Aconcagua: A View from Above
The trip had been in my head for 3 years. Back at the start, I had tacked a route map onto the dark wood bookcase next to my desk, so that I could swim up from under the formulas and remind myself of what I wished most: to see the Andes from above.
My husband Kevin had this goal for even longer. For him, the cost and the time away from his scientific career were the obstacles that prevented him from immediately realising this goal. For me, I had the concerns of physical endurance, altitude acclimatisation and cold. For the record, I leave off the other, real concerns about being a woman in a dirty environment for two weeks without so much as a sponge bath. More on that later.
The trip was to initiate now from London, which is a good sight farther from our destination in the west of Argentina than was our native home in Sierra Madre, near Los Angeles. Still, the change in circumstances contributed positively to make such an extensive and expensive trip possible. In the States, it would be quite difficult to get enough time off work to attempt such a climb; we had chosen to stick to the normal route and this would take around two weeks to complete. We allocated 3 weeks to the trip, to allow for a few days in Chile/Argentina to arrange for the climb and, perhaps, a few days at the end to sightsee.
Overall there would be about 13,000 feet of altitude gain in under 25 miles of hiking. The trailhead is at 10,000 feet and the peak rises up to a height of approximately 22,800. Distances and altitudes varied on all of the maps we came across before and during the trip, but the more outlandish factoids were easily discarded, and the numbers I bandy about here are an average of the more reasonable ones. These also occasionally had independent confirmation, such as from altimeter watches on the wrists of other mountaineers we met.
Mendoza is the second largest city in Argentina and, although being a 4 hour bus trip away from the mountain, was the city where all arrangements are made. We chose to fly into Santiago, rather than Buenos Ares, as Argentina is so much wider across than Chile. Actually, it may have been possible to fly directly to Mendoza, but we had trouble enough with the arrangements as it was. We changed planes in Madrid, stopped off in Sao Paulo and changed planes again in Buenos Ares. Of course, by the time we got to Santiago, our luggage had been lost.
The hotel where we waited the day for our luggage to come through was classic. It somehow embodied all of the squalor of the third world while fulfilling Chile and Argentina's reputation for being overpriced. We paid something like 40 dollars per night for a very run down bungalow. Wouldn't have minded either the price or the locale - separately. Of course, we didn't have the choice to move as the hotel had been chosen "accidentally" when we wrote down our end destination on our luggage tags. We tend to just open a guidebook and choose randomly something that sounds respectable, assuming that we can actually figure out where to go after we arrive in the foreign city. Lucky that we didn't write down the Sheraton.
We enjoyed the day we had in Santiago, a sleepy hot Sunday filled with strolling and ice-cream. There seems to be nothing to eat there other than chicken and chips. Certainly, it is not a vegetarian's paradise. It was amazing to note the variety of different looks to the people we saw walking around the pedestrian areas. There were those who looked like full blooded Quechas, those who would have fit in well in Spain, and all sorts sprinkled in between. Some of the women were beautiful and some were extremely small. There was a buzz of life which is absence in the cold austerity of England. Nobody seemed worried about propriety or appearances. There were street musicians and couples cuddling on the benches. In the families with young children, the man usually carried the baby, which surprised me quite a bit. All in all, it was not remarkable in any way other than being the first South American city that I have visited.
Having gleefully reclaimed our luggage from the airport office, we set off to cross the border by bus, which promised a grand view of the Andes. We had seen some amazing scenery on the last leg of our flight, between Buenos Ares and Santiago, enough to really whet our appetites for the mountains. We had a difficult time figuring out at which of several stations we could catch a bus to Mendoza. Our taxi driver found it nearly impossible to find the right bus station, but we did finally make it and find a bus leaving at a reasonable time. We arrived in Mendoza in the late evening and split a room with a Brazilian couple who were classical musicians in the Rio de Janeiro chamber orchestra. Alexandre was quite a linguist, although English was not his strongest language. He somehow found it possible to speak to Kevin in Spanish, myself in French, and his wife in Portuguese. Mendoza was quite cosmopolitan and had the highest concentration of outdoor cafes that I have seen anywhere, including Paris and Rome. It was still a bit shabby around the edges, but more in the way that Fresno is shabby than Tijuana. It was here that we would be able to arrange a climbing permit and mules to transport our gear up to base camp.
The next day went more smoothly than we could have imagined. The tourist office that handled the permits was pleasant and efficient. The permits allowed us 21 days from when they were validated at the trailhead and included warnings about fines for not packing out your trash, which we found heartening; there is nothing more depressing than a mountain littered with food wrappers and plastic bottles. The permit fee was 80 dollars per person, which we were happy to pay, considering the attention that they were apparently paying to the park. There were search and rescue teams up in base camp and a ranger at the trailhead. There was also a doctor up at basecamp, which we thankfully had no need to visit. They were able to recommend several muleteers and we visited the company that ranked highest. We arranged an adequate deal with the wife of the head guide, mostly speaking in French, and put down a partial deposit. Now we just had to cross our fingers and set off for the mountain.
The bus to Mendoza left the next morning at 6:30 a.m. Armed with our experiences from the previous year's travels in Africa, we showed up at the bus station before 5:30 a.m. and claimed a spot near the bay where our bus was expected. I wandered off to have a strong cup of cafe au lait, which in Argentina is made by adding boiling milk to Nescafe and loads of sugar. This is drunk exclusively in the morning and is almost a breakfast in itself. When the bus departed, there was an orderly queue and preassigned seats, which is unheard of in much of the developing world. We definitely started to rethink what South America is about.
I am sorry that we did not have time to see much of either country, just a few days at the end of the trip spent taking a train journey down the Chilean coast. We will have to return when we do not have such a grand goal, like climbing Aconcagua, and take the time to wander around more. Still, I would not have traded our rough and tumble adventure for the most exciting tour of South America. There are times when you just have to be up on a mountain top.
Aconcagua: A View from Above
We arrived at Puenta del Inca at 10:30 a.m. after spending the last hour plastered to the bus window taking terrible photos of the approaching mountain. There was no town here, just a general store and a lodge. On the way in we had a fine view of the natural stone bridge from which the spot takes it's name. Mules were crossing the river over this, and we had our first look at a gaucho, who was riding alongside. Seated on a dark, lean horse, he looked very serious and intent on his work of guiding the mules. Several muleteers use the lodge as a second office and other new arrivals were surrounded by the guides who were eager for business. We went looking for Andre, who was to have received news of our arrival and arranged for the mule transport.
We found his granddaughter out behind the lodge, and she showed us up to a space above the restaurant that Andre's company used as an office and for gear storage. To be honest, we kept our guard up, waiting to be cheated either in the typically Latin way of "mañana" or in the more straightforward method of changing the price or ignoring our deposit. The touts outside were somewhat unsavoury and we did not relish trying to bargain with them at this late date. Instead, the plans were made satisfactorily for the haul up to base camp, two days away. The arrangements also included storage of our excess bags and guarding our base camp gear when we began the serious walk from 14,000 feet upwards.
