I chose it as my first big mountain because I wanted to find out how I would do at high altitude. Checking around, I found several adventure travel companies who were running trips to Aconcagua this year. One stood out because they were going the easier route and they only required basic mountaineering skills.
February 1 I flew to Mendoza, Argentina and hooked up with my group. We were 12 climbers from around the US and five guides from Mexico, Peru, Canada and the US. Sergio, the lead guide, had guided trips around the world for more than 20 years. Augusto, was the first Peruvian to summit Everest, and had been to the summit of Aconcagua 22 times. The other guides were equally qualified and experienced. We had a day to get to know the group and size each other up. We were all in high spirits and ready for the mountain. Then some disturbing news quickly brought us back to reality.
We climbed Aconcagua via the "Normal Route." This involves a 26-mile hike from the trail head to Base Camp at 14,000 feet. The trail then ascends to Camp 1 at 16,000 feet, Camp 2 at 18,000 feet, and Camp 3 at 19,500 feet. From Camp 3, the trail climbs the final 3,500 feet over snow and scree, across an exposed traverse, and up the notorious Canaleta, to the summit.
Base Camp is a haphazard sprawl of tents pitched among the rocks. A silty stream flows off the glacier and winds through the camp, freezing each night and then running again each afternoon. We met climbers from around the world, most of whom were retreating from the bad weather up high on the mountain. One Brazilian told me that this was his second attempt in two years, but that he had turned back again at Camp 3 after two nights of 70-mph winds and bitter cold. He was disappointed, but would probably return. Another told me that he too had turned back at Camp 3. "I'm 62," he said, "and this is my last attempt here. We didn't make it, but I have to say, I enjoyed every minute of the experience." I resolved to try to feel the same about my climb. The next day, we met a group of Norwegians who had enjoyed better luck. Three of the five had reached the summit, the other two had turned back with altitude sickness. They were understandably elated and even though they had summitted only the day before, they were enjoying a game of volleyball at 14,000 feet.
After Base Camp we carried all of our own gear and supplies. In order to acclimatize properly, we ascended only 1,000 feet per day. Our schedule called for us to make a carry one day (carry a half load to the next camp and return) and then make a move the next (carry the rest of our equipment to the next camp). After a rest day at Camp 2 we would then move in one day to Camp 3 and then go to the summit the following day. The schedule also had two extra days to allow for bad weather.
Camp 1 at 16,000 ft.
As we moved higher on the mountain, the weather got progressively better. We found a lot of snow at Camp 3, but very little wind as we prepared for our summit day. By this time our party of 12 was down to 8. Three had gotten sick and one was simply exhausted. They returned to Base Camp with one of the guides and gave up their attempt. I felt strong and healthy the whole trip. I ate well, though freeze-dried food is a poor substitute for the real thing. We filled up on soup, crackers, salami and sardines. Plus I had plenty of my own granola and fruit bars to supplement the food that was provided. Most of the group complained about not being able to sleep, but I slept well almost every night. The extra money I spent on a superior quality sleeping bag turned out to be money well spent. I was never troubled by headaches or nausea. I never took any of the medication I brought, not even any aspirin, the candy of mountain climbers.
We set off in the pre-dawn darkness, illuminating the rocky path with our head lamps. By now we were used to the extremely slow pace set by our experienced guides, and no one asked to move faster. It was extremely cold, but under all the gear I was warm except for my feet and thumbs. The sun slowly rose and we were treated to a spectacular sunrise. The visibility was unlimited and we could see hundreds of Andean peaks to the north. At one point we all stopped and gazed in awe at the shadow of Aconcagua as it stretched all the way to the horizon.
On the Summit, 22,841 ft.
In fact, the trip down the Canaleta and back across the traverse was the hardest part of the whole climb. At the top I was a little dizzy and staggered after almost every step. Down lower I was concerned about slipping on the icy snow in the traverse, especially when it clouded up and began snowing. But we roped up to cross the traverse and it went very smoothly. Then as we continued to descend towards Camp 3 the clouds lifted, the wind ceased, and the air warmed up substantially. Suddenly, I realized we were safely down and that we had made it. I looked at a couple of my companions and saw that they were having the same thought. Our group sat down on the slope and relaxed for the first time in hours. It was there that I felt the first exhilaration at our accomplishment.
The South Face
The last day we hiked out the full 26 miles while mules carried out our equipment. We passed many heading up the valley toward their own encounter with the mountain and could only shake our heads at what we knew awaited them. After seven hours of hiking and four hours in the van we arrived back in the city for three long awaited events; the first shower in 14 days, a huge meal of real food in a restaurant, and a phone call home.