Despite much discussion about an international gathering of SummitPost members in 2005, ultimately no one could agree on when and where to go. However, in September I discovered that SP members Corax and William Marler were both planning to climb Aconcagua, and they expressed enthusiasm for meeting up with other SP members while there. Peak Freak (Eileen) was the first to jump on board. With Aconcagua high on my list of peaks to climb, and 3 other committed SP members, I quickly made the decision to go. Corax and William were both responsible for guiding separate teams up the mountain. So Eileen and I agreed to stick together and simply meet the others during the course of the climb. As it turned out, William’s trip was delayed so unfortunately he did not meet up with us.
December 2-3, Travel Day: After nearly 24 hours of travel (I missed my flight connection in Santiago) I finally met Eileen upon my arrival at the Nutibara Hotel in Mendoza. We had spoken on the phone and emailed each other throughout the planning of this trip, but we had never met in person before. We spent the first evening sorting and packing our gear, and shopping for food, with just enough time for a quick dinner in the city.
Eileen and I planned to take the Polish Traverse route but discovered that Plaza Argentina was closed due to a rock slide that wiped out the trail. The only other viable option for us was to take the Normal Route through the Horcones Valley on the opposite side of the mountain.
December 4, Move to Confluencia (10,000ft): I picked up my climbing permit in Mendoza at 9am, and with plenty of time to spare we caught the 10:15am bus to Peunta del Inca, the town at the base of the mountain. The ride took about 4 hours.
Our goal was to get to Confluencia Base Camp that night so I could start acclimatizing. Eileen had already spent several days at 15K' in Cordon del Plata with Corax and his team of Swedish climbers, so I had some catching up to do.
We hadn’t made arrangements for mules in advance, but Inkas Expeditions had no problem accommodating us. We paid $120(US) for them to haul our gear to Plaza del Mulas, well worth it considering the additional amenities they provided. (They drove us to/from the park entrance, stored clean clothes for us at the trailhead, stored gear for us at Plaza del Mulas, allowed us to use their latrines on the mountain, and provided us with fresh water everyday at their 2 base camps.)
We checked in at the ranger station and were on the trail by 3:30pm. Carrying only what we needed for 2 days, the hike to Confluencia was fairly easy. We arrived at 6:45pm.
December 5, Hike to Plaza Francia: We planned an acclimatization hike to Plaza Francia on the second day, but stopped at an elevation of about 13,000ft. I didn’t want to over do it having been there less than 24 hours. We were unable to see the summit of Aconcagua due to the cloud layer, but we did have a good view of its dramatic steep south face, which is quite impressive!
December 6, Move to Plaza del Mulas (14,000ft): I was not feeling at all well on the third day. I later learned that the glacial water at Confluencia is very high in magnesium, which affects people differently. Eileen didn’t have any trouble, but my digestive system was in a state of turmoil. I skipped breakfast completely and was moving in slow motion all day. The hike through the Horcones Valley was grueling for me. It is a very long approach, and we faced 50MPH head winds most of the day. The last section of trail climbs a bit, and was actually a welcome change of scenery as compared with the long, flat valley we had traveled.
I finally arrived at Plaza del Mulas (PdM) at 6:40pm, 9 ½ hours later. I was still not feeling well and was extremely grateful to Eileen who had hiked up ahead and started to make camp ahead of my arrival. We purchased dinner through Inkas so we could eat in one of their large tents out of the wind. It felt great to sit down!
December 7, Rest Day: I felt much better on the fourth day. The water from PdM, which does not have magnesium in it, no doubt helped me to recover. We spent the day resting, checking in at the medical and ranger tents, and sorting gear. We had to make our final decisions about what to carry to the high camps, versus what to leave at PdM. It snowed in the afternoon and the wind was blowing pretty hard, casting some doubts on our summit hopes. It was still several days until our summit attempt though.
December 8, Carry to Camp Canada (16,100ft): On the fifth day, we carried some gear to Camp Canada and returned to PdM. The weather was very poor, with high winds and low visibility. Still, we were surprised to find only a couple of people at Camp Canada. The weather broke after we got back down to PdM and we were treated with our first of many beautiful sunsets.
December 9, Move to Camp Canada: After receiving a clean bill of health from the medical doctor, we broke camp, left our extra gear with the people at Inkas, and headed for Camp Canada. The day was clear and beautiful with very little wind and there were quite a few people on the trail ahead of us. We arrived at Camp Canada to find 20 tents. What a difference a day makes! We met some new friends while making camp, Tom and Jim from Colorado, who we discovered were on a similar schedule as we were.
