Aconcagua Summit Report
Last year, at the beginning of 2013, my son Anders and I attempted to climb Cerro Aconcagua—which is the highest mountain in South America, the Western and Southern Hemispheres, as well as one of the fabled “Seven Summits”. Anders, and indeed the other eleven climbers on my team last year were all successful. I, however, after picking up a nasty bacterial infection at Base Camp that compromised both my CV system and my gastro tract, failed on summit morning to climb any higher than 20,300 feet. After coming to grips with this bitter disappointment, I decided to rededicate myself and take one last final shot at scaling Aconcagua. I called it my “Redemption Climb”. This is a summary of that climb.
Anders, my eldest son and principal climbing partner, was eyes-deep in his new consulting job and had just completed a successful summit of Denali so I ended up joining eight other clients and three guides—all whom I did not know—on a team hosted by RMI guides. As it turned out, four of our team were “singular” guys and I wasn’t the only one climbing alone. The climbing team was:
- Randy, Denise and Diane—all early 50s climbers who were siblings from Michigan with extensive and impressive climbing resumes. Denise had made it to high camp at Aconcagua in 2007 only to be thwarted by a savage storm.
- Todd and Thom—two heavily tatted 30-somethings from Florida who ran an event management company. Todd was an ex-UFC fighter. These two had the least climbing experience on the team having just summited Mount Rainier.
- Bissell—a 51-YO from Texas with a summit of Kilimanjaro and extensive long-distance trekking experience.
- Lou—the only team-member older than I at 58 (I’m 56) and a retired biology teacher from St. Louis who had also climbed Kilimanjaro.
- Bo—a strapping 48-YO from Denmark who’s high point was Mount Rainier.
- JJ, our 41-YO lead guide, who in addition to climbing Everest and several other 8,000-meter mountains, was attempting to summit Aconcagua for his 17th time.
- Mike—a 30ish accomplished guide with extensive climbing experience on Rainier and Denali who had summited Aconcagua twice before. Coincidently, he had climbed with my son this past summer on Denali.
- Steve—at 26, the youngest member of the team was a relatively new guide who had already summited Aconcagua earlier this year.
Cerro Aconcagua is 6,962 meters or 22,841 feet in altitude at its North (and highest) Summit. It is the 2nd most prominent mountain in the world. (By the way, in topography, prominence characterizes the height of a mountain's summit by the vertical distance between it and the lowest contour line encircling it and no higher summit. It is a measure of the independence of a summit. By this definition, Everest has the highest prominence since there is no other higher peak in the world. After Aconcagua, Denali is 3rd and Kilimanjaro is 4th). Aconcagua means White or Stone Sentinel.
While there are many very technical routes up Aconcagua (especially on the South Face), the route we had selected—The Polish Traverse—is not really a technical climb at all. However, Aconcagua is not to be taken lightly as its extreme altitude and weather are frequently fatal to both the unprepared and prepared climber. It is notorious for its deadly wind, which is called the “Viento Blanco” or White Wind. The summit success rate is thought to be around 30% of those who attempt to summit. Over 150 people have died trying and it seems some 3-5 perish each year—usually from HACE (High Altitude Cerebral Edema) or HAPE (High Altitude Pulmonary Edema).
My training for last year’s 2013 expedition was principally triathlon based as I had raced Kona and IM Arizona late in 2012. I only did around 30 climbing specific training hours. This year however, with my final triathlon on 2013 being in September (IM Lake Tahoe), I was able to devote substantial time to climbing specific training. I amassed well over 125 hours of actual climbing—much of it with heavy loads and substantial vertical in the Shenandoah National Park of Virginia. My training base was substantially more robust and specific to climbing this year as compared to last year.
One worrisome factor was that about a month before departing, I injured my back during training and endured several weeks of debilitating spasms and lower back pain. This injury derailed my final month of training and even with some aggressive PT and some prescription meds, my back was a bit gimpy as I boarded the plane for Argentina.
One final note, with the experience of my failed climb in 2013, I vowed to bring a consistently positive mental attitude to this climb and further to accept any and all guidance and criticism from the guides-- without reservation. In fact, I vowed that the only things that would stop me from summiting were if I had a major broken bone, I was bleeding profusely, or if my guides told me to stand down. At the outset little did I know how significantly this approach would be tested.
The expedition was scheduled to take 24 days. Four of these days, two on either end are dedicated to travel. Of the remaining 20 days, 13 are scheduled as actual climbing days with 7 designated as rest or weather contingency days. In practice most teams do not use all of their contingency days and there usually are a couple of days at the end for enjoying Mendoza’s fabulous wine country where the Malbec grape reigns supreme.
Getting to Argentina
On January 10th Judy took me to the Philly airport and we said our tearful goodbyes. I wound my way overnight through Toronto and Santiago and ultimately to Mendoza arriving late on the 11th. This was mostly drama free—at least until I arrived in Mendoza. At the airport there I discovered that my bags did not make the full journey with me.
As you might imagine, getting to Mendoza without the 40 kilos of clothing and equipment that you are counting on to keep you safe and help you scale a beast the size of Aconcagua, is a little bit disconcerting. Especially since the plan was to leave for Los Penitentes
(and the trailhead) around noon the next day. Since I had flown in on the last flight on the 11th, there was nothing to do besides check the lost luggage website and get a good night’s sleep in Mendoza.
The next morning, January 12th, dawned with still no news on my luggage. JJ told me I should just go ahead and buy my climbing permit anyways (around $800). He also suggested that I consider renting equipment. While I readily agreed to get my permit, I told him that I would not be renting equipment to try to climb Aconcagua—I felt strongly that I needed to bring my “A” game to this climb and if my luggage was lost then so be it. I told him if it came to it, I’d tour a couple of wineries, drink some Malbec and head back early.
