At the beginning of the previous blog I excused the lengthy delay to upload my notes as a struggle to come up with the words to describe Antarctica, however the fact that two months has passed since we descended from Aconcagua and I am just writing a blog now has been more a simple case of laziness. Lucy and I travelled around South America for a month and then renovated our house for most of March, so not entirely lazy but definitely at risk of losing some of the finer details of our climb.
Often regarded by many as a non-technical high-altitude slog, Aconcagua draws a wide range of punters of all experience levels all vying for 5 minutes on top of the highest point in the World outside the Himalayas. Known for fairly stable and snow free weather during the three month climbing season, various guiding organisations promote the climb as an achievable big mountain for the avid trekker. That being said, the published 25% summit success rate (the lowest of any of the 7 summits) would reveal that there may be more to this non-technical high-altitude slog that they let on. I decided that it must be either highly underestimated by those involved or that Aconcagua deals wildly unpredictable hands. Lucy and I would soon discover that it would be both.
Expecting the challenges to only stack up close to the summit, Lucy and I were not expecting to be thrown under immense pressure to source $2000 on the final night before the trip for a climbing permit. Record economic inflation in Argentina during 2016 led to a nationwide bank withdrawal limit of $300 per day per card, hardly convenient in a somewhat cash only society. However after maxing out numerous ATM cards, converting every cent of foreign cash and almost a full day of stress imagining our climb finishing before it started, we managed to scrape together just enough Pesos for the permit and we were on our way to Los Penetentes and the start of the Vacas Valley.
Impressive teams of Mules being led by even more impressive Mule drivers (known as Muleteers) carried our bags along the dusty three day approach to Plaza Argentina or Aconcagua Base Camp. Settling in to camp on the first night our guide passed on the news that the whole supply of vegetables and salad had been destroyed in transit by the mules however the extensive supply of steak and red wine had survived. Given that we were in the heart of red meat and Malbec country and that the guides seemed far from disappointed themselves, I wondered if any vegetables and salad were ever packed.
Literally within the first hour of the three week climb the sole of one of my trekking shoes started to break apart. While limping along carefully so as to not end up with a detached sole, the other shoes sole separated and in an instant I became the group’s first liability. Perhaps it was the ultra-dry weather that had attacked the shoes glue or perhaps it was the fact that they were 15 years old, however either way I was now 1% of the way into the trip and appeared to be the least prepared. As we moved up the valley and then onto the mountain we would learn that that title belonged firmly to two other group members.
The mountains terrain was far from steep however many days of heavy snow down as far as the base camp meant that we often found ourselves progressing up the mountain in fairly miserable conditions. Always entertaining to watch, the usual suspects of the group would race ahead to reach rest points first and show off their superior speed low on the mountain. Lucy and I generally dragged along at the back of the pack hoping that we were patiently saving our precious energy for the only day that really counted. After nearly two weeks and multiple sorties up and down the mountain we reached Camp 3 known as ‘Collera’ with all of our gear and a fully intact although somewhat weathered group. Perched at a lofty 6000m this was a record altitude for most and now represented a major challenge for the team to spend at or above for over 48 hours and so, as expected, appetites dramatically decreased and Diamox consumption dramatically increased.
Setting out at 4am, we commenced what we knew was going to be a particularly challenging summit day given the recent snow fall and a far from ideal forecast. Despite being equipped with double boots, Lucy reported a concerning level of numbness of her toes and then later feet and lower legs. We tried various strategies to combat the lack of warm blood reaching her extremities however being an entirely new experience it was clear that the freezing temperatures and relentless wind had made for a fairly unpleasant few hours. With the prospect of many more unpleasant hours before the summit would even be within sight a painful question had to be asked at 6,400m. Is this Lucy’s summit? Sadly it was and Lucy together with several other team members came to the unfortunate conclusion that this would not be their day. Eight of the remaining team members continued towards the vicious spin drift above La Indapendencia naively hoping conditions would improve. As we reached ‘The Traverse’ we were met with a nasty 80km/h crosswind from the west that systematically stripped heat from our already freezing bodies. I would cover my face to protect my nose from freezing however would soon struggle to breathe with the thinning air, so would oscillate the use of my face shield and hope that my nose wasn’t getting dangerously cold. After two hours we stopped for a break and the damage report included one member with a frost bitten nose and fingers and another with frost bitten toes and rapidly becoming snow blind. Five continued on to ‘The Cave’ but struggled to truly enjoy the salami and cheese presented by our guide that would have been far more edible in fairer weather. With all other teams aborting their summit bid we had to wonder if this was not meant to be. Our group of five became four and then soon after three as one member collapsed at the Canaletta, later telling us that he had no memory of the last few hours.
Together with Roman and Giuseppe we pushed on in the thin air and near white out conditions unable to see if the summit was 10 minutes or several hours above. After three more hours of hard climbing in deep snow without any reference whatsoever that we were progressing anywhere, the terrain simply leveled out to small a plateau featuring a small cross that looked suspiciously religious (thank god) and the job was done! Faced several times during the last 9 hours with a serious question of whether to turn around given the awful conditions, the relief to be standing on the summit was huge and I think I probably winded our poor guide with an enthusiastic hug. This was his 18th summit and apparently the toughest. Although disappointed to not share the summit with my other half, the spectacular aspect of this summit sat firmly within my mind and had nothing to do with the view that we could (or could not) enjoy.
The decent sapped the all remaining energy from Roman and Giuseppe, energy they no doubt thought had been expended hours earlier. 13 hours after we left Camp 3 we rolled back in and swiftly into our tents and sleeping bags. Both Roman and Giuseppe collapsed in their tents fully clothed while still wearing their packs and crampons, a testament to their impressive mental game that had got them down the mountain in such a state of fatigue. The next day we descended to the Base Camp and reunited with our injured team mates for some food, wine, champagne, whiskey and a sore head the following day.
This was the 5th of the 7 summits and a relief to chalk off. I would love to return one day to support Lucy having another crack in more favorable conditions however I’ve since gathered this will not be required. It turns out that not everyone enjoys weeks spent in thin and freezing air, tents, headaches, dehydrated meals on an upset stomach, heavy packs and no view at the end of it all.
Well that was January and now it is April and I am back in Nepal for Mt Everest, heading to Tibet tomorrow morning. I look forward to writing that blog and I promise not to leave it for 2 months.