Aconcagua - 2011 Summit
22,902 feet 6980 meters
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Aconcagua is a popular climb for those wanting to test themselves at high altitude. It is often a step before attempting Everest and of course one of the Seven Summits. I summited it on February 19, 2005 and again on January 8, 2008 one of my Memories are Everything®: The Road Back to Mt. Everest expeditions and again on January 29, 2011 as my 7 Summits for Alzheimer's project.
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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.

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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.

click to enlargeI selected International 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. click to enlarge

We 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! click to enlarge

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 Polish Glacier.

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.

click to enlargeOur 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 degree hillside.
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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.
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Our 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.

click to enlarge The 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 click to enlargehad 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 to enlarge

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.
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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 summit.

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 patient themselves.
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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.

Climb On!


2011 Live Dispatches