On the way back to the Hotel I went to the town square and called Judy and she told me that she had been able to track down my luggage and that she had arranged for it to be held at the airport! Awesome! We left about an hour later and stopped at the airport and there the bags were.
As it turned out, only half of our team had been able to make it to Mendoza, as there were all sorts of SNAFU going on for those trying to fly through Miami. JJ decided we would wait an extra day in Los Penitentes for the other four to arrive. One of our contingency days was now gone.
We soon found ourselves in Los Penitentes and had a nice dinner with our smaller group. I was thrilled to be reunited with my gear and after a shower and a change of clothes I felt like a new man and began to eagerly project my thoughts forward to the challenges ahead.
Trailhead to Base Camp
Day 4 (1/13) to Day 8 (1/17)
The five of us took advantage of our downtime at Los Penitentes and did a 3:10 acclimatization hike on Monday the 13th, our 4th day of this trip. Instead of heading up the Vacas (our actual route), we drove towards Chile and instead went up the Horcones Valley towards Plaza Las Mulas, which is the “normal” route on Aconcagua.
The hiking was easy and the weather was beautiful, though warm—I wore shorts and a t-shirt. We hit a max elevation of 3138 meters or about 10,295 feet having gained about 725 feet of elevation. I felt good although my back was still very tight. I stretched it some and at least for now it felt pretty stable—definitely something to keep my eyes on.
Later that day back at Los Penitentes the rest of the team finally joined us. We had a late dinner and we went to bed knowing that the adventure was to start the next day!
Tuesday the 14th dawned early for us and we all spent some time doing some final organization for our climb. JJ asked us to just take one duffel up on the mountain, which forced some creative packing and some tough equipment choices. I ended up with a total of 37 kilos (about 81 pounds) of which I carried 11 kilos (23 pounds) in my backpack the first day—the rest went via the mules.
At long last we drove back towards Mendoza on Route 7 arriving at Punta Del Vacas and the trailhead around 11 a.m. or so. It was VERY hot (88 degrees), sunny and there was no breeze at all. We posed for the obligatory start of the climb pictures and soon where on our way.
We moved very quickly (in my view) and ended up stopping about 4 times over the 7-8 mile trek. I was soon sweating profusely and it quickly became apparent that the 2.5 liters of water I had brought was going to be woefully inadequate. I ran out about 1.5 hours from the finish and in short order I became very dehydrated. I developed an all too familiar “dehydration-bonk” and I soon found myself at the rear of the group and falling further and further behind.
The guides (Steve and Mike) dropped back to see what was up. I told them but I could see that I wasn’t entirely convincing. It was clear that I was now on the guide’s “watch list”. This was not the first day I wanted and it sure did not do any favors for my confidence. As I struggled (physically) into Approach Camp 1 at Pampa de Las Lenas I focused on my mental state by reassuring myself that everything was fine—I just messed up on hydration and that was something I could fix in the days ahead.
We arrived in camp right on 5 hours of elapsed hiking time—this was 45 minutes faster than my team did the year before—perhaps too fast given the heat. Once in camp, I put on my brightest face and proceeded to guzzle as much fluid as I could. I put down 2 liters in the first hour and by the time I fell asleep I had consumed 4.5 liters of water.
JJ recommended we sleep under the stars despite the darkening clouds and flashes of lightning. As we were eating steak cooked by the Muleteers the skies opened up and we were soon soaked. I paired up with Bissell and we hastily put up our tent and jumped into our damp home. Later a cold front blew in and we were able to dry a few things out. As I fell asleep I vowed that tomorrow would be a much stronger day for me.
We were up and busy by 7 a.m. As we were getting ready I told Mike that I felt much better and that I was ready to rock (inside I was hoping I could back it up). Thankfully, it was much, much cooler than the prior day. Halfway from A1 to A2 it still was only 71 degrees. Even when we reached A2 at Casa de Piedra (in English this means House of Piedra) it was still only 84 degrees and there was a bit of a breeze today.
Our total trip on day 6 was 5:57 and we covered over 10 miles with about 1250 feet of net elevation change (we were now at 3200 meters or 10,500 feet). Right before arriving at the “Stone House” we had our first view up the Relinchos towards Aconcagua and it’s little sister Ameghino. The Sentinel was unfortunately capped in clouds and so our first view of the Polish Glacier would have to wait.
We had our camp set up by 2:30 and the sun was out it was very warm in camp—uncomfortably so. I elected to walk about ½ mile downstream on the Vacas and I took all of my clothes off and had an icy bath—very enjoyable! We had a delicious meal of fire cooked chicken and cold pasta. We were down for the count by 8:30.
On Thursday the 16th our final approach day dawned clear and we were packing up by 5:30 a.m. Breakfast was tea and two energy bars. We were able to use mules to cross the icy Vacas, which was up to 3 feet deep where we crossed. I was the last to cross and we were soon assembled and ready to hike perpendicular to the Vacas and up the Relinchos to Base Camp (BC) at Plaza Argentina.
It was a beautiful morning with clear skies and pleasant temps. I was in light pants and a t-shirt and I wore that all the way to BC. We had great views of the two peaks—the Polish Glacier looked very impressive. I felt fantastic with no altitude effects nor backaches.
We stopped at one of the subsidiary streams that feed the Relinchos and refilled our water bottles. I looked up the side valley and spotted 5 Guanacos high above us. Guanacos are wild relatives of llamas and they have four times the blood hemoglobin density of humans—even Lance would be jealous!
It was a very enjoyable climb despite the much more challenging terrain—I felt absolutely terrific and our pace was about 30 minutes faster than last year and in total it took us 5:51 to get all the way to BC. We had a gross elevation gain of about 4,150 feet and a net change of a bit over 3,200 feet. Base Camp was around 4,200 meters or about 13,780 feet.
