but continuously descending. My boots were a little small and I had even hesitated using them, but they had been great during training and had been fine on the way up. The way down was different though and my toes were screaming. Each step tried my knees and my toes told me to slow down. Knowing that nothing was getting hurt, I continued to the bottom to the highway! There the military van picked us up and we were on our way back to Puente del Inca. Everybody was tired but full of energy. A quick nap and we were all ready to go. Supper proved to be a real conversation piece. We swapped stories and made jokes of things that at the time were perhaps a little more serious than we wanted to admit. None the less, we had showed the military that we were ready to climb and serious.
Morning came and as a rest day we would hike up to the entrance to the Valle de Horcones where we could see the South Face of Aconcagua. We grabbed our cameras and headed out eager to see from a distance what we had prepared for and had come to climb. The trail was beautiful and we moved along quiet and much more like a team. As we neared the entrance we were given a view of the peak and we all stood, each one deep in thought knowing that the next day we would leave for base camp. We took photos and continued to walk on in until we reached the first bridge. There we turned around and hiked back. It took probably 2-3 hours but seemed like only minutes. Just the sight of the mountain had my blood pumping and I was more than ready to get on the trail.
Back in the gym we divided the food and gear into bags that would be carried up by mule and the items that would be necessary for one night we would spend on the trail before reaching base camp where the mules would be. We packed the gear carefully thinking we had 45 kg per mule. When we carried the bags up to the scale for weighing we were told they could not exceed 30 kg. Nearly every bag we had packed was over and we began to unload and repack things into other bags quickly. We were soon finished and we left our things there for the night, ready to head out first thing in the morning.
The ClimbWe got an early start by all piling in to the transport as Frank joked about his Ranger school training. We rolled up to the same place we had been the day before, this time it was for real. We all jumped out and continued with the jokes saying “Who told you to get off that truck?” We waited for park clearance at the station and then headed on up the trail in the twilight. We moved efficiently and confident as a team. We reached the first bridge and Jorge Manresa ran ahead with the video camera to take footage of us moving up the trail. We crossed the bridge like children shaking the swinging bridge as to make the other fall. We had this sense of humor that would build over the next several hours. First the hill climbs and passing mules then the trekking became monotonous. 46 km to go to base camp and the trail was begging for some entertainment. I am not sure who initiated the concert but I believe Frank broke out into an old military marching chant and then I let loose with “My girl’s a Vegetable” and then it was history. Song after song we sang. Songs we hadn’t heard for years. Westerns, Folk, Soul and even the Ants go Marching. About the time I thought maybe Claudio Rossini was getting tired of hearing white boy songs he broke out into a mariachi solo and kept our spirits light. The sun peaked over the neighboring mountains and the heater was turned on. Off with the Gore-Tex and down to lightweight clothing. Gloves for sun protection not for warmth.
We crested a ridge and their to our left was Confluencia, a common first night camp. There were not less than 10 tents there on a small, flat, grassy spot close to the creek. It looked interesting but would not be for us. We would try to get to Ibanez closer to plaza de mulas but still 5 hours more. Over the next little rise we came to a large open area and there we took a break. I ate my lunch a bit early along with just about everyone else. There were two hard boiled eggs in the lunch and for calcium I put the shells on my sandwich…not bad but the flavor was a little to overwhelming. The water was running clear and we asked if there was water at Ibanez and Sargento Roux said yes. None of us filled up our bottles with water, after all it would only be getting better as we climbed higher. We soon were off again and the songs helped us all pass the hours of trekking.
We began passing several climbers who were on there way out. Eager to find out the snow conditions we asked as many as we could. Many had not summited and only two had actually reached the summit and both agreed that crampons would be mandatory during the top 600 meters of climbing. We saw others who looked like the sun had taken its toll and yet others who were so out of it they didn’t even respond. None the less, we pressed on excited to make camp and get to Plaza de Mulas.
We had to cross a small creek that was traveling down the center of the large rock covered bottom. We found a suitable spot to jump and almost all of us made it across dry. We continued up the basin looking at Cerro Mexico and Cerro Dedos. We came to Playa Ancha Tranquilo, a place in the river bed that was several hundred meters wide and offered a fantastic view of the South face of Aconcagua. Once again being able to see the mountain, we all were pumped up and trying to envision ourselves on the summit we were looking at.
The river bed narrowed once again forcing us to cross the creek. I think I had included in the list river crossing shoes and yet none of us brought them. Claudia and Jim took theirs off and crossed this time bare foot. I managed to jump successfully but Deron and Frank missed the landing and took on water. In the distance we could see where we would be setting up camp and so this did not cause any alarm. We ended up crossing two more times before reaching camp. Cerro Cuerno finally came into view and I knew we were close. I had seen enough photos of Plaza de Mulas to know it was located at the base of Cuerno and it didn’t seem that far away. Not long after we could see Cuerno we stopped and met the three mules and skinners that had carried our short term gear. We picked out spots to set up the tents and quickly got the camp set up.
The Argentine mule skinners had collected water for us and gave us each a gallon jug. We looked at the water and wondered where did they get this. They told us it came from the creek we were camped by. They told us to get water and let the silt settle out. We went down the river and got some water but even after an hour of settling it was still cloudy. We opted to use the water purification filters and so pulled them out. The first three liters were beautiful, then the filter clogged. Too much silt still in the water. We then realized we needed a better water source. Making matters worse, two Argentine Doctors, whom we had met in Puente de Inca, stumbled into camp completely dehydrated and desperate for water. We gave them two of the three liters we had filtered and then faced our dilemma square in the eye. We had to find clean water.
