Our Team. Three friends from the US traveled to Mendoza, Argentina early Feb. 03 with the ambitious goal of climbing Aconcagua. Two women and one man, from Alaska, Colorado and Washington. Alyson, Hope and Ben have all climbed together in the past on multiple Mt. Rainier, Mt. Hood, and Mt. Adams climbs to name a few. Our ultimate goal is to climb Denali and wanted to go to an extreme altitude prior to that attempt. We researched Aconcagua and while it is a difficult climb in many respects, it has very little technical climbing challenges on the normal route. Our goal was to determine how our bodies would react to altitudes above 15000 feet, new territory for all three of us. This is a trip report of our attempt (I call it an attempt because we did not summit) and our general experience in the wonderful country of Argentina.
Getting There. We flew to Santiago, Chile on various different airlines and then took a short flight over to Mendoza. We did not have any problems with customs in Chile on the way there, as we were not required to pass through customs. However, on the way back, we had to clear immigration and it is a $100 fee that is good for the life of your passport. Once in Mendoza, we cleared customs with no problem even with our climbing gear. On a side note, we elected to FedEx some of our gear ahead of time in order to travel lighter. This was not a good idea, as we were hit with customs charges on some of it in excess of $150. Some of it was held in customs and had to jump through some hoops to take possession of it.
Once through customs, we took a cab to the Hotel Nutibara, a popular hotel among climbers. I think the cab ride was about $5. I would recommend Nutibara; it is in the heart of the city, many restaurants and shops within walking distance. Also a large Plaza just 2 blocks away where some of the Wine festival activities took place.
Getting Ready. We arrived about 4 days prior to commencing the climb in order to get last minute gear, food, meet with the mule team service, etc. We chose INKA Expeditions to provide our mule team to and from base camp. I did extensive research on INKA, including contacting former clients and determined they would be more than able to handle our requests. We elected to have just a mule team to aid is carrying our gear from the trailhead to base camp. Our decision to not use a guide probably cost us the summit, but we are all of the belief that going with a guide would not really be us climbing the mountain, but a guide climbing it and carrying us along. Our decision was validated when we got on the mountain and met other climbers who were with a guide service. They had porters to carry most of the group gear; the porters and guide set up and took down the tents, cooked meals, and melted snow for water. To our team that is not the way to summit a mountain.
We arranged private bus transportation to the trailhead (about $100, and a wise choice as it cuts the travel time from Mendoza from about 5 uncomfortable hours to maybe 3 comfortable hours). We went shopping for some of the food to have on the mountain, mostly powdered soups, salami, cheese, chocolate, tang, and a couple of freeze dried dinners (not recommended). We did our best to keep the weight down since we would be carrying everything once above base camp. We were able to buy some last minute gear that we decided we would need, the gear stores there are OK, prices are about what they are in the US.
Our Gear. I think we took about the right amount of gear on our attempt. We carried 2 Bibler Fitzroy tents, 2 MSR Whisperlite stoves with about 4 liters of fuel, a PUR water filter, and 2 pots large enough to melt snow in. One thing that we needed were better insulation tools for the pots and stoves to help with melting snow. Warm clothes! We had Patagonia expedition weight tops and bottoms as well as mid weight thermals. Good wool socks or wool substitute with liners, a down coat for sitting at camp. I brought a light pair of windstopper gloves and a heavier pair of lined gloves for the various conditions we would encounter. A good hat is essential as well as a good Gore-Tex shell. I wore a North Face Gore-Tex suit above Camp Canada as the wind can be vicious! I would recommend two sleeping pads. I brought a Thermarest and bought a light foam pad in Argentina. Of course, a good down sleeping bag! I use a Marmot Never Summer and was never cold at night. A good pair of waling sticks help keep your balance on the rocks and aids in stream crossings. One more thing, a pee bottle keeps you from having to get out of the tent at night.
The Climb. We started at the trailhead by presenting our permits to the rangers and getting signed in. We received our garbage bags (you must bring it back of the mountain full of garbage) and last minute advice. We started off on the first day, a fairly easy day of about 4 or 5 miles with a elevation gain of about 2000 feet. Our packs were heavier than they needed to be because of the way we set up our mule team. We arranged to have the mules bring our climbing gear and then pick up our tents, sleeping bags, etc at the first camp and carry it to base camp. This would occur on the third day of the climb. Our first day was wonderful, excellent weather, a nice easy hike and a good dinner! The next day we did a day hike to about 13500 feet to help the acclimatization process. This gave us a good look at the south side of the mountain.
