I gained the summit of Aconcagua on the 5th Jan by the Polish Glacier Traverse Route, I have kept this write up intentionally fairly brief– I hope that it is useful and interesting, I'd be happy to answer any specific questions if you email me.
Aconcagua and Amaghino
Cerro Aconcagua is the highest mountain in South America, and at 6962 metres (22 850 ft) it is also the highest peak outside the Greatest Himalaya. Although the easiest two routes are technically straightforward it is said to have the highest death rate of any South American mountain, and it has a very low success rate. The reason for the low success rate is that it is a very popular climb, and so many of the people who attempt it are not fit to do so, and the conditions are very difficult: the altitude, the cold and the strong winds contribute to making the experience highly testing. Stuart, Richard and I started to plan this trip in early 2002. We decided to go for the more ambitious of the two normal routes, the Polish Glacier Traverse route, and to help us went through Ayamara Expeditions, a company based in Mendoza.
We left for Argentina on the 19th December 2002 and quickly started the walk in to base camp, starting from a small check point near the border with Chile called Punta de Vacas. It took three days to get to the Base Camp, which is called Plaza Argentina, using mules to carry the heavy loads of food and fuel that we would require later. Approximately 85% of those who climb the mountain approach from the West and use a Base Camp to the North of the mountain; this means that our approach from the East, through the Vacas and Relinchos valleys, was delightfully quiet. On our first night we camped beside a Park Warden’s hut at a place called Pampa de Lena where we were one of three groups at the site. There was an English commercial group run by Adventure Peaks, and a Korean Group.
Shortly after we arrived one of the Korean team members decided to climb up a fragile rock face above the camp site and promptly fell off; he fell about forty metres and bounced all the way down. The three of us with our guide and two members of the English group gave him CPR for an hour and three quarters before stopping. He had suffered massive internal injuries and the rescue helicopter could not make it because of the wind; even if they had been able to get to us there is little that they would have been able to do for him. Sadly Aconcagua had claimed another victim.
When we arrived at Base Camp, which lies at 4,200m, there were only a few other groups. The lack of people at this tie of year is one of the benefits of climbing Aconcagua in December. The other advantage is that there is more snow and so the mountain is more asthetically pleasing. The disadvantage, however, is that the winds are normally stronger at this time of year and there is often more cloud around. We had arranged to have four rest days at base camp which is more than most groups do; we occupied ourselves by taking a walk to the Col Ibanez (4,800m) on one day, and practicing our ice axe and crampon technique on a snow field near the base camp on another. We also played 164 games of Rummy. After a breathless few days acclimatising to the altitude we began to feel stronger; we got the go-ahead from the doctor who stays at base camp during the climbing season and we set off for the first camp on the 30th December.
On Aconcagua it is easiest to put only two camps above Base Camp, but as on other high-altitude climbs this means that you have to ascend more than double the recommended gain in sleeping altitude of 400m a day. To compensate for this we would make a carry of food, fuel and equipment to the next camp (often 900m higher), dump the load and then descend and take a rest day. The maxim is ‘climb high – sleep low’, by doing this one gets the acclimatisation without the dangerous gain in sleeping altitude. The load carrying process is very hard work; on the carry to camp 1 we carried 50llbs and we all felt the altitude. On both the carry to Camp 1 and Camp 2 Stuart vomited which is a warning sign for Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). On both occasions after a rest day at the lower altitude camp the permanent move to the higher camp was possible and safe. Although it was uncomfortable it is logistically easier to do this rather than set up four camps on the mountain.
On the sixth day after leaving base camp for the first time, we made our permanent move to Camp 2. The summit day started at 0500 on the 5th January; none us could stomach much food and a little Kendal mint cake was all that we could manage. At 0530 we set off at a slow pace with cold feet that slowly warmed up during the course of the morning. The temperature was well below freezing and with the wind-chill factor frost bite was a danger. We all wore three pairs of gloves, a balaclava, six layers on the torso and three on the legs. The Polish Glacier Traverse route moves around the north-eastern flank of the mountain, across a large scree slope and a number of ice fields, to hit the North ridge after gaining 350 vertical metres. On the North Ridge our route joined the normal route below a point called Independencia where there are the remains of a tiny hut. It was just before this point, at just over 6100 metres, that Stuart found that he was unable to get any further: he was struggling to breathe and was feeling very nauseous. He made the difficult and sensible decision to turn back to camp 2. Some of the best mountaineers in the world have had to turn back from climbs after being struck down with AMS and so Stuart’s experience in no way diminishes his achievement or his contribution to the expedition. AMS is a mysterious condition that can attack without rhyme or reason.
The Windy Traverse
At the Independencia hut we were advised to put on extra layers before climbing over the ridge to the ‘windy traverse’. It was on this part of the route that we saw a Russian group member who had forgotten to pull up his balaclava: his nose froze in the biting wind. The frost damage was visible immediately but it was not until the end of the day that he began to feel pain. After the traverse came the ‘crux’ of the climb, the infamous Caneletta, a steep and wide gully that leads to the summit ridge for 400 vertical metres. Attaching my digital altimeter watch to my rucksack proved to be a mistake as the batteries froze and it ceased to work, I was thus deprived of the dubious luxury of knowing exactly how much further I had to go, it might have actually been a blessing in disguise. At this altitude the barometric pressure was 420 mBar (as compared to 1000 mBar at sea level) and so there was therefore only 42% of the air available in each breath. I worked out that this means that to get the same amount of oxygen as at sea level I must be breathing two and a half times as much (and that is before having to walk uphill.)
After battling up the Caneletta for an hour and a half, moving ten metres at a time, I gained the summit ridge. An hour and a half later, moving a pitifully slow pace, I reached the highest point in South America in unusually glorious weather. Normally climbers struggle to stand up on the summit due to the hurricane force viente blanco which habitually batters the summit; on the 5th January, however, there was almost no wind at all on the summit. Just over an hour later Richard, who had been moving at a slightly slower pace, made it to the summit ridge with our Argentinean guide. By this stage we were battling against dehydration, which is always a problem at altitude due to the high rate of respiration. We descended carefully down the Caneletta, dodging some huge rocks that were dislodged by some Germans above us. Reviving somewhat at the bottom of this gulley we and began the long walk down to Camp 2.
Once the elation of reaching the summit had passed, our minds concentrated solely on getting off the mountain as quickly as possible. We made our way down to Camp 2 after a seventeen hour round trip and our priority was to immediately start melting snow to drink. The following day we walked the two stages down to base camp and on the 7th January we decided to walk the 45km from base camp to the trail head in one day rather than the normal two. We were ahead of the mules and so we had to wade across the Vacas River. A very weary group stumbled in Punta de Vacas, minus our mules (whose union would not allow them to keep up!) which joined us the next day. Well deserved baths and beers were had by all.
Crossing the river on the way down from the mountain.
The expedition was a great success, although only two of us reached the summit. We all learned a number of lessons. Firstly we learnt a lot about expedition planning: we were assisted in the logistical side of the expedition by a very professional Argentinean guiding company and we found out what kit works, and what sort of food to take. We now understand the tactics of how to approach a high-altitude climb: we found that our acclimatisation programme was good, but we found out that different people acclimatise at different rates. We also increased our practical knowledge of first aid: practising CPR for real, seeing frost bite and its treatment, and learning to recognise, diagnose and deal with Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS).
Pablo, our guide.
A great trip!
Click here to read about my Biafo - Hispar glacial traverse in Pakistan.