I have known Sean since teenage years and my first memory of him on the mountain was on a summer camp in north Wales and in particular a climb of Cader Idris on Diana & Charles Royal Wedding Day in 1981. He went on to walk in the Lake District but his major walking experiences came in Chamonix where he worked in the La Prieure Hotel as a night porter in the mid 80,s. Eventually he bought a flat just outside the town with spectacular views of the Mont Blanc massif. His time is now shared between Chamonix (walking and skiing) , Newcastle and his other major love, golf, where he is a caddy on the Men’s European tour.
Why Aconcagua ? Well it is the highest mountain in the world… outside the Himalayas. It is one of the seven summits. And on that summit the chances are that you’ll be the highest person on the summit of the earth. And won’t that sound cool at the next meeting “ice breaker” …. ?
Any one of those sounded like a good reason to book up on a trip to Aconcagua, so I there I was on the Jagged Globe website signing up for the trip in February 2004. First stop the gym. I’d never been to one in my life, but I reckoned it had to be infinitely better than running round the streets in an English winter in a vain attempt to get fit for the trip. So I signed up, found I actually enjoyed going, and 5 weeks or so later I was definitely fitter than I’d ever been before and raring to go.
Travelling to the hill And so about 6 weeks later there I stood in Gatwick at the appointed rendezvous time waiting for the other members of the trip to arrive. And one by one they did. Some old. Some young. A real mix of people. You forget everyone’s name as soon as they tell you. But in a few weeks you won’t forget any of them. Some you’ll like. Some you may not. Some will become lifelong friends. The mountains are like that. “How high have you been before ?” seems to be the most burning question. Already altitude is high on the agenda. First stop in Madrid. Then the overnight Aerolineas to Buenos Aires. Or rather Buenos Aires via San Paulo as the plane was running out of fuel due to fierce headwinds across the Atlantic. A quick hop across to the other airport, and then another 2 hours or so across to Mendoza in the west of Argentina. And what immediately strikes you looking out of the window is how vast this country is. Miles upon miles of prairie. And thousands upon thousands of cattle. Or steaks as they’ll become soon enough.
Day 1 is a rest day for us. A day by the pool getting used to the heat. It might have been 8 degrees in London, but it’s more like 38 here. And a day spent doing a last minute check of everyone’s kit. Fortunately there’s a local climbing shop for any last minute extras … like huge down mittens for example.
Day 2 and it’s off to sign up for the climbing permits, and a bus ride out to a mid-point hotel in the Los Penitentes ski-resort I remember only for its impossibly thin bedsheets and a lot of post dinner hilarity as many depart early for bed. Early on day 3 you suddenly get your first view of Aconcagua. Unannounced it appears as you come round a bend close to the entrance to the National Park. The hairs on my neck bristled immediately. And I’m sure I wasn’t alone. It simply towers above the valley floor. White. A knarled mass of snow and ice against the bright blue sky. Everyone is silent. We’re climbing that ?!
Except that that is the south face of the mountain. Our route, and I have to say thankfully our route, is “round the back.” But it still looks high. Very high. Formalities at the park gates over and we’re ready to begin our attempt on Aconcagua. First up an easy 3/4 hour hike to our first camp at Confluencia. Nothing too strenuous, with lunch on the banks of the river flowing off the mountain thrown in.
We arrive at camp in the late afternoon, pitch tents, and are soon enjoying steak for dinner. Night falls and the first of many star gazing sessions begins – there’s absolutely zero light pollution here so it’s a truly amazing sight. As it is every other clear night on the remainder of the time we spend on Aconcagua. As the sun doesn’t hit camp until 10am (ie. it’s very cold as we’re already at 2900m) we sensibly stay up talking until gone 11, fill water bottles with hot water, and then duck quickly into tents/sleeping bags. Our water bottles act as feet warmers for the first hour and then a few hours later an instant cure for a night-time headaches which become a common, even nightly, occurrence even at this altitude.
Day two and it’s another gentle 2-3 hour hike in the morning to Plaza Francia, the viewpoint over the knarled south face of the mountain we first saw from the roadhead. We also gain some valuable altitude, then it’s back for some lunch and a siesta. No-one seems to be suffering with the altitude thankfully. But it is at the back of everyone’s minds. Ok now time to “head up” the mountain. We set off across and up the Hocornes Valley the next day, destination Base Camp at Plaza de Mulas, altitude 4200m. We should be there in 6-8 hours. It’s easy going at first. A flat almost desert-like landscape, with even some vegetation from time to time.
