| Summit of the Americas!
Teammates: Dominic & Teresita
Ahhh…Aconcagua. Where do I start? Just a few weeks later and the details are already melting, leaving behind a mass of jumbled, pleasant memories. Upon my return, the first thing most people said was "Well, how was it? Tell us all about it." That's a difficult request as there were so many different aspects to this trip: the logistics and technical details of the expedition, the feelings we experienced throughout the trip, the day to day stories and drama, the lessons we learned… the list is endless. I'm sure I could write a book on the subject. For me, I guess a lot of it has to do with the fact that this was my first climbing trip outside of the US and also my first "big mountain". Obviously I can't include everything in a trip report, but I will try my best to put together some kind of coherent story.
The seed for this trip was first planted in my mind by Teresa last summer. I will never forget our parting at the Stapleton Park & Ride after returning from our successful trip to climb Mt. Hood and Mt. Rainier. "I'm planning on Aconcagua next year, maybe you're interested?" That blew me away and it was all I could think about the whole way home. Could I really do something like that? Aconcagua was something I'd had in the back of mind as a possible long term kind of goal, but it certainly hadn't even been considered up to now. Here I had just taken my first climbing trip outside of Colorado and I thought that was darn exciting! Could I really realize what I saw more of as a "life goal" in less than a year?
Several months later, after some heart wrenching ups and downs with trying to schedule the necessary time off, everything actually fell into place. I'd have to use up an entire year's vacation, but I could go! Dominic and I committed to the trip. I then began to seriously look into what climbing this mountain would involve. That mostly led to a "what the heck was I thinking" kind of mentality. I'd never been higher than 14K and I thought I could just waltz up to almost 23K? Very strong people claimed that it was mentally and physically tough. A low success rate of about 30% seems to support this. A lot of people don't make it on their 1st attempt, especially if they have no experience at high altitude. Man, this isn't sounding good. I'm going to spend tons of money on gear, tons of money for the trip, an entire year's vacation, and fail? Yeah, that's really not going to sit well with me afterwards. How will I live with myself? For now, I push those thoughts in the corner but they will be back with a vengeance later.
One of the first decisions to be made was whether to hire a guide or to go it alone. We all agreed that a hiring a guide would be the right thing to do. Dominic and I had absolutely zero experience above 14K and really had no idea what to expect up there. Although Teresa had significant experience at altitude, this would also be a personal altitude record for her and she wasn't really comfortable leading such an expedition on her own. Teresa had previous experience with an Ecuadorian guiding company, Mountain Legends, so we first inquired with them. The itinerary they proposed seemed reasonable, but with one exception – it included porters. After a little debate, we decided we would not let somebody else carry our crap up the mountain for us and proposed our own itinerary without porters, based heavily on the information posted by Bob Dawson and Steve Martin. Thanks guys, your trip reports were a HUGE help! We made it clear to the company up front that we would like to be as self sufficient as possible on the trip, melting our own snow, cooking for ourselves on the mountain, etc. We basically wanted somebody to be there to keep us out of trouble and to teach us a thing or two when necessary. They agreed with our agenda and assigned two guides to us, both of whom Teresa had climbed with before. Later in the trip it became clear that this sort of arrangement is not at all common and it actually led to some tension between us and the guides.
Itinerary – reflects what we did, brackets indicate our pre-planned itinerary when different
1st – Leave Denver
2nd – Arrive Mendoza
3rd – Preparations, food & fuel
4th – Get permits, travel to Penitentes
5th – Hike to Confluencia (9,660 ft – 11,270 ft)
6th – Hike to Plaza de Mulas (14,350 ft)
7th – Rest Day
8th – Carry to Nido de Condores (18,300 ft)
9th – Rest Day
10th – Move to Camp Canada (16,600 ft)
11th – Move to Nido de Condores (18,300 ft)
12th – Rest Day
13th – Move to Camp Colera (19,590 ft) (Carry to Camp Berlin)
14th – Summit Day (22,841 ft) (Rest Day)
15th – Return to Plaza de Mulas (Move to Camp Berlin)
16th – Climb Cerro Catedral (17,320) (Summit Day #1)
17th – Climb Cerro Bonete (16,550) (Summit Day #2)
18th – Hike out, stay in Penitentes (Summit Day #3)
19th – Return to Mendoza (Descend to Mulas)
20th – Free Day in Mendoza (Hike out, stay in Penitentes)
21st – Free Day in Mendoza (Return to Mendoza)
22nd – Leave Mendoza
23rd – Arrive Denver
Travel & Preparation
The three of us flew from Denver to Atlanta to Santiago Chile to Mendoza Argentina. All went like clockwork and our luggage arrived without a hitch. We saw a large group at the airport in Santiago preparing for an Aconcagua expedition and a beer belly or two helped me feel slightly more comfortable about my physical abilities. One guy bragged to his teammates that his wife bought him a porter for his birthday. Our Ecuadorian guides, Rene & Miguel, greeted us at the airport in Mendoza and took us to our hotel downtown. Rene was clearly in charge, having climbed Aconcagua several times in the past. Miguel actually had more guiding experience but had never been outside of Ecuador. This was an exciting trip for him.
