Wednesday, December 14, 2011

To the Summit of the Western Hemisphere

Date Climbed: 11/16/2011-11/26/2011
Peak: Cerro Aconcagua (22841')
Route: Normal Route
Gear: no technical gear required

After boarding in Mexico City, my plane flew nonstop to Santiago, Chile were I caught a connecting flight to Mendoza. I would have loved to visit Santiago, but there is a $300 entrance fee for Americans, so I opted out. I landed in Mendoza at 8:30 am and proceeded to the hostel I had booked. The taxi driver that picked me up at the airport had no idea where the hostel was, but luckily I knew it was next to the bus terminal so I had him drop me off there. I strolled into the hostel and got my room key. I was so beat from my trip to Mexico and all of the travel, but I wanted to go get my permit situation taken care of. I set off into town looking for the tourist office. It wasn't difficult to find. However, you must pay for the permit at a separate site. Its a pay office, I can't really think of anything similar here in the US. Anyways, it took me a while to find this pay office, and then I had to wait in line for 45 minutes only to find out that they didn't accept credit cards. So then I set off to find an ATM, that took me another 30 or so minutes and by the time I returned to the pay office, there was another line. I finally got my receipt and took it back to the tourist office to receive my permit. Afterward I went back to the hostel and took a nap until Ruben arrived.
Ruben had said that he would land around 5 so around 5:15 pm I went out to the lobby to wait for him, to my surprise he was already there, trying to find where I was. After introductions we went back into our room and grabbed cameras and money for the rest of the day. I was starving and hadn't eaten since the plane so we went and grabbed a bite to eat. I had pizza, which is actually a normal food item in Mendoza, lots of Italian immigrants and descendants. After dinner, I shopped around at a few of the local climbing shops for some warmer gloves, I eventually decided to rent some instead of buy, since I knew nothing about the gear that they were selling. The gloves I chose to rent would end up being a mistake.

Checking out the gloves at the gear shop- photo:Ruben Karel
We got back to the hostel and began to organize our packs and bags for the mules to carry. We had to keep everything for one night in our packs which doesn't sound like a lot, but Ruben and I both had our own tents, and the gear we were carrying was heavy duty stuff. I think my pack was still in the 30-40 lbs range. After packing we took showers than went to sleep.

In the room organizing and copying the weather report- photo:Ruben Karel
The next morning we woke up around 8 got everything packed up and walked to the bus station to catch the 10 am bus to Los Penitentes. The bus was super cheap, 26 pesos for two people, like 7 dollars. The bus was surprisingly very comfortable as well. Not as nice as the express bus in Mexico, but the seats were actually better. The bus ride took around 4 hours, but it was beautiful.

Bus station in Uspallata, the midway point.
Our bus
Los Andes from the bus ride

We arrived in Los Penitentes, a tiny ski town deep in the Argentinian Andes. The resort had a few hotels, and one ski lift. We went to our mule outfitter Fernando Grajales Expeditions and weighed our bags for the mules, 50 lbs limit per person. we were under that limit. We spoke with Fernando a bit and were asking him about the ski resort. He said that he used to work avalanche control there in the austral winter, but it hadn't snowed there in two years. Sort of depressing.

Inside Grajales- photo:Ruben Karel
Lone ski lift and no snow
Los Penitentes
After squaring away everything with Grajales, they shuttled us to the trailhead and help get out permits signed by the rangers. It is common practice on Aconcagua to check in with the rangers at every station, but as we would soon find out, they weren't in full swing yet. We set off from the trailhead in the early afternoon. It was already really windy, but even at that altitude, 9500', it was still warm. The hike to Camp Confluencia was easy, 4 miles and about 1500' of total gain with all the ups and downs.

Ruben at the trailhead 
Ruben in front of Aconcagua and the Laguna de Horcones
High spirits at the start
Laguna de Horcones 
First stream crossing 
Jagged hills above Confluencia 

Almost to Camp Confluencia
Aconcagua hiding in the clouds 
We arrived at Camp Confluencia (11300') about 2 hours later. We set up our tents and went around talking to some people. Two Australian climbers introduced themselves. They were brothers and neither one of them had climbed as high as Aconcagua before. They were there with a guide, who ended up helping me with my recurring stove situations, throughout my trip. We also met two British climbers, John and Heather. And a Canadian couple, Jarrett and Tania. We spoke some more to the Austrailians, Grant and James, and their guide Lucas informed us that the rangers were very behind in getting ready for the season, so there would be no public toilets available and no helicopter rescue. What was our $300 permit for? After sorting out my stove situation and talking with the other climbers I headed in to my tent for the night. The hike to base camp the next morning would prove to be the toughest day of the expedition in my opinion.

