Aconcagua, the stone sentinel - February 2010

 

Expedition Report by Rob Wills

 

 

Why Aconcagua?

At 6962 metres, Aconcagua is the highest peak outside of the Himalaya. It’s not a technical peak, although it provides some challenging routes which demand a level of winter climbing skill, but it’s still a commanding mountain and you mustn’t underestimate how tough it will be to get to the top.

 

The main climbing season runs from December to February which is high summer in Argentina, the days are quite long, staying light until after 8pm and the temperature is in the mid 20oCs in the valleys. Nights on the mountain are well below freezing, however, and when the infamous winds blow, Aconcagua let's you know you're not playing at mountaineering. The park rangers take safety very seriously and they will stop any group progressing to the summit if they consider conditions to be too dangerous, irrespective of their qualifications and experience.

   

Adventure Peaks had asked me to lead an ascent of Everest in Spring 2010. Most of the team would also be climbing Aconcagua in January / February as training for the big one, so it made sense for me to lead Aconcagua too.

 

I’d never really thought much about Aconcagua. I spend every summer out in the Alps and lead expeditions to Himalayan peaks most springs and autumns, so I look forward to spending winter in the UK. I’ve heard enough tales about other guides' adventures on Aconcagua, however, to know it’s a tough challenge and very dependent on the weather.

 

As a warm up for Everest it ticks all the boxes: the altitude is right and the timing’s right too. If you’re bagging the “7 Summits” - the highest mountain on each continent - Aconcagua is definitely on your list.

  

 

Getting to Argentina

Friday 29th January 2010 finds Rich, Neil and me waiting on the tarmac at London Heathrow. We're on the plane, I hasten to add, and we hope our luggage is too.

 

We eventually took off an hour and a half late, with the knock on effect that catching the next flight from Sao Paulo was a mad dash and so was the next one to Mendoza. From conversations with the rest of the clients, it sounded as though we’d all been in similar situations on our journeys to Argentina but at least we'd all got there, albeit without one client's luggage.

 

A 45 minute drive from the airport brought us to the Grand Hotel Balbi right in the centre of town and it just about lived up to its name. A quick evening pep-talk, then we were off to a local eatery for some really good food and even better wine. Mendoza just happens to be the chief vine-growing region of Argentina and their Malbec is world-renowned.

 

Next day was spent arranging permits and food shopping for the whole expedition, taking into account everyone's food preferences. We finished all our tasks with time to spare and spent the rest of the afternoon hanging out by the hotel pool. It felt quite sophisticated compared to my usual haunts in Nepal. 

 

Setting off for Base Camp

We left Mendoza on the Monday and drove up to Puenta del Inca, a one-horse-stop of a place on the main highway over the Andes to Santiago in Chile. It was a bit of a tourist attraction, everyone stopping to photograph the old mineral bridge, but it's a far cry from its heyday when it was a thriving thermal spa with hotels and a railway catering for the throngs of health tourists.

 

Puenta del Inca 2720m: Our bunkhouse for the night is in the distance. The disused railway used to bring tourists to the hot springs and spa.

The natural mineral bridge, under which the river flows, gives Puente del Inca its name. The calcite deposits streaked in orange - from the sulphur in the hot springs - have built up over centuries. The abandoned building was originally used as a health spa.

  

 

The good news is we hired mules to carry the load up to Base Camp, so we only had to carry day sacs for the first three days. The bad news is the mules aren’t allowed go beyond Base Camp so we would be load carrying from that point onwards.

 

So, Tuesday morning we made the short drive to the mule station at Punta des Vacas with our personal bags and food supplies. The main expedition kit was ready to be loaded onto the mules and our bags were weighed and sorted to ensure each mule's load didn't exceed 60kg.

  

 

Los Puquios- mule station in summer and ski resort in winter. Our kit bags are weighed ready for packing onto the waiting mules. The team chat about the day ahead.

 

 

Eventually, we started the walk in to Base Camp 26 miles away, which we would reach after 3 days' walking. Our route took us up the hot and dusty Vacas valley. The terrain is very arid, with only thin vegetation close by the river. Summer is in theory the wettest season in Argentina but the overall precipitation levels are so low the valleys hardly get any rain. It's the melt water from the glaciers and snow caps that keeps the rivers flowing.

 

The first day was fairly level walking for around 5 hours and we camped overnight at Pampa de Lenas 2867m.

 

Starting out up the Vacas valley – fairly level walking on the first day.

 

 

Day 2 saw us continuing up the rising valley floor to our second campsite at Casa de Piedra 3245m. Another short day to ease us in gently.

 

Casa de Piedra 3245m: our mules get a welcome rest and feed at our second overnight camp.

