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