Aconcagua via Routa Normal

15 Dec - 13 Jan 1994 - by Mark Adrian

CERRO ACONCAGUA, Argentina - 22,841' High Point of the Americas December 15, 1993 -- January 10, 1994

A Private Expedition Bill Rundle (Leader) , Bill Hill, Mark Adrian, Dave Jurasevich Fred Bright, Richard Carey, Shelley Rogers

It was early summer, 1993, when Dave called to invite me along on Cerro Aconcagua. We had done the Mexican Volcanoes two years before, so all of us, except Bill Hill, had previous high altitude experience. After doing some research on the peak, and getting an overview on the logistics, I anxiously committed myself. Shelley, Richard, and I, made early reservations to fly from LAX to Buenos Aires, and then to Mendoza, where we would rendezvous with the remainder of the group. It took me several months to prepare for this expedition. Not only was I out hiking HPS, DPS, and SPS peaks with Terry Flood every weekend for about six months, but, I had to procure numerous pieces of new equipment. Of crucial importance, was a new, -20, TNF sleeping bag.

12/15 : Finally, departure day! The three of us hired a shuttle from SD to LAX to catch the Aerolineas Argentinas red-eye to Buenos Aires. Unfortunately, Shelley discovered she had an expired Passport at the ticket counter. She had to fly back to San Diego, get her current Passport, and then taxi back, again, to LAX. She just barely made the flight with only a minute to spare. It was a long flight, with only one stop in Mexico City. We spent a night in B.A., and had time the next day to do some sight seeing before our connecting flight to Mendoza.

12/17 : Arriving in Mendoza, we taxied to the Hotel Balbi ($25/night/person @ three to a room), downtown, where we met the rest of the group. That evening, we met with Senor Grajales, the Muleteer, who established our travel arrangements from Mendoza to the trailhead at Puenta del Inca. Each of us paid $180 for his services, which included, mule/duffle portage to and from Plaza de Mulas, transportation to and from Puenta del Inca, and two nights at Puenta's Hosteria. The next day (12/18) we procured food, fuel and $80 climbing permits (NO EKG needed).

From Mendoza, it is a four hour drive on International Hwy 7 to Puenta del Inca (8950'), a small village near the Chilean border. This is the staging point for the Routa Normal, where duffles are loaded onto mules. From Puenta, it is a three kilometer walk on Hwy 7 to the dirt road turnoff for Parque Provincial Aconcagua's entrance. Another one kilometer walk along this dirt road brings you to the Park's unassuming "entrance", a Ranger tent.

12/19 : Our shuttle/van departed the Hotel Balbi about 9. We drove about 45 minutes to the first of several Policia checkpoints, where, we were directed to turn back because we didn't have the necessary paperwork for the van. Back in rural Mendoza, we swapped vans, and were once again on our way, this time, passing through the checkpoint. The drive westward on Hwy 7 is moderately scenic as it winds through the Andes, passing through several villages and more Policia checkpoints. However, another van problem erupted and we had to stop and repair a broken throttle cable. Eventually, we arrived at Puenta, mid-afternoon, where we settled into the modest Hosteria.

12/20 : We spent the day resting and preparing our duffles for the mules. Several of us walked 4Km to the trailhead, but were disappointed by clouded summit views.

12/21 : Finally, we were on the trail! We left Puenta, with "lite" packs, about 9, and were at the Ranger's tent (10,000') by 10:30. Here, you submit your permit and are issued serial numbered trash bags, which, must be filled and returned, on your exit. Leaving the Ranger's tent, the dirt road eventually narrows into a trail which bridges across the raging Rio Horcones. It is a four mile hike in to the first camp at La Confluencia, 11,200'. Numerous tents occupy this campsight, and we were neighbors with a team from the Royal Hong Kong Police, a great group of hikers. As it turned out, they were to shadow us up the mountain and back. That afternoon, it clouded over and lightly snowed, then, cleared up with great views all around.

12/22 : This was a tough, 15 mile, 7.5 hour day, up to 14,400' Plaza de Mulas base camp. The hike included some awesome scenery as we passed through the lifeless and eerie Horcones Valley. It seemed a mile at the widest and is reminiscent of many DPS washes, less vegetation. The Valley's walls are capped with 5K meter peaks. Their impressive colors and patterns of twisted metamorphic rock are striking. As the Valley narrows, the wide Rio Horcones becomes deeper and "wet" crossings are inevitable. The Valley then curves to the NE, and views of the "crowned" Cerro Catedral, Glacier Horcones Superior and Cerro Cuerno come into view, reinforcing the immensity of this vast desert landscape. Rather than camp at Mulas, our group decided to utilize the Hotel Refugio, another half mile and three penitente crossings (snow bridges) away. The Refugio is more of a rustic hostel/barracks than a hotel. Although, the hot showers and meals eased the acclimatization process. We enjoyed our stay there and became friends with the concierge, Marcello.

