Aconcagua: One Day at a Time
The Polish Traverse
Day 1 Mendoza to Los Puquios
After a busy morning and a few last phone calls, we sadly packed away our chacos and put on our hiking shoes. Our feet wouldn’t be free for 17 days. Our taxi arrived and we crammed two duffel bags, three expedition backpacks, and the three of us inside. For only 11 pesos we were safely delivered to the bus terminal. At the terminal we were promptly labelled as climbers and meet two Indians and a Polish guy who were also heading to the mountain. We all boarded the bus for the three and a half hour trip to the park. Mike, Aurora, and I were lucky enough to get front row seats on the second level of the double-decked bus, meaning we had a birds eye windshield view.
Waiting for the bus in Mendoza
We were dropped off at Los Puquios, a ski hill in the winter and a mule rental place in the summer. Our bags were weighed and thankfully they were light enough that we could add our plastic boots to the mules load. With bags organized, weighing 61kilos total, we were led to our campsite, which was really a small, sort of flat parking area. We made dinner, and I went to sleep thinking about what might happen the next two weeks. I’m planning to take this mountain one day at a time.
Day 2 Los Puquios to Pampa de Leñas, 2800m
Up and packed early, we were taken to Punta de Vacas, the entrance to the Parque National de Aconcagua and the Vacas Valley. Our permits were officially stamped, and our adventure began.
The hike was an easy one, gradual elevation gain, and we arrived to Pampa de Leñas around lunch. I didn’t feel great, it was super hot, and I was dehydrated. We checked in with the rangers, and got our permits signed. I spent the rest of the afternoon laying in the shade under a large rock. Aurora and Mike tried to hide from the sun in the tents, but they were similar to ovens.
Valle de Vacas isn’t spectacular, but for a wide desert valley with green grass, bushes, and a large river, it’s beautiful in its own right.
Our mules arrived around 5pm along with several guided groups we would get to know more. The guided groups hiked with only small day packs, as they had more mules than us, while envious of their light packs, we named them team day pack and refereed to them as such for the rest of the trip.
Seeing what others have I feared we had brought to much stuff. Mostly to much food. I began to worry about carrying it all over the traverse. Can’t do anything about it now. Taking this mountain one day at a time.
Day 3 Pampa de Leñas to Casa de Piedra, 3200m
Today we got or first glimpse of Aconcagua, just before arriving to camp. We got a good, clear view of the summit. I wonder if anyone is on the summit, and if we will be there in 11 days.
Another easy day. We left camp at 7am, meaning we spent most of the morning hiking in the shade of the valley. Again we arrived to camp around lunch, got our permits signed, and spent the afternoon baking in the sun. It’s hard to believe that I had an ice axe on my bag and that my down parka would even be remote useful in the coming days.
Once all the mules came we ate and went to bed early, anticipating a hard climb and a big increase in elevation to reach base camp the following day. Taking this mountain one day at a time.
Day 4 Casa de Piedra to Plaza Argentina, 4200m
Remember when I wrote about crossing a glacial river in southern Patagonia? Well here we found one that was colder. At 6:45 am we were taking off our shores preparing to cross the Vacas River. You can walk across, or hire a mule. It didn’t seem like a bad idea to walk. We only had hiking shoes and plastic boots, so we opted to go barefoot. The mud was frozen on the banks, and there was a bit of ice in the river. We had to cross both branches. It was so cold it hurt and made my eyes water. When I got out I through my pack down, jumped onto of it, and began to desperately warm up my toes. This was painful and took a little while. For us the warming up process was full of obscenities, teary eyes, and someone muttered, “I’m gonna die” multiple times. Once we recovered we headed up. Ascending 1000 meters to base camp. We made in 7 1/2 hours arriving to base camp at 2, giving us plenty of time to bake in the sun.
Sunset from Plaza Argentina, full moon, and the shadow from Aconcagua
Base camp covers a big area with lots of big tents. Each of the three main companies had mess tents, sleeping tents, and bathrooms. There is a ranger station and a doctor’s office, and climbers tents scattered all around. At this point we were high enough that there is no vegetation. The camp is nestled next to a large glacier moraine, along which the trail continues to camp 1.
We got settled in, planned to spend 4 nights acclimating before moving to camp one.
