I had summited Aconcagua twice - 2005 and 2008 and had not planned to return unless
I climbed the more technical Polish Glacier route with friends. However, showing
it proves never say never, I returned in January 2011 and summited for the third
time via a variation of the Polish Traverse. And I was pleased.
I left Colorado on January 15, 2011 for the long trip to Mendoza to meet up with
our team at the Hotel Nutibara. I met the three International Mountain Guides guides,
Peter Anderson, Josh Tapp and Leandro Villegas plus one other climber at baggage
claim and we shared a van to the hotel.
Over the next two days the rest of the team arrived as we enjoyed the city. Mendoza
is a large city in Western Argentina serving as the primary wine making region in
the country. Since it was summer in January in the Southern Hemisphere it was hot
and humid but not as oppressive as I had previously experienced.
As I walked the
city and it's large parks, I saw families crowding the ice cream stores and outside
restaurant tables laughing, kissing, holding hands and living the Latin affectionate
life-style. It was nice to see in person. A climbing permit was required so we went
to the Aconcagua Provincial Park office in Mendoza to pay our $750 fee (for this
time of year). It was a simple administrative process.
Some people may wonder why I used a guide service since I had successfully climbed
Aconcagua twice as well as having over 20 major expeditions completed over the years.
First, this climb was the second in a year-long project to climb the 7
Summits to raise Alzheimer's awareness and $1M for research. Thus my time was
very filed with fund raising activities, press interviews as well as my own personal
training given I was climbing all 7 within 12 months. Something that few people have
competed much less attempted. So I felt it was best to partner with a proven and
professional company that would support my climb safely and hopefully summit successfully
- conditions permitting.
Mountain Guides and was not disappointed. Our team was quite international with
eight clients and three guides. The clients came from the UK, Ireland, Canada and
the US representing pilots, lawyers, firefighters, entrepreneurs and retired folks.
Given my previous climbs, I had a bit more experience than most of the clients
who had previously climbed Rainier, Kili or Denali so it was exciting to see
all of us test ourselves on this high mountain.
The team together, we traveled 4 hours by minibus to Penitentes, a small ski resort
at 8,500'. We stayed one night and prepared our gear for the mule drive to the Plaza
de Argentina. This involved repacking personal and group gear into duffels that weighed
no more than 30KG or 66 pounds each. The treatment of mules has improved considerably
over the years and they are limited to total loads of 132lbs.
left Penitentes on January 19 and the main paved highway following a dirt trail west
up the Rio de Vacus valley. For the next three days we walked about 10 miles a day
camping each night at an official camp site complete with Park Rangers. We were treated
on the first two nights with a barbeque by our Muleteers. The meat was laid out in
large slabs and slow cooked over the heat. Served on a wood block and eaten with
our hands, it tasted fantastic and quite primal!
Day three brought our first clear view of Aconcagua. Turing south, we left the Vacus
valley and gradually gained altitude as we headed towards Plaza de Argentina or base
camp at 13,800. Aconcagua looked huge as we approached it! We could clearly see the
Arriving at base camp, we spent one day resting, finalizing what gear would go higher,
what would stay for a return mule trip. Campo Argentina is a busy place with a large
Ranger presence along with "offices" for the major mule companies and local guides
such as Grajeles, Lanko, Rudy Parra and others. A 24 hour Doctor is also on call.
She required that everyone register with her and read their blood pressure, pulse,
a measure of the oxygen content in our blood and to listen to our lungs for any infection.
I liked this policy since it identifies anyone who is not acclimatizing properly
or has an underlying health problem that may be amplified at higher altitude.
plan was to establish three camps - 15,700, 17,500 and 19,500 through a series of
carries and moves over the next week. We had one day schedule for acclimatization
at the High Camp but no other rest days. Each day the activity was between 5 to 8
hours. Using three camps with no rest days was a bit different from my other climbs
and felt reasonable but a bit aggressive.
We moved to Camp 1 after three (arrive, rest and carry to C1) nights at BC. C1
held a few rock walled tent sites in a small gully just above a flowing river. The
climb from BC is a good test for higher up on the mountain in that you experience
a wide expanse of loose scree especially in the last several hundred feet up a 30
The next day involved a carry to Camp 2 at 17,500'. All this climbing was designed
to move gear higher and to create more oxygen carrying red bloods using the well
proven technique of climb high, sleep low. The climbing was easy in the sense that
the rock covered trail was obvious, the angles manageable and the loads agreeable.
Most of our team made the climbs in a few hours at the most.
