Writing this while relaxing in the premium cabin on my flight from Buenos Aires to London, having just found out the gin or whiskey isn’t in fact complimentary!
Arriving in Argentina on December 28th was a major milestone in my life to begin with. Argentina being the 100 official UN country that I have visited. This was a part of the reason I wanted to do something big to mark the occasion. I felt Aconcagua was that big event, being the highest mountain in Argentina, South America, the Southern and Western Hemispheres. Basically the highest mountain in the world outside of the Himalayas and a few Central Asian mountains.
We were straight into it with the biggest immigration queue of my life in Buenos Aires which took a few hours to get through before then collecting our bags and making our way towards our flight to Mendoza in Western Argentina along the Chile border. The closest big city to Aconcagua National Park.
Arriving in Mendoza we checked into our hotel and hung out with our initial crew of 5. Friends Anthony (ManvsClock) and Johnny (Onestep4ward) and new friends Paul (who I ended up sharing a tent with getting the pleasure of waking up to his lovely morning sounds (Ahhhhhhhrrrhhhh) lol) and Dave (who was probably the most organised and very focused).
The following day it was gear check time. Done by our beastly Russian guide Micha. Most of my gear was fine apart from a couple of bits I knew I needed to rent such as a Gortex jacket, Trekking Poles, Crampons, Sleeping bag and double boots. But I was told my Rab Andes jacket, which was mean’t to be perfect for 7,000 metres wasn’t good enough which surprised me, alas having done my research I stuck with the jacket as I knew it was exactly what I needed for Aconcagua.
We met the rest of the group Nikita (Russian fellow climber), Craig (amateur dentist and Condor lover) and Maurice (Latvian fellow climber) as well as other guides (Victor and Dimitri who had just come off the mountain the day previously!
The next day we gathered our gear for the climb and got the bus to Pennitendies at a ski village at about 2500 metres. Close to the national park and we slept in bunk beds for the night.
The next morning we headed the 15 minutes drive to the national park, got our permits checked and started the climb. First stop would be camp Confluenza, a warmup of about 3 hours (7km) to 3,300 meters. Here we set up our tents and settled into camp life.
We went for an acclimatisation hike today towards Plaza Francia at about 4000 metres. Its here that we would get our first proper view of Aconcagua’s South face, (not the one we’d climb!). The day was super hot and I got pretty dehydrated and probably some altitude sickness so I got back to camp Confluenza feeling pretty awful …. Not a great start!
I was feeling pretty worried if I’d cope with the altitude and not only that but I had a doctors appointment to attend so they could check how the team was adapting to the altitude. Long story short I scored an 85 while most of the rest of the team got mid 90’s. Not good! But anything over 80 and I was good to continue.
This was a day that would be a big long slog all the way to Plaza del Mulas at 4,400 metes and the true base camp of the mountain. The day was going to be 20km and about a 1000m of elevation gain taking us about 8 hours. Although we did it a little faster than normal. We set up camp in what would be our home for most of the next 10 days, with a mess tent and toilet facilities which was actually a single drop toilet way on the other side of the camp (not fun when you had to go in the middle of the night). On top of this we would soon find out that the water in the camp was full of Magnesium or so they say that made the whole team get diarrhoea for the whole time we were there drinking the water….also not ideal when we needed the energy levels to climb a 7000 metre mountain.
Rest Day with a short hike to the nearby glacier which was quite beautiful
We headed up to Camp Canada for an acclimatisation hike at 5000 m although we decided to keep going up a bit higher to 5300 m. Relatively ok hike with smaller backpacks. Today we got tested again by the doctor but thankfully my readings actually jumped up to 86, not much but pretty good considering the altitude was a good 1,000 m higher and I actually felt pretty good overall.
Today was another rest day and we also were checking the weather pretty frequently on Mountain-forecast.com which wasn’t looking good. Having been perfect weather up until this point with sunshine and 15kph winds at the summit. It looked like it was starting to take a turn for the worst now, getting colder and the winds at higher altitude were starting to pick up 50kph…80 kph…100kph. I’ve heard before anything over 40kph would be extremely hard for anyone but the most serious mountaineers.
We woke to find a blanket of snow. Not too bad but not great. However, our plan was to still do an acclimatisation hike and stay over at Camp 2 Condores. An important part of the acclimatisation process. We headed off pretty early towards Camp 1 Canada first and then onto the rocks of 5,300m which we had stopped at a few days previously. Then one last push all the way up to 5,600m at Camp 2 Condores. This time with our bigger bags full of sleeping gear and weighing 10-15 kilos.
However the real surprise was to hit on the way into Camp Condores. The wind was picking up hard from all sides and the temperatures had dropped to -12C. This was definitely a wake up call for what proper mountaineering was all about. We were pretty tired at this point and all we wanted to do was get out of the storm and into the tent which thankfully had been put up for us by the previous group. We managed to lie in the tent for a while which was pretty cramped and then out for food in the freezing stormy weather.
Heading back down to base camp today to let the body recover at lower altitudes. Thankfully when waking up the weather had subsided somewhat. Although the inside of our tent had become quite icy and was being thrashed around by the wind the night before.
Another full rest day at base camp Plaza del Mulas and lots of weather checking to try to find an opening in the weather which had still not changed for the better.
Another rest day, however tomorrow would be the day that we would start our summit push. Today was about getting my gear ready and doing a little practice with my big double boots, big gloves and poles and of course learning how to put on crampons!
Leaving early we headed back up to Camp 2 Condores this time with our full set of gear in the rucksacks. I found it quite tough, about the same as the previous day going up to Camp 2 with full backpacks. By the time I reached the camp after about 8 hours I began to question should I of hired a porter to save energy for the following days summit push!
