20 Feb 2000 - by Helen Qian

Background: In 1995, my friend Katrin saw the video on Expedition Inspiration. She was inspired. If those women could climb Aconcagua, she thought, maybe we could as well. She enrolled me into climbing Aconcagua in 2000. We started our training. We learned self arrest, glacier travel, crevasse rescue and rock climbing. We climbed and attempted several California 14'ers. We climbed and attempted Orizaba. Now it's time. Our climb was Jan 31 - Feb. 20.

The group: Brant, lead guide; Jon, asst. guide; Rich and Jeff, friends, from Albuquerque; Jack, from San Diego; Katrin and I, from Pasadena.

Day 1, Arriving Mendoza, Argentina. Get climbing permit. Drive to Penitentes (~3 hrs). Stay at Hosteria de Penitentes, elev, ~8500'.

Our muleteers are busy with a few large groups. So we had to repack our bags: one goes to Confluencia with us the next day, the other goes up to the base camp a few days later.

Day 2, Hike to Confluencia (~6 miles, 3 hrs), elev. ~11,500'. The hike was pretty, the scenery was a lot greener than I had led to believe. But it is basically desert landscape with lots of cool metamorphic and volcanic rock formations.

Confluencia is not very big, but packed with tents and people. It's probably bigger than some base camps. It has a few permanent big tents. One is a "pub". The others are set up by trekking companies to service their customers.

Brant and Jon, our guides, were pampering us. We had "room service" for our dinner. But they warned us not to expect it once we get to the base camp.

Day 3, Day hike from Confluencia. We're staying at Confluencia one more day than most people to help with acclimatization. Took a day hike to one of the side valleys. Again, beautiful rock formations and we saw a guanaco in the distance on our way back.

For the last two days, the weather was very nice in the morning. Then the clouds start to gather around 3 or 4 pm. Then it would start to hail. The hails have the consistency of Styrofoam.

Day 4, Hike to Plaza de Mulas, base camp (~12 miles, 6.5 hrs), elev. ~14,000'. The hike is long and mostly flat, except for the last section. I was very glad to see the base camp.

A group of Japanese rode in on the mules. They passed us just before the base camp. I think they stayed in the hotel near the base camp. I just learned that we'll be staying there on our last night.

There are pit toilets everywhere. Some are a bit more tolerable than others. There are also many pits from previous years covered by rocks. There were at least 3 old pit within 10 ft of my tent. Even with the pit toilets, there're still toilet paper and scat everywhere.

A new addition to Mulas this year is the "Eco Toilet". It uses wind and solar energy to dry the waste. And it has a solar hot shower as well. It costs $20 to use the toilet and $10 for a shower, or $25 for one shower and all the toilet use while you're there. I was glad to pay and happy to walk the extra distance to use it.

Like in Confluencia, there are many permanent tents at Mulas. Some of them play bad music late into the night.

Day 5, Carry to Camp Canada. We carried up all the gear that we'll only use at our high camp. There are a lot of people on the mountain. The group of Japanese were leap frogging us almost all the way. They were not carrying any packs.

We left a tent up at Canada, dumped our gear and came down. It started hailing again. But it started to clear up around sunset.

Jack told us that tomorrow would be his last day on the trip. I was surprised. He seemed very strong to me.

Day 6, Carry to Camp Canada. The wind started last night and this morning there's a lenticular cap on the summit: viente blanco. Not a good summit day.

This time we carried all the food we'll be needing on the mountain. I seem to have felt worse at Canada. And I was not the only one. According to Brant, most people he guided seem to feel bad on that day. So I guess I was right on schedule.

Jack elaborated in the morning that he's not used to sleeping in tents and that he didn't think he could stand doing that any longer. <

p> Day 7, Optional carry to Nido del Condores. The boys went up to Canada, and took most of the climbing equipment up to Nido. Katrin and I took our time getting up to Canada. After a break, we got up to Camp Alaska before meeting the guys on their way down. I had a headache from Canada up. Soup and "vitamin I" cleared the headache in no time.

Day 8, Rest day. I was looking forward to this day. Time to take it easy, poke around and take a hot shower.

Katrin and I tried to get close to the penitentes. We heard a loud cheer coming from the direction of the hotel. Saw a group of people standing on a ridge near the hotel and 3 people on the trail towards them. Later on, we learned that 3 Italians just broke the speed record. It took them 3:40 to get to the top from the hotel, and 4:52 round trip. That's quite impressive. That's near 9,000' of elevation gain in less than 4 hours. That's a feat even if you start at sea level.

The hot shower felt wonderful. Nacio, who takes care of the Eco Toilet, claims it's the highest hot shower in the world.

Just before dinner, I heard a loud roar like a jet engine. Even though I couldn't say the word right away, I sort of instinctive knew what it was. I grabbed the camera, jumped out of the tent. But I was too late for a good picture. The avalanche debris went behind a ridge.

We're now in the mountain for a week, and we're still at the base camp. I guess that's part of the expedition climbing. You need to have a lot of patience.

Day 9, Move up to Camp Canada, elev. ~16,000'. Finally, we're moving up. If I thought the base camp was dirty. Camp Canada was even worse. There are turds behind every rock. When we have our tent door open, the "fragrance" waft through.