We jumped onto Andre's pickup and were driven to the trailhead, which means we failed to start our walk by crossing the traditional bridge, which saved us some 3 miles. Our permits were formally signed and dated and we finally set one foot in front of another, packs on our backs and faces lathered with sunblock. We were already above 9,000 feet at the start and planned to climb to 11,000 feet that day. The alternate plan includes spending a night at the pricey lodge down at Puenta del Inca, where camping is not allowed (!) and walking all the way to basecamp in one day. The benefits of our plan were that it allowed us to split the 18 mile walk over two days, to acclimatise at 11,000 feet before spending our first night up at basecamp, and to start on the same day we left Mendoza. We were eager to rise above the heat and the semiarid scenery of the plains below.
It was impossible to tell that we were already at such a great altitude. Compared to the lushness of Whitney Portal or the dramatic scenery at 10,000 feet in Nepal, Aconcagua is dusty and bare. Even the Southern California ranges are well forested in comparison. I was heartened to see the chain of pleasant, clear ponds that seemed to invite us for a swim. Unwilling to stop a mere half-hour into a two week trip, we continued resolutely along our path. We crossed a girder and plank bridge that was labelled with a skull and crossbones at the far end and later descended into a gorge to cross another river. I remember falling down quite a bit at this part, as the path along the river was unsure and my pack growing heavier. There was a strange ad hoc quality about the few human touches, like the sign to our first camp Confluencia, which had arrows pointing in both directions, and cast-off bits of cable and pipe that ran across the river at two points. We chose the left-hand path and, after making our third crossing that afternoon, arrived at Confluencia.
The hike had taken 4 hours, which was a bit long for the 6 miles or so, even considering our loads. We had hauled up approximately what one would pack for a 3 day trip in the Sierras. We had our tent and bags and cooking gear, moderate cold weather clothes and food for 3 days, having decided to play it safe, rather than pushing on and causing early altitude problems. Kevin had planned a rest day at Confluencia, but I was able to cajole him into considering a walk up to basecamp on Day 2. As Expedition Head (as I had labelled him on my permit), Kevin was a sight more experienced than I at high altitude mountaineering and was familiar with the discomfort of altitude sickness. I understood the likely risks of nausea, muscle pain and sleep disruption, and the less likely ones of pulmonary and cerebral oedemas, and hypothermia, which is not strictly altitude related and yet is worsened by altitude. Still, I had never personally experienced any of these problems, so we couldn't extrapolate how I would bear up. The best way to convince him to leave camp one day early was to stay active, set up camp, get water, eat and sleep well. I cheerfully set about cooking the most appalling polenta dinner imaginable.
While playing musical planes on the way to South America, we had met a Scottish lawyer Bill who was climbing Aconcagua on roughly our schedule. He rode up to the trailhead with us at the beginning of our hike, but had zipped up to Confluencia in under 3 hours, carrying just his lunch, as he trying to impress with his guide. His hope was to be included on an Everest expedition which the same guide company was running later in the year. We chatted with him after resting and compared our various maps and trail descriptions. One map placed our camp at a much higher altitude than we believed to be likely, but at only 4 miles from the trailhead; the total distance up to basecamp was given as 30 miles or so. This did not jive with the easy grade of our walk up and also left a whopping 26 miles for the next day's walk. Eventually, we recognised this as patent fantasy and put it down to wrongheaded conversion by map maker. The 6 mile walk to Confluencia had been treated as 6 kilometres to give the first 4 miles figure. The 18 mile walk to basecamp had been correctly converted to 30 kilometres, and then the units switched back to give 30 miles total. If ever there was an evil map maker...
Our evening was uneventful, but we woke to discover that we had made one grievous error the day before: we were sunburned. I was not so strongly affected, but Kevin had turned into a lobster. After a year of life in the gloom of Southern England, the light at 10,000 feet had been too intense. His arms and legs had only this half day of exposure on the mountain and were burned so severely that he continued to peel until we descended two weeks later.
We soon climbed out of the valley and found ourselves walking along a wide alluvial plain. The scenery had been arid on yesterday's hike and it was even more so today. We were well above the treeline, and the only scenery as such was the intensely striated cliffs to either side and the snowy peaks in the distance. Small threads of water crossed our path over the bleached stones and were alternately fun and annoying diversions. I took my first ski-pole aided vault over one of the larger ones and got soaked up to the knee. We spent approximately four hours in this high desert, hardly able to sense the altitude that we were slowly gaining. We rounded the south side of the mountain and broke out of the plain with the mountain ahead and to the east of us. Our final water crossing was not gracefully. By that time in the afternoon, the water was flowing fast and deep and we were forced to forge across. It was very cold.
The terrain became less otherworldly and the hiking more difficult. Trails wound their way across the western base of the mountain, passing a deserted hut and little else. There was a steepish scree slope that we began to ascend just as a line of mules were descending back to Puenta del Inca. Perhaps our gear had already arrived, we thought, as we started to look eagerly toward basecamp. The climb was tough and the walk afterwards longer than expected. We didn't have the energy to appreciate the rippled terrain, a series of slopes up and down to clefts cut by runoff. When we arrived at Plaza de Las Mulas, we had been walking for 10 hours.
Aconcagua: A View from Above
Standing just a few feet away from the glacier, I eyed the swiftly running stream with distrust. My two companions had leapt across to begin picking their way across the field of ice towers, but I had an overwhelming aversion to making the leap. Like a passenger standing near to the platform edge as a train speeds near, I felt that I might not be able to resist the silent pull down into the ankle-turning flow.
This was a rest day for Kev and I, hanging out around Plaza de Las Mulas at 14,000 feet, organising our gear, acclimatising, and collecting stories and tips. My companions, both national park rangers from Northern California, had just summited two days before, starting at Nido del Condores (18,000 feet), which makes for 5000 feet of elevation gain on summit day. They had summited successfully, but were forced to descend in the dark, which proved very tricky. The only technically difficult part on the climb is the Canaleta, which is a steep, scree slope coming up from the Windy Traverse to the summit ridge. This is not a descent that should be carried out in the dark after a tiring day of climbing, which is exactly what these Americans wound up doing. They summited at dusk and did not arrive back at their camp until about midnight. Highly sensitive to this danger, Kevin and I fully planned on setting up one or two camps higher than Nido in order to shorten the summit day as much as possible.
I had met up with the rangers and their female companion earlier in the day while Kevin was resting in our tent. I was amused to hear one fellow animatedly urging the other to try a hot shower with a miraculous camping shower device; this consisted of a large black water bag, which absorbed warmth quickly from the intense sunlight, and a tube to deliver the stream of water. I had to agree that a good shower already seemed appealing after only two and a half days away from a tub, but the second fellow seemed substantially less interested. What they were interested in was a walk over to see the glacier which flowed down from the face of the valley to the north.
