Combine wine tasting and mountaineering to Aconcagua, the highest peak in South America? YES PLEASE! Read blog from last season and find out more
Combine wine tasting and mountaineering to Aconcagua, the highest peak in South America? YES PLEASE! Clicking submit on our application for the Polish Traverse Route on Aconcagua was so exciting, even though we did it 11 months in advance and had to deal with the anticipation of the climb for close to a year. At the same time, one does need to train, A LOT, for this climb so we were glad that we had this much time to prepare for this beast of a mountain!
Again, I cannot emphasize how much training needs to be done for this route and climb in general. Towering at near 23,000 feet above sea level Aconcagua is not only super tall, but the approach alone takes a few days and that is before you even start significant vertical gain. While Aconcagua is not considered a technical route by any means, it is also not a beginner mountain. It benefits climbers not only to have climbed in high altitudes, but also to have some ice and snow skills, crampon skills, ice ax/self-rescue, and practice carrying a heavy pack up significant hills. Obviously, it is not easy to train for the altitude alone (unless you are one of the lucky ones that lives in a high-altitude city!), but if you make sure that you are in the best possible shape (of your life probably), that helps you adapt to the altitude more easily.
The most anxiety I had about this peak was the altitude and how we would deal with it. Other mountains had never caused any issues but this one was a bit higher than our other peaks. We had climbed Kilimanjaro and Elbrus prior to this peak, as well as two other peaks higher than 17,000 feet, not to mention the peaks in our backyard which do not offer any significant altitude aside from Rainier at 14,410 feet. Would there be a huge difference as we climbed above 20,000 feet? Fortunately, I did not have to worry about this until close to the summit push!
When the day finally arrived for us to depart from Seattle to Mendoza, Argentina we were quite thrilled! We got right in the spirit and celebrated with some Malbec at the airport as we waited to take off; which also helped take the edge off the fact we had about 36 hours of travel ahead of us. Fast forward a couple of red-eyes, we made it to Mendoza! We arrived in the middle of the night which we were kind of bummed about, because we were hoping for some epic views of the Andes as we flew in. We obtained our million bags of gear (everything arrived safely!), and then headed to the hotel, where we were greeted with another glass of Malbec! It was past 2 in the morning and the city was still bustling and partying; it was quite the welcome!
We were lucky enough to have a few days in the city prior to the climb itself, and Mendoza is just spectacular! All the food (and wine) were divine, hospitality was exceptional, and the beauty of the city itself made us enjoy every second. The trees are considered sacred in the city of Mendoza, they line all the streets to help shade from the hot sun and provide picturesque scenes every corner you turn. Since our entire team arrived a few days early, we were able to meet up with our guides and the other climbers we would be spending the next few weeks with on our first day in Mendoza!
Per usual, from day one the organization of Mountain Madness stood out; we were fortunate enough to have as our lead guide, climbing legend Oswaldo Freire (Ossy), who makes you feel like family from the second you meet him. He was very knowledgeable of not only the mountain itself, but the city of Mendoza and all that it had to offer before we headed off. Our initial team meeting was great, we shared our past summits, future goals, and went over the skeleton of what was going to happen over the course of the next few weeks. Then it was out for our first team dinner and all the Asado we could possibly eat!
Obtaining permits was a breeze for the climb, Ossy and Pablo assisted us step by step and then waited for the physical permits, which allowed the rest of us to continue enjoying the city of Mendoza! Later that afternoon, we did a gear check, one of many packs and organization, and then had another team dinner at one of the most memorable restaurants we have ever dined at. Make sure you come to Mendoza with a love of meat (and maybe wine/grappa) because you will not be disappointed! Our final meal in Mendoza before the climb was at an open top restaurant that had grapevines dangling above while you ate. There was one chef who was a master of all things meat, and would prepare everything for the table while you watched him in action. It was such an enjoyable evening.
The next morning it was time to head closer to the mountain! Our group packed up the van and trailer and then headed out for a 3‑hour drive to Penitentes, a ski town in the winter, and our last hotel stay before not showering for a few weeks! The drive out was extremely scenic, passing vineyards and leaving the flat lands of the city behind as we entered the mountainous region of the Andes.
Once we arrived at Penitentes it was time to get to work. We organized the gear that would be transported via mule to our base camp, packed our day packs for the next 3 days, and separated gear that we would not need until higher altitudes. Nerves were starting to set in, this was really happening! After all the food and gear were organized and packed we enjoyed a final night in the hotel and chatted about the days to come. The tension in the room prior to the climb was palpable. Nerves are always present before a climb starts. Will we make it to the top? Will we have to deal with terrible weather? How will the altitude affect us? It is best to not worry, but it’s hard not to!
As headed out to the park entrance the next morning, it was a beautiful blue bird day, and a little bit warmer than anticipated. Little did we know how much we would miss that warmth as we got closer to the top! The initial butterflies and nerves vanished once we all finally started walking through the valley between the gorgeous mountains. The team easily entered the groove of climbing, eating all the snacks, and enjoying the fantastic scenery.
This pattern continued for 3 days prior to arriving at base camp, Plaza de Argentina at around 14,000 feet. Each night on the trek in, we were rewarded by the Argentinian Gauchos (who were in charge of the mules that carried a lot of our gear to base camp) who provided us with traditional Gaucho barbecues that had exceptional, you guessed it, MEAT! I had no idea we would be treated to such delights in the middle of nowhere and far away from any type of epicurean luxury.