It was warm when we first arrived in BC but it seemed like a storm was preparing to roll down the col between the two mountains. I went to talk to the two guides about using porters above BC and continuing to sleep two men per tent as opposed to JJ’s plan to go to 3 per tent above BC. They were willing to let us do both, which was quite comforting.
Before dinner a thunder and lightning storm blew in and in started to rain and then snow. At dinner JJ told us to not do any drugs (especially Diamox) without first telling the guides. I decided to continue to just follow orders and with the exception of a few Advil (for my back) and a couple of Imodium when my stomach was unsettled, I did not take any drugs on this trip including Diamox. We went to bed around 9ish with the snow coming down pretty hard.
Jan 17th dawned as a much appreciated rest day at BC Plaza Argentina. I, unfortunately, did not sleep much at all—if any. It wasn’t a concern (yet) as I certainly was well rested at the outset of this trip. I figured it was just due to the higher altitude and the overall stimulation of the climb so far.
During the night I went outside twice to pee—the second time after the snowstorm had stopped--and I was blown away by what I saw (I’m killing myself that I didn’t take a picture). With the near full moon, BC and the surrounding mountains were lit up from the reflection off the 4 inches of snow we had received. In the morning we were greeted with a radically changed winter-wonderland landscape.
This rest day was delightful and very much needed. We had a huge breakfast of eggs and potatoes and some delish quesidias for lunch. JJ set up an afternoon solar shower for each of us that was delightful. During the day countless avalanches and rock-falls in the steep cliffs around us entertained us. Thankfully these were thundering quite a ways apart from us.
We had our late afternoon check-up with the Park Ranger Doctor and had our go/no-go evaluations. My O2 sat came back at a disappointing low 84%, which was the lowest of the team and was at odds with how great I felt. I decided (yet again) to focus on the positive—I clearly felt vastly better this year than I did last year. While my low O2 sat measures last year were clear indicators of my inability to successfully adjust to the hostile environment on Aconcagua, I also knew that this measure was fairly volatile and it was far more important that I felt as strong as I did. I decided to not measure my O2 sat anymore and just go by how I felt. I had trouble sleeping again—maybe an hour at most—but I was well prepared for our first foray onto the higher mountain the next day and I was eager to really get after trying to summit.
That evening I discovered I was in a tent next to IMG’s guide Peter Adams. Pete was one of my guides from the prior year and we got caught up over a 30-minute conversation. We would cross paths several times in the days ahead.
Base Camp to High Camp
Day 9 (1/18)-Day 18 (1/27)
Up at 6 a.m. to get packs and self ready for the “Carry” to Camp One at over 16,500 feet. This is a very tough climb due to the increasing altitude, the sketchy terrain and the first exposure to heavier packs.
On this later point and as I alluded to earlier, I decided to use a porter to assist me in my big loads. To some, this is a controversial topic and last year IMG (my guiding company last year) had forbidden me to use a porter believing that not using a porter might allow me to get higher than I “should”. I think this is nonsense for the following reasons:
- We already had used mules to carry heavy loads the 30 or so miles that we trekked into BC. From a personal perspective, my body doesn’t care if my porter has two or four legs—it’s just happier with a lighter load
- The difference between carrying 25-30 pounds and 50-65 pounds is immense—especially at this altitude. I equate it to the difference between doing an Olympic triathlon versus a Half-Ironman. I would much rather do an Olympic tri the day before an Ironman (summit day) than a Half-Ironman. In-fact, I’d rather just taper but unfortunately that wasn’t an option.
- On many other big mountains (such as Everest and Kilimanjaro) porters are the norm. I see no reason why Aconcagua should be different.
- Most guide services encourage the use of them.
- Starting at $180/carry it seems like a relative bargain when you consider the all-in cost of one of these expeditions is over $8,000. It’s a cheap way to dramatically improve your chances of summiting in my view.
In any event I hired a porter (and also used one for the three moves up the mountain) and off-loaded about 28 pounds to him. The remaining 16 pounds I paid for were liberally shared in by my teammates. I was glad to help!
After a quick breakfast we were rolling around 7:30. It snowed continuously all the way up to Camp One. It was cold and uncharacteristically damp but thankfully the winds were quite modest. The snow actually made climbing dramatically easier as we didn’t have to deal with loose rock and scree and ironically, the snow made the more technical sections easier due to better purchase.
I felt very strong today and I reflected that on last year’s climb, this is where I really began to fall apart due to my sickness. I was elated but tried to tamp down my growing optimism—we were barely on the upper mountain and we had well over 6,000 vertical feet to climb.
It took us some 5 hours to reach “Upper” Camp One (C1), which was about a half-mile further up the hill from where we camped last year. We had gained some 2,750 vertical feet in that time. On the way up both Steve and Mike were really on my case about my rest-step technique. They wanted me to be more aggressive about moving and planting my upper foot before I paused and rested. I was moving too slowly through that transition and this left me temporarily unbalanced—a real issue if the winds were to pick-up again. I readily and thankfully accepted this criticism and they materially improved my technique—an improvement that was to prove critical in the days ahead.
We cached our carry loads and hung out at C1 for about 30 minutes before heading back down to BC. I took my time descending—especially on some of the trickier, more technical sections. My age and gimpy left knee conspire to make me the slowest of the “descenders” on my team and indeed I’m the last one to arrive back at BC some 6:34 after we had started that morning.
I was pretty tired from the effort but managed to eat a bit and to call home on my Sat phone (btw, I called home frequently to talk to and update Judy. She used some of what we discussed each day to provide real-time updates on my blog). I crashed in the tent for a couple of hours before dinner.
