Expedition Start – January 29th 2011
Aconcagua is the highest mountain in the Americas at 6,962 m (22,841 ft), and the highest mountain outside Asia. It is located in the Andes mountain range, in Argentina. The summit is located about 5 kilometres from San Juan Province, 15 kilometres from the international border with Chile. It lies 112 kilometres north west of the city of Mendoza. Aconcagua is the highest peak in both the Western and Southern Hemispheres.
Aconcagua is the center and main motive of the Aconcagua Provincial Park , one of the most spectacular protected areas of the Republic of Argentina . The 71000 hectares are located in the Province of Mendoza , a few kilometers East of the borderline with the Republic of Chile . All its waters flow towards the interior of Mendoza , through the Horcones, Vacas and Cuevas river basins.
The Aconcagua is the highest mountain of the Southern and Occidental Hemisphere and the highest peak of the American Continent. It is one of the icons of the appraised Seven Summits. It is also important for introducing yourself to high altitude, due to its elevations, geographical and climatic conditions, it constitutes the ideal stage for moderate demands, also to prepare yourself for one of the most important athletic feats the 8000 m peaks of the Himalaya demand.
The “Colossus of America” is the goal of climbers of all latitudes and the athletic aspiration of thousands of annual visitors, who cherish this unique and exclusive experience, the one this magnificent mountain offers.
In mountaineering terms, Aconcagua is technically an easy mountain if approached from the north, via the normal route, although the effects of altitude are severe (atmospheric pressure is 40% of sea-level at the summit), the use of supplemental oxygen is not required. Altitude sickness will affect most climbers to some extent, depending on the degree of acclimatization. Regarding temperatures in summer, you must consider that the nights (even in good weather), over 5.000 m, -20ºC is common. On the summit, it is frequent to see -30ºC. During periods of bad weather or in the presence of masses of air coming from the South, at Plaza de Mulas it is frequent to find -18ºC, while at the top of the mountain -25ºC is common.
I have stood on the top of Aconcagua the biggest mountain outside of Asia at 6962m but it was no easy task in getting there. I lost 8kg, there were six people killed and we were caught in the worst weather the mountain has seen in ten years. However, I will start from the beginning and give you all the details of the long and hazardous process that is mountaineering.
After sorting out permits in Mendoza, which suprising enough only took two hours, we loaded up the van with all the expedition gear and drove three hours into the mountains to the Penintentes ski resort, which in the summer months caters to climbers and trekkers. We took an acclimatisation trek around the near by hills up to 3275m, it was blowing a gale and sunny but everybody felt fine and was in good spirits. My bunk buddy is Michael, and Aussie customs officer from Gladstone, hes a top bloke and we are getting along no problems at all. We start our walk in tomorrow and at our group meal together I ate 3 x entrees, all the bread, my main plus 2 x desserts. I slept like a baby.
At the start of the second day before we left for the hills I gave mum a call to check on my sister as we had heard that there was a Category 5 cyclone inbound up in north Queensland where she lives. All was apparently okay with all the necessary preparations being made. Our own preparations for the day involved separating all our gear into mule sized loads for the three day trek into Base Camp. We needed ten mules for our team with each mule allocated 60kg max. The trail started just outside Penintentes with a ranger outpost who checked permits and wished us luck. It was a slow and silent walk that day with everybody deep in their own thoughts about the upcoming days. Six hours later we pulled up at our first camp at 2800m, set up tents and sorted gear. The mule drivers cooked us a barbecue that night that will rival any aussie back yard feast, I also tried the local herb tea called Mati, very strong flavour but not too bad. Fell into the sleeping bag content.
We were up at 6.45AM with the tent down and everything packed for the the next leg of the journey in 35min. Not to bad when its nice conditions but we will have to get more efficient for when we are higher on the mountain and hit bad weather. It was 5 degrees last night and my sleeping bag was far to hot. Reading the tag in says I can survive at -67 degrees so its a little of an overkill for the moment. It was a longer trek today with some decent heat around the middle of the afternoon, 6 hrs 40min to reach our second camp called Casa de Peirdra. Close to the end of the day we got our first look at Aconcagua, it looks epic in the distance covered in ice and snow. As I gazed up it dawnded on me how far we have to go to get to the top. Our altitude is steadily rising and tonight we sleep at 3200m, should be a chilly one.
