A Brief Introduction
My buddy Matt and I summited Aconcagua via the Guanacos Route on 13 DEC 2012. We didn't hire a guide, though we did hire two mules to carry our food and equipment to Plaza Argentina (we could've gotten away with one, but two made things easier). Every campsite had running water (often after about noon as the ice had to melt) except for our high camp, Camp Cholera (it had snow that we could melt, though there wasn't much and I wouldn't be surprised if it didn't last the season).
We started movement to the mountain on 4 DEC 2012, leaving Los Penitentes via the Rio de Vacas Trail, arriving in Plaza Argentina on 6 DEC. The wind this season had been pretty heinous (up to 100mph on the summit), so we pushed to make it on the 13th, as that was the best forecasted summit day that matched our timeline. We arrived back in Los Penitentes on the 15th and caught a bus to Mendoza on the 16th.
- Bring cash - US dollars or Argentine Pesos
- There are no ATMs in Los Penitentes
- Drink lots of water - we drank 8-10 liters a day and had no real problems with altitude (obviously, this may not apply to anyone else, but I suspect it does).
- Running water (at least in early December) at every camp, excepting Camp Cholera
- Make sure your tent stands up to the wind. At Plaza Argentina, winds reached 70 mph (this isn't common, but obviously possible) - outhouses were blown over and several 'permanent' tents were destroyed
- when anchoring your tent, keep in mind that tent stakes are pretty much useless in the loose, rocky soil; these tent anchors
from REI worked great!
- as a planning factor for fuel, we brought 2L of white gas per person (taking into consideration that we wouldn't have to melt much snow). In addition, we brought several butane/propane (these were easy to find in Mendoza) mix canisters for our Reactor. This worked great as we had leftover fuel when we got back to Penitentes.
Preparations, Planes, and Permits
Matt and I decided to climb Aconcagua. This was in July of 2012. It was tentative at first, but we sealed the deal (the purchase of plane tickets) in August. Flying from Anchorage, we'd stop in Seattle, Dallas, and Santiago, Chile en route to Mendoza, AR. I left on the morning of 1 DEC 2012, landing in Mendoza on the afternoon of the 2nd.
Initially, we had decided to climb the Polish Glacier route, but then changed to the False Polish Traverse. Once on the mountain, we spoke with several guides and decided to go the Guanacos Route, as it was slightly more protected from the wind. Additionally, taking the Guanacos Route helped us with acclimatization as there is an additional camp on the route...it also makes the summit day shorter.
From the outset, we decided that we didn't want to hire a guide for the trip. Also, we decided that we would use mules to transport food and equipment from Los Penitentes to Plaza Argentina. We decided on Inka Expeditions
, based out of Mendoza. They were super helpful...giving us information on the purchase of the permits, transportation from the airport, lodging in Mendoza, the bus to Penitentes, and places to purchase gear/food in Mendoza.
As for the permit, we purchased 'mid-season permits' and paid $700 US per person. We applied for the permits at the Ministry of Tourism (Aconcagua has its own section upstairs), but paid (cash only) for them at a government contracted, money-control store...basically, instead of paying the government directly, you pay this company instead...confusing and seemingly sketchy (I didn't much like handing $1400 to a stranger on the other side of bullet proof glass), though it worked out quite well (these little offices are scattered around the city, but there is one right next to the tourism office). After we paid, we received receipts which we took with us to the tourism office. We sat down a government employee and went over our route, which guide/logistics service we were using (the permit costs more if you don't hire a local service), and how long we would be on the mountain. Once they were satisfied, they gave us our permits and said "Via con Dios, amigos"...not really, though they wished us luck. The whole process took about an hour.
As for the itinerary, we initially allocated 10-12 days to reach the summit (weather, altitude, etc..), with up to 6 more days on the back end as a buffer. We thought the walk out would take about two days via the Rio de Vacas trail (the weather cooperated for the most part and we pretty much had it spot on).
For equipment (my packing list and itinerary can be found at the following link...packing list
), we went a bit heavy, knowing in advance that we were using mules and weight wasn't an issue. We took two tents (a Trango 3.1 and an I-tent...used the Trango at basecamp and camp 1...it was later stolen from a cache near Col Ameghino along with a few other things), three stoves (Whisperlite, Reactor, and a Primus OmniFuel...the Reactor for the higher camps and an extra white gas stove in case one broke...make sure you keep the butane canisters warm!!), -25 sleeping bags (overkill I think...0 degree bags would've sufficed), and double boots (only used on summit day, but my feet were still cold). Everything else was fairly standard.
For food, we purchased almost everything we thought we'd need in Anchorage. Ramen noodles, freeze dried backpacking meals, instant rice, instant oatmeal, coffee, tea, etc. In actuality, we would've been able to buy almost everything in Mendoza. So, you pay a little more in baggage and have everything you know you'll want or you wait until you get there and have a little fun in a foreign supermarket...half dozen of one, six of t'other.
