Guest Blog — A Climber’s Journal of Aconcagua
Aconcagua, January 11 – 31, 2015
The team is arriving in Mendoza, Argentina over the next few days and we will soon begin our expedition and ascent of the highest mountain in the western and southern hemispheres. Aconcagua (the stone sentinel) stands at an impressive 6962m (22,834 ft.) above sea level, one of the “7 Summits”. It is great training for the high altitude peaks in the Himalayas. Aconcagua, via the Normal Route, is a non-technical climb on established routes. No glacier travel. Ice axe and crampons are usually only used at higher elevations as the trail steepens and can be snow covered and icy. Groups rope up in only the worst conditions.
We begin our journey in the lush wine region of Mendoza, travel by van to the trail head then hike up the arid Horcones River valley to our base camp at Plaza de Mulas (19 miles). Mules carry our gear and supplies to base camp. From here we will establish 3 camps as we slowly move up the mountain to the highest point in the Andes. Aconcagua is known at times for high winds (100mph) and subzero temps, as well as the extreme high altitude environment. This mountain is never an easy feat and over half the climbers who attempt are turned back.
The mountain taken from our flight from Santiago to Buenos Aries in March, 2013. I believe our route follows the gradual ridge on the left side of the mountain. Doug Peers photo
Day 1 in Mendoza
Sampling some of the local beef in Mendoza. Huge!! And very tasty. Even a vegetarian has to try a bit of this.
Now that’s a Steak!! Doug Peers photo
Day 2: Off to the Andes
We travel west towards the Andes Mountains several hours from Mendoza and stay at the Penitentes Ski Hill facilities which are just outside Aconcagua National Park Boundaries.
Doug Peers photo
Day 3: First View of Aconcagua
After a short shuttle to the park gates we get our first glimpse of Aconcagua up the Horcones River Valley. We have a relatively short hike of 3 to 4 hours to a mini- base camp at Confluencia. We are just carrying day packs today as all our climbing/camping gear are being carried by mules.
Day 4: Up the Horcones Valley to Confluencia Camp
Hiking to Confluencia.
Mules carrying gear. Doug Peers photos
Day 5: Acclimatization Hike to Plaza Francia
On Day 5 we stay at Confluencia and day hike up a glacier valley flowing off Aconcagua to an impressive viewpoint of the 10,000 ft southwest face of Aconcagua. We would later look down over the edge at this point from the summit.
On the hike to Plaza Francia. Doug Peers photos
Day 6: Confluencia to Plaza de Mulas Base Camp
This was a long hot day of 7 – 8 hours of hiking from Confluencia to Plaza de Mulas, our base for moving up and down the mountain
Confluencia to Plaza de Mulas. Doug Peers photo
Day 7: Rest Day at Base Camp
Time for a rest to get used to the thin air and get ready to move further up the mountain. Showers, Internet, telephone, food, drink, art, etc. This is the largest base camp in the world with the exception of Mt Everest each spring.
Aconcagua base camp overview. Doug Peers photo
Day 8: Acclimatization Hike to Camp 1
Aconcagua is dry, very dry. This year there is no snow at Camp 1 and very little snow on the upper mountain. We use snow on the mountain as our source of water. To avoid the logistics of carrying water to Camp 1 we decide to skip the camp and do an acclimatization hike instead, then make our next full move to Camp 2 in a couple days. A couple of young guys in the group forego the porter service and decide to carry everything up to at least Camp 2 and drop a partial load at Camp 1. They pay the price further up the mountain and switch to porter help further up. For us mortals from sea level not opting for porter help up the mountain substantially reduces your chance of reaching the summit.
Camp one. Doug Peers photo
Day 9: Rest Day at Base Camp
We take another rest day to acclimatize and prepare for the big move to Camp 2 and to wait for porters (we need 8 to carry all the supplies for 13 of us).
A couple of us do a day hike to an old lodge and to the toe of a glacier nearby.
A group member has trouble acclimatizing and suffers severe sleep apnea so he decides to call it quits.
You can see the summit of Aconcagua in this photo. No snow on this side!
Hiking on the rest day. Doug Peers photos
Day 10: Move to Camp 2 18,200ft
Today we make the big move to Camp 2. This will be the start of our push to the summit. The difference between the air at 14,500, base camp, and Camp 2 is very noticeable and we all are suffering as we pull into camp. Camp 2 sits on a large saddle between Aconcagua proper and an adjacent minor peak. It offers great views toward the summit and toward the west yielding spectacular sunsets.
View from Camp Two.
Striking sunset on Camp Two. Doug Peers photos
Day 11: Acclimatization Hike to Camp 3
Today we rest in the morning then take the steady uphill hike to Camp 3 at 19,500 ft., hang around for a while then head back to Camp 2 for the night.