We gain altitude (that word again) all the time, passing 4000m mid-afternoon, with the last hour being rather steeper up to the Base Camp we’ve been able to see most of the day in the far distance. There it’s the familiar routine of pitch the tent, arrange the gear, dinner, chatting, fill the bottles with hot water, star-gaze, bed, wake up a bit parched and a bit headachey, pee, drink and then back to sleep. Peeing. Ah yes. You pee in a pee-bottle. You definitely don’t go outside. The brave and dextrous can do it in the sleeping bag. Me, I’m half out on my knees. What you definitely do is reach out of the tent and pour away the contents …. an hour’s time mid-pee is definitely not the time to discover that a quart really doesn’t fit in a pint pot !
We have the luxury of a rest day first day in Base Camp. Some choose to head off to the hotel for a shower; some (like me) choose to do nothing; and some (against advice) decide to climb up to Camp 1. All of us drink water. And lots of it. All the while Joe is here there and everywhere. Bits of advice here. Teaching crampon skills to those without snow/ice experience there. Making sure everyone is well. And herding everyone to the mid-afternoon rendezvous with the Base Camp doctor for the pulse-oxymeter test.
Everyone has to do this before heading any higher up the mountain. Everyone is oddly nervous (too high/low a reading and you may be sent down), but everyone passes. Anyone taking Diamox is advised to stop: it can mask very real symptoms higher up. It’s a windy old night at Base Camp. You literally hear the wind approaching our little tent before rattling it wildy before then heading off far into the night. But by morning it’s all gone and we emerge to a perfect sunny morning.
Today is the start of our climb proper: objective, a load carry to Camp 1 at the Canadian Place, and return. Loads are evenly distributed amongst everyone. It’s probably only a few kilos but it feels like more. And today we don our plastic boots in anger for the first time. It now all feels very real, and there’s a palpable sense of anticipation – and maybe nervousness – in the air. Up the side of the hill behind Base Camp to a rest stop at its highest point, Conway Rocks. It’s maybe only a few hundred feet but Base Camp still looks small from here. Onward and upward for another hour and it’s time for another rest, before the final hour up to Camp 1. In total it probably takes 3 hours, maybe a little longer. We sprawl out in the sunshine, before turning on our heels and heading back down the way we came. With no weight in our sacs, it’s an easy hour back down.
We’ve already been higher than Mont Blanc and there’s no obvious strugglers yet. On the way down we see the Army expedition who have been a day ahead of us throughout the trip (we’ve been arriving in camps as they leave so we’ve got to know them) descending from high camp at breakneck speed. We later discover one of the party has been found unconscious in his tent at the High Camp suffering from a pulmonary oedema, and packing him into an expedition barrel and basically wheeling him down the mountain has effectively been the only way of saving his life. We also later find him laughing about the whole thing in a bar in Mendoza …. thankfully. But it does bring home to everyone that this a big mountain and people do die on it. Gulp time.
The cycle of climb high, sleep low is repeated on day 2, but this time the objective is Camp 2 at Nido de Condores. We climb up to Camp 1 again. Only this time it takes half the time, and, or so it feels, half the effort. Everyone makes good time to Camp 2 too which we reach in mid-afternoon after a few hours upwards traverse and zig-zags from Camp 1. The view is stunning. Simply stunning. As is my headache. It’s the altitude for sure. But water and descent seem to offer some respite, and soon enough we’re back in Base Camp. Only my tent mate has a problem. A big problem. Having walked down with me most of the way to see I was alright, my “you go ahead and line up the orange juice” results in him doing just that, only a bit too quick and one turned ankle later it’s a trip to the doctor, and crushingly his trip is over before it’s really begun. It’s really quite emotional saying goodbye the next day as we head up again while Steve prepares to head down on the back of a mule. This mountain – or maybe the trip – is like that. Friendships made become lifelong ones. Even 6 years later a few of us are still in touch. It just happens like that.
So up we go. First stop Camp 1 again. We arrive late afternoon to boil-in-the-bag food prepared by our three Argentinean guides, then crawl into tents for a fitful night’s sleep. Morning comes all too soon, and then it’s onwards and upwards up the zig-zags to camp 2 once again. Again we all reach it in good time, all strong and all in good spirits as the weather is great and the views even better. Our third day is a split one: the morning is spent relaxing or honing crampon skills on the snow field just about the camp itself, then in the afternoon it’s packs on again and a load carry up to the high camp (named the Berlin Huts) we’ll use for our summit attempt in the next few days.
The weather however is starting to turn, and by the time we all reach the high camp it’s cold and windy with light snow falling. But we all make it in good time, before heading straight back down the easy track to the sanctuary of our tents at Camp 2 and a welcome meal delivered to the tent by the guides. In the morning the weather is still cold with the threat of snow as we pack up for the summit attempt. For one of the guys however (sadly) it’s the end of the road – on Aconcagua you just know when it’s time to stop and go down for whatever reason.
