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735172 198818193596975 1171189965 n reality check

Aconcagua Expedition Reality Check For Group #3

Aconcagua is just a walk-up. Or at least that is what I am told by a lot of prospec­tive climbers I meet down here in Argentina. 

I am back in Men­doza soak­ing up the sun and heat, warm­ing my soul to the bones. But just a few days ago I was suit­ing up in my full sum­mit day attire just to exit my tent in scream­ing winds and dri­ving snow to deliv­er food and water to my team­mates hun­kered down at Nido de Con­dores — Camp 2, 4500 ft below the sum­mit. I am focus­ing on refu­el­ing, and putting on some of the 8 pounds I lost up there, before my next expe­di­tion which starts on Feb­ru­ary 3rd

Get­ting ready to deliv­er food and water to the tents. Tino Vil­lanue­va photo

In the best of con­di­tions, Aconcagua’s 22,841 ft sum­mit can be reached by fol­low­ing a trail. How­ev­er, this trail is not your typ­i­cal hik­ing trail, nice­ly main­tained by a crew of For­est Ser­vice work­ers or vol­un­teers dig­ging, smooth­ing, clear­ing and per­fect­ing for your com­fort. No, this trail is com­prised of loose rock, uncom­fort­able tra­vers­ing, some­times areas of steep snow and a gen­er­al­ly impromp­tu, hap­haz­ard and unim­proved path. Add to this that you are trav­el­ling to near­ly 7000 meters in 2 weeks, and the fact that at that alti­tude, walk­ing slow­er than you ever imag­ined pos­si­ble pro­vides the phys­i­cal equiv­a­lent of sprint­ing up a flight of stairs, and you have one tough climb — please don’t call it a hike. This is the alti­tude where jets fly, people!

Prepar­ing for the trip! Oswal­do Freire photo

In nor­mal con­di­tions, there is some snow to deal with on the climb. A long tra­verse, face into the wind, across the Grand Acarreo (which has the dual mean­ing of haul­ing a load” and to cause hard­ship”), can be snowy. If it is hard snow, it is a long, but direct, 2000 ft slide down to Nido de Con­dores. Ice axes, trekking poles and cram­pons become impor­tant. This equip­ment is not always need­ed, but when it is need­ed, you will want to have it. I have seen peo­ple (let’s call them the walk-uppers”) shut down sim­ply by not bring­ing along the prop­er equip­ment. The walk-uppers are some­times alone but also some­times with oth­er guid­ed groups. Rest assured, Moun­tain Mad­ness will not let this hap­pen to you on one of our trips! 

And it is often as sim­ple as that. Give the moun­tain some cred­it. Bring the prop­er equip­ment. Climb­ing tools, dou­ble boots (this means the lin­er comes out of the boot shell), expe­di­tion style parkas and mit­tens, a puffy down sleep­ing bag, have your kit dialed. My kit is almost iden­ti­cal to the gear I bring on Denali expe­di­tions, though I often watch walk-uppers eyes widen in hor­ror when I tell them their hik­ing boots are prob­a­bly not the best choice for Aconcagua.

On the way up in short-lived sun­ny days. Tino Vil­lanue­va photo

Then there are the con­di­tions I had on my Jan­u­ary 11th expe­di­tion. We had some real­ly nice days, some­times too hot, ear­ly in the trip. It was the type of weath­er we hope for in the moun­tains in the sum­mer: gen­er­al­ly nice days, cold at night with occa­sion­al days of clouds and pre­cip­i­ta­tion. How­ev­er, as we began the busi­ness por­tion of the climb, the weath­er turned for the worse. Occa­sion­al storms became pre­dictable, dai­ly events. As we moved up the moun­tain our team spent one day, which was planned as a car­ry day to fer­ry loads up high­er on the moun­tain, sequestered in our tents at Camp 1 (Camp Cana­da) due to heavy snowfall.

The next day we had to move to stay on track. At first, the storm seemed to let up. It was a clear morn­ing, though the wind was a con­stant pres­ence on the hike to Camp 2. We were lucky to set up our tents in what we would lat­er real­ize was just a lull in the storm. Almost as soon as the tents were up, clouds engulfed camp and the wind cranked to tent-flap­ping speed. 

Tino enjoy­ing” a good freeze-dried meal. Oswal­do Freire photo

The next 3 days were char­ac­ter­ized by con­stant winds, 45 kph being the most friend­ly speeds we saw, and dai­ly pound­ings. The day would usu­al­ly start clear, but still windy and blow­ing snow, then start snow­ing in the after­noon. All the wind and snow result­ed in two foot drifts inside vestibules, destroyed tent flys and gen­er­al­ly not a lot of time spent out­side the tents. 

Snow accu­mu­lat­ing from the storms. Oswal­do Freire photo

For 2 days we suf­fered through the tem­pest. On the 3rd day we watched in astound­ing sur­prise as climbers attempt­ed the sum­mit. At Nido, the wind was howl­ing, in the 50 – 60 kph range, and it was bit­ter cold. I could only imag­ine what it was like up high. Then, as has been the case the past days, the after­noon brought more clouds and more snow. Sum­mit teams became sep­a­rat­ed in the white­out, peo­ple got lost and peo­ple got sick with the extreme alti­tude and overexertion. 

The next morn­ing the heli­copters were fly­ing ear­ly — not a good sign. The storm, along with climbers’ blind per­sis­tence for the sum­mit, had left one climber dead, one climber lost, and many were being evac­u­at­ed for frost­bite and alti­tude ill­ness. Even­tu­al­ly the lost climber was found, albeit with severe frost­bite, and car­ried down 6000 ft to Plaza de Mulas.

This is not to say Aconcagua is scary or impos­si­bly dif­fi­cult. In fact, I watched a climber run­ning down through Plaza de Mulas attempt­ing a speed ascent. His roundtrip time (Park Entrance-Sum­mit-Park Entrance) was 15 hours 42 min­utes — what a fun day! What I’m say­ing is Aconcagua, as all moun­tains, deserves respect. With respect and a healthy dose of luck, climbers achieve amaz­ing feats. And when the right com­bi­na­tion of weath­er and con­di­tions coin­cide with a team with the prop­er equip­ment and pre­pared­ness, and knowl­edge­able guides, climbers have the priv­i­lege of stand­ing on the sum­mit. Our team achieved the amaz­ing feat of sur­viv­ing 3 days in ter­ri­ble weath­er at 18,500 ft. If not for the weath­er and con­di­tions, every one of us would have stood on top.

Keep­ing spir­its up! Oswal­do Freire photo

I would like to con­grat­u­late Marc, Nick, Cameo, Ken, Lar­ry and Dave for their amaz­ing feat on Aconcagua this Jan­u­ary. Wish me luck for my next trip!

~ MM Guide Tino Villanueva

The team. Oswal­do Freire photo