Mt Aconcagua, Argentina
10th December 2011 - 4th January 2012
Mendoza (851m) - Today is our first full day in Mendoza. In the morning we have a kit inspection from our expedition leader to ensure all our kit is of a good enough standard for what Mother Nature has to throw at us then it is off to the Cuba Building to sign and collect our climbing permits. We meet our local expedition leaders, Gianni who has 21 summits to his name and Qiqe with 19 summits!
Confluencia (3,400m) Day 1 - Today we will be walking from the Park Entrance to Confluencia, 3,000m to 3,400m, this takes around two and a half hours. We split our kit into three bags, one bag containing all our mountain equipment goes by mule straight to Plaza de Mulas (Base Camp) which we will not see for the next three days, one bag with sleeping bag and clothes which will go by mule to Confluencia which is where we will be staying tonight and a third bag which has water and food for today’s trek to Confluencia. There is a sign at the entrance warning of the following altitude risks:
The sun’s intensity increases at altitude, every 1,000m gained reduces the SPF of sun cream by a factor of 5, therefore, if you use SPF30 at sea level, at 4,000m you use SPF50 for same protection.
Plaza Francia (4,090m) Day 2 - Today we take an acclimatisation walk from Confluencia to Plaza Francia, 3,400m to 4,090m, where we will get our first close up view of the South Face of Mt Aconcagua. We will be climbing the North Face but it still gives us an idea of the challenge ahead. As we walk up the dusty track from Confluencia I can feel my hands start to swell due to the altitude. As we reach Plaza Francia we stop for lunch and admire the view, Qiqe talks us through the three possible routes there are up the south face and the route he climbed which took him 5 days, he then explained about the hardest route which has a 50% survival rate due to its technical difficulty and the risk of avalanche, at which point an avalanche came ripping down the exact valley he was talking about and we hope there were no climbers in there at that time as there would have been no chance of survival. We finish our lunch and head back to Confluencia.
Acclimatisation Walk Day 3 - First thing we have this morning is our first medical, they check your Oxygen Saturation, Blood Pressure and Heart Rate. After we all passed our medicals we headed off for another acclimatisation walk, we intended to climb a nearby peak but the ground was too unstable and we had to continue down the valley. Our guides decided we would stop for lunch near some boulders, the reasons became clear after lunch when they broke out their climbing shoes and started to rock climb on the boulders, keeping in mind that most people struggle to walk at these altitudes never mind rock climb. On our return to Confluencia we pass a river of glacial water in which we dip our heads to cool down and refill our water bottles as the water is perfectly clean.
Plaza de Mulas (Base Camp 4,300m) Day 4 - Today is a long walk from Confluencia to Plaza de Mulas which is 3,400m to 4,300m and will take us just over 6 hours. The route is direct and goes through a very dusty valley which is locally known as The Beach” as the ground is very sandy, there is no shade in the valley and we have over 6 hours to walk so we cover up with hats and buffs. Half way along the valley we meet a group that had already summited and informed us that the inside of their tents was a chilling -15c. On our way up the steep ascent into Plaza de Mulas we pass the skeleton remains of a Mule.
Rest Day One Day 5 - Today is a rest day where we just spend time in base camp and rest to absorb more oxygen. We wake to find in the mess tent that the olive oil that had been left out was frozen solid, coats on until the sun comes up! We take a gentle walk around camp and find that the camp has hot showers which are $15 a go! The toilets are metal barrels in the ground with a cubical over them. We are shown where base camp used to be until the early hours one morning in May 1997 when the rock face of Aconcagua let go and tonnes of rock came crashing down and killed six people in their tents. The afternoon was spent sorting the food which needs to be carried up the mountain between us.