We spent a day and a half wandering around town, buying fuel (both white gas and canisters), shopping for snack food for the climb, and eating primarily big chunks of meet. Mendoza is rather hot and we were anxious to get out of there and start hiking. Acquiring the required climbing permits wasn't exactly easy. First, the proper paperwork had to be attained, then a fee had to be paid at a certain bank, then the paperwork had to be taken to the permit place where it was processed. Conveniently, the "high season" had just come to and end and the $220 fee we owed was $100 less than normal. Finally, we left the confines of the hot city in a van heading toward Penitentes.
We stayed in a small, rather deserted place at the base of the ski slopes in Penitentes. The three of us walked around the tiny, desolate town for a while in the afternoon, but the unrelenting wind was annoying and we didn't stay out long. The evening was spent preparing our duffels for the mules and arranging our daypacks. Teresa had printed out Jeff Kunkle's and Steve Martin's trip reports and although I'd read them before, I spent some time looking them over again. I was really having serious "what was I thinking" kind of thoughts again. At that point I felt like my chances of success were about 20%. Jeff's line about feeling like he was passing in and out of consciousness during the last part of the climb scared the hell out of me. What had I gotten myself into? After that I cut myself off from the trip reports!
Day 1 – Trailhead to Confluencia
After a simple breakfast of toast, our ride arrived to take us the short distance to the trailhead. When we arrived we were just in time to see the helicopter land in its designated spot right by the ranger station. After registering with the ranger, we were finally hiking and it felt good. We only carried a small amount of clothing, our sleeping bags, and a thermarest with us, leaving everything else for the mules.
It was very hot on the short hike to Confluencia. Miguel set a very slow place but I didn't care because we had plenty of time. We took it slow, getting familiar with our new surroundings. After 2:45 we arrived at the rather quiet camp and it wasn't exactly like I'd expected. I was surprised to find a flushing toilet and a cot to sleep on.
We took a short stroll, climbing about 500 feet up the drainage behind camp. We were able to scramble out onto a rock outcropping to get some great views of camp. It was very hot all afternoon.
Day 2 – Confluencia to Base Camp
It was after 10am when we left Confluencia for Plaza de Mulas. We all left our sleeping bags to be picked up by our mules on their way in later. Once again Miguel set out at a rather slow pace, but it was faster than the day before. It was disheartening to immediately descend past Confluencia and walk the wrong way down the river to reach the bridge before finally climbing back up. Why did they design the trail that way?
The wide Horcones Valley seemed endless. It is on such a big scale that you can walk for several miles and not feel like you've gone anywhere. Several miles of soft dirt trail were followed my more over riverbed type rock. I guess because it was so late in the season, river crossing were a non-issue. However, wind was. As the day wore on, it really picked up and was causing quite the little dust storm. I ate plenty of dirt and thought about how bad the trek could suck on the way back if we didn't make it to the summit.
Where the trail begins to ascend above the riverbed Miguel chatted with a guy who was on his way down. Even with my limited Spanish comprehension abilities I got the point that conditions were terrible up high and nobody had summitted for days. It had been snowing regularly, apparently there was knee deep snow in places, and temperatures at high camp were supposedly -30C. That was disheartening news to say the least.
We continued on in a somewhat less cheery mood and finally set our eyes on Plaza de Mulas. The last section to reach camp is much steeper than the rest of the route, but it felt good to finally be going up instead of walking on flat ground.