I was glad to see that Brant had a system for us, so we don't have to contribute to the mess. Our system is similar to the "Nature Calls" system used on the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek. We use heavy duty paper towels as target. Then throw the whole thing into a garbage bag. We'll carry the bag down the mountain with us. The waste will be deposited in the Eco Toilet.

Day 10, Carry to Nido del Condores. It was a nice day. Having a nice view of the upper mountain, I start to feel we're getting somewhere. I kept looking up trying to find the Canaleta and the traverse below it.

The wind picked up at night. Without a doubt, the windiest I've ever experienced in a tent. The gusts try to flatten the tent wall on top of me. I can hear the rocks shift under the strain of the guy lines. Went out a couple of times to reset and reinforce the guy lines. Had to try very hard not to get pushed down wind.

Day 11, Move to Nido del Condores, elev, ~17,500'. The wind was still blowing in the morning, although not as strong. A lenticular cloud capped the summit. Small puffy clouds were stretched out by wind into fantastic shapes as they got closer to the mountain. It looked as if someone was blowing giant soap bubbles.

Day 12, Storm day. The wind only got stronger. Brant called it a weather day. But he and Jon did a carry anyways to Berlin. The clients, Jeff, Rich, Katrin and I, played cards. When we got tired of that, we played Pictionary.

A few tents was shredded in the morning. Some people packed up and went down.

Day 13, Storm day 2. The wind didn't die down. And the sun wasn't coming out when I expected. We were near the bottom of the cloud ceiling. The ceiling dropped as the day went on. Around noon, moisture were precipitating out of the wind. Ice plastered on every thing in the way.

We heard voices outside. Some people were moving up in this weather! But they were pretty frazzled by then. We interrupted our card game and helped them putting up the tent. But the time we got back in the tent, our jackets, hair and eye brows are coated with ice.

Then it started to snow. The wind blew snow into the vestibule and in between the tent walls. Our packs in the vestibule were covered by 6 inches of snow.

Day 14, Move up to Berlin Camp, elev. ~19,000'. The morning was clear, calm and beautiful. The upper mountain was coated white. After we settled into camp, it started to snow again. We heard thunders in the distance. But it was very calm. The snow fell for a few hours, then stopped just before sunset.

We all try to get some sleep before the 3 am wake-up time. But crammed 3 in a tent plus being at this altitude for the first time, I hardly slept at all.

Day 15, Summit day. Got up at 3 am. It was calm and clear, but bitterly cold. The stars were brilliant and we saw lights from Santiago and Valparaiso (?) in the distance. For the first time on this trip, I had no appetite. Forced down some cereal. Everyone was ready by 4:30.

There was 4-6 inches of fresh snow on the ground. It obliterated all traces of the trail. It was a good thing that Brant knows the way. We broke trail all the way.

The daylight dawned around White Rocks. We got to Independencia hut shortly after the sunrise. Took a long break there. Trying to eat, drink, putting on harnesses and crampons. My thoughts were mainly on food and water. I was having trouble putting on my harness, yet I was sharp enough to admonish Jeff for leaving trash. I didn't realize my mental deficiency until we all roped up and ready to go.

I kept on going. I was glad that we were roped up, so all I had to do was to concentrate on the rope in front of me and Brant's footprints. We went across the Windy Crest, onto the traverse. Somewhere on the Gran Acarreo, we lost the trail. Each step we took, the loose rock and gravel under our feet shifted. That seemed to be too much for my hypoxic brain to handle. I felt very out of it. I decided to turn around when we got back on trail. (The altitude there was probably around 21,500', plus or minus.)

Jeff and Brant made to the summit around 2:30pm. Rich got up around 3pm. All of them got back to camp around 6:30.

The group of Japanese we saw a few days ago are also making the summit attempt. They had porters to take their stuff up to Berlin for them.

Day 16, Go down. Packed up Berlin Camp. Went down to Nido. Picked up stuff left at Nido. Went down to Mulas. My pack was probably the heaviest I've ever carried. I took the "fast" way down. But my legs couldn't move fast enough under the weight. Fell on my butt several times.

It was a flea market at Mulas. The local base camp workers knew we just came off the mountain. They want to buy our gear. But they don't just want any ol' gear. They have an eye for the latest and the best.

The hot shower was wonderful, even though we had to put our dirty clothes back on. The next best thing was we were to stay at the hotel for the night.

The hotel is about 20 minutes walk away from the base camp. It is quite impressive. The dining room has flags and t-shirts from previous expeditions hanging from the roof. I had cheese omelet for dinner. It was the best omelet I've ever tasted.

Day 17, Hike out. The 18 mile hike seemed it would never end. We got out at around 3pm. Then drove back to Mendoza. Had dinner at the wonderful buffet restaurant Las Tinajas. Highly recommended if you ever go to Mendoza.

Day 18-20, Mendoza The guys all left on the first day. Katrin and I stayed on. We toured wineries, visited markets, bought souvenirs, watched street concerts and puppet shows and relaxed in the park.

Day 20-21, fly home. It was too soon. Now I need a new goal to look forward to.

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