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Dreams of Aconcagua

Posted Nov 23 2012 9:00am
As the Northwest rainy season begins I find myself missing the warmth of the southern hemisphere.  I of course drift back to Mendoza, Argentina where the days are still long and the temperatures are reaching a comfortable 80 degrees. Flip flops and shorts amazing food and fine wines. Thought of this can easily improve the mood of the cloud covered Northwest.

As a climber I aways find my world travels to be more fulfilling when I can combine the local culture with a mountain objective.  A climb of Aconcagua satisfies this need perfectly. I specifically arrived a couple of days early for my climb of Aconcagua so I could allow some time to enjoy the city of Mendoza and take in some of the sights and culture. Mendoza being a leading producer of fine wines a wine tasting was high on the list.  After a couple of days of walking around the center of Mendoza and maybe a few to many wine tastings I was ready for ready to get on with my objective of climbing the highest peak in South America.

A 3 hour shuttle ride gets me from the downtown Mendoza to the the small town of Penitentes, where I prepare my food and expedition equipment for the Mules to carry the bulk of my gear up to the roughly 14,000 Plaza Argentina base camp on Aconcagua.

Penitentes the start of the climb.

The next day I began my 3 day trek into Plaza Argentina. It is hot and arid with a desert like landscape. The gentle slopes up the Vacas Valley to my fist camp at Pampa de Lenas is enjoyable and not to taxing considering my pack only weighs about 20 pounds. I brought some fresh steaks packed in a cooler taken by the Mules and gave my muleteers some extra paso's and they prepared a classic barbecue on an open fire. The local steaks in Argentina live up up to the fine reputation of some of the best meat I have ever tasted.

Day two I cross the Vacas Rivier and continue up the valley being passed by the Mules carrying the heavy loads of all the expeditions working there way up the valley. The trek to Casa de Piedra is a little longer but not much harder then the trek to Pampa de Lanas. I arrive in mid afternoon and relax by the Vacas River washing the dust off me from my 2 days of casual trekking.

Rio De Vacas Valley
The final day of trekking begins with a very cold crossing of the Vacas River that the day before was so refreshing and now is just waking me up. After the crossing  I begin to climb up the somewhat steep Los Relincho valley and the environment quickly changes from arid desert scape to a high alpine setting. The air becomes thinner as the climb nears the 14,000 foot Plaza Argentina base camp.

Los Relincho Valley
Upon reaching Plaza Argentina I find my barrels and begin to unpack my supplies for the climb that awaits. I take 4 days at Plaza Argentina to acclimate and ferry some loads up to 16,000 foot camp 1. I use the climb high sleep low method these days to help my acclimatization process.

Plaza De Argentina
The climb up to Camp 1 goes up through the frontal moraine and is mostly on scree and boulders until it hit the plateau at around 15,000 feet where it rises gently up hill for about a mile then the last 800 feet is a steep calve burner and lung worker up to 16,000 foot camp 1. The loads are heavier then the trek in although the days I spent ferrying loads help lighten the pack a touch but my pack still weighs in at around 55 lbs.

The same process is used to get up to my high camp (camp 3)  at 19,600 feet with ferrying loads up high and sleeping low to keep the acclimatization process going. At camp 1 my acclimatization proves to work as I watch many teams turn around because they have just moved to fast and got one of the many forms of Acute Mountain Sickness and have to return to Plaza Argentina or retreat home.

It takes me 5 more  days to reach my high camp at 19,600 feet.  I start the arduous task of finding clean snow to boil and make my meal in hopes of good weather the next day to summit. Just as I begin to shut my stoves down I hear my tent begin to flap and a small breeze sets in for the night. An hour later that small breeze turns into a steady 50 mile per hour gale. Barely sleeping that night with concerns of my tent blowing away and feeling like I was trying to sleep in a Metalica concert. I was glad to see the wind had not abated. I got a rest day if you could call it that. I spend most of the morning building rock walls around my tent an repairing broken guide lines on the tent a very arduous task to do in 80mph gusts.

Windy day at a high camp with low rock walls.
The next nights sleep is a little better with ear plugs and the high walls around my tent. My body is little more use to sleeping a 19,600 feet so I feel more rested when I awake to check the weather at 5:30 am. I poke my head out and still very high winds and a little snow is falling, I decide more sleep and recheck the weather again at 7:30 am. At 10 am I decide it will be another rest day/ weather day. This day proves more difficult then one would expect. I find myself bored and unwilling to be active. I spend most of the morning wishing I could be climbing and the other half missing my home and friends. Two days stuck at altitude not doing anything but surviving is starting to drive me crazy. Finally at around 5 pm, I notice something, it is quite. I craw out of my tent it is cold and clear but almost windless I have a hard time believing this is true how could of I missed it stopping or did it just stop? What ever the case, it is windless so I prepare my pack for the summit day the next day.

I awake at around 5:30 am still calm but cold. I get my boot liners on my feet and down pants and jacket on and  I craw back in my bag. I do this to warm all my cloths I will be climbing in. Starting warm is easier then starting cold in hope that you warm up.  I wait for my water to boil a painful 20-30 minute process. I leave just past 6:45 am and fall in line with many of the other groups heading for the summit.

About an hour an half later I am at Independencia Hut and the sun is warming me up. I  I take off my down pants and eat and drink in the warm morning sun, although the air temps are still right around 0 degrees. The next stretch is to La Cueva and it is cold, cold, cold I took a small break half way to add my down pants again and extra warm gloves the sun seems to stay just up ahead of me the whole time until I reach La Cueva then once again I warm my body in the warmth of the sun's rays.  More food and water and around 21,800 feet I stare up at La Canaleta.

Sun out of reach La Cueva in distance.
La Canaleta is the final stretch to the summit and is steep and difficult as I am breaking trail in the fresh snow that fell the day before. My lung burn and pace slows. I concentrate on the my breathing and keeping a steady pace. I don't want to find myself walking fast and hunching over to catch my breath. Instead I keep a steady pace and keep my chest upright so my diaphragm can help move the most amount of air through my body.  The only nice thing about the the fresh snow is that steps tend to be easy to kick and the loose rock under foot tends to hold footing better then when there is no fresh snow.

After an hour of trudging up La Canaleta I reach the Summit plateau. Views of Chile are to the west and to the south you see the amazing South Face of Aconcagua.  I am lucky and it is a rare windless day up at 22,842 feet barely a cloud in the sky. I spend an hour before on top then start the decent back to my high camp. It takes about half the time to descend as it took to climb and after some food and hot drinks I get a great nights sleep at my high camp.

View of the south face and the Canaleta to the right.
The next morning I pack all my equipment up and descent down the Normal Route which completes my traverse of the mountain. Again I am just amazed at the beauty of the changing of environments from the alpine environment into the desert landscape just below 14,000 feet. I spend the night in Plaza de Mulas the base camp for the Normal route . It is more crowded then the other side of the mountain but I enjoy the people and a since of accomplishment is heightened as I am climbing down and they have still yet to summit. My smile on my face and skinny look suggest my success all to well and most just ask how was the summit.

The next day I do the 8 hour trek from Plaza de Mulas to Horcones. It is nice to have light packs again as I have the mules taking the heavy equipment back to Penitentes. The view as I descend are just as amazing they were going up the Vacas valley and in the Horcones Valley I get to see the south face in its entirety. May an objective at a later date.

In Penitentes I get to sleep in a bed for the first time in 17 days. the next morning a shuttle gets me back to Mendoza where it it is hot and I treat myself to the famed Argentine all you can eat grill and enjoy some more fine Malbec!!

--Mark Cionek, Alaska and Aconcagua Programs Coordinator

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