Aconcagua, the Normal Route

28 Dec - 16 Jan 2005 - by Dee Booth

After about 20 hours of flying and waiting in airports we arrived in Mendoza, Argentina on December 29th. Two days in this lovely town allowed us enough time to get our permits, white gas and pay a visit to Aymara, the tour company with which we had contracted to take our gear up to base camp. Participants on this trip were Lisa Barboza, John Wilkinson, Dima Nachayev, Yehuda Ben David, Warren and Dixie Storkman and me, Dee Booth.

To get the climbing permits for Aconcagua we took a long walk to General San Martin Park, to the CUBA Building at Los Robles and Rotonda del Rosedal streets. We all paid the $300 permit fee in U.S. dollars and the cashier scrutinized each bill using a black light to read the watermark. U.S. dollars will be taken in most places in Mendoza but they must be in tact, worn or torn bills will not be accepted.

Many of the mountaineering stores in Mendoza will have white gas for which we paid 10 pesos per liter. I carried 86 ounces of gas which proved to be well over what I used but then we were very lucky with the weather and did not have to wait out a storm, nor did we not have to melt snow for water as much as I had thought.

On December 31st a van from Aymara came to our hotel and picked us up for the drive to Punta del Inca where we spent New Years Eve. Once there, we got our duffel bags and backpacks packed then took the duffels over to the Aymara staging area to be weighed. 30 kg is the limit and most of us were well within this. The mules go directly up to Plaza de Mulas in one day while we took two days to get there, spending a night at Confluencia at about 11,000 feet.

After a fun New Years eve dinner at which Dixie Storkman provided horns, noise makers and streamers we trooped off to bed at 10:00 PM letting the climbers not beginning their climb in the morning to party all night.

We were given a ride to the trailhead where we showed our permits and were issued trash bags with our permit number written on them. On checking out after the climb we had to produce the trash bag or the permit with a signature proving we had left our trash bag with our tour company at base camp to be carried back down on the mules.

The walk to our first camp, Confluencia, is only about 3 to 4 miles and less than 2,000 feet of elevation gain. It is an established camp with each tour company providing toilet facilities, drinking water and a spot for your tent. When we checked in at the ranger station, I was surprised to have my oxygen saturation and heart rate measured. If you are over normal tolerances they will recommend you stay an extra day there to acclimatize. While this may seem controlling, if you are over exerted at Confluencia, it is possible you will get into trouble higher up. Most of the people in our group were fine so we decided to stick with our plan to hike up to Plaza de Mulas the next day.

From Confluencia Lisa, Dima and I walked part of the way up to Plaza de Francia, a pleasant excursion. We got a good look at the dirty glacier that feeds the Horcones River, took some pictures and returned to camp.

The next day at 8:00 AM we said goodbye to Warren Storkman and began our walk to Plaza de Mulas. Some sources say the mileage from the trailhead to Plaza de Mulas is 25 miles and some only 15. It was hard to tell but I think it is more on the order of 15 miles. However, they are hard miles. Once across the Horcones River just outside of Confluencia, you follow the river valley for many miles gaining elevation almost imperceptibly. The river bed is rocky and tedious with several use trails snaking through it. After a few river crossings the trail begins to go up more steeply, and at about 13,000 feet all traces of plant life disappear. Once across a moraine you reach a slippery, steep hill. At the top of this hill you can finally see some of the structures making up Plaza de Mulas and after a short distance you arrive. Most of us had run out of water and some were suffering from it. I had brought a filter but the silty water clogged it immediately.

There are people and tents everywhere in base camp. You can get beer, wine, meals, Internet use and even a massage. If you want a shower you can walk 20 minutes over to the hotel and pay $10 for a quick, moderately hot shower. One caveat here is that there are no public toilets so you must contract with a tour company to use their toilet facilities.

We stayed here three nights in order to acclimatize. On our last day we made our first carry to Camp Canada, some 2,000 feet higher. Arriving around late afternoon, we cached our gear in existing tent sites and rested for about an hour returning to Plaza de Mulas well before dark. The next day we left some items in our duffels with Aymara and moved up to Camp Canada.

This camp is on a promontory behind some pinnacles at about 16,000 feet. The flat part of this area is not very large and the first night two big guided groups were our neighbors. From here on up, there are no toilet facilities and you are encouraged to pack out your poop but it was clear to me that few actually do. Also, privacy is at a premium. At this camp, I realized how windy this mountain is and how important it would be to guy our tent securely. Not being able to drive stakes into the hard ground, and there being an abundance of rocks, we used them as anchors for the tent.

The next day we made a carry up to Nido de Condores at around 18,000 feet, and the following day we moved up. That day was the only day we had less than clear skies. There were clouds rolling across the sky all day and even a few snow flurries. Nido de Condores is a spacious camp but also exposed and the wind blows perpetually.

We decided not to move up to the next camp, Berlin, because it is a much smaller camp, appears to be very overused, and we had been told the snow is contaminated. For these reasons we decided to stay at Nido and summit from there.

Dima and I felt strong enough to make a summit attempt so the next day at 6:00 AM we started up the trail to Berlin Camp. It was very cold and windy, and we both began walking with our down jackets on. Our time to Berlin was about two hours and after a short rest we continued past Plaza Colera, crossing over the ridge. At Piedras Blancas, about 20,000 feet, we took another rest. At 11:00 AM we were just below Plaza de Independencia at 21,000 feet. Here, Dima told me his head felt funny and that he was going to go back down. I continued up to the Independencia refuge and up the hill to the traverse into the Canaleta where I met up with a few other groups.

The Canaleta was not as hard or as daunting as I had imagined. I stayed to the right at Warren's direction and followed the trail which was intermittently snow covered. The summit appeared to be a long way off and the going was slow with the other groups ahead of me. Finally at 4:30 I reached the summit. It was a clear, cold day and the views from the top were stunning. I stayed only a half hour making sure I asked someone to take a photo of me on the summit then I made my way back down. There are "express" trails down the Canaleta which are a bit treacherous but definitely fast. I quickly got back to the hill above the Independencia refuge where I stopped to put on my crampons wanting to be very careful since I was getting tired. Here I met Aron Ralston, the guy that amputated his arm after having it pinned by a boulder. He and a partner had just climbed the Polish Glacier. Amazing.

By just before 9:00 PM I was back at Nido de Condores. I found that Dima had gone all the way back down to Plaza de Mulas and was fine. The others had decided not to make a summit attempt so we packed up the next day and, with very heavy packs, walked back down to join Dima. The following day we walked the distance back to the trailhead.

I think we were very lucky to have 11 days of good weather, and the day we left Punta del Inca the skies were clouding over ominously.

Other Information: Our tour company was Aymara in Mendoza. They were very helpful and reliable.

The Horcones Valley is hot and exposed. There is a lot of water around but it is barely drinkable.

I treated all my water but others did not with out ill effects. Taking a filter was more trouble than it was worth.

Lisa and I took a brand of dehydrated instant food called Mary Jane's Farm organic food. I thought it was very good and even at 18,000 feet I was looking forward to meals.

You can find water at Plaza de Mulas. If you contract with a tour company they may even provide it for you. At Camp Canada there was a tongue of snow that would melt enough by afternoon that we could get water from it. At Nido de Condores there was no water, we had to melt snow.

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