Well, if there was ever a post that could epitomize the trials and tribulations part of our travels so far, this is it. Andy and I spent the last 2 weeks in Aconcagua National Park trying our darndest to climb to the highest point in the western hemisphere.
Aconcagua is one of the 7 summits, the highest in the continent of South America. It also boasts being the tallest peak outside of the Himalayas and in the western & southern hemispheres, topping out at a whopping 22,834 ft. If one climbs the normal route Aconcagua is completely non-technical (no ice axes, pins or ropes necessary) making it more of an extremely long hike. In fact, it’s often referred to as “Acon-slog-ua.” However, the elevation, cold, and wind are not to be underestimated. The atmospheric pressure at the summit is a mere 40% of what it is at sea level.
Andy & I had grand plans to climb the more technical polish glacier route but when we went to buy our permit we found that the permit to climb that route was more expensive by a whopping $200 bucks. Already feeling the strain of the cost of climbing said mountain we gave in and decided to go with the normal route.
Day 1: Andy and I bussed it back to Mendoza from Los Arenales and gave ourselves a full day to prepare for our trip to Aconcagua. Obviously 1 full day would be more than enough time. FALSE. We spent most of our day sprinting in circles and jumping through bureaucratic hoops trying to get everything done. We had to rent plastic boots & crampons, credit cards not accepted. We had to buy the permit, credit cards not accepted. Much cash was then needed. ATM’s only give out 1000 pesos at a time which meant we had to go to at least 10 different ones to get enough cash. We reached our card limits. Some ATM’s take siestas from 1-5. We had to go to Wal Mart (recommended by a few Aconcagua guides we met) which was not only depressing but time consuming. Also, ironically enough, it was the first time both of us had set foot in a Wal Mart. Turns out energy bars don’t exist in Argentina, not even at Wal Mart. Back to town with enough cash but not the right forms. More sprinting around to print forms. Managed to get permit 5 minutes before they closed. Now to pack in our tiny hostel room. Sleep did not happen until 2 am. Good.
Day 2: Hopped on the bus to Aconcagua state park and hopefully to find Fernando Grajales Expeditions, the company we rented mules through. While it may seem like the easy way out, using an Argentine company for anything significantly lowers the cost of the permit for foreigners, gives you far less weight to slog the 24 miles and 5,350 vertical gain (16 days of food and all your gear, no gracias!) to Plaza de Mulas, and once one reaches base camp you get access to bathrooms and water. So really it’s a pretty good deal. Either way, we didn’t know where to get off, missed the right stop and had to have to park rangers call Grajales to come fetch us. A good way to start. We bonded with some Americans who were down for a guided trip up the other side and the nice lady from CO even gave us 2 stinger bars to get us through summit day. We started our hike up to our first stop along the way, Confluencia (elev 11,090 ft) at around 4 and arrived a few leisurely hours later. It was really a beautiful hike and a great introduction to the park. It was also the last time Andy or I would wear shorts or a t-shirt for the next 2 weeks.
Day 3: Woke up early, passed the medical check with flying colors and started the hike up to base camp, Plaza de Mulas. I had heard that this is often referred to as the “second hardest day” and now I know why. A 7 hour day of mostly flat valley walking with dust being blown into your face most of the way. The infamous Aconcagua winds roar down the valley and it’s pretty much a barren desert with dust just waiting to jump into your eyes and mouth if you let it. When you think you can’t take any more you begin gaining elevation steeply and consistently. Plaza de Mulas sits at 14,340 ft so you’re basically hiking to the summit of Mt. Rainier. The air is thin, the hike is steep and Plaza de Mulas always seems like it will be just right over the next ridge but it never is. It was truly an impressive game of hide and seek with one of the world’s largest base camps.
Finally we arrived, set up camp, and settled in for our first night at base camp. Starting now, or even really at Confluencia, every day and especially every night was a constant evaluation of how our bodies were doing and whether or not either of us was showing any symptoms of the dreaded HACE (high altitude cerebral edema) or HAPE (high altitude pulmonary edema). As of day 3, so far so good!