Bonete (5,061m) Day 6 - Today we climb Bonete which stands at 5,061m which is the same as Camp 1 on Aconcagua but by climbing this peak for acclimatisation it saves us climbing the same ground over and over again and also we get a fantastic view of Aconcagua. As we leave Plaza de Mulas we have to work our way through some Penatenties which are a maze of snow peaks carved out by the wind. We get through the penatenties and continue down the dusty track where we pass a sign which says “Rescue Patrol” and there is a wheelbarrow next to it, if you get into danger and need rescuing only one person comes out to help you and one person cannot carry a stretcher so they use a wheelbarrow. As we continue to climb the gradient starts to steepen and we head straight up a scree run, this is going to be fun on the way down. We reach the summit and decide this is the best place to have lunch, the views are spectacular and the mountain range directly behind me in the picture above is the border with Chile. The summit is very windy and we have to wear high altitude glasses to protect our eyes from the intense sunlight.
Rest Day Two Day 7 - Another rest day today and time for our second medical, the doctors are checking all the same things they checked down at Confluencia and this time they are also checking our lungs for crackling sounds as we breath as this is the first signs of HAPE (High Altitude Pulmonary Edema). In the afternoon I get board of sitting around and go for a short walk, I head up the north face of Aconcagua to a place called Four Fingers which is four 20ft rocks sticking out of the ground. As I steadily walk along listening to my music I look back at base camp and find I have climbed to 4,550m and base camp is looking very small from here! I sit for an hour just watching the world go by and it starts to snow, I think I best head down now as weather can change around here in seconds but I had my down jacket and warm clothing with me. As I reach base camp the snow started to get very heavy and within 40 minutes the whole camp was covered in a white blanket. The orange glow of the sun through the snow filled clouds made the view spectacular.
Camp Canada (Camp One 5,060m) Day 8 - Today is our first scheduled steps on the mountain as I had already been half way to camp 1 yesterday on my little leg stretching walk. We are heading for Camp Canada (Camp 1) at 5,060m, we all have our bags packed and we are carrying about an extra 5kgs of the food which we divided out yesterday. We head up to camp 1 where a porter has already carried our tents. Now that we are outside of base camp we need to source our own water, there are no rivers or streams on Aconcagua so we have to take a sack and our ice axe and go find some clean ice to bring back and melt for water, carrying a sack of ice at this altitude takes some doing and we have to keep stopping and taking it in turns.
Nido de Condores (Camp Two 5,600m) Day 9 - An early morning rise and we collapse our tents but we do not pack them up, we anchor them down with rocks and head up to Nido de Condores (Camp 2) at 5,600m. We depart in bright sunshine but half way to camp 2 the wind picks up, when it snows at this altitude it falls as hale and sits loose on the ground, when the wind picks up this blows the hale around and it is called Spin Drift, everyone breaks out the balaclavas and ski goggles as walking through spin drift is like having ice thrown in your face at 70mph and that stings! When we reach camp 2 we take the food that we have carried up along with our summit clothing and ice axe and cover them under some rocks as we are now heading straight back to base camp. The first rule to avoiding altitude sickness is “Climb High and Sleep Low” so we shock our bodies into generating more red blood cells which carry the oxygen around our bodies and sleep where there is more oxygen in the atmosphere to absorb. We have left the tents at camp 1 because tonight we have a bunkhouse to sleep in, luxury!
Rest Day Three Day 10 - Today is another rest day to absorb more oxygen and recover from the climbing over the last two days, we were all under strict instructions “No Little Walks Today” I think it was aimed at me! So today was filled with Backgammon and Cards.
Camp Canada (Camp One 5,060m) Day 11 - Today is the start of our ascent to the summit, we look out of the bunkhouse to find the clouds in a spectacular jet stream, all long and wispy, this means there are very high winds on the summit and we receive a report on the radio that the wind speed on the summit is in excess of 100mph. We head off to camp 1 again where we put up our tent and collect ice for water then dinner and bed.
