ACONCAGUA 2004 CLIMB
By Vlado Matuska
(January 23 – February 13, 2004)
The “blame” for this trip was addressed to my wife Viera who gave me her kind permission to climb Aconcagua for the second time as her anniversary gift to me. I did not make the summit on my first trip, so I was very grateful that I can try one more time. A few of transatlantic emails afterwards between me and my friend Honza from the Czech Republic sealed the trip and made it possible. So I arrived to Mendoza, Argentina on Jan 23, 2004 where my friends from Prague, Honza Sabata, Libor Hnyk and Vojta Kosican were already waiting for me at Hostel Confluencia. I was very happy that my 18 hours flight torture from Seattle was finally over. It would be ideal to spend at least one day in Mendoza to allow your body to recover from the long flight, but my three friends and I were eager to start our adventure, so next day we took taxi for about 70 pesos to Cordon del Plata ski resort to spend one week of pre-acclimatization. We spent only one night at 3300m and then hiked directly to El Salto base camp (4200m) on the second day. Following morning (on the third day) I woke-up with headache which lasted for about three days. From that I concluded that it is necessary to spend at least two nights at altitude 3000-3500m before sleeping in higher elevations. Honza (John) also ended up having some stomach problems for three days, however, other two guys, Vojta and Libor, were doing really good. After some initial hikes, I was able to climb Less Vallecitos (5300m), but still felt quite tired and then got some kind of flu again, as happened year ago. I think that all that anxiety and stress from preparation, packing, travel took its toll. Honza could not climb anything so after 6 days of staying there, we two decided to go down to Mendoza , thinking that our acclimatization trip was a disaster. Vojta and Libor stayed one more day to climb El Plata (6100m), which I was able to make a year ago, but not this time.
A few words about acclimatization. I am not an expert by any means, but I have to say, it is a very interesting process. You have to be slow, especially first week, since it takes one week for the body to start producing increased number of the red cell and hemoglobin and you will start seeing benefits of it on the second week. Not only your blood is changed, the taste will change also. In my case, oatmeal tasted terrible and anything sweet, tasted even sweater, especially dried raisins. I was craving bread and meat, so for my second trip we had with us much less of oatmeal and enough of salamis and sausages and it indeed worked.
Back in Mendoza, I was quite discouraged and decided to quit the climb and travel to Patagonia instead, since I could not climb Aconcagua in this condition. Honza felt the same way regarding his stomach problems so we started to make plans for the travel. We were planning to take overnight bus to Bariloche for about 90 pesos and from there we would fly to El Calafate, Patagonia. The cost would be aprox. 309 pesos one way. By some miracle however, our health problems were gone on the third day in Mendoza, so we listened to Vojta - our climbing psychologists and changed our plans once again to give it chance to climb Aconcagua. By now it was a middle season, so we paid only $200 on permits versus $300 for high season. It is not bad idea to try it in February, there is much less people, but it all depends on the weather, which in our case was quite unpredictable and unreliable.
We entered the Aconcagua Provincial Park on Feb 2nd, spent one night at Confluencia Camp and reached the Plaza de Mulas base camp on the second day (14,009ft, 4270m). I highly recommend to see the South Face of Acconcagua , its almost 10,000 vertical feet is very impressive. In the base camp, after one day of rest (no headaches any more), we decided to bypass first and second high camp (camp Canada 16,108ft, 4910m and camp Alaska, 16,995ft, 5180m) and go directly to third camp called Nido de Condores (17,552ft, 5350m) and spend night there. Following day, February 6, Libor felt good and afraid of the possible weather change decided to risk it and go for the summit on his own. He made it to the summit about 18:00, which was quite late and got back to Nido around 3:00 in the morning, next day. During descent, he lost his way a few times, but thanks to the full moon he found his way back to trail. To be honest, we worried about him quite a much that day. Rangers recommend that turnaround time should be 16 :00 since it gets dark around 21:00. Vojta, Honza and I did not feel like to climb in two days and instead climbed to the last high camp called Berlin (18,963ft, 5780m) where we spent a night. We felt good so pre-acclimatization had to work OK despite my previous conclusion. Besides drinking plenty of water, 4 to 5 liters a day, I personally was also taking baby aspirin every day (80 mg), which I thought was helping. A year ago I tried DIAMEX, but it made me feel strange and very uncomfortable so I did not use it this time at all. We were hoping to attempt summit on the third day, but weather suddenly changed around 4:00 in the morning for the bad and forecast was calling for three days of storm. We waited till 9 :00 AM perhaps hoping for the improvements which did not come, so decision was made to retreat back to the Plaza de Mulas base camp with a little hope for the second attempt, since we were running out of time. Following day was Sunday and we took day of rest and to our surprise, weather started to change, by late afternoon clouds were gone and the wind quieted down considerable.
Once again, our climbing psychologists Vojta helped us to adjust our faith and give it another try, the catch was however, that we had only two more days left - Monday and Tuesday, Wednesday we had to leave the mountain no matter what and make it to Puente del Inca. Our plan was to climb from Plaza de Mulas straight to Berlin on Monday and try for the summit on Tuesday and that's what we did. This sounds like crazy plan, but we were well acclimatized. We had to carry light weight in order to be fast and so we did not take any tent with us since we were planning to sleep in refugee hut at Berlin and regarding climbing equipment, we had only crampons and telescopic hiking poles, no ice axe. The conditions did not require it in that time.