My tent at Confluencia 
Camp Confluencia-11300'
 I slept amazing that night, probably the best I had ever slept in a tent. I woke up around 7 and tried to make pancakes, which failed miserably. I packed up a set off for base camp around 9, Ruben was running a bit slow and told me to go on ahead. No one told me that I had walked out of base camp the wrong way. It took me a bit of time and a hairy boulder hop across a raging creek to get back on the right trail. From that point on I was moving fast. I started passing a lot of people. Around half way I came to a creek crossing. It looked small so I tried to vault it with my trekking poles. I just barely made it to the other side, and I was in full squat, the weight of my backpack pulled me backwards into the water, and I was just narrowly able to keep most of my body and my camera out of the muddy water. My hands were really cold for a while, but the eventually warmed back up, and I just kept motoring. The majority of the distance between Confluencia and Plaza de Mulas is very flat. The majority of the 3000' of elevation gain is in the last few miles of a 12 mile stretch. Needless to say, I hit a wall pretty hard right below basecamp. I struggled to make it the last half mile. It ended up being the most taxing day of the trip.

Horcones Valley
Piedra Blanca- looks red to me
South summit of Aconcagua, nearly 10000' above

Just below Plaza de Mulas 
When I arrived in Plaza de Mulas there didn't appear to be any rangers present so I just skipped checking in and went to find the Grajalas tent area. Somehow I missed the obvious sign and had to go ask another expedition for help. I found what seemed to be a nicely protected tent platform, it wasn't, but at least it was flat. I set up my tent and then everyone else began showing up. The long day with the heavy pack did a number on my back. It hurt so bad I had a hard time breathing. I thought I might need two rest days at base camp to recover.
Glacier above Plaza de Mulas 
"There's no-one here"

The next morning I awoke to more stove problems. It just wouldn't stay lit. It took a good 30 minutes of lighting and re-lighting to finally boil some water for breakfast. I tried to make pancakes again to no avail. "Honestly who brings a griddle on backpacking trips?" I surprisingly felt really good and decided to port some equipment up to Camp Canada. The hike form base camp to Canada is about 2000' gain over a very short distance, on some really loose, nightmare scree. It felt really tough hiking to Canada, but I was still far under the suggested 4 hour climb time.
On the way to Camp Canada looking down at Plaza de Mulas
Once I got to Canada at 16300' I found a nice tent site and buried my gear under some rocks. I talked with Jarrett and Tania a bit and picked up some trash from last season. And set off down the mountain to base camp. The next day I awoke and expected to need a rest day, but I was still feeling good, so I decided that I would move up to Canada and spend the night there. The weather was possibly going to turn bad later, but I figured it wouldn't be much different in base camp. This time I was a little lighter and ended up knocking about 30 minutes of my hike time to Canada. I set up my tent and anchored it down with rocks as best I could. I wish I would have anchored a little better, because while it didn't snow that night, the wind was horrendous. It must have been gusting at 50 mph, maybe more. Luckily I had brought earplugs for just such an event and I actually slept ok. Before, that windy night however, I ran into stove problems yet again and it took me over an hour to melt three and a half liters of water. After that I invited John and Heather into my tent to watch a climbing movie, which we all thought was funny, watching a climbing movie at 5000 meters. When I checked my tent in the morning  it was not ok. Part of the pole that attaches to the tent itself had sheared off completely in the cold wind. I tried to crimp the pole with pliers to make it fit in the tent with no success, then John, my British neighbor, suggested I shove a tent stake up it. That worked great, and my tent was mended, for the time being.

That day still feeling great, I decided to port more equipment higher, to camp Nido de Condores. The trail from Canada to Nido was even more loose than the trail from base to Canada. And when I say trail, I really just mean a slightly worn path on a loose hillside, with no real directionality or logical purpose. I ended up just walking straight up the mountain in many spots. As I was hiking the weather started moving in. By the time I reached about 2/3 of the way to Nido, I was in and out of complete white outs. I decided that rather than get stranded and lost by going further, I just cached my things at Ex-camp Alaska and headed down. On my way down I ran into John, I told him where I had stashed my things and thought he would do the same. I got back down to Canada and escaped the blizzard in my tent. I read my book. Heather asked about John and I had told her that I thought he was just going to cache his stuff near mine and then come down, but it had been an hour or two and we couldn't see him. I kept an eye out for him and finally he appeared through the white mess. Turns out he made it all the way to Nido. Strong dude. The storm finally cleared around 6 pm. Ruben had come up and set up his things in the middle of it. We were all greeted with a spectacular sunset and amazing views.