At 14,000 feet, we were well above the treeline and the landscape was dry and barren. In a journal entry, I describe the approach to Plaza de Las Mulas as similar to a Martian landscape. The cool, white iceflow was a contrasting and compelling landmark, so I accepted an invitation to join the rangers on a hike to see it more closely. At the base of the glacier, flat pinnacles of ice jutted upward in the attitude of praying hands - hence, the term "penitentes" to describe these formations. They seemed dramatic at a distance and grew astonishingly larger and larger as we approached. It felt good to be walking without a heavy pack and I enjoyed the lack of urgency to our afternoon stroll. It is an interesting sensation to hike at altitude, even on relatively level terrain. When we reached the stream of glacial runoff, my companions continued on to explore the penitentes, which ranged in height from 5-15 feet tall. They climbed on top of a nearby block, an almost perfectly cube 6 feet on each side and began playing King of the Mountain. This instantly reminded me of a scene in Peter Boardman's book The Shining Mountain, in which he is injured by a fall caused by playful roughhousing on the walk into a Himalayan climb. He had to be carried up to basecamp and was nearly useless for a lengthy portion of the trip. I decided to take pictures from my side of the stream and leave the excitement for later.
I seem to have an unusual ability to utilise oxygen efficiently, which makes me less prone to altitude sickness than most people, so I was free from the nausea and muscle aches that many experience while acclimatising to high altitudes. I did get headaches, but unlike the throbbing caused by dirty air in Los Angeles or by crowds in London, these were immediately relieved by analgesics. I felt well enough to take the risk of wandering around by myself, so I waved my companions on and started to pick my way back toward camp. I wandered off of our path in order to descend to a gleaming tarn just a short way off down from the glacier. The water of the small lake was clear and icy as I waded barefoot into the shallows. I quickly drew up onto a stone set a few feet from shore and massaged the blood back into my blue toes. It did feel good to be sitting alone, out of sight from all the rest of humanity, in the centre of water so cold that I dare not trail my feet in the appealing wetness. The sky was already a blue beyond what is seen on the clearest day at sea level and the surrounding scenery was stunning. The tarn was not entirely clear at the water's edge, but was laced with pale green webs of fluorescent algae which added to its beauty.
Wandering back, it was inevitable that I should become lost, which I did, although I never completely lost sight of the tents at the near end of camp. I found that the contours of the plain meandered up and down, with some steep divides that forced me to backtrack before trying an alternate route. The lesson was not to get anxious and not to rush. I soon found myself walking amongst numerous tents up on a hill just above where our tent was erected. I had not noticed this area of camp on the walk out, but could now see that there were a couple hundred people here, including maybe a dozen permanent tents used by guides. Some of these guide tents would cook a meal for you, pasta and soup for $10 or so. There were several large groups, including an Argentine group who were lead by an energetic patriarch who had done this climb every year for several decades. Just on the other side of the hill, I walked down to our tent and found Kevin chatting with a couple of guys who had just arrived from Confluencia, Dave Keaton and Michel d'Avenas, and their guide Willy.
Dave and Michel were a day behind us at the start, which meant that with delays caused by weather conditions we actually leapfrogged over each other all the way up and down again. Michel was engaged to Dave's sister, who had insisted that Michel accompany Dave on his climbing trip up Aconcagua. Dave had not started mountaineering until a couple of years before, but had already climbed the tallest mountains on each of the other 6 continents. At 29 years of age, Dave would be the youngest person to climb the Seven Summits by a comfortable margin. Having most recently returned from Everest, where he had sustained damage to two of his toes from frostbite, he was looking forward to Aconcagua as a nontechnical and pleasant experience. Michel was a less than enthusiastic partner for Dave, and was inexperienced enough to necessitate hiring a guide, as Dave did not wish to be the cause of his future brother-in-law's demise. So it was that Kevin and I went tramping up the mountain reliant on our own good sense, while they were accompanied by Willy, who decided when to ascend, how far and how fast, and also did the cooking.
We packed up a ton of extra food and fuel for storage until our return to basecamp and spent our third night on the mountain. Sometime in the middle of the night I poked my head out of the tent and was rewarded by a breathtaking view of the Southern Hemisphere night sky. Each star was like a brilliant pinprick of light and the Milky Way brushed a stroke of glitter onto the canvas.
Aconcagua: A View from Above
Walking is a more complicated process than one might imagine, especially when executed at a great height. One is aware, at every step, of the rhythm of breathing and the crunch of unstable gravel underfoot. Try to remember the last time when you truly concentrated on the experience of walking while in the middle of a city; it is simply unnecessary. There is no sense of accomplishment for walking another block or another ten; it seems virtually impossible to become physically tired, although wandering in a strange place can be emotionally draining. It is different, however, when the process of walking becomes less automatic and requires thought and attention - when it becomes a focal point of the activity, instead of merely a means to an end.
I became very aware of the process while hauling the first load up from Plaza de Las Mulas. The elevation gain up to the next camp (Canada) was 2200 feet, from 14,400 up to 16,600. We guessed correctly that snow would be scattered and thin and so set off with the same set of running shoes that we had used on the walk up to Plaza. This was Kevin's first view of the stupendous Penitentes, but we turned off onto switchbacks before reaching the glacier and began to finally climb out of the high valley. This part of the walk was hot and dusty, but we were fully clothed in thin polypropylene thermals, in a wise attempt to avoid further sunburn. Kevin was only just starting to peel from his previous sunburn; on future snowbound days, he would be able to entertain himself by ripping thin sheets of flesh off of most of his body. We were carrying half of our total gear and consumables for 9 days, with generous allowances in food and 4.5 litres of fuel. We would bring up the second load, including the tent and bags, tomorrow when we returned to set up camp at Canada.
Having circled the southern side of the mountain on the hike in, we were now heading up the western slope of the mountain. It took a couple of hours to make it above the ridge, where the climb continued up a steep slope of scree and snow. The first part of the day's walk had been tough, but the second easily qualified as torturous. I had begun to appreciate the usefulness of ski poles for hiking when I saw the descending mountaineers using them to cross the streams above Confluencia, but their appeal was undeniable on the switchbacks up to Canada. The paths were extremely fluid, simply tamped down accumulations of gravel on a slope everywhere thickly coated with the same rock and gravel. There was nothing to prevent us from taking a different route, so for a substantial portion of the climb we walked straight up a rocky spine, to the left side of the rockfall where the footing was somewhat firmer. Still, even taking this more direct path, the climb took over 5 hours. As it turned out, we were substantially off-route and needed to work across to the far right side of the slope, where the small camp was nestled in a level spot behind a stone outcropping. Just before we had reached our final elevation, we began a traverse of the scree slope, substantially covered in snow and ice at this height, and were relieved to reach our destination.