We found our bags, wished our mule well, and decided to start eating our heavy food now that we would be carrying it. Than meant putting a box of cubed tuna packed in oil in our pasta. It was gross. We decided we had to come up with another way to eat the tuna. We had 6 boxes left. Even though dinner was gross, we had lots of positive energy and were glad to be at base camp. It felt like we were getting somewhere, and the summit was clear and tall above us. Taking this mountain one day at a time.
Day 5 Rest Day Plaza Argentina, 4200meters
We were chased out of our tents by the sun at 10am. It’s much hotter than we planned and hiding from the sun is a priority. At 14000 feet and far south it is intense.
Today I wonder If I should be on the mountain. Do I really have enough experience to climb this thing? A lot of the people on the guided expeditions have more experience than me.
In the afternoon we talk to Daniel Lopez, our base camp and mule service company. They advised us to change our route a bit, using a lower camp two, and a different camp three. They say it’s better for the traverse. The camp 2 we were planning to go to is used mostly by climbers who are climbing the Polish Glacier. We got a second opinion and changed our route.
After a lot of hour in the sun we ate a good dinner and organized our food to carry to camp 1 in the morning. Taking the mountain one day at a time.
Day 6 Carry to Camp 1, 5000m
Today was a tough carry. We were moving all our food, plastic boots, crampons, and ice axes to camp 1, and then descended back to base camp. Camp 1 was 800m higher (2640feet) and our packs were heavy.
We were up at 5:30am. After a not so delicious breakfast of cream of wheat, and mate coca tea, we started up at 7:15.
We began by following a scree field along a ridge next to a glacier moraine. At times the trail is very narrow, and later we heard there are sections that are prone to rock slides. At the top of the first section we crossed what is called the minefield. It’s flattish, covered with large piles of rock. At this point we were on the glacier, but it was buried under all the rock. The minefield ended and we were looking up at a steep climb. We switched back up the slope occasionally sliding back in the loose scree.
Walking up the mountain is mostly maintaining a slow, steady, pace. I’m good at walking slow, so it was easy for me to maintain a nice pace. I found it much like lap swimming and long distance running. It starts hard, but after a while you settle into a rhythm, both with movement and breathing. I liked this about climbing. When in a rhythm the hours would by quickly, and things wouldn’t take as long as I expected.
The steepest part of the trail was just before camp, and when I came over the crest of the trail, I was happy to see tents. We all made it to camp in 4 hours, a climb that can take 6. Even though our packs were heavy, and we were at 5000m, we moved fast.
We ate lunch and all fell asleep. Later after caching our food, we returned to base camp. The return trip only took an hour and forty minutes. We had plenty of time in the afternoon to bake in the sun.
This day I was happy to be on the mountain. I felt good and was acclimating well. But I also knew that everything ahead was going to be tougher, higher, and colder. I was praying that the weather would hold for summit day. Taking the mountain a day at a time.
Day 7 Rest Day Plaza Argentina
Lots of sitting around in the expedition tent, looking at books, and drinking water. Aurora and I washed some clothes in the river. We cooked our tuna balls out of a box for lunch. It was too hot to sleep in the tents. Acclimating can be super boring. I wished I had a magic book that didn’t weigh anything. Taking the mountain a day at a time.
Day 8 Move Plaza Argentina to Camp 1, 5000m
Today I couldn’t be happier. We left camp late, 8:45am, and got to camp 1 by 11:50. An hour faster than our carry day. The hike felt harder, and surprisingly our packs weren’t much lighter than the carry, but we were better acclimated. We were climbing strong.
It was another beautiful, calm, sunny day. I spent the afternoon checking out the penitentes. This is a snow formation that is from extremely sun cupped snow fields. Parts of the snow melt leaving towers, some a meter tall. The towers re shaped like flakes, thin but all different shapes. These usually form in rows and all have the same angle toward the sun. They are cool to look at, but not fun to cross.
Camp 1 is at the top of the valley just below the saddle between Aconcagua and Ameghino (5860m). It’s beautiful. My favorite of all the camps. Today I’m so happy to have the chance to be here, and that my body is capable of carrying to 5000m on foot.
We spent the evening organizing food to carry to camp 2, and eating mashed potatoes. Taking this mountain one day at a time.
Day 9 Carry, Camp 1 to Camp 2 (actually called camp 3 Guanacos Valle) 5440m
The trail switched back and forth up the steep scree field to the saddle. We passed several groups of people, and we’re only passed by a few, mostly porters.
