Trip Report Aconcagua January 2004
This was a Colorado Mountain Club trip with Steve Bonowski (leader), Bob Dawson (myself), Jeff Kunkle, Laurie Pearce, Rich McAdams, Wayne Herrick, Alex Preiser, Roger Wendell, Andy White, Tom Jagger and Susan Baker.
Monday 1/5 Tuesday 1/6; travel days
Left Denver at 8:40am, arrived Mendoza, mid-day the next day. Our flight went through LAX, with an quick stop in Lima and a 4-hour layover in Santiago before a short flight to Mendoza. Long trip! We got off the plane in Lima, and walked on the tarmac so we could bag Peru. We took a shuttle into Mendoza, and checked into our Hotel NH, a great place, highly recommended. Just a couple of blocks away was the main shopping area, along with bustling Parque Independencia. We explored all of this, including climbing shops, and wound up having a late lunch at a sidewalk caf. A few of us had our first Argentine beef: Tasty, hub-cap sized steaks for about 10 pesos ($3) each. We also had our first of several dozen Andes beers.
Wednesday 1/7/04; travel to PDI
Finally it was off to the Andes! First stop: park headquarters in Mendoza to buy permits. They require $300 US, and it HAS to be in flawless condition to be accepted. One of our party's money was not, but he scrounged up enough fresh cash from others. We took a 3 hour shuttle to Puenta Del Inca (Bridge of the World), a small little tourist trap near the trailhead, and visited all the little kiosks of wares, and had a decent dinner at our hotel (run by our outfitter, Aymara). One main attraction of the area was a natural hot springs across the river, and we all enjoyed it. A couple of us returned later in the evening for a dip in the hot water. I simply enjoyed walking around that evening, looking up at the new (for me) stars, and marveled at the fact that Orion was upside down! Cool. Later on the trip, we enjoyed seeing the Southern Cross and Magellanic Clouds.
Thursday 1/8/04; rest day at PDI
With a relaxed schedule, we took a short, 3 hour hike up a hillside in back of our hotel, starting at 9000 feet, and ascending to around 11000 feet. The summit of Aconcagua, including the imposing, rugged south face (the snowy side in the southern hemisphere) came into glorious view. The afternoon and evening time included sorting gear for the climb. Sometime that evening, our mountain gear duffels were delivered to the Mule drivers.
Friday 1/9/2004; Hike up to Confluenzia
Finally, we were off to the actual trailhead! A short bus drive (delayed 1/2 hour by a flat tire) and we were at the ranger station at the base of the Horconnes river valley. A quick check-in to collect our marked trash bags and permit stamping, and we were on our way. I was delighted on how beautiful and green this lower valley was. I was expecting harsher, dryer conditions. 6 miles and 2.5 hours later we arrived at the first camp, Confluenzia. at about 11,000 feet. Our duffels were waiting for us, and we quickly set up our tents and ate a meal in Aymara's mess tent. Busy place! Not too scenic. Butt-ugly, actually. We chatted with various folks, including some from the USA.
Saturday 1/10/2004; Hike in to base camp
We incorrectly had thought Confluenzia was at about the half way point to base camp, but it was only about a third, so this day was VERY long, hiking about 10-12 miles to base camp at Plaza de Mulas (place of the mules) at 14,000 feet. This took about 7 hours, and we limped into camp in the late afternoon. Sometime along this walk, we watched our duffels pass us by on the mules. Roger (I believe) watched in horror as his mule did the classic roll-around on it's back with his and Susan's duffels. This portion of the approach was also VERY scenic; gorgeous, in fact, with on-and-off views of our eventual goal. Most of the elevation gain to 14,000' is in the last two miles before camp. Mulas, base camp itself, was HUGE, and not very attractive to look at. The Aymara camp sites were at the high end, very near the trail up to the high camps. We set up camp, and enjoyed a decent dinner in the Mess tent.
Sunday 1/11/2004; Rest day at Mulas
With nothing but perfect weather so far, we enjoyed a fine rest day at Mulas, including a 30 minute trek over to Refugio, an actual hotel across the valley. I used the phone and checked emails there. The afternoon was spent sorting gear to take up the mountain.
Monday 1/12/2004; Gear carry to Camp Nido
Our first attack on the mountain consisted of carrying a load of food, fuel, clothes and climbing gear up to a high camp called Nido de Condores (Nest of Condors) at 18,200', a 4000' climb. We were all steeled for the difficulty of this, but it turned out to be relatively easy, and only took most of us about 4.5 hours to reach. At this point the weather was still perfect, and Nido was as dry as a bone. We cached our gear, enjoyed the day and the marvelous views, including a fine view of the summit and the approach, and headed back down to Mulas.