We pulled out giant plastic bags from our backpacks, filled with supplies and ultra-protective clothing. These were stashed beneath cairns of rocks against the high winds common on the upper slopes of the mountain. We were the only people up at Canada, although there was a single unoccupied tent and some other cached provisions. The mountain was noticeable less populated above Plaza, which was a pleasant relief. Reversing the process, with empty backpacks and a surer sense of direction, took only 90 minutes. Walking back into basecamp was satisfying, but also disappointing. We were eager to spend a night up higher on the mountain and Canada beckoned.
However, we were sensible enough to make use of some of the luxuries available at Plaza de Las Mulas which would not be available higher up. We went to the Pepsi Max tent to relax in folding chairs and nurse drinks. A couple of the Argentinean kids who were descending made a few bucks by cooking for us - we supplied the pasta and sun-dried tomatoes and they served us dinner. One of the best parts was just eating at a proper table - as opposed to eating while hunched down on our pads after the trials of cooking in our tent antechamber with the stove sending flames out of the tent flaps.
It got cold very quickly as night fell, and everyone began to shift into fleece clothing and shell jackets. Around 10 o'clock, the Argentineans began to brew up mate (pronounced ma-tay), a tea which is drunk obsessively in the region and appears to have profound cultural significance. While the water was boiling, there was a long discussion about whether mate is better with or without sugar. There is an entire ritual surrounding the act of drinking mate, derived from the habit of gauchos to congregate after a long day on the range. A small, wooden cup, ornately decorated and covered with a thin sheet of silver, is packed with aromatic, green leaves; a silver straw, screened on the base, is buried deep in the cup. The herbs are saturated with boiling water and passed to the first drinker. A single, mouthful of bitter and potent liquid is drawn upward through the straw and more liquid is poured for the next drinker. Occasionally, an extra spoon of mate is added to the cup and more sugar poured into the mulch. The feeling when we tried mate was strong and pleasant, likely attributable to the interesting company and high doses of caffeine. The entire process was not unlike our experiences with qat in the Yemen. At the end of the trip, we brought a few kilos of mate back to England to share and enjoy.
The next morning, we packed up our camp, munched some hot cereal, and prepared to head up the mountain again. We had no need to rush our morning and there was a good amount of fuss before we started off. Plaza de Las Mulas has a lovely supply of fresh runoff which makes melting snow unnecessary. At night, the temperatures drop low enough to freeze these pools solid, but they warm up as the sun peeks over the surrounding walls at 9 o'clock in the morning. Although the water must still be iodinated or boiled, the process is much faster when it doesn't require melting pots and pots of snow. This process would take several hours each day when we were camped above basecamp and was never a fun task.
It is extremely important to drink copious amounts of water when mountaineering, as evaporation alone will dehydrate you by a few litres. Every time you breathe in a mouthful of ultra-dry air, your lungs will rehumidify it before it is expelled. Even with careful regulation of body temperature, there is sure to be sweating beneath backpacks and layers of gear. At normal altitude, a day hike might pull a litre of water out of a person, just due to normal sweating. A strenuous workout will dehydrate him even more. At altitudes above 14,000 feet, hydration is a serious concern. It has been suggested that the success or failure of an expedition can be put down almost entirely to the rigour with which the members forced themselves to eat and drink recommended quantities. It is also surprising how fully appetite is suppressed at high elevations. Various high sugar and high carbohydrate "goodies" that were selected down at ground level become totally unappealing. When it is hard to choke down Oreos or chocolate pudding, imagine trying to eat casseroles prepared from dried foods.
We knew from experience and climbers' lore that two pounds of food per day should be consumed by each person, of which cookies and such should account for one half. By this rule, a typical planned dinner would include powdered soup, pasta/main dish, and a pudding. Typically, we were able to eat half of the dinners, for example eating soup and pudding one day and then the main course for dinner the next. I recall one fish and rice dish being repeatedly set outside the tent to freeze in between noshing. It served us both for dinner one night and lunch the next, and Kevin even ate a portion for the intervening breakfast. We soon found ourselves with heaps of extra food, which would prove useful when our plans got off-track. Even so, we didn't come close to using up our reserve.
This time up, it only took two and a half hours to climb to Canada and we were easily energetic enough to set up camp and search for running water. Four feet of snow had been dropped on the mountain in the prior week, but the water sources were quite low and muddy. We opted for a combination of this easy and quick solution and the preferable one of melting clean snow. Having finished our cooking and reorganising duties, we snuggled into our down bags, thankfully free from altitude sickness, and spent our first night above 16,000 feet. It was a first for us both.
Aconcagua: A View from Above
I woke up when the tent began to warm up around eight o’clock and was greeted by the most beautiful blue sky imaginable. As we had moved steadily upwards, the colour had deepened from the pale blue common in the English countryside (but unknown inland in Southern California) to the Crayola blue that a kid might be tempted to eat. We had half expected to spend the day resting and acclimatising, but providence cannot be tempted too often. As nature had handed us a perfect day, we would have to put our best foot forward.
Having dug up the cache of fuel and food that we had left on our first ascent to Canada, we reshuffled a bit and packed away the majority in our backpacks. We left ourselves three days or so of food at camp and set out to carry the rest up to a new cache at Nido del Condores. I was extremely eager to see Nido, which I christened as the Advance Base Camp, in the tradition of Himalayan expeditions. Nido del Condores means Camp of the Condors, which is a romantic and evocative name for a high camp, set on a broad plateau at 18,000 feet.
The hike up was less tricky than the previous day’s, as the snow cover was softer and more complete; we ran less risk of slipping than when we were switch-backing up the icy slope below Canada. For much of the way, we took the direct path, kick-stepping a stair into the snow slope. When I repeated this climb the next day, again needing two carries to transfer the camp up to the next site, I would be more successful finding the correct rhythm. On this first attempt, every step taking me to a new personal record for altitude, I felt bogged down and incredibly uncoordinated. I started to suffer the first, minor effects of acute mountain sickness, notably a growing headache and loss of clarity.
As we slowly rose through the last thousand feet, the rhythm of my steps took on a ritualistic feel. Soberly, I would take ten steps with a full breath taken on each step, then stop for two deep stationary breaths. It was maddening, but inescapable. If I walked faster or took more steps per breath, I would feel fine for a while and then totally crash. I reminded myself of previous lessons learned while being the tortoise climbing up Mount Whitney: on my first climb there, I had been appalled at how slowly I was tromping up the last couple of thousand feet, but it turned out that Kevin and I reached the top before the rather faster hares who had been crossing our paths all day. There are certainly times when slow and steady is a winning pace.
