| Aconcagua - Early Season 2012
Aconcagua - Are you ready?!
First off – Thanks so much to Polish Ruben. Read his trip report from 2011 for the “nuts and bolts” on how to make a trip like this happen.
Day 1 - November 21, 2012
Arriving in Mendoza, Argentina! All in all quite uneventful, which is a good thing in a situation like this. The connections all worked out, the bags all made it, and we are sitting at an outdoor table of a small cafe, waiting for our pizza. A guy is walking around playing his guitar and singing in Spanish, and all seems well with the world. We bought our bus tickets for tomorrow, and also purchased the butane gas we will need for our stove. (Several stores around. We found a good Mountain Hard Ware store on the NE corner of Plaza Indepencia.) Tomorrow morning we buy our hiking permit, then catch the bus for the next stage of the journey - a 4 hour trip to Penitentes, where we drop off our gear for a mule to carry the majority of gear the first 15 or so miles.
It would seem that even though Mendoza is a large city (roughly 2 million), it has not been a tourist city for a very long time. And so, the vast majority do not speak English, or even want to try to speak English. Those who are directly impacted by the tourist economy seem to do a bit better with the English.
As far as money goes –there are a lot of things I did not understand very well. It would probably be good to do some research in this area before anyone else goes on a trip there. It seemed like many of the local shops were not so willing to take dollars. At the same time, we found out after we had already done our own money exchange, that there is actually a black market for US dollars in Argentina. The official rate is about 4.8 to 1, but on the streets you are supposed to be able to get up to 7 to 1. Best I could understand, just go walk around and ask people if they want to buy US dollars. Or maybe ask at the hostel you are staying at if someone has a lead.
At Plaza Indepencia in Mendoza. Pretty excited!
Day 2 - To Confluencia
Up this morning and over to the Tourism office by 8am to get our permits. Hopefully this google map link works:
Secretaria de Turismo de Mendoza
Avenida San Martín 1143
Fortunately they opened on time. Between the time to fill out the permits, go to the bank to pay, find out that we could only pay with pesos, go to another bank to convert our money, back to the bank to pay and back to the tourism office...it only took an hour and 15 minutes. Pretty amazing, actually. But if we had of faced one line anywhere, it would not have worked out so well, and we would have missed our bus.
Back to the hostel to grab a pastry and juice, grab our gear and begin the 10 minute carry of about 95 pounds of gear to the bus station. Good training. And we made it with 15 minutes to spare. The bus leaves at 10:15am. The 4 hour trip to Penitentes was beautiful - muddy river and all. When the bus dropped us off, it was a simple matter of walking across the road to our mule transport, Grajales. A shared mule was $180 (up to 30kg each- we only used 25kg each). Turns out you save money by using the mule, as the tourism office charges you an extra $200 EACH if you do not use any expedition service. Crazy.
We forgot to weigh our packs that we carried up to Confluencia. Maybe 30 to 35 pounds? At the park entrance where we stopped to register, our transport guy told us we would get our poop bags with instructions on how to use them. The park ranger lady gave us the bags and said, "These are for your trash. Good luck." Not sure what the luck was for, but we went on our way!
So excited to be standing there, looking up at Aconcagua! 10 months of planning, and here we are! Yeah! The temp was a warm 68F, the winds were strong, and we were loving it.
The 4.5 miles took 2.5 hours. Camp is barely getting set up. The doctor checked us out and declared us to be fit. Walt's O2 level was around 96-98! Wade was about 91. A nice dinner, a warm sleeping bag- ahhhhhh!
That summit looks a LONG ways away!
Walt on the bridge over the "muddy creek."
Day 3 - Confluencia to Plaza de Mulas
Grajales seems to be one of the “smaller” outfitters. And they do not provide guides – they are more of a support system for groups that come in with their own guides. They will provide the food, and porters and mules as needed. Anyway, they seemed to be a bit behind the other groups in getting things set up on the mountain. The bathroom was not set up yet at Confluencia. They did feel bad and so gave us a couple boxes of tea to take along with us. We left Confluencia. at 10am and made it to PM in 6.5 hours, which was a pretty good time. We found our bags waiting for us, but no Grajeles people at all, which means no toilet. Turns out another group was willing to let us use theirs. Locks were not on the outhouses that early in the season, but by the time we were ready to get off the mountain the groups had started locking the restrooms. What a hassle.