After dinner, I retired early in hopes of finally getting a good night’s sleep. Before I knew it my watch read 3:45 a.m.—hallelujah!!! I peed in my pee bottle and turned over and almost like magic it was 8:15 a.m.—just what the doctor ordered! I was shocked to learn at breakfast that had been a massive party the night before with drum beating, singing and chanting. It got a little out of had and someone threw rocks and broke windows in the Park Ranger station. A bunch of guides had to break things up around 3:00 a.m. Unbelievably, I had slept through the whole thing (earplugs are essential on a trip like this!)
The 19th was another rest day at BC designed to further enhance our acclimatization and for us to make final preparations for the move up onto the upper mountain. I organized things but basically lounged around most of the day. I learned that a woman at BC made pizzas and I bought a couple (at $35 each!) and we shared those for lunch. They tasted amazing!
The other RMI team on the mountain returned to BC after being up at high camp (19,600) for three days. They were pinned by high winds and had tried to summit the day before only to get stymied at 21,000 due to poor visibility and a high avalanche threat from about two feet of snow that had fallen during the prior couple of days. They were all like zombies and it was a harsh reminder of the reality that despite all of one’s training and preparation, the mountain can just say “no” at any time and there is no summit.
After dinner I couldn’t resist and I pulled out my pulse oximeter and measure my O2 saturation at 96%! This reinforced how good I felt and how well I was acclimatized. I decided that I would not measure it again and indeed I left my oximeter at BC so I wouldn’t be tempted again. I slept well again that night feeling very good about where I was physically and mentally and I was hopeful, with a little weather cooperation, I might have a real chance of getting all the way up the hill….
We left BC early on the 20th, the 11th day of our expedition. We knew the next time we saw BC it would be on our way home. I felt stronger on this climb than I had at any point in the trip to date. Steve had gone ahead to work on our campsite and Mike asked me to bring up the rear, as he had to pace a couple of the team that were beginning to struggle. This was a real show of confidence in me as a climber. I absorbed this and also reflected on how much stronger my rest-step technique was after all the work the guides had done with me.
We blazed through this move in just 4:45. Last year, I had struggled in the move to C1 over 6:15. Further, we placed our camp about a half-mile and some 300-400 vertical feet higher than last year. A very encouraging day of climbing for yours-truly.
We were all set up around 3:15 and I ate some soup and almonds and worked on organizing my gear. The winds came up dramatically around 4. We could see massive clouds of snow blowing off the ridge in the col between Aconcagua and Ameghino above us. Dinner was a quick and subdued affair as the winds had picked up to 40-50 mph and it felt very, very cold (ambient temperature was around 10 degrees). I crawled into my minus 30 degree sleeping bag with 4 layers of clothes, two pairs of socks and my hat and gloves and it still took me a good hour before I was no longer chilled.
The wind absolutely raged all Monday night and Tuesday morning. JJ said the gusts were well above 50 mph and our tent shook and rattled all night. Despite my earplugs I was abruptly awakened around 3 by a very loud, ballistic “bang”. I looked at Bissell, my tent-mate and we both wondered: “what the hell was that”? We heard more loud crashing sounds all around us and we wondered if it was hailing. We then heard a lot of commotion and concerned shouting coming from the brother/sisters tent. We then heard one of the guides yelling for us all to stay in our tents. We looked at each other and shrugged and then went back to sleep.
We didn’t realize until the early morning what had happened during the night and how lucky we were. During the night an ice serac had broken free about 1000 feet above us and came crashing down a chute breaking into hundreds of pieces. This ice swarm had ripped through our camp during the windy and dark night. The bang we had heard was a chunk hitting our tent on the vestibule support pole and ripping a fist size hole in our fly. Thom and Todd’s and the guide’s tents were also hit.
The worse of it was with Randy, Diane and Denise’s tent where a bowling ball plus size piece of ice crashed through their vestibule fly ripping about a three foot slit in the fly and coming to rest in their vestibule just inches from their heads. We had narrowly avoided a real catastrophe.
At 8 (1/21) JJ had us up for a carry to C2 despite what was (in my view) a ridiculous wind. We had to collapse our tents so that they weren’t blown off the mountain in our absence. The winds were sustained at above 40 mph with substantially higher gusts.
The climbing was extremely challenging and frankly a bit perilous. The wind was driving the snow horizontally into us and the snowpack was slippery, as we had not donned our crampons. After 20 minutes, we had to stop to put our crampons on while sitting on a 30-degree slope. This is not an easy task and I must say it was not a whole lot of fun. Stress levels were pretty high. We soldiered on for another 20 minutes or so with a number of the team actually getting blown off their feet.
Soon JJ had seen enough and told us to turn around and head back to C1. We were out for just 66 minutes and only managed to gain 670 vertical feet before we turned around at 17,225 feet. As we looked at all the ice littering C1 we wondered if it might make some sense for us to move out from under the ice chute and indeed a couple of hours later JJ told us to pack up and move camp down closer to “lower” C1. It was disheartening to move in the “wrong” direction but we were 100% behind JJ in moving to a safer area. Steve went back down to BC to get another tent to replace the one damaged by the icefall.
I slept very well the night of the 21st despite the on-going windstorm. However, Bissell awoke me at 6 a.m. and told me he was pulling the plug on his climb. He had significant chest pains and he was worried about his elevated blood pressure (his was 180/120 at BC, which in retrospect is amazing that they even let him climb above BC with). I was saddened by this but fully supported his decision, which seemed like the correct call to everyone.
We said goodbye to Bissell as Mike took him down to BC where he would be subsequently diagnosed with HAPE (high altitude pulmonary edema) by the medic there (upon returning to the states he was given a clean bill of health). Due to this diagnosis, Bissell was able to fly out in a helicopter after riding a mule all the way down to Approach Camp Two.
