January 1st - Liba arrives in the land of wine, steak and Maradona- You must be insane to eat this s**t!
My two friend’s faces were contorted in disgust and disbelief. I had just made them sandwiches with Vegemite, the Australian yeast spread. Long bursts of negative superlatives followed. Their grimaces and exaggerated facial expressions were fun to watch, but something else caught my attention. Behind them a person had showed up. Liba, my climbing partner had arrived and I left my spitting and cursing friends to their further evaluation of one of my favorite sandwich spreads.
As always I was astonished by the amount of luggage and gear Aconcagua climbers bring. Liba’s gigantic duffel bags was no exception but it wasn’t an extreme case in any way. After some sorting we had decided one full bag could stay in Mendoza. The rest of the evening was full of talks about how and by which route we were going to attempt Aco. Our initial plan had been to climb the Polish Direct, but all climbers I had talked to had warned me against it. The ice was in a miserable condition and the time Liba had in Argentina was very short. We aimed for the Ruta Normal instead.
Yes, I arrived in the land of all of the above + Aconcagua. As mentioned I was initially excited about climbing the Polish Glacier, already picturing a name for the trip report “Czech girl on a Polish Glacier”, but due to colder temperatures and concrete like consistency of the glacier, we decided to go the normal route.
My bags were not gigantic, but who would want to argue with this Corax guy. He is such a minimalist. He even removed tea out of tea bags in order to save weight. And how can I trust a man I never met? I better be prepared and have my own tent. He may be snoring louder than an elephant.
* Liba's comments in italic.
January 2nd - The German dayWe entered the little office where one pay the permit for Aconcagua.
In front of our faces a sign said: Please help us keeping the payment procedure simple. Exact amount is appreciated. Etc etc.
A complicated mix of Dollars and Pesos didn't take us all the way. We hadn't brought enough money. Fortunately the guy behind the counter had humor and could see the comic in the situation. He put the piles of bills aside and welcomed us back when we had been to the bank.
I think Germans are world champions in standing in line and queuing. In my experience they are also the ones that hate queue violators the most. Twelve neatly dressed Germans were neatly standing in line in the office when we returned back with a new injection of Pesos. Twelve pairs of hateful eyes followed us when we passed the neat line and went straight to the office window. When we were served by the office guy, in front of all the perfectly lined up persons I felt the temperature in the office raised dramatically.
I had no idea that they had doubled the permit fees, so i was thinking we got plenty of money. So, after putting down some 100$ bills, some Argentinian pesos, then some more 20$ bills from my pockets, we realized that more finances were needed. The ATM machine helped us to the magic number of 6000 pesos. And I did not pay attention to the line of climbers we passed, I was thinking: Ladies first. :) just kidding.
Talking about Germans. Liba had insulted both me and my new wonderful sunglasses the night before. She had said I looked like a German Skinhead. When I in surprise had turned my head towards her, she had added it was the sunglasses which was the trigger for the comment.
My new incredibly cheap nice sunglasses!?
The pair of "CQC" had been bought for 10 Pesos (USD$ 2.50) in the local market and the little sticker promised users the following:
"CQC glasses, a spirit of aromatic flowers, sunshine, ocean and vital energy is combination of graceful design and conception. So it will promise you a brilliant sunshine and colorful trend making dreams come true. Simple, fresh comfortable and dazzling are the words to describe this CQC glasses. Its success CQC life concept makes its wearer so charming wherever he or she goes".
Can it get any better?
Obviously Liba thought otherwise. Or she likes German skinheads.
I am not particularly fond of German skinheads. I actually felt little worried about my stupidity of being so open, but Janne took it so well (at least he did not appear be bothered). I could not believe all that BS the sunglasses came with.
So much for my sunglasses. As that gear setback wasn't enough my flipflops broke on the bus. Now I had no light footwear for the walk to Plaza de Mulas. Nor for a comfortable toilet visit in Uspallata. The communal toilet in the bus station in the little town en route to Aconcagua had seen better days and walking barefoot in water, yellow tinted water and floating particles in different shades of brown was a so and so experience.
Spent the night in the little cozy guest house El Nico in Puente del Inca.
Janne did wash his feet in a fresh puddle of water after using that toilet. We arrived to Puente del Inca during a wind storm, so we decided for the hostel. I liked that hostel, small, family like atmosphere, and cheap compared to the hotels near the main highway.