Camp Canada-16300'

Ruben and some Czech climbers

Aconcagua making an appearance
Don't know the name of this peak, but I found myself taking a lot of pictures of it.

John at Canada- sorry for the blurryness

The maze of paths to Nido
That night the weather was calm and I slept really good again, despite being a bit cold. I checked the temp in the morning and it was 4 degrees in my tent. Once the sun came out and started to warm everything up, I began the daunting task of tearing down camp, packing up and heading up the mountain yet again. I still hadn't had a rest day. On the way to Nido I had to stop and pick up the stuff I had cached the day before. Now I was carrying a full pack, close to 55 lbs up to 18300 feet. It was brutally hard. My legs were so tired, and my back was starting to tighten up. I finally found Nido, but couldn't find a tent site that was protected from the wind. It seemed to be blowing from all directions. I ended up just picking a spot that seemed ok and had plenty of rocks for anchors. Setting up the tent in the wind was difficult though, it just kept blowing all over the place. The only way to set it up was to way it down with rocks, but that tears the fabric. Life is never easy at high altitude. After I got set up and took a break.  Ruben had suggested wrapping my sleeping pad with my emergency blanket to reflect heat back at me. It ended up working great. John and Heather had been making me water since the night before since my stove was giving me so many problems. I was so grateful, but felt bad because I was worried I would cause them to run out of fuel. That night we had heard that the weather would be good for the next couple days so that raised our spirits. It was another windy night, only this time it was colder. I woke after sleeping for a few hours in a panic. I was gasping for air and was sweating. I felt abnormally hot, and my fingers and toes we oddly tingling. I started to assume the worst. I thought I was dying. I calmed myself a bit, and began to logically try to figure out what was wrong with me. I decided to take pictures of my fingers and my lips to make sure they were not blue from hypoxia. They were fine, red even. This gave me some relief, but I was still gasping every couple of breaths. I was able to fall back asleep though and when I woke the next morning I felt fine. It was a scary experience and it almost caused me to head down in the middle of the night.

The next morning however I learned that John had gone down. He woke in a similar panic to me and he was very sick. He did the right thing not continuing on. Heather decided to stick with me and Ruben. Heather, Ruben, and I discussed plans and logistics for the last camp and summit day. We had heard that there was a usable hut at Camp Berlin and we didn't want to deal with tents if we didn't have to, especially now that there were three of us. Heather and I decided to scout Camp Berlin for the hut, and take a small amount of food and gear up. Ruben stayed behind. He had cleared out the unoccupied rangers hut in Nido and slept in it the night before. I had him use my stove to make everyones water for the day since everyone had been making me water. It worked well in the little hut. Heather and I made it to Camp Berlin at 19500' in a short time. We caught up to two Czech climbers, they too were planning on staying in the hut, but the night before us. The hut was full of snow. Luckily there was a shovel. The Czechs and I took turns shoveling out the hut, no easy task at 6000 meters. It was dirty, but livable and would be much better than a tent. Heather and I left the Czechs and went back down to Nido. We spent the rest of the day hydrating and hanging out in the rangers hut.

Heather on the way to Camp Berlin

Cerro Mercedario from Camp Berlin
Toward Chile

We went the wrong way
The Summit from Berlin 
Windy summit from Nido
Hanging out at the ranger hut-photo: Ruben Karel

Lunch time-photo: Ruben Karel
One of my favorites-photo: Ruben Karel
That night Heather and Ruben spent the night in the hut, I retired to my tent. We were excited to be moving to Camp Berlin in the morning. The move to Berlin took a bit longer with the extra weight. Still we were all consistently beating the suggested hike durations from camp to camp, which gave us some confidence. The hut was nice. There was no wind, stoves worked, and for once I was actually with someone. We made water for summit day and cooked our dinners. Out of nowhere, one of the Czech climbers, Toni, comes into the hut. We were surprised because we had run into his partner when we arrived and he had said that Toni had gone down. Apparently he had actually summited, first one of the season. He was very tired and a bit out of it so we gave him some hot water and food. Once we had everything ready for summit day we turned out the lights and went to sleep, or tried.