We donned our crampons from the outset and carried up to C2. The only things in my backpack were water bottles, food and extra clothes as I had whittled all of my belongings down to just 40 pounds or so (I left the rest at BC). I once again felt very strong climbing and we arrived at C2 in 4:00 (just under 5500 meters and a tad over 18,000 feet). We spent about 40 minutes at (a surprisingly crowded) C2 finding a place to cache some equipment and resting. I felt a bit spent on the return to C1 and I lagged quite a ways behind the rest of the team on the very steep scree field leading down to C1—not to worry, I am just a very slow descender for sure! The round trip took 5:57.
Back at C1 we had a horrendous Indian Lentil dinner thing, which my stomach didn’t like (Imodium to the rescue). The other Randy moved over from his sister’s tent and became my new tent mate. The winds amazingly picked up the night of the 22nd and were by far the worse we had faced. The gusts were above 70 mph and were probably at hurricane strength at times. Twice during the night our rear guy wires snapped and I lay in the tent to keep it from getting blown away (I actually was lifted up off the ground a couple of times) while Randy went outside to fix them. Thankfully Randy turned out be a kung-Fu camper and quickly repaired the tent—I’m not sure what I would have done without him.
We didn’t sleep much because it was so loud inside the tent. The weird thing about the wind is it would die down to almost nothing and then you could hear this deep howling up the mountain and 3-4 seconds later the tent would be hit with 50+ mph gusts. The whole tent would deform and shift shapes in the wind barrage. As I lay in the tent I thought about how much more climbing we had to do and how we were rapidly burning through our contingency days. It occurred to me that there was a good chance we might not be able to climb any higher than we currently were. Oh well, nothing to be done about the weather. Just focus on what you can control.
I went outside around 6 a.m. on the morning of the 23rd to empty my pee bottle and was literally knocked down by the wind. Not surprisingly, JJ came by about an hour later and said that we weren’t going anywhere on this day—it was just too dangerous. We were tent-bound all day and I only ventured outside for a few minutes. We played backgammon and read mostly. I did take advantage of the unexpected downtime to really rehydrate as I felt I had fallen behind a bit over the prior couple of days.
We had a small bowl of chicken soup for dinner (I was beginning to feel very hungry), as it was difficult to even cook properly. JJ told us that we needed to climb higher tomorrow as we were now down to just one (out of seven we started with) last rest/contingency day. If the weather didn’t break over night we were facing the real possibility of having to head back down.
The winds continued to blow strongly after dinner and about 10 p.m. we were awakened by a flashlight shining in our tent. JJ was screaming above the wind that the girl’s tent had been destroyed by the winds and to get ready to have one of them join us. We were disoriented but quickly made room and soon Denise joined us in what was now a very crowded tent. Oh-boy, what else could go wrong?
Well, nothing did that night and in the morning I thought that maybe the wind might die down. This proved to be wishful thinking but by 8 a.m. on 1/24 we were ready to climb (JJ told me we had to get out of C1 that morning or our summit was off). It sunny but very windy—still above 50 mph at times.
I felt very strong after all the laying around at C1 and our team made the move to C2 in just 3:42 (+1,600 vertical feet). This was an hour faster than my prior year and we soon set-up camp in a very crowded C2 at just over 18,000 feet. The guides had us rearrange our sleeping partners—we had just four tents for 11 people. I ended up tenting with the two sisters in what would be called the women’s tent!
Saturday January 25th, our 16th day dawned brisk and clear with winds of “only” 25-30 mph. We had talked to some of the other teams at C2 and a couple of them had been pinned down at C2 for 6 days! There was a huge backlog of teams at C2/C3 that were at the end of their trips and most had decided to go for the summit on Sunday or Monday at the latest despite continuing 30-40 mph wind in the forecast. Looking at a slightly better forecast for Tuesday, JJ decided we would try to make Tuesday our summit day. At the very least, things would be a lot less crowded high up on Aconcagua after the backlog cleared out. The risk for us was that Tuesday was our last possible day to summit and if the weather changed we would be out of luck. I thought it was a very intelligent decision on JJ’s part.
Before we left I went to the “bathroom” which consists of squatting and depositing into a smallish red bag while trying to maintain one’s balance in the gusty wind. This as you might imagine is quite fun. Especially trying to “work” the toilet paper in 30 mph winds. Still, you gotta do what you gotta do!
Anyways, we did a “carry” to C3 (High Camp aka as Cholera) leaving around 10 a.m. With the reduced wind I was only in 4 layers today (base, wool hoodie, soft-shell and my awesome bright green Accelerant Jacket). I love good gear/equipment. I especially love good mountaineering gear! It was comfortable and visually spectacular climbing. We climbed up to 6,000 meters—a little over 19,650 feet. It took us 3:52 and we had about 2,025 feet of gross vertical during the climb.
I continued to feel strong on this climb. I began to develop a bit of a mountaineer’s cough but certainly nothing to worry about. While I felt strong, the climbing was anything but easy and while I was well within myself most of the climb a couple of the steeper sections definitely put me out towards my anaerobic threshold. I couldn’t help but think that summit day was going to be a real test for sure.
We returned to C2, which had emptied out quite a bit, in about 1:25. As we arrived back in C2 we knew the plan was to rest at C2 on Sunday, move to High Camp on Monday and go for it on Tuesday—we just needed a little help from the weather gods!
Sunday the 26th was pleasant enough in the morning and early afternoon. We rested, ate, drank and breathed. There was some hearts played and books read. Pretty low-key. Camp Two was almost deserted as everyone else was either up at C3 or trying to summit—we watched the wind blowing off the upper parts of the mountain and did not envy them.
True to the main theme of our climb, around 4 it started to snow pretty hard and it basically did not stop for 12 hours. By the end of the storm a full foot would fall at C2 (and more than two feet up higher). The heavy snow blanketed our tent and completely covered the bottom of our protective fly. This closed off the primary source of fresh air and we all awoke around 10ish feeling like we were drowning. The Co2 content in the tent had soared and I felt panicky as I gasped for breath.