It started to snow in the evening and so we turned in early. However, we were roused from our tent at sunset by a lot of commotion outside. The snow had subsided and we witnessed one of the most beautiful sunsets ever! This was a new sleeping altitude record for both Eileen and me.
December 10, Carry to Nido des Condores (17,600ft): We awoke the next morning to beautiful clear skies. After a leisurely breakfast and packing our gear, we left for Camp Nido at noon. We made good time, arriving at 2pm. There were roughly 40-50 tents when we arrived, spread out all over the place. We thoroughly searched the entire camp and finally agreed on a place to pitch our tent that had a small rock wall around it. We were going to be there for 3 nights and I was concerned with getting pummeled by high winds. (Corax had several tents blown away on Cordon del Plata just a few days earlier, as described in his trip report.) We spent a couple of hours building up the rock wall and stashed our gear in the middle of it, with the hope that no one would steal our prized spot as we headed back down to Camp Canada for the night.
December 11, Move to Camp Nido: Our packs were much heavier on move day, with the sleeping bags, tent and cooking supplies. It took us about 2 ½ hours to reach Camp Nido. Again we were blessed with clear skies. We began to wonder how long the nice weather would last. That evening there was virtually no wind and we could hear every conversation in camp.
December 12, Rest Day: Day 9 was a scheduled rest day. We spent a few hours building up the rock walls around our campsite until we were the envy of Camp Nido. Indeed, we not only had the highest walls in the entire camp, but also the best view as our campsite was higher than the others. People came from all over to see "Camp Chicago", which I named in reference to my home town (the Windy City).
Corax, Nadios (who I didn't know was coming!) and the team from Sweden arrived that day. They were already acclimatized and were taking a faster pace up Aconcagua than we were. We immensely enjoyed their company for dinner.
Our plans for summit day were starting to solidify. Tom and Jim were on the same schedule as we were, so we agreed to team up. The plan was to carry gear to Camp Berlin tomorrow, move the next day, and then summit the day after that, weather permitting of course. The Swedish team was going to stay at Camp Nido, take some acclimatization hikes, and then summit the same day that we were from there.
December 13, Carry to Camp Cólera (19,200ft): The next morning was windy and cold, with partly cloudy skies. Jim wasn’t feeling well and their plans suddenly became uncertain. Eileen and I left for Camp Berlin at 1pm, unsure of what Tom and Jim were going to do. They both ultimately caught up with us just as we reached Camp Berlin.
When we arrived, we were disgusted to find that there was garbage everywhere, human feces and toilet paper under every small rock, and the strong smell of urine in the air. We were all getting nauseous just breathing the foul air. So we decided to look for Camp Cólera (also known as Lower White Rocks), which we heard was situated just above Camp Berlin.
A Spanish climber directed us to ascend the trail towards the summit, and then cut off to the left to find Camp Cólera. We followed his directions only to discover later that there is a different trail that goes directly from Berlin to Cólera on the left side of camp. Unfortunately, we ended up climbing a good 500ft higher than we needed to. We found Camp Cólera, stashed our gear, and then headed back to Camp Nido for the night. But the damage was done. All of us had very bad headaches. Eileen was particularly hurting though she assured me that she didn’t require medical help.
Tom, Jim and I were still hoping to move to Camp Cólera the next morning, however Eileen’s plans were now in question.
December 14, Move to Camp Cólera: Eileen and I both felt better the next morning. However, she did not want to risk moving higher considering how terrible she felt the day before. After much discussion, we agreed that I would move up to Cólera with Tom and Jim, and Eileen would stay at Nido with the Swedish team. We actually brought a spare tent and stove for this very possibility, which were both up at Camp Cólera. So there was no problem with gear. Eileen would either summit with the Swedish team from Nido, or move up to Camp Cólera the following day, depending on how she felt.
A primary concern that everyone had was the weather. This was now the fifth day of relatively good weather, and we all feared that it would eventually turn for the worse.
When Tom, Jim and I arrived at Camp Cólera, the winds were blowing so hard that the 3 of us had to work together to pitch the tents. We melted some snow for water, had our dinner and agreed to a 6am start for the summit.