Monday was sunny, but very tiring day for us. We made it to the Camp Berlin and four of us slept in the smaller refuge hut. Tuesday started again as a very nice day with some clouds down in the low valleys. Although there is plenty of light by 6:30 AM, we were bit slower and managed to leave Berlin around 7:00 AM, the temperature overnight was in the range of –10 to –15C, not very cold at all, but do not underestimate the mountain, week before our arrival, climbers reported temperatures around –40 C, so down parka jacket is the must. When we reached damaged Independencia hut (20,997ft, 6400m), Honza was exhausted and called it quit and returned back to base camp on his own. I was saddened by his decision, but was glad that he reached his personal altitude record. So now it was only Vojta and myself, somehow I got second wind of energy and was able to continue. I was afraid of infamous Canaleta, since this last 400 meters of climb is 33-degree chute filled with loose rocks, but found it not so difficult since it was mostly covered by firm hard snow. Around 14:00 afternoon, in the upper part of Canalleta, clouds started to roll in, but it still looked OK. Finally we made it to the north summit of Aconcagua (22834ft, 6959m) on February 10, 2004 around 15:00 with clouds all over us and no views at all. The temperature was approx. minus 5 Degr.C and almost no wind. We barely rested and took some pictures when suddenly, half hour later, snow storm arrived with its full speed, together with thunder and lightning at 6962m. All of us, around 18 people, started to descend very rapidly, visibility become very poor, about 10-15 meters. I felt sorry for some late climbers who were very very close, perhaps only 50 vertical meters to the summit, but could not finish it. It would be life threatening to try otherwise. If we were also late by half hour, we would had end up the same way. Thankfully we arrived to Berlin safely thanks to Mirka, another Czech climber who summited 8th time that day and knew the route very well even under increasingly poor conditions. At Berlin it was snowing so hard that we have decided to descend even further to Nido de Condores and occupy empty tent of polish climbers who gave us permission to stay there.
Wednesday morning it was still snowing, so we packed everything and around 8:00 were headed down to Plaza de Mulas. Although visibility was still bad, somehow we made it down safely. In the base camp we waked up Honza and pressured him to make a good cup of coffee. We managed to pack everything, rented the mules and at around 13:00 started our 32km journey back to civilization . It took 7 hours to make it back to the ranger station at Horcones, which we reached around 8:00 PM. Following day we took the Uspallata Express bus and made it to Mendoza around 16:00. Of course the first thing was to take the SHOWER and shave, then packing the luggage and finally celebration at the Tinajas restaurant. I barely bought some gifts and next, Friday, was a good bye day, I had to catch my flight to Buenos Aires in the morning and my friends were taking bus to Buenos Aires in the evening. Only in the airplane I had time to think more about the entire trip. I was glad that we took pre-acclimatization trip, I think that it helped very much to go down to low elevations (Mendoza) for three days after one week of climbing in higher altitudes. Three days helped to recover and re-supply, but preserved our adjustment to higher altitude. Our three week schedule was tight because of this, so four weeks would be almost ideal. I was thinking about my friend Mark Jipson, who accompanied me on my first trip, I wished he was there with us. Overall, the climb was very, very tiring, but also very rewarding. I was glad we made it and now I am done with it.
In 2003 I flew with American Airlines to Santiago, Chile, where I transferred to Southern Winds Airlines flight to Mendoza , Argentina. Although there is no luggage agreement between those two airlines, I managed to transfer my luggage at a airport without going through customs. That is quite important since Chile will charge US Citizens $100 US upon entering the country, the charge for Canadians is $50 US and for other nationals $25 US or less. This applies only to arrivals by air, not by bus or car. This fee is supposed to be valid for the life of your passport. Also, because Chilean customs are quite strict, all your meat based products, dairy products, fresh and dried fruit you brought for your climb may be confiscated, so either buy it in Mendoza or fly directly to Mendoza.
In 2004 I flew with Aerolinas Argentinas to Buenos Aires and from there to Mendoza via Cordoba. Argentinean customs are more relaxed and did not confiscate anything, and officially it is OK to bring above-mentioned food as long as it is vacuum-sealed. I did not have to pay any arrival taxes, but had to pay departure tax 52 Arg. Pesos / person ($1US = approximately 3 Arg. Pesos) .
On both trips I have used services of Inka Expediciones located at J.B. Justo avenue, house #345, Mendoza ( tel (0261) 425-0871, e-mail: email@example.com, www.inka.com.ar). Talk to Sebastian, the owner of the company, who climbed Aconcagua at least 20 times, his advice may be very useful. The charge for the mules was $100 US/mule one way for the trip between Puente del Inka to Plaza de Mulas. A mule can carry 60 kg, which should be enough for two people/20 days. The bags must be balanced for 30 kg each. Although we did not have any damage to our luggage and their service was very reliable, it is worth to lock your mule bags. Service also included usage of Inka water and usage of portable toilets in both camps. The only complaint I have is that in the base camp we could not use their large gathering tents for eating since they were always reserved for clients who also used their guiding services.