I made the decision to clear out the bottom of the back of our tent by opening the rear vestibule and digging us out with my hands. I then opened the vents in the back and front wide to get air in and as a result we were able to breathe “normally” once again. We soon fell asleep only to be awakened around 5 or so by (once again) howling winds. Unfortunately, these winds had blown two feet of snow into our rear vestibule completely covering our packs. We had snow in the tent proper as well as 5-6 inches covering our boots and everything else in the front vestibule. At first I felt terrible about my “mistake” but I soon learned that all the other tents had the same issue.
It took us a while to dig out and get camp packed up for the move to C3/High Camp. Finally, around 10 and under brilliant blue skies we made the ascent up to C3. It took us almost exactly 4 hours and I continued to feel pretty solid physically. This is not to say the climb was easy—on the contrary with all the new snow it definitely was a challenge. I remember thinking to myself that it was hard to imagine that I was going to be able to do the same the next day for three times longer and at a higher altitude. I let that thought go pretty quickly however. Tomorrow would bring what it would bring and I would just have to deal with it then.
Setting up high camp proved to be quite a chore. I was constantly out of breath. I’d tie off one guy line and then have to rest for a couple of minutes. The physiological impact of the O2 content at 6,000 meters is quite remarkable!
During the climb Lou fell further and further behind and JJ made the decision to send him back down the mountain with Steve. Unfortunately, this meant we would be down to just two guides (and seven clients) but it was the right call for Lou. When Lou hit BC that night he too was diagnosed with HAPE and was flown out via helicopter.
After a dinner of Ramen noodles I climbed into bed around 8 with my new tent mate, Bo (yes I slept around on this climb!). I made the following notation in my diary: “I’m healthy and ready—hope I’m good enough”. Inside, I felt quietly optimistic that I could do it. At long last, it was game time!
Summit Day (Day 19: 1/28/14)
In contrast to last year when we were on our way before 4 a.m., JJ wakes us around 3:15 and asks to be ready to go by 5. I was very focused getting ready but at the same time I felt very calm. I ate two energy bars and drank about a liter of water as well as some coffee (Starbucks Via). I went outside to take care of business and was amazed by the stars. It also registered on me how cold it was—we knew the forecast for the summit was for 9 degrees below zero and 10-15 mph winds.
We had a bit of a delay but by around 5:15 or so we set-off with our headlamps blazing and our crampons crunching the snow. I elected to get up towards the front where it was easier to stay in synchronicity with JJ’s pace and foot strike pattern. It brought back memories of my ill-fated summit day of the prior year.
Just 30 minutes into the climb first Diane (foot problems) and shortly thereafter Denise (stomach problems) consulted with JJ and elected to go back. Mike made two separate and relatively quick trips back-down the mountain to make sure the sisters were safe back at High Camp. Our original group of 12 was now down to 7 (2 guides and 5 clients).
We hit our first rest stop up by the “Black Rocks” about 75 minutes into the climb. This was at about 6,200 meters or about 20,300 feet. I’m pretty sure this is where I had to turn around the prior year. From here on out I would be climbing higher than I had ever been before. We could see the sky slowly lighten in the East. There was also a gorgeous waning crescent moon not too far above the horizon.
When we set off again we were able to do so without our headlamps. After another hour or so of moderate climbing we reach the Independencia “Hut” at about 6,400 meters or just over 21,000 feet. The weather continued to be very cold but the sun was out and the wind was modest, so not too bad. I felt very much in my comfort zone given the reasonable pace JJ was setting.
There were probably 6-7 teams resting at Independencia as we had now joined up with the Ruta Normal and all the climbers who were coming from the other side of the mountain. I was surprised to see the very steep hill you have to climb up above Independencia to get to the Travesia above the Gran Acarreo (great scree slope). I also noted a great deal of blowing snow up on the ridge—I didn’t like the looks of that!
I asked Randy how he was doing and he wasn’t particularly positive. It seemed to me like he was struggling and was worrying about the road ahead. No surprises on the later—I think everyone was. Everyone else seemed fine, as far as I could tell.
Soon we ascended the steep slope above the hut and when we reached the ridge and could see across the traverse above the Acarreo we were assaulted by continuously blowing 30-40 mph winds that were driving all the new snow horizontally. Mike and JJ screamed at us to leave nothing exposed on our faces. I had my hat and hood pulled down to the top of my goggles and my buff and the top of my coat pulled up to the bottom of the goggles and over my nose.
It was fitting, but frankly a bit ridiculous that once again we were facing a challenging wind. This climbing required a ton of focus as the wind was howling and pushing us around. The snow, while the trail was broken, was quite deep and the footing was uneven. Due to the snow, the scree field to our right was covered in slick snow and with a 30-35 degree pitch there was a real risk of falling and sliding, which would have been a bad thing since the slope went unabated almost all the way to Las Mulas—almost 7,000 feet below us (we were un-roped and did not have ice-axes so a fall would have required us to self-arrest almost immediately). One had to be especially careful with crampons on and I took care to widen my stride a bit to avoid catching a crampon point on my boots or puffy pants.
I could see all the way across and up the Traverse, which rose steeply above me, to the Canaletta. It seemed impossibly far-off and I knew we were going to be locked into a battle with the traverse for quite some time. About 30 minutes into the traverse, I heard Mike screaming from behind me. We all stopped. He indicated that he had to stop to get his balaclava out as he was having trouble protecting his face from the biting cold wind. It was then that JJ noticed that Thom’s nose was exposed and that it turned a waxy white color. The external layers of his skin had frozen and he had frost nip. JJ yelled at him and told him to cover it up. He told him he had 30 minutes to thaw it out or else he was sending him back.
