Aconcagua in one day from base camp

14-18 Feb 2004 - by Peter Bakwin

I came to the homeland of the martyred revolutionary doctor Ernesto "Che" Guevara not on some bohemian pilgrimage, not seeking material for my own "Motorcycle Diaries", but rather to persue a more pedestrian type of adventure in which Che himself also dabbled -- alpinism. Having, unlike Che, survived the jungles of Bolivia (though ample opportunity presented for our demise there!) I came to Argentina with another revolutionary free-thinker and iconoclast (one happily not martyred), Buzz Burrell. We came to climb Aconcagua, the "Stone Sentinal" of 22,841 feet, the highest peak in all the Americas, indeed the highest peak outside of the Himalayas.

Buzz and I arrived at Base Camp (14,300 feet) on Saturday evening after a 15+ mile slog up the stunning, huge Horcones Valley. Base Camp, known as Plaza de Mulas, is an amazing tent city that includes all manner of facillities for the climber: restaurants and snack bars, outfitters, etc. We elected to stay in the even more amazing hotel -- a 90 bed establishment with full kitchen, satellite telephones, internet access, and more. Buzz & I have done all kinds of outdoor adventures and if theres one thing we agree on its that we both hate camping, especially in a windy, stark alpine environment. Our plan for the peak was simple: Wait for good weather and tag the summit in one quick push from Base Camp. This, we knew, would require a long day: the route is about the same length as the Keyhole Route on Longs Peak in our home state of Colorado (14,254 feet), but gains 8,500 feet (vs. less than 5,000 on Longs) and starts at an altitude a bit higher than the summit of Longs!

The wind raged blowing plumes of snow off the summit. Aconcagua is an infamously cold and windy peak, known for the deadly Viento Blanco. On Monday we made an attempt but were pinned down at only 17,500 feet by the cold and wind. Still, it was a useful outing as it gave us the exact beta we needed to tweak our plan for summit day. Unfortunately, it was Buzz's last chance as he had been victim of a theft and needed to retreat to Buenos Aires to get a new passport. After 9 hours on the mountain Buzz jammed his gear into his backpack and literally ran 15+ miles down the valley in less than 5 hours, making the last bus back to Mendoza by just 5 minutes.

I was left to face the mountain alone. I resolved to take a rest day and make my attempt on Weds. Tuesday night the wind shook the hotel and I almost abandonded my bid even before getting out of bed! But, at 3 a.m. I stepped out into the thin, crisp air. The night was crystal clear with billions of stars illuminating the forbidding peaks all around. I climbed totally alone, since most climbers attempt the summit from high camps at 17,500 or 19,000 feet no one else was out yet.

Back at 17,500 conditions were just as Buzz and I had experienced two days earlier, or maybe even colder. Huddled behind a rock I nearly froze my hands while working to insert chemical heat packs into my shoes. Double boots are required by regulation on Aconcagua, but we elected to use light-weight hiking shoes instead. I used the Montrail Storm GTX (18 oz), and my shoes were oversized to allow for extra socks and heat packs. We reasoned that these shoes would allow us to move more quickly than bulky plastic boots, and that as long as we kept moving our feet would stay warm. For a while I wondered if this was a big mistake, but my toes remained passably warm.

Moving up to the Berlin Camp at 19,000 feet was difficult due to the wind and cold. The camp was an amazing sight -- tents were absolutely ripped by wind. The previous day I had met a russian climber who was so discouraged by a night here that he sold his sleeping bag and abandoned the mountain a week early (he was kind enough to give me some of his extra food). If anything would convince me of the wisdom of our "one big push" plan it was seeing Berlin Camp.

Above Berlin the wind continued, nearly knocking me down several times. I was thinking "this is almost as bad as Mt. Audobon", indeed Aconcagua might be considered excellent training for climbing Colorado's high peaks in winter! My toes were cold but not frozen, though some other climbers with double boots were already descending, complaining of frost-bitten feet. In a stiff boot your feet dont flex and so they get cold.

I reached the Refugio Independencia at 21,000 feet just as the sun climbed over the high ridge to my left. Independencia is a tiny, ruined hut that was once reportedly the highest permanent building in the world. All the way up I was hoping for warmer conditions when the sun came out. If the cold continued (and worsened with altitude) I knew I would not reach the summit. Thankfully, as soon as the sun was up the wind also substantially died, and conditions were suddenly quite reasonable! It was still bitter cold, but with less wind it was totally survivable.

