Aconcagua, February, 2000, by Helen
Background: In 1995, my friend
Katrin saw the video on Expedition Inspiration. She was inspired.
If those women could climb Aconcagua, she thought, maybe we could
as well. She enrolled me into climbing Aconcagua in 2000. We started
our training. We learned self arrest, glacier travel, crevasse
rescue and rock climbing. We climbed and attempted several California
14'ers. We climbed and attempted Orizaba. Now it's time. Our climb
was Jan. 31 - Feb. 20. The group: Brant, lead guide; Jon, assistant
guide; Rich and Jeff, friends from Albuquerque; Jack, from San
Diego; Katrin and I, from Pasadena.
Day 1, Arriving Mendoza, Argentina.
Get climbing permit. Drive to Penitentes (~3 hrs). Stay at Hosteria
de Penitentes, elev, ~8500'. Our muleteers are busy with a few
large groups. So we had to repack our bags: one goes to Confluencia
with us the next day, the other goes up to the base camp a few
Day 2, Hike to Confluencia. (~6 miles, 3 hrs), elev. ~11,500'.
The hike was pretty, the scenery was a lot greener than I had
been led to believe. But it is basically a desert landscape with
lots of cool metamorphic and volcanic rock formations. Confluencia
is not very big, but packed with tents and people. It's probably
bigger than some base camps. It has a few permanent big tents.
One is a "pub". The others are set up by trekking companies
to service their customers. Brant and Jon, our guides, were pampering
us. We had "room service" for our dinner. But they warned
us not to expect it once we get to the base camp.
Day 3, Day hike from Confluencia.
We're staying at Confluencia one more day than most people to
help with acclimatization. Took a day hike to one of the side
valleys. Again, beautiful rock formations and we saw a guanaco
in the distance on our way back. For the last two days, the weather
was very nice in the morning. Then the clouds start to gather
around 3 or 4 pm. Then it would start to hail. The hail has the
consistency of Styrofoam.
Day 4, Hike to Plaza de Mulas, base camp. (~12 miles, 6.5
The hike is long and mostly flat, except for the last section.
I was very glad to see the base camp. A group of Japanese rode
in on the mules. They passed us just before the base camp. I think
they stayed in the hotel near the base camp. I just learned that
we'll be staying there on our last night. There are pit toilets
everywhere. Some are a bit more tolerable than others. There are
also many pits from previous years covered by rocks. There were
at least 3 old pit within 10 ft of my tent. Even with the pit
toilets, there's still toilet paper and scat everywhere.
A new addition to Mulas this year is the "Eco Toilet".
It uses wind and solar energy to dry the waste. And it has a solar
hot shower as well. It costs $20 to use the toilet and $10 for
a shower, or $25 for one shower and all the toilet use while you're
there. I was glad to pay and happy to walk the extra distance
to use it. Like in Confluencia, there are many permanent tents
at Mulas. Some of them play bad music late into the night.
Day 5, Carry to Camp Canada.
We carried up all the gear that we'll only use at our high camp.
There are a lot of people on the mountain. The group of Japanese
were leap frogging us almost all the way. They were not carrying
any packs. We left a tent up at Canada, dumped our gear and came
down. It started hailing again. But it started to clear up around
sunset. Jack told us that tomorrow would be his last day on the
trip. I was surprised. He seemed very strong to me.
Day 6, Carry to Camp Canada.
The wind started last night and this morning there's a lenticular
cap on the summit: viente blanco. Not a good summit day. This
time we carried all the food we'll be needing on the mountain.
I seem to have felt worse at Canada. And I was not the only one.
According to Brant, most people he guided seem to feel bad on
that day. So I guess I was right on schedule. Jack elaborated
in the morning that he's not used to sleeping in tents and that
he didn't think he could stand doing that any longer.
Day 7, Optional carry to Nido del Condores.
The boys went up to Canada and took most of the climbing equipment
up to Nido. Katrin and I took our time getting up to Canada. After
a break, we got up to Camp Alaska before meeting the guys on their
way down. I had a headache from Canada up. Soup and "vitamin
I" cleared the headache in no time.
Day 8, Rest day.
I was looking forward to this day. Time to take it easy, poke
around and take a hot shower. Katrin and I tried to get close
to the penitentes. We heard a loud cheer coming from the direction
of the hotel. Saw a group of people standing on a ridge near the
hotel and 3 people on the trail towards them. Later on, we learned
that 3 Italians just broke the speed record. It took them 3:40
to get to the top from the hotel, and 4:52 round trip. That's
quite impressive. That's near 9,000' of elevation gain in less
than 4 hours. That's a feat even if you start at sea level.
The hot shower felt wonderful. Nacio, who takes care of the Eco
Toilet, claims it's the highest hot shower in the world. Just
before dinner, I heard a loud roar like a jet engine. Even though
I couldn't say the word right away, I sort of instinctively knew
what it was. I grabbed the camera and jumped out of the tent.
But I was too late for a good picture. The avalanche debris went
behind a ridge.
We're now on the mountain for a week, and we're still at the base
camp. I guess that's part of expedition climbing. You need to
have a lot of patience.
Day 9, Move up to Camp Canada, elev. ~16,000'.
Finally, we're moving up. If I thought the base camp was dirty
Camp Canada was even worse. There are turds behind every rock.