For my part, I felt great as far as my legs went. However, I was constantly trying to keep my fingers from freezing. I had eschewed my big puffy mittens for my leather guide gloves. I found the big mitts too clumsy to be practical and so I had my much less protective gloves on. I continuously brought first 1 or 2 fingers down into the palm area of the glove and then rotated them with my other fingers. At points I was holding my trekking pole with just my thumb. I was also having trouble breathing from time to time as I found my buff constricted my breathing a bit—it was like sucking through a small straw. I’d pull my buff down for a second or two and suck in some air and then quickly cover up again.
Something funny happened with my perception of time and this set of affairs went on forever but I don’t really recall thinking about how long things were taking. JJ was reluctant to stop as we were so exposed and my entire world narrowed to looking at the feet in front of me and concentrating on staying alive and not hurting myself.
We passed the hand-like formation that sits about a third of the way across the Traverse and is where the Traverse begins to climb pretty dramatically. There were people huddled behind it so JJ kept pushing on.
As I mentioned, I was locked deep in my own little world so I wasn’t aware of the drama unfolding behind me. Apparently both Randy and Bo had tired dramatically and had developed “spaghetti” legs and a couple of times they both had almost fallen to the right down the slope. In one case Todd had to yank Randy back.
About an hour past the hand shaped rock, Mike called for JJ to stop, which we all thankfully did. I tried to eat a Slim-Jim and drink some water. In the mean time Mike and JJ huddled up and then they got into an animated conversation with Bo. I wasn’t paying attention at first but then it became clear that they were telling Bo he had to go down and he was disagreeing with him. Mike said that Bo was no longer safe climbing and he was putting the rest of the team at risk. Bo was refusing to listen to them and then at some point, for reasons I don’t understand, I yelled at Bo to be quiet and do what the guides were telling him—they are clearly worried you’re going to kill yourself dude.
It was quiet for a minute or so (save for the wind) and JJ declared that Bo would go down and that Mike would short-rope him for safety. Randy, who was sitting next to me then said that he thought he should go down as well and Todd re-enforced this decision saying that he thought Randy had given as much as he could on this day. After a minute or two, JJ looked at Todd, Thom and I and said, “OK, you three get ready, we have a lot of climbing to do”.
Soon JJ heads up the Traverse with the three of us in tow and the pace is alarmingly fast. All of a sudden a number of thoughts cascade through my head:
- this pace is too fast, I can’t keep up with these three young stud climbers
- if I’m not able to summit, then no one will summit because we are now down to just one guide
- maybe I should go down with the others so I don’t blow Todd and Thom’s summit opportunity
- I need to speak up. I need to do so now.
Before I knew it the words were out of my mouth: “Hey JJ—this pace is too fast for me, maybe I should go back down with the others so you guys can summit?”
Time did one of its weird shape-shifting things again and we all sat there in silence with the fate of my expedition hanging in the balance. However, JJ wasted little time in actuality and he said: “F-that, you’re summiting. It’s one thing to be a little slow. It’s another to be out of control. You have tons left in your gas tank. We’ll just go a little slower if we need to. The four of us are summiting.”
Thom and Todd quickly jumped in and said “RC: come-on, we’re all summiting together”. I almost lost it right there. For Thom and Todd to so unselfishly include me even though they had to think it would reduce their summit chances is something I’ll never forget as long as I live.
In any event, no more was said and the four of us continued on in efficient silence, with our heads bowed to the wind and the base of the Canaletta now just an hour or so in front of us.
The next section of the Traverse was very steep and challenging in the thinning air but we progressed as a team with a steady pace. A number of climbers were now heading down having reached their limits. Along the way, there were a number of climbers sprawled out on the snow besides the trail seemingly exhausted. The good news was as we neared the huge rock walls near the Canaletta the wind was effectively blocked and the environment was noticeably warmer and more pleasant.
Finally, we reached the “Cave”, which resides at the base of the Canaletta. We were now around 6,600 meters or about 21,650 feet. It was warm and sunny and JJ told us to just kick back, eat, drink and relax. We had no problem following this command. We took our big puffy jackets off and switched from goggles to glacier glasses. I was wearing just four layers on top at this point. We stashed our backpacks and put some food in our pockets (btw my diet at this point consisted of Slim-Jims, Oreos, Life Savers, chocolate and Gummy Bears). JJ carried his pack and took a water bottle from each of us.
JJ called us together. He said: “OK, we’re all going to summit—no worries. We’re going to just take our time and climb up the Canaletta and then it’s just a ‘short’ traverse and we’ll be there—just a couple of hours or so (at this point we had been climbing for 6 hours). We all smiled and bumped fists and then we were off again.
The Canaletta is considered by many to be the crux of the climb on Aconcagua. Anders had told me that he didn’t think it was that bad and that the big Traverse we had just completed was actually harder. In any event, I wasn’t intimidated and I was buoyed by JJ’s comments. As we climbed it seemed like I was able to find an extra gear.
It was very, very steep but with all the snow we were able to hug the big wall to the right and climb on snow. Without the snow it’s typically much harder as one constantly slips downward on the loose scree and rock. JJ kept throwing in positive comments on how well we were climbing. It wasn’t easy for any of us and we stopped every 15 minutes or so or when it was extra steep (greater than 45 degrees) and caught our breaths for 60 seconds or so. All the way up the Canaletta there were definitely more breaths than steps—sometimes 3-4 deep pressure-breaths for each step. We passed 22,000 feet and the climbing was quite demanding but I found it exhilarating—I felt so alive and in the moment. After an hour or so we stopped to munch some snacks and enjoy the views.
Another half an hour brought us to the top of the Canaletta at around 6,750 meters or 22,150 feet. We had a little more than 200 meters to climb up a lengthy and pitchy (in places) traverse that climbed up to our left. We could see the summit ridge clearly and in the crystalline air it almost seemed like you could just reach out and touch it. Behind us to the South we could see the South Summit (which is just a bit lower than the true summit) and the top of the mighty 3,000-meter shear drop of the South Face. It was spectacular.