December 15, Summit Day: My watch alarm failed to go off and I woke up late (5:45am). Jim was ready to go, but luckily for me Tom was also running late. I skipped my usual breakfast of granola cereal and grabbed a couple of oatmeal cookies. We started for the summit at 6:45am under clear skies. The air was very thin and cold. We made steady progress, despite the loose gravely dirt, and rested for 15 minutes at the Independencia Hut (21,000ft). I stopped to fix a problem with my camera on the way up to the Cresta del Viento and fell behind the others. It was unbelievably windy on the ridge, but the view was fantastic. The wind was relentless for the couple of hours that it took to traverse the Gran Acarreo. Corax and some of the Swedes had now caught up to me. I was envious of both his fitness level and acclimatization as he flew past me on his way to the summit.
Word was circulating amongst the climbers that crampons and ice ax weren’t needed to ascend the Canaleta. So like everyone else, I dropped my pack near the base of the Canaleta and continued the slog upward. Tom and Jim were ahead of me, but I was soon shocked to see them heading back down to get their crampons from their packs. Apparently, several climbers descending told them that while they probably didn’t need crampons for the ascent, they may need them while descending. I regret now not encouraging them to press on. Even in my oxygen deprived state, I knew they wouldn’t be able to descend very far and return to the summit at that altitude. Sadly, they did not make the summit and I know that they would have.
I continued up the Canaleta without my crampons, using my trekking poles to help traverse the occasional patches of snow. It was a little steep in some places, but the exposure was minimal with small talus not far below the snow trail. A slip might hurt, but it would not be fatal.
After a couple of hours, I finally reached the summit. What a tremendous rush of emotion! There are so many things that can potentially force you to turn back; weather, trail conditions, fatigue, etc. I was never quite sure if I was going to make it until the very last step. The thrill of reaching a summit after climbing for days is something that only other climbers can fully appreciate. That feeling was magnified tenfold for me as this was my first major expedition - and also one of the 7 summits. It was a moment I'll never forget!
I soon realized that it was 5pm and time to head back. After a brief celebration and snack with a few of the Swedish climbers, we started our descent. Upon reaching the base of the Canaleta, I discovered that several climbers were having a hard time making it back to camp and were being physically helped by Corax, Nadios and a few of the other climbers. I confess that I too was exhausted. I made it back of my own accord but was not able to offer much help to the others. Fortunately, everyone made it back safely. It seemed to take forever to get back to camp and yet to my surprise it was only 3 hours (as compared with the 10 hours it took to reach the summit.)
December 16, Descend to Plaza del Mulas: The next day was the windiest day of the whole trip. Tom, Jim and I managed to get the tents broken down and headed back to Camp Nido where we found Eileen waiting. She had hiked up with the Swedish team as far as the Independencia Hut the day before, but turned back. She was satisfied with that, and so we packed the rest of our gear and headed down to PdM.
December 17, Hike out: At last our journey was coming to an end. Eileen and I enjoyed the company of the Swedish team during breakfast and the hike back to Peunta del Inca. The large group eventually got spread out during the long hike back and I found myself hiking with two young Swedish women, one of which was struggling with blisters on her feet. During a rest break, one of the other climbers convinced us that there was a short cut back to Peunta del Inca that bypasses Confluencia. Since we had fallen pretty far behind everyone else, and the two women had a bus to catch, we decided to try the shortcut. Everything was going perfectly well, that is until we reached the edge of a river gorge and couldn’t go any further. So much for the short cut! We had no choice but to back track and take the normal trail through Confluencia. We finally reached the trailhead at 7:55pm, just 5 minutes before the park closed, where the Swedish team, Eileen and our bus drivers were all patiently waiting for us.
And so ends another great adventure in the mountains...!
Alpinist (and Eileen), Congratulations with your achievements. Nice trip report.
My question is, why people were not bringing crampons with them if they were indeed needed. One brings crampons so high on the mountain and, then, are left behind ! With crampons a way up and, surely, a safe way back would have been guaranteed, wouldn't it? Next to that, a fall (let's say with a no more consecuences than a broken leg, for example) at that altitude and with that winds (due to a misstap on that hard snow)...what would have mean?
John - you raise a valid question. The answer is that most people have not climbed that high before and were struggling with the altitude. Some people turned back. Those that continued for the summit dropped their packs to lighten the load while ascending the Canaleta, which is comprised of mostly loose dirt. There were only a few small patches of snow and none of them dropped vertically.
Keep in mind that we could see nearly the entire route going up the Canaleta. I for one did not see anything that worried me. I think I made the right choice leaving my crampons behind. It's a decision each climber must make based on his experience and confidence level. It's unfortunate that the 2 climbers from CO didn't press on, as I'm sure they would have reached the summit and returned safely.