Tuesday 1/13/2004; Rest day at Mulas
After our first assault on serious altitude the day before, we enjoyed another relaxing rest day at base camp, including more gear sorting, phone calls from the Refugio, etc, and BS'ing with neighbors. We met and talked extensively with a group of three climbers from Quebec. By the end of the trip, we had spent a great deal of time with these fine folks.
Wednesday 1/14/2004; Move to Camp Canada
OK, now it's up the mountain for the duration! Camp Canada is about half way up the mountain to Nido, resting at about 16,500'. and Jeff and I set out a bit early to snag our 5 required tent sites. 1:45 later, we were there, and happened upon a large group leaving for Nido, and grabbed their sites. Soon after, the rest of our group showed up, and we set up camp. A short trip to a nearby melting Penetente (sculptured snow-spires) field supplied us with water (the rest of the time on the mountain we would melt snow). We finally had to use our stoves, and had our first freeze-dried meals of the trip. Not bad! Settled in for the evening, and our first of many days of snow, wind and cold weather. That evening, our M/H Trango 4 tent received it's first real workout with an entire night of high winds and snow. I had my introduction to Cheyene Stokes breathing problems trying to sleep! Laurie told me about how Diamox would help with this, and it worked perfectly, and I had no more problems, even higher up at Nido.
Thursday 1/15/2004; Snow/wind day at Camp Canada
Our plan this day was to move to Nido; no way! The weather sucked the entire day, and we did nothing but wait it out. One silver lining to the day was a gorgeous sunset. Crash and try again tomorrow!
Friday 1/16/2004; Move to Nido
During a couple-hour break in the weather, we managed to dry out our tents, pack up, and head up to Nido, settling in there just as the bad weather rolled in again. Many days on the mountain were very similar, with a few hours of sunshine before the clouds rolled in.
Saturday-Sunday 1/17-1/18/2004; Rest days at Nido Nothing to do of note these days, except melt snow, eat, and generally fret about the weather! Many and varied weather reports filtered in from base camp and the Nido Ranger hut. Early Saturday, Jeff, Laurie and I had actually decided to try to give the summit a go for Sunday, and even were packed and ready. Worsening weather and a new threat of avalanche danger from the accumulating snow made us wisely decide against this. However, some other groups did make a summit attempt on Sunday, a couple folks successfully. Laurie, Jeff and I stretched our legs with a quick dry run up to Camp Berlin and back on Sunday. We finally made a decision to make a go of it on Monday, our first scheduled summit day, and this turned out to work perfectly.
Monday 1/19/2004; Summit Day!
After sitting around in the snow and cold wind in a tent at camp Nido de Condores ("Nest of Condors") at around 18,200' for 3 days, it looked like we finally had our shot on Monday, 1/19 We planned on a 5 am start, so we set our alarms for 3:30 am, and tried to sleep. I slept maybe 2 or 3 hours, tops.
We heard Steve Bonowski tell Rich that he would not be joining us, alas. I was very sorry to hear this, as I was hoping Steve would try for an altitude PR, and his goal of 20,000 feet, easy to do when starting at 18,200'.
Not sure, but I guessed it at about 10 degrees F, some thought it was colder, but off we were out of Nido at 5:10am. The snow made a pleasant crunchy sound, and our poles the standard squeaky sound when twisted into and out of the hard snow. This brought back fond memories from the Elbrus climb, just 6 months earlier. The hike to Camp Berlin at 19,400' was actually significantly quicker than the "dry run" that Laurie, Jeff and I had made the day before, something like 1:40 (2:10 the day before). I guess we were just all pumped up and ready. Somewhere about 2/3 of the way up, Rich announced that both Susan and Roger had turned back, alas. Our group was now down to 8.
During the walk to Berlin, the southeastern sky gradually began to lighten, and the distant peaks caught the early dawn. Gorgeous stuff! By the time we got to Berlin, the shadow of Aconcagua was just starting to become obvious, and we all took the requisite pictures. Due to our reconnaissance the day before, we had thought crampons would be helpful above Berlin, so on they went, and at 7:10, we were away from Berlin, heading to the next camp at White Rocks..
About 1/2 way to White Rocks, one of our party's toes were cold enough to require some care, and Jeff loaned his belly to the task of warming them up. Nice guy! I also gave away my hand warmers to the effort. I was feeling quite chipper! Somewhere near white rocks, it was evident that the direct sun would soon be with us, and it was.... and how nice it was. We were all instantly revived and warm. We took a nice break on a small saddle, near White Rocks and where a trail from another approach (the false Polish route, I believe) meets the normal route. We ran into Zach (from Montana) and Andy (London) and had a nice break. I believe we were around 20,000 at this point, and everyone was still quite fresh. Next stop: Independencia.
