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