Mount Aconcagua, Argentina
23 November – 10 December 2019
Its jagged, snow-clad peaks seducing every traveller that gazes upon it, Mount Aconcagua, with a summit of 6,962 meters, is Argentina’s answer to Mount Everest.
Aconcagua Normal Route
I’ve arrived at Mendoza City, just over 1,000kms west of Argentina’s capital, Buenos Aires, to meet Aconcagua, at 6962m the highest mountain in the southern hemisphere, highest mountain in the western hemisphere, and highest mountain in the Americas.
In a couple of days I’ll meet a team of fellow climbers and our guides in anticipation of a 20-day-long expedition along what’s known as Aconcagua’s Normal Route.
Around 3,500 people undertake this climb each year. Only around 40 per cent reach the summit. Every year sees an average of three deaths on Aconcagua’s slopes.
Digesting these statistics, I set off to explore Mendoza, a cosmopolitan city with a population of more than one-million that lies in Cuyo region, part of Mendoza Province, in the heart of Argentina’s wine country, and is renowned for its Malbecs and other reds.
It seems appropriate that while I adjust to time zones I take the opportunity to visit some of the best wineries – which is where I’m headed now.
Later I walk to the top of Cerro de la Gloria – the “Hill of Glory” – to find a monument commemorating the Army of the Andes, a military force of 3,500 soldiers organised by the South American independence leader José de San Martín in 1817.
Hiking up Cerro de Gloria to a height of 980-metres, I want to run, but I know I shouldn’t: denial isn’t sufficiently masking the pain of my strained ITBS injury (iliotibial band syndrome), acquired at the New York Marathon last month. Unfortunately it appears no amount of stretching, training or positive reinforcement will heal this one in time.
Technically today is Day One of my Argentinian adventure. I meet Diego, our lead guide, as well as climbers Grant, Sam and Vicky, who have flown in today from Britain. Ashley from the USA is to join us tomorrow.
I make use of the last opportunity to call home before we depart Mendoza for the 185km drive to Aconcagua Provincial Park, near the border of Chile.
On the way we travel through areas where Brad Pitt filmed Seven Years in Tibet, and take in views of the snow-capped volcano, Tupungato, before arriving at Los Penitentes, a ski resort made up of a few buildings including our quaint hotel, Ayelen, and some chairlifts criss-crossing the mountains.
Grant and Sam join me to stretch our legs in the surrounding area – across a bridge, along an obsolete rail line, and up some scrambling rock. The air is a little thinner, the temperature flickering between moments of warmth and chilly blasts. Time to retreat to the comfort of our lodgings as the weather rolls in.
Deigo has us signing our climbing permits as we set off towards Aconcagua’s by minivan. Just moments into the drive we get a full view of the mountain’s south face; it’s seriously impressive.
Our journey begins in earnest at the park ranger’s station at Horcones, where we lodge our permits. From here we’re on foot.
Although the day is clear, wind whips around us. “At least it’s not snowing,” says Diego as we adjust our walking sticks.
Walking is not too difficult. I’m starting with my pack at 15kg today, to prepare carrying some weight and to test out the knee. It’s a new experience to see mules herded through as carriers, a lifeline of supplies for all the operations up to base camp.
It’s a three-hour trek to our first camp, Confluencia (3,368m) for our first night and that all-important acclimatisation.
First light arrives after a broken sleep, and I’m first up and about. I set up the GoPro to capture the new day amid the incredible beauty of the Andes.
Enthusiastically, I pack my gear – I’ve increased the pack weight to 19kg, and it feels comfortable – and proceed to pull down my tent.
Whether it was a lack of listening last night, or critical information lost in translation, our program has us return to this camp tonight after a daytime acclimatisation hike. The tent goes back up, which humours my fellow climbers no end.
We trek through riverbeds that are cracking due to the absence of water; at this same time a few years ago this was a flowing river, says Diego.
“Every year the river is a bit drier, the glaciers a bit smaller … soon Mendoza might have big problems – not enough water.”
The government apparently measure and monitor the situation – a tale I’ve heard before.
“There’s not enough snow now,” says Diego. Which signals a new problem for us – the prospect of carting water from Basecamp to Camp 1.
We lunch at Plaza Francis (4090m) near the halfway turnaround point of the 15km round trip, where Aconcagua looms large in the background.
Not long into the return trip, Vicky suddenly collapses, and is unconscious. Diego helps her to sit before she starts vomiting. In the process she’s also slipped and cut herself on a sharp rock. Out comes the medical kit. Eventually we move on, unsure how much the meds will help.
After climbing a steep section of loose ground we see a pack of mules mustered in the same direction behind us. The sun is shining and wind blowing 25-30kph as I film these beasts of burden powering up the hill.