Day 0 - Arrive in Los Penitentes - 3 DEC 12
We took a bus from Mendoza to Los Penitentes. The Uspallata bus, bound for Uspallata, Los Pen, and finally Chile, took about four hours to arrive in Los Pen (it stopped once in Uspallata for a few minutes...about half way there) and cost $37 AR pesos. The ride is gorgeous and the two story bus was pretty comfy (I'd recommend the front seats of the bus as it gives an excellent view of the surroundings. One highlight is the Rio Mendoza, which flows along the highway from Embalse Potrerillos (a large reservoir) to Uspallata...the interesting thing about it is that it actually looks like a river composed of liquid chocolate. Reminded me a great deal of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory...very odd.
Representatives from Inka met us at the bus stop in Los Penitentes (the side of the road) with a van and took us to their office (underneath the Hotel Ayelen) so that we could repack our gear for the mule trip. Basically, each mule carries 60KG, 30 on each side. For transport, we used the large duffel bags that we brought along with several milk crates that were provided by Inka. We carried our large backpacks, though many people we saw packed those bags (Inka provided large rice bags for protection) and carried only day packs (as you have access to all of your equipment every evening on the way in). In the end, including our food, fuel, several liters of wine and whiskey, and our gear, we loaded 100KG on the mules, carrying about 10KG on our backs. When we finished re-packing, we began looking for lodging.
Los Pen is pretty darn small, though it has a large hotel (the Ayelen) and several nice hostels. After consulting with our new amigo's from Inka (Damien and Sam and Gabrielle), we decided to walk to the 'Hostelling International Basecamp Penitentes' which is owned and operated by a former climber, Martin. He's knowledgeable about the mountain and speaks English (and Spanish, obviously) quite well. His email and phone number are firstname.lastname@example.org and 54.261.3341.150. We paid $100 AR for lodging and breakfast in the morning. Also, he had a pretty friendly kitten, Lisa, that instantly attached itself to Matt (he hates cats, so I found this quite amusing).
In Los Penitentes, many places only except cash and there are no ATMs! If they do except credit cards, there is an exorbitant fee - 10-20%! Also, there was one little convenience store, though the supply was incredibly limited...don't plan on buying supplies in Penitentes.
Day 1 - Hike On! - Los Penitentes to Pampa de Lenas - 4 DEC 12
This day began with a typical Argentine breakfast - coffee or tea and bread, butter, jam, and dulce de leche. The hostel has a nice little patio, so I took my coffee out there and just absorbed the sun and scenery for awhile. We were supposed to leave at about 8, but our buddies at Inka (they live right next door to the hostel) stopped by to tell us that there was a snag...they had to pick up a sick climber from the Normal Route trail head...the altitude hadn't agreed with him (or maybe he didn't agree with the altitude??). That delayed us by an hour or so, but it didn't make any real difference in the long run.
Inka dropped us off at Punta de Vacas (the trail head for the Polish route) at about 10:00. We checked in with the Park Rangers there and set off on our little walk to Pampa de Lenas. The trail is pretty easy to follow (it's possible to get off trail, but impossible to get lost if you simply continue to follow the river) and decent for walking...there are lots of smallish rocks which can make the going a little slower. All in the all, the ~10 mile walk took about 4.5 hours, though we purposely took it easy as we weren't remotely acclimated to the altitude.
Once at Pampa de Lenas, we checked in with the Rangers and found a nice campsite. Overall, this area has a multitude of large boulders and smaller rocks that serve as windwalls...probably the best protected campsites on the mountain. Our luggage didn't arrive for several more hours, so we piddled around...short hikes and reading and music while we waited. Once our stuff arrived, we set up camp and began making dinner.
As dark was falling, the campsite inhabitants, including the Rangers and mule drivers, gathered around a small fire and had a small Asado. The muleteers had provided some meat (I think) and began serving small bits to us. They were super friendly and the meat tasted amazing (especially compared to our cruddy instant rice and tune, which we hadn't cooked long enough...the rice was still crunchy). Of note, if you bring meat of your own, they're happy to cook it for you.
The night was gorgeous...perfectly clear and dozens of shooting stars. So, our first night out ended pretty damn well...good food, good company, and perfect weather.
On a side note, we spent 30 minutes listening to an Arthur Schopenhauer podcast...trying to decide whether or not the universe is rational is a very strange thing to contemplate on the trail.
Day 2 - Hike On Farther! - Pampa de Lenas to Casa de Piedra - 5 DEC 12
We had breakfast the next morning (the instant oatmeal was still tasting good at this point) and began another ~10 mile walk to Casa de Piedra. It begins with a bridge crossing (interesting bridge) and continues to follow the river upstream, slowly gaining elevation. If you stick to the far right side of the valley once the river bed opens up (it's pretty obvious...the stream bed is huge), there is a small, semi-hidden trail along the hillside which allows you to completely avoid walking through water (we missed it on the walk in, but found it on the way out...much nicer than wet feet and uneven, rocky stream beds). Even if you don't find the trail (or it has crumbled), the stream crossings aren't bad.