Hut life 
Camp Berlin 19500'

Berliner Hut
Camp Nido from Berlin

It was unbelievably cold in the hut that night. I didn't check the thermometer, but I'm going to guess it was near -10. We woke around 6 am. Usually people start at 4, but we were fast and strong, and we wanted to wait for the sun to rise a bit more to warm everything up. We set off at 7. It was frigid. I wasn't wearing anything very warm. A few layers, but my plan was to go as light and as fast as possible. And I was fast. I had to leave Ruben and Heather, to maintain my pace and my warmth, but it wasn't long until my toes were totally frozen. I made the mistake of not starting with warm feet. Boots are insulators, they insulate cold feet and hot feet all the same. around 20000' I finally crested a ridge into the sun and I decided I wouldn't go any higher until my toes warmed up. I paced back and forth in the sun, scrunching my toes to try and boost circulation. Finally after about half and hour they were warm again, and Ruben had caught up. He told me that Heather had to turn around early cause she wasn't feeling right. We continued up together to Independencia hut at 21000'. I made the mistake of waiting there for Ruben, it chilled my body again and even though I warmed back up a bit, it was pretty much all over once we crested back over the ridge. The dark side of the mountain was much colder and directly in the wind. Ruben later checked the weather for that day and it said there was a wind chill of -40. We continued up the long slog called the Traverse toward a gully called the Canaleta.

The Traverse
From the Canaleta it was a few hundred feet to the summit. The wind was unbearable. Ruben was smart and brought a full face mask. I only had a balaclava that could cover my face, by I would have to sacrifice being able to breath easily. I resorted to trying to hide in the hood of my shell jacket. It worked ok. The real problem was that we were moving so slow now because of the wind that I could no longer warm my toes or my hands with my movement. We came upon a patch of snow, that had glazed over in the wind. Ruben stopped to put crampons on, but my hands were too cold to remove my gloves, and I felt confident in boot packing it. It was much icier than I anticipated and it turned out to be a very scary 100 feet of hiking. On the other side of the snow, there was no trail, it was somewhere underneath the ice. I had to try and climb up something I would compare to a hill of marbles. I began to get so frustrated and angry. I was so cold. I had lost full movement in my fingers, and my toes had lost feeling long before that. I finally made the unbearably hard decision to turn around. All my training couldn't prepare me for the cold, and like I said in the beginning, I rented the wrong gloves. The hardest part of turning around, was knowing I would have made it had it not been for the cold. I had no symptoms of AMS and was still doing 900 vertical feet an hour up to 21800' where I turned around. Ruben pushed on, with his warmer gloves and Polish badassness. I headed back down to Berlin, packed up, and headed to Nido. There I told Jarrett and Tania of my defeat. They encouraged me to go down to base camp. I wanted to, but I was so tired. I decided to take a rest and think about it. The thought of spending another cold night there, sent me down. I had no supplies and no drive left to make another summit push the next day. The weather the next day turned out to be perfect. Base camp was so warm. I found Heather there, she explained what happened. We spend the rest of the day playing cards. Ruben came down hours later in the dark successful. We all went to bed, totally spent.

View from the Canaleta courtesy of Ruben
Ruben on the summit. Congrats man.
The next day we high tailed it out of base camp. It took us a while to find a mule company that would give us a deal, but once we were on the trial we were on a mission to get the hell out of there. However, I took plenty of parting pictures.

Busier base camp 
Ruben snacking on an unfortunate mule

Last look toward base camp 

I think this river comes from Willy Wonka's Factory

Cool sedimentary layers 
This valley was filled with Amazing colors 
Ruben last shot with the mountain. He was up there the day before. 
Best shot I could get of Ruben with his Polish flag
Ruben and I went back to Los Penitentes and met up with Heather. We had to spend the night there because the mules wouldn't be bringing our things down till tomorrow. That was fine with me. the last thing I wanted to do was travel. The hostel was nice. The food was better. And we ate a lot of it. And best of all there was BEER.

The hostel
The next day we all decided to get really touristy and go to Puenta del Inca just up the road. It is a really interesting natural bridge created by mineral springs. There was also a little market there with native wares. Some of the native wares were made in China though, so I was skeptical. After we visited Puenta del Inca we walked down to the Cemetario de los Andistes, the climbers' cemetery.

In the market-photo:Ruben Karel

After the cemetery I had my first hitchhiking experience. We all hopped into this old 1960's Ford pickup. The driver was very nice, and we conversed with him as best we could in our broken spanish. He dropped us off at the hostel and we ate lunch. Ruben and I decided that we would grab our gear and head out that night on the 8 oclock bus. Heather was going to stay a few more days and wait for her boyfriend who had been climbing on the other side of the mountain. We said our goodbyes and waited for the bus.

Once back in Mendoza, Ruben and I got our fill of Argentinian steak, wine and beer, and the trip was over. I caught one last glimpse of Aconcagua from the plane. Not sure if ill be going back, but if I do, it will definitely be to climb a more substantial route, with warmer gloves obviously.

Total Elevation Gain over entire trip to Mexico and Argentina: 25300'