This year, 2011, the lower part of the mountain was the normal scree but as we
gained altitude it was clear that this was a high snow year.
Camp 2 was also called the Camp 3 via the Guanacos Route. It was a great site with
clear views of the Polish Glacier, Aconcagua as well as sweeping views of the Cerro
Ameghino at 19,225'. This camp is also known as Helicopter or Chopper Camp given
nearby remnants of a helicopter crash.
At Camp 2, we found plenty of snow to melt for water but still used iodine to
treat it as we had throughout the entire climb. Of note, my SteriPen failed on me!
The winds are ever present on Aconcagua. They are straight-line forces that destroy
tents, move gear and knock over climbers. We were mindful to secure all guy lines
with large rocks otherwise the tents literally blew away or moved a few feet from
the original site.
next day we made a carry to our High Camp aka Camp Colera and then moved the following
day. These various carries and moves involved transporting personal group gear to
the higher camp. The loads were manageable at probably 40lbs per person. For example
we moved our ice axes and crampons each time on the carry since we would not use
them until summited day. But down jackets, sleeping bags, mats were only packed for
a move and not a carry since we needed them. Also group gear of food and fuel were
moved each day.
We arrived at High Camp on Friday, January 28th. The winds had been blowing hard
each night since C1 and were getting worse. Our first night at C1 was difficult and
few of us got any sleep.
Now at High Camp and ready for our summit push, Peter had received a weather forecast
that said the winds should let up on Saturday but he also saw two other forecast
saying they would continue. So we went to bed that night early - 6 PM - prepared
to get up between 2 and 5 AM for our summit bid. But throughout the night, the winds
howled at our 19,500' camp. Peter checked the frequently throughout the night
and saw stars albeit with the ever present winds. Around 5:00 AM they let up and
Peter called for everyone to get ready. The guides had already started the stoves
to melt snow for hot drinks and to top off our water bottles.
We set a deliberate pace from Camp Colera now walking on full snow cover. We soon
passed Independence Refuge, the remnants of a very primitive hut where we put on
crampons. Climbing the hill above the hut we joined the main route, a traverse to
the Canaleta and the last 1000' to the summit. This section was straightforward and
covered with snow. It was mostly a gentle angle of 5 to 15 degrees. However it was
here I saw most people struggling with the altitude. Older men, younger men, women
were taking a step every 30 seconds. They were breathing hard and had a empty look
in their eyes. This was 21,000' after all.
At the base of the Canaleta, we took a long break to drink, eat and consider the
last push to the top. We had been moving for about 6 hours and the final push did
look a bit intimidating. Unlike my two previous climbs, the Canaleta was completely
snow covered. We had been climbing under clear blue skies with a light breeze but
now clouds were forming all around us and soon we could not see the summit.
Peter set a very slow pace given the altitude. There were maybe five other teams
of 10 to 15 climbers each making their way up the Canaleta so a line soon formed
quite common on the popular large mountains. We took a few more breaks and soon we
stood on the summit of the highest peak outside the Himalayas!
I was very proud of our team. Every person made the summit - a rare occurrence
on Aconcagua 11 of 11! One climber was on his second try, another wanted to stop
at the base of the Canaleta but kept going, a couple others found the final push
quite difficult as they struggled with the altitude. But no one gave up, no one complained,
everyone kept going as a team and we summited as a team.
I smiled as I saw the famous cross on the summit of Aconcagua. Made up of tubes it
was brightly decorated and serves as an icon for the summit. It brought back good
memories of my previous climbs. The clouds were now thick around the summit so
the famous views of the South Face and nearby valleys were obscured but somehow
it didn't matter. We were all smiles with longs hugs and strong handshakes all
around round. Perhaps a tear or two was also shed.
I made a Blog post via sat phone and a 2 minute call to my wife. She already
knew I was on the summit via our SPOT tracker!
Retracing our steps, we made it back to High Camp in abut three hours and fell into
our tents reflecting on the 12 hour day. After a good night, we left for Plaza de
Mules and then back to Penitentes. Amazingly, we were in Mendoza 48 hours after our
This climb was not so much about summits but rather a broader meaning. In the time
it took me to climb Aconcagua about 17,000 people developed Alzheimer's Disease.
All those families began a tragic journey that has no positive results. There is
no cure for Alzheimer's. Standing on the summit, I dedicated this climb to all those
family caregivers who sacrifice so much and sometimes suffer as much as the Alzheimer's
The next climb is to Everest and the rest of the 7 Summits throughout 2011.
Aconcagua was a great climb but also a strong reminder that we can all accomplish
the seemingly impossible.