Again, we took it easy and arrived at Casa de Piedra in just over 5 hours, checking in with the Rangers and picking out our campsite. The campground here is very open, has very few rocks, and provides almost no protection from the wind, which is often significant.
This time, our luggage beat us and we began setting up camp about the same time we showed up. After that, we piddled again as it was only mid-day. Dinner was uneventful, though fun as we talked with Bert, a German industrialist, and his two IMGA guides, Adrian (his personal Swiss guide) and other Adrian (an Argentine guide that possessed all the necessary beta).
I slept outside this night and suggest you give it a shot...the sky is gorgeous and I saw many more shooting stars. This was the first night the temperature had dropped below freezing, but I was fine using my -25 degree bag...actually just used it as a blanket.
Also, this is the first day you'll catch a glimpse of the goal :)
Day 3 - More Hiking... - Casa de Piedra to Plaza Argentina - 6 DEC 12
We awoke at around 6:00 this morning and began breaking down camp. On this day, the mule drivers had asked that we have our baggage ready to go by 7:30 as they had to make it all the way to Plaza Argentina and then back to Los Penitentes...~40 miles.
We began the hike to base camp (BC) at about 7:45. On this bit of the approach, river crossings are unavoidable and are quite chilly at this time of day. Although we didn't take advantage of the opportunity (mistakenly, we thought it would make the trip more 'authentic' if we stumbled and froze our way across the small, uninspiring river at 8 in the morning), the mule drivers will allow you to ride across the river for about $10 US per person. Eventually, we made it across the river and began making our farther up the Relinchos Valley. The first several miles of the trail are somewhat rough...many ups and downs and unstable trails. There really isn't anything dangerous, but it's not exactly good terrain, either.
After tackling the initial climb, the trail hangs a right with the valley opening up nicely - your objective will be in sight for a large portion of the rest of the day. There is a small stream crossing after the initial climb, but we found a fairly easy rock-hop across (also, it was earlier in the day and the water level was a bit lower).
After several hours of gradual climbing, you'll come to the base of the mountain and stumble upon Plaza Argentina. For the last hour or so, the wind assaulted us with large, prolonged gusts that carried dust, dirt, and small rocks...felt like we were getting shot with a BB gun! First things first, we checked in with the Rangers and then with the good folks at Inka. The Rangers gave us feces bags (honestly, just a plastic shopping bag - if I did this again, I'd purchase a heavy duty bag made specifically for this purpose) with our names on them. Inka gave us garbage bags (the same bags) with our names on them. Our instructions were to bring them back or face a negative sanction. After that, we attempted to check in with the doctor at BC, but he told us to come back the following day at about 11...no issue with that.
At BC there are numerous good places to setup camp. As we used Inka Expeditions, we set up near their tents so that we were near the water and outhouses they provided. The water was easy to get to and it tasted fine - again, we didn't treat, filter, or boil it. As this was a super windy day, we spent many hours securing our campsite and tent. We built a pretty awesome windwall (Matt did most of the building) and then set to guying out the tent (we tied the guy-lines to rocks and then buried those rocks under other rocks). Later in the afternoon, a massive wind gust came through and destroyed several permanent tents and outhouses...at that point, we took the poles out of the tent, put on some warmer clothing, and tried to find some shelter until the wind died out. Finally, it did and we finished setting up our campsite...damn wind.
The wind was still pretty bad during the evening, making it difficult to sleep (by this point, I'd realized that higher altitudes most definitely affected my sleeping in a negative sort of way) as it continued to batter my poor tent. Sometime after midnight, the wind died a bit. This was fairly common pattern, though it didn't happen every night.
While Plaza Argentina is much smaller than Plaza de Mulas, there are plenty of people. Beer can be purchased for around $7 US and meals for something like $40 US (at least at Inka). Internet and sat phones are avialable for use ($10 US for 15 min of internet (computer provided) and something like $1/min US on the sat phone)...there were several companies that had comms...just ask around.
I suggest that campsites are chosen with care and tents are correctly stabilized and guyed out...we used about 12 for our tent. The day we arrived, we experienced apx 70mph wind gusts...two 'permanent' tents were destroyed, two outhouses were knocked over, and multiple backpacking tents (those that were setup correctly appeared to have been fine, while those that were setup in the open and not correctly guyed out got trashed) were demolished. That day, the winds on the summit were over 110 mph. After talking with several people that had been at various locations between BC and the summit, we discovered that winds were equally bad all over - many tents were damaged or destroyed higher up on the mountain. That all being said, some of the guides told us that these were record winds...hopefully it's true and it's usually not that bad.