The other aerobic management skill that was critical on the entire trip up Aconcagua was pressure breathing. Although the pressure of oxygen (more exactly called the partial pressure) had dropped as we climbed, so had the partial pressure of carbon dioxide. It is actually the build-up of carbon dioxide that provokes the autonomic breathing response in humans, not the lack of oxygen. This means that one feels less need for deep, frequent breaths just as it becomes more important. Pressure breathing is a technique by which a climber exhales forcefully through partially closed lips, making a frog face and a lot of noise. The benefit, beyond the amusement of one’s fellow climbers, is that your increase, temporarily the partial pressure of oxygen in your lungs, or so the common wisdom goes. Like most altitude related syndromes and their solutions, the exact mechanism by which pressure breathing works is not well understood.
I was strong enough to follow Kevin up to the edge of Nido’s plateau, but was shy of attempting the last segment, which was more exposed. I hunkered down in my layers of gear while Kevin went off to scout a location for stashing our supplies before we trekked back down to Canada for the night. As it turned out, I had stopped only a couple minutes out of camp, although Kevin was away for a great deal longer than that. Trying to shuffle rocks around to cover our precious supplies when he had just ascended to 18,000 feet was no mean feat. When he returned, maybe twenty minutes later, I was pretty disoriented, and he was concerned that I might also be suffering from hypothermia. We had left the aspirin down at Canada, so I was forced to wait another two hours as we descended to our tent before gaining relief for my blinding headache. Luckily, supporting the common wisdom of "climb high and sleep low," I found that losing altitude was far and away the best cure. I was quite fine by the time we got back to camp, but made a personal vow never to again venture from camp without my first aid kit.
We had spent eight hours away from Canada, which was a long time for a 2000 foot carry, but we were still happy with the day. In addition to the achievement of reaching our next goal, it also happened to be Kevin’s birthday and only the second time that he had climbed to 18,000 feet. The trip timing had been intentionally set to coincide with his birthday, but we had taken no special note of it until we snuggled down for a celebration by flickering candlelight.
We woke the next morning to darkness. The weather had moved back in and the spindrift coming off of the higher slopes was terrific. It was clear that we weren’t going up and, as the day wore on, we had to start considering the option of moving back down to Plaza de Las Mulas. Food and fuel were both going to become more scarce, although they were plentiful both above and below us. We had left two days or so of food at Canada, assuming that we would be returning to Nido the next day. However, what had looked like a safe excess of consumables the day before, seemed less so a day and a half later. Sometime during our hibernation, Willy, Dave and Mitch joined us in Canada. They had done one heroic carry from Plaza to Cambio, halfway between Canada and Nido on the day that we carried up to Nido. There was no chance of them going above Canada during the storm, so they waited around with us for a clear opportunity.
In the afternoon of the second day, the storm abated and we faced the decision of which way to move camp. Practicality suggested we descend to Plaza, but our hearts said otherwise. We made a false start up and then down again; finally, we steeled ourselves for a difficult time and let our feet take us back up the mountain. Dave and Mitch had casually gotten themselves packed up and Willy, carrying an elephant’s load on his back, started them up from Canada at the same time. Falling into a good pace behind them, we retraced our steps up to Nido. My stomach had been unsteady when we started out, but after twenty minutes of walking I recovered fully. We had started out in high winds and the clouds gradually closed in until we were walking in whiteout conditions. We pushed resolutely onward and reached Nido only two and a half hours after leaving Canada. I was starting to learn how dramatic the impact was of proper acclimatisation.
We spent the next couple of hours setting up our new camp and retrieving our supplies from the secret cache Kevin had created in the rocks above camp. It required diligence and patience to put up the tent correctly in the high winds and to secure it against even worse weather in the night. It wasn’t unusual to get seventy knot winds on Aconcagua and Nido del Condores was a particularly unsheltered camp. When I speak with friends and family about the appeal of mountaineering, they counter, in turn, with their concerns. Often, the mundane difficulties seem to catch in their minds quite as much as the more dramatic dangers. It is impossible for me to verbalise exactly why the feeling of being on a snowy mountain is so right. I wrote down the following words in my diary when I collapsed later that night:
"There are an infinity of details, like getting the vestibule set up correctly so that you neither burn down the tent while cooking, nor allow spindrift to coat every internal surface. But it is important to look around and remember why I’m here, instead of diving off the Maldives. I’m really here."
Aconcagua: A View from Above
Waking up to driving winds, I silently repeated the mantra of how to repair a tent that has collapsed in a blizzard. Suddenly, the tent seemed quieter and I realised that Kevin had stopped breathing. I counted my own breaths - one, two three, four, five, six - and then heard a ragged gasping sound from the other sleeping bag. I listened carefully as he breathed normally in his sleep for a few minutes and then was distressingly silent again. This type of disrupted breathing is not an uncommon sleep problem; many people experience it up around our altitude. It didn’t seem to be bothering him, but I found myself unable to sleep, constantly waiting for him to resume breathing at each gap, but unwilling to wake him and disturb his rest unnecessarily. It was a very long night.
Then followed another day of mixed weather and mixed success. We had lugged up a week’s worth of food and fuel between our two carries and were well enough stocked to cover several rest days at Nido and above. We had expected to spend this day resting in camp, but clear skies and eager hearts egged us on to start a thousand foot carry to Berlin, the next camp above.
The air was very cold, more so as the clouds soon returned to cover the brilliant sun. Again, walking was incredibly difficult and required incredible attention. My balance was shot to hell and Kevin soon became concerned about the risk of continuing when we reached a particularly exposed portion of the climb. We had started out wearing crampons, but had removed them due to poor snow conditions. When the snow is just wet enough, it will ball under the spikes of the crampons and make walking more unsafe then when they aren’t used. But we now started to encounter long patches of refrozen snow, which were treacherous in our plastic boots alone.
At one point, I found that Kevin was walking on a poor path a couple of feet downslope of me. Habitually, we would take the same path, either he or I leading. He had been following, as he was the stronger of us that day, but had slipped up beside me. I was annoyed and asked him what he was up to, and he indicated the slope below, which I had not noticed, having been too focused on the immediate exertions of the climb. What I saw below was that we had traversed away from the 30-45 degree slope that we had been switchbacking up and, instead, there was a short stretch below us of 45-50 degree mixed rock and ice and then nothing. Well, more precisely, we had a great view of a 2000 foot drop off that ended below Nido’s plateau. This is the type of exposed situation that makes me very nervous when I am thinking clearly, so it was probably a bad sign that I shrugged and turn back to the slope above.
As it turned out, the weather became threatening enough that we decided to abort the carry. Rather than carrying our supplies back to camp and having to lug them right back up the next day, we chose a stash spot amongst the rocks above us. I descended to shelter in some rocks a bit below and Kevin went off alone once again to cache the supplies. It took about 30 minutes for him to make it up to the rocks above, bury the bags of food and fuel bottles, and return to me. I was very cold, but still uncoordinated enough to be glad that he had refused to let me help. I was constantly afraid now that the next step would send me glissading off into the clouds below.
