“Oh, the normal route, that’s an easy walk up!” That thoughtless phrase played again and again in my mind as I watched strong mountaineers being helicoptered off the mountain, as rangers struggle to carry down a body of a mountain guide, as our own team continuously fought back the stress of altitude magnified by the dry environment.
On Monday, January 16, Joe Sepulveda, Roxanne Royce, and I flue to South America with the goal of climbing Aconcagua, the highest peak in western hemisphere (6,962 m, 22,841 ft). Since we had limited number of days, the Normal Route was the obvious choice. Joe, the organizer of the entire expedition, arranged for Fernando Grajales Expeditions to take care of our logistics, which included transportation from the airport, mule services, and storage space. The service was excellent and we were able to buy our permits and food, drive to Penitentes (a ski resort with hotel, where many climbers stay before and/or after the climb), and repack - all on the same day of our arrival to Mendoza, Argentina.
Day 1, Wednesday
It was a very hot day and coming from Utah and Colorado, we felt the agonizing heat all too well. But nonetheless, we were very excited to start our adventure! After the rangers checked our permits and issued our litter bags, we were on our way to Confluencia Camp (3,390 m, 11,122 ft). The hike was very short, just couple of hours, over dry but still magnificent terrain. In the camp, we went through mandatory medical exam and socialized with many people from all over the world. Some of them became good friends as we continued our journeys together. Everyone had different agendas but the same goal – to reach the Roof of America. It was interesting to see how itineraries changed over time due to illnesses, weather, and physical and mental conditions. Our own plans significantly changed over the next couple of days.
Day 2, Thursday
On our second day, we left Confluencia and headed to Plaza de Mulas, the base camp (BC). It was a very long day, about 9 hours with almost 4,000 ft elevation gain and most of the gain was at the very end. The trail was easy to follow until the river decided to make our lives difficult. But we were rewarded with some awesome views of the Aconcagua’s South Face. By the late afternoon we finally strolled into the BC (14,400 ft), very tired and all with headaches.
Day 3, Friday
Rest day, yeah! On this day I realized how much I loved rest days. All we had to do was eat and sleep. I even managed to do a little laundry since getting water was not a problem (the outfitter provided water and outhouses, very convenient). Looking around the BC, we started to feel more like in a small village that in a climbing camp. There were advertisements for pizza, burgers, beer and wine, phone and internet services, music bar, highest webcam in the world, T-shirt sale, etc. At night, from 10 pm to 2:30 am, the entire BC gathered at the bar to party and the noise was very disturbing for the climbers who needed rest and wanted to have an early start the next day.
Day 4, Saturday
The rest was over the hard work was about to start. Our plan was to ferry some loads to Camp Canada (5,050 m, 16,568 ft), stash it there under a rock and come back to BC for the night. Joe and I started out at 7:45 am and the BC was hardly waking up at that time. Roxanne still had a headache and didn’t sleeping very well at night, so she needed another rest day. On the way to the camp, we saw a paraglider, pretty amazing considering the altitude.
That night the storm rolled in and in just couple of hours the entire camp was covered in snow.
Day 5, Sunday
That was the worse day we had on the mountain. It started with the discovery of a stolen stove (we were lucky to have a spare with us). Then it became apparent that Joe had to descend; he caught a case of Pulmonary Edema and had a chance to fly out in the helicopter, even though he wasn’t very happy about descending in that fashion. Roxanne’s headache did not cease after three days and she decided it would be best to hike out. Luckily, there was a group of Germans walking out the same day, so she joined them. Two very strong people, high altitude climbers who have accomplished very difficult peaks in South and North America had to abandon their climb – that alone says a lot about the environment we faced on Aconcagua. Since I was still feeling good, my teammates gave me a chance to stay and continue the climb.
Day 6, Monday
At 7 am, when I started my second carry to Nido De Condores Camp (5,560 m, 18,200 ft) the base camp was still asleep. The weather was quiet and relatively warm, almost no wind. By 9 am I was at Camp Canada, where Joe and I left some equipment couple of days ago, so I picked up whatever I needed and headed to my high camp. The wind was a little stronger at Nido, which is always the case, but the sky was still clear and the sun was warm and pleasant. I found a nice spot close to some tents occupied by a French group, anchored my own tent, left the rest of the equipment inside, and headed down to the BC. That night the weather significantly improved, it seemed like the storm had passed.