Day 4 - Rest day/ Exploring the path to Camp 1 (it's the worst part of the climb) - 7 DEC 12
Woke up with a fairly awful headache. Not 100% sure why (I'm fairly sure I didn't drink enough water), but I started pounding water. After a few hours of this, it just sorta went away. Fortunately, on this day, the wind chilled out a bit. We got up late and just kind of stumbled about, eating breakfast and messing with stuff. We knew this was to be a rest day, but we also had a bit of an exercise/acclimatization walk planned. Instead of picking one of the nearby peaks or trails, we decided to walk towards C1 as we were sure to quickly gain elevation (the main point) and we would be able to see the gnarliness yet to come.
The trail from BC to C1 (and the summit) sits right behind and above BC. The initial climb, from BC to the 'minefield', is not fun. The trail is crumbly and sometimes steep; except for one short section, the trail stays on the left side of the drainage (it's filled with snow and ice and water and penitentes). Anyhow, once you make it to the 'minefield', the trail mellows out for a bit. It can be somewhat confusing to navigate the actual trail, but there are cairns (rock piles) at various locations (really though, if you get 'lost' just keep heading towards the very-much visible trail ahead of you).
We turned around at the far side of the 'minefield' (took us about 1.5 hours to get there, carrying only a bit of water and a candy bar, and about 30 minutes to get back down) and headed back to BC with no issues. Other than dinner and random camp stuff, there isn't much else to say.
Day 5 - Carry to Col Ameghino (the Awful Trail, with weight) - 8 DEC 12
Woke up feeling fine. Made some breakfast...gloppy, instant oatmeal (by this point, I was starting to have issues eating it). Drank some water and coffee. Got more water from the folks at Inka. Used the Inka WC. General breakfast camp activities.
When we made our initial itinerary, we weren't sure what this day would be...rest, move, or carry? In the end, we decided to make it a carry, though not to C1. We packed up our stuff...food for the back end of the trip (days 14-18, our down and other summit day clothing, fuel and stove, and a few other things). Our packs probably weighed around 30-40 pounds, though it might be a little less. We started hiking sometime before noon.
The day started out well and I quickly reached the end of the 'minefield', but after that, everything started to go downhill. The reason? Me. I didn't eat or drink enough as I was moving; also, I thought I was better acclimated than I actually was. I tried to push it (as I often do back home) and it cost me big time. Oh well...I kept on.
Once on the far side of the mine field, you are at the worst section of trail (excepting the Canaleta)...a ridiculous pile of scree, dirt, and crap. There is a trail to follow (sort of), but it's not stable; it is better than the other, non-trail parts of the hill...barely. Follow the trail for a ways and it'll eventually take you up to C1...crossing over more scree and then bordering a small drainage (it's frozen in the mornings and I think it would almost be worth breaking out the crampons...). Eventually, after stumbling and sliding my way up the trail, I made it to C1. Not gonna lie, I was pretty smoked.
Once there, I promptly sat down and took a 15 minute break...having a much needed snickers and some water. The rest was nice, but it certainly didn't last long enough. The trail from C1 to Col Ameghino is actually pretty nice. The lower section is switchbacked (this is easily visible from the 'minefield') and the upper section is a fairly stable trail...it's probably about 1000 ft in total. As I slowly made my way up the trail, Matt, who had already reached the Col, dug a rock-hole, and had a nice break, met me at about the halfway point (from C1 to the Col). As we had previously discussed (he's much faster than I), we split my load and continued to the top of the Col.
Again, Matt made it to the top faster. When I arrived, Matt had our little rock hole dug out again and was waiting for the stuff I was carrying. We had 'borrowed' several rice bags from BC and used these as storage in the cache. After the rice bags were packed, we buried them in the rocks (I suggest caution when choosing cache locations as not everyone on the mountain is honorable (one of our cache's was pilfered later on)). The location Matt had picked was just south of the actual saddle...next to some large, exposed rocks just off of the trail (it's fairly easy to find this place as it's the first non-scree bit of anything). We were told by some guides that this was a fairly common cache location and, while still somewhat uneasy, we decided to use it. Once complete, we started back down. From the Col, the trail heads far to the climbers left (while looking down towards BC), not taking a straight line down to C1. If you're feeling froggy, scree-ski straight down to C1...it's fun and saves time and the knees.
We made it back to BC with no issue and went about the normal evening routine...more blah food and lots of water and electrolytes (I was pretty exhausted after this 8 hour day). The weather was nice enough (slight breeze and warmish)...I laid in the sun for awhile and attempted to nap, though I never actually fell asleep. We went to bed after dark.
Day 6 - Move to Camp 1 (the Awful Trail, for the last time) - 9 DEC 12
We decided this was the day to move to C1. We woke up early-ish and had some breakfast and coffee and whatnot. After that, we broke camp and packed everything we didn't want to take higher in our duffel bags. Once they were packed, we handed them off to the good folks at Inka and told them we'd be back in a few days...fairly standard practice.