We did not camp right at Plaza de Mulas because Rene had made arrangements to camp at the much quieter, cleaner, and more secluded Refugio. El Refugio is a "hotel" located about 20 minutes away from Plaza de Mulas. Rooms are available at a relatively high price, but the place isn't heated. Down jackets are standard attire. There is a kitchen and hot meals can be purchased, again at a rather high price. The hotel's primitive toilets, which you flush by pouring a bucket of water down them, are available to those who camp there. There were usually only a few tents pitched in the camping area in addition to ours and it was a fairly nice place to camp. The hotel also offers a cooking/dining room for climbers where camp stoves can be used to prepare your own meals. Internet service was available at certain times at the cost of $5 per 15 minutes. There was also a pay phone which I used to wish my dad a happy birthday. I talked for 10-15 minutes for only a few bucks and the connection was fantastic! Overall, I liked our base camp arrangements.
Day 3 – Rest day at base camp
We quickly learned that getting up before the sun hits your tent is not necessary, comfortable, or common practice except on summit day. This generally occurred after 10am, although the exact time depended on which camp we were at. There's no guilt in sleeping in because its actually the thing that makes the most sense. The only tasks for our first day at base camp were to keep hydrating and to pay a visit to the doctor over at Plaza de Mulas to get ourselves checked out. It would have been useful to know that the doctor's regular hours are 10-1 and 5-8. We first arrived at 1:15 only to find we'd wasted our time trekking over from El Refugio. It snowed all afternoon, but we made our way back over to see the doctor around 5. We had to wait our turn as there were two unhealthy guys already being seen. At least one of them had bronchitis and the doctor told him he couldn't ascend any further unless he got better. I was a little surprised to see that the doctor gave out free medicine to those who needed it. While we were waiting, we chatted with a fellow from Atlanta who was on his 4th attempt and was already getting sick. Poor guy.
Finally it was our turn and Teresa went first. Her oxygen saturation level and pulse rate were great, but they claimed that her blood pressure was too high and told her she could not go any higher the next day. Upon hearing that, my heart started racing and I became extremely worried about my turn. I didn't think there was any way any of us could fail the test! Dominic and I checked out OK and Teresa stayed for a while to try to get a better reading. After being unsuccessful, they gave her some medicine, told her to quit eating salt, and to check back later. The doctor ended up visiting El Refugio later than night, but Teresa's blood pressure still hadn't dropped. We were all totally bummed and wondered what we should do the next day, our planned carry day to Nido de Condores.
Day 4 – Carry to Nido de Condores
Teresa, anxious to check in again with the doctor, hurried over to Plaza de Mulas while Dominic and I finished breakfast and got ready for our hike to Nido de Condores. I was excited to finally be starting up the mountain, especially knowing that after climbing just a couple hundred feet Dominic and I would be breaking our person altitude record with each step. I was also very nervous and anxious to see how my body would do up there.
With all the snow from the day before, my hopes of being able to wear my trail runners on the carry were dashed and plastics it was. Oh well, I had to get used to wearing them anyway. Dominic, Miguel and I left camp around 10am, Dominic and I with a bunch of extra fuel, food, and clothing that we planned to stash at Nido. After the 20 minute walk to Plaza de Mulas we found Teresa who was happy to report that had passed the medical exam and was free to ascend. What a relief! Dominic and I continued on with Miguel and Teresa located Rene and they started up shortly after us.
Dominic and I felt great as we ascended, but we definitely noticed the lack of oxygen as we huffed and puffed our way up. I made a continuous conscious effort to keep drinking as much as possible. The snow made the hike fairly pleasant, allowing us to walk on stable ground instead of scree and dirt. After 2:15 of switch backing our way up from Plaza de Mulas, we reached Camp Canada at 16,600 ft (per my GPS). After a little break on some rocks just above Canada, we continued on to Nido de Condores. The terrain isn't quite as steep in this section, but the increased altitude definitely slowed our pace a bit. After another 2:15 we reached Nido just as it began to snow (3pm). My GPS read 18,340 ft. Miguel was impressed with our 4.5 hour hike time and initiated a group hug. It was cool that it was his first time climbing the mountain too because he was often very excited. The hike seemed so much easier than I had expected and I felt great – no headache, no sickness, in fact I was starving and immediately sat down to eat a sandwich. I was also relieved at how good my feet had felt all day in my plastics.
