December 29, 2006 to January 10, 2007.
CSU-Expedition Pat Rastall (Expedition leader), Jan Rastall (Expedition Co-leader), Seth Webb (Expedition Co-Leader), Erik Beke, Kathryn Damby, Austin Krcmarik, Kirstin Nelson, Greg Newman, Megan Voiles, James Werning, Andrew Zimmerman, Jordan White (Jcwhite)
Vacas Valley to the Relinchos Valley, and the false polish route, with a traverse to and descent of the Horcones valley via plaza de mulas.
Day 1 -- 12/29/06
Well after making all of our preparations in Mendoza Argentina, and having driven to Penitentes the night before, everyone was very ready to get on the trail and start hiking.
Part of our expedition was an agreement with a professor named Francisco at the University in Mendoza. We were supposed to do some trash clean up at the entrance to the park as well as at our camp at 19,200. So as we piled out of our bus at the trailhead, we grabbed the latex gloves and the huge black trash bags.
In just about 10 minutes we had filled multiple bags, and carried larger items out to the pile.
After doing our cleaning duties, we threw on the day packs (mules had the heavy stuff), and we were off.
The trees in this picture are the last ones you see the entire time on the trail.
It was brutally hot, I didn’t have a thermometer but it was easily in the upper 90’s and anytime we got high enough out of the Vacas valley to receive a breath of wind, it was absolutely a blessing.
Today was a short day milage wise as we walked from our starting point at 7700 ft to 8850 ft at Las Lenas in a short 5 miles. Our mules didn’t catch us during the day, which was strange as they normally move much faster than us. Our Argentine friends showed up a couple hours after us and informed us that a large mudslide had gone down right behind them on one of the slopes and had trapped our mules on the other side of a rapidly forming pool of water. At this point the sun had gone down and it was rapidly cooling down in the valley, and most of our group was without any real warm clothes. But after sharing clothes with fellow climbers and sharing some food with the muleteers that were already there, our mules came trotting into camp, having climbed thousands of feet up and around the slide to get to us. We all cheered and were happy to have all of our stuff for the night.
Day 2 -- 12/30/06
Well today started out just as the day before had….HOT.
We walked about ten minutes out of camp and came to the first suspension bridge. I had crossed the bridge when I was asked to turn around and get in a group picture on the bridge. Well lets just say that 10 people on an Argentine suspension bridge is never a good idea, as we learned…the hard way. As the last of us stepped onto the bridge with a couple of our leaders on the side taking pictures, suddenly I felt the bridge begin to collapse under our weight, and immediately jumped to the side of the raging river only to see three of our team mates get washed away by the current while 4 or 5 people were stuck hanging onto the bridge for dear life. Having seen someone else running to help the people who were washed downstream, I went to help the people stuck on the bridge out. After counting heads and making sure we had everyone, we started attending to people who had gotten wet. We had seven of our members on the uphill side of the bridge while the other five were on the downhill side. While no one was seriously injured, there were several bumps and bruises, and one very swollen bumped knee.
Here is the bridge before.
We had waited around for a couple hours for the rest of our group who would now have to cross by mule. And finally reunited everyone was grateful to see each other. We continued our day from there after having let the other groups as well as the park service there know what had happened. (By the way before we left, one of the mule outfitters had already fixed the bridge, albeit a Jerry rigged version)
Today was a longer mileage day than the first day. We needed to travel from 8,850 to 10,500 at Casa de Piedra, and it was an 11 mile hike to get there. This is the day you get your first view of the mountain. When you are about ¼ mile away from camp, your come around a bend and you see the false view, and a few steps later you see Cerro Aconcagua in all her glory. We stopped and took a couple pictures, but the consensus seemed to be that every one was pretty ready to be at camp, so we went ahead and moved on towards camp, and set up. (As a side note, we used our Bivy sacks until base camp, as it made camp easier, and it was relatively warm.)
Here is the false view.
And here is the real view.
Day 3 -- 12/31/06
Well today is the day that we got to take our left-hand turn and head up the Relinchos valley towards basecamp. Today would be a 9 mile day going from 10,500 ft to 13, 800 ft at Plaza Argentina. There is no bridge at this point to cross the Rio de Vacas, and most everyone crosses on mules, although some will simply ford the river on foot as it is rather wide and shallower at this point. We opted for mules.