Day 4: Rest/ acclimatization day at Plaza de Mulas. The second largest seasonal tent city (base camp, whatever you want to call it) and one of the highest “cities” in the world Mulas offers far more than you would expect to find. There is an art gallery (the highest in the world according to Guinness), internet, hot showers, wine & beer, and a number of meal tents serving up everything from pizza to cake. All of this definitely comes at a price with hot showers going for $16 USD and a little Gatorade selling at an astounding $15 USD. So Andy & I did more of the free things. Andy played some soccer with the rangers and we meandered over to some boulders outside of Mulas to do some climbing. We had met a guide back at Arenales who told us to bring our climbing shoes to do some bouldering so we were well prepared. There was really quite a contingency of climbers (mostly guides and medical staff) who climb at the boulders all the time. Andy certainly got his work in playing soccer and climbing but unfortunately my knee is still rather swollen, grumpy and just not quite where I’d like it to be so I played it safe and neither climbed nor channeled my inner Maradona. Instead, I lounged on the sunny rocks like a lizard for most of the day so I could “let my knee heal.”
That evening we found out some bad prognostico news, a storm was headed our way in 4 days bringing snow, incredibly low temperatures and winds of over 90 mph. The usual itinerary for summiting is:
3 days at Mulas (with an acclimatization hike in there somewhere),
Hike up to Camp 2, Canada (16,570ft) to cache food & gear then return to Mulas to sleep
Sleep at Canada
Hike up to Camp 3, Nido de Condores (18,270ft) to cache food & gear then return to Canada to sleep
Sleep at Nido
Hike up to Camp 4, Colera (19,690ft) to cache food & gear then return to Nido to sleep
Sleep at Colera
You get the idea. Well, Andy & I didn’t have time for all that so we decided that we would try for the summit in 3 days. We figured we had time so if our bodies weren’t feeling good about it we’d head down. No big deal.
Day 5: Plaza Canada. We packed up all our stuff and headed up to Plaza Canada, a hike of a little over 2,000 vertical feet. We were told it would take 4 hours. By hour 3 1/2 I was getting rather grumpy that no camp had appeared on any ridge line I could see. We asked one of the other hikers where this elusive camp could be and they pointed down. Down, down, down. We had passed Canada by a solid 1,000 vertical feet and were over halfway to Camp 3. Lovely. After much debate we decided safe was better than sorry and headed back down, giving up much hard earned vertical elevation. Something to look forward to the next day. At Canada we met some lovely folks who were on the same plan we were. They were part of a guided group that had been trying for the summit for nearly 2 weeks already. This was their last shot before the plane ride home. We shared some hot drinks and some tales until the sun dipped below the mountains. On Aconcagua, no sun means bedtime (aka down sleeping bag time) or putting on every article of clothing you have if you feel like trying to tough it out.
Day 6: Onto Camp 3! Maybe. Turns out the stream we got our water from at Canada the day before freezes at night. This meant that we had no water. If there’s one thing everyone tells you on Aconcagua it’s that water is your best friend. At least 4 litres per day per person and more at the higher elevations. So, Andy and I hiked up to where the snow was, basically the same spot we had turned around the day before, and sat there for an hour, huddled over our little stove boiling snow for water. Good times. By the time we got to Nido the wind was roaring, probably a steady 40 mph. Andy has a single wall tent with some battle scars already. Worried that our trusty orange tent would end up ripped to shreds like the countless other tents Aconcagua has tossed from its flanks we spent yet another hour building a solid rock fortress around it. My father would have been proud of our stone wall building skills. Moving heavy rocks around at 18,000 ft had us both feeling the altitude, that’s for sure. In the end, it was all for naught. Our friends, being a guided trip, had up to date weather stats and the weather had turned worse since we last checked. Winds were up to a solid 60 mph and inclement weather was forecasted to roll in the next day so it was deemed inadvisable to try for the summit. They invited us over for some delicious dinner, we all smooshed into a little tent and we lamented the finicky mountain upon which we sat.
That night, Andy and I slept maybe 2 hours despite our walls of stone. The wind was gusting up to 60 or 70 mph and our tent was getting rocked. You could hear the wind coming, like a train rolling up the side of the mountain, closer and closer until BAM it would slam into our tent with what seemed to be the force of an actual train. So really we jut sat there watching our tent slam from side to side waiting for it to rip apart. But, trusty little bugger that he is, he never did.
Day 7: Woke up to wind, snow and clouds. Headed down the mountain to the safety of Mulas. Found out that while scree is very annoying to walk up if one takes the porter trails down, one can scree ski the whole way. Over 4,000 vertical feet down to Mulas in about an hour. We set up camp and then meandered over to enjoy some conciliatory vino and dinner with our friends in their big, fancy guided persons tent. It was lovely and one doesn’t have to drink much vino at 14,000 ft to feel a buzz.