Dominic and I left our extra gear and supplies in heavy duty garbage bags and piled some rocks on top of them, noting the location with my GPS. In the process, I had my first experience with a sh!t rock. Yuck! Lesson learned, I was much more cautious after that, first kicking rocks over before attempting to pick them up.
Since it was snowing and the weather was worsening, we quickly started back down. The snow was coming down rather hard and visibility was poor. Before too long we heard somebody calling to Miguel – it was Rene. He and Teresa had just turned around and began descending since the visibility was so poor and they didn't have a GPS. They hadn't quite made it to Nido and Teresa hadn't wanted to stash her things for fear of not being able to find them later. It was very fortunate that we met because it meant that Teresa could finally stash her stuff since I had my GPS. We all climbed back up 50-100 feet to find a suitable spot, Teresa left her things, and we made a hasty retreat down the mountain. I couldn't believe my watch when we got back down to Plaza de Mulas – it was only 5:10! It is unbelievable how little time it takes to descend this mountain.
Even though it had seemed like a fairly easy day, I realized on the hike back over the Refugio that I was pretty tired out. I felt a slight headache coming on, but some water and ibuprofen quickly remedied the situation. Dominic and I enjoyed a nap upon our return.
Day 5 – Rest day at base camp
At 9am we were rudely awakened by a ferocious wind, snow blowing in through our partially closed tent door, accompanied by some kind of loud noise. After a while I finally realized what was happening – there was a helicopter landing somewhere nearby. I was very surprised though to peek out of the tent and see that the thing was right there, less than 100 feet away! This became a regular event as it was apparently the standard landing area for delivering supplies to El Refugio.
This was a scheduled rest day at base camp, but I didn't feel like I needed to rest and was anxious to move up to Camp Canada given the news that at last a good weather window was approaching. I knew I had to be patient though to let my body acclimate properly and maximize my chance at summitting so I let the idea go and tried not to be too bored just hanging out all day.
We talked to three Spanish guys who had attempted the summit the day before. We'd met one of them already because he'd been eating in El Refugio's cooking/dining area with us. Already acclimated, he had climbed from base camp up to Nido, met his two friends there, and then they'd gone for the summit. Due to bad weather and very tough conditions only one of them had made it. On the way down they'd found a Ukrainian guy who was alone. He had been wandering around high on the mountain over night ever since getting lost descending from the summit the day before. He had no gloves on, was severely frost bitten, and was totally crazy. He told them that he'd spent the night at some refuge up there and sang songs with other climbers. There was nobody up there. After they helped him back to Nido he finally started coming to his senses and realized what had happened to his hands. Scary.
Day 6 – Move to Camp Canada
Shortly after I woke up, Teresa called over from her tent to wish me a happy birthday. Despite it being the infamous 3-0 for me, it was going to be a great birthday – today was the day we were starting to move up the mountain and I have to admit, I was starting to believe I had a shot at it!
We all packed up camp and trickled out of base camp when we were ready, first Teresa, then Dominic and I, then Miguel and Rene some time later. Although are packs were significantly heavier than on our first hike to Camp Canada two days earlier, breathing felt significantly easier this time, suggesting I was acclimating well. Miguel caught up to Dominic and I and then the three of us to Teresa about halfway up and we all took a break together in the sun.
We all continued up at our own pace. Dominic, Miguel and I arrived at Camp Canada a little before 3pm. It had taken just under 3 hours from Plaza de Mulas. Teresa arrived shortly afterwards and we found places for our tents. Unfortunately the camp is small and its hard to find flat areas. We weren't able to pitch our tents as close together as we would have liked, but it wasn't a big deal. Rene stopped by after a while and then continued up to Nido to leave a cache of food and gear. He planned on sleeping at base camp for another night and joining us again tomorrow.
For my birthday I got some very thoughtful gifts from my teammates. I had underestimated the sun and didn't have anything to shade my face from the sun so Dominic lent me his Jaegermeister hat to use for the rest of the trip. Teresa decided to NOT get me a porter for my birthday. Thanks guys!