About the time I got past the crossing and was waiting for the rest of our group (I was 2nd out of 12), the sun hit, and after a chillier morning it felt good. About 45 min to an hour after the first of our group crossed, the last of our group was across and we were on our way up the Relinchos Valley. This felt great to really feel like we were going uphill and gaining altitude towards our summit.
We arrived at base camp in early afternoon and after setting up tents, our tent group was hungry enough to go ahead and cook, so we made ourselves some good ol’ beans and rice. (If I never have to eat beans and rice on the trail again I will be a happy man.) After eating our requisite liter of beans and rice, we had a relaxing afternoon playing cards and hanging out with each other.
Pat had an idea to see who could come up with the best “camp stove” dessert. Although no decision was really made, some interesting dishes came out.
Well if you forgot by the date above, this is New Years. So what do you do on New Years? Well first off, you stay up until midnight and countdown and scream Happy New Years and what not. Well tonight James revealed a 750 mL flask of Peppermint Schnapps. What would go better with hot chocolate than that? I imagine that I had not more than 1-2 shots worth of this that night, but I’ll tell you what, alcohol at altitude is horrible. I woke up with a headache from that small amount! Well after listening to a few Argentines yell and having fireworks going off at a typical Argentine time of 15 minutes late, everyone headed to bed.
Day 4 -- 1/1/07
Well there isn’t a whole lot to say about today, because we used it as a rest day, and just hung out around base camp. People read books, listened to Ipods (this is the last time Ipod’s worked for altitude reasons….dead weight), Erik, James and I went out into the huge magnificent basin next to camp and threw around the Frisbee that I brought, around. Afterwards we went exploring and found what could without a doubt be the cleanest and best tasting (or lack thereof) water I have ever had.
We brought back enough for the expedition and later that night Andy and I went back to the spring again for more. Our leaders had decided to walk up to our first camp to check out conditions and camping space. Well after sitting around and watching distant lightning and the nearly full moon, it was time to go to bed and get ready for our carry the next day.
Day 5 -- 1/2/07
Well we made a habit of never being on the trail much before 8 and this day was no exception as we left around 9 am for our carry up to our first camp at 16,500 ft. The day before our leaders had done the climb in about 3.5 hrs, and expected that with full packs it could take us in the vicinity of 5-6 hrs, however the group seemed up to the challenge and as I recall we made the climb in more like 4 hours…way to go team!!
The climb started out as a switch backing trail, and soon there was a steep scree field to navigate, which we found a better way on the way down, through some penitentes (sun blasted snow mini mountains).
From there the route takes you up and over glacier moraine and finally the last 1000 feet or so is straight up a penitente snow field. The snow field topped out at the lower camp 1, we opted to climb the extra 2-300 feet to the upper camp and stashed some gear, reserving some spots. We headed back down to base camp after about an hour at camp 1 and after crossing the tricky section towards the bottom, we were home free.
Here is a view looking back across the glacial moraine.
And here is a view up the final snow field.
One of our members, had a cold a little bit before we left the USA and today it seemed to come back and he started to have some major trouble breathing. He went to see the camp doctor at base camp who after hearing fluid in his lungs, decided it best for him to head down and out. A helicopter was coming in the following morning and the doctor said he could fly out with him.
Well that night I slept like a rock in preparation for our move the next day.
Day 6 -- 1/3/07
Well there isn’t much to say about the route today, because it is the exact same as yesterday. However there were some kinks thrown in today. Because one of our members had been evacuated this morning by helicopter, we needed to somehow take his equipment back down to the mules at basecamp so it could be transported out.