Permits must be purchased in person in Mendoza. They are not sold any more from the Subsecretaria de Turismo in downtown of Mendoza, rather go to General San Martin park, in Los Robles Avenue, between Las Tipas and El Rosedal Av. Permit fees were increased for the 2003/2004 climbing season, $300 US for the high season (Dec 15 - Jan 31) and $200 US for the middle season (Feb 1– Feb 20). Permits are valid for 20 days, it includes option to visit doctor’s tent office at the base camp, free of charge, possible helicopter ride back to the Horcones entry ranger station if ordered by doctor. At the base camp, doctor routinely measures oxidation of your blood , your heart beat and offers other advises.
Park can be left only for one day to resupply, but there are no good food stores at Puente del Inka, so bring all the food from Mendoza. It is worth to mention, however, that in the base camp departing climbers will sell you cheaply all kinds of food and also, you can buy prepared food from the service tents, that would include pizza, burritos, steaks, bear, coke…etc, but I would not depend on it. If you have to leave the park because of the sickness, you have to bring an official document from the hospital doctor allowing you to reenter the park, after you are healthy again. This, however, will not extend your permit. Because of the above mentioned reasons, it is better to descent to Camp Confluencia and stay there to recover if you experience only mild symptoms of problems, rather than t leaving the park.
Equipment and other useful information:
For the normal route, there is no need to bring the rope, carabiners, slings, pitons, ice screws, harness or hard hat, but you definitely need to take crampons and ice axe, which may not be needed at all, based on the conditions. For our second attempt we used hiking telescopic poles and the crampons only, especially hiking poles were very useful. Regarding the boots, it all depends on the conditions. Some people had single wall boots, I had plastic ones and I would always recommend tobring double wall boots, the weather is known to change very fast. It is also very practical to have two tents, one large three season tent for the base camp, where you can keep spare food and other staff and the small, possibly four season tent for the high camps where it may get very windy. Also, bring matches with you, they are more reliable at high altitudes than lighters. Regarding the water, both camps, Confluencia ad Plaza the Mulas had a running water available brought by hoses from the close streams and melting glaciers. We always boiled our water and never used iodine pills, although we had them with us. We did not have any water filters, but I think that they would be useful also. For the general hygiene, I found it very practical to use foot powder and antibacterial paper towels, individually packed. They were very useful, especially after the use of portable toilets in the base camp, you never know…
There is plenty of day light during summer, from 6:30 AM till 9:00 PM.
Mendoza Accommodations and food:
Savigliano International Hostel, located at Pedro B. Palacios 944 Ciudad, Mendoza, ( tel. 261) 423-7746,
e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org). This hostel is reasonably priced, very close to bus station (Terminal de omnibus)
which is quite convenient, but gets sometimes very noise and the surrounding area does not look the best.
Confluencia hostal, located at Espana Av. 1512, Mendoza, (tel. (261) 429-0430, e-mail: email@example.com, www.hostalconfluencia.com.ar ). I really enjoyed this hostel for the hospitality of its owners, our schedule was very unpredictable, but yet they were always very accommodative, talk to Ariel or Diego, they are very helpful. The charge was approximately 50 pesos per room per night (with 4 beds). This hostel is close to downtown, just two block from Av. San Martin. It’s only disadvantage is noise during late evening.
Hostel Internacional located at Espana Avenue 343, (tel (261) 424-0018, email: firstname.lastname@example.org,
There is a lot of good restaurants in Mendoza, but our favorite restaurant was Las Tinajas located in downtown,
Lavalle 38, it is a buffet style, eat as much as you want, very clean, cheap, lunches cost about 10 pesos and dinners about 12 pesos, drinks cost extra.
Mendoza has a few good food supermarkets, you can buy all kinds of food you will need for your climb except dehydrated food. We used to go to supermarket located at the corner of Avenue Las Heras and Peru (or rather corner of Las Heras and Belgrano). There is no need to bring all the food from your country of origin as I did. Argentinean customs did not confiscate any food from us, but Chilean customs are much stricter and will not allow meat products, fresh and dried fruit to enter Chile as I mentioned before. Regarding the fuel, we had no problem to buy clean (white)camping gasoline (bencina blanca) or camping propane bottles, both are offered in hardware stores called ferreterias
Travel to Puente del Inka:
We have used Expreso Uspalata bus which leaves from the Terminal de Omnibus, Mendoza main bust station.
The departure times from Mendoaza are at 7:00AM and 10:15AM. It takes four hours to Puente del Inka.
The cost of the ticket is 12 pesos one way. Consider to buy ticket ahead of the time and buy round trip open return ticket valid for 60 days. Return departure times from Puente del Inka to Mendoza are at 11:40AM and 16:40 PM.
A few words about the long distance buses, they are all very comfortable including sleeping beds and dinner for the overnight trips and the price is very reasonable. 600 – 800 km overnight bus trip can cost somewhere between 60-90 pesos per person.