12/23 : After a typical Argentinean breakfast of toast, jam and coffee, we did some equipment and food shuffling for the next day's carry to La Canada (15,700'). That afternoon, Dave, Shelley and myself did a day hike past La Canada to 16,000'. After dinner, Richard and I tried to contact the States using the Refugio's shortwave Yaesu radio, without success.

12/24 : After breakfast, we were on the trail at 9:30 for our first carry to La Canada with 50-60 pound packs. I arrived at Canada at 11:30, with the last of the group there by 12:15. We left at 2:10 and were back at the Refugio by 3:15. During this evening, I experienced Cheyen Stokes breathing while sleeping, not a pleasant experience.

12/25 : Another rest day at the Refugio before moving to La Canada. In the afternoon, I went to explore the Horcones Glacier's tongue, where, I encountered two German ice climbers practicing their skills. After a quiet and uneventful Christmas dinner, Richard and I tried to contact the States again on the shortwave, without success.

12/26 : Moved camp to La Canada, 15,700'. Dave fell out at about 15,000' due to chest pains, which, we would later discover, was Pulmonary Edema. He decided to return to the Refugio for another night's rest. From here on up, I would tent with the two Bills in their TNF VE- 24.

12/27 : Dave radioed to communicate he's going home. Remainder of the group proceeds to carry to Nido del Condores, 17,500'. A long series of switchbacks levels off and then crosses a significant low-angled snow field up to Nido's plateau. A more direct scree route bypasses the switchbacks on return to Canada.

12/28 : Moved camp to Nido, where, it was clear, but very windy. Impressive views to the NE of Fitzerald, Ameghino and the Vacas Glacier. Nido is a large, flat, but rocky plateau, about a half-mile square. To the SE is the Peak and Gran Accareo, and to the NE the plateau drops off into the Vacas Glacier's "valley".

12/29 : Rest day at Nido. Didn't do a lot this day, other than enjoy great views in the summer-like weather. Fred aborted and went back to the Refugio to wait for us. He complained of a chronic headache and not feeling well. Three volunteers from a mountaineering club were busy around Nido cleaning up trash left by previous expeditions. At least a dozen trash bags were neatly stacked nearby, yet, mounds of uncollected trash remained exposed, ready to be bagged. We later saw them up at Berlin doing more cleanup.

12/30 : Carry to Berlin, 19,500'. Saw a very sick climber en route to Berlin, who was suffering from severe altitude sickness. His limp body was being assisted down by four men. We were told he ascended too quickly, without rest days. I radioed Fred from Berlin to have him inform the Mulas doctor of his descent. Four decrepit huts occupy the small area at Berlin. Again, we encountered the cleanup crew here. The fumes from old butane cartridges and other assorted garbage was strong and made me more light-headed than the lack of oxygen. Saw a dead dog's skeleton lieing on a rock. Sunny with great views and mild breezes.

12/31 : Moved camp to Berlin and made a cache at Nido. I felt light headed, so I began taking Diamox. Was feeling much better in about half an hour. Two Argentinean climbers were descending and mentioned they didn't need crampons or ice axe. We would do our summit bid the next day.