It is cold at Camp 3 today. Last night the winds picked up for the first time and cooled things off. It our weather window is looking perfect for a Friday Night/Saturday morning summit attempt.
Returning from the visit to Camp Three. Doug Peers photo
Day 12: Move to Camp 3
Today we packed up our Camp 2 and moved to Camp 3. The porters would move ahead with the gear and set up the tents ahead of us at each camp. We would arrive later in the day.
Camp 3 is the junction of the Normal Route we were on and the Polish Glacier Route or route from the opposite side. This route has a one day longer approach and skirts the remnants of the disappearing Polish Glacier. Both routes start from Camp 3 for the summit. Camp 3 tends to be more congested then Camp 2 with teams staying just 2 nights. The nights before and after the summit attempt.
The slightly more populated Camp Three. Doug Peers photo
Day 13: Summit Day
After a very restless sleep we were woken up around 4 am to prepare for a 5 am start. At 19,500 ft. everything seems to be a chore, not to mention it’s cold and dark. The worst part is getting your boots on and tied up. It leaves you totally out of breath.
My stomach had been bothering me in the night and I had a bad spell of nausea shortly after we started. I dropped my pack out of frustration and almost packed it in. After encouragement to give it another go from my friend and Mexican guide Ricardo, I started to feel better. In a couple hours I was back on track and by mid- day I was feeling great and moving with the lead group.
On the summit approach. Doug Peers photo
It took an incredibly long time to get up the mountain. The crux of this climb is a section called the Canaleta Couloir. It is a steep rock/scree gully that you have to zigzag your way up. This year it was very dry and there was a constant danger of rock fall from above. We spent probably 4 hours moving up this face finally traversing across at the top and rising up on the summit platform some 12 hours after starting out. From the summit you can look back at the knife edge ridge of the lower summit, look down the other side at the 9−10,000 ft drop to the valley glacier below and see into Chile towards the South Pacific Ocean. After the brief summit celebration, pictures and a bit of a walk around it was time to start making our way down. With the help of gravity and some new found energy we walked into camp 3 just 3 hours later at 8pm. 15 hours after we left camp in the morning.
Summit celebration! Doug Peers photos
Day 14: Descending from Camp 3 to Base Camp
It was a leisurely morning. We waited until the sun warmed up the tents before moving about, we slowly packed up our gear and broke down the camp. The porters would be up later in the day to carry down our group and heavy personal gear.
The descent to Base camp take about 2 hours and we take a more direct route than we did on the way up. The trick is to find the trail with the softest scree so you can hop/slide down with the least effort. No pictures going down as you need to concentrate on your footwork or you will end up on your ass.
In Base Camp the staff from Fernando Grajales greeted us with congratulations and served up the traditional pizza lunch for returning climbers.
The rest of the group decided to helicopter out from Base Camp to the trail head. Then on to Mendoza that night. By 8pm they were all on their way leaving the 3 guides and me to prepare for the long hike out the next day.
Hiking from Base Camp to the Trailhead. Doug Peers photo
Day 15: Base Camp to Trailhead
The 4 of us remaining at base camp are treated to a soft bunk in the bunkhouse for the night. The hike out is mostly downhill but it will be a long potentially hot day. After a leisurely morning and late breakfast we organize the gear and tag it for transportation by the mule trains.
We leave around 11am. It takes me 7 hours total to hike out to the trailhead including, several rest stops and a 40 – 45 break for a beer at Confluencia while we waited for Joshua who was nursing a sore knee. As it turned out, he passed us while at Confluencia and we just caught up with him near the end.
We were checked in at Penitentes by 6, showered and shaved and having another good dinner by 8:30pm.
Dinner in Mendoza with the group. Doug Peers photo
Day 16: Back to Mendoza and final dinner
It was a very scenic and satisfying drive back to Mendoza knowing that the hiking was done, we had made the summit, enjoyed the mountain scenery and would be heading home to our families soon. We had our final dinner at the same restaurant we started at several weeks ago. We were back to sample the 3″ thick juicy steaks but unfortunately it is seldom as good the second time and it wasn’t. A different cut of steak wasn’t nearly as good as the stories of the climb, the best, the worst, the funniest, and the hardest.
It was a great trip, Joshua, Jaime and Ricardo worked hard and were great guides. It was a great group of guys to climb with and I enjoyed getting to know everyone very much. Thank you to everyone!
Final Flyby — Aconcagua in the center, the Horcones valley to base camp on the left and the valley to Plaza Francia on the right. Johnny Eason photo
~MM Client Doug Peers.