Andy and myself had volunteered for the job and so when we reached the flatter moraine we took off ahead of the group so that we could get to camp and have a little rest time before we headed back down with the cashed load. We arrived at camp 1 about ½ hour ahead of the group and unloaded our packs, and began to sort through the equipment that needed to go down. As the group showed up, it seemed that some people had some stuff they probably didn’t need and opted to send it down with us. After packing our packs we made off down the mountain at a very fast pace. We got down to base camp in about 1hr 4 min and after packing all the stuff into one pack for transport and having some free tea from one of the guiding companies, we were ready to go. Just as I walked out of the tent, I suddenly became very nauseous. I ran towards the bathroom (outhouse) but vomited outside…”Man that was weird” I thought. I walked up the hill a little ways to where Andy was and told him what had happened…suddenly I felt bad again and repeated the same process. Finally I said, “well I think I’m done with that.” Andy simply said, “Well, you ready to go?” “Sure am” and we were off.
As we were walking out of base camp it looked as though a storm was brewing up high, and sure enough as we contacted camp on the radios they said it was snowing up there. The entire way down we kept telling people that we had “forgotten our honey” so we were headed down to get it. But when we passed the same people going up as we had on the way down it started to just be funny. We made it back to camp in 2 hrs 16 min with our empty packs and heavy motivation to beat what could potentially be a bad storm. Dinner was just about ready when we got back, as were hot drinks, and after eating and drinking we both passed out for the night. Well the evacuated climber had been in the tent that I shared with James as well. Well we got rid of some food today, and after that, it seemed our packs wouldn’t grow too much more.
Day 7 -- 1/4/07
Well after yesterday, my body was tired, and I didn’t feel all that great. The team decision however, was to carry to camp 3. Now you are asking why camp 3? Weren’t you just at camp 1? Well the answer is yes. Because everyone seemed to be acclimatizing relatively well to altitude we opted to skip camp 2 at 17,500 ft and go straight to camp 3 at 19,200 ft. This is a huge move and a tiring one at that. My legs were just not quite ready for it this day, but slow pacing and summit fever I suppose, kept me going. The route follows a beaten trail all the way to camp, but involves steep switchbacks all the way.
When we reached camp, we cashed our loads, and rather than head down, we did our camp clean up today. We carried probably close to if not more than 100 lbs of trash down the mountain.
I will say about this day, I had one of the worst headaches of my life when we arrived at camp 3, and I was more than ready to go down for the night.
On the way down.
Day 8 -- 1/5/07
Rest day at 16, 500
Day 9 -- 1/6/07
Today we got up and moved to camp 3 at 19, 200 ft. We packed up our camp and headed up the route. Today I was feeling absolutely on top of my game and ready to go. Since everyone had been up the route to camp, and since it is straightforward, we all hiked at our own paces, with one regrouping point around 17,500. I felt good all day and had some fun going at my own pace and passing French Canadian “mega” groups. After arriving at camp, we cleared our tent site of rocks and flattened it out a bit and set up our camp for the night. During early afternoon a storm came in that involved heavy winds and blowing snow. We spent most of the afternoon into the evening tent bound playing cards and resting.
Tonight was the least I slept at any point during our trip. I had a splitting, throbbing, and horribly painful headache almost the entire night.
Day 10 -- 1/7/07
Well we woke up today and the wind was still blowing and it was still snowing.
It was a blustery cold outside and when the weather finally calmed down around noon we had a team meeting. Even though it was late in the day, we didn’t have far to go if we wanted to move to the next camp. In the end everyone opted to head to White Rocks which was our camp 4 and was only a mere 200 feet above us at about 19,400. We headed across the scree field to a switchbacking trail that heads up just below white rocks and climbs the last 100-150 ft to our final camp.
Being at white rocks put us in a good situation, because now we could complete our goal which was to traverse to the other side of the mountain, and we were in a position to do this now, even if we didn’t summit.
We set up camp and began the practice of melting snow for water, which at 19,400 will test even the most patient person. It is very hard to stay totally hydrated at this point.
After the lack of sleep last night for myself, I slept absolutely great tonight which, was good because tomorrow is our summit day.
The climb and DescentDay 11 -- 1/8/07
Well today is a big day, its summit day.
We awoke around 6 AM and started melting snow and making hot drinks and water for the day. After all preparations were made and everyone was ready, we left camp around 8:20 AM.
The route starts by heading up some switchbacks through plenty of scree. As soon as we found ourselves in the sun we took a food break, as well as some time to warm-up some toes that weren’t in great shape yet. After this break we continued up to Independencia Hut at 20, 997 ft. and took one more food and water break here.