Jason and I headed up the mountain trail in search of clean running water. We did not find anything but I did spot a waterfall a thousand feet above where we were. If the water was falling there it must be entering the river. I took off my boots and crossed the river in search of good water. I quickly found a cool clean seep coming out of the side of the mountain and began to clear the rocks to fill the two water jugs I had. Jason went back to camp to get the other water jugs. The sun went behind the western ridge and it got cold fast. The river began to rise with all of the melting snow from the day finally making it down the mountain. Jason could not find a place to cross and we decided that we would get more water the next day before we left. Crossing the rising river proved disastrous as I slipped and got my right foot all wet. Two minutes to camp and my boot was off and the dry air put an end to wet boot syndrome.
Jim cooked up a wonderful leaky pot full of some Italian combination. We pulled out a bottle of wine we had packed along for this moment and shared it among the Argentines. The food was great and the fellowship was increadible. Claudia worked with the stove in an effort to patch her thermarest and then it was time to crash. I would sleep in one of the three man Columbia tents provided by Claudia with Deron. Frank chose to sleep under the stars with the mule skinners. Outside of the snoring cantata performed by Lt. Col. Mastrovito all was peaceful and we woke at 6:30 am to ready camp for the final push to base camp.
I had agreed to go for water that morning along with one of the two Argentine doctors. I collected as many water bottles as I could find and we headed down to the river. The water was down considerably due to the frozen snow above. As we neared what looked like an easy hop across we noticed the rocks were all covered with ice. Moving carefully I made my way to the edge of the creek and went for the jump. I slipped on the ice and put my left foot fully into the water. COLD FOOT immediately and the Doctor who would be going with me decided to keep his feet dry and warm and tossed me his water bottle. I didn’t mind and actually enjoyed getting out by myself since we had been climbing as a team everywhere we went. I made my way up to where the seep was and noticed right away it was dry…the waterfall was frozen up above. I almost turned back but decided to move to a better vantage point to confirm the situation. I spotted the water fall and noticed that some water was melting and dripping down the ice. I climbed up the ice melt covered with scree and reached an enchanted spot. The water was flowing off of a polished rock in a perfect, faucet like, stream. The mist was frozen in a thousand different kinds of ice formations like coral under the ocean. The sun was just beginning to hit the location and it was like a winter wonderland. I quickly filled the bottles with crystal clear, mountain water. I returned the way I came and managed to get my right boot wet. Now with two wet boots I approached camp with my prize, clean and pure water. I am glad I got the water since I did not see any water of its like until we reached Plaza de Mulas. The Doctors were also thankful but Claudio Rossini looked at me like I had wasted my time…I still disagree.
With camp packed up I waited with my boots off in the sun warming my feet and wringing out my socks. Within the 30 minutes we waited, my boots and socks reached a hardly damp state. We got on the trail and were soon making more vertical feet per minute than we had the entire day before. We climbed higher and higher and by 11:30 had reached the base of the Glacier de Horcones on which Base Camp was situated. We took a little ratito beside a destroyed refuge.
The last 300 meters were up a switch back trail leading to the top of the frozen glacier that poured out from Cerro Cuerno. The glacier at this point was covered with rock and looked and felt like solid ground. In some places it actually was rock others permafrost. At this point we began to notice several dead mule corpses and the reality of the altitude we were at set in. At 14,300 feet we reached Refugio Militar.
The military had chosen a location several hundred meters away from the common Plaza de Mulas to set up what was a very clean and efficient base camp. It had three primary semi-permanent tents and a permanent outbuilding that had shifted along with the glacier and was no longer even close to being level. A small pool of water was being fed by a long hose that tapped into a clear running water source above. Rock barricades had been built to shelter individual tent sites. All in all it was clean and in good order.
The primary tent had two tables that we used for meals and card playing. Deron religiously joined in the Argentine playing of Truco. It also contained all of the food we purchased and a gas stove top to be used for cooking. We were treated as guests and were even offered a hot shower in the makeshift shower house.
Jason and I set up my Kelty Expedition 2 tent and tried to take a nap. The sun was very direct and the air was hot. Both he and I had headaches and we took a diamox and drank a liter of water each. Minutes later we would both be feeling fine. Unable to sleep I walked to the top of a small knoll bearing the Argentine flag and sat down and prayed as well as gazed up toward the top of Aconcagua. As the sun closed the day the west face of the mountain burned red and showed itself to be rugged and yet inspiring.
At nightfall a voice rang out “Vamos para Comer” so that the entire valley probably thought they were invited. Sousa, a strong Argentine cazador had called for supper. We all brought our eating utensils to the main tent and had a wonderful meat soup. Hot coffee hit the spot as well as more conversation and jokes. Frank had arranged for us a Hilton location and we all thanked him for it.
That night I realized that I had not done my proper tent pitching. There were two nice sized boulders located directly under my kidneys and shoulder blades. I did not get a very good nights rest and yet did not bother fixing the problem in the morning. Jason began to snore despite his claims of snorelessness so out popped my ear plugs. Finding a few hours of sleep I managed to wake halfway refreshed.
Breakfasts were typical of what we had in Puente del Inca, hot coffee and cookies. The warm drinks were a welcome with the colder morning. We poked around most of the morning and made plans to go climb on the glacier a little at mid-day. Marengo would be the one to go with us and Frank was wanting to find a tent and some other boots. We set out with our crampons packed away and ice axes handy, first to the Hotel Refugio and then on to the Penitentes at the base of the Glacier de Horcones.
We reached the Hotel and the name is well suited since it is three stories high and quite nice inside. The Argentines claim it to be 4 stars but I am not sure by what standard. It is quite costly to stay there yet it seemed to be holding its fair share of climbers.