Up up up. After 4 weeks acclimating in the mountains of Peru and Bolivia the only thing I noticed about the altitude was that I had to walk slower as I went ever higher. At 22,000 feet I was pausing briefly after each step in order to get enough air.

At 21,800 feet the route enters the dreaded Canaletta, a 1000 foot chute of horrible shifting scree. It is said you slide back one step for every two forward. But not today! The Canaletta was completely filled with snow, with not one loose rock! Indeed, from Independencia to the summit I was on snow all the way. I used light-weight Kahtoola crampons (9oz each) and treking poles that I borrowed from Buzz.

I reached the summit of Aconcagua at 12:20, 9 hours and 20 minutes after leaving the hotel and about 9 hours from base camp at Plaza de Mulas. Wow! But, perhaps the main thing I felt up there was huge disappointment that my dear friend Buzz could not share the moment with me. The plan we developed together worked perfectly and I was really sorry that Buzz could not share in the success and sense of accomplishment.

Some notes about climbing Aconcagua:

One thing we learned about South America is that getting reliable beta is extremely difficult to impossible. You just have to take your best guess and go ahead and try to do it, adjusting your plan as necessary. Or use an outfitter and let them take care of the details, which we did not want to do.

The keys are fitness and acclimatization, definitely. Our plan for acclimating was basically to have a fun trip in Peru and Bolivia for the previous month. We started with a week in Cusco (11,000 feet) with excursions up to 14,500 or so. We also hiked the Inca Trail and stayed a while in the Urubamba Valley, with additional hikes/runs up to 16,000 feet. Then we took the bus over to Lake Titicaca (12,500) and La Paz (13,000) where we spent another week. We tried to climb Huayna Potosi but only got to 18,500 or so due to poor conditions and bad guiding. Prior to the ascent of Aconcagua I spent 4 nights at Base Camp (14,300) and did one hike to 16,000 and another to 17,500 during that time. This seems like a really good overall plan: we had a really fun trip and got acclimated in the process! Most people spend a couple of weeks on Aconcagua to acclimate, but if you are not climbing there's pretty much nothing to do & its a very bleak and cold place.

Prior to this trip my altitude PR was set on Whitney (14,500 feet).

We did not use a guide, outfitter or tour company and none was needed. But, there are plenty available in Mendoza. You can also hire mules to carry your stuff in and out from Base Camp. You can purchase food at base camp but it is expensive. It is also pretty easy to get food from departing climbers who have extra. Since we stayed in the hotel we did not need a tent or heavy sleeping bags, just lightweight down bags, so we carried all our own stuff into and out of Base Camp.

The hotel charged $17 per night for a bunk in a dorm, which is expensive when compared to the $2 - $10 per night we spent everywhere else in South America. They also charged $15 for a nice dinner.

There is a big sign in the permit office stating that double boots are required above Base Camp but we did not bring them and nobody checked.

I used a small day pack. I wore Montrail Storm GTX hiking shoes (high top, 18oz) about 1 size too big. I used 3 pairs of socks and chemical heat packs in the shoes. I also used chemical heat packs in my mittens, those things really work! On my legs I had a pair of heavy fleece longjohns, a pair of lighter capiline longjohns and a pair of wind pants. Up top I had 5 layers of various weights with the outer layer being a standard, lightweight GoreTex shell with hood. I had a fleece balaclava with a built-in face mask -- the face mask was absolutely critical! Over that I wore another fleece hat and the hood of my shell, and I used ski goggles during the daytime. I also had a down vest in my pack which I didn't need. I had Kahtoola crampons which I used above 21,000 and I used hiking poles which I never used before but were extremely helpful on this climb & I would highly recommend them. I did not have or want and ice ax. Since I started hiking at 3 a.m. I used a strong incandescent head lamp and carried a LED headlamp as a spare.

I carried (and drank) about 3 liters of water. I had 70oz in a camelback which I wore inside my clothing on the front of my body. I also had two 750 ml plastic bottles that I wrapped in insulation and put inside my pack.

It took me 9 hours from Plaza de Mulas to the summit. This was steady, slow climbing. I took 4.5 hours to get down, but that was very casual and I could easily have descended in 3 hours. If you are fit and acclimated Aconcagua in one day is entirely reasonable.

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