Up early and with a quick breakfast in our bellies we had to make a river crossing to get onto the track leading us up to Base Camp. Now the rivers over here are not the same as crossing a little stream back in Oz. Here when your feet break the water it feels like they are on fire from the cold and you do your utmost to get across and warm them up again. With the crossing out of the way and the blood slowly returning to the toes in was onwards and upwards towards our Base Camp Plaza de Argentina at 4200m and a 1000m altitude gain for the day. Our arrival at Base Camp concluded the walk in and Stage one of the expedition according to Matias. We have to make our tents here bomb proof because in Dec six tents were ripped from the mountain by winds and the trip had to be cancelled. I started to get headaches as soon as we arrived which is part of the natural acclimitisation process, I managed to fix it with cordial and cake and slipped into bed. The hard part of the trip is about to begin.
I had a fair amount of sleep last night but whenever I rolled over or moved the headaches would kick into gear from the altitude and take some time to calm down again. Im sure everyone wants to know how your supposed to take a leak when its freezing outside up in the mountains. Well what most of us do is keep a spare Nalgene water bottle used specifically for that task. So instead of getting out of your sleeping bag and getting cold you fill up the bottle when you need to and then keep it inside your sleeping bag for added warmth, its a win win. Had a decent breakfast before having to go get my medical clearance from the doctor. As part of the safety program for Aconcagua you have to be cleared by the Doctor at Base Camp before you can continue higher up the mountain, this was brought in to minimise the risk of people dying on the mountain. My O2 saturation, which is the amount of oxygen in your blood, was great at 91, Heart Rate was fine but my blood pressure was 160/80. This is at the limit for a climber to continue on so the Doc gave me a couple of pills to take over night and asked to see me again tomorrow. Headaches were easing by the end of our first rest day which is great, it means im acclimitising well and will be ready for the first load carry up to Camp 1.
Had my second visit to the mountain Doctor today and it was a write off. My Blood Pressure has shot up to 180/80 now. I feel fit and strong though and the Doc said I can continue on with the first load carry but that he wants to see me again after the second round of pills he gave me takes effect. We are a big team and we have a hell of a lot of equipment with us on this mountain so part of the process involved in climbing the mountain and acclimatising is to conduct load carries. This involves separating our gear into the stuff we dont need right now and carrying that higher up the mountain to our next camp then returning to the lower camp for a day to recover. After the rest day we will take the second load to the higher camp and stay there, then repeating the process continually moving higher. A few of the team have opted to have Porters carry there equipment up the mountain so that they can save all there strength for the summit day but I wanted to do it all myself as a personal goal. The first carry to Camp 1 is 800m elevation up to 5000m. It had a glacier crossing and a tough scree slope to navigate through to achieve the top. It was tough but not sole destroying, it took 7hr 40min to hit Camp 1 where we rested just long enough to get headaches and then descend back to Base Camp. Needed a big dinner and after consumption went to see my old friend the Doc. BP was still 175/80 so it was more pills and come back tomorrow. Im starting to get nervous about it which isnt going to help my cause at all. Lets see tomorrow.
Day 8 was a well deserved rest day after our first load carry to Camp 1, plenty of food and water going down range. I also had another two visits to the Doc trialing some different meds to get my blood pressure down but no luck. He gave me one last handfull of pills, the strongest available, and told me if my pressure wasnt down below 160 by the morning then I will not be able to continue up the mountain with the rest of the team. This sent me into stress mode straight away, to think that all my training and preparation for this mountain could be for nothing due to a simple thing as blood pressure. That night I decided to eat a few more of the pills that I had left over from previos visits to try to get under 160. The next morning I stayed as calm as I could trying to think happy thoughts and not thoughts about my dream about to be taken away. The Doc did his thing and to all of our suprise I came in at 145, probably the lowest my BP has ever been. The Stress relief was immediate and I was clear to carry on with the rest of the team, who said overdosing is bad. Straight after I was given the all clear we begun our move to Camp 1 with the remainder of our gear and said goodbye to Base Camp for good. My load was heavier than the first trip to Camp 1 but we completed it in a quicker time despite the fact that it started to snow half way up.We are now Set up at Camp 1 and have planned the first load carry to Camp 2 tomorrow.