A good meal and a beautiful sunset, but no wifi from anyone yet at PM. Our O2 levels are good, so we planned on a carry to Canada tomorrow.
Confluencia still being set up...
Walt, heading up the valley on a beautiful day!
Day 4 - Carry to Canada
Much to learn on a trip like this. My motto for the trip (and for life) is becoming: Learn, adapt, live!
Sleep is so vital on a trip like this. So, I had taken an 800mg ibuprofen when going to bed. At home, after a hard day of training I would take one or maybe 2 of the 200mg variety. While I am sure there were more variables than the level of ibuprofen - but it was a poor night sleep. Awake from about midnight to 4am, just wishing to be asleep. Learn, learn, learn!
The sun hits the tent here in Plaza de Mulas about 9am. Not much point in getting out of the sleeping bag before then. Then breakfast and prepare for the day. As this was to be our heavy carry day to Canada, we had to rearrange our gear. Walt's backpack has been hurting his hips, so he used my bag and I used his NorthFace bag that the mules had carried up. It has backpack shoulder straps on it, but no waist strap. I wish I could have weighed it. I probably carried 60 pounds up to Canada, and I felt like those straps were going to cut through my shoulders! But my legs, lungs, everything else felt great! And we made a fantastic time of 2 hours. We left the gear and headed back down.
Doctor check in had my O2 at 85 and Walt at 89. Walt is taking Diamox, which helps with O2 levels. The Doc said the most important thing is how your body is feeling, and I feel great!
Grajales setup (NOT!) when we first arrived at PM.
Looking down on PM. Not much setup so early in the season.
Day 5 - Move camp to Nido
Contrary to all advice we decided to move camp to Nido today. The reason to spend another day in PM or even camp in Canada is to acclimatize. Our reason for pushing on was that we were feeling good, Canada is the windiest camp, and moving to Nido would allow us to only set up camp once more.
And so we did. The hike to Canada was again uneventful, even easier with less gear than the day before. We met a guy coming down who had made it to the Caneletta - the final difficult summit push - and had to turn around because he was just out of energy. Heart breaking!
We spent 30 minutes in Canada, and I loaded up some of the gear we had already carried there, and we were on our way. Two hours later we were at Nido. A little searching around found the most wind protected site. (Just below the Ranger station, to the left and down as you come into camp.) As we began setting up the tent, the altitude began to get to us, with headaches for both of us. There was no running water, and melting snow seems to take forever at this elevation! Tomorrow we will take a rest day to recover. Wade's O2 was around 68 and Walt's was around 75.
Camp at Nido. "The traverse" goes right across the large snowfield center top.
Day 6 - Rest Day at Nido
Today is Monday (Nov 26), and big winds have been predicted for Wednesday and Thursday. Temps definitely dropped today, with clouds rolling in and even a few snow flakes. We saw two guys crossing the traverse today, but never caught up with them to learn if they made the summit.
The altitude is a big issue. We have both had issues with headaches, upset stomachs, and struggles to eat. I started taking Diamox today. It takes a few days to affect your system, but if we indeed have to wait until after Thursday, it should help. I was around 74 this evening and Walt around 78.
Everything takes so much time. First the idea forms. (I need to pee or we need to melt more snow.) Then you reflect on it for awhile. Then you finally decide that you have nothing better to do, so you do it.
A look at the scree field which is the "Escape Route." You ascend the back side of the ridge to the left, then traverse across the top of th
Day 7 - Back to PM
Last night at Nido was WINDY! And with it came some colder temps than we had seen. The thermometer (against the tent wall) registered 8F in the morning. I had a good night, only one pee break and pretty good sleep. Walt did not do so well. He has had a bad headache, nausea, etc. All the signs of AMS, but both of our O2 levels were around 77.
It was tough trying to figure out what to do, there are so many variables involved. We finally decided to take the tent back down to PM. That should give Walt a chance to recover, and our time at Nido has been good elevation training. We now have gear stored at Nido, Canada and PM. We are definitely not done with this mountain!