So, with slightly heavier packs than we had the day before (we had 4-5 days of food, a heavy tent, and various other things), we began our way up to C1. After my fairly disastrous day before, I knew I needed to take it easy and eat and drink lots. So, I did and things were, if not faster, much more comfortable. Also, I was happy with the knowledge that this was the last time I'd have to ascend this awful piece of trail!
So, eventually, I made it to C1. Matt, again, beat me and had scouted out a couple of campsite locations. After some deliberation, we decided to use a campsite that was at the upper edge of C1, several hundred meters higher. We did this for several reason: 1. it put us farther up the mountain; 2. it was within several meters of running water (once it thawed); 3. it put us above almost every other climbing group, ensuring the water would be a little cleaner. The site we picked had a fairly giant boulder as a backstop, which was perfect for blocking some of the crazy wind. Also, we spent several hours leveling and building and whatnot...Matt actually found a metal shovel and set about the construction with a vengeance. In the end, we had a pretty stellar tent site and we were confident that we could weather all but the most extreme wind.
Anyhow, once that was complete, we started making dinner. Awesomely for us, before we'd made it to the actual cooking part, two different guided groups offered us leftovers! The first group (a guide and one climber from California) gave us some leftover pasta; the second group (an Argentine guide from Mendoza, Luco, with a half dozen Germans) gave us the remainder of some stir-fry...so tasty! Anyhow, after dinner, we got the weather forecast about 7:00 (most guides carry radio's and get the nightly weather report) and it looked like the 13th was going to be the best day to attempt the summit due to the wind.
After that, we called it a night and retired to the tent (the Trango). Sadly, the wind kept up for quite some time (Rather STRONGLY) and neither Matt or I slept well at all! Eventually, we drifted off (kinda) and morning came.
Day 7 - Carry to Guanacos (aka Camp 3...where's Camp 2??) - 10 DEC 12
The night prior, the weather report said that the wind would die down sometime in the late morning or early afternoon. That being the case, we attempted to sleep in. There wasn't much sleeping going on (the wind sucked and I still wasn't well acclimated). In the late morning, we arose and went about the morning camp activities. We left sometime after noon, carrying basically empty packs as we were going to pick up our cache at the top of Col Ameghino.
The walk up wasn't awful as I'd had another day to acclimate and wasn't carrying any weight. We quickly passed six or so climbers (they looked quite sad until they realized we weren't carrying any weight) and made it to the cache in less than an hour. Once there, we uncovered our equipment, repacked it, and began our walk to Guanacos. The way is easy: at the top of the Col, if you take a sharp left (the trail actually splits before you reach the true summit of the Col) you'll be moving towards Polish Camp; if you continue on the trail over the Col, towards the north side of Aconcagua, you'll be walking towards Guanacos. There are only two options.
Of all the trail sections on this route, this is probably the most pleasant. The trail is stable and fairly hard-packed; it's a traverse, so the elevation gain is minimal, and you get to walk through a snowfield. Overall, maybe 1-1.5 hours to get to Guanacos from the Col.
Once at Guanacos, we ran into a guided party that we'd met at BC several days prior, led by Joe Butler from Mountain Trip. They were planning to leave the next day, so they agreed to let us cache our supplies in their site, guaranteeing the safety of our stuff and a pretty nice campsite when we showed up the next day (they were camped just across the 'creek' that ran through camp...snow and ice melt)! Anyhow, we unpacked our stuff and chilled for a little while, chatting with the folks at the campsite. After an hour or so, we decided to head back down and we booked it back to C1. We weren't in any particular hurry...just wanted to see how long it would take if we hurried; I made it in just over an hour.
Once back at camp, things were pretty normal. Just chilled and ate and drank. Again, we got some free food...Luco's group gave us each a quesadilla! The weather report, received at 7:00, said basically the same thing as the report from the day before...the 13th was going to be our day. After getting the weather, we called it quits for the day and retired to the tent. The wind was much less on this evening, though I still didn't sleep well. Damn altitude!
For the first few days of our trip we'd thought to try the Polish Traverse, but we changed our minds after speaking with several different guides that had been there before. They said, considering the amount of wind that was predicted, we'd be better off going the Guanacos route because the campsites were more protected from the wind. That being said, it was still pretty windy. Another consideration is the altitude of the various camps...Polish camp is at ~18,300 ft, without another camp between there and the summit. Guanacos is at ~18,450 ft, with Camp Cholera (at ~19,500 ft) along the way to the summit. If you are worried about wind or acclimatizing, then I'd say that Guanacos is the way to go.
Day 8 - Move to Guanacos - 11 DEC 12
So, we woke up this day and not much had changed. We had breakfast (not so awesome), it was kinda windy, and we waited for the 'stream' to thaw enough to get some water. In the meantime, we broke camp and packed up another cache (this one was to be left side of C1...we stored it at the base of a large rockfall/scravalanche on the west side of C1 at base of a 'canyon' in the cliff face). Eventually, we left and hiked back up to Col Ameghino.