 

The third day of our walk in to Base Camp started abruptly with a crossing of the Rio de las Vacas. The water felt quite refreshing for the first few seconds, but the crossing took several minutes. Very cold! Crocs are my footwear of choice for river crossings, but I very nearly lost one halfway across. Whatever you choose to wear, make sure they're fastened on tightly.

 

Our first river crossing accomplished – looking back at Casa de Piedra.

 

Our route then continued up a narrow side valley, with more river crossings and occasionally some steeper ground. It started to feel like we were getting somewhere.

 

 

Second river crossing of the day, 30 minutes later, moving up a side valley.  Trekking poles greatly help stability in the faster  flowing water.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After a while the valley opened out and we could see Aconcagua straight ahead of us. Base Camp was still an hour away, nestled up on the moraine which gives some protection from the winds that whip through the mountains.

 

On the approach to Base Camp, about one hour away. Aconcagua is the peak on the left. Walking through some great bouldering possibilities: lovely sandstone-esque rock around 3 metres high. Unfortunately, we didn’t have rock shoes with us.

 

 

And so, one week after leaving UK, we arrived at Base Camp – Plaza Argentina 4203m. It’s quite a spectacular spot totally surrounded by mountains although Aconcagua itself is somewhat obscured by its foothills. Despite the protection of the moraine it was still pretty windy up there most of the time.  Wind would be the constant on the mountain (in all senses of the word).

 

Plaza Argentina had all the facilities of a small village, including toilets, showers, medical centre, internet access, telephones and beer and burgers for sale. At US$20 to use the showers you had to think twice about whether you needed one but most of our team availed themselves of the facilities at least once.

 

Base Camp didn't seem particularly busy when we were there but I suppose it was getting towards the end of the season. With strong winds forecast in the coming days perhaps some groups had either hurried down or delayed their start.

 

I was surprised to discover that everyone who wants to climb Aconcagua has to submit to the official doctor's examination before they can proceed beyond base camp. That's not something I've come across before and thankfully all our team were passed fit and allowed to continue up the mountain. 

 

Base Camp on the moraine: the nearest tunnel structure is our mess tent; the second is the shower block. A little further away are the Rangers’ Office and the Doctor’s Office. The onward route to Camp 1 takes the ridge of the moraine from the left hand side of the picture.

Next day, Saturday, was spent sorting food and gear for the high camps that we would be stocking over the next few days. Why do rucksacks always feel so heavy when you first lift them up? There was a little bit of trepidation creeping in for some of the group, but most were raring to go.

 

 

Moving up to Camp 1 - 5000m

Our first trip to Camp 1 on Sunday wasn’t too bad and we made it there in good time (around 4 hours), the team moving well even with our heavy loads. Top tip - do get used to carrying a BIG sac and moving heavy loads for several hours at a time, before you go. It will pay dividends when you get there.

Walking to Camp 1 is quite straight-forward, with a bit of snow/penetentes action just before you get there. There’s normally much more snow earlier in the season which can make the trek quite a bit harder.

 

 

 

 

 These spikes of snow or ice are called penetentes, and some can be 4 metres high. They are common at high-altitude in the Andes, especially on glaciers. The air is dry, and the sun's rays can turn ice directly into water vapour without melting it first - a process called sublimation, leaving these fantastic spires. These were just above Camp 1.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The steepest section is the last 45 minutes up to the camp itself, but it’s soon over with and Camp 1 at 5000m is a welcome sight. Previous tenants have built lots of dry-stone bunkers to get your tent in and with only half a dozen tents in camp when we got there, plenty of prime pitches were left for us. Most importantly, the camp has a good water source which seemed to run better and clearer in the mornings. We dropped off the food, tents, gas and personal stuff, checked out the route ahead to Camp 2 and quickly headed back down to Base Camp as the wind had started to pick up and it was bitterly cold.

 

Everyone enjoyed a rest day on Monday, ready for the move up to Camp 1 the day after. It felt a lot easier on the second trip up there, a clear sign that we were acclimatising to the altitude. The process of climbing high then descending to sleep allows you to acclimatise more safely and minimises the risk of altitude sickness.

 

I returned to base camp on Wednesday with one of the guys who wasn’t feeling too good, and left the rest of the team in the more than capable hands of Hugh Hefner (well, actually it was Cesar, our local guide, but he had this thing about the playboy mansion, poor thing). Staying that night at base camp to check my client would be OK at the lower altitude, I headed back up the trail to Camp 1 the following morning, with more food and pans.

 

Pushing on to Camp 2 - 5840m

When I arrived back at Camp 1 on Thursday, some of the team had already headed up to Camp 2 to stock it with goodies. It took them about 4 hours to get up there and another 2 hours back down. The walk up to Camp 2 (5840m) is very straight forward but the effects of altitude were really starting to affect progress now. Using ski or trekking poles does help to maintain upward momentum when you're carrying a heavy pack and certainly improves traction on the loose scree.