We have pictures showing how rapidly the clouds closed down as crossed the Nido plateau. The weather’s turnaround was complete and we were pinned down in camp for the entire next day. What was perhaps the most amusing sight of the trip occurred that day as we lay in the tent reading. Peeking out of our ten, we suddenly saw Willy running wildly across the plateau a couple hundred meters away from us. Nobody else was moving in the camp and we certainly hadn’t seen anyone run around up there. Curious, we watched his progress and finally made out the cause of his strange behaviour: he was chasing a tent! It appeared to have been blown, still fully assembled, away from the site where it had been set up. When Willy returned much later, empty handed, out of breath and crestfallen, we discovered that it was not his tent, nor those of his clients, Dave and Mitch. Rather, it had blown up from Canada, the camp located 1500 feet below Nido.
The American owners of the tent were a haphazard bunch. They had come on a funded anti-litter expedition, intending to clean up the camps on their way down. Instead, the group appeared to be carrying down less rubbish than the rest of us were. Their summit day was also a bit of a disaster, with one fellow falling 200 meters below the Canaleta before managing a self-arrest with his ski pole. Returning in such terrible weather to find their tent gone was a last stroke of bad luck, especially considering the gear which had blown away with their tent. Room was made for them inside two other tents, but with out a sleeping bag it was a harsh night for them, little better than a bivouac.
Whenever the bad weather prevented us from exploring our immediate surroundings, Kevin and I vicariously exploring the moon surface through Andrew Chaikin’s book, A Man on the Moon. We were interested in the numerous trivial parallels between the two harsh environments. When we read about the astronauts’ attempts to clean their suits before entering the lunar module, it reminded us of our ritual of shedding our outer shell layer, to avoid bringing the great outdoors inside the tent. Similarly, the minutiae which tied up a critical part of our attention - watching resources, time constraints in each outing, keeping tuned to the present moment - were brought up over and over again in the book. We may have become a bit melodramatic about how harsh our environment really was, but when we looked out of the cosy tent at the barren, alien landscape, we felt very far from home.
During a brief clear spell, I ventured out of the tent to wander around the winter wonderland. I could see the Andes spread out below us on three sides, including a dramatic hand-shaped peak thrusting up to the northwest, that Willy said had never been climbed. On the fourth side, rose Aconcagua, still 5000 feet above us. Swirls of white coming off of the peak showed some pretty extreme weather for the people trying to summit that day. I hoped that the weather would be kind on our attempt.
The next day, we waited until the tent warmed to a golden glow and then emerged at 9 o’clock to a perfectly lovely day. We packed up our gear, getting out of breath when we concentrated on fidgety tasks, and started shuffling back up the mountain. Knowing the correct path to take saves an enormous amount of time and we quickly climbed off the Nido plateau and traversed the slope above. The sun had started to soften the icy bits, so we were quite comfortable walking without our crampons. When we came upon our last cache, we divvied up the gear and added it to our packs, Kevin taking the lion’s share.
I felt so strong on the walk up, that I was sorry it wasn’t our summit day. Some people do start their summit day at Nido, but the walk up from Berlin was going to be more than enough for me. The best I could do was to hope for the weather to stay good for another day. At the top, Kevin was shattered from his enormous load and I set up camp for us. Berlin was cleaner than any of the previous camps, with a snowfield sloping up above camp. This was our best source of drinking water, which I later collected in rubbish bags and slowly melted over our backpacking stove. First, the site for our tent had to be cleared, which meant selecting a flatish spot, moving boulders and hacking at the ice with a borrowed ice axe to form a level surface. Then, the tent had to be assembled and tied down to the relocated boulders, the snow collected and melted and dinner prepared. The pattern was pretty familiar by now. The walk had taken only two and a half hours, but the camp set up took at least that long.
We chatted with Dave, Mitch and Willy the next day’s schedule. Kevin and I were planning on a 5:30 a.m. start and they would be following at 7 o’clock. This would allow them to catch up by the time it was warm out and we could follow them for much of the trip. It would be a safer for us to be wandering around with a few other mountaineers when we got to the two tricky technical features above us: the Windy Traverse and the Canaleta. Since the weather had gotten bad after 4 o’clock each afternoon, we were shooting for a 3:30 p.m. summit time. For now, we went through as much of our preparation as we could: filling our drinking bottles; laying out the last of our unused extreme weather gear; and forcing ourselves to eat well. It was the night before our summit day and we lay our heads down at 19,000 feet to sleep.
Aconcagua: A View from Above
Dark and cold. Never had it seemed so unappealing to wake up and get down to the business of mountaineering. Even with the preparations of the night before, getting ready to set off for the summit seemed an impossible task. It was exhausting to struggle into layers of socks and thermals and shell gear. Breakfast was unwelcome and a series of minor annoyances jumped out as insurmountable.
Firstly, one of my thermal gloves, which are critical to prevent frostbite whenever my clumsy fleece and shell gloves are doffed, had become unmentionably soiled the night before and frozen. I had to waste time cleaning it by scraping it against the snow before I could consider putting it on. Then, I realised that my menstrual period had started and my tampax were 1,000 feet below in Nido. It really hits you that you’ve been 11 days without a shower when something like this happens. After getting over these hassles and loading up our food/water/headlamps/first aid kit/sunglasses/sunblock/etc. we started out of camp at 6 o’clock or so, just before the sun began to colour the horizon.
Walking from camp up the first obstacle - a rock wall twenty feet high that could be walked up under normal conditions, but was a scramble when light-headed and wearing crampons - took an unbelievably long time. The path was switchbacked, although the slope could not have been more than 15 degrees, and even then it was hard going. I had to stop after the first five minutes to take a few aspirin for a splitting headache, and I found that my lack of coordination was so severe that I couldn’t figure out how to redo the fasteners on my day pack. When I tried to take a drink, I discovered that my juice bottle had already frozen solid. At this point, after having been away from the tent for less than 15 minutes, I discovered that I couldn’t feel my toes.
Kevin’s toes were equally numb, so we turned around in frustration and made our way back to camp. We dived back into the tent, struggled out of our boots and socks and plunged our spotty, frozen feet up under each other’s shirts, some five layers down. We were suffering from a mild case of frost-nip, which does not threaten the future use of one’s digits, but they still hurt tremendously as they warmed up and the hard, white spots turned soft and pink. It seemed like the only solution was to wait for the sun and then move a great deal faster. Both the delay and the speed issue would be difficult for me. Firstly, I would likely need more than 8 hours to gain the summit, although Kevin might be quicker, and bad weather had been the rule after 4:00 p.m. Also, we had learned a crucial lesson about the importance of moving fast, and I could not imagine being able to pick up my glacial pace of the early morning.