We left the hotel and headed up the west side of the valley for the penitentes. We donned our crampons and cut steps down through the icy crevasses. For some in the group this was the first time on crampons and for me a great time to check out the performance of my new Kolflachs. We picked our way through the ice field and eventually crossed a small snow bridge where we met back up with Directo Marengo. We were all back at camp by 1400 for a late lunch and siesta. The skies clouded up for the first time and we even got a little snow.
After returning to camp I got in the tent and took a real good nap. I awoke feeling really great for the first time in two days. The next day we would take essential items up to Nido de Condores and would cache them and descend for the night. We spend the remainder of the afternoon packing for that trip.
As we packed our things we quickly noted that we had an abundance of food. We had originally planned on having three extra days worth of food for a total of 6 days possible in Nido de Condores. Upon talking with the Argentines, they would be taking enough food for 4 days in Nido and suggested we do the same. With some frustration, we unpacked our extra food and went with the flow. Later on before supper we met in Dr. Terbush and Claudia’s tent for a devotional as had been the tradition since the first night. Doc shared with us regarding the word “Stand” and how it represented more than just simply being in a place.
The next morning we noticed a significant change in the weather pattern. The little pool of water was frozen over for the first time since we had been there and it was quite cold. We ate an oatmeal breakfast and had some hot coffee. Packs on and we were off to Nido. Roux took a fairly direct route up to the main trail from which he then followed the longest diagonal switchbacks. As we climbed above Plaza de Mulas we were all feeling great. We reached the semaforo, a trail marker, then piedras blancas chiquitas, and were then directly below the horn that hid Camp Canada. By 11:00 we were at 16,500 ft and were level with camp Canada. There were several tents pitched there, but we were going all the way to Nido de Condores at 17,600 ft. We reached the change of slope (Cambio de pendiente) and then stopped for a break. My head was splitting and I did not feel like eating anything. I drank about a liter of water and had some tuna fish. Jason offered a little conversation but not the same as the joking going on over by Doc, Frank, and Deron who seemed to be a little light headed themselves. We continued on up reaching Nido de Condores in a light snow shower at 14:30. We packed our things into two large duffels and set them by a large rock to act as a marker. Jason did not get all of his gear into a large duffel and ended up leaving his nice summit pack exposed. We covered it all with rocks to hold it down during the inevitable wind storms and then left. Only after we left did we think of the possibility of someone getting into Jason’s tempting pack. This would prove to be fruitless worry since God protected everything and it would all be there, in tact when we came back up two days later. Glad to be heading down, we all traveled empty and quickly. We reached Plaza de Mulas by 17:30 and were greeted with a cup of hot soup.
Jason and I thought that was to be our supper and headed for our nylon bunkhouse for the night. We both slept pretty good that night. Jason’s cough seemed to be worse and he was snoring considerably louder, although not yet a Mastrovito competitor. The next morning would be lazy and we enjoyed the late breakfast. During the morning we organized all of our gear and straightened the tent so we could find everything we would need. We placed the items we would not be needing above base camp into a duffel bag that would remain in Deron and Frank’s tent.
We completed packing our things for the next day and were told that the Major would be arriving in camp to send us off. About the same moment the mules arrived along with the Major riding one of them. He greeted us all and talked briefly with each of us and spent some time with Roux and Claudio. Frank got his boots, evidently with some behind the back bargaining. The boot issue settled, Frank was eager to get his new boots set up and his crampons adjusted to fit them.
Boot business accomplished, Frank was on the horn trying to locate a better tent for himself and Deron. Around noon he found out that the police that worked the area had recovered a tent from a French expedition and would gladly lend the tent to him. He and I arranged to go look it over at 1600 at the Hotel Refugio. Meanwhile, Frank, Manresa, and I headed over to the primary base camp to find some extra fuel canisters for his stove. The snow was blowing hard but was not really sticking. We went into the police tent and discovered that a climber had passed out above Nido and that the rescue team would be bringing him down soon. As a result of the rescue, the police would not be able to meet with us regarding the tent until the man was safely brought down. Feeling a little let down we headed back to camp while Jorge went on alone with Doc’s hand held radio to wait for the rescue team. We found some fuel canisters to buy and also noted that one tent had a satellite internet service and were selling air time per character. Some tents were of the same semi-permanent variety as what the military had and were set up by guide services for their clients as well. Most of the other climbers were simply in their high altitude tents and cooking off of Wisperlites or small compact mountain stoves.
We returned to camp and took a short siesta before supper. I had devotions that night and as usual we met in Doc and Claudia’s tent. After another great time of prayer and fellowship we headed down for supper. We were in the Chow Tent for about ten minutes when the generator went belly up. After a few minutes of darkness I thought I might go on over to see if I might be able to help. I took two headlamps and went into the permanent outbuilding that housed the shower, gear, and the small Honda generator. Four of the Argentines had the carburator torn apart and were attempting to put it back together. As I held the light I watched them trying to put the carburator float assembly back together properly. Each time they failed I wanted to just jump in and do it. Something was telling me to just watch and for about ten minutes I held the light and asked them a few fundamental questions to ensure to me that this was indeed the original source of the problem. Evidently the fuel filter would freeze at night so they removed it and dirt was now free to enter the motor. Suddenly Sousa said “Un Ayuda por favor, Un ayuda!” This is a common line spoken by beggars on the street and I then told them that they way they were putting it back together simply wouldn’t work. I took the parts and like old friends put them in place. All smiles they put it back together and she started. I must admit that at that moment I was glad to have worked on engines most of my life. Still dirty, she sputtered a bit but kept the single lightbulb burning long enough for us all to get some chow and then head for an early “bolsa de cama”.
During the time we were eating, Jorge returned with the tent and set it up in the dark outside. Deron and Frank had KP duty that night and so I helped Frank put on the necessary guy lines and packed the tent up for them to take up the next morning. After that I was pretty bushed and headed for the little orange casa.