We made steady progress up the summit ridge passing several slower groups. We could see about 20 climbers or so on the ridge above us and no one was yet returning after summiting. As we finally approached the final parts of the ridge a couple of teams came down including IMG who had put 2 of their 9 clients on the summit. They congratulated us and the superstitious part of me cringed a little bit—I’m not there yet.
Finally, the route zigs steeply to the right and then zags on a flattish part to the left and then you make a final right turn and you have to scramble up a short section of rocks. I was behind JJ and he stepped up on the plateau and thrust his fist in the air. A few seconds later and there I was! I saw the summit plateau (about a third the size of a football field) with the cross in the middle and about 10-15 people milling about—I think my mind froze, as I didn’t know what to do.
JJ turned and was beaming. He opened his arms and embraced me in a big bear hug. I sobbed a bit and hugged him back real hard and whispered my thanks. I turned and hugged Thom and Todd and we all stood there with big dumb grins on our faces. JJ said he was going to call in our summit news to RMI. It was about 2:45 or so and we had been climbing for almost 9:30.
I walked over to the summit cross and took out my picture collage that I had prepared to take to the summit with me.
I taped myself thanking everyone who had helped me and then I placed the collage right next to the summit cross—I was a mess as I was sobbing uncontrollably.
I called Judy on the Sat Phone and got out “I did it” before I began to sob again. She was very excited and told me how proud she was of me. I tried to tell her as much as I could but mostly I just cried. After saying goodbye I rejoined my team and we took a few more pictures and stood in awe of the jaw-dropping views from the summit. Thom was able to get his wife on the Sat Phone as well and he started sobbing as well.
Soon we said goodbye to the place where we had struggled for 19 days to get to—we stayed a total of about 30 minutes, which is a long time for Aconcagua’s summit. Ironically, given the weather we faced on this trip, it was absolutely spectacular up on the summit.
The trip down was thankfully uneventful. It took us less than an hour to get back to the Cave and retrieve our packs. When we reached the Traverse above the Gran Acarreo the wind had stopped and a lot of the loose snow had been blasted away. Everything seemed far more benign and in short order we were all the way back at the Independencia Hut where we rested for 10 minutes or so. I had this amazing feeling of contentedness despite the weariness that had invaded my body.
Soon enough we were descending the steep slopes above High Camp and we could see our teammates come out of the tent and begin waving to us. We proudly walked into camp to cheers and clapping. A lot of hugs went around and Denise and Diane grabbed me and made me sit down and they took my crampons off and helped me struggle out of my high altitude boots. Randy brought me dinner of chicken and rice, which I really couldn’t eat. It took us only 2:15 to climb from the summit to High Camp—our total summit day was 12:15 in duration.
The rest of the evening went by in a blur and I slept fitfully through the night, as my body was very sore.
The next day required us to pack up camp and descend all the way back to BC—nearly 6,000 vertical feet below us. This took just under 5 hours and I found myself contentedly bringing up the rear.
Back in BC we bought a bunch of pizzas and some beer and we spent a couple of hours toasting our success as a team.
The 30th dawned crisp and beautiful and we set out for our 21-mile hike down to Las Lenas (Approach Camp One). I donned a t-shirt even though it was 40 degrees and the first couple of hours were probably the best and most beautiful trekking I have ever experienced. At the bottom of the Relinchos it was challenging and technical but we managed through it. We had to make three river crossings (twice the Relinchos and once the Vacas) which we did without the benefit of the mules—very cold but refreshing. It took us a total of 8:04 to reach Las Lenas.
At camp the muleteers cooked us a “gaucho” dinner of steak, tomatoes, onions and bread. We shared a boxed Malbec and a six-pack, which seemed to put everyone in a great mood. We told stories and warmed by the fire for several hours. It was magical.
That night, our last in the wild, we spread our sleeping bags out under the stars and fell asleep gazing up at the Southern Cross and Milky Way. It was phenomenal with shooting stars and several of the giant galactic nebulae clearly visible. I stayed up for a couple of hours because it was so beautiful I didn’t want to go to sleep.
The 31st was the 22nd day of our expedition and we enjoyed a short (3:58) trek out to the trailhead. It was another beautiful morning with a nice breeze blowing up the Vacas Valley. A van met us there and whisked us back to Los Penitentes where we were able to shower, pack-up and eat a lunch.
We drove the 3+ hours back to Mendoza and that night went out to eat at an Italian place around 10:45 p.m. I crawled into bed around 1:45. After buying a couple of gifts and eating a killer hot-dog with Mike in Mendoza I was finally on my plane Saturday afternoon (Feb 1st) for a lengthy but pleasant and uneventful trip home to family and friends.
So my most excellent adventure is now over. It was a very challenging experience but as I reflect it was the significant challenges that we faced that make it seem so special to me now. I also had the privilege of doing IM Lake Tahoe in September and it was my hardest and slowest Ironman of my career but due to that, I think one of the most special. This was the same way. While I wouldn’t have voluntarily signed up for what we faced, I wouldn’t change anything about this expedition—it was in a weird way perfect for me.
It’s great to get this one off of my list and I do indeed feel a bit redeemed. However, my overwhelming feelings are centered on the gratitude I have for my team and the tremendous support we gave each other—it truly was a team effort. I’m also so grateful for the support of my family and friends without whom I could not have prepared for an adventure of this magnitude and without whom the adventure would have been far less meaningful.
I also learned some important life-lessons on this trip. Most notably the power of a positive mental attitude. It’s a lesson I needed to re-learn and have re-enforced and I intend to apply it in as many ways as I can back here in civilization.
Thanks for reading this and sharing in my adventure!