Back at camp, the conversation is around Vicky’s health. We’re told the park usually hosts doctors who undertake mandatory checks-ups at a couple of checkpoints. As it’s so early in the climbing season though, none seem to have been appointed, leaving Diego to check our blood oxygen levels and heart rates.
Our bodies are working overtime to counter the environment. There’s the fact that we’ve flown from different parts of the world with different germs; the altitude is forcing our bodies to make more red blood cells, and different food and water is entering our systems. All of which makes you wish the toilets were better.
We pack our gear, pull down tents and prepare for our next move to Plaza de Mulas – Basecamp. Exiting Camp Confluencia we head in a different direction to yesterday’s trek, this time following the Horcones Superior River. All around are jagged peaks and snowfields.
“Plaza de Mulas 8 Hours” says a sign as we descend onto the now-dry river flats, which are surrounded by towering mountains, some of which have never been summitted due to the danger of sheer faces and rockfalls.
The wind blows at 30-35kph as we press directly into it, stopping for a five-minute break on the hour. Packs of mules occasionally stream past, herded by their masters.
Arrival at the halfway point signals both lunch and a massive rock for shelter at the end of the river flats. Currently we’re at 3748m. The dominant backdrop is the mountain Cerro Cuerno (5380m).
We’re climbing from the flats when Diego spots some mules headed our way. The track isn’t wide enough for both of us too pass. I crouch on a crest to film the animals approaching. It’s rocky underfoot and steep enough to be impressed by how they manage in this unforgiving environment.
After the mules pass it’s our turn to navigate the narrow track, which hugs the mountain. The terrain becomes steeper the closer we get to Basecamp, which lies at the base of Aconcagua’s western summit.
It’s taken the eight-hours quoted on the signage to get here. All up 22.5 km with 1358m gained, and 900m of altitude.
Basecamp has phone service, and everyone is soon shooting messages home or checking in on the rest of the world.
During our Basecamp stay we’re entitled to one shower in a tent complete with hot water and a timber floor. I’ll choose my shower day carefully; today it’s wet wipes again to remove the dust.
Looking around the breakfast table, everyone looks like they need this rest day. It was cold and windy last night, making sleep somewhat of a challenge.
At Basecamp there is little or no vegetation, and it is dry and cold. I warm up by walking up a nearby ridge to take some photos of the ice formations.
A helicopter stirs the camp into life as it delivers supplies near the ranger station before loading more to take back.
We’re off early, aiming to reach the summit of Mt Bonete (5052m) – which doubles as an acclimatisation day. Early into the trek we stop at an abandoned hotel, a huge place built in the middle of nowhere that closed some eight years ago.
The hotel’s grounds are used as the principle “Rescue Headquarters,” complete with simple outbuildings and rocks marking a helipad.
We pass through a section of “Penitentes” – spires of snow and ice ranging in length from a few centimetres to more than five metres that grow over all glaciated and snow-covered areas in the Dry Andes above 4000m. Zig-zagging up the mountain, you must be ultra-careful with your footing- it’s a long way down.
The loose surface is unforgiving and requires plenty of effort as we climb upwards. We finally reach the summit of Mt Bonete, marked by a metal cross.
From here we can track the valleys we’ve travelled across, admire the landscape, and trace our upcoming route on Aconcaguua, which looms majestically before us.
The loose gravel makes for some fun sliding downwards – after the odd bum slide and a laugh at each other, we begin the trek back to Basecamp.
Before the evening is out we’ve distributed weight for the communal gear, for those of us without porters, and packed what extra gear we can drop in for the haul to Camp 1, called Camp Canada (4930m). I’m at 23kg, which is manageable, athough the route is almost entirely vertical.
There’s no gradual introduction to this climb, and within moments we’re all huffing as we haul ourselves and our heavy packs directly up a steep route.
After three challenging hours we reach Camp Canada – and not before some of the team are becoming spent. Gear and belongings are dropped in the communal tent before we turn around for the trek back to Basecamp.
The trip back down, though, is fast and fun, following a series of switchbacks, passing through a field of Penitentes. It’s refreshing to have the backpack free of weight.
After days of dust and sweat I’ve decided to go for it, and head for the hot shower.
I join Grant and Sam for a walk to find the plaque of Mattias Zurbriggen, a Swiss mountaineer who, in 1897, was the first person to successfully summit Aconcagua.
The doctor has arrived to check our health. It’s a brief but thorough examination, and I’m cleared to climb.
A memorial plaque in camp translates to: “The only fight that is lost is the one that is abandoned.” Which seems relevant to the day’s proceedings.