The other climbers at Berlin had started to wake, and we saw Willy, Dave and Mitch getting ready for their late start. Kevin had given up on the idea of attempting the climb again that day, but I realised that he stood a good chance of success if he were to leave soon and link up with our friends. I told Kevin my plan and reassured him that I would not be too dejected over this end to our adventure. I also reminded him that this trip was a celebration of his 30th birthday and that he had a responsibility to try to do his best.
Kevin slipped into a down sleeping bag along with his layers of socks and inner boots. I started breathing hot air into the cold, outer boots while he slowly pulled on his socks, rubbing his feet all the while. I gave him my pair of vapour-barrier socks - we only had the one pair and he had previously done without. These are water-impermeable plastic and are worn over the thin liner socks and under the thicker wool ones to trap in as much heat as possible. We also removed the arch supports in his mountaineering boots to increase the "wiggle space" in the toes and aid circulation. With many kisses and a few regrets, I pushed him out of the tent and watched him set out toward the other three guys.
I was pleased to see him reach the wall after walking for only ten minutes and agilely execute some low level rock climbing to join the others ahead. I thought at the time that this challenge would have proved too much for me and that I would have had to either turn back or try out some fancy footwork that I find difficult 19,000 feet lower. I crossed my fingers for Kevin and settled back for a nap.
When the sun poked over the ridge, I got up again to attend to the tasks of the day. The boring tedium of boiling down more snow to make water, which was a constant responsibility, brought a delightful luxury to my mind. I boiled the water a bit longer than necessary and treated myself to a warm sponge bath. This also allowed me the opportunity to clean my underwear and my washcloth, which had been bloodied, and air out a variety of stale fleece, down and shell gear. This spring-cleaning was cathartic and the camp took on a festive air with the colourful gear draped everywhere. I stripped down to my skivvies, slathered on sunblock and picked up a book to read in the sun.
Around 2 o’clock, I found myself energetic and curious about the upper mountain. I also realised that there was a good chance that Kevin would be approaching the summit and I decided to try to join him for part of his descent. I loaded up a ton of gear, including the fleece and down outerwear that was not immediately useful. Unfortunately, it was necessary as the weather could turn at any minute, threatening the life of an ill-clad climber. I brought along a litre of water for myself and 1.5 litres for the guys. I walked easily to the rock wall without needing to use my crampons and found that with my improved coordination, I was easily able to climb up. At this point, I did start to get nervous about being on my own, but chose to continue with a heightened sense of awareness and caution.. I hadn’t been out alone for two weeks and found the experience exhilarating.
The sky was still clear and a bluer blue than I had ever seen. I scrambled up a series of obstacles, separated by brief plateaux which made the risk of a long fall quite minimal. As I climbed, I began to get a view back toward basecamp, Plaza de Las Mulas. I was 5,000 feet above Plaza, so there was no chance of seeing the camp, but it did afford spectacular views. Up over the last escarpment, the terrain smoothed out to a moonscape of large boulders, reminiscent of Joshua Tree, but on a smaller scale. This was Petra Blanca, a less-used camp set on a slope which was gradual enough to appear secure and stable, yet still subtly tilted the camp’s sense of perspective.
Above Petra Blanca, a steep trail wound its way up to a scenic lookout, where my efforts were rewarded with a first view north over the Andes. I had climbed to approximately 19,800 feet and my intention was to continue up to the next camp, Independencia, and meet up with Kevin on his descent. The snowfield below Independencia soon turned icy and I was forced to stop and step into my crampons. As the afternoon wind picked up and blew the cloud cover overhead, I took pleasure in piling on the layers of fleece and shell gear that had been a burden to carry up from Berlin. Somewhere on this snow and ice slope I passed unnoticed the point at which Aconcagua exceeded the height of Denali, North America’s highest peak.
It was not long before I saw Felix, a lone climber from Hong Kong, descending from Independencia. He told me that he had summited rather far ahead of the others, who might just then be nearing the summit. He suggested that I had a long, cold wait at the camp above, but I declined his offer to return with him to Berlin. The dual purpose of my ascent to Independencia, both as a gesture of solidarity with Kevin and in order to gain a measurable goal, still drew me on. Reaching Independencia, a few hundred feet above me, would place me in the highest camp outside the Himalayan ranges. However, if the guys were still a couple hours higher on the mountain, then I would have to either wait a long time in camp for Kevin to appear, or would wind up descending on my own in the worsening conditions. What I feared most was the prospect of Kevin’s descent being delayed due to accident or exhaustion and then myself being an encumbrance for the group descending in bad conditions in the dark.
With my rate of ascent slowing and my anxiety level rising, I was glad to see Laurence, a young, half Chilean/half French guide, bounding down the slope toward me. She communicated to me in my high school French that she had left some obstinate clients behind on the mountain who were still attempting the summit. The time was already 4 o’clock, and she considered it too late for their safety, especially considering the bad conditions which were settling on the mountain. She had not seen Kevin’s group, so she had no news to share, but she also encouraged me to turn around and come back to Berlin with her. I joined her, racing down the trail in a dramatic change from the plodding pace that had brought me up the mountain, and found the experience of fast descent to be thrilling. Unlike Kevin, she was not a protective partner, instead assuming that I could match her proficiency scrambling wildly down the trail. We did not pause while passing through Petra Blanca and were still moving at a fair clip when Willy caught up with us from behind. Willy is one of the fastest guys on Aconcagua and set a record for his descent from Plaza back to the trailhead - 18 miles and 5000 feet of descent in a bit over three hours. An inveterate climber and part of the mountain rescue team, his broad experience outweighed his devil-may-care attitude and I felt confident with him as Kevin’s summit day guide.
Willy passed on the news that Kevin, Dave and Mitch had already summitted and were descending well when Willy left them behind. He related a few stories about the climb, which seemed relatively uneventful except for one careless slide that Mitch had taken while crossing the Windy Traverse on the way down. After that, Willy took a bit more care with his clients’ welfare and even made an attempt to rope up Mitch with some thin rope, albeit unfit for climbing. Kevin later told me that it only really served as a reminder to Willy to keep his eye on Mitch, because without an anchor or any other protection, a hard fall by Mitch would have pulled Willy right down behind him. Previously, Willy was had been way ahead of his clients, drunk on his own ascent, when they arrived at the heavily corniced summit ridge. Mitch had been hard to convince of the dangers then, and Kevin was frustrated to be taking over the role that Willy should have been responsible for. One side of the ridge showed a sheer drop down a few thousand feet, while the other was misleadingly comforting and smooth. The smooth curve was the top of a wave of snow, reaching out from the ridge and extending over empty space. Walking on that edge was almost like walking on air.