Our third day involved getting up early and packing our gear to have it ready for the mules at about 8am. We then started the hike base camp. We carried one backpack so we could carry a sleeping bag, first aid kit, stove, some water and some food for the day. We carried these items just in case we had an emergency and needed to keep someone warm and treat injuries. The hike to base camp is long and hard. You must be mentally prepared for it. I believe the average climb time on this is around 9 hours. It is often hot and dry, but it could also be cold and windy and dusty. A good idea to have a pair of ski goggles just in case the wind kicks up the dust. There is also a stream that must be crossed, but it is stream that is very spread out so you feel like you are crossing about ten streams. We were able to jump across every time, but we out Tevas with us just in case we needed to get our feet wet.
Once at base camp (about 14200 feet) we planned on having a rest day followed by a climb day and then a move day. After to talking to one of INKA’s guides, Pablo (a fantastic person! if you ever use INKA and choose to use a guide, request Pablo as your guide) we decided to add an extra rest day after the carry day. On our first rest day we actually decided to climb a bit. We climbed up to about 15000 feet to feel it and so we didn't feel like we were lazy the whole day. The next day was supposed to be a carry day to Camp Canada, but when we woke up it was snowing and windy with low visibility. We chose to use the day to go over to the Hotel about a half-mile from base camp. (We had gone over the day before as well in the afternoon after our short hike.) We spent the day there playing cards and relaxing as did much of base camp. Hope decided she wanted to take a hot shower for about $10. We got to know some our mountain companions while waiting out the weather. Later that afternoon we went back to camp to cook dinner and get ready for the next day. In the morning we strapped on our packs and started the climb to Camp Canada, which is about 16700 feet. When we arrived it was very windy and cold. We dropped our packs and rested for a few minutes before making the easy descent to base camp. The next day was another rest day as encouraged by Pablo and we spent it again at the hotel. A word about Pablo, he was guiding 2 clients, one from Toronto and one from Seattle and they were on the about the same itinerary as we were. We got to know Pablo well over the course of the few days and actually were able to hang out with him a couple of times back in Mendoza after the climb. Very knowledgeable and motivated, he is the person that if you choose to use a guide you want. I found out that to be guide on Aconcagua is quite a respected position in Argentina. They must assist for a couple of years and also take many tests on high altitude climbing and all the dangers that go along with it, including first aid.
After our second rest day we packed up the tents and moved to Camp Canada. It is a steep climb, but many wide switchbacks to choose from. The most important thing is to remember the rest step and take your time. Do whatever is pace is comfortable for you. We happened to be a little faster than a lot of the other groups, but they were with guides and Pablo told us that they purposely keep the very slow to prevent them from getting tired too quickly. Once at Canada with the tents set up we had dinner and crawled into bed. The plan was to do a carry to Nido the next day. (Nido is supposed to be about 17800 feet, but my GPS told us about 18400 feet when we got there.) In the morning Hope woke up with a minor headache. Pablo checked her O2 sat level and it was normal. We relaxed for a couple of hours and Hope was feeling better so we started off on our carry. We got up to Nido and I was definitely felling the effects of the altitude and started down quickly. Hope and Alyson stayed for about a half-hour.
The next day we all felt good so we made the move to Nido with the intention of getting up early the next morning and going for the summit from Nido. Once at Nido we got busy working on melting snow for water and making dinner. We got our gear sorted for the morning. We elected to take all three sleeping bags but no tents on the summit push as we know there are small huts higher in the event we need to bivouac on the way down. We also took a stove and pot to make water should we need it and some food. Of course, ALL the cold weather clothes came with us!
In the morning Hope woke up with a bad headache and the beginnings of altitude sickness. After talking it over, we decided the safest course of action was to take Hope down to base camp. Alyson was still excited about trying to go higher on the mountain so I volunteered to accompany Hope to base camp while Alyson went up to about 20500 feet. She reported back that she was definitely feeling the altitude, but she felt that had the 3 of us been able to continue on she would have had the motivation to keep going to the top. Hope and I packed up most of the gear and headed down to base camp, and every step down she was feeling better. We got down and set up camp and laid out in the sun to wait for Alyson. When she got back we went to one of the Commercial tents to celebrate with a couple of beers and pizza. Pizza and beer and 14500 feet!! We celebrated a successful climb in that nobody got hurt and we had fun and met a lot of great people. The next morning we hiked out to the trailhead and our time on Aconcagua was finished.