The plan was to leave at 9:00 a.m. and we woke that morning to find more frost covering the tent than any previous morning. We quickly cleared the tent and packed up the duffel to stay. We waited as long as possible to allow the tent to defrost, but it simply was not warm enough. Packed up frosty, we would be going back up to Nido, this time to stay and hiking in Plastics. I simply could not get my boots tight and I was feeling frustrated by the moment. I did not care for the fit of my right boot and Jason told me to sit and take care of it before we hit the trail. I delayed the group a few minutes but did seem to get the thing a little tighter. We set off for Nido along the familiar path that led beside a large boulder that was a memorial to Matthias Zubriggen, the first to summit Aconcagua. With the trail ahead of us we moved along quickly and effortlessly.
We made it to piedras blancas chiquitas and began to feel the trip. My legs were just not ready for more. I had a bad side ache and I was just not feeling right. I had started taking an antibiotic two days before and I was not sure if it was a side effect or if I was hunched over too much. I tried walking upright but the weight of my pack seemed to increase with each step and I was unable to breathe. I kept on going until we reached the cambio de pendiente. I was so looking forward to a nice break at this point, however, a storm was brewing and thunder could be heard in the distance. Knowing what this meant, we continued on toward Nido. The side pain seemed to increase with every step and at times I wanted to just throw off my pack entirely. We stopped once for a short breather and with the pack off I felt much better. My breathing was shorter and not as deep. I had been taking diamox and am not sure what effects it might have had on me as well. None the less, I was hurting and beginning to slow the group down. As we moved on toward Nido it began to snow and the clouds move in. Each step for me this time was a test. A test of endurance and a test of my pain tolerance. I wanted to move faster, but when I did the knife like pain would halt me in my tracks. I asked several times for the group to move on ahead to set up camp and I would move at a slower steady pace. Finally, Claudio Rossini relented and the group move on ahead. Jason, the medic Marsela, Claudio and I stayed back and climbed the last 100 meters to Nido at a slower pace. Within sight of Nido, I simply had to remove my pack. As I set it down Claudio took it from me, and gave me his lighter pack and said, “Go! Now!” As he picked up my pack he called me a mule for carrying so much and I really did feel as dumb as one.
We walked into Nido, video taped by Jorge, snow blowing yet with little wind. All of our cached gear was accounted for and we went about the business of pitching the tent and getting the gear allocated to the proper groups. Doc and Claudia were getting their tent going and then moved to a better location. I was not feeling up to hunting down the “perfect” location and picked what looked like a great spot at the base of my feet. I kicked aside the big rocks and unfurled the tent. While Jason was getting his things from the cache, I began feeding the aluminum poles into the Kelty Expedition 2 tent I had purchased just for this trip. I felt slow and was probably slower, but we did get the tent up and the guy lines stretched tight as we had practiced using rocks that we could find in the lightly, snow covered terrain. With the tent up we both got inside and snuggled into our Kelty 750 fill down sleeping bags. Warm and comfy we both took a few minutes to rest.
We poked our heads out an hour later to find 6-10 inches of fresh snow had fallen. We were in need of water and it looked like warm tea would be the order of the day. I began getting dressed to go get the fuel bottles that were 20 meters away in Franks “French” tent but as I poked my head out I saw Directo Marengo standing outside and he wanted to know if he could help us with anything. I told him about the fuel and he brought it over to us. I was glad because I was not looking forward to getting out in the cold, high altitude snow storm. Fuel in hand we set out to light up the Wisperlite stove. I pumped it up and opened the valve to prime the thing and was ready to light it. Each lighter we tried didn’t work, the windproof, waterproof matches worked twice, but the stove did not want to
work. Past experience told me to clear the jet, but I was uncertain about how strong a flame the stove would produce in the high altitude of Nido. After fiddling around for a while, I took the thing apart and cleaned the jet. Presto! Instant stove and we were off to melting snow.
Six pots of snow was enough to provide 1 liter of liquid water. As the water reached the liquid state we poured it into our water bottles since our thermos bottles were both covered with a nasty film left by chicken soup we had in them earlier. This was a mistake made early but later we would learn that the extra time would have been worth the wait when we drank warm tea after our dinner. Water supply replenished we decided that dinner was to be made. We searched our supplies and decided to go with potato soup. It turned out a little chunky but was more than enough. We had some Chicken tea, a special mountain blend and then some more sleep.
I couldn’t get comfortable and noticed that I had two rocks the size of footballs under me again. When would I learn? As I fiddled around with the special “not to drink from” bottle and I noticed that the storm seemed to have ceased. I unzipped the vestibule fly and was overwhelmed with the site. The sun was setting to the West and the fresh snow was orange as if on fire. The clouds danced away to the east in a humble manner as if saying, “good night, sleep tight”. I woke Jason and fired several shots off with the Nikon camera I had purchased in a Colorado Springs good will for 99 cents. I ventured up to see Doc and Claudia and was pleased to find them both in good spirits. As the sun slipped away, the temperatures fell and that night would be down around –15°C.
Trying to sleep at 17,600 ft with a bed that was cold and lumpy proved to be difficult. I did manage to catch a few z’s and before I knew it the sun was back again showing off the snow that had fallen. The sky was blue, but a few clouds still hung in the Western sky. We could see two climbers trying to make the summit above us and three more behind them. As we melted more snow for breakfast tea, a lone climber came down breaking a trail through the new snow. The snow appeared to be up to his waist as he moved down the last few hundred meters into camp. He told us the snow was really deep above Independencia and that the temperatures were –30° that night. He had made the summit the day before and was headed down. We ate oatmeal and drank tea while watching the two small climbing teams making slow progress toward the summit. I began to wonder how deep the snow was up there since they were moving so slow.