Some distance below the summit, Willy had stopped to reason with Laurence’s group, who seemed hell-bent on continuing, even though they had little chance now of bagging the summit. Advancing under those circumstances was an irresponsible move, with the likely result of them getting caught out after dark. Not only would their group be endangered, but it might entangle Willy and the other guides in an eleventh hour rescue. After talking to Laurence, Willy suggested that Laurence and I continue down to Berlin while he went up to turn her clients around and guide them down. He dumped off the majority of his load, took my proffered water bottle and set back up the mountain.
We reached camp and started getting tea ready for the guys. They exploded into camp an hour and a half later, jubilant and overflowing with stories of their climb. Dave and Mitch retold the story about Mitch’s fall on the Windy Traverse and described it as exposed enough to finally justify their caution in bringing along ice-axes. Kevin made it across fine with only his ski-poles and natural coordination, but agreed that he would have preferred to have an ice-axe. He said that the Traverse was the only feature that would have been likely to stop me on the climb.
Everyone tucked into some rehydrated grub, hungry for the first time in a week. I was more glad that the expedition had been a success than sad that I had not been part of the summit day. Just before darkness fell, Willy returned with the unsuccessful climbers, exhausted and contrite. Everybody had made it down safe. Kevin and I made our plans for packing up the following morning, our thoughts turning toward home, showers and comfort and away from the mountain.
Aconcagua: A View from Above
I hefted my pack, newly laden with our cache from Nido del Condores and swayed alarmingly. Even after giving away fuel and food to other climbers who were still headed up, we had a ton of stuff to bring down in a single carry. It had been an easy first thousand feet of descent from Berlin, but we were now heavily burdened and looking at another 4,000 feet to go. Willy looked lost beneath a pack as huge as a mule load. We no longer felt so envious of the fresh cheese and veggies that he had brought along to enliven Dave and Mitch’s meals.
The switchbacks between Nido and Canada were easier now, with the snow melted and packed down in the days since the last storm. Other than stops to eat a poptart or to replace an empty waterbottle, dangling from a carabiner on our pack, with a full one, we headed straight down the mountain. At Canada, we delighted in the sound of free-running water again, starting to rediscover the sights and sounds that had been missing in the higher camp. Below Canada, we started to meet groups, coming up for a look-see above basecamp. We had grown so familiar with the smaller group up above Nido, with only a couple of new additions per day, that it was startling to see groups of a dozen toiling wordlessly up the trail. We had acclimatised so well, that we found ourselves bursting with good spirits and good health, and the air tasted thick and sweet with oxygen. Below Canada, Dave’s group started to descend noticeably faster than we were and so reached Plaza almost an hour before we did. The last thousand feet or so, which was down dusty switchbacks and screeslopes were torture on our knees. It was amazing to realise that I felt so good in other ways, but had trouble controlling the forward motion of my legs, which threatened to pitch me off the trail when I became any less cautious. Kevin was carrying maybe 75 pounds for my 50, so he was starting to show strain too.
We hit basecamp at 4 o’clock and threw together our tent. I was chatting with Dave about my failure to summit and considering for the first time if we should have spent another day moving the camp to Independencia before our summit attempt. We soon noticed that the clouds were blowing in heavily on the mountain and looked up to see huge plumes of snow blowing off of the summit ridge. The storm closed in pretty quickly and snow started falling at Plaza for the first time since we had started the trip. As it turned out, two groups who tried summiting that day were unsuccessful due to the weather and the climbers camped lower down in Nido and Canada were pinned in their camps for a few days. Our timing had been impeccable.
We wandered over to Willy’s communal dining tent and popped open a few beers. Inside, I was introduced to Steve Sustad, American by birth, but now one of Britain’s foremost climbers. Steve was nursing some black toes, damaged on a flash attempt on the South Face, a wall climb vertically up rock and ice. The climb generally requires 4 days of ascent, spending nights along the way suspended from a portable ledge clipped onto the rock. One group had failed spectacularly while we had been on the mountain, taking 11 days complete the climb and running out of food and fuel to melt water after the first week. They had been hammered by the terrible weather that pinned us down in Canada and Nido on our way up, and whenever good weather appeared, they used the chance to continue up rather than quickly descending to safety. Of the group of three, one man died soon after reaching the top - of exhaustion, exposure and dehydration, in addition to possibly other more acute forms of altitude sickness. He had spent a few days up at Berlin with us, entombed in a metal casket partially buried in the snow, while his wife and friend were lead off the mountain.
In contrast, Steve had dashed up the first 3/4 of the climb in only 9 hours and then retreated back down with a severe case of frostbite. Losing in his attempt to summit on the face route, he had also lost his guiding contracts for the short season. He would not be able to go back up the mountain with his feet as damaged as they were. I had read about the unhealthy tradition of British rock climbers to enjoy a smoke after a hard day of climbing and so was unsurprised when he invited me out for a smoke. Our other companions looked disgusted by the idea, and I didn’t know how much I would enjoy a nicotine buzz above 14,000 feet, but I enjoyed the chance to chat with him alone for a bit. We went outside into the falling snow and inhaled deeply. I marvelled at how easy I found it to fall into the role of a climbing groupie.
The next day, we saw the dead man from Berlin loaded onto mules to take him back out to be buried. Kevin and I negotiated to have some other mules carry out our reduced load and packed just the barest supply of extra gear along with water and snacks for our walk out. I realised that we had another 5000 feet to descend that day, but in a much gentler grade than our bolt down from Berlin. I expected it to be similar to the experience of descending from Mt. Whitney in California, a mountain that topped out at the same altitude as Aconcagua’s basecamp. The hike out would be longer than Whitney, but we had the boon that, after having had almost two weeks to acclimatise, the air at 14,000 filled us with energy.
Walking out was a slow process that gradually welcomed us back to a reality that had been distant in our minds for two weeks. We saw our first tufts of growing plants, shed the underlayer of thermals that had been our second skin whenever outdoors and began to think thoughts about what would happen next in our lives. When we hit the plane above Confluencia, with its many intertwined streams of swift run-off, we paused to take off our boots and socks and wade through the icy water. While putting our boots back on, we were startled by a friendly dog who came bouncing toward us. He had appointed himself as Willy’s companion on his attempt to break the current record for fastest descent from Plaza de Las Mulas. Willy paused to say hello and tell us that Dave and Mitch were not far behind. When they caught up with us, Mitch took off on his own, and we walked for much of the way down with Dave, hearing about his expectations for the next stage of his life. Since his success on Aconcagua ended his Seven Summits project, Dave was acutely affected by his descent back into real life.
Dave left us alone for the last couple of hours, and we arrived back at Puenta del Inca 7 hours after leaving Plaza. As the sinking sun tinged the scenery with golden hues, we sipped mate and gossiped with the rangers in broken Spanish. We were already home.