Day 7 – Move to Nido de Condores
For some reason, some people at the crowded camp felt the need to get up early and make enough racket that sleeping wasn't an option. That didn't get us out of our sleeping bags before the sun hit though. We knew the hike to Nido wouldn't take too long and weren't in any hurry. The weather was improving by the day and the afternoon snowstorms seemed to be over for a while. We all packed up started toward Nido. Dominic and I left at 12:45, Teresa a while before us, and Miguel a while after us. We caught up with Teresa just as she was locating her cache and helped carry the few miscellaneous items she couldn't easily accommodate. She'd have to carry nearly her entire load the remaining 700 feet to Nido.
Miguel, Dominic and I arrived at Nido 2:10 after leaving Canada. I was a little surprised at that since it had taken us five minutes longer with much lighter packs three days before. After locating our stash, we found a much better camping area than we had at Canada. Teresa appeared soon and we started setting up camp. At 18,300 feet, pitching our tents seemed like an incredible amount of work. A few times while I was collecting large rocks I got pretty dizzy and had to take a break. Teresa agreed that it may have been harder than the day's hike. I felt a little tired from the past two days and was actually ready for a rest day.
Dinner was an absolute catastrophe. After adding boiling water to our freeze dried meals, I put them in my sleeping bag to stay warm while cooking. Ten minutes later I went in the tent for something, forgot where the dinners were, and sat on them. There was food everywhere in my sleeping bag and on my behind. What a huge mess! Dominic and Teresa graciously cleaned up my sleeping bag as well as they could while I changed my pants. After their efforts it was in pretty good shape, but the smell of beef stroganoff and Mexican chicken and rice was strong that night.
Day 8 – Rest day at Nido de Condores
This was a fairly uneventful, relaxing day. The weather was very good and we were a little worried about sitting around all day and missing the weather window. Teresa wanted to move to Camp Berlin instead of resting and Dominic was slightly in favor of that, but I felt like I should rest if possible because my legs weren't feeling as strong as they could have been. I agreed to go along with the decision to move up since I was the minority and the weather wasn't certain. However, Rene didn't like the idea and told us we should stick to the original plan and quit worrying about the weather. Honestly, I was relieved by that. It was already pretty late and it would have meant rushing around to pack up camp and get moving.
The Spaniards made another attempt at the summit today from base camp. Miguel and Rene woke up early to have hot drinks ready for them on their way through. They stopped by on their way down – two of the three had made it, one for the second time this trip! The third was having problems acclimating and gave up. They reported many people and good conditions higher up.
Day 9 – Move to Camp Colera
Today was supposed to be the day we planned to do a carry to Camp Berlin, but we decided that it just didn't make sense. The only thing to carry up would have been food and fuel for 2-3 days. It made more sense just to carry everything up at once and stay there. We packed up camp at Nido and left for Camp Berlin in our usual fashion: Teresa, followed by Dominic and I, followed by Miguel, then Rene. Once again, every step was a new record for Dominic and I. However, with a huge pack at around 19,000 feet, none of those steps were easy.
Dominic and I reached stinky Camp Berlin after about 2 hours. There were several groups camping in this small area, but it stank like crap. Since it had snowed so much in the previous days on the mountain, fortunately the alternate Camp Colera a short ways above Camp Berlin was usable. Apparently, this more comfortable camp isn't always an option due to lack of snow for water. We continued on the trail to Colera and after twenty minutes found ourselves there. A very cold wind was blowing, and there was no shelter from it as we put up the tents. In fact, I don't think it ever stopped blowing the entire time we were up there. Hanging around together outside wasn't possible like it had been at the lower camps and we all stayed in our tents. My GPS read 19,590 ft and I wondered whether I'd be able to actually sleep this high.
Incidentally, I also set a different kind of personal record on this day – my record number of days in a row without a shower! My previous record of 8 days was set last summer on my trip to the Grenadiers.
It was hard to fathom that tomorrow we'd actually be attempting to climb to the summit. We'd been waiting so long it had seemed, trying to be patient. But now the time had come and it felt like it had crept out of nowhere.
Day 10 – Summit Day – Ahora es Cuando
The wind whipped through camp all night long and into the morning. I tried to tune it out but my brain consciously made a note of it throughout the night, worrying that it may squash our plans to make an attempt at the summit in the morning. I told it not to stop stressing and to get some sleep because there wasn't anything we could do about it anyway and we still had several days to get to the summit but it wouldn't listen.
