In January 2014 I visited Argentina with the intention of summiting Mt Aconcagua. At 6,962 metres high it is the highest mountain in the world outside of the Himalayan range.
I was 1 of a group of 12 clients and 3 guides from Grajales Expeditions that started the trip on 7 January only to be stopped 500m approx. short of the summit when bad weather closed in on us. My story on how the initial attempt on the summit follows.
On 24th January, 2 I made a repeat attempt on the summit foreman base camp on the western side of the western side of the mountain. The story of how that summit attempt unfolded found here
To the Summit of Aconcagua – Attempt #1
On the 3rd January I left Sydney to join a group of adventurers in Mendoza, Argentina. The common objective for all of us was to summit Mt Aconcagua. What follows is a narrative of what turned to be my first attempt on the summit of Mt Aconcagua.
I arrived in Mendoza on the January 4th, and had 2 days to get acquainted with the city before joining the group that had signed on for the Grajales expedition to the summit of Mt Aconcagua.
Those first few days now seem like a blur. I was interested, but not really focused on having a look around the city. I was more concerned about my upcoming time on Aconcagua and, in the end the two days were more like training days – I spent most of my time walking.
January 6th was a bit of an anti climax in some ways. I expected that the group would assemble in the morning and all focus would turn to getting away from the city and moving toward the mountain. In reality it was much different. Some of us were at the hotel in the morning but a significant number of the group would turn up later in the day and into the evening. It was on the 7th that we got our first real understanding of the group size, nationalities and experience and it was midday before we completed the task of registering for permits and then wrapping up the final purchase or rent of equipment.
10am the next morning and we assembled ready to leave Mendoza and got underway on the 3 hour bus trip to Penitentes. There were 12 in the group (4 from Belgium, 3 from Ireland, 2 from Germany, 1 Pole, 1 Australian and myself ) plus 3 mountain guides. It wasn’t until we drove out of Mendoza that I realised just how big the city is. Once we left the city there was a period on the motorway and then we were surrounded by vineyards. Clear those and then we had Argentina’s second largest oil refinery in view, until finally a view of the mountains!
It took just over 3 hours for us to reach Penitentes, a ski resort that I’m told doesn’t see as many skiers now as it once did. It’s now the hub for expeditions leaving for Mt Aconcagua.
Next morning we were transported to Punta de Vacas where we started the 3 day access walk up the Vacas valley to Plaza Argentina. For myself I knew I was keen to be underway and in the end myself and 2 others walked away from the group. In the end I think we closed the days walk some 2 hours ahead of the group.
Dinner that night was the most amazing meal. All the meat was cooked on an open BBQ by the gauchos who managed the mules and their loads. They cooked for the groups in camp that night and the meat just kept on coming.
Day 2 in the valley and it was more of the same. Big valley and open, dry landscape. We stayed together as a group and late in the day, just before we arrived at Casa de Piedra we got our first view to the west of Mt Aconcagua. Fantastic, this is the reason we were here!
Our final approach day to Plaza Argentina started with a river crossing but not as you would expect. At the point we are crossed, the river snakes all over the river bed that at its widest point is probably about 300m from bank to bank. To keep your feet dry you have two options – boots off and start walking or, make a small payment to the gauchos and take a mule ride. Let’s just say that some in our group weren’t quite as comfortable on the mules as they would have hoped. We also had some with legs almost longer than those of the mules. In the end we all made it to the far bank and commenced what would be a long day on the final leg into Plaza Argentina. At first the valley sides were steep and we needed to gain height quickly to make progress. After a few hours the valley widened out and the landscape was amazing.
Plaza Argentina is the Base Camp for the groups before they commence the double carry programme that make up the planned “carry” and “move” days that would take us through to Camps 1, 2 and 3 before summiting. But there was a formality that you must complete at Base Camp before going any further and that’s the medical check with the camp doctor. Fill in the form and stand in line, there was no avoiding it and when you got to the front of the queue it was all over in 5 minutes – blood pressure, blood oxygen levels to check on acclimatisation levels and a listen to my lungs to confirm I had no signs pulmonary oedema.
We had one rest day in Base Camp and then it was a carry of food and summit equipment to camp 1. The track made an initial gain of 200-3300 metres immediately behind the camp and then the gradient reduced as we crossed the glacier. Then it got difficult. There was a very steep section of scree slope and it was a long slow slog, 2 steps forward and slide 1 back. Eventually I came up over the crest into Camp 1 and then found out that the Grajales camp is a further 100 vertical metres and 30 minutes walk further up the slope. The gear and food that we carried up was stowed in bags with stones stacked around them and then we descend back into Base Camp.
We were due a rest day but all the talk was about a storm that was showing in the forecasts and was predicted to hit the mountain right when we intended to be summiting. Our immediate issue was that our plans for the next few days were being changed – we would now move upward with a move and carry day through the camps. There were no more rest days in the schedule but we should beat the storm. It was a plan that achieved the desired outcome but my concern was that we were going too high, to fast. I appreciated there was very little alternative but there was no period for the body to acclimatise to the altitude gain.