As we spent the next week in Mendoza enjoying the culture and great food and wine, we reflected on what we learned and if we would do it again. At first we all agreed that it was a one-time attempt, but as time went on we started to think more and more about going back. In fact we are tentatively planning another trip in early 2005. As we thought about our decsions on the mountain, we all agreed that we did every thing we could to get to the top short of using a guide. We acclimated properly, drank plenty of fluid, got checked out by the medics frequently, and used the insight of others to help boost our chances for success. It was unfortunate that one member of our team got sick, but I have seen it happen before at much lower altitudes. Altitude sickness can strike anyone at any altitude. When we go back, I have a good feeling for our chances.
Some advice that we can pass along to someone who is looking to climb the mountain for the first time. I think that this mountain is a mental challenge more than a physical challenge. I don't want to discount the physical difficulty of Aconcagua, but the normal route is not that physically demanding. Yes there are some very steep sections of the climb. I think that you have to be mentally prepared for that. If you know that there will be some steep sections and that you will be going very slow, you will be happier when you accomplish that goal. If you go into thinking that it is a cakewalk and the only thing you have to worry about is the altitude, you may come away frustrated and disappointed.
In addition to some of the items I have mentioned in this report, I would like to recommend some of the following to bring on you climb. A very good tent and sleeping bag. The weather on Aconcagua can be severe with very strong winds. Bring a tent that can withstand the beating and a good warm sleeping bag to go with it. Some sort of seating contraption. I used a Thermarest gizmo that makes a small seat to give my back support. Much more comfortable over time. I also recommend bringing 2 sleeping pads. Better insulation and protection against sharp rocks. The most important thing to bring is your physical condition and climbing experience. I was amazed at how many people we talked to who had done one climb and now want to climb Aconcagua. It is important that people understand the dangers associated with climbing that high. Even if you elect to go with a guide, bring with you the ability to go it alone should anything happen along the way.
What a wonderful city! If you ever have the chance to visit please do so. It is a rich and vibrant city that will welcome you with open arms if you embrace the culture and people. Our group felt right at home with the schedule of siesta in the afternoon then some shopping followed by dinner at 10 or 11. Often we went out to a dance club or other bar with some of the other climbers we met on the hike or in the hotel. We were lucky enough to experience the beginning of the Wine Festival, Vendimo. There are many celebrations throughout the city, including some in the Plaza right down the street from the hotel. One thing about Mendoza that struck me is how late children were out at night. We could be walking around at 1 or 2 in the morning and see 10 or 12 years olds playing in the park with friends. Many nights there was a crafts fair of sorts in the park, where locals would come out and sell various crafts and art. Lots of woodworking and leather crafts available for very reasonable prices.
We ate like there was no tomorrow in Mendoza. The beef there is extraordinary! Amazing cuts of beef for the equivalent of 3 or 4 dollars. We could eat at a nice restaurant and have appetizers, main course and dessert, along with a bottle or two of wine for less than 10 dollars per person including a tip. There is some debate on tipping in poor countries, one school of thought is to over tip to provide the staff with extra income. But there is also the belief that this practice can price out the locals of many establishments. I tipped as I would in the US, and was always treated with absolute respect. Many restaurants enjoyed us eating there because we tried to embrace their culture and cuisine. We got to know the waiters in the short time of eating a meal and really felt like they enjoyed having us there. There is an Italian influence in Mendoza, but not as strong as in Buenos Aires. As a result the Italian food there was satisfying, but probably not as good as it would be in BA. We did have a couple of pizzas that were excellent.
The beer and wine in Mendoza is very inexpensive. A liter of Andes beer was as little as 1.29 pesos (about 45 cents US) to 3 pesos in a bar or restaurant. I brought back 4 bottles of wine that I spent a total of $50 on. Generally when we drank wine it was about $4-6 per bottle. I highly recommend the local variety of red wine called Malbec. I am not much of a wine drinker, but I enjoyed the Malbec a great deal. The one area they seemed to lack knowledge of was the mixed drinks. It may have been simply a language barrier issue, but we learned to stick with the beer and wine for most of the trip.
Aconcagua is a great mountain to attempt with some experience under your belt. I don’t believe that is a good first, second or third mountain to climb. You must be in excellent physical condition, have excellent equipment, and be mentally prepared to be on the mountain for upwards of 2 weeks. If you go to attempt this mountain, spend some time in Mendoza after the climb. A week of relaxing is a good reward, summit or no. Research the mountain and routes. This site is an excellent resource, Secor’s book is a marginal resource. As I mentioned earlier, I contacted several if INKA’s past clients and many were only to happy to pass along tips to our team. I located email addresses for theses clients on INKA’s website.