On the third day we reached our initial base camp and got our first views of Aconcagua. The mountain truly looks massive from any perspective. Were we really going to climb that peak? It also seemed excruciatingly far away so it certainly benefited me to keep looking at my feet and take it one step at a time.
That one step at a time finally brought us to base camp, which was glorious! We had our own group tent which housed a dining table and chairs, all the water, coffee, and tea we could consume, as well as three meals a day plus afternoon snacks while we were there. Other tents available to us were the electronics tent where we could charge our devices, a relaxation tent with yoga mats and exercise balls, and a shower tent! Wifi was also available which allowed us to check in with the real world before the harder portion of the climb.
On a side note, rest days are the best days! Rest days are built into the expedition and were such a tremendous help to the team’s mental and physical health. Playing card games, getting to know the crew a bit more, and drinking all the coffee we wanted, were amenities we enjoyed at base camp during those rest days! But of course, after the rest, comes the work. It was time to move loads up to the higher camps. We were blessed with amazing weather for the next few days as we moved up from 14,000 feet to 16,000 feet with all of our personal gear and group gear. There is the option to obtain a porter for any portion of the climb, everyone in the group made different decisions regarding porter usage but ultimately everyone used one at some point during the climb whether it was to carry gear up, carry waste down, or assistance throughout the entire climb. The options are endless for porter support.
The acclimatization schedule that Mountain Madness uses is spot on, we will climb high, drop gear, sleep low, then repeat and move up to stay. We moved from 14−16,000 feet. Then 16,000−18,000 feet, then finally up to 20,000 feet at the final camp prior to our summit bid. Our guides were constantly aware of the weather circling the summit and changed our agenda to give us the best possible chance to summit. We ended up moving our summit bid up a few days to beat weather that was heading toward us.
The most welcome part of the entire climb was the large dome tent that was available at each camp. It offered sanctuary from the weather as well as warmth and a place for the team to sit together comfortably and eat protected from the elements. The hard part was leaving said refuge on summit morning for a frigid alpine start!
On day twelve of our expedition we did just that. Per usual, the night before a summit attempt is spent not sleeping, listening to the wind, and checking your clock to see how many more hours you have until you actually have to peel yourself out of your sleeping bag and start putting on all your gear. At 3 am we could hear the alarms going off around camp and see the head lamps flicker on. It was go-time. After putting on all our layers and lacing up our double boots we had a quick breakfast and then to headed upward. Summit days are never easy, they are challenging both mentally and physically; even if the best weather window is present. I will spare you the details of the crazy swings in weather we had during our 8‑hour climb up to the summit. There were good times, and there were very bad times…then the sun showed its beautiful face and warmed us a bit for the final approach to the summit.
After a bit of a rock scramble at well over 22,000 feet we could see the actual summit, only steps away. I am usually quite the cry baby when I reach the summit of these peaks but this one took the cake. It was one of those hysterical ugly cries, which is quite hard to do that high! Once I regained my composure we all celebrated as a team at the top of Aconcagua. We were very fortunate because we were the only team on the entire mountain making a summit attempt that day; it is hard to describe how special it is to be the only 7 people standing on the roof of the entire continent of South America.
After the short celebration and congratulatory hugs, we soon realized we were only halfway done and now it was time to head back down to sea level. The weather gods were definitely on our side on the way down and the team cruised back to our high camp in under four hours. We all crashed in our tents and were lucky enough to have dinner served to us in bed, quite the luxurious treat when you are that exhausted. That night we slept like logs and then woke up the next morning to pack up camp and descend to base camp on the other side of the mountain at 14,000 feet.
We spent the rest of the day and night at Plaza de las Mulas savoring our summit the day before. Such an accomplishment! After spending the night at base camp, it was time for our final day on the mountain, a 17-mile trek back to civilization. We were so close to a hot shower and a bed! The views on the way out were breathtaking, and we had stunning views of the summit almost the entire way. Very different from the way in when you only caught a glimpse of the peak on day three! We descended 6,000 more feet and started to see the color green again. It was a weird sensation to smell grass and flowers after 2 weeks of inhaling dust and rocks.
We arrived at the trail head in the early afternoon having completed the circumnavigation of the mountain along with tagging the summit! We hopped into the waiting trucks and headed back to Penitentes to celebrate our achievement, the strength of our team and our 100% summit success! After a leisurely morning the next day we all headed back to Mendoza. Our trip was coming to an end (but the celebrating was not!) We spent the next couple of days savoring all the Malbecs and carne we could! The temperature in Mendoza was 80 degrees before and after the climb and we did not realize how welcome it would be after spending that amount of time in the colder mountain temps the prior few weeks. It is a magical thing being able to stand on top of a frigid mountain 22,800 feet in the sky one day and then a couple of days later be swimming in a pool in the hot sunshine.
After what seemed like a short 21 days, it was time for us to head home. Always bittersweet after a successful expedition. As much as you love the luxuries of home, you miss the camaraderie of your small team on the mountain; enjoying group meals, afternoon card games, telling old climbing stories and creating new ones, and of course making future plans to climb with members of your team. Expeditions are a special thing and we will be talking about this one for a long time to come!
Next up…Denali! Make it Happen!