When we have our tent door open, the "fragrance" wafts
through. I was glad to see that Brant had a system for us so we
don't have to contribute to the mess. Our system is similar to
the "Nature Calls" system used on the North Fork of
Lone Pine Creek. We use heavy duty paper towels as a target. Then
throw the whole thing into a garbage bag. We'll carry the bag
down the mountain with us. The waste will be deposited in the
Day 10, Carry to Nido del Condores.
It was a nice day. Having a nice view of the upper mountain, I
start to feel we're getting somewhere. I kept looking up trying
to find the Canaleta and the traverse below it. The wind picked
up at night. Without a doubt, the windiest I've ever experienced
in a tent. The gusts try to flatten the tent wall on top of me.
I can hear the rocks shift under the strain of the guy lines.
Went out a couple of times to reset and reinforce the guy lines.
Had to try very hard not to get pushed down wind.
Day 11, Move to Nido del Condores, elev, ~17,500'.
The wind was still blowing in the morning, although not as strong.
A lenticular cloud capped the summit. Small puffy clouds were
stretched out by wind into fantastic shapes as they got closer
to the mountain. It looked as if someone was blowing giant soap
Day 12, Storm day.
The wind only got stronger. Brant called it a weather day. But
he and Jon did a carry anyways to Berlin. The clients, Jeff, Rich,
Katrin and I, played cards. When we got tired of that, we played
Pictionary. A few tents were shredded in the morning. Some people
packed up and went down.
Day 13, Storm day 2.
The wind didn't die down. And the sun wasn't coming out when I
expected. We were near the bottom of the cloud ceiling. The ceiling
dropped as the day went on. Around noon, moisture was precipitating
out of the wind. Ice plastered on every thing in the way. We heard
voices outside. Some people were moving up in this weather! But
they were pretty frazzled by then. We interrupted our card game
and helped them putting up the tent. By the time we got back in
the tent, our jackets, hair and eye brows are coated with ice.
Then it started to snow. The wind blew snow into the vestibule
and in between the tent walls. Our packs in the vestibule were
covered by 6 inches of snow.
Day 14, Move up to Berlin Camp, elev. ~19,000'.
The morning was clear, calm and beautiful. The upper mountain
was coated white. After we settled into camp, it started to snow
again. We heard thunder in the distance. But it was very calm.
The snow fell for a few hours, then stopped just before sunset.
We all try to get some sleep before the 3 am wake-up time. But
crammed 3 in a tent plus being at this altitude for the first
time, I hardly slept at all.
Day 15, Summit day.
Got up at 3 am. It was calm and clear, but bitterly cold. The
stars were brilliant and we saw lights from Santiago and Valparaiso
(?) in the distance. For the first time on this trip, I had no
appetite. Forced down some cereal. Everyone was ready by 4:30.
There was 4-6 inches of fresh snow on the ground. It obliterated
all traces of the trail. It was a good thing that Brant knows
the way. We broke trail all the way.
The daylight dawned around White Rocks. We got to Independencia
hut shortly after the sunrise. Took a long break there. Trying
to eat, drink, putting on harnesses and crampons. My thoughts
were mainly on food and water. I was having trouble putting on
my harness, yet I was sharp enough to admonish Jeff for leaving
trash. I didn't realize my mental deficiency until we all roped
up and were ready to go.
I kept on going. I was glad that we were roped up, so all I had
to do was to concentrate on the rope in front of me and Brant's
footprints. We went across the Windy Crest, onto the traverse.
Somewhere on the Gran Acarreo, we lost the trail. Each step we
took, the loose rock and gravel under our feet shifted. That seemed
to be too much for my hypoxic brain to handle. I felt very out
of it. I decided to turn around when we got back on trail. (The
altitude there was probably around 21,500', plus or minus.)
Jeff and Brant made to the summit around 2:30pm. Rich got up around
3pm. All of them got back to camp around 6:30. The group of Japanese
we saw a few days ago are also making the summit attempt. They
had porters to take their stuff up to Berlin for them.
Day 16, Go down.
Packed up Berlin Camp. Went down to Nido. Picked up stuff left
at Nido. Went down to Mulas. My pack was probably the heaviest
I've ever carried. I took the "fast" way down. But my
legs couldn't move fast enough under the weight. Fell on my butt
several times. It was a flea market at Mulas. The local base camp
workers knew we just came off the mountain. They want to buy our
gear. But they don't just want any ol' gear. They have an eye
for the latest and the best.
The hot shower was wonderful, even though we had to put our dirty
clothes back on. The next best thing was we were to stay at the
hotel for the night. The hotel is about 20 minutes walk away from
the base camp. It is quite impressive. The dining room has flags
and t-shirts from previous expeditions hanging from the roof.
I had cheese omelet for dinner. It was the best omelet I've ever
Day 17, Hike out.
The 18 mile hike seemed it would never end. We got out at around
3pm. Then drove back to Mendoza. Had dinner at the wonderful buffet
restaurant Las Tinajas. Highly recommended if you ever go to Mendoza.
Day 18-20, Mendoza.
The guys all left on the first day. Katrin and I stayed on.
We toured wineries, visited markets, bought souvenirs, watched
street concerts and puppet shows and relaxed in the park.
Day 20-21, fly home.
It was too soon. Now I need a new goal to look forward to.