 

This is typical of the terrain between Camps 1 and 2

 

I was feeling quite grim at this point, suffering from a chest infection which I suspect I'd picked up from the guy next to me on the plane. The antibiotics weren't really working, so I had a rest day at Camp 1 while the team moved up to Camp 2. I tried to push to Camp 2 on the next two days but just couldn't make it, getting to 5500m before throwing the towel in. My chest, coughing and spluttering, pretty much put paid to my plans. You need clear lungs to keep going at altitude and the effects of an infection are magnified 10-fold when the air is so thin. And in the back of my mind, I kept thinking of how this wasn't boding well for my next trip in 6 weeks time - Everest, BUGGER !!!!!!

 

 

Summit Day

By Friday evening, the team were all at Camp 2 ready to rock and roll. Cesar, who has been working with Adventure Peaks for many years, then proceeded to lead yet another successful summit bid on Sunday, his third of the season.

 

Summit day is very long - it can be 12 hours or more and you'll usually set off walking before dawn.  Make sure you have enough food, but more importantly water/liquid with you. You must be brutally honest - both with yourself and the rest of the team - as to whether you can get up the peak and, more importantly, back down again. The reality is that you are only half way there when you get to the top and possibly the hardest part of the day is yet to come - the journey down to Camp 2. 

 

Seven of the team made it all the way to the summit. It took them about 8 hours to reach the top. Only three didn’t make it, turning round at 6400m when they started to suffer from headaches caused by the altitude. Never underestimate how debilitating the effects of altitude can be - and how serious they are to your health. Once a headache starts, it's just going to keep on getting worse and worse if you try to press on. It's always safer to descend immediately, no matter how disappointing that may be.

 

 

Heading down

Once back at Camp 2, the team stripped it down and continued the descent to Camp 1, did the same thing there and carried massive loads back down to Base Camp, all on the same day. No-one had the energy to go back to collect the rest of the gear they couldn't carry down from Camp 1, so we hired a couple of porters to retrieve it for us.

 

Looking down towards Camp 1 from around 5200m

  

One more rest day at base camp and the team decided they wanted to do the walk out in one push, all 26 miles of it, usually done over 2 days with an overnight camp in-between. A very long, exhausting day followed with some of the team perhaps regretting the decision, but we all got back to Mendoza for tea and cakes.

 

The next couple of days were spent hanging out in Mendoza. Even though it's quite a sizeable city, the wide leafy boulevards and plazas, old Spanish-colonial type buildings and huge parks right in the centre of town, bustling with market stalls, music and lots of people enjoying themselves, lend it a relaxed and happy vibe. I really liked the place.

 

We took in a wine tasting tour on our last day taking in several vineyards and bodegas. The team definitely rated the produce. What a pity I was still on antibiotics.

   

 

Aftermath

I’m finally over that awful chest infection, but my doctor has warned me that I will suffer badly with respiration if I attempt Everest so soon after recovering. Even if the doc hadn’t said that, my training is so far behind schedule I know I’d struggle – and that would never be in my clients’ best interests.

 

Our clients should do well on Everest, though, even those who didn’t quite summit Aconcagua. Having experienced very high altitude, they now know what to expect and fully understand the importance of slow acclimatisation.

 

In the past, I’ve always shunned facemasks, not wanting to be mistaken for Michael Jackson. But I don’t think I’ll get on a plane again without one to hand no matter how stupid it looks! It will only be used in the direst of emergencies though, when I’m sat next to someone with a streaming cold and no chance of changing seats.

 

As for Aconcagua, I'm pretty sure I will be back. Not getting to the top is the best excuse for a return trip. It's not as if Britain's going to get another winter as good as 2009/10 for a while, so I won't be missing much.

   

   

Thinking of tackling Aconcagua?

This is a tough trip. You’ll do all your own load carrying, once above base camp. It’s not like Nepal, where you have the porters to help you. This is a full on expedition, so if you're thinking of tackling the Stone Sentinel make sure you prepare as fully as you can. If you've never been at altitude before, Mont Blanc or Monte Rosa in the Alps will be a good introduction for you.

 

Aconcagua is a truly challenging mountain, well worthy of its status as a "7 Summits" peak, it's in a stunning location in the heart of the Andes and Mendoza is fantastic for a little R&R at the end of the trip. Plus, of course, the wine is sublime.

Adventure Peaks will be running expeditions to Aconcagua December 2010 to February 2011

  • Fri 17 December 2010 - Sun 9 January 2011
  • Fri 7 - Sun 30 January 2011
  • Fri 28 January - Sun 20 February 2011

 All images - Rob Wills                                                                                                                              Back to Expeditions