Day 7, Tuesday
My plan was to move to Nido that day. I was more tired than the day before, and another rest day at BC sounded very good, but the weather was holding and I was afraid that staying too long on the mountain might start draining my physical and mental strength. So I went ahead and climbed back to Nido. I talked to the rangers stationed over there and some other climbers and found out that a Columbian group was planning on a summit attempt the next morning. They invited me to climb with them and I gladly accepted. As I was melting snow and making some food, I listened to the winds beating on the tent and wondered about the next day. The French group next to me was packing out after reaching 21,000 ft, merciless winds and cold ended their dreams. I also noticed that my appetite, so enormous before, diminished significantly and I was forcing myself to eat. That change made me wonder if I could stay at that altitude for more than one day.
Day 8, Wednesday
By 2 am I was crawling out of the tent. I was surprised by the good weather, the winds have died down, the temperature was relatively warm, maybe -5 Fahrenheit, and the sky was absolutely gorgeous, filled with millions of bright stars. I was feeling strong and started to entertain the idea that I could actually pull it off.
The Columbian team was also ready and around 2:20 am we were on our way. Before even reaching the trail it became obvious that I would not be climbing with those three strong guys, their pace was over my head. I told them to keep going and it took me a while to bring my heart rate down and get back into my regular pace. As I was slowly trotting along, I noticed silly arrows drawn in the snow, I heard joyful sounds and saw small round lights from above – my new friends tried to cheer me on, I did not feel alone.
Hours passed. It was very dark but I could make out the dim silhouettes of huge rocks and cliffs around me. I was impatiently waiting for the sun, for the light and warmth it would bring with it. The temperature was dropping, even though the winds were still down. Finally, around 7 am, I started to notice some light in the horizon and in about an hour I witnessed one of the most beautiful sunrises ever. The clouds rested below me, as if though they got caught on the tips of the peaks and couldn’t move any more. The snow covered peaks started to take form, and everything around was glowing in soft pink light. At that moment I thought that I could turn around and descend, for I’ve seen what I came for - the most magical picture a nature can paint.
But the reality hit me hard in just moments. My water almost froze and I had difficulties unscrewing the lid, all my food and even sunscreen succumbed to the same enemy. Around 21,300 ft, I was seriously thinking about turning back. My hands were cold and turned a very strange grayish color, I was afraid of frostbite. But the sun came out, warmed me up, and warmed up my spirit.
Is it possible that I am on the summit? My first thought was about getting back down as soon as possible and after a couple of pictures and glances around, I carefully stepped down. It was noon, 10 hours after I left the camp. Yes, it was very beautiful, it was very rewarding to stand that high after all the hard work, but I wanted Joe and Roxanne to share that moment with me.
The descend seemed very long and tiring, but it only took 2.5 hours. I hardly ate anything the entire day, so I knew I had to fix myself dinner, which I hardly touched. I crawled into my sleeping bag anxious for some rest, but unfortunately, the very beginning of Pulmonary Edema started to set in. Going down to BC was essential, so I prepared for another haul that evening. One of the rangers came down with and even though I was completely all right as soon as we arrived at the BC, the doctors didn’t let me sleep alone; I was privileged to stay in their huge, warm, and quiet tent. They asked for a helicopter to fly me down the next morning, even though I was perfectly capable of walking out on my own. No one wants to be helicoptered out, especially when there is no need for it, but the doctors wouldn’t take any chances. In any case, it was a fun and fast ride down! By the way, the emergency helicopter ride is included in the permit cost.
Over the next couple of days I met up with Roxanne and Joe and we spent couple of days in Mendoza and Santiago. Both of them were feeling very well, and as I found out, Roxanne considered re-ascending as soon as she arrived back at the trailhead. A day later she hiked back to Confluencia Camp and almost went to BC, but found out in time that I was no longer there.
No matter what happened on this trip, it was a great learning experience. All of us reacted differently to the altitude and the stress of the very dry climate. Maybe the normal route on Aconcagua is not technical, but the mountain itself is very harsh, the weather changes very fast, your health may deteriorate in a matter of hours, and it is very critical to make the right decision at the right time.
Marie, congrats on reaching the summit, and in only 8 days! You made an interesting decision to climb so quickly, afraid that your strength would diminish the more time you stayed on the mountain rather than trying to acclimatize longer to build up your strength. This is contrary to what most people do. I'm glad it worked for you.
Is it typical for climbers on Aconcagua to move to higher camps so fast? My experience on altitude above 14K' is limited to one trip to Denali, but the recommended ascent rate over there is about 1000'/day. You also start at only 7200', so that makes it easier. I'm just curious, in case some day I decide to go to Aconcagua.
Thanks for the trip report!