On the top of the Kilimanjaro, Africa's highest peak, it became clear to us that 5895 meters wasn't high enough. We, Jan and Joris, two students from Holland, decided that Aconcagua would be the next challenge. At 6962 meters this is the highest mountain of the America's and the highest outside Asia. After a lot of preparations, including climbing Mont Blanc, at 4807 meters not Europe's highest, we left at the first of January 1997.
After a twenty hour flight we landed in Santiago de Chile. The next day we took the bus to Mendoza in Argentina, the usual place to make the last preparations for a climbing expedition to Aconcagua. Permits can be obtained here and, since there are no shops in Puente del Inca, we did our last shopping here. We bought things like cruesli, powdered milk, sugar, tea, fresh fruit and soup. Enough to provide us with food for twenty days. Freeze-dried meals we took with us from Holland, because these items are hard to obtain and very expensive in Argentina. We found only two small shops with some climbing gear in Mendoza, but if you are planning to climb Aconcagua, don't rely on these. We also booked a mule in advance to transport our stuff from Puente del Inca to Hotel Refugio near Plaza de Mulas base camp. This cost us $100. Puente del Inca (2728 meters) is as close to the normal route trailhead as you can get by bus. Puente del Inca is named after a natural sulphur bridge which spans the river there and consists of a few restaurants and some small lodges.
The bus from Mendoza to Puente del Inca rides through a beautiful desolate landscape right across the Andes. We were not the only climbers on the bus. A dozen of people had made the same plan, which resulted in a bus completely packed with backpacks and gear. We spent the night in la Vieja EstaciÛn, a very basic lodge. There was a very strong with
that night, but probably not as strong as on the mountain... The whole next day we were busy sorting some gear and we left 45 kilogram's of
equipment with the muleteer, including the radio, a pretty vital item on our expedition. We also paid a visit to the cemetery, a short walk out of the village. Dozens of people who died tragically on Aconcagua were buried there. We had our last decent meal at the
hosteria, an expensive hotel in Puente del Inca, and we also had our last shower...
We woke up early and left after breakfast. We took a taxi together with two Canadians, whom we met in our hostel, to the trailhead some 5 km. from Puente del Inca. There we started our 10 km. hike up the very dusty but impressive Horcones valley towards the Confluencia campsite (3200 m), where we pitched our tent and relaxed for the rest of the day, preparing mentally for the big walk (24 km) to Aconcagua base camp tomorrow.
This turned out to be a hell. The first part of the trip leads through a riverbed and is quite a nice walk. We walked past marvelous rock formations and beautiful mountains. Along the way we saw our mule passing by with the muleteer. After 15 km. you start to think that it is okay, but the hardest part is yet to come. That part is called "the brave ascension", we would soon find out why. The path becomes very steep and really breaks you down after hiking 20 km. with backpack. Add to this the fact that we wasted a lot of time trying to cross the turbulent river to pick up the trail to Hotel Refugio, an exclusive mountain lodge, and you've got the ingredients for a day you'll never forget. Because it turned out be impossible to cross the river, we had to follow the trail to Plaza de Mulas to try it there (after succeeding we saw a small bridge) and we finally reached, after 11 hours, Hotel Refugio at 4350 meters. The hotel turned out to be more Refugio then hotel. We were completely exhausted and we didn't have any energy to cook or to pitch the tent, so the decision was pretty easy for us. After a big meal we went to bed in the Hotel.
The following morning we put up the tent next to the hotel and we relaxed for the rest of the day. Doing nothing but eating, drinking and reading. When you camp next to the hotel, you can cook inside and use the toilets and water from the hotel for free. Other people seemed to be very busy moving their gear around and showing off their expensive clothes, which seems to be very typical for mountaineers. The only thrill today was a big avalanche up the Horcones Glacier. We thought we were doing Aconcagua the extreme way. Until we met Walter, a guy from Austria who climbs mountains in his underpants without eating or drinking. The only piece of equipment he brought with him was his sleeping bag. He didn't even bring a tent! Three days later we met him again, he had reached the summit that day. I took him only 9 hours, quite an achievement!
The second rest day we took a walk to Plaza de Mulas, for some permit formalities and to visit our Canadian friends, Robert and Miro, who gave us rum-tea with honey. We continued to walk to the Horcones glacier to inspect the ice pinnacles called "penitentes".
We carried a load to camp Canada (4850 m) as we had planned. When we got there we found out that there was no water or snow there, it appeared to be a dry year on Aconcagua. So after a short break we decided to go on to Nido, the next campsite. It was an
exhausting walk, but we had no problems with the altitude and the views were superb. Because it was already getting late and we didn't know how long it would take us to descent again, we walked pretty fast and passed a lot of people. It was a funny sight, everybody took a few steps and then had to rest for a while to get some air. We met a guy sitting down and shaking all over. Obviously coping with altitude problems. Later on we saw him walking further. The most stupid thing you can do, if you ask us. This is why each year people die on Aconcagua. When we arrived in Nido (5350 m) we dropped our gear and went down again. The
Canadians saw us coming down from the scree slope (They recognized us because we were the only ones on the mountain without ski-poles.) and the tea was ready when we arrived. Very nice! Since we had walked to Nido instead of Canada we decided to take a rest day.
Today we moved our camp to Nido and left some stuff with Robert and Miro. A heavy storm that night in Nido made sleeping impossible and even worse: our piss-bottle blew away, a pretty vital item for the high altitude camper.
We woke up late and after a big breakfast of freeze-dried scrambled eggs we left for the camp Berlin, a walk of two and a half hours. Camp Berlin - at 5950 meters - meant a new altitude record for us. This was celebrated with a beautiful sunset high above the Andes. We spent the whole afternoon melting snow and we went to bed early as we wanted to leave camp at first light.
The weather was good when we got up at 5.30: no wind and temperatures just below zero Celsius. After a few liters of tea we left for the summit. We both knew that it was now or never. We had a fantastic view, you could see the huge shadow of Aconcagua fall over the surrounding mountains. After one and a half hours of walking we discovered that our toes had become extremely cold, even though the temperature was just below zero. It took us 30 minutes to warm them. Not long after this we passed a dead man, lying next to the trail with his shoes of. Fortunately he was covered by a blanket. We had heard that a man had died high on the Aconcagua, but we had hoped that after 5 days the body would have been removed by the park rangers. This man was
not the first to die on Aconcagua this season. We had heard stories about at least two other deaths in the past week! Apparently there are people who want to reach the summit at all costs, but - believe us - reaching the summit of Aconcagua is not worth dying for. This death certainly cast a shadow over our expedition. However, we soon reached the traverse on the Gran Acareo, a giant scree slope.
Unfortunately we had left our crampons and ice-axe in Nido, because we had heard that there was no snow on the traverse. To avoid the traverse we had to walk around it on the steep scree slope. This was a huge effort and took all our energy. Afterwards it turned out that this was not necessary, since the path across the snowfield was virtually snow-free. After this the path becomes very steep and slowly turns into the Canaleta: hell on earth. If you have got any energy left, the Canaleta will suck it out of you. It is a 400 m. high 35 degrees slope with loose stones. You have to be very careful for falling rocks. It took us hours to climb it. At this altitude even a few steps take a lot of energy.
Totally exhausted we reached the summit at 4.00 p.m. the fifteenth of January. The summit of the stone sentinel!!