The saddle between the mountains was beautiful. We could see out over the Hornocos Valley, and the mountains in between. These peaks were big and glaciated. One in particular had a steep, steep face, and looked intimidating.
We made it to the camp in 2 and a half hours. The camp was busy. Lots of groups and not many spaces. I had a lot of energy and decided to build a rock wall to protect where we would put our tent the following day. This is not a simple task at 18,000 feet. I spent two hours carrying rocks and eventually made a wall high enough to block some wind. Eventually we headed back to camp 1. One day at a time.
Day 10 Move to Camp 2 Guanacos, 5450m
The move went well. We all hiked at our own pace. It was finally chilly and I hiked in more layers.
On the Saddle between Aconcagua and Ameghino
The camp is small and there were 25 tents. Most were with three different guided expeditions. I spent the afternoon listening to music, since the guided expeditions have iPods and solar chargers. They also hire porters. Several people made sat phone calls, and the guides tried to get weather reports on the upcoming storm.
Arriving at our Camp 2
An older named Gray befriended us. He was on the mountain for the second time. His first try was 10 years earlier, and his attempt was cancelled after spending 4 days in a snow storm in camp 2. He worked as a lawyer and spends his retirement climbing mountains. He gave us chocolate, weather reports, and let Aurora and I make a call on his Satellite phone. This is so nice, since calls cost at least two dollars a minute. I called my dad. I knew he would answer a call from a weird number. It was so nice to talk to him, even for a minute. After that I knew he would call everyone else to let them know things were going well. This made my day. Kindness from strangers is amazing thing. We spent the evening preparing for our last carry. Taking the mountain one day at a time.
View from Camp 2
Day 11 Carry to Camp Cólera, 6000m
We could see Camp Cólera from camp 2. It was a 600m climb. We heard on the way up and down that weather was moving in. It sounded like we were going to get some snow overnight and the next day. A lot of people were speeding up there schedule, hoping for a clear weather day after the snow.
Mike, Aurora, Me, and the summit.
One the way the way down we decided we would skip or rest day and follow the other groups up, taking advantage of the clear weather morning. Once we returned from the carry, we heard another weather report and we decided not to move. This was such a hard decision to make. Mike wasn’t acclimating well, and I had a cough, but felt good. We thought a rest day would be good, and it sounded like descent weather would return in a couple of days. I didn’t feel great about this decision, and thought about it all evening. I went to bed feeling frustrated and worried we made the wrong decision. Taking the mountain one day at a time.
Day 12 Rest Day, 5450m
When I go up and other groups were packing, I wished we were leaving as well. We spent the day in the tent. It was cold and snowing. The snow didn’t accumulate, but the dusting made the mountains beautiful.
Our tents and Aconcagua in the clouds, after the snow storm.
In the evening the weather began to clear, making me again wish we had moved to the high camp.
As were we making dinner, we meet Alberto. He came up from base camp that day, and Italy only 4 days before. He was a character. An humble international mountain guide, who didn’t know how to use his stove. He quickly became friends with us, sharing food, good Italian cheese, hiking with us, and joined us for tent tea parties. He helped lighten the mood.
We went to bed under clear skies and little wind, knowing the groups who moved had a descent summit day in store. I was hoping the same would be true for us. One day at a time.
Day 13 Move camp 2 to camp Cólera, 6000m.
Our move was slower than our carry, by almost an hour. We were wondering if we were spending too many days above 5000m. In theory, a rest day should have made us faster, not slower.
When we arrived to Cólera, many tents were empty, and by late afternoon people were returning from the summit. A few people had turned around because of cold, but most summited.
A new weather report suggested the following morning might be clear, with wind picking by noon. We made a tricky decision. What time should we try for the summit? Early could mean calm and less wind, if we could summit before noon. Too early, risks being too cold, too many hours in the dark, before the sun helps warm up fingers and toes. We decided we would get up at 3am.
Day 14 Summit Day
At 3 am it was windy. It wasn’t terrible, but not as clam as we would like. The camp was quiet, and we weren’t sure anyone was heading up. Eventually we saw some lights and began getting ready. By 4am I was out of the tent wearing most if my clothes, including my down parka, puffy pants, and plastic boots. It was cold.
Mike decided not come, as he still wasn’t feeling great. He did get up and spent an hour melting snow for Aurora and I to fill our water bottles. It was so helpful. At 5 am Aurora, Alberto, and I headed up.