Good news on our return - Grajeles now has their own toilet set up! Woot! And we have been told the shower will be up tomorrow, to which they will treat us to a free one. The crew here has felt bad that their setup has not been complete for us. They even treated us to a free hot meal with the crew, which was definitely a highlight of the trip! I would still not personally be for a completely guided trip, but the camaraderie and community that was developed over a single meal was fantastic. Thanks to Pedro, Flor, Nato, Rodriguez and the others whose names I did not get for making it such a valuable part of our Aconcagua experience!
The Grajeles crew.
Day 8 - Walt goes down
Walt had to make a devastating decision this morning. He has had headaches throughout the trip, and nothing - not water, aspirin or lower elevations has helped.
With a night in Plaza de Mulas not bringing any changes, Walt made the difficult decision to end his part in the summit quest. From home we just could not understand this... but now it has become so clear how many delicate variables there are in making something like this a reality. Any one of those variables goes wrong and it just does not happen. And, many of those variables are simply out of your control. And so, my hat is off to Walt for giving it such an effort!
It was just not the same heading back up the mountain without Walt. Even arriving at Camp Canada there was no one to be seen, and only 2 tents set up. Grabbing the extra gear I would need from our cache, I headed up to Nido. I have no solid idea how much my pack weighed- but it was HEAVY! (I put on the Millet boots at Canada, plus I had left PM with 4 liters of water.)
Halfway to Nido I met Brett from England coming down from a carry trip. He is on his 11th day of acclimating and will soon be ready for the summit. Hopefully our paths cross again before this is over.
I must be acclimating well, because I was HUNGRY for dinner and enjoyed all 860 calories! Tonight I sleep with my boot liners, a liter of water and a large fuel canister all in my sleeping bag. Should be ready for another day tomorrow. Hoping to go to Berlin or maybe even higher for an acclimatization hike.
The skies are turning grey....
Day 9 - To Indepencia and back to Nido
It was a crummy weather day – the storm has finally set in for real, so I was not too excited to get started. It was blowing and starting to snow, with snow coming in the tent windows. Things can always get harder.
I set off up the mountain with a plan to see how far I got. Made it to Berlin and discovered that all three A-frames are full of snow. The smaller two are missing doors. Somehow took a wrong turn there and ended up in Chlorea (Elana). There is a nice emergency shelter there. Found the trail up from there to connect back to the main trail, and finally made it to Indepencia. 3.5 hours up, one hour down. I had a good time out there- blowing snow, poor visibility, exploring new trails...
But coming back to a tent with blown snow in it- sweaty and icy clothes with no good way to dry them, and the forecast of more of the same tomorrow.... blah. I really wanted a clear skies summit shot, but I am also ready to be off the mountain. So, tomorrow I will give it a shot for summiting!
No pictures from this day.
Day 10 - Summit
The last day of November, and as predicted, bad weather. But I am ready. I have spent months preparing for this day, my O2 is 88, there are no promises of good weather in the future, I wanted a challenge - here I go!
Up at 7am and WHAT? How did it get to be 9:45am before I am ready to leave? Must have something to do with the bitter cold, blowing wind and snow, etc. But finally I am ready. Off I go.
No one else is stirring. A group of 14 was supposed to leave at 11am for Chlorea. No sign of life in that camp. Yesterday has helped me prepare for my gear better. I am not sweating, but not too cold either. I pass Berlin, this time staying on the correct path. I am not checking times or taking pictures. Conditions are too bad for anything but a summit push.
Up to Indepencia where I put on the crampons. I can see a ridge of snow that I will have to get over before I hit the traverse. Might as well get it over with, having a tiny wind break behind the broken up A-frame.
Up and over the ridge and into the traverse. And HELLO wind! I thought it was bad before?! Even with the full face Gorilla mask and goggles, I found I had to literally side step backwards across that traverse. When I hit the rock shelter 1/2 way across it was incredible to have such relief from the storm. I stopped to reattach one crampon. Stupid strap-on crampons! I saved money by not buying a good pair, and I regretted it the entire day. In fact, I made a donation of my crampons to Aconcagua... more on that later.
Here is one of my secrets: What you see in the picture below is the end of my scuba snorkel in my mouth. It helps vent my breath out to the side, so that the condensation does not freeze my mask and fog or ice up my goggles. Note the beginning of a small icicle on the left side.
Rest stop 1/2 way across the traverse.