Quite soon, we stopped for a clothing adjustment, more like a clothing removal, as the sun made it VERY warm. I was down to 2 polypro layers, and my wind jacket with everything unzipped.
The hike to Independencia took a while, especially on the final approach up a steep grade. We were finally feeling the effects of serious altitude. It was quite a zoo all around! We met tons of folks from the USA on this leg. We got to Independencia and took a nice 20 minute break here. I believe we were 4.5 hours into the day when we hit 21,000 feet at the small a-frame hut.
The day was absolutely gorgeous, with no clouds to be seen and no wind. We simply got damn lucky with the weather on our summit day. (Roger, who had dropped off early, eventually made it to this hut this day, establishing a fine altitude PR of 21,000')
So, now it was off to the "grand traverse" portion of our program... couple hundred feet up to a sharp left turn on a rocky point, then the traverse was laid out before us in all it's glory. We could see dozens of folks on this leg before us, and it didn't look that damn hard, but again, at 21,000 feet plus, it turned out to take a long time. We got stuck numerous times behind parties that were barely moving... sometimes I took this as a blessing, as I was really feeling the altitude at this point. Hard to describe, but I found myself zoning out now and then; never really exerting myself, just sort of taking a few seconds off out of every minute. (This would get worse later as we climbed the dreaded Canaletta).
We finally arrived at a major left turn that seemed to mark the start of the Canaletta proper. Hard to tell where this started exactly, and we had heard so many different versions of the altitude gain in this final section, but as far as I could tell, we were 800 feet below the summit where I defined this to be, NOT 1200-1500 feet as some including Sekor, describe it. So, we arrived at some interesting rock formations, and a large, shading rock face, and I plopped down on the edge of the sun/ shade area. Most everyone else chose shade. There were a couple dozen others here at the time. Laurie and Alex cached a bunch of stuff from their packs. What REALLY stuck me as weird was how decked out most (other) folks were with cold weather clothing. Most of our CMC party had stripped down to minimal clothing. I was down to two thin polypro layers. We saw dudes in full down Parkas. Weird stuff. I was baking in my two polypro layers.
Climbing the canaletta is hard to describe; the book says 33 degrees slope, and that sounds about right. The fresh snow from the previous days fall was a blessing, in all likelihood, and there were slushy steps kicked in for our convenience, instead of the notorious scree. So up and up we went, so slowly that it was unbelievable. Rough estimate that it took us about 2.5 hours for this final 800 of gain to the summit. Jeff had dropped back at this point to help one of our party, who was struggling a bit. Good old Alex, GI problems and all was hanging quite well. Wayne and Tom lead the attack. Laurie and I stuck together, negotiating how many steps we would take before the next short breather. "Ten", I would suggest, and she would say "how about 15", and we would wind up doing maybe 12... on and on like that. Dozens of short marches all the way up. Thankfully, most of the hoard of barely-moving, artic-condition-clad folks were behind us.
OK, so one more little traverse at the top of the Canaletta, and the summit mound was there! Wayne and Tom greeted us, and we paired/grouped up for the final 20 feet. Jeff, Laurie and I joined hands, and we popped on top of South America. I was so emotional at that moment, I could not talk. We were still all dressed so lightly, it was remarkable. 22,800 feet, and I was in two thin poly layers! The temperature was probably a balmy 20-25 degrees F.
We had made it! Pictures galore, of course, including tons at and around that silly summit cross. After 20 minutes or so, good old Alex showed up, bless his heart. He was almost catatonic, but he had made it. Tough dude. We hung for a grand total of about a half an hour, and started down.
Side note: A couple of us saw a dude carrying an ironing board across the summit. Yes, an IRONING board! Were we that hypoxic? We didn't think anything more about it at the time... turns out that a British group with the web site "extremeironing.com" happened to be setting a new altitude record for IRONING! Check out their web page.... it's a hoot!
