Aconcagua, 6962 meters (22,841′). Highest mountain in the Western Hemisphere. A funny name, but don’t poke fun, or otherwise the mountain will extract her revenge on you.
I never grew up dreaming of climbing Aconcagua like I did with Denali. Honestly, it was not really on my radar until a few years ago, and even then I didn’t have a passionate desire to step foot on the mountain. Why climb in foreign countries when there are plenty of great mountains here in the good ol’ US of A? But then, my climbing partner, Ken Huskey, called me up one day with the idea. Since I had recently quit my job giving me the time and finances, I could not answer one basic question: Why not? So I had to take the leap on my first expedition and foreign travel to South America!
With the altitude and massive size of the mountain, most climbers approach Aconcagua with “expedition” style tactics, similar to Everest. After arranging all our logistics in Mendoza, Argentina, we traveled by bus to the base of the mountain. A long multiday approach from the nearest village took us to Basecamp, Plaza de Argentina. Along the way, the majority of our gear was hauled in with mules. Our first big adventure of the trip came on Day 1, when we waited for hours and hours for our mules to show up at our campsite. It grew dark, I grew hungry, and hope grew into doubt. Many hours later, when our mules finally showed up, my bags were nowhere to be seen. The muleteer
frantically conversed with a Park Ranger for awhile, then turned to me and said in broken English, “Your mule……uh…your mule….the bi*** run away. This never happen before.” So, I spend the first night in Ken’s down suit as a sleeping bag and using a sweaty smelly mule pad as a sleeping mat after we bummed dinner off another gracious climbing team.
After hiking up the beautiful massive Vacas and Relinchos Valleys for three days, we arrived at Basecamp and took a day of rest. At 4200 meters (13,800′), it was incredible how even an activity like setting up our tent took all the breath out of me. Not much air up there! Next, we used a progression of moving gear and supplies higher up the mountain. The technical Polish Glacier Direct route was the original goal with two camps culminating in a terribly long summit day. We utilized the time tested system of hauling gear up then climbing back down in one day, followed by moving to that camp the next day. With this system, we effectively climb the entire mountain twice, except for our last summit push days.
The biggest challenge of Aconcagua isn’t the mountain, it is the air. There’s none of it. Each day, the time spent climbing was very short. An average push might only last four hours. But you must go that slowly to allow your body to adjust to the altitude even if you feel like you could keep going. This was a challenge for me to accept since I am the type who wants to push, push, push. Since there was not that much climbing, the day was spent trying to figure out other ways of staying busy. There is always chores around camp to take care of. Melting snow, cooking food, drying out clothing, or trying not to think about the diarrhea that has gripped one’s bowels as the storm rages outside. Unfortunately, there are very few leisure activities, and those you do have grow old quite quickly. You can read a book, nap, journal, listen to music, more naps, or the age old mountaineer’s pastime: long in depth thoughtful conversations with your tentmate. Eventually you run out of topics to discuss. And so you stare and analyze the stitching at the top of the tent over and over.
Meanwhile, our climb was going very well. After the first day of gasping for air, my acclimatization went extremely well. All my ultrarunning cardio has been paying off! We stocked three camps with gear, then Ken and me decided to head down to Basecamp for a night, rest, and make our summit push. We needed four days of good weather, but only had three decent days forecasted. After a $45 pizza and wine dinner at Basecamp and the best sleep I had ever gotten on a mountain, we were ready for the push. To make our weather window, we decided to alter our route slightly to the Polish Traverse, a non technical route, and combine three days to high camp into two. Morale was at an all time high. We are going to make it!
The last two days were terrain we had not covered yet, and were easily two of the most physically exhausting days I have had on a mountain. Since we were on a non-standard route, there was no trail or boot track to follow. This led to more time spent route finding and required us to break our own trail through the snow from just above Camp 1. It was an incredible experience to break 1600 vertical meters of trail, from 5400 to 6962 meters. Every step you sunk down two feet. It was like mile 80 of an ultramarathon. Put your your head down and just maintain forward momentum. I was not a human anymore, I was a machine of legs and lungs. The feeling of putting every other thought out of you mind and solely focusing on the challenge in front of you was like nothing else. Nothing on the route was that technically challenging, just the cold, wind, deep snow, and altitude was challenge enough. My toes were numb, I ate only 500 calories over nine hours on summit day, super high winds continued to blast Ken and me, and it seemed there was always another corner, one more ridge, always another 100 meters to go.
But finally we crested over the final ridge and were there. There wasn’t much happiness or words, just relief and contentment. Pictures were snapped and hugs shared. No one else made the summit that day. Assuming no one was doing any winter ascents in the Himalayas, for ten minutes, Ken and I were the highest humans in the world. It had taken 12 days from when we entered the wilderness to achieve the summit. 12 days of hope, anger, disappointment, laughs, cold poops in the blowing snow, crappy rice and beans on the stove, and warm nights in the sleeping bag. It was well worth it.
It took three days to come down from our high camp back to civilization. Perhaps the worst moment of the trip was packing up our camp the morning after our summit. A storm was coming in, everything was covered in snow, we were moving slow, my diarrhea was hitting me hard, it was our second night at 6230m, and I was just in a sour mood. As we headed from Camp 3 down to Basecamp, our packs became unbearable as we continued to add more gear at each cache we had left. Soon we were strapping bags onto bags onto packs so we wouldn’t have to make a second trip up to clear all our gear from the mountain. Both my big toes started screaming from spending too much time cramped in cold boots, and I realized I would soon lose both toenails. The climbing guides and Basecamp workers invited us to an end of the season pizza party, a great way to commemorate the success. Back in civilization, Ken and I picked our duffels up from the mule company, and Ken’s North Face bombproof duffel was ripped to shreds. The muleteer explained: “your mule…..she uh….she fall off cliff. This never happen before.” For some reason I am starting to doubt the “this never happen before” bit.
Rest and recovery was provided back in Mendoza, the “Napa Valley” of South America. Wine and steak was abundant at every corner, along with staying out at the clubs until dawn and sleeping in until noon. Ken and I made up for lost food, wine, and friends with the two weeks we missed out on all the fun parts of life. We ate our way around the city, and I even got back in a white water kayak for the first time in five years. Life was good.
So that was it. My first expedition. Before this I had only spent three days maximum on a mountain. It was an incredible learning experience and it made me realize I would like to continue these sort of adventures for many years to come. Ken and me have another adventure soon planned, Denali, the highest point of North America, with two more of my climbing partners. Growing up as a kid from Iowa, I never in my life would have expected to end up where I have. This was the first BIG adventure of my year off, so I am very excited to see where the rest of the year leads!