Dominic and I woke up around 6:30 as Rene and Teresa were leaving camp. It was still windy, but apparently not bad enough to cause concern. This was it – the day we'd all been waiting for. Miguel, Dominic, and I left about 50 minutes later. Down jackets and crampons were in fashion this morning right from the start. I also chose to use hand and toe warmers right off the bat just so I wouldn't have to screw around with them later if I got cold.
Sunrise was spectacular and I had to stop to take pictures even though taking off my big mittens to do so was unpleasantly cold. My favorite one is looking down on Camp Colera as it gets hit with the first rays of light. Seeing Aconcagua's shadow was also very cool.
Early on we passed a very large guided group, some not feeling so well. They were taking a break in the freezing cold – no thanks, I never want to do something like this with that large of a group. For some reason, there were a few people camping higher up. It was pretty darn cold out and there was a cold wind blowing but I was able to tolerate it without putting on my dreaded face mask. I don't know why I hate that thing so much, but I usually won't resort to it unless my nose is starting to freeze.
We took our first break at Independencia where we ran into a party of two who were turning back because one of them was feeling sick. First thing in the morning I had been feeling slightly dizzy and not hungry, but now I felt great and wolfed down a bunch of chocolate. People say that you often lose your appetite at altitude but Dominic and I certainly didn't! During our break we spotted Teresa and Rene just ahead of us.
The traverse from above Independencia to the start of the Canaleta lived up to its reputation of being very cold and windy. I had to keep switching between having my thumbs in with my other fingers to warm them up, and taking them out so I could hang on to my trekking poles. My toes weren't very warm, but they weren't cold enough to be at all concerned. Dominic's toes on the other hand were colder and he ended up getting some very minor frostnip on one foot. We passed another group of three and closed in on Teresa and Rene.
Finally the painfully cold traverse ended in the sunshine on some nice warm rocks – the perfect place to take a break and warm up. It had taken 4 hours to get to this point. This is where we joined up with Rene and Teresa. Teresa was also really cold and was suffering through the pain of her fingers and toes warming back up. It didn't take long for me to warm up and soon I was eating more chocolate. I was grinning from ear to ear at this point because I KNEW that I was going to make it – nothing could stop me now. It didn't matter how hard that Canaleta was, I still had plenty of gas left. I think Miguel was feeling the same way because as we continued on to the summit all together he declared several times "Ahora es cuando!", essentially "the time is now". My happiness was apparently blatantly obvious because Rene kept asking me why I was the only one smiling. I couldn't stop.
The Canaleta was in prime condition with snow covering the infamous scree. Ninety plus percent of this portion of the climb was on snow that was perfect for crampons, what luck! We passed another group of three that were taking very frequent breaks. The last 500 feet or so seemed pretty tough for me just because we had to move so slowly and it seemed like we'd never get there. There were no doubts now though so all that there was left to do was to keep walking. Sometimes I'd stick with the usual rest step kind of motion and other times I'd just say screw it and take a bunch of quick steps and stop and pant for a while. Mixing it up helped combat the monotony.
At 1:20pm, after two hours of steady climbing in the Canaleta, we were standing on top of the Americas, the first ones of the day. We had the summit to ourselves for half an hour which we spent taking pictures, giving hugs, and enjoying the views.
We started down at 2pm shortly after one of the groups of three arrived. They were totally exhausted but obliged when we immediately asked them to get a group shot of us. On the descent we enjoyed a long break at the bottom of the Canaleta and were back to camp by 4pm. We had all been feeling great, but after coming down from our climbers high we realized that we were more tired than we'd thought. Dominic was so hungry that he immediately cooked a dehydrated dinner and ate it. The two of us took a nap and then got back up later to eat dinner. Dominic ate a second meal.
Day 11 – Descent to base camp
The wind continued to be an issue throughout the night, except more so. The piles of rocks that were holding our guy lines weren't that great of a match for the wind, and they moved around a bit. Teresa was sleeping alone and her tent moved several feet during the night! In the morning I stayed in my sleeping bag, hoping the wind would die down before we had to pack up camp but we had no such luck. Finally we gave in and packed up, doing as much packing as possible inside the tent and then helping each other with the tents when necessary. The wind was bitter cold up on the ridge and I couldn't wait to start descending.
