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Peru with Mountain Madness

Aconcagua Trip Report Part 3 — Team Weathers Storm

Here is Ian’s final report for our ear­ly Feb­ru­ary Aconcagua Nor­mal Route expe­di­tion. Thanks again to all of our fear­less climbers that joined us on this trip, we can’t wait to climb with you again!

Tino lead­ing the team up the moun­tain. Ian Nichol­son photo

Tino and I had been watch­ing the weath­er, uti­liz­ing three dif­fer­ent sources every night the entire trip. Like a jug­ger­naut, the storm was still approach­ing with­out any deviance. Now just three days from our pro­ject­ed sum­mit attempt, and we feared the fore­cast accu­ra­cy to a great degree. The weath­er was call­ing for some snow but, much worse yet, 70 – 80 mph winds on all of our poten­tial sum­mit days and even for sev­er­al days before and after that window.

It was a very tough deci­sion to go to Camp Col­era (5970 meters or 19,586 feet). You don’t want to get caught that high in a storm with high winds and ‑30F temps. The storm was knock­ing out our sum­mit win­dow, giv­ing us next to 0% chance of suc­cess. Our oth­er option was to try to sum­mit on the last fore­cast­ed nice day straight from Nido de Con­dores, or Camp 2. Climbers do this every year, typ­i­cal­ly with a lit­tle more acclima­ti­za­tion time, but they do it. The ver­ti­cal ele­va­tion gain isn’t ter­ri­ble or unachiev­able. It would mean only and extra 1500 feet but we would­n’t be 100% accli­ma­tized, we’d be close but not 100% ready. We were accli­ma­tized enough that it was unlike­ly that any of the team was going to get severe alti­tute sick­ness but as a result of not spend­ing quite suf­fi­cient enough time at alti­tude the going was going to be tough, but hey, that’s when the tough get going” or so the say­ing goes. 

A shot of the storm form­ing on the sum­mit dur­ing one of the rest days. Ian Nichol­son photo

We slow­ly moved to Nido tak­ing our time and rest­ing often try­ing to con­serve ener­gy for the next day, which was going to be, as I put it to the group, like a junk yard dog fight.” With that, we ate din­ner and went to bed by 10pm. The alarm went off too soon, 3.5 hours lat­er at 1:30am. After some slight­ly mal­func­tion­ing stoves and some shoot­ing flames from our vestibule, Sar­gent Nichol­son” remind­ed every­one that we would be climb­ing by 3:30am.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly because of the rapid ascent and some pri­or stom­ach issues, a few mem­bers of the team had to turn back in the first hour. Our group of 6 forged ahead, but at an increas­ing slow­ness. It was­n’t that the team as a whole had­n’t trained hard enough — in fact, it was quite the con­trary. Tino and I thought this was one of the stronger teams we have had, all of them with impres­sive train­ing reg­i­ments. We just slowed way down because we weren’t quite adjust­ed to the alti­tude yet. No one had mas­sive headaches or gur­gling lungs, we were able to go uphill fast enough to make it up and down safe­ly. It was very sad, but a few hours after the sun came up we made the deci­sion to go down just over 20,000 feet. So, at that point we made the heart-break­ing deci­sion to call it and the group descend­ed back to Nido. 

The team at Nido de Con­dores. Ian Nichol­son photo

After arriv­ing in Nido, we slept for 3 – 4 hours before mak­ing the deci­sion to come down all the way back to Mulas. The winds the next day were fore­cast­ed to be 40 – 50mph. As a result of the now impend­ing storm, we could­n’t even get porters to help us down that day. We could hear oth­er teams fight­ing over them over the radio because every­one at Camp Col­era want­ed and need­ed to get down before the storm moved in.

So we pack our stuff up, car­ry­ing what we could and leav­ing the rest in a sin­gle tent left up for the porters to retrieve the fol­low­ing day. We once again enjoyed/​endured the scree surf down to Plaza de Mulas where Pablo had fresh piz­za wait­ing for us!

Tino enjoy­ing his piz­za! Ian Nichol­son photo

It was a incred­i­bly windy night, we woke up the next day hear of peo­ple try­ing to get down high­er on the moun­tain and it sound­ed bru­tal — tales of tents get­ting destroyed in the night. The weath­er had moved in hard­er and faster and cold­er than we had expect­ed. We were all very sad not to make the sum­mit but hap­py to be at Plaza de Mulas. Our own tent, which had left up for the porters was destroyed. We had staked it out with metic­u­lous care, but nev­er­the­less the jug­ger­naut or the junk yard dog” had bro­ken 3 poles. 

Back in Plaza de Mulas Nor­man was still stoked to get to a sum­mit and was itch­ing to do some climb­ing. So he and I blitzed to the top of Cer­ro Bonete at 16,417 feet (5004 meters), which is the 10th high­est point in North Amer­i­ca just behind Mount Bona and Mount Steele and just ahead of Mount Black­burn and Mount San­ford. We made it to the sum­mit gain­ing 2300 feet in near­ly 2 hours flat, and descend­ed in anoth­er hour!

Nor­man on the sum­mit of Cer­ro Bonete. Ian Nichol­son photo

After a hearty din­ner, we went to bed men­tal­ly prepar­ing our­selves for the 19 mile hike all the way back to the trailhead. 

We woke up under slight­ly stormy skies and hus­tled down the Cues­ta Bra­va hop­ing to get out of the annoy­ing wind. To our dis­may, the wind actu­al­ly got worse. We could hard­ly hear each oth­er even when stand­ing side by side. We marched down as the wind pushed us around and made breath­ing dif­fi­cult because of the dust. The 30 – 50mph winds bat­tered us, forc­ing us to cut our breaks short. We hiked all the way to Con­flu­en­cia from Plaza de Mulas with only two very short breaks.

Spir­its still high! Ian Nichol­son photo

At Con­flu­en­cia, we stopped for just over a full hour and ate and rest­ed. Quite suit­ing for our trip, it began to snow for the last hour and a half to the trail­head. As we descend­ed, the snow turned to rain. The rangers offered us a ride in their pick up around 45 min­utes from the end, but the group refused, instead choos­ing to fin­ish­ing strong, under their own pow­er. We arrived at the trail­heead and a van pick us up and whisked us back into civilization. 

We ate amaz­ing, amaz­ing food at Los Pen­i­tentes, includ­ing the fab­u­lous ravi­o­li I’d been crav­ing since we depart­ed. Despite not mak­ing the sum­mit, we had an excel­lent group and we enjoyed each oth­ers’ com­pa­ny as much as our time in the moun­tains. To top off the trip, we went on a fan­tas­tic wine tour through some of Men­doza­’s best wineries. 

The team on their wine tour. Ian Nichol­son photo

Ian Nichol­son photo

Cheers! Ian Nichol­son photo

It has been anoth­er stormy sea­son on Aconcagua with high­er winds and more pre­cip­i­ta­tion than nor­mal. Depend­ing on who you talk too, some of the low­est or the low­est suc­cess rates on record! Con­grats to every­one for their hard work and perseverance.”

~ MM Guide Ian Nicholson