It was a bitter cold night last night, my water bottle must have slipped out of my sleeping bag during the night because it was slightly frozen, nothing worse then waking up in the morning when its cold and having to drink a slushy. For breakfast I had some hard cake roll dipped in hot water which was very nice believe it or not. It was then time to slip off the Down Jacket, throw on the pack and begin the first load carry into the unknown up to Camp 2. It was steep and tough going with a cold breeze coming head on most of the way up. It took us 3hr 40min to gain 500m altitude finishing at 5500m. We were quick to cache the gear have a short break and begin our decent just as it started to snow. The weather chased us all the way back down to Camp 1 and we are now all huddled down in our tents as a foot of snow has fallen already. Today was a tough day and it has taken its toll on a couple of our team, Johanna and Petros have decided to pull the pin and be evacuated by Helicopter as soon as the storm clears, Warwick left after the Camp one haul, hes was our oldest member and I think the mountain was giving him a tough time. This sport isnt for everyone but I hope that they all learnt something from their time up here and take that away with them, we are now a crew of 8.
Had a fairly terrible nights sleep, was waking up every couple of hours with headaches. I have been holding off taking any pills for it but this morning two panadol to ease the acclimatisation process were needed. It was still snowing at midnight last night but as I watch the frost thaw and water trickle down the inside of my tent there is a good possibility that we will be making the move to Camp 2 tomorrow. Im always keen to keep moving higher towards our goal but its a slow process for a reason, if you rush up these big mountains you simply get to sick to make a decent summit attempt. So I guess mountaineering is teaching me patience amongst everything else. It has just started to snow again and the weather on the horizon does not look inviting, lets hope we can still make a move soon.
We woke up to high winds and cold but clear skies so we decided to make the move to Camp 2 after breakfast. It was close to -10 already with wind chill and about an hour into the climb the weather turned and it started to snow. We continued on as the weather worsened into near white out conditions and we were hiking through knee deep snow. It was a tough 4 hrs to reach the camp and on arrival we had to try to set up the tents in gale forced winds, horizontal pelting snow and near exhaustion. Our guides were machines at assisting us through the white out and getting everyone into camp safely. This was the toughest day I have had on the mountain so far but it was also the most exciting. One breath per step, blinding snow and ice forming long strands hanging from my beard, it was Hollywood stuff. The storm is still raging outside so we will have to wait and see if we can complete a load carry to Camp 3 tomorrow, what a day.
The weather continued to be fierce all night and although it is sunny this morning the wind is unforgiving. I got very little sleep due to headaches from the increased altitude and the news we received over breakfast did little to lighten our moods. There are now three Spanish climbers missing up on a part of the mountain called the Polish Glacier, as well as an English team in trouble high up with an unconscious member. The weather yesterday caught all teams off guard, we were lucky we were close to our camp when the worst hit us, the teams high on the peak would have been caught in a nightmare. The rescue teams are out searching and we are waiting for any new information to develop, today will be a rest day for us with tomorrow looking to be alright for a load carry up to Camp 3. We have just received word that the unconscious member has died higher up from Camp 3. This is terrible news and has given everyone on our team a big reality check. The weather has picked up intensity again but Im sure we are all now in no rush to go higher unless its perfect conditions.
Half way through the night while I was topping up my pee botle to the brim and trying not to spill it into my sleeping bag I noticed that the weather was calm. It must have stayed the way for the rest of the night because when I zipped open the tent this morning it was a beautiful site. Clear blue skies, no wind and crisp white snow lying motionless on every surface. It was a great day for our load carry to Camp 3 at 6000m, it was tough though as we had to break trail through two feet on snow most of the way. After resting long enough at Camp 3 to cache gear and get headaches we descended back to Camp 2. The weather forecast for the next few days looks great so the plan is to move to Camp 3 tomorrow and if the weather holds try for the summit the following day. Our lead guide Matias gave us the news that two of the three missing climbers have been found but have sustained bad frostbite to their hands and feet, the third is still missing. He also dropped the bombshell that two climbers died yesterday on there way to summit and they are not able to get the bodies down for some time. This means that on our way to the summit we will be confronted with the bodies and will have to deal with it. I knew that mountaineering was a risky enterprise but I also thought that I wouldnt have to see dead climbers untill Everest. No one knows the details of why these climbers died and I do not want to speculate here, Matias simply said that the mountain is dangerous and has to be respected at all times.
The weather was perfect for our move to Camp 3, the only problem was that I had a hideous nights sleep the night before. Im blaming the restless night on the fact that I ate enough powdered cheesecake given to me by another team to kill a small rhinoceros. I have always been one to indulge in the delicious treat and after not tasting anything so good for some time I over did it and payed the price. I felt very weak on the move up and even though we completed the leg an hour faster than the time before I was dredding our summit day the next day if I still felt like this. I fell into bed early in the afternoon hoping for a good sleep and clear skies, just as the snow started to fall.