Nido de Condores (Camp Two 5,600m) Day 12 - Its Christmas Eve! An early rise and breakfast then off up to camp two, no spin drift this time but you can feel the temperature drop the higher we climb. When we arrive at camp 2 there is the usual job of setting up the tents and going to collect water. The difference at camp 2 is that there is an ice covered lake over one of the ridges; we take a large white container and everyone’s water bottles to fill them up. When we arrive at the lake Gianni removes a sack which is covering the hole in the ice to stop is freezing over and we fill the containers with a small metal cup, you have to be careful not to put your fingers in the water as at these temperatures the water is freezing instantly as it is splashing onto my boots as you can see in the picture above, if you keep your fingers in this water for only a minute or two they will be frost bitten and have to amputated.
Rest Day Three Day 13 - Its Christmas Day! And another rest day. We entertain ourselves with the secret Santa presents we have all carried up and then making a snowman! At around 11:00am two guys came walking down from the summit, a Chilean and an Italian guy who had set off from Confluencia 50 hours ago, they have walked along to Plaza Francia, up the South Face of Aconcagua to the summit and down the North Face to camp 2 stopping only for a few hours to catch some rest and melt ice for water, they are now heading all the way down through base camp to Confluencia to their tent and clean clothing! They did all of this in High Altitude PLASTIC Boots as they did not want to carry the weight of a second pair of boots!! This was later recorded as a World Record! That night we were treated to the sunset above, absolutely spectacular!
Berlin (Camp Three 5,948m) Day 14 - Boxing Day! The plan for today was to carry food up to camp 3 and return to camp 2 to rest and sleep as our summit window was scheduled for between 28th to 30th to account for any bad weather. The weather forecast for those three days was severe so there is a change of plan, we are going to go up to camp 3 and stay there tonight and make our summit attempt the following morning a day earlier than planned! It’s only a few hundred metres to camp 3 so it is not essential to “Climb High and Sleep Low”. We arrive at camp 3, there is some small wooden huts which the guides use to cook in and the ice we use for water is just behind the hut so thankfully it was not far to carry. It is an early night for us all as we are getting up at 4:00am to start our ascent!
Summit Day (6,962m) Day 15 - We start our ascent at 4:30am under the light of head torches, as the sun comes up it casts a shadow of Aconcagua on the horizon, yet another spectacular view. By mid-morning we reach Independencia at 6350m which is marked by a small wind damaged hut and two blue barrels which contain emergency rescue equipment. We now put on our crampons, balaclava and down mitts and head up over Windy Gap, it is called this because when you approach it all you can hear is the wind howling over your head. We continue along a narrow ridge which leads up to a cave at the foot of the Canaleta. The Canaleta is a steep rocky ridge through a weather trap where wind is channelled down from the summit, the weather in this ridge in notoriously severe. As we trek along the ridge we receive reports on the radio that there is a group ahead in trouble, a man is having convulsions, as we pass the group he is being carried down at a very slow rate and we can hear the helicopter below but the helicopter cannot come this high and there is nowhere for it to land. We found out later that the man died before he got to the helicopter and they were trying to summit this mountain in 14 days, we are taking 24 to acclimatise! When we get to the cave we are told that the weather is coming in earlier than expected and we need to leave our rucksacks in the cave and just take our water and food in our jackets and head up the Canaleta if we are going to make the summit. We all head off up the Canaleta and we reach the summit at 3:17pm at an altitude of 6,962m. As we start our descent down the Canaleta to the cave where we stop for a drink and shelter from the bad weather which has now set in and has frozen our beards. After the quick drink its back down the ridge to Independencia where we remove our crampons and descend back to Camp 3. This was a 14 hour walking day!
Plaza de Mulas (Base Camp 4,300m) Day 16 - Today I am feeling fine again and it is time to pack up and head back to base camp via camp 2 to pick up the things we had left there. From camp 2 to base camp is a scree run and I tried to keep up with Quqe but it was impossible, I thought I was quick down scree runs but he was just unbelievable!
Back to the Start - Today we leave base camp and head back to the park gate down the dry and very hot valley where we then have a short journey by Land Rover to a hotel where there is a Beer, Hot Shower and a Clean Bed waiting for us!