January 3rd - A bit past ConfluenciaIt was a beautiful sunny day. We checked into the park. From a distance we could now see Aco. The South Face seemed to be in a very bad condition. Worse than I have ever seen it actually.
After a short fast walk we reached Confluencia, the first camp en route to Plaza de Mulas/Base Camp.
We told the Guarda Parque and the doctor we were going to walk further that day and they seemed to dislike the idea a lot. They started to go on about how long and difficult the walk ahead of us was and added that there was NO water at all anywhere along the way before Plaza de Mulas. Of course this was a lie and nothing else and I wondered why they acted like that. Why just not tell us that we weren't allowed to walk on that late in the day instead of lying straight in our faces.
We walked on and camped in a very nice spot along the way.
On the way we met some climbers who looked exhausted, even if they didn't carry more than microscopic backpacks.
One of them wheezed: I climbed it. All the way to the top!
Without mulas, porters and full services you hadn't been able to reach even BC was my spontaneous answer, but Liba was quicker and congratulated them with a huge smile. Way to go. I did the same.
So, why this negativeness towards my fellow climbers?
I just feel sickened seeing the carcasses of mulas along the route. It's a TWO DAY EASY walk and "alpinists" can't carry their own gear? Instead mulas are sacrificed by the numbers. I have a very hard time to see that.
It is hard for me to comment on this one. I did hire a mula. I brought a lot more stuff than Janne, plus all my tea was in teabags. So, I payed 160$ for ~ 20 kg bag, and was hoping that “my” mula will not have to carry more. I still had at least 15 kg backpack to carry. (I found later much cheaper deal with another company).
Regarding the exhausted climber: Yes, it was nearly comical the way he exhaled: I climbed it. All the way to the top! He truly carried nothing, and seemed so exhausted. But, who were we to judge others? It is a big accomplishment to get to the top of nearly 7000 meter peak, even if one uses porters and mulas. And maybe Aconcagua was his life’s dream. Yes, congratulations to you Unknown and Exhausted One!
January 4th - Arrival in BCIt quite a long way from Confluencia to Plaza de Mulas and this was the day when I started to realize how strong an athlete Liba was. She didn't only walk in an effortless way, but she was also very fast. I was acclimatized from some 5000 meter plus peaks. She wasn't. Still we kept the same pace. This looked good for the future.
The stretch between Confluencia and Plaza de Mulas seemed endless. There was a strong headwind, which surely slowed down our progression. We were a little cocky that day, and did not bring any water for the hike. We had to stop and rehydrate prior the arrival to the base camp, and chose the ruins of Old Plaza de Mulas hotel for our rest stop. It offered some protection from the wind, and lovely brown water from the stream below for the refreshment.
I had mixed feelings about in BC. I just don't like big commercial base camps. For me mountains is freedom, the beauty of nature and silence. The beauty of nature is still present around PdM, freedom isn't. Silence? Forget all about that. Loud music drowned all natural sounds until late at night and helicopters woke us up early in the mornings.
I have to agree, especially the morning sound of helicopters was annoying. There seemed to be no purpose of their flights, just circling around.
I was on vacation, and my rules were simple: rest, sleep, and do not get out the sleeping bag until the sun hits the tent. So, why all that noise?
January 5th - Cerro BoneteAfter a very slow morning we at noon decided to do something more active than just hanging around outside the tent drinking coffee. We set off for the little acclimatization peak Cerro Bonete. It was a beautiful warm day. We spent a long time on the scenic summit in good company of four Argentinian girls and a solo climber from Belgium. The views from Bonete are great as you have a perfect view of Aconcagua's western reaches all the way from the foot to the summit. Basically the whole of Ruta Normal is visible and far, far away we could see trains of climbers slowly moving between the camps.
Bonete looks like a technical peak from the base camp, but it is just a hiking peak. I was proud with our times, especially after talking to an Argentinian guide who told me that it takes at least 3 hrs for fit people to reach its summit. Janne ran it in 1:40, and I took 2 hrs. And we were not rushing, Janne was waiting for me, and took a couple of hundred photos.
Back in camp I met a friend from Sweden. Annelie had spent over five weeks in the Aconcagua NP. Her main goal wasn't to "only" reach the summit, but to camp on it! She had summited some time back, but never found the weather window to advance to the summit with her little tent. She was pissed off and disappointed, but also quite happy about the time on the mountain. "It has been a very educational time and I now feel ready for some higher targets". She didn't have much positive to say about the Guarda Parque though. In every possible way they had tried to stop her from climbing alone. They had even tried to force her to rent a guide. Solo female climbers seems to be too much for the park authorities. Absolutely ridiculous!