1/1 : Summit day! Up at 6 AM. I ate two Pop Tarts for breakfast and they almost immediately came back up. Sugar on an empty stomach at 20K' just doesn't seem to work for me. They continued to come up for about an hour more (dry heaves!). After a poor night's sleep with a mild stomach ache, I needed all the food I could get. Unfortunately, my appetite was near nil by now. Nevertheless, in zero-degree temperatures, we were off at 6:50. I was hiking most of the day in seven layers : 4 polypro, 1 fleece, 1 Thinsulate parka and a Goretex shell for the torso and two poly layers on the legs. My feet (in Koflach ice boots and Neoprene socks) and hands were cold for several hours until they warmed up. We passed Independencia's hut (21,320') about 10:30, then up a few more switchbacks to traverse a 100' steep-angled snow patch, which brought us to the traverse into the dreaded Canaleta. The mile-long traverse is easy, but, looking nearly 8,000' down the Gran Accareo is breathtaking. Once into the bottom of the Canaleta, the good trail starts to fray and the seemingly infinite power-slog begins. The Canaleta is about 1500' of 40-45 degree loose talus and sand, which, I'd classify as moderate class two most of the way, with a lot of two- up-one-back steps. Cramponing would have made this much more tolerable. It was completely bare of snow during our visit. We were advised to stay to the right for "best" traction and to avoid rockfall. Nevertheless, it was the hardest 1500' I've ever climbed. At near 22,000', Richard was experiencing chest pains and exhaustion, so he decided to abort and return to Berlin. Meanwhile, it was a slow trudge to the summit's ridge at 22,500'. The Canaleta took about three hours, or 500'/hour to climb, with numerous breaks. I only ate a mouthful of chocolate and a half liter of water in the Canaleta. My mind was focused on the summit, and eating was a necessary annoyance. Bill Hill took a 100 pound rock fall in his upper right leg which left him moderately bruised. He was 300' below me, following a "sloppy" European group. Once on the summit's ridge, we encountered view- obscuring clouds/fog, but, could easily see the summit about a quarter mile and 300' (vertical) away. This would take us about another hour. Shelley had moved on to the summit while Bill R. and I kick-stepped our way across the summit ridge's snow pack to eventually move on to an "easy" talus walk to the top. Bill Hill was about a half hour behind Bill R. and myself. The summit was so close, but, ironically, I've never hiked any slower. One step, rest your head on your ski pole and breathe for ten seconds, then, another step, slowly, surely, the summit's cross came within reach -- SUCCESS! I was there! Within another half hour, Bill Hill reached the summit, completing our team's arrival. Unfortunately, with intermittent clouds, our views were obscured, but, we knew we were on top, and it felt GOOD. After congratulations, handshakes, hugs, and pictures, we left the summit at 5. The Canaleta is as tiring going down as it is climbing up. I put my ski poles away and donned my $1.96 DPS leather gardening gloves as it reminded me of descending many a rock-strew DPS wash. Fortunately, I guess, there were no cactus or brush hazards here. After slipping and sliding around the Canaleta for an hour or so, we were finally back on "solid" trail. Rock fall is a constant threat as Bill R. had a near miss. Rocks come from so far up, you can't hear when a climber yells. Even if you do, you can't tell from what direction a rock is coming, and it takes a lot of energy to make an effective evasive maneuver. From the bottom of the Canaleta, the hike back to Berlin took a couple of hours and we arrived there at 7:45. So, our total day's effort was thirteen hours. I'd estimate the day's stats. at eight miles round trip, 3300' gain. with 41% oxygen (on the summit) of that at sea level. We were also informed, that due to an atmospheric anomaly, the barometric pressure at the summit reads as 24,000'. Although we were all tired, Richard and I prepared a hot Ramen noodle dinner, which, at this point, tasted exceptionally good. We were all in bed and asleep by 9.

1/2 : Waiting until 9 for the sun, it took us two hours to eat and then pack for the descent to Nido to pickup our cache and return to Mulas. To say the least, our loads were heavy and bulky. We took the quick way down from Nido to Canada, utilizing the "porter's" route, a sandy path, bypassing the "normal" switchbacks. Shelley and I, ahead of the others, strolled through the carnival-like Mulas "tent city" about 2:30 and arrived at the Refugio at 3:30 where we had lunch, met Fred, and waited for the others. It was then, we learned of a 29-year-old German girl's death. Apparently, she had done a carry to Nido, returned to Mulas with some problem(s), given drugs, and then died during the night. We saw her body being carried out with our duffles the next day. It was great to be back at low altitude and the hot showers and meals at the Refugio. We spent the remainder of the afternoon readying our duffles for mule portage to Puenta del Inca. That evening, we had a much-deserved feast and celebration. We also placed our team's "signature" in the climbing register, and tacked a "flag" on the Refugio's wall, alongside numerous others.

1/3 : It was a long, long walk out to Puenta del Inca. We left the Refugio at 10 and hiked straight there, nearly twenty miles away, arriving about 7. The Ranger checked our permits at the trailhead, and then it was a painful walk on pavement down to the Hosteria as we caught our final glimpses of Aconcagua in the setting sun. We all had sore, achy feet, especially Bill R's., who had the biggest power-blisters I've ever seen -- toe-to-heel, they were impressive. After a quick snack at the Hosteria's restaurant, a van picked us up and we were loaded and on the road to Mendoza by 9. It was a long and winding road in the dark, through pouring rain, hail, lightening, thunder and rock slides across the road. Fortunately, NONE of this bad weather had moved in while we were climbing. Finally, back at the Balbi, several of us went for some dinner and I was in bed by 2 -- a long day indeed!