We could see a line of head lamps on the mountain above us. We started with a slow pace and climbed up steeply over several snow fields. Alberto turned around after 80meters, as he wasn’t yet acclimated since he left base camp only two days prior.
I was thinking only about putting one foot in front of my other, and trying to keep my nose covered from the wind. The time went by fast. The sun began to rise, and the wind continued to pick up. We could see clouds of snow being blown toward us, causing us to stop, turn away, or put our heads down. The gusts were strong enough to knock us off balance. We caught up with a group who was moving slow. But the wind continued to stay strong.
We were climbing fast, 150 meters an hour. It’s recommended that one climbs 80-100 meters an hour, to make it the summit in a timely manner. Had it not be so windy and cold we would have made it. At 6400 meters (21,120 feet) just below The Refugio at Independencia, we decided to turn around. We knew the wind was supposed to continue to increase, up to 90km gusts. We were still cold, even in the sun. And we had 4 or 5 more hours of climbing just to reach the summit. We were the first team to turn around the morning, but many would follow later. We passed a group on their way up, and they looked miserable. We found out later they were one of the few groups who summited.
Sunrise on Summit day
Turning around on summit day. 21,120 feet.
When we got back to camp Aurora and I spent an hour shivering in our sleeping bags before we began to warm up. We had ice around our jackets, and everything I had tried to cover my nose with was still frozen.
Bundled in the tent
Later that day the realization that we weren’t going to reach the summit set in.
The weather forecast was wind for the next several days. We decided we would descend in the morning. Next I learned how important it is to plan only one day at a time.
Day 15 Cólera to Plaza de Mulas, 4300m
I woke up at 2am, and the wind was calm. All I could think about was the summit. At 3:30am, it was still calm. At 5am Alberto woke us up and said he was going to try again, since it was less windy.
I don’t what kept me in my sleeping bag that morning, but I will regret that decision for a while. I wish I would have gotten up to climb with Alberto. I still felt strong, dispute the three nights we had spent at 20,000 feet. But I didn’t go. I had made a commitment to my team to go down.
I got up before 8, melted snow for tea, and felt terrible because I wasn’t climbing. The sky was blue and the wind was significantly less than the day before. I drank my tea looking at the summit, and cried, feeling like I gave away my chance to stand on top on Aconcagua.
Later that morning I took the poems my brother Matthew has gave me to carry to the summit, I had to leave them at 20,000 feet, 3,000 feet below my goal.
The poems were dedicated to two people his grandfather, Lawrence, and our grandfather, Charles Alvin. I found a beautiful place to leave them, out of camp, but insight of the summit, and other glaciated peaks.
Poems for Grandpas
We left camp at 1 and descend the normal route all the way to base camp. It was one large scree field. I would never want to climb the mountain from this side. The weather was nice all day, the wind did pick up, but it seemed like a good day to climb.
Day 16 Plaza de Mulas to Mendoza.
At 10am we dropped or bags off for mules. We ran into Alberto who had summited the day before, and descended early in the morning. He achieved his insane goal by going from his house in Italy to the summit in 9 days.
Plaza de Mulas
A team of mules working hard.
We all hiked out together, 16 miles downhill. We did it in 6 1/2 hours, and didn’t stop for lunch. The hike was uneventful, quiet, and long. My calves were sore for three days afterward.
Alberto, Mike, Me, and Aurora. Arriving at the park office. Officially off the mountain.
We got to the bottom, checked out of the park, picked up or bags, and took an evening bus back to Mendoza. By 2am we had all showered, eaten, and gone to bed. Our adventure was over.
The next day I talked a lot to Alberto, since he’s a seasoned climber and mountain guide, he had a lot of good things to say about the mountain. He couldn’t understand why we went down and thought I had made a mistake by not trying again. He said mountains will always be there, an yes while we can go back, we might now adjust to the altitude again, or have descent weather, or we might get sick. It’s important to take advantage of the weather when we get the chance. And as much as we say climbing a mountain isn’t about getting to the top, it is. Why else do we climb them? Sure we learn things along the way, and the journey can be great, but summiting is the goal. I didn’t focus on this enough. I should have tried again. Lesson learned. The next time I climb a big mountain, I won’t give up so quickly. I’ll be back Aconcagua.