January 6th - Liba going to CanadaI was very lazy. I felt content with just hanging around doing nothing. Liba went to Camp Canada (5100m) very fast and it really seemed like she had no problem with the altitude even if we had been moving up way faster than most other people on the mountain.
I felt no altitude effects, and was full of energy that day. I started to walk around the base camp, and then decided to walk up part of the trail, and then started jogging and was getting higher and higher. Poor climbers hated me. They were hauling heavy stuff up to Camp Canada, and I was just smiling and jogging past them.
January 7th - Trying out my legsThe walk to the summit of Bonete had indicated that my legs, lungs and the rest was in good shape, but I wanted further proof before camping higher. I went up to the 5500m/Nido de Condores in less than two hours and as I felt great I went further to the northern edge of the little plateau to have a look at the mighty views. The Mercedario massif looked as splendid as always and as usual La Mano caught my eye. On the way back I decided to walk over the summit of Cerro Manso, the little "summit" just below Nido.
I was lazy that day. Janne left, and I had the whole 1.5 person tent for myself. What a comfort! I ate a lot that day, and after Janne’s return went for a walk to the waterfall running on glacier and surrounded by penitentes. It was a very peaceful place.
January 8th - To the Condor's NestThe voice of sanity told me we were pushing our luck going all the way to Nido in one go as Liba hadn't spent enough time on altitude, but we went anyway. When she arrived after only four and a half hours with her relatively heavy backpack I felt really happy. I felt even better when I realized she was in great shape and not the least tired. Impressive.
Ilya, a seasoned Russian climber became our closest neighbor and three guys from Seattle camped a little bit further away. I felt really good to be out of BC and all what came with it.
Heavy snowfall hit Nido in the middle of the night. The tent started to fill up with snow. I cursed myself for my ever so lazy attitude. The zipper had broken about five months earlier during a climb in China and I hadn't gotten around to fix it.
I stitched/sewed some of it and Liba sutured the rest. We were actually doing exactly the same thing, but one of us is a doctor, the other isn't :)
Was it smart to hike up with our heavy backpacks all the way from the base camp to Nido? We skipped Camp Canada where people usually spend a couple of nights for acclimatization, and some people did set up another camp between Canada and Nido called Camp Alaska.
Anyway, we did it. We went from 4300 m to 5500 m. I remember recommendations from a mountaineering book to go slowly, about 300 meters per day. I guess quadruple should be all right.
The Russian climber Ilya heard our conversations, and said: “It is possible”. I guess in some ways everything is possible.
January 9th - The Russian bird nest and pulmonary edemaA calm day with some short strolls around Nido. The tent was now safe from snow drift and we ate a lot all day. Fortunately we both seems to feel good and have great appetite on altitude and massive amounts of food were devoured.
The two things I most clearly remember from this day are:
1. Ilya's bird nest. "I will bring my bird nest and place it on the summit. It'll be the highest of its kind. I'll show it to you later", he said with a smug smile.
2. That night Liba wasn't breathing consistently for some minutes so I woke her up and told her that she may have a mild version of Cheyne-Stokes Breathing Syndrome. She took it a bit too serious and started to talk about edemas. I wasn't worried. There was absolutely no indication she was ill in any way, just some irregular breathing.
Janne was improving the rock wall fortification around our tent, and I sutured the rest of the tent. Guarda Parque officials came by our tent and asked if we are doing OK. It seemed like a nice gesture. I guess that they did not want to find dehydrated corpses later on.
Janne woke me up at night and was talking something about my breathing. What? I have a breathing problem? I started to panic. I am getting a pulmonary edema! I did go up too fast, I may have to go down. I will not summit the mountain. Should I take Diamox? It was too dark to search for it, and I did not want to get out of my sleeping bag. I calmed myself down. Well - I did not see any breathing problems after all. I was not breathing fast. My body did not want to cough. Actually, I felt really strong, and wanted to sleep. So, I decided to go back to sleep, and sort out the pulmonary edema concern in the morning.
January 10th - A test run to BerlinWindy. Quite cold.