Conditions improved quickly as we descended down to Nido. Unfortunately, descending the steep terrain with a heavy pack was uncomfortable in my plastic boots because my toes were bashing up against the front of them. Once we arrived at Nido I asked Dominic to lace them up for me as tight as he could, but it only helped very marginally. We retrieved our stashes and I was shocked to feel how heavy they were. This was our punishment for summitting so early and ahead of schedule – carrying many pounds of extra food and fuel down the mountain. We crammed our packs full, grabbed our "goodie bags", and continued on down the mountain.
I was already pretty miserable and had no idea that this day was going to be so painful. Up until now I figured it would be a breeze. My legs just weren't used to hauling that much weight down steep slopes. Dominic, Teresa and I finally reached Camp Canada where we had to pick up some more "goodie bags". We sat down for a long break and I was relieved to hear that Teresa thought the descent totally sucked too. I never thought this would be the hardest day of the entire trip for me. My legs were overworked and my toes were still bashing my boots but the scree we encountered below Camp Canada was a godsend. I sort of plunge stepped my way through as much scree as possible to avoid the toe bashing while Teresa found it more comfortable on the hard packed dirt trail. Dominic settled on a bit of both.
Finally, the torture ended as we wandered into Plaza de Mulas 3.5 hours after leaving Camp Colera. Our first stop was the ranger station to get rid of the "goodie bags" before they thawed. After that we celebrated with $5 beers and sodas. By the time we were ready to schlep our monstrous packs over to El Refugio, I had a decent buzz and the dreaded last leg wasn't so bad.
Upon our return, the Spaniards were having lunch outside on the patio and invited us to join them. Their pasta and tuna tasted especially good. They had apparently made it up Cerro Cuerno earlier in the day and had tales to tell. The climb had been very technical with much steep ice and penitents to be negotiated. After quite a while of basking in the sun there and trying to understand their stories in Spanish I felt obligated to help Dominic put up our tent one last time.
That night the crazy Spaniards had a party with the girls who worked at El Refugio. They all dressed like girls, broke out the vodka and energy drinks, and danced all night. Very interesting characters.
Days 12 & 13 – Peakbaggers are us
What did you think we were going to do? Hike out and have a shower and a real meal? Sip wine in Mendoza? Hah! I hope to write another trip report soon…
Day 14 – Hike out
Finally the day had come to leave this place and I can't say I was really looking forward to it. Sure there would be hot showers and outstanding meals out there, but for some reason I didn't really care about that anymore. There was no choice now though but to leave. I'd already prolonged our stay by two days by climbing some bonus peaks and unfortunately we didn't have the appropriate technical gear to stay another day and climb the beautiful Cerro Cuerno. Our business here was done.
We packed up camp and the three of us left El Refugio at 10am while Rene and Miguel tied up loose ends. Rather than trekking back over to Plaza de Mulas before beginning the descent, we started down a trail near El Refugio that we'd seen the mules using. All went well until we came to the river and searched for a way across. It wouldn't have been difficult if the rocks hadn't had a nice coating of ice on them. We screwed around for a while, but finally it was Teresa who had the nerve to demonstrate how it was done. Dominic and I followed her lead and found ourselves on the other side without too much trouble. Soon we connected back up with the main trail and continued the march. On and on and on we went down the huge valley, well aware that we had many miles ahead of us. It wasn't until we were taking a break at Confluencia that Rene and Miguel caught up with us.
We were back at the trailhead around 4:20 and signed out with the ranger. Unfortunately our ride back to Penitentes didn't arrive until after 6pm so we just sat in silence waiting for the minutes to go by. We stopped in Puenta del Inca for a short time before returning to Penitentes. It would be several hours before the hot water was ready for us to use. Choices for dinner were very limited and not spectacular. Finally after dinner we could take showers. The pathetic water pressure made for a frustrating experience. I shouldn't have even tried to wash my two week old unwashed hair there because it was a huge chore and took forever. I was falling asleep standing there. All in all, it was nothing but a big disappointment.
I want to thank Teresa for getting this whole trip together and inviting Dominic and I. And I'd also like to thank Dominic and Teresa for being fantastic, encouraging teammates. This trip was incredible and I'll never forget it. I'm already dreaming of other places I'd like to climb someday…