By the time the rest of us reach the Berlin Huts later that afternoon it’s snowing, and snowing quite heavily. It’s also cold. Straight into the tent and straight into the sleeping bag, emerging only to eat another boil-in-the-bag dinner brought round by our amazing guides. If the weather is good we’ll attempt the summit in the morning. Very early. And while it’s certainly early the next morning, the weather certainly isn’t good. At least not towards the summit where there are gale force winds making any summit attempt doomed to almost certain failure. We emerge from the tents for breakfast in the hottest sun I’ve ever experienced. You can feel it burning your face almost immediately. Yet below us you can see cloud. The thick black cloud of another storm heading up the mountain our way.
At 2pm it hits us. The temperature drops 20 degrees almost immediately with driving snow, sending us scurrying back into the tents for another afternoon stuck in our sleeping bags. Reading, CDs and fitful sleep is the order of the day. Fingers crossed we can go in morning. But in the morning comes bad news. Joe gathers everyone together. We all instinctively know what he’s going to say. And what he does say is that the guides say the first big winter storm is coming, tonight it will be -45 degrees, and we should go down. Sounds sensible to me. And sounds sensible to 9 out of 10 of us – there’s always one ! So it’s crampons on, packs on, and off we go, all too aware that that storm is coming: mainly because we can all see it brewing 1000s of feet below us.
Time really is of the essence here, and in record time we’re all down through camp 2, then camp 1, and soon enough (ok, it was about 4 hours but seemed far quicker) we’re all safely back in Base Camp. I can’t really remember being too disappointed about not summitting: it just wasn’t meant to be I guess. But on the walk out the next morning I do remember looking at the plume of ice blowing off the summit of the mountain, and thinking that our guides made the right call: summitting that morning was absolutely out of the question. For sure.
28km later we pose for one last photo with the mountain in the background before heading straight back to Mendoza and some R&R before retracing our steps back across Argentina to Buenos Aires, and the overnight flight back to Europe. Trip over. So ok we didn’t make the summit. But 11 out of 12 made it to the high camp, with the other being prevented from doing so by injury. That was way way way above average for trips that year. But we all made it back down safely ! And that’s always the most important thing.
Aconcagua remains on my “must do” list. Trip Details My trip to Aconcagua was with Jagged Globe (www.jaggedglobe.com), and while they may not be the cheaper company offering the trip, they’re generally regarded as the best in the market. The itinerary of this trip has changed since my trip in 2004, and an initial acclimatisation summit on the first day at Base Camp, and additional nights sleeping on the mountain: all designed to maximise the chances of success.
The full itinerary is available on the Jagged Globe website (see link above). Again it would be rude not to mention again our guide Joe Gittins (http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100002081991713&ref=ts ). Leading these trips isn’t easy. You have to bring a group of complete strangers together, integrate them, whilst getting them up and down a potentially dangerous mountain safe and sound. And while we didn’t get to the summit, Joe did all the rest brilliantly. Interestingly it took Joe another 2 trips the following year to actually make the summit such are the vagaries of the weather on Aconcagua, even in the middle of the peak climbing season. You can contact Joe through his website (allterrainadventures.co.uk). I would !
Supporting Joe was the Argentinean lead guide Lucas with his dreadlocks and steady steady pace, the other guides who did such a great job helping pitching tents at altitude, and bringing hot food and tea to the tents, and the Base Camp team who looked after our every need and several that we didn’t know we needed but did. Like the Sherpas on Everest, without them the expedition doesn’t happen. And final thanks to Alan, Steve and Dave whose company on the trip I won’t forget in a hurry, and 7 years later we’re all still in pretty regular contact despite being dispersed to various corners of the earth. Top men.
Random Thoughts Most importantly, the Argentinean guides spend half their lives on Aconcagua and if they say the summit day is off or it’s time to go down, then it is. It might just save your life. Don’t argue. Don’t think you know better. On any mountaineering trip you will spend quite a lot of time cooped up in a tent … so choose your tent-mate wisely ! On Aconcagua I felt best when I drank lots of water. And I mean lots of it. As in 8-9 litres each day. The pre-trip advice from Jagged Globe didn’t advise you to practice drinking this amount in the weeks coming up to the trip for nothing ! They were spot on. I used Icebreaker underwear throughout the trip, and would highly recommend it as it just doesn’t smell ! Vega shin. So called because Scarpa Vega (it was 2004 so plastic boots might have improved by now) boots do strange things to your shins, so it’s definitely worth tramping around in them before you go.
Don’t go out to eat before 9pm in Argentina … at the earliest. Nothing opens before around 9:30-10pm. Definitely eat steak – it’s the best anywhere in the world. And always always round the meal off by a trip to the ice cream shop … there’s seemingly one on every corner. There must be 50+ flavours available and at a few pence for a quarter kilo you can’t go wrong.
 You generally summit Aconcagua outside the climbing season in Nepal, so above the high camp you’ll be around/above Everest Base Camp