Finish the traverse and into the Caneletta. In hindsight, I think there were enough other challenges going on that the additional difficulty of this section was a pretty minor detail. Crampons kept coming off, wind kept knocking me down (about a dozen times total), and the breathing kept getting more difficult. I had read the stories about 4 breaths for every step and was fascinated to experience something like that. Up until now the most it had been was breath in- step. breath out- step. Things started changing here. I never had to stop between steps (though I did take plenty of breaks!), but it turned into breath in-out for every step, then into breath in-out-in for every step. The other thing that started to change was how I started caring less about what my breathing was like. Things like can I actually breath? and where is the trail? started becoming of much greater concern. Visibility was always between 20-100 yards. I knew mentally what the trail would do, but faced with poor visibility and often several choices... it was a constant challenge.
Finally I made it to the emergency supplies bolted to the rock. I stopped for a quick drink and finally just carried the crampons, slung over my hands and walking poles. Too much trouble to keep them on- but I was not sure if I would need them again.
Up, up, up with never a hint that I was making progress. Everything looked the same, and visibility was horrible. Finally I found myself using my hands for a few moves, and briefly wondered if I was near the top? And then there was a flater area - and a pole sticking up a short ways away! But wait! As I get closer and my angle changes, it is no pole, but a cross! I have made it!
I have rehearsed this moment in my mind all day now. There are two things that must happen quickly. Get a picture and check the time. Snap. 6pm. What! Where did the day go? No time to think of that. Must get hands back into mittens. Not so easy to do at over 22000 feet with conditions as they were. I get them in, but can not get the thumbs in place because of the moisture. No time to worry about that-a small detail at the moment. But wait- is that my super cold gear beanie on the ground in front of me? I throw myself on it, a tackle any NFL-er would be proud of. I simply can not lose that beanie right now! Whew, got it. Turns out I did lose my light weight beanie that was under it and I did not even realize it at the time.
Time to get out of here. But make sure you go over the right ledge, because the South Face would be the last ledge you every go over. I find the spot and am on my way down. I pass the spot where I had finally decided I did not need my crampons anymore and had left them. In about 1/10 of a second I considered how I would not need them on the descent (I planned on the Escape Route descent), and how difficult it would be to carry them with thumbs inside my mittens, and about how even more impossible it would be to get them back in the bag- and about how frustrated I already was with them- and I left them.
Things are moving much quicker now. Down the Caneletta and into the traverse, then immediately drop into the Escape Route. As short as it looks from Nido looking up, coming down still takes a long time. Back to camp at 9pm, just as dark sets in. I am so tired. I leave my cold, icy clothes in a pile and go to bed.
Summit shot! Notice how my "icicle" has grown!
Day 11 - Back to PM
Just because you made the summit does not mean that the trip is over. I woke up on Dec 1 to another day of cold, wind and snow. And to a pile of frozen, iced over gear as well. And so began the process of breathing on and chewing on ice until it melted, then putting it in the sleeping bag with me until it was dry enough to not freeze again.
I do not know how long it took to break camp- but it was a long day. Today was not as bad as yesterday because of the weather, but still not good. I thought about talking to the Rangers at Nido about my summit day, but based on previous attempts I knew that they had zero English. Ah well, time to go down.
Walt's huge North Face bag was waiting me at camp Canada. I was not looking forward to descending to PM with all my gear, then returning to Canada for that bag. As I was transferring a few items back and forth, a group of 3 who had just completed a carry to Canada offered to help me pack extra gear down. What a relief that was! What great guys!
Back to PM the crew with Grajales greeted me warmly, and with much excitement to hear that I had summitted. Slowly the bigger picture of the storm came into place. The crew had not been able to work at PM at all on Friday, instead they had stayed inside and played poker. The group of 14 had returned to PM with the words, It would have been impossible to summit. Groups hiking up the Horocones Valley had been beaten with wind and snow. Even as far as Camp Confluencia, traces of snow had fallen. It was indeed, The Storm.
The crew treated me to another delightful meal that night, and I shared a big bag of almond M&M's with them.
It was also great to meet Dillon and Jesse – two great guys who were on their own quest for the summit. They were moving camp up to Nido tomorrow. Hopefully the weather was going to clear up for them.