1/4 : Relaxed! Packed up gear and cleaned up body, ate and drank. Fred, Bill R. and Bill H. arranged to leave tomorrow for home. Big dinner tonight. Bill R. spoke with Dave and learned that he had Pulmonary Edema and is recovering. Was good he decided to go down when he did. Richard, Shelley and myself stayed to tour Mendoza. Will leave Mendoza on 1/8/94.


P.S. This report is/are the highlights, and is somewhat terse. If you have any questions about details I have missed, don't hesitate to contact me for more information.

For those interested in planning and executing their own logistics to climb Cerro Aconcagua, I'm including additional information as requested by the Sage Editor. First though, I should mention that, most, if not all, of the planning research, was done by our expedition leader, Bill Rundle, a Santa Clara, CA resident and RMI colleague of Dave Jurasevich. Subsequently, much of Bill Rundle's guidance and information came from native Argentinean and California-based, Miguel Helft, a senior guide with the British- owned Out There Trekking, who recommended muleteer Senor Grajalas. Bill made numerous FAX communications (FAX no. 0115461-293830) to the Mendoza-based muleteer, Senor Fernando Grajales. As Bill's assistant, Dave published and delivered several high-quality newsletters with lucid details as information became available.

My airline reservations were made through Tessi Travel Consultants Inc. at 133 East 30th Street, NY, NY 10016 1-800-223- 2178. They had the best rate for round trip tickets on Aerolineas Argentinas from LAX to Mendoza at $1139. The 747 flight down stopped in Mexico City (for an hour) and then went on to Buenos Aires where we spent a night in a downtown hotel. Then, the next afternoon, we took an 1.5 hour non-stop 737 flight (out of the second of B.A.'s two airports) to Mendoza. On return, we flew from Mendoza to B.A., arranged a (free, airline provided) shuttle to B.A.'s international airport, then took the flight to LAX, stopping in Lima, Peru, and Mexico City. The other "half" of our group went via Santiago and Miami. Either way, it's a long flight, with a five hour time difference between LA and Mendoza.

To get some background on the Mountain, I ordered the book : Aconcagua : The Stone Sentinel -- Perspectives of an Expedition, by Thomas E. Taplin, from Chessler Books, $18, 200 pp w/24 photos and maps. 1-800-654-8502. The book is entertaining as it chronicles viewpoints (perspectives) of each of the expedition's participants. Their trip does not go too well, as several of the members summit amidst a couple of accidents. The pictures give a good overview, and the maps are adequate for the Routa Normal (the "easiest" of the fourteen routes available on the peak). But, don't expect USGS 7.5 minute topo quality.

We used Mendoza-based Senor Fernando Grajales as our muleteer. From what I could understand, he seemed to be the senior (no pun intended) porterage coordinator and did some subcontracting to provide porter services, e.g. the shuttle between Puenta del Inca and Mendoza. Senor Grajales met us at our hotel (Hotel Balbi in Mendoza, $25/night/person @ three to a room) and was very cordial, professional and tolerant of our poor Spanish. He explained all the logistics concerning our transportation and duffle porterage to Plaza de Mulas. Except for a small glitch with the shuttle van's paperwork, the travel and porterage arrangements went flawlessly. Our duffles were never lost and were always awaiting OUR arrival between destinations. Only a couple of empty fuel bottles were dented/punctured (on return) due to the rough mule ride. One interesting contrast to the Sierra mule "trains" I've encountered, is, that, they let their mules RUN free. That is, they're not harnessed together in formation. At Puenta del Inca (the point where you don your pack and start to hike the 40Km to Plaza de Mulas), our duffles were consolidated and we stored "street luggage" in a locked "shed" behind the Hosteria. It is here, that, another level of Muleteer "management", Senor Andres, weighs and disseminates the duffles amongst the mules. Additional mules may be added at this time since Senor Grajales can only roughly estimate your needs in Mendoza. Once the mules are loaded, the actual "grunt" mule drivers take over. The portage to Senor Grajales was $180/person. This included (round trip), taxi service between Mendoza's airport and the Hotel Balbi, van transportation between Mendoza and Puenta del Inca, two nights at the modest Hosteria in Puenta, and duffle porterage to/from the Refugio at Plaza de Mulas. The Hosteria at Puenta del Inca has a small, but adequate restaurant, with many colorful expedition banners tacked to its walls. Take extra food if you plan eating there on your own. Breakfast (toast, jam and coffee) comes with the room; lunches are from $5 to $15, dinners are $20, and the menu offers few choices. The rooms at the Hosteria "fit" four, and are complete with hot showers. Nearby is a post office and several souvenir and snack shacks. Across the highway is a Policia outpost (a sign warns you not to take pictures of the facility), and about two kilometers west, across the Rio Horcones, on Int. Hwy. 7, is a new, large, domed, border/vehicle checkpoint, complete with pay phones if you want to call home from this remote outpost. The Hosteria's payphone was broke during our visit.

