Wow, what an adventure. That's all I have to say about our expedition to Aconcagua. My wife Sue and I started out spending two days in the fantastic city of Mendoza, Argentina. The weather was hot and sunny, a nice change from the cold Canadian winter, and the people were very friendly. We shopped, ate steak, drank beer and wine and I think we were drunk when we got back to the hotel but I don't remember. All I can say is it was a great way to start out a climb of this magnitude.
The Adventure Begins - Day 1
After summiting Denali in May '05 and showing the pictures to my wife Sue, an avid climber herself, she just had to try a big mountain. We choose Aconcagua and planned our own expedition for late December. No guides just the two of us heading out on our own adventure. We felt confident and had prepared a good climbing schedule allowing enough time to acclimatize. Opting for the less traveled Polish Glacier through the Vacas Valley we enlisted the services of Grajales Expeditions to carry our gear into base camp. The weather was hot and sunny, too hot for me, but Sue loved it and did, what I would find out later, what was an amazing job during the entire expedition. This would be our first time on the scree that we would come to detest the entire trip until we returned to this spot!
After an uneventful night camping at Pampa Lenas we headed off for Casa de Piedra. Again the weather was gorgeous and the scenery fantastic as we made our way up the Rio Vacas. We met a lot of friendly climbers along the way from the US, Spain and, surprisingly, a disproportionate number from Quebec, Canada. There were numerous small glacial run-offs to cross along the way and some were harder than others. I slipped in one up to my thighs and the water was so cold my legs became numb and felt like they were going to stop working. Several times we were passed on the trail by mule teams and at times had to scramble up the scree to hide behind larger rocks for fear of getting run over but I later learned that was not likely as the mules simply made their way around us.
On day 3 we got our first view of the mountain outside of Casa de Piedra. The gorgeous weather continued as we were taken across the Rio Vacas by mule. This was to be the hardest day of the three day trek into base camp. The second river crossing was difficult to make on foot as we had only brought one trekking pole each. We were fortunate that a British group that was making their way out was at the river at the same time and offered us each a second pole to cross. After a short break and talk with the climbers we headed up the valley over a couple of glacial bridges and the "hill", traversing numerous steep valley walls we dubbed the "death zone" and finally arrived at base camp.
Climbing to Camp 1
At base camp we rested for a day and met a lot of friendly climbers from around the world. After making a carry to Camp 1 through the dreaded penitentes two friends we had met on the trail, Dave from the US and Jon from Germany, invited us to their Inka Expedition base camp for New Year's Eve where we talked, drank tea and played a dice game Dave introduced with expedition members Glenn from Norway, an English climber whose name I didn't get and two guides with Inka, Miguel and Pinky! We had a blast but were tired from the work that day. The following day we moved up to Camp 1 where, I must admit, I was furious to find out someone had marked our tent site with a pack of food! Now, I didn't know this was common practice on Aconcagua but it goes against everything I had been taught about climbing in good style. For me, you don't have a tent site until you put up your tent! I saw it happen many times on this mountain and still couldn't get use to it. Luckily we were forced to find another site so we climbed up higher and had the pleasure of running into fellow Canadians Laurie Skreslet, William Marler and their group who we would later enjoy many conversations with.
While we rested for a day at Camp 1 we also had the pleasure of meeting a solo climber from the US named Walt. Now if Walt didn't have bad luck on his climb he would have had no luck at all. As it turned out Walt got the tent site we wanted lower down at Camp 1. During the night run-off from the glacier flooded the site and all of Walt's stuff froze. At Camp 2 Walt's stove wouldn't work so he walked around with a bag of food and can of fuel looking for a stove to borrow. Unfortunately our stove didn't work with his fuel bottle but he finally found one to use. We would later learn that on the way out the mule company he used lost 1/2 his gear in the river when they tried to cross late at night. I would have been furious but Walt took it all in stride. I gotta admire him for that and his skill at soloing the route. Way to go. The following day we made a difficult carry to Camp 2. It was long, boring, steep uphill climbing with a dastardly rock ridge to scramble up at the finish.
Again we rested for a day after setting up camp. We lucked-out finding a good spot and there we several good sources of water that just needed to be treated. The wind was constant at this camp and never seemed to let up. We rested for a day and planned our summit bid. We awoke at 4:00 and hit the trail by 5:00 AM. It took longer than we anticipated to make the traverse and by 12:30 PM we arrived at the Independencia Hut for a break. After climbing further up we arrived at the "windy ridge" and began our way over to the Canaleta. Half way across we took a break and evaluated our situation. We were tired, there was still a lot of climbing left to do, the winds were getting faster, there was only one other climber on a summit bid that day and it was getting late. We decided we would return to camp, rest for a day and make a second attempt leaving earlier and moving faster.
Stuck at Camp 2
Unfortunately things did not go as planned. After returning to Camp 2 the winds only increased. One tent nearby was lost and we would later learn that 5 tents blew away at base camp. Winds reached 100 mph and we ended up getting stuck in our tent for over 30 hours. Three of our tent's guys broke which we replaced with 3mm cord and even a portion of our rock wall tumbled from the pressure of the wind. After talking to fellow climbers at another tent we learned that the weather was not going to change for three more days and we had a plane to catch. The next day we packed up and, sadly, after spending 4 nights above 19,000' we left Camp 2. It was a hard day carrying 60-70 pound packs down to base camp.
Back to Mendoza
After returning to base camp we packed up the following morning for the trek back to Penitentes. We talked to the Grajales base camp manager about meeting the mules at the river to help us cross and she said it was all arranged. A porter that works for the company told us that the mules would be there between 12:00 and 2:00 PM. Off we went with our small day packs on what would ultimately become the longest, most frustrating day on the expedition. About an hour outside base camp we made our first river crossing on foot but we both lost our flip-flop sandals in the river. We were not too concerned as the only other crossing we were going to make on mules so we actually laughed at the situation. Shortly after, however, we were stopped by one of the muleteers who handed us a note from the Grajales base camp manager. The note stated that we had to take our sleeping bags, tent and food off of the mules because the mules were needed back at Penitentes. While I argued with the muleteer, who did not understand english (not his fault), that we did not have room in our packs for the gear and that we needed them to help us cross the river the mules bolted. The muleteer finally returned without our gear and after getting frustrated he left. Sue and I were left thinking we had little food and no tent or sleeping bags for the two day walk out and had to cross the river in bare feet. Needless to say we crossed the river and our feet still hurt by the time we reached Pampa Lenas at 10:30 PM in the dark. We later found out from another Grajales employee that the mules never help climbers cross the river on the way out which is contrary to my agreement with Fernando Grajales Expeditions. When I complained to Fernando he was sympathetic and offered to get us a reduced rate on a hotel in Mendoza to compensate. Not only did he fail to do this, we got a room for the price I had already paid him, they even forgot to send the bus to take us back to the airport the following day! I have vowed not to use Fernando Grajales Expeditions on my return trip this December and after being ignored by Grajales regarding my complaints felt I should warn people of their poor service. The company may have been built on the reputation of the father but Grajales Expeditions now places money over customer service.
Looking back we both have many cherished memories of our adventure. We enjoyed meeting all the people along the way, the experiences we had and what we learned we were capable of in the mountains. I was amazed at the determination, conditioning and enthusiasm of my wife. She didn't go there to quit and never did! She did an amazing job and I was in awe. I loved the city of Mendoza and can't wait to return. We may not have reached the summit but the mountain will still be there, and we'll still be around to challenge it once again.