The porter packing the tents feels my bulging pack, “Good luck, you can have a job as a porter after you’ve climbed the mountain,” he laughs.
This morning is feet-numbing, hand-tingling cold. The sky is heavy with cloud, and “grauple snow” – a mix of snow and hail – begins to fall.
The weather might beat us on this climb; the snow becomes heavier as we push the last rise for the safety of Camp Canada’s common tent, where I happily dump my 25+kg pack.
Time to pitch our tents, which we do in the howling wind as a snowstorm sets in. Inside the tent I dig out every bit of down gear I have; there are icicles blowing through the gaps between the tent’s two zips.
With 35kph winds accompanied by powerful, freezing gusts, I make a dash for the common tent, where ice-melting has begun.
Everyone takes turns huddled around small gas burners, melting snow in one pot and boiling it in a kettle, before it’s stored in large thermal containers. We check the weather, eat some dinner, and laugh about how miserable it all is.
Camp Canada is now completely white, in stark contrast to yesterday’s gear drop – about 50mm of snow has fallen in a few hours.
It hasn’t been a great day to summit for those climbing before us: some trekkers have abandoned their attempt just 500m from the summit. One climber is so unwell she’s descending, while a male climber has fallen and hurt his knee and elbow.
Yet I watch two climbers press on through the snow, headed for Camp 2 – Nido de Condores (5,250m).
Our plan is to leave for Nido de Condores tomorrow morning, when the winds have hopefully dropped.
Overnight was a howler: wind gusts blew so hard that mist pressed through my tent’s zips, forming icicles on my sleeping bag.
I’m thin on energy, so this morning it’s one chore at a time – toilet with ice particles whipping off the snow, check. Roll up wet sleeping bag, check. Lay back down exhausted.
Tents down, packs filled, lunch handed out, and we’re ready. Adding boots, jacket and crampons to my pack has pushed it somewhere near 30kg. It’s an effort to lift; I’m bracing for a long day.
The mountain is covered in snow. Given the steep terrain, every foot placement is critical and occupies most of one’s concentration.
And, while we warm up while climbing, we shiver in blasts of icy wind when we stop for a break.
Struggling through the fresh snow, ever upward, this is a really tough day. When we eventually have a break I drop down and momentarily see stars. I’m spent. But we must push on.
I keep putting one foot in front the other. My back feels like an entire knot, my right hip like it’s carrying the entire load, the straps dig in.
As Nido de Condores camp comes into sight after more than three-hours climbing in terrible conditions, my pack hits the ground along with me in front of it. I’m so relieved. After taking some photos I struggle to pick up my load again and move it to the common tent.
Vicky arrives half-an-hour behind us, and she’s exhausted. She has had enough.
The wind is against us again as we look for tent sites. Wrestling the flimsy tents into place and securing them with rocks is an arduous task. Everything is a chore, including breathing and walking.
Once I finally get my gear into the tent I lay for a while pondering where the next bit of energy might come from. Maybe chocolate will help. Dinner is burgers, which sit okay in an otherwise depleted body.
Over dinner Vicky tells us she is descending tomorrow. Grant will see how he pulls up in the morning.
The wind dies down as the sun sets across spectacular mountain peaks in an array of blazing colours. I decide I can’t not motivate myself a little longer to catch this sunset on film.
Health deteriorates rapidly at this altitude.
Tito, our assistant guide, is unwell and needs to go down. Vicky has had a reasonable night’s sleep and has decided to stay on. In a turn of events both Grant and Sam have quit and will head back down the mountain with Tito. I’ll miss their good humour.
We’re reduced to three climbers and one guide for our summit attempt.
The side of my knee feels like it’s been torn all over again, presumably from the way I slept. My stomach is churning and my head feels like it’s swelling.
Doubts about my knee plague me; I worry it could prevent me summiting.
Shared gear is split four ways for our communal drop at Camp 3 – Plaza Colera (5970m), a five-hour climb.
Heading off at a slow pace, there seems to be less oxygen. Trying to get into a rhythm, both in breath and body, requires putting the negativity of the morning aside.
Then, surprisingly, I start to feel better the higher we climb.
We are heading northwest and, when we take a break I look back at the incredible vistas of Chile to the left and Argentina to the right.
But the climb has proven too much for Vicky, who at this point concedes her summit attempt. Our team narrows to three – Ashley, me and Diego the guide.
I can see the summit of Aconcagua in the near distance, and it’s inspiring to know we’re so close. Any fears of AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) and the knee are swept aside – I’m breathing a little easier and have regained my enthusiasm to push on.
After acclimatisation and lunch we trek back down to Camp 2 as the clouds gather. Wind and snow are probable, but our summit window is looking okay at this stage.