Our move to Camp 1 went without a hitch, it was a repeat of our efforts the day before. Some of the group decided to use porters to carry their gear as they realised that the next 3-4 days were going to be intense. I set myself 2 targets – carry my own gear and stay off the diamox (this is a medication that can assist with acclimatising to the altitude but it does have side effects).
Overnight at Camp 1 we had a reasonably heavy snow storm and in the morning there was approx. 10-15 cms of snow on the ground. It was surprising though how fast it melted and by the time we set off on our carry to Camp 2 there were already rock and scree spots showing through. Immediately on leaving camp we were into a steep ascent that zigzaged up the slope. Regularly the porters passed us. They are carrying 35+ kilo’s and made it look easy, we might each be carrying between 10-20kgs and doing it tough!
Once we were through the col at the top of the slope we turned northwest and completed 2 long traverses that finally brought us into Camp 2. Once again we stowed the food and gear that we’d carried and immediately turned and made our way back to Camp 1.
In the next 24 hours we lost 2 of our team. Albert decided he wasn’t well enough to continue and mades his way back to Base Camp with a porter. The next morning Toby also mades the same decision and descended to Base Camp.
We now repeated the previous day’s efforts and completed the climb back to Camp 2. This time when we arrived in Camp 2 there’d been a obvious change in the weather, it was colder and there was a snow storm approaching from the north. Within a few hours of arriving the camp was covered by a dusting of snow, and the stream that provided us with water is starting to freeze over. The snow continued throughout the night and in the morning all the tents awere weighted down by a reasonably heavy dump that required us to dig out the door way before we could exit. There was a lot of activity in the camp. I counted 60 tents in the camp the previous night and everybody was now focused on staying ahead of the storm and making the summit in the small weather window that existed.
We were off to Camp 3 – no carry and then move tomorrow, it was all or nothing now, we had to move all equipment today and then summit tomorrow. I wanted to look after myself physically so decided to have a porter carry 10kg’s of my load. That was going to set me back USD 175 but at that point I considered it worthwhile if it helped me reach the summit.
The move to Camp 3 was steep and physically draining. The track was covered in snow so the smart thing to do was to have a few groups ahead of us packing the snow down and making the walk just that little bit easier. This is one of my “down days” and I didn’t remember much of the journey although I did remember that once again when I came over the crest into Camp 3 you got a message that the Grajales camp is just that little bit further on up the mountain. Thankfully the guides and porters were ahead of us again and the tents were being setup as we arrived. For me it was all I could do to throw in my sleeping gear and climb into the sleeping bag for a rest before any of the other unpacking and preparation that was required before tomorrow could commence.
Our summit day started at 3:00am. Start dressing, eat and finally ready to move off at 4:30am. Not a record start but finally we were underway, as is almost everybody else who was in Camp 3. There was a conga trail of head lamps ahead and behind us as we moved off slowly for the summit. Luco our guide was very clear – step forward – breathe – step forward – breathe… Sounded so simple but when you came to do it repeatedly at 6,000 metres you could get it wrong. But it was effective and I find it a good way to keep focused. A few hours into the ascent and I found the going tough, we took a break at Refuge Independencia and I’m sure I fell asleep standing up. I felt like we had only just stopped and Luco was already encouraging us to get moving again.
It was already snowing and it looked like the storm forecast for early afternoon was already on us.
From the refuge there was an ascent of 15-20 metres and then we entered onto a traverse that took us past the rock pillar called the Finger and toward an area called The Caves but our trip was almost at an end. By the time we got to the Finger the group ahead of us had stopped. I was so exhausted to be fully aware of what was going on around me but within what seemed like 2-3 minutes we had turned around and started to descend. The message spreads through our group that the guides had made a call that the slopes ahead were loaded with snow and the risk of avalanche was to high. Today’s summit bid was over and we were making tracks for Camp 3 as quickly as we can as there was concern that the storm was more advanced toward than we thought.
I had almost no recollection of the descent back to camp 3. The lasting memory I had is of sitting on a rock outside our tent feeling emotionally and physically drained and coming to the realisation that the summit opportunity is over and just like on Denali 2 years earlier I had been beaten by the weather. It’s not something I got too long to dwell on because the call had been made that we were descending to Plaza de Mulas, the Base Camp on the western side of the mountain. It was all haste because the weather was deteriorating quickly.
By the end of the day all of the group was in Plaza de Mulas, the mood was quite sombre as we came to the realisation that there couldn’t be a second attempt on the summit as the forecast had this bad weather staying around for at least another 3-4 days. Come end of day the only definite was that there was no way Trevor, 1 third of Team Ireland, will walk the 8 hours down the valley and he was using this reasoning to get his first ever helicopter flight. For the rest of us – we would have to see what tomorrow would bring.