Definitely becoming a winter wonderland!
Day 12 - Off the Mountain
The crew had invited me to a last breakfast at PM- yogurt and pancakes! That crew eats pretty well, I must say. It was very good, and hard to say goodbye to them all. (I heard later that the groups with Inka did not eat so well. Watery soup, etc. The lady I talked to was not impressed.)
I did not do a good job of packing the three bags for the trip out. (Two for the mules and my backpack.) The total volume filled all three, but I could have done a better job of getting the light gear into my backpack! At the end of the day my entire body was telling me that I had carried too much weight on the nearly 15 mile trip out.
The staff for Grajeles at Confluencia (thanks, Sabrina!) made me a delicious sandwich on my way through. My conclusion about the company is that they have some great people working for them, but if you are trying to get an early season summit – they just might not be the company to work with. But then again, it would seem that there were pro’s and con’s to every company.
I should have kept better track of time on my way down. Around 6 hours to hike out. I got a ride to a hostel across the street from Grajeles in Pentitentes, and was very excited about a shower and a real bed. Ahhhhh!
Success! And what a beautiful mountain!
Aconcagua: Creating it's own weather.
Day 13 - To Mendoza and wrap up
A very enjoyable and uneventful day. A slow morning, bus picked me up at noon and back in Mendoza by 3:30pm-ish. And back to the same hostel we stayed at on the way up, www.savigliano.com.ar
So, as far as a wrap up goes…. Where to start?
It was a crazy, brutal, hard to describe experience. I am very thankful for it, and not sure at this point if I ever want to go through it again. Without the storm, I really felt like that summit was going to be a pretty minor thing. Of course you need to acclimate, but after that you just walk up the mountain. The level of difficulty that the storm added was quite intense.
So – if you are looking for the summit, I might suggest paying the extra money for high season and just putting up with the crowds and going then. But if you are looking for the challenge, looking to push the limits, then definitely go for early season.
As for gear, the Exped Downmat that Ruben talks about with his gear.... a MUST have! We also used the MSR Reactor stove with no problems. It worked great! I did sleep with the gas cartridges higher up to make sure they did not freeze. I also bought hotronics inserts for the boots, carried the E4 batteries and ran them on setting 1 all day of summit day. Never once did my toes even begin to get cold - and I tend to have big problems with cold toes. I wore the Marmot 8000meter mits and found them to be fantastic as well. The pulse oximeter is a must have to be aware of how you are acclimating. We ended up carrying WAY too much food up the mountain. Better to have too much than not enough, but good grief. We could have survived another week on the mountain.
On the bus ride back to Mendoza I met up with a lady who had done a group trip to base camp. (Sorry, I can’t remember your name!!) Turns out she had met Trent, the guy from England. I still don’t know all the details, but he had returned on the storm day to a tent full of snow. And somehow in the process of the day he ended up with frost bite on his fingers and had to end his summit quest.
I met up with Dillon and Jesse on my last day in Mendoza. Turned out they stayed at the same hostel I had! They had gone up to Nido, and a couple of days later had gone for a summit push. The skies were clear, but as they crested over the ridge above Indepencia, and started into the traverse, the wind was so great that they just had to turn back. Another heartbreaking story!
I have been up peaks here in Colorado in pretty rough winter conditions before, I think now that they were all great training for what I went through on Aconcagua. My best advice for the mountain now, is to take the time to acclimate properly as you go up. As hard as it is to sit around for a rest day: do it! And resting at PM will give you the best experience, with bathrooms and running water available. On top of that – be a stickler about getting 4 to 5 liters of water down every day. And try to get it all down before about 7pm, so that hopefully you are not getting up for pee breaks all night long. If you have put the time in training properly, then just take your time and get it done. But even with that said – there are and will be variables outside of your control! And if the puzzle pieces are just not falling into place…better to walk away and come back another day. That mountain is not going anywhere.
When I got home, the first question my kids asked me was, "Did you get the Which Wich picture?!" To which I responded, Of course! The Which Wich sandwich shops here in Colorado offer a free regular sandwich if you bring in a 14er summit picture with one of their sandwich bags. They told me that for a mountain like Aconcagua, they would give me a large sandwich! I can already taste it!
Can't miss out on a free "Wich!"
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):