I spend the afternoon organising gear; I’m ruthless about carrying minimum weight. While I’m sure I’d smell a treat climbing and sleeping in the same clothes for several days, with constant wind, and my own tent, who cares? It’s time to focus on the finish.
Packs are out, our communal weight distributed, and tents come down. Porters carry tents, but we carry everything else – water storage, pots, pans, fuel.
We move at a reasonable pace, probably because we did this same walk yesterday, traversing the jagged mountain face back up to Camp Colera, a three-hour climb.
Camp Colera is a dramatic place to camp, with exceptional views across the Andes. It’s windy, and the camp is more exposed than others, and getting the tents up is again energy-sapping work.
Sleeping at 6000m is terrible. I hoped to wake on this special day – summit day – rested and motivated. But it is more a case of broken sleep and a headache.
Diego saw snow on the summit last night, and advises us to pack crampons for safety. I emerge from the tent at 5 am with little enthusiasm. To be honest, I don’t feel great.
Bottles are filled with hot water as we wrestle jackets and gloves over all our other layers of clothing before it’s time to take the first step.
The three of us barely speak as we trudge upwards, our headtorches shining in the dark.
We climb for several hours before the sky starts to show the promise of a new dawn.
Our first rest at a huddle of small makeshift huts allows us to add another jacket and pants. The next long and arduous traverse is in the shade of the mountain, with violent, freezing winds as our companion.
Fear of frostbite and hypothermia creeps in as, first one finger, then two, and then my entire hand, goes numb, and I stop to put on a handwarmer.
The ascent is steep and rocky, and snow hides the gravel, which collapses with each foot placement.
“Time for crampons,” yells Diego against the wind.
We finally reach La Cueva – The Cave – which is the base of the long, rocky gully known as the Canaleta (6640m) – which begins the steep climb to the ridge separating Aconcagua’s north and south summits. We’ve now been underway for six hours.
The Canaleta gully is choked with boulders and is unremitting hard work. Energy is running low, so I try to eat some chocolate. I don’t know if I can stomach it, as breathing has become increasingly difficult, and I feel nauseous.
But after 14 days, with around just three-hours to go, it’s impossible to give up.
That said, I understand anyone who does: at La Cueva, so close to the summit, a man lays flat on his back, unable to walk any further. Behind us a Frenchman struggles to push on in his second summit attempt.
Our small party presses on. I try to take some photos of the breathtaking views around us whenever we pause to drink, and the effort just to do this cannot be underestimated.
Ashley, although struggling to continue, remains focussed “I’ll crawl to the top if I have to,” she says.
Coming out of the gully the route traverses the top of a large amphitheatre and ends up on the final ridge to the summit.
Diego ties a rope around our waists for safety as the unforgivable terrain becomes increasingly difficult to climb. Pressure to keep moving has us taking one energy-sapping step at a time.
I feel exhausted, and start to contemplate the “why” of the last two weeks as I trudge up the mountain.
Ashley is really struggling – somewhere in between crying and vomiting, she warns us. I feel her pain, and Diego and I do our best to motivate her ever upward.
Some of the longest hours of my life pass as we climb and climb. We keep an eye on the blackening sky: there’s a change coming, and it doesn’t look good.
At the final stages before the summit there’s a stack of huge boulders to navigate.
Then, suddenly, I scramble to the top of South America, Cerro Aconcagua, a mind-blowing 6962m above sea level.
There’s something incredibly uplifting about reaching the top of a mountain. For some reason you breathe a little easier as you have your own personal celebration after such a tough journey.
Ashley cries, Diego signs my Diabetes Australia flag, we take photos and share this special moment with laughter and congratulations.
Within moments the weather has turned, and we must start going down. Our crampons go back on, and we’re met by rescue policeman sent to help everyone evacuate.
The mountain was extremely steep to climb, so it’s an almost sheer descent. Stepping, sliding, stopping; I’m thankful for the security of my crampons. La Cueva can’t come fast enough.
Here I remove the ice from my beard and try to cover-up for the long traverse ahead. From here we continue, one step at a time, for hours on end, glaring into the distance for any recognisable landmarks.
Eventually we arrive at the makeshift huts, the first stop of the morning, where we can now take off our crampons: snow has stopped falling and the ground has become exposed loose gravel.
We finally arrive back at Camp Colera. I drop my backpack and there is the briefest of celebrations. I am completely exhausted. My body shuts down as I slide into my sleeping bag.
But we made it.
Climbing mountains connects you with nature, people and different cultures, and creates memories that become the stories we tell.
It’s about falling in love with a new environment and appreciating even more the one you left. It’s about reconnecting with yourself, struggle, triumph – and realising the world is a very big place.