Day 8: Rest day at Mulas. No storm yet but it’s a coming. We hung out with the artist for a while, used some internet and enjoyed the warm sun. Lots of eating happened. We hiked over to the remains of an old hotel that has since gone out of business. That night the storm rolled up and boy was it a doozy. Pablo, camp manager of Grajales, had offered to let us use a big tent to cook in for the storm. So, we were leisurely cooking up some carne tortellini when the wind started. Looking out the window at our tent we watched it almost get flattened to the ground with each gust that struck. Even the big tent which was metal supports and huge boulders anchoring it was shaking with the strength of the wind. After watching our little buddy get squashed a few times I frantically sprinted over to Pablo and garbled some Spanish at him that seemed to get the point across that we would like to put our baby tent in the big tent. He acquiesced and after convincing Andy to stop trying to build a new great wall of china around the tent we moved our operations indoors.
Day 9: Woke up covered in snow. Blizzard outside but the big tent doesn’t seal well. Wind howling and trying to break the tent. Always there is snow blowing in. Drifts of snow in our big tent. We can watch tents being ripped apart outside our big tent home. Andy and I live in our sleeping bags and have only crosswords to keep us entertained.
Day 10: Still hunkered down in big tent. Snow everywhere. It’s like weathering a blizzard at home except you are neither warm nor cozy. We are on crossword number 42. The lead in our pencil is running low. I force Andy to put up the little tent in the big tent so we don’t wake up covered in snow.
Day 11: Sun! We’ve been monitoring the forecasts while hunkered down for the storm and there’s a very small 2 day window for summit Friday and Saturday. It’s really more of a tinted window since the winds on Saturday are supposed to be 60mph, the same speed we turned around from Nido for just a few days earlier. After Saturday the winds rise again and by Christmas eve they’ll be at nearly 120 mph. But we have cabin fever, we’re feeling good and we decide we’re going to go for it. With a summit attempt of merely 2 days we can pack light and go fast. Our nice friends from Britain even left us with 4 freeze dried meals so we’re feeling good about our ability to go fast.
We leave early for Nido. We get there in under 4 hours and at the end of the hike I manage to a. keep up with a porter and b. sustain a conversation in Spanish for 30 minutes at nearly 18,000 ft. AND he said I speak Spanish well. These are all good signs. Our bodies are feeling good, the sun is shining and we land a primo site that will keep our tent safe for another night. There are a number of other people up at Nido who have the same idea as us. We all plan, conversate and nervously glance at the summit until the sun leaves us and we turn in for just a few hours.
Day 12: Summit Day. We have over 4,500 vertical feet to cover in order to get to the summit. As has been noted above, the main problems with Aconcagua are altitude, wind and subsequently cold. The cold factor makes summit plans for Aconcagua interesting. Leave too early before the sun rises and you’re in big trouble. Leave too late and you simply won’t have time to make it to the summit. Leaving from Nido makes it even more complicated since it adds another 1,000 ft on summit day than most people have (most camp at Colera, Camp 4). We decided we were feeling good and were feeling fast so we would leave at 5:30 am, about a half hour before sunrise. Also, bonus: the 21st was the longest day of the year and our summit day was the 22nd, making it about as close as you can get to maximum sun time.
We woke up and it was cold, per usual. Not wanting to take any chances I put on every single layer I brought. This includes:
2 pairs of socks, long underwear, pants, down pants, wind pants, base shirt layer, fleece long underwear top, patagonia R1 hoodie, synthetic down jacket(aka baby puffy), rain jacket/shell, down jacket (aka big puffy), liner gloves, down mitts, balaclava, hat, plastic double boots AND hand and foot warmers (the foot warmers did not work a all).
If you have ever wanted to feel like a giant marshmallow I would recommend Aconcagua. However, you’ll probably need more motivation than just that to get you to the top.
By the time we reached Colera I thought I was going to die of heat. I had to strip down about 3 layers and take off at least 4 of my 5 hoods. I was also struggling. This was hard and we were only an hour in. Oh boy. Still we continued on, one foot in front of the other. Up, up, up the side of Mt. Crumpett. If you had asked me most of that summit day if I thought we would get to the top I would have said no way in hell. I was exhausted. Everything felt heavy. My face was cold but it was hard enough getting oxygen without trying to suck it through a balaclava.