Again, Matt was out in front and, as we had previously discussed, he found another cache location. The cache contained my Trango 3.1, Matt's Primus stove w/ fuel as well as a few other things. The reasoning behind this cache was that, if the tent or stove we were bringing with us got trashed somehow, we had a replacement within quick reach (this came back to bite us in the ass). We linked back up on the far side of the Col and continued towards Guanacos. For reasons unknown, I had been having trouble keeping my hands warm (I'm sure it had something to do with the altitude and the high winds) and this day was proving to be one of those times. Regardless, cold hands didn't prevent me from making Guanacos (I mean, seriously?), but I did have trouble using numb fingers to set camp. Lucky for me, a kind guide gave me a Nalgene full of boiling water and after 5-10 minutes, full feeling returned to my poor hands...heh.
After arriving at Guanacos, we started setting camp (after my sissy, traitorous hands thawed) and soon had the I-tent anchored and guyed out. After the tent was done, we organized the rest of our stuff and then set out for a carry (a bit of food and fuel) to Camp Cholera...it was supposed to be more for acclimatization than actual gear/equipment movement. I made about 50 meters and, as we started up the hill out of Guanacos, turned around when my head started pounding. Matt, however, continued on while I went back to the tent to nap. I rolled around in the tent during the two hours it took him, not really sleeping, but enjoying the warmth and lack of wind. By the time he got back, I had chugged a couple liters of water and my head was pretty much back to normal (again, I can't stress how much of an impact water had on how I felt...when I drank water in excess, I had ZERO
That evening, nothing of any real importance happened and we went about our normal evening camp duties. In camp, at least at this time of year, water is easy to come by; there is a large snow/ice field directly above the camp (no AVI danger) and it is generally running by about noon. Again, we didn't filter, boil, or treat the water from this location and have had no negative repercussions. Tomorrow, we'd be moving to Cholera.
Day 9 - Move to Camp Cholera (The Name is Creepy, Though We Didn't Get Sick) - 12 DEC 12
So, we had a fairly short day ahead of us, though Matt had told me that the end of the trail was a bit rough. We woke up not too early and went about normal breakfast things. By this point, instant oatmeal was making me fairly nauseous, but I was in luck because we'd switched to dehydrated meals. So, we ate breakfast and packed up our gear. The water in the stream started running around noon, so we waited until then, filled our bottles up, and took off.
The first bit of the trail out of camp is quite steep, but it quickly levels out and continues around the side of the mountain. After an hour or two, we came to the end of the trail. The last bit is steep and switchbacked (even some of the porters were having trouble), though it tops out at Cholera. Needless to say, I was quite happy to get to the top.
Once at camp, we picked a campsite (Matt had actually 'claimed' it the day before with a small cache). For the most part, there is no protection from the wind at Cholera because it blows from all directions at once...it's wild. It'll blow steadily in one direction for a few seconds and then swirl around in a circle for a bit and then blow in the other direction (makes choosing the correct direction to pee somewhat troublesome ;)). Anyhow, we set up our I-tent and started going about camp activities. Then, we ran into the first trouble we'd experienced.
The only stove we brought to Cholera was an MSR Reactor with some propane/butane canisters. What we really screwed up was not keeping the canisters warm beforehand as well as not cooking/melting in the warmest place possible (inside our tent). So, because we didn't keep the canisters warm (we didn't know then what we'd done wrong), we couldn't keep the damn stove going and, as the day turned to night, we couldn't even get the thing lit. So, we spent damn hours fiddling with our stove. We enlisted the aid of a couple of Germans that were there as well as Joe Butler (he and the two folks with him had summited earlier that day and were spending the night at Cholera). None of this was helpful and we were sucking for water. And dinner. We hadn't dinner eaten yet.
Fortunately for us, Joe had three Whisperlite's with him (it would appear that guides know a thing or two). That being so, he let us borrow one, with the understanding that we would link up once we made it to Mendoza and return his property. Initially had some issues with the borrowed Whisperlite, so that ate up another hour or so, but we finally got it going. By the time we were finally able to get a stove up and running, it was later...about 9:00. And it was cold...about 10 F. And Windy. Also, by this time we were pretty damn frustrated and, after melting several liters worth of snow, we called it a night, despite not having eaten dinner. Big mistake...
So, to sum up the mistakes we made: 1. we didn't fully understand the limitations of the stove we had with us (keeping the canisters warm enough and cooking in a warmer spot); 2. we fiddled around in the cold and wind for several hours, burning valuable calories - we should've gotten in the tent; 3. we got frustrated while dealing with the stove; 4. once we got it working, we pretty much said screw it and went to bed without eating dinner or drinking enough water, despite knowing how important these things were. So, without realizing it, we about killed our bid for the summit.