Very few people were leaving their tents and we didn't see anyone on the trails further up on the peak. We decided to go to Berlin, a camp located at 5950m. Absolutely fantastic views of the mountains in the north. I had forgotten how beautiful the views on Aconcagua were. I remembered earlier escapades in the Mercedario area as well as an epic down climb with a bunch of wasted and sick clients from the summit some years ago. Liba arrived with two Argentinian climbers desperately trying to keep up behind her. One was a professional porter, the other a speed climber. Once again I felt admiration for how fast and strong she was and I was sure (yes, sure) she was going to reach the summit.
We found Ilya's small tent and a larger one with two Argentinians who was going for the summit for the sixth respectively third time. Their plan had also been to go for the Polish Direct, but the conditions had scared them off. Just before we left they got a weather report. Great weather for two more days. It was time to think about the summit.
It was a sunny and windy morning. I forgot all about pulmonary edema. We hiked up to Berlin, and I was as usual slower than Janne. Janne seemed to have wings and just fly up the mountain. Berlin appeared empty, only 2 tents. One of the guides told us that the following day should offer a nice weather. Ok, I got excited, this could be our summit day!
January 11th - To the summit!Liba was a bit worried I was too fast for her and therefore we agreed she should start ahead of me. She left some minutes after six in the morning. I slept for two more hours, ate a huge breakfast and left at a quarter past nine. I was very sleepy, but at the same time very set on the target. I constantly had to tell myself not to go too fast.
Nice sunshine, some wind, but overall it was a great day for a summit attempt. I passed a lot of smaller and larger groups already before The Independencia Refugio. Some of them looked tired and in bad shape and I felt sorry for them. It was still a long, long way to the summit.
After roughly two hours I got the surprise of the day. I caught up with Liba. Already, at about 6500m. She looked a little bit tired, but was in good mood.
- I'm so slow. I start to understand how it feels to be affected by altitude.
She was worried. I told her to take a look around. All other climbers in view were much slower and in comparison Liba was moving at high speed. I went ahead to the bottom of the canaleta in order to find summiteers. I wanted to know in what condition the last 350m were.
Snowy, a bit icy, but nothing to worry about at all a guy from Quebec told me. You can go without crampons, but they are of help. No axe? Good. No need.
Liba arrived. She had a mild headache, but seemed to be in good spirits and full of determination. We sat down for a snacks break.
A loud guide from North America went on and on about his heroic climbs. Aconcagua wasn't a real mountain. Neither was Denali. Gasherbrum I and Himalaya bla bla, Karakoram and K2 bla bla.
I looked around and saw some familiar faces. They were all full of amused smiles. In silence very experienced Russian climbers smoked cigarettes while they listened to fantastic tales about the "real mountains" of Asia.
Liba took off ahead of me. I drank some more tea, had a snus and ate another piece of chocolate and continued to listen to a story about the North Ridge of K2. I nodded and smiled at one of the amused Russians and took off.
It was a perfect summit day and the canaleta was full of climbers. Long lines of people ahead of me. I passed dozens of climbers and looked up for Liba. She was going strongly and I had no doubts she would make it. When I caught up with her she complained a bit about being "so slow", and once again I told her to take a look around and compare with 99% of the other climbers in the canaleta.
I was told to put crampons on by a very tired commercial expedition guide. I could see no reason to do so. I was mostly on the rocks below or above the snowy path where most people walked anyway. It was the only way to keep my preferred speed. Walking too slow can be as bad as walking too fast.
I reached the summit in splendid sunshine. It was a really beautiful day and the atmosphere on South America's highest spot was great. All and everyone was happy and there was a lot of hugging and cheering. That hadn't the case when I was there the last time. Two roped teams had had an argument in the canaleta and they almost got into a physical fight when arriving on the summit.
I walked over to the South Face and had a look down the abyss. Some years back I had had plans to try it out, but bad conditions had stopped me. This season it had looked awful and it had been out of the question for me to even think about an attempt. What I didn't know was that two young Americans were clawing their way up the face far below me. Wow.
I had almost forgotten. I jogged back to the Ruta Normal and immediately saw her. She had only a few meters left to the summit. I waved. She waved back with a smile. I congratulated her when she took the final steps to the summit. She was happy. Very happy. The funny thing was that the happiness wasn't summit happiness of the true sense of the word.
- I don't have to go up anymore. I don't have to climb upwards more. She repeated the phrases time and time again. The struggle was over.
Some minutes later she was all smiles and the temporary fatigue was all gone. We walked around and talked to other climbers, took a lot of photos and finally we pulled out our symbols of victory.