6 hours in we reached what many consider the crux of climbing Aconcagua, the traverse. You round a ridge and there’s a traverse that faces west, the direction the wind usually comes from. It was like nothing I’ve ever encountered in my life. I’ve felt gusts of 60 mph wind before but never have I felt sustained 60 mph winds in my entire life. There was no break, just roaring wind slamming into you at 60mph for the entire traverse. My poles were what kept me upright and you simply had to duck your head and try to move forward. Words were lost immediately, ripped from you as soon as they left your mouth. The only saving grace was that the wind was pushing us into the side of the mountain so I at least felt safe and every time I was knocked down it was into the uphill side. Up until now I had been able to get through the constant wind of Aconcagua by thinking about how much I would love to have this wind on our sailboat. What the sails would be doing, how each gust would bury the rail, and how the boat would be reacting to the wind. It calmed me and kept me sane. Unfortunately, 60mph is less realistic and the sailboat in my mind was the same as I was on the traverse, bare poles being rocked by the elements.
We made it through the traverse somehow, someway and kept forging our way upwards. We watched as people turned around and gave up below us. A friend of ours, Michael, from Switzerland passed us on the way down from the summit. We were almost there, just had to keep going. One great thing about Aconcagua is that there’s no false summit. You see your goal, you see it getting closer and with each step you can look up and remind yourself why you are where you are. The end is brutal, scree and rocks that seem like an endless staircase. I could count out 20 incredibly slow steps before I had to rest and try to catch my breath. The scree would slide out from under you and losing an entire step at that altitude seems like the end of the world. But somehow we made it. After 91/2 straight hours of plodding uphill we were at the summit. The wind was still whipping at 60 mph so we didn’t stay long but the views were incredible, the day clear and the wind seemed perfectly as it should be while standing that high on Aconcagua.
The descent was long and tiring. We took the “emergency descent route” which is really just a giant scree field from the traverse down to Nido. It took us 2 hours and it was a whole lot of scree skiing. We toasted to the 5 other people who had summited that day, ate some food and crawled into our sleeping bags for some well deserved rest. I put this day into my books as the most physically exhausted I have ever been in my life.
Day 13: Down to Mulas. Same route as the last time, the fast one with much scree skiing. Legs are tired but the air is warmer and thicker with each ‘turn.’ When we finally reach Mulas we’re given some celebratory beers and Pablo lets us stay in the big tent again. Awesome.
Day 14: 2 weeks and we’re ready to be home by Christmas. Today is Christmas eve and we want to book it back to Mendoza. It’s a solid 8 hour day to get all the way down and we don’t have mules this time. The bus leaves for Mendoza at 4:30. We stop only a few times, including one stop to visit our friend Sabrina at Confluencia who gives us some much appreciated fresh fruit and juice, and make it down by 4. On the bus by 4:30. So sore but extremely content. Also, absurdly dirty. No shower for 2 weeks, much exercise and layer upon layer of dirt and sunscreen.
We make it back to our beloved Monkey Hostel by 8:30 and are showered and still miraculously awake enough to enjoy a Christmas Eve feast with our friends from Monkey and other guests from all over the world. Sick of trail mix and pasta the asado and fresh salads are beyond delicious. The quaint table set up in the garden by the pool is beautiful and there’s just a hint of a soft, warm breeze filtering around us. A cold cerveza tastes like ambrosia (and trust me, Andes beer is not a good beer) and we even get ice cream with peaches. At midnight we all pop champagne and cheers to each other and Christmas eve. It’s the perfect welcome back.
Day 15: And finally, we decided the splurge on a fancy Mendoza dinner both to celebrate Christmas as well as to relax and really acknowledge for ourselves that we actually made it to the summit of the Sentinel of Stone. We headed to a place called Azafran where we split a 5 course sampler complete with wine pairing chosen by the sommelier. Azafran has an extensive wine cellar with over 500 varieties to choose from. The idea is that you, with the help of the sommelier, choose the wine you want to drink and then let that decide the food you order. Andy & I took the easy way out and basically got to sample the perfect amount of food and wine that were paired perfectly for us. The sommelier still took the time to pour and explain each wine to us as the courses came out. Tuna tartare, 2 of the best empanadas we’ve had all trip, a filet mignon with goat cheese & caramelized onions, dulce de leche creme brulee and a molten lava cake with orange olive oil sorbet were highlights of the night. The wine certainly didn’t disappoint and we got to try everything from champagne (aperatif) to Merlot to Chardonnay to Saturn. A wonderful way to spend Christmas, with good food and someone you love.