Day 10 - Summit, sleep at Camp Cholera - 13 DEC 12
So, this is day the we decided to go for the gold. The night before, we discussed what time we should try to leave and settled on about 5:00 in the morning. As it worked out, we woke up (not that we really were able to sleep above 19,000 ft) at about 4:15 and immediately set to melting snow. We were a bit smarter this time - during the night, I cuddled with one of the fuel canisters; also, we decided to use the stove inside the tent. Those two choices paid dividends and we were able to get the stove going with no problem. Even so, it took about 40 minutes to melt 3 liters of water. Another mistake we made - we didn't eat breakfast, as we had done every other day so far (if you're counting at home, that makes for two skipped meals in a row in the hours before our most stressful and physically demanding day...luckily for us, there isn't an IQ test associated with climbing Aconcagua).
Despite our idiocy, we left camp just after five in the morning. It was cold, but the wind wasn't awful. I was wearing damn near every piece of clothing I'd brought, except for my puff pants...not a big fan of layers on my legs. The trail basically heads straight up out of camp, working through various switchbacks and initially moving off to the left. We made it up to Independencia after several hours and were pretty tired. The lack of food and water was really affecting us...we were moving soooo sssllllloooooowwwwwwww. Whatev's. We rested at the busted hut for 10-15 minutes...drank some water and ate some snacks.
After the respite, we started again. The trail from the hut (at least when I was there), first moves through a small snowfield (maybe 10-15 meters)...crampons weren't required. From there, we moved to a long traverse, partially through a snow/ice field that was easily the windiest place we'd traveled through on this trip (the western side of the mountain, facing Plaza de Mulas). As we were approaching the larger snow/ice field, we encountered several large groups of people that turned around because of cold and wind. They warned us that it was too cold and too windy...that we'd not make it. We decided to give it a go and, honestly, it wasn't all that bad. That being said, I was completely covered...goggles and fully zipped hood and Alti-mitts...no exposed skin for the wind to bite. We were through the field and at the base of the Canaleta after a few hours...no biggie. It was still pretty damn cold.
Once at the Canaleta, we rested for about 30 minutes. We needed it. After resting, we ditched most of our gear at the base and started up. Talk about a horrible part of the Earth! Why in the world is there scree at 22,000 ft? And it's not your average baseball sized loose rocks. Noooooo, it's big boulders and little pea gravel and everything in between and nothing is STABLE!!! Why?? UGH! Enough whining. Anyhow, while I was there, the far right side of the of the Canaleta had a little bit of snow and ice which helped to stabilize it a bit...it's the route I chose. It took about two hours to get up that damn, slippery route (not ice, just horrible scree).
So, we finally made it to the summit. It's pretty large...maybe 100m x 100m. We took several pictures and walked around and looked at stuff a bit. There are some pretty cool crosses and several other mementos signifying the climbs of other groups. So, twenty minutes or so later, we began our descent. The Canaleta is absolutely worse on the way down than the way up. For the most part, other than some random slips and falls due to crappy trail, the descent was uneventful and we slowly made our way back down to Camp Cholera.
We arrived mid-afternoon. It took us 11.5 hours to get up and down...not very good. In comparison, one of the guided groups, that we'd continually blown by the entire trip, summited several hours quicker than we did. That, I'm fairly certain, is what happens when you don't eat dinner or breakfast and only drink about 1/3 as much water as you had on every other day before that...oops. The good thing is that we made it safely...nothing else really matters.
Anyhow, once back, we napped for a bit, not sure if we were going to spend the night at Cholera or head down in the morning. As it turned out, we didn't leave that night. That evening was pretty windy and cooking looked like it was going to be cold process. Fortunately for me, as I was beginning to cook, I saw the German team come out of the permanent shelter that sits at Camp Cholera (it is a metal, prefab hut named Elena, after an Italian climber that died after summiting). Ordinarily, the hut is locked and is only to be used in case of emergency. I don't know why, but it was quite unlocked
on this cold, blustery evening...serendipity I guess. Either way (I'm not sure what way's I'm referring too...), I decided that I'd rather cook in a wind protected shelter rather than freeze in the swirling wind outside my tent. Sadly, the inside of the shelter was already pretty trashed out...things weren't broken or anything like that, but it sure wasn't clean...lots of trash and empty fuel canisters and things like that. Despite the lack of cleanliness, I made ample use of the shelter. So, my post-summit evening was spent melting snow and cooking dinner. Not exactly sexy, but it worked.
Biggest lesson learned from my trip...drink water and eat food! No matter how tired you get, take the time to procure enough water and cook some dinner. In not doing so, we damn near didn't make it to the top. That would've been a pretty awful reason not to summit.
Regardless, WE MADE IT!!!!!!