We put our sleeping bags on top of the tent to air and dry out from the ice that perpetually fell off the inside of the tent onto our faces and sleeping bags that night. We would be resting today and the original plan had us making our summit bid at 4:00 am the next morning. We concluded as a group that we were probably still to tired and we wanted to let some of the recent snow settle before moving up onto the more exposed sections of the climb. We would wait until later that afternoon to make the final call. During the wonderful sun, Jason and I decided to flip the tent over and clear the large boulders from under the tent. We discovered several fist sized rocks under the tent and with some kicking and scooting we leveled the ground and snow making for the best tent floor we had slept on since we began the trip. I hope I never take for granted the bottom of my tent again. After several miserable nights of sleep, I would finally sleep well! I thought!
With the tent tarp off, drying in the direct sun, I fired up the stove and we began to heat some of the remaining water for tea. With sufficient water heated up, we chose to make the Stove Top stuffing and chicken soup. It had a wonderful flavor for the first 5 bites then it began to lose its appeal. Perhaps it was a bad reminder of the chicken soup we had carried up in our thermoses, tasted in our tea, coffee, and hot water? But perhaps it was just the altitude. We ate what we could, and ended up wasting the rest. We knew we had not eaten enough that day and would eat again in several hours. I think that several small meals while camping at high altitudes is much preferable to one or two large ones. There is just not enough oxygen at that altitude to do a lot of digesting.
Around mid-morning, Directo Marengo told Jim and I he would lead us to a hidden spring that he knew of from previous trips on the mountain. We grabbed our group water containers and our ice axes and followed him about 200 meters from where we were down into a small basin. He cleared the snow and began to chop into what looked like solid ice promising us there would be liquid water if we chopped down far enough. I gave him a break after he had chopped down 8-10 inches and almost as soon as I began to chop out sprang clear, fresh water. We cut some more and then cleared out the ice chunks to accommodate a small cup. We used the cup to fill the water jugs until we had accumulated approximately 15 liters each. Then came the haul back to camp. Jim and I put both water jugs on the ice axe and suspended between us we would then make our way back 30 meters at a time. This being our first full day at that altitude
we were still burning for air but both of us felt strong. With the water back at camp hot tea was 1st priority for Jason who was still fighting a sore throat.
After the warm tea Jason curled up like a kitty cat for a little nap. Little did we expect what would unfold next. First, two climbers came into camp coming down from above us. They were from South Africa and both spoke English. They had been completely beaten up by the storm above. For three days they had fought extreme cold and the older of the two had a good start of frostbite. To make matters worse, the man was blind and very unsure as to where he was and to what his fate would be. Doc quickly came down from his tent and we lay the injured climber out on one of the few patches of rock. The sun was still shining and for 1 hour Doc and Marsela worked on his blackened hands. His boots were soaked from melting snow and his feet were approaching a frostbitten state as well. I noticed his boots were the same size as mine and I offered to give him mine in exchange for his if he wanted. I gave him a pair of my liners and dry wool socks in an effort to warm his feet while doc worked primarily on the hands that were in need of attention. The intensity of the sun dried his boots out in 45 minutes and cooked my lips and face as well. I had forgotten to put on my zinc oxide that day.
While talking with the climbers from South Africa, Doc found himself talking about people he worked with during his time there and it was amazing when they actually knew some of the same people. I talked with the stronger climber about the days prior. He said they had been on the Polish Glacier to the east during the first storm. They dug themselves out of chest high snow and began to make the traverse toward Independencia which was directly above us. They arrive there to find an avalanche had placed too much snow in their path to cross to the trail safely and had to move up and around it to get to Independencia. Tired, they camped yet again and found themselves in a second storm. After digging out of that one, some of the team had tried for the summit. Halfway across the traverse, one of their members collapsed and required rescue. That was the rescue attempt we had watched two days before. After the rescue, they stayed on the mountain one more day, the night of our storm, and with this additional snow they abandon their tents and headed down. Lucky to be alive, they were grateful for our help and waited for the rescue team to arrive to take them on down.
About the time the rescue team arrived it began to snow again, this time with considerable wind. They moved quickly and efficiently taking him on down. Many climbers came through all telling stories of horrible conditions just 300 meters above us. Many had abandoned everything they had and were headed down. It was during this storm that Doc was able to tend to several injuries. A climber having cerebral palsey stumbled into camp telling us that his guide had fallen and broken his leg. He was supposedly on his way down from Camp 3, Berlin but in the storm visibility was decreasing by the minute. Frank Mastrovito had a special long distance whistle that he had been dying to try out so he stood out in the snow and blew it repeatedly until in the distance a figure appeared. It turned out to be the climber with the fractured leg, riding on the back of yet another climber.
Doc took the injured climber on up to a larger tent and examined the man discovering a minor fracture. After taking care of him there was another frostbite case much worse than the first. Time and time again Doc was called out to help individuals who had fallen ill to the wiles of the mountain. As the storm continued very little snow fell, but what was there was beginning to blow all over. Drifts formed in front of our tent and then receded. One time the drifts covered nearly all of the front of our tent.
Snuggled deep inside our warm igloo shaped tent, Jason and I heated water and prepared the famous tortilla soup. This dinner for some reason was really tasty at 5600 meters. We scarfed it down and had some hot cocoa. Feeling really warm we waited out the storm telling stories and sleeping. I slept when Jason told his stories, and he slept when I told mine. We had heard them all before anyway. As we rested I noticed the altitude playing games with my head. I stared up at the ice crystals formed on the inside of the tent and they all had the appearance of eyes and little faces. I lay there and saw hundreds of different faces like someone looking up at the clouds. I saw old man faces, young faces, funny faces, scary faces, but all were faces. I wondered why faces, then decided it was because the crystals seemed to form eye like shapes and so faces it was! I guess it could have been the tortilla soup, but I’ll blame it on the altitude. With no reason to get out of the tent we stayed there waiting for night fall.