From the hut we climbed about 200 ft and found ourselves on the Windy Crest and soon after the Gran Acarreo, which Pat had nick-named “the hypothermia traverse.”
This is just a slightly inclined traverse to the base of misery…er… I mean the canaleta. The caneleta is a 1300 ft chute that is about 33 degrees and is filled with nasty loose rock that will test every ounce of your patience and strength.
After having this behind us we arrived at the small traverse that goes between the south summit which is lower and the northern summit. About 15 minutes later we arrived about 10 feet below the summit. At this point we stopped and waited for the group to regroup, and allowed the person who came up last, go to the summit first and so on in reverse order.
We were all on the summit somewhere between 12:30 and 1 PM. We arrived on the summit to find that there was not a breath of wind. After taking pictures and hanging out for a while.
Andy carried a kite “trevor” all the way to the summit, and there was no wind to fly it with. I pulled out the Frisbee I had carried all the way to the top. I had a couple people videotaping and I threw it off the south face of the peak towards a neighboring mountain. With so little air resistance the disc flew for miles, and out of sight. Sounds like an exaggeration, but it went out of sight.
We headed down the route and on to our camp below. Andy and I arrived ahead of the group and began boiling our water to rehydrate after a draining day. As soon as I had eaten and had some water, it was time to pass out, but not before we watched another absolutely unreal sunset from 19, 400 ft.
Day 12 -- 1/9/07
I woke up this morning with a splitting headache and upon walking out of my tent found my vision very hazy. After telling my tent mate James, he relayed the info to our leaders. At this point Pat came over with his bottle of Diamox. Regrettably I took my first Diamox of the trip this morning before we left to go down. All I could find myself doing until we left was laying on my side clutching my head.
I’m not sure whether the Diamox helped me, but it surely made me tingle in my cheeks, and in my feet. In fact it drove me crazy all the way into the next day.
I think the main cure for how I was feeling was to first of all get some water into my system, and second to go down. By the time we got to base camp Plaza de Mulas at about 14,000 ft, I was feeling like a new man.
And as soon as we were done running down the scree from 19, 400 all the way to 14, 000 we saw the signs that said “coke and beer.” I couldn’t decide which sounded better, but by the end of the night we had both along with a pizza and a real cooked meal with beef stew, carne, and mashed potatoes. (THANKS a bunch James.) After hanging out in the sun the rest of the day and watching the sun go down, we went to bed in our bivy sacks again.
Day 13 -- 1/10/07
Well today we get to put on just our day packs again and we are walking 16 miles down to the park entrance.
Most of the walking is through a huge basin over lots of river rock, and many shallow river crossings.
Along the way we found a huge rock in the middle of the basin that provided some bouldering entertainment.
We continued the rest of the way out and after checking out, we headed for the van that would take us to penitentes.
About half hour later we were in penitentes and eating lomitos or steak sandwiches that you will learn to love, and drinking beer after beer after beer.
Eventually when our bus was ready we walked out of the restaurant with an excited Ole…Ole, Ole, Ole…Ole….Ole. And got in the bus for the 4 hour drive to Mendoza where we arrived around 1 am.
That shower might have been the most anticipated shower I have ever taken. And the water ran black. We spent the next couple days enjoying Mendoza and the excellent night life there.
Things I learned
Living and playing in Colorado gives you a supreme advantage against lowlanders. I don’t recall us ever being passed by another expedition. But it would be hard to count all of the other expeditions we passed on our way up and down the mountain. We finished the mountain 2 days earlier than planned.
Starting after the sun is up on summit day is the best idea for staying warm and if you move steady, you won’t run out of daylight and rarely does weather play a factor like it does in Colorado.
Take food you will actually want to eat. It took me 2 meals to be tired of rice and beans and I don’t see myself taking it on a trip again, at least not more than one meal of it.
People just disappear on summit day. You will be climbing the caneleta and pass numerous people on the way up, and then you will never see them on the summit, nor will you see them on the way down.
Water is your best friend.
Make yourself eat and drink at altitude.
Notes: (will be updated as i think of them)
I didn't put my plastic mountaineering boots on until summit day, but rather wore my trail shoes to high camp.