About six months prior to our departure, Richard Carey contacted the Argentinean equivalent of the US's FCC to obtain visitors' HAM radio licenses. Since four of the seven members in our team were HAM radio operators, we thought this prudent. There was no fee to obtain the license(s). All but Dave received a "guest" call sign - mine was KD6LDK/LU (the LU specifying Argentinean regionality). We saw several teams using radios on the mountain. We used our two-meter handy-talkies extensively to coordinate activities and communicate welfare information between the summit team and those who descended. I was even able to talk to Fred, at the Refugio, from the summit.

To travel to Argentina, politically, we needed only our United States Passport. Keep your passport on your person, ALWAYS! We encountered several Policia checkpoints en route to Puenta del Inca, and it's crucial for any unexpected id checks. Furthermore, you'll need it for your permit, and most importantly, to leave Argentina ($13 exit fee required) and return to the USA. To travel into Parque Provincial Aconcagua (The Mountain), we needed to obtain $80 permits, no EKG was needed (then, but they have been required in the past). The permits were (are) conveniently obtained at a government office, Subsecretaria de Turismo, a short walk from the Hotel Balbi in downtown Mendoza.

I had several prophylactic inoculations : Hepatitis, Typhoid Fever and Yellow Fever. Since this was summer time in South America, and there was lots of (Andes run off) water flowing through the canals of Mendoza, most of us incurred mosquito bites. You should also consider Polio and Tetanus boosters. Contact the CDC for the latest recommendations prior to your departure. Also, I took a "fresh" prescription of Codeine-laced Tylenol and a "new" high altitude drug recommended by my doctor, Nifedipine (puncture one capsule and leave under tongue for severe shortness of breath). Last, but not least, I took the standard "third world drugs" : Pepto Biz, Sulfa, and Lomotil - fortunately, I had only one minor stomach ache the entire trip, no TD.

Mendoza is a very accommodating city of about one million people. The downtown area is the center of town with many goods and services available. You can readily purchase white gas (bencina blanca) at hardware stores and the Super Mercados are as well stocked as any in the States. However, take any "specialty" foods you feel might be unavailable. Once you leave Mendoza for Puenta, supplies are scarce. Numerous cambios (money exchangers) will convert travelers checks for a small fee. Several of us needed to use our credit cards for a cash advance. We had to hunt around for an accommodating bank to do this, and found, Banco de Buci. The "street scene" in Mendoza is carnival-like, as the tree- lined streets are peppered with many and varied sidewalk cafes. Eating out is more expensive than in the States, with a typical Argentinean breakfast of croissants and cafe/coffee costing between seven and ten dollars. We could have just as easily fed ourselves in the hotel rooms at a lot less cost. However, with the heavy Italian influence, you shouldn't pass over the opportunity to sample the many restaurants in the downtown area. Furthermore, Mendoza is a big wine producing area, with many nearby vineyards. Needless to say, we did our share of sampling this local product too.

Drink only bottled beverages, especially water (aka agua con gas). While on the mountain, we blew out a new PUR water filter. After about five gallons, it became incapable of dealing with the voluminous amount of silt/dirt in the penitente (snow) melt. As such, we resorted to melting snow (three stoves under one pot). We then filtered this through a second, functional, PUR filter, since the melt had many floaters and impurities. Alternatively, we occasionally used purification tablets (Hydroperiodide).

Costs (not including new equipment purchased here prior to departure) :

AIRFARE : $1139 GROUND COSTS : $1400 ------------------------- TOTAL : $2500 (+/-)


Grand Hotel Balbi Senor Fernando Grajales Avenida Las Heras 340 Jose F. Moreno 898 5500 Mendoza, Argentina 5500 Mendoza, Argentina Phone 061-233500 Phone/FAX 0115460-293930 FAX 0114561-380626

Regards, Mark

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