So, a couple folks in the group were quite exhausted at this point, and we were ALL very dehydrated, so the down climb would still be quite an effort. The good news is that we managed to butt-glissade down most of the 800' of Canaletta, saving much time and energy. The 8 of us soon broke up into two groups, with Alex, Wayne and Tom taking the point, and the rest of us following at quite a bit more leisurely pace. Somewhere during the Canaletta descent, clouds rolled in and the visibility became maybe 50-100 feet. We were glad we had paid attention to the ascent route. Thankfully, it was not windy nor was it cold, and we steadily made our way down, past Independencia, White Rocks, and finally Camp Berlin. The weather worsened for the most part, white-out conditions in spots, but we hit occasional clear patches and kept our orientation. We took a decent break at Berlin, and finally wandered our way down to Nido camp at about 7pm. Steve B. was very glad to see us.
Just for the record, the total climb time from Nido to the summit of about 4600 vertical feet took about 9.5 hours, with a half hour on the summit, and 4 leisurely hours down; a 14 hour day in all.
Once back in camp, we were all totally out of water, and all very dehydrated from the long HOT day to 22,800', so we fired up the stoves and melted a bit of snow. Jeff, Laurie and I had saved a full can of Lay's chips, and that was the extent of our supper. We just plain didn't want to hassle with cooking or eating much more. Tough damn day, but very VERY satisfying, of course, and we crashed hard with big smiles on our faces.
Tuesday 1/20/2004; Descent to Mulas
Argh! Now, freshly beat from our summit the day before, it was time to get ourselves and 70-odd pounds of gear all the way back down to Mulas. Well, it worked, and it only took about 2 hours, but carrying that much weight down 4000' was painful and tiring for myself at least, but there we were, back at relatively comfortable Mulas base camp, in our sandals and eating in a mess tent. After dinner, a few of us went out bar-hopping, finally allowing alcohol into our diet. Wound up at only one bar at Mulas, but still had a fine time drinking three different Argentine beers. When done, we stumbled back to our tents in the pitch dark, as of course, we hadn't brought along our headlamps to the bar!
Wednesday 1/21/2004; Walk out to PDI
The remaining effort consisted of simply walking the 16-18 miles out from base camp, with only (thankfully) our day packs! A quick stop at the Ranger check-point at Mulas and we were off. Interesting: the ranger asked each one of us if we summitted, to mark of in his book. Almost every page in his log was filled with solid no's. I wonder what the summit percentage was? I took it very leisurely, and thoroughly enjoyed this walk out through the Horconnes valley. Seven hours later, we were back on a short shuttle to PDI, and our first shower in nearly two weeks! We partied nicely that evening at our hotel in PDI with our Quebec, Vail, London and Montana pals.
Thursday 1/22/2004; Shuttle to Mendoza
Eating day! Caught up on actual food, including lots of Pizza.
Friday 1/23/2004; Free day in Mendoza
Celebratory dinner; 11 of us ate huge steaks, with Wine and desserts, and the total bill was about 350 Pesos, or $120. Cheap! Many of us also enjoyed a tour of a couple of nearby wineries.
Saturday 1/24-Sunday 1/25/2004; Travel back to snowy Denver
We arrived, but our baggage did NOT, of course. Long story!
Some thoughts on Summit Day:
Itenerary: The original plan was for a carry and move to Camp Berlin, with the summit attempt from there. Due to a weather delay of a day at Camp Canada, and some discussion, we had decided to summit directly from Nido, adding 1200 vertical feet and a couple of hours to summit day. I think this was the correct call, as the carry/move to Berlin would have spent 2 days and a lot of energy. Climbing these sort of peaks seems to be quite an exercise in energy management, and the 1200 vertical feet gained did not seem worth it. Others in our party disagreed. If I were to climb this peak again by this route, and I MIGHT consider doing a carry/move to the camp at White Rocks, another 1000 or so feet above Berlin, making for a relatively short summit day. White Rocks is a much more pleasant looking area as well, as Camp Berlin is a small, crowded spot, and too shaded from the sun.
Water: I carried 2.5 liters for the summit day, and that was not enough, as I wound up giving a bunch away. I'm thinking 3.5 liters would have been much better
Sun: INTENSE, of course, especially in the North-facing (sunny) Canaletta, at 22,800' with snow reflecting up at us. Most of us got sunburnt tongues and/or inner lips. Ouch! Our faces/outer lips were protected with Zinc Oxide, etc, but how does one protect the inner lips and tongue? It's not like one can keep one's mouth shut hiking a 33 degree slope at 22,800'
Some Thoughts on Planning an Aconcagua Expedition
Since it's fresh on my mind, for obvious reasons, and since some folks on here expressed interest for their own trips, I thought I'd comment on this subject.