Thankfully arriving at camp this time the weather here was a lot milder which was unexpected. The summit push looked like it was still going to have some awful winds do, but I was just glad to be moving forward instead of waiting around.
We got some grub and had an early early night, considering we had to get awake a 1 am and ready for our summit push at 2 am.
Day 12 – Summit Day
Having never actually got to sleep, I wouldn’t exactly say that I woke up. Great start!!
Today’s summit push would be at least 12 hours … one way … at altitude. We started to take off at 2 am. I was still trying to figure out my big gloves and ended up spilling water all over myself which quickly turned to ice. Again not a great start!!
The next 2 hours we just slowly plodded along in the pitch back with only our head torches to see where we were going. Eventually we came to the edge of Camp 3 where we had to climb up a relatively small set of rocks with the aid of fixed cables. A relatively easy task lower down but we were being really thrown around by the heavy winds. After somehow getting through this, it appeared everyone knew at this stage we were in for a long long night. Only another 10 hours to go.
We made our way though Camp 3 with no break and just kept going up. After another few hours we eventually got a break at the hut when the sky just started to brighten up.
Pushing on from here, I almost forgot to put on my goggles to prevent actual blindness (without the atmosphere for protection at this altitude the Sun’s UV rays can really damage the eyes).
We climbed up a hill next to the hut to find by far the biggest surprise and scary moment of the climb. At the top of this hill the wind was going absolutely crazy and super fast at about 80 kph. Not just that but we were also looking at the mountain from the side and we had to make a giant traverse right across the whole side of the mountain with steep sides on either side with 80 kph wind. The traverse just appeared to keep going and going and going and it wasn’t obvious where it stopped and where the eventual summit began. Oh, and also the traverse was pretty snowy meaning we had to put on crampons, a first from me!
For some reason I didn’t think too much and just kept going long with it and stepped out on to the traverse and just kept on going for hours. A long while later I could see my good buddy starting to feel the effects of altitude. I saw him stumbling around and nearly falling back, I let this go but only a few moments later the same happened again so I caught him and let our guides know. Who then told me to keep going.
Another hour or two later later I was approaching the cave. The point where you make the last summit push from. At this point I was stopping regularly as my legs were really starting to fatigue. In my head I felt fine but my body was just so tired. I was told my voice sounded odd when I talked so maybe some altitude sickness but my mind felt pretty clear. However when I reached the cave and met some of the guys ahead of me all I wanted to do was sleep, I was so exhausted!
At this point we were about 300 metres short in altitude and about 3 hours from the summit. Some say the hardest part. A hard rock scramble at this point. Resting at the cave, I seen my beast of a buddy who got the altitude sickness I noticed earlier come stumbling up to the cave. I really have no idea how he managed to keep pushing himself, what a beast! This despite me even knowing that he became mostly blind (temporarily thankfully, but would take many days to recover). Unfortunately he had to be taken down the mountain at this point and another friend graciously went down with him.
It was time now for the final summit push, somehow I picked myself up and put one foot in front of the other to make my way towards the summit. Crampons falling off, rocks going under my feet. I kept going, slowly…
About an hour into it a park ranger told me I couldn’t stop and would have 2 hours to each the summit as it would be closed. At the point I didn’t want to fail so it gave me the push I needed. Although I still moved slowly up the mountain.
About an hour after that, I decided enough was enough and I put my bag down leaving my water and warm gloves in it and tried to make my way up to the summit faster. This ended up working, I began to quickly catch up on the rest of my team, partly due to adrenaline.
I “sprinted” by other teams in order not to be the last person anymore, that’s until one of my double boots came off as I nearly caught up with my team. Taking time and valuable energy to put that boot on I paused for a another few minutes to catch my breath and the ranger again approached from the back.
This time with a lot of work I pushed myself the last 30 minutes to the summit! Leaving just a very tricky rocks to climb 3 metres short of the summit. I was so exhausted but I picked up the energy to get up these rocks and then bunch of pictures taken. Before almost crashing straight after!
Aconcagua Summit achievement COMPLETED!!!
That only left the small issue of getting down! Not easy at all considering how tired my legs were. I took it very slowly, too slowly mostly and a lot of it was coming down on my ass against the sharp rocks. It must of took me 2 hours to just get back down to the caves, where others were waiting for me. We ended up splitting the group up and I had a legend of a guide to just take me down as I was going to be going down pretty slow with my legs been so fatigued. I even managed to lose my bag after forgetting where I put it (thankfully the police and rangers found it on a hike the next day).
Eventually I got down to Camp 2 Colores at about 9.30pm that night, returning after about 21 hours. Straight to bed after reporting my lost bag to the police and rangers and trying to rehydrate on the only liquids left, cold tea. After I left 2 litres of water in my bag up the mountain.
Today was going to be another big day, and thankfully my legs were semi ok. Usually people went from Camp 2 down to base camp today and then took the long 30km walk from Plaza del Mulas to the entrance to the National park and the 3 hour drive back to Mendoza the next day.
We did all this in one day, 5600 m Camp 2 down to Plaza del Mules 4400m, hydrate pack our duffel bags and start the first step of hike about 20 km to Conflenza 3300m where we got juice and water off the lovely Joanna. Then another 7 km or so to the park entrance where we had a bus waiting for us. About a 30km trip and 2500m descent the day after a 21 hours summit push to one of the highest mountains in the world!!
Getting back to Mendoza, we got a McDonalds and crashed into bed after our first shower in about 2 weeks.
Not quite the dream I was hopping for after being so sore, but a happy treat none the less. This was followed by 2 great days of celebration with Argentinian wine, steak and war stories!