As was the day before, just at sunset, the clouds broke off and we were blessed with a view of the summit. The clouds rolled along the valley below us and all we could see was the peaks that rose up above the clouds. Although not as picturesque as the night before, we still enjoyed popping our heads out and snapping a few pictures as did many others camping there as well.
That night the temperature dropped well below the –20° mark. Every bit of water we had froze except that in the thermos. I woke suddenly at 2:00 a.m. frantic and unable to breathe. At first I thought I was having trouble with the altitude, then I realized my lips had stuck solidly together. Trying to open them I felt the lip tissue tear and a sting of pain rushed through them. The sun had baked them earlier and now they were sticky and gross. With my mouth now open I still fought breathing and noticed my nose was clogged with something. The taste of blood was very strong in my mouth and I was a little nervous. Jason was asleep and I could not really see much of myself. I pulled out the earplugs that had allowed me to sleep amidst Jason’s snoring and did feel amazingly more alert. The blood in my mouth was from a big time bloody nose. It continued to bleed and I simply could not stop it. I sat awake in my sleeping bag getting chilled holding a Kleenex until it appeared to have stopped. Crisis over, I tried to sleep, this time with my lips coated with lip balm.
As I sat quietly in the tent, my thoughts drifted back to Buenos Aires where my beautiful wife and two children were. I wondered if things were any worse economically than when we left. I wondered if the car was working, and I wondered if Ethan was sleeping through the night for Nadja. Most of all, I just really missed being with them. I recalled the days that we met, the first dates and the trips to Southwest City Missouri to Country Dance. I remembered the days we stood together in the White River in Arkansas fishing for White Bass. I remembered the look in her eyes when we found out she was pregnant with Aarika. I just couldn’t stop thinking about how wonderful my life has been and how ungrateful I have been for it. Isn’t it funny how being in a situation that has the potential to end your life has you thinking about all of the past. Also interesting to me, was the fact that I did not recall any of the bad moments. I really believe that God used those quiet moments to let me know that His plan had been the best one and that His plan will continue to be the best one. I spent some time praying for family and for the remainder of the expedition and found my self once again asleep in my down sleeping bag.
Around 4:00 a.m. my body told me it was getting colder than usual. I rolled closer to Jason and that offered some degree of warmth. It was a very cold night and when I finally removed the solid ice water bottle from beside me, things warmed up a little. This kind of cold I had never felt before, it was subtle and crept into you like a slow moving fog. The time I was slightly out of my bag had evidently lowered my body temperature and now I did not have enough energy to warm up. I ate a few hard candies and that seemed to help but that night was the coldest of the trip for me. I have camped in temperatures closer to
–40°C before in Wisconsin, yet with that being close to sea level, it was not even close to the same. I waited anxiously for dawn and the warmth that the sun would bring.
Morning broke and the camp slowly came alive. The sounds of crunching snow could be heard in the perfectly windless morning. This was to be the original summit day, however, due to the heavy snow we had decided not to even attempt a summit bid. The weather was wonderful and we could make out what looked like two climbers going for the summit. They were not moving fast at all and must have been miserable plowing through the heavy snow at 22,000 ft. Where we were the weather was absolutely gorgeous. Jason and I decided to take a little walk to answer natures call. We headed up toward the ridge that protected us from the wind and stood in awe as we looked out over the Andes that seemed to sprawl, snow covered, for hundreds of miles. We walked along the rim enjoying the view and the experience. In the distance we saw a climber running along the same ridge we were on, heading right for us. As he got closer I suggested it might be Claudio Rossini, but Jason said he had on different boots. As he neared we both recognized him as Sousa, one of the military team members. He was not even out of breath and proved he was quite fit. He had reached the summit of Aconcagua four times, and two of those times in one day. It was from him that we heard he would be escorting Deron Peterson down the mountain and would not be going on up with us the next day.
Evidently Deron had been having considerable breathing trouble the last two nights and had decided to descend that day and not attempt the summit. He had packed up his things and was ready to head down with Sousa. They had scheduled to leave for Plaza de Mulas at noon and the clouds were beginning to move in. Frank noticed the weather change and also began discussing whether or not he should stay on for the summit bid. He was concerned with his equipment and his military duty. He discussed things with Doc and they seemed to agree he should stick it out and summit the next day with us. We looked up toward the summit and noticed that the two climbers that had been making slow progress toward the canaleta had apparently turned around and were headed back the trail they had made in the snow.
The clouds began to thicken and soon we could no longer see the summit above us. Deron had not left yet and we were wondering how long the weather would hold out for us. Roux, our guide, was sitting on rock next to a little cairn watching the weather move in and praying. He was a devout Catholic and spent a good two hours watching, waiting , and praying considering the proposed summit bid the following morning. Around 3:00 p.m. Deron and Sousa put on their packs and headed on down the mountain. It would only be the five of us and five of the Argentines going up in the morning.
Next came the questions. Sargent Roux did not want to go up the next day and wanted us all to go down that same afternoon. We argued that the weather was too bad now to pack up in and would wait until 2:00 am to make the final call. Marsela, the Argentine medic was getting worse and Claudio expressed some concern about her making the summit in her condition. I was feeling much better having gotten more sleep in the last two days than previously. My teeth were beginning to ache, and my lips were agonizing, yet I still felt I had the strength to go in the morning. Jason, although still coughing, said he was strong and wanted to go. Doc was dead set on a morning bid although Claudia was beginning to show some signs of stress. Her face had begun to swell and she was not as strong as the day before. We decided to retire to our tents early and to get some good sleep before the 2:00 am wake up call.