Day 11 - Camp Cholera to Casa de Piedra - 14 DEC 12
So, woke up this morning feeling pretty blah. Our goal had been achieved and all I really wanted was a shower, a drink, and a soft bed...I hadn't slept well for over a week. Anyhow, we woke up and cooked a small bit of breakfast...granola I think. We packed up our stuff and started the walk back down. Everything was very much uneventful...until we made it to the one remaining cache we had. As usual, Matt was in the lead...he made it to the cache first. When I saw him, several minutes after he'd arrived, I knew that something was wrong.
Our cache location was in some sort of of unnamed campsite past Col Ameghino. It is farther along than Col Ameghino and slightly to the right of the trail as your walking to Guanacos. When we placed the cache, we thought it would be a safe, easy to access location. As it turns out, we were half right. My Trango 3.1 and Matt's Primus stove, fuel bottle, and BD gloves were all stolen. Fortunately, we didn't actually need any of that stuff any longer as we still had a tent and were on the way back down to much warmer weather. Sucks to lose the money, but, considering that was the worst thing that happened on inter-continental mountain climbing trip, I don't think it matters all that much.
Anyhow, we made it back down to BC at about 4:00. Chilled for a bit and then began repacking our stuff for the mule ride back to Penitentes. After a couple hours at BC, we began to get bored. That being so, we decided to make our way down to Casa de Piedre that evening rather than spending the night at BC. So, away we went.
The walk down was pretty uneventful, though I got a little off trail once I entered the Relinchos Valley (this is somewhat funny as the valley is only a few hundred meters wide at points...I missed the trail by not going high enough along the side of the valley, rather than going to far to one side or the other). Being the smart guy that I am, I decided to attempt some free climbing rather than backtracking. So, in my tennis shoes and 10KG pack, I decided to climb along the side of the river, to the next bit of trail I could see. If I'd fallen, I'd of landed in water of an unknown depth amongst rocks that I really couldn't see...basically, it would've sucked pretty bad. Regardless of the self-imposed danger, nothing went wrong on my 5.2 free climb and I continued on to camp, feeling pretty good about myself...
Matt and I decided that there was no real reason to setup the tent this evening. There were some clouds in the sky, but we reasoned that we were in a desert and it seldom rained so the odds were in our favor...we were right. After cooking some dinner and conducting random evening camp activities, we got the sleeping bags out and slept under the stars...it was gorgeous!
Day 12 - Casa de Piedra to Lost Penitentes - 15 DEC 12
Finally, the last day of the trip. We both slept the best we had in over a week...pretty sure it was losing 11,000 ft of elevation that really helped. To reach a wee bit of civilization, all I had to do was walk 20ish miles over semi-rough terrain w/ 20ish pounds on my back. So, I started walking. Some 8.5 hours later, I reached the ranger station where my trip began. I was done for...exhausted and sunburned and sore.
For the most part, the walk was quite uneventful. I made it back and Matt (who, again, finished before me) met me with a truck, one of the Inka guides, and a giant bottle of juice...good reception. We headed back to the Ayelen Hotel, the largest and nicest (and maybe the only) hotel in town (kind of reminds me of The Shining) and I took one of the crappiest showers of my life. The water was tepid and the pressure was pretty much non-existent. Even so, it was exquisite, as I was feeling pretty rough...the amount of dirt that came out of my hair was pretty amazing (pretty sure the dirt had been deposited in my hair the day we arrived at BC amid the wind event)!
We had some food at the hotel that evening...quite tasty. After dinner, we went over to the Inka dudes' abode and had a small asado...I was wicked full, but they provided some great food and some Fernet and coke (Fernet is actually an Italian liqueur that has a strong anise flavor...Argentina has adopted the drink). After two dinners and some alcohol, sleep was in order and we made our way back to the hotel.
Day 13 - Back to Mendoza - 16 DEC 12
Woke up still full from all the food I'd eaten the night before. The bus wasn't to leave until the early afternoon, so we weren't in any hurry. We had some breakfast and then worked on repacking all of our equipment. Without the food, I was able to get everything into two bags, rather than the three I'd used on the way down...much better. The bus showed up as it was scheduled and we boarded, thankful that we were on the way to a slightly (exaggeration) larger town. The ride was uneventful and we found ourselves at the bus station several hours later.
Once in town, we decided to stay at the Executive Hotel...one of the nicest in town (about $140 US per night). We figured that we deserved to be pampered a bit. So, we got all settled in and made contact with Joe. He picked a tasty restaurant and we went out for steaks and Malbec's that evening...a perfect way to end the day.
Overall, this trip was a success. We made it home in one piece with no injuries. We summited (actually one day earlier than we'd initially planned). I spent the remainder of my six days in Mendoza drinking wine and eating massive, tasty steaks.
I've attempted to address all of the questions that I had before I began my trip. Hopefully, I've answered all of the questions you may have as well. If not, please send me a note and I'll be happy to answer any questions that you may have.