Liba had a small bottle of Baileys Irish Cream and I had a box of Cafe Creme Noir cigarrillos. I'm not sure why Liba didn't bottle up, but I enjoyed my little cigarrillo. The climbers around me stared at me like I was insane and when I offered an Argentinian guy a puff I saw something like panic in his eyes. I heard the words "nonono" and "loco" while he fled from me and the abominable cigarrillo.
After some further sightseeing it was time to get down. Crampons on. Full speed ahead towards Nido the Condores. On the way I saw a certain guide sitting in the snow. I wasn't sure if it was he or his client who was wasted, but my guess is on the former.
On the way down we also caught up with our friends form Seattle. They were having a break just above Camp Colera and they were like us in a really good mood. They had also reached the summit and had broken their altitude record with 2.5 km (Rainier).
I heard the Japanese team early am getting ready, then some more climbers, and finally it was light outside. Janne gave me a 3 hr head start, and I did want to get as high as possible before he would catch up with me. I passed everyone, including people who started from Colera camp. I felt good and strong, but around 6400 m started to feel the altitude. I never been so high! I slowed down in the traverse below the canaleta, and this is where Janne caught up with me. He brought me a hot tea, I felt so refreshed. The final stretches of the hike were slow. The canaleta was filled with climbers, so I just followed, and passed those who wanted to take a break. No breaks for me, just keep moving, slowly, but keep moving. Finally, the top: “I don’t have to go higher up”. I was there on the top of the Americas, I was as high as I could get outside the continent of Asia, almost 7000 meters. I was high.
Janne smoked a cigarillo on the top. Most people were barely moving, and he was smoking! I had no energy to drink my Baileys. Later, I will safe it for later.
The descent was fast, I was getting my energy quickly on the way down. We made it back to Nido together, melted some snow and made a dinner. What a nice day. What a great sleep and sweet dreams.
January 12th - down to BCThe walk down was uneventful. I was astonished by the amount of people we met and for some reason I thought about two old SP articles. Finding Science in the mountains and Finding God in the mountains. I thought about writing one called Finding Commercialism in the Mountains. Wow...Aconcagua is a very popular mountain, the really high peak fee aside.
For some the peak fee was now too high. We met one of "the illegals" in BC. He had trekked in over the mountains from Chile. No exit stamp and no entry stamp to Argentina. He had further traversed Aconcagua and was now on his way back to Chile. Our last night in BC was intense and interesting. In our part of the camp there were some really funny Russians. Some of them were from the climbing elite. At least two Snow Leopards were there and so was one of the guys from the Central Wall of Everest. Alexei Kosyakov was also in our camp. He has a reputation after his unorthodox climb of Pik Korzhenevskaya. A lot of his gear, including his mountaineering boots was lost on the way and for most people a climb would have been out of the question. Alexei refused to give up though. He still had his sandals, his sleeping pad and crampons and somehow he managed to make it to the top of the 7105m high peak with home made boots made out of styrofoam, tape and sandals.
Ilya was also around. He was about to attack the coming day. He proudly showed us his bird nest.
- Why not a bird nest? I don't think there's a bird nest on any high peak, so that will change now.
The Viking had oxygen saturations of 95%. What is wrong with him? I could not believe it. While most climbers struggled, and had saturation levels in 80s, Janne’s physiology acted like he was at the sea level.
The return to our tent at the base camp was uneventful. (We left my tent at the base camp, and used Janne’s at Nido). We both admired porters carrying huge loads. Some porters could carry up to 50 kg. WOW.
Down at the base camp we socialized with a group of Russians climbers. Some of those guys were snow leopards. The Russians were smoking and drinking, and they were truly happy.
January 13th - down and out
We walked all the way to the highway without any incidents worth mentioning. I was sickened by the amount of dead mulas en route. They are the true heroes of Aconcagua, not the South Face climbers or the super fast ones. They even die for you.
We were incredibly lucky to get to Puente del Inca in time to just catch a local bus to Mendoza.
We were running out of Aconcagua Parque. Nobody could keep up with us, even the mulas struggled. We did not stop until Confluencia where we did refresh with water and small snacks. We checked out with the Guarda Parque, and were hoping to get a ride back to Puente del Inca. But our transport was not answering, so we decided to hike along the road. Suddenly a guy in a pick up truck asks whether we need a ride, turned out Osvaldo prolonged a little bit his siesta. We barely caught our bus, took our stinky boots off, and relaxed all the way to Mendoza. What a trip! What an acomplishment! What a mountain!
Thank you Janne.