Jason and I got into our tent and began packing our summit packs for the next morning. We decided to go light this time and save our energy. We packed our crampons…mandatory, our headlamps, and some GU, a special, high calory glucose gel. We argued about how much water to take and settled on 1½ liters of water in a water bottle insultated with two pair of wool socks and the 1 liter aluminum thermos filled with hot tea. I stashed a little bag of candies as well in case I needed to bivy somewhere. The camera with extra film and batteries would go, but we figured only mine should go, since Jason’s was heavier and mine fit nicely into my inside jacket pocket. We sorted our clothing and made several mental checklists regarding the order and type of clothing we would wear: First, a base layer of polypropylene. Second, another layer of polypro. Then would come the two pair of wool socks, polar fleece pants and top. Gore-Tex bibs, Plastic Boots, and Gore-Tex gaiters. We would start the morning with the 750 fill down jackets and our outer Gore-Tex shell. For the face, zinc oxide, sunscreen, and glacier glasses. Goggles in case of snow would be in the summit pack. A neck gaiter, polarfleece balaclava and spare hat. Liner gloves, polarfleece mittens, and OR Gore-Tex overmits. Yes, we were prepared for the snow and weather. The question was, would we have the strength to plow through the heavy snow laid down the last three days.
With all of our gear sorted and packed, we prepared for supper. Mac and Cheese! This dinner was brought down by Jim from the USA and was absolutely wonderful. As we ate Doc happened by and we offered him a bite. He enjoyed the taste test a little too much, but the portions turned out to be just about right since after it was all gone, Jason and I were both satisfied. We left the tent door open for a while watching the flurries wondering if they would worsen or clear.
Ducking back inside the tent Jason and I spent some time reading the Bible and writing in our journals. Jason pondered some scriptures regarding our sin nature and we spent some time discussing the anthropology of man. It was a wonderful three or so hours of talking and sharing. At that point I was missing Nadja so bad, Jason got to hear the stories of how we met, danced, and brought two children into the world. I am not sure he wanted to hear all of that…but I felt better. And recalling those wonderful times once again renewed my love and appreciation for my wife and children. Both of us apprehensive about the next day finally shut up and zipped up the bags around our faces.
Two minutes after being in the bag, I had to get back out, and fill up the bottle marked “NOT H2O”. This was a common procedure we had become quite efficient at performing in the sub-zero temperatures. The one definite side effect to using Diamox was the frequency in which we had to use the bottle. With the complex manuver completed, I settled back down into my bag for a good 4-5 hours of “sleep”. My hips were aching so bad and lower back pain I wondered if I would ever fall asleep.
Sleeping that night proved to be one of the weirdest experiences on the trip. The anxiety of getting up early, the tension of going into the death zone, and just plain old lack of sleep had me dreaming like a Hollywood producer. Psycodelic dreams of colors and moving water, rolling balls and funny things seemed to keep me awake. I awoke once and remembered an image I had dreamed. There were two people standing at the entrance to the Aconcagua Provincial park looking up at the mountain’s summit. They were evidently foreigners and were holding each other in an embrace. One was a blond girl in her early 20’s and the other a young man 16 to 17 years old. They were crying and I was behind them. In a second dream I was going to work and was saying goodbye to my son Ethan and he wouldn’t let me go. He kept clinging to me and I kept saying goodbye…I began to say it over and over again and I woke up feeling uptight inside. I did finally go to sleep as the dreams calmed down.
After what seemed like a miserable nights rest, the alarm finally went off! 2:00 am! Time to rise and shine…well? We looked outside first of all to see what the sky was like. I saw the horizon over the Pacific ocean and it was covered with a dull haze. There was a funny fuzzy feel to the air and not a clear and crisp feel to it. The stars were not clear and the appearance of rings indicated a significant amount of moisture was still in the air. I ducked back inside and began to tell Jason about how I felt. I was scared and I suddenly remembered the two people starring up at the mountain in my dream and realized they were my daughter and son grown up. Now I am not a superstitious person but I must say it made me think twice. With the thoughts out in the open, we decided we would get ready and push for the summit. If things looked bad we would simply turn around…no risk we decided.
After about 1 hour of dressing we heard crunching in the snow outside. Jim, Frank, and Rossini were discussing the climb. Shortly afterwards, we heard a fast paced crunching coming right for our tent. I unzipped the vestibule to greet Jim, but he spoke first. He said the climb was off and there was not much we could do about it. He was clearly upset and we were shocked as well. We expected to at least give the summit a shake! He left for more discussion and Jason and I just sat there, in disbelief, both wondering why we made it this far and now we would turn around without even a try.
We kept talking and discussing and searching for peace regarding the decision. We both had wives to return to and the knowledge that this would get us back safely was reassuring. We did not know what the weather would become, yet we knew it might get considerably worse and that gave us some encouragement. Feeling defeated and unable to really cope with the circumstances we both laid down, still dressed, and thought about all we had been through.
Jim came back down to our tent and after inviting him into our little igloo, we had a brief discussion of the facts and then decided it was time to give this part of the trip also to the Lord. We all prayed together in the tent and knew that somehow there would be a reason for us going down early. After all, God could have given great weather, but instead, the worst storm of the climbing season that year was upon us. We talked and shared what little words we had, then after Doc left, we undressed and went to sleep.
