I needed to make a decision very quickly – a reasoned and rational one but I struggled to put all the information together in a coherent manner. In 45 minutes the group would start to descend from Base Camp to Confluencia and then onto Penitientes, would I go with them or would I stay to make another attempt for the summit of Mt Aconcagua?
Thankfully I was able to make a quick phone call to my family in Sydney and this solved the problem – my wife said of course you must stay and try again.
So with the decision made I sat back and watched the other members of the team pack duffle bags and assemble, ready to be loaded onto the mules that would arrive later in the morning. There was plenty of action in Base Camp that morning but I felt like I was in a bubble and insulated from it all. Milo, our Polish team member, university educated in the USA and working in London, and thankfully a fluent Spanish speaker, had agreed to join me on a second attempt for the summit. For both of us, all there was to do was stay out of the way and watch it all come together.
We said our goodbyes to the other 6 team members (2 others had flown out by helicopter earlier in the morning), Luco and Matoko our guides, and then they all walked off through the camp on the start of their 8 hour trek to exit the park.
As for Milo and I – we started our 5 days of weather and summit watching. The high winds and cloud cover on the summit continued almost unabated for the next 24 hours. At that stage we weren’t overly concerned about the weather, we had unreservedly accepted the opportunity to rest and recover after the previous 7 days where we had been continually on the move. To sit, talk, rest and of course eat was very welcome. Milo also used the down time to visit the camp Doctor. He had bad wind and sun burn on his face and it was a problem that needed a remedy before we started for the summit again.
Base Camp is situated at the foot of the mountain in a position that provided a view all the way through to the Canaletta. By taking a short 10 minute walk up onto the glaciers above Base Camp you could improve the view and see all the way through to the summit. On the second day we started to notice a change in conditions on the upper reaches of the mountain. Snow that we had walked through on the aborted traverse to the Finger was gone, either melted or blown away. The weather was improving but forecasts still had high winds for another 1-2 days.
Our informal plan was to leave Base camp on 23rd January. All around us other teams were gathering and preparing for a similar move up to either Camp 1 or 2. As the morning of the 23rd approached we started to get mixed signals on the best weather window and finally we delayed our departure until the 24th. By then it was evident that the 26th or 28th would provide the best summit day options. That worked well for us we thought, move directly to Camp 2 on 24th, through to Camp 3 on the 25th, try a first attempt for the summit on the 26th and hold the 28th as a second option if we needed it.
Several other groups planned a similar schedule –
– Our new friends from USA – Vlad, Olya and their guide Mike, started from Base Camp 1 day earlier than us and completed a “Move” and “Carry” schedule through each of the camps to be one day behind us overall.
– Tommy Ceppi and his clients had a tight schedule due to return flights home and left from Camp 2 heading to Camp 3 on the same day as us.
– Jagged Globe had a small group, Andy and Mungo plus Nani the guide leaving Camp 2 on the same day as us and moved to Camp 3 and the summit on the same schedule.
And these were only the groups leaving Grajales Expeditions Base Camp. Each of the other operators also had groups heading upward to make the same weather window as us. In the end the route from Camp 3 to the summit was very busy on the 26th.
Our trip to Camp 3 from Base Camp went smoothly. On the 24th we moved through to Camp 2. Our acclimatisation was well advanced as we had the benefit of our previous summit attempt and then the past 5 days in Base camp behind us. Milo and I had each off loaded 10kg of equipment to a porter as an insurance against fatigue in the 2 days of climb back to camp 3 and that also worked to our advantage.
Summit day started at 3:30am. Paulo our guide wanted us moving by 5am and so in preparation I’d slept almost fully dressed. All I needed to do was pull on my down jacket, eat some breakfast and then put on my crampons. Come 5am and we were on the trail and heading to the summit. Tommi and Nani’s groups also moved off with us but because of our different walking speeds we did separate over the course of the next 9 hours.
I’m not sure how Milo found the walk through to the Finger but I found it difficult to recognise as the trail we had walked exactly one week earlier. With no snow covering the rocks, and more light because of the later start everything looked different. The only familiar sections were the rise up to the Refuge Independencia and the traverse across to the Finger.
I felt a sense of relief to make it past the Finger as that had been the turn around point on the last attempt. That sense of relief was short lived though as almost immediately after that we started the climb up to the Cave – a very steep section that drained me. By the time I reached the Cave I was really sucking in every breath and wondering how I was going to go on the Canaletta because I’d been told that was the difficult section. In the end I didn’t have to wait long to find out as Paulo gave us only a very break for water and food. It was here that I remember thinking how generous Luco’s breaks had been, and I also thought them to be over before they started.
The Canaletta is the last section before the summit. It was steep, a mixture of snow and rock to climb and for me – forgettable. And I have forgotten it. I’m not sure if it was exhaustion, the reduced oxygen at the altitude or just my poor memory but there are significant portions of this 200 metre climb that I just don’t remember. There are also portions that are vivid in my memory –
- Milo telling me he was struggling and me suggesting he focus on breaking it down into 50 metre sections
- Paulo pointing out to us the approaching bad weather and advising us to keep the pace on so as to ensure we achieved the summit and didn’t get forced to turn around and descend when it arrived.
- The point at which Paulo allowed us to step out to (near) the edge that was the South face and just dropped away for 1000’s of feet below us (and now how I wish I’d taken a photo of that!)
- And most importantly, the last little turn right, and step up onto the summit plateau!
Those last steps up onto the summit were so memorable. It was the opposite to everything I’d felt 1 week earlier at Camp 3 after descending from the Finger –
- Elation and relief at having made the final steps onto the summit, my objective was achieved.
- Excitement at being able to claim 1 more summit of the 7 I was after. My longer term plan was still on track thankfully.
I was surprised at how many others were on the summit with us – looking back I’d estimate 10-15 others were also celebrating around us. Paulo kept us focused thankfully. Eat, drink and then photos – and once again he didn’t allow us too long to celebrate as the bad wether had closed in faster than we’d expected.
Surprisingly I wasn’t reluctant to leave the summit – I knew the stories about the descent being the most likely time an accident would occur, a combination of loss of focus and exhaustion. It took us about 45 minutes to reach the Cave. Along the way we met Ulrich who unfortunately was not going to summit that day and was waiting for other members of his team to collect him on their way down. He joined us in the descent.
Mungo and Andy also joined us at the Cave and as a group. Our visibility was down to 30-40 meters max with snow and wind driving in from the north west. It was about here that our descent plans took an unexpected turn – we came across a team moving a sled down the mountain. I believe now that one of the group had suffered a heart attack and had been placed in the sled. The 3 guides from our combined group joined them to assist with the descent of the sled.
The remaining members of their group (3 I think it was) joined with us (4) and we took on the job of completing a slow and safe descent back to Camp 3. Our descent had a few more curve balls thrown in but I close by saying we arrived safely, and slowly back at Camp at 7:30pm. We were all exhausted after being on the move for just on 14 ½ hours. But also excited to have the summit “in the bag”.
The next day we descended from Camp 3 to Base Camp and followed that up with the trek from Base Camp to Confluencia and out to Horconnes. These were 5 BIG days but they were exciting and I’d do it all over again if I could get the chance.
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