First of all, we were very happy with our facility service, "Aymara" See their web page at:
You can book them to guide the entire expedition, or simply book a subset of their services, as we did, and "self guide". It is REQUIRED to hire SOME company to provide toilet use/service in both Confluencia and Mulas (base camp). We hired Aymara to provide the following:
- Transport to/from Mendoza airport to Mendoza, and great accommodations in Mendoza (Hotel "NH")
- Transport 180KM to/from Puente Del Inca, near the trailhead, and excellent accommodations in PDI at Aymara's own Hostel/Hotel.
- Mule transport of roughly 80-90 pounds of gear each to and from PDI 18 miles and 5000 vertical feet to base camp. We met some dudes from Montana who chose to save $100 and do this themselves. No thanks!
- Campsite and Toilet use at Confluenzia and Mulas Base camp. Again, at an absolute minimum, all climbers must at least pay someone for the toilet service. We did not pay to use the Aymara tents, but could have. We used our own tents. The Aymara tents were cheesy, old North Face tents.
- All breakfasts and dinners at Base camp and below (including Mendoza and PDI hotel). These meals were quite adequate, some of them excellent, others merely edible. We passed on the last two Mendoza hotel dinners, opting for our own excellent and inexpensive Mendoza restaurants
- Excess gear storage at PDI and Base camp. Since no one had anything missing, I assume this was relatively secure
Above Mulas Base Camp, we were on our own with everything, being totally self-guided. I thought the way we did this was a nice compromise between a guided trip and a (nearly) completely independent one. We had ZERO problems with Aymara. Even the language barrier was not much of an issue.
The cost? I could research this more carefully, but I believe our Aymara total cost, including all the above Hotel accommodations and meals was on the order of $1200. Not bad, eh? Air fare was $1100 total, plus we all paid for Steve's trip, maybe $250 each. Also, don't forget the $300 climbing permit fee, and I spent maybe an additional $250 on misc stuff including souvenirs, gifts, separate meals, beer, wine, etc. Total right at 3 grand.
I was also pleased with both the timing of our expedition, leaving just after the new year, in the peak of the Austral summer, AND the overall itinerary that Steve Bonowski had planned out. We had three possible summit days in the schedule. Maybe, just to be safe, I'd allow four or five. We got very lucky and had fine weather on our first scheduled day, but that one day was flanked by many bad days on both sides.
By the way: The weather reports from the various sources including the internet and the rangers were CRAP and totally unreliable. Best advice: don't bother listening to them. Sound familiar?
As I said in my TR, I'd also consider a planned carry/move to a higher camp such as "White Rocks" (at 20,000') to shorten the summit day, though a one-day blitz from Nido (at 18,200') worked well for us. Tough call on this one, but I'd avoid camping at Berlin. Miserable crowded place, and not high enough above Nido to be worth while, IMHO.
As usual, I took way too much damn food, and probably a bit too many clothing changes on the actual mountain. Weight is a VERY important consideration on this climb, even though most gear is carried in two hauls. We also took WAY too much fuel. We used the formula 8oz/person/day, which equated to 6 liters for the three of us. We wound up using about half of that, even with melting snow about 4 hours each and every day.
We talked to MANY parties who failed to make the summit, and the prevalent reasons were as follows:
- Too cold on/near the summit. I guess this was very common, but we got lucky and this didn't apply to us. We were ready, however, for extreme cold conditions. I think foot and hand/ finger warmth is of prime importance, and many fail to summit because of this. I used toe warmers on Summit day, and had zero problems in the early morning cold.
- Ran out of gas on the traverse or the Canaletta. We certainly ran SHORT of gas here, but our training paid off and we made it. Key point: Train like HELL, and then train some more, and acclimatize carefully. Hydration before the summit day is also very important; myself and my tent mates tried to consume 4 to 5 liters every day without fail. This meant melting a LOT of snow!
- GI sickness and problems; Traveling in 3rd-world countries has this issue, and all I can say is to be very careful. Many of us filtered or treated ALL water, others did not, and a few of them had a some GI problems. I consumed ZERO washed vegetables and fruits until after summit day.
This mountain was easily the toughest thing I've done physically. Do not take this climb lightly! Sure, it's a technical piece of cake. The total amount of effort, including the approach, the carries to higher camps, the days spent in a tent listening to the wind howl, all make for a great, but difficult mountain experience.
Another EXTREMELY important aspect: I had two of the best imaginable tent-mates, and the three of us got along very well. Choose your companions carefully for this expedition, as 10-12 days straight in a tent can be tough! Thanks Jeff and Laurie for the fantastic companionship and patience.
Other thoughts? I'll add more here as I think of them. Good luck on planning and executing this fantastic experience! Be smart, patient, and remember it IS all about making the summit, so give yourself every chance, while also being safe.