We woke early the next day, eager to see what the weather had done and looking to the summit ridge noticed there was not anyone trying for the summit that day! The snow was very deep and the temperatures were excessive. We wanted to believe we could have been up on the ridge, but reality told us it was 10 times more severe there if not more. We had a great oatmeal breakfast, and began packing up the inside of the tent. As the temperature warmed, we set out to give away our excess fuel and food. It was during this time that I met a climber, Chris Reed, who needed fuel. When I began to talk to him, I found out he was on the Mexican expedition, yet was a definite white boy. I asked him why he spoke English and he said his parents had been missionaries in Mexico. I asked him with what mission and he told me Wycliffe Bible Translators. Shocked, I dug back into my past and remembered the name since my parents were also with the same mission. I gave him what fuel he had room for and wished him well. I have not yet heard how the Mexican expedition did. Jason found a team needing extra food and we were glad not to have to carry the extra weight back down.
We shook off the ice from the tent and finalized the packing. By 10:30 we were nearly ready to go down. Looking up, the clouds were on the move and the summit was being dusted with a fine mist of snow. We made sure we had every last piece of anything packed up and then headed for Plaza de Mulas.
Just glad to be moving again, I enjoyed the trek down. The extra weight made it hard on the knees. I kept looking back up toward the summit thinking, “how close…how close”. The mountain was littered with gear people had cached during the stormy days just passed. Evidently, many had turned back down with hopes of coming up under better conditions. As we neared Plaza de Mulas we could see two climbers desending the Cuerno glacier in the same snowy conditions we were in. They were moving slow and headed for some tough down climbing. Glad we were on solid ground, we continued down reaching PDM tired and beaten. With just a short distance to the base camp, my legs were screaming at me. I knew my body had been pushed to the limit.
We reached the Plaza Militar tired but greatful to be down safe. Hot soup was being prepared by the two Argentine cooks that had stayed down and we were eager to get some. The weather was closing in and the snow was falling fast. Not wanting to triple up in tents that were set up, I began to set up our orange hotel. I was tired, yet knew that if I waited, everything would be covered with snow. After setting it up I threw the packs into the tent. I enjoyed being in the cold miserable conditions and I thought to myself, I must be a little weird. I actually felt great being chilled, red faced, and really tired. I guess, I discovered that I absolutely thrive in the extreme outdoors! I chatted with Jim a little and then we both went in for some hot soup.
The soup was wonderful and we sat around talking for a while and then one by one we went off to bed, needing the rest! The next day we would pack everything up and hike out the 26 miles in one shot!
The next morning was still quite cold and we packed up the inside of our tent to load on the mules. We packed a small day pack and prepared things for that day. By 8:30 am we had everything loaded and ready to head out. We assumed our regular order and began the hike out. Gore-Tex on and pretty quiet. We moved along steadily making our way down the headwall of the Horcones Glacier bed. About half way down the slope we noticed the military mules coming up from the valley to pick up our gear. Among them was the Major and he was ready to greet us and welcome us back down safely. We said our “see you laters” and headed on down…26 miles to go before we could rest.
The trip out was actually very enjoyable. I recognized the topography and felt at home and at peace. Deep inside I struggled with not making the summit, yet I still felt like the trip was a wonderful lifetime experience. I was anxious to get home. When we reached the guardeparque station we were picked up by the military transport. I couldn't help but notice the many teams preparing to go back up and thinking…"I know what it is like up there now, and you don't" We piled in the transport and haeaded back down to the PDI station.
Once we arrived back at the military unit we all said our hellos and headed straight for the showers. I was last in the shower and the hot water was all gone. I was cold, but just glad to be clean. We then went to our rooms and took a short 1-2hr nap.
I awoke feeling great and the news that our stuff had arrived via the mule train had us all scrambling up to the mule shed to retrieve it. Much lighter this time without the food, we moved it back to our quarters in time for dinner. I made a phone call back to Buenos Aires and was finally able to connect with Nadja and the kids. It was absolutely marvelous to hear their voices. After talking to them I felt absolutely peaceful. I knew that God had kept us safe and that my family needed me. I would have another opportunity to climb only if I was alive to do so.
Frank had ordered a bunch of meat to be prepared in an Argentine Asado. We joined the military group for the asado and sat around enjoying the good food for several hours. My intestines were not quite up to the strong meal and I had an upset stomach shortly after eating. We had a short devotional together in our room upstairs discussing the trip. We were reassured by God's Word that everything happens so that He might be glorified. I wondered why we had not been able to summit, yet I was able to accept the fact that we hadn't…I had no other choice.
Sunday we sorted our gear and dried out the tents, washed our boots, and basically tied up all of the loose ends. Dr. Terbush went for a dip in the sulfur springs but the outside climate was just a little too cold for my liking. The springs were a good 500 meters away. Sunday Lunch was another asado, this one more formal than the first.
After the lunch, Doc and Frank presented gifts from the US Embassy in Buenos Aires and they received gifts from the Argentine Military Unit. During this time, Doc, with the help of Frank described to Sgt. Roux, our guide, something that he had not been able to accomplish. He had carried the ashes of his son Peter who had been killed a few years earlier in a rock climbing accident. He had planned on placing the ashes on the summit yet felt at a loss to have not done it. Capitan Rossini took it upon himself to take the ashes to the top in a February expedition. We left Puente del Inca, knowing that he would do an honorable job.
In March of 2002, we received news that Capitan Rossini had indeed reached the summit of Aconcagua with Peter's ashes. Through the story that surrounded Peter's death and the testimony he had many more people will share in the Glory of God than if we had reached the summit and only the 6 of us had been apart of that event. The General of the Military unit in Mendoza said he wanted the story published in the paper there. Wow, what an impact. I can honestly say that I can see the beginning of what is a change in my life, as well as what might be the change in the lives of many due to the events that unfolded on the Stone Sentinel.