It's the Guides, Stupid
Some very experienced mountaineers will prefer to organise the trip themselves, taking care of all the gear and food, planning their route, and evaluating the weather. For the rest of us who go on an organized expedition, the quality of the guides is paramount. I cannot exaggerate the importance of the contribution made by our three guides: Matias (Chilean, lead guide, 16 previous Aconcagua summits), Leo, (from Mendoza, 11 previous summits) and Agustin (also from Mendoza, 7 previous summits). The expedition was organised by Adventure Consultants, based in Wanaka, New Zealand, and the local agent was Fernando Grajales Expeditions of Mendoza. Both companies did an exemplary job with the logistics. But up on the mountainside, any plans and policies of the tour operators rely on the guides to implement them properly.
The first night we all met up at the hotel in Mendoza, Matias gave a briefing which set the tone for the expedition. He told us that the objectives were, in order: 1) to get off the mountains safely; 2) to enjoy the "process" of climbing and learn something; and 3) to reach the summit. In a period where three people died on the mountain and a number more were evacuated with frostbite, none of us were left in any doubt about the wisdom of that approach.
If I were asked to identify the other most important success factor for Aconcagua, it wouldn't be great physical fitness. Sure, there are some minimum standards. But apart from a couple of hours here and there on different days, it's wasn't an especially athletic expedition. The slow, steady rhythm set by the guides was aimed at conserving energy. If you work out a lot or play sport, you'll probably actually lose form while on the mountain.
No, the key to survival and success on the mountain was simply to eat and drink as much as possible. To operate at altitude, as a friend in Peru once said, you need a "strong organism", and that organism has to be constantly refuelled. On Aconcagua, everything dehydrates you: on the walk in, it's the heat; higher up, it's the altitude. So, if you want to do well, you have to drink a lot of water. Drink before you get thirsty. Drink more than you think you need. Wake up in the middle of the night and drink some more.
Eating is just as important. All the theory says that you lose appetite at altitude, and most of the accounts I read of people's experiences on Aconcagua described forcing down minimal quantities of food at the higher camps. This wasn't so for me and most of the others who made it to the summit. In fact, the guides said they were rather taken aback by how much I and my tent mate were still eating at 6,000 metres, "maybe even more than at sea level". This was helped by the fact that the quality of the food was very good, which again, was in large part thanks to the guides. One of the defining moments of the expeditions came after we had braved a fierce snow storm to arrive at camp 2 and set up our tents. Cold, bedraggled and anxious about our prospects of even getting an attempt at the summit, I and my tent mate were roused by the voice of Agustin telling us that dinner was ready. We unzipped the back door to find Agustin, icicles clinging to his beard, holding a large pot from which he served us generous helpings of spicy meat and and rice. It was one of the most memorably delicious meals I've had, and greatly improved our mood at a difficult time.
I hoped the Aconcagua expedition would be a learning and growing experience for me, and in a number of ways it was, even if it just showed me how far I still had to go. One of the sharpest learning curves was to do with organisation and attention to detail. So many small things can derail your expedition. Secure your tent ineffectively or leave it unzipped and it could blow away, ending your trip. Fail to dry your boot liners or let your water bottle freeze and you could be in big trouble. It's not just with gear that that things can go wrong, but with your own person. Catch a cold or get a bout of diarrhea up high, and your body may not be able to recover quickly enough. Sunburn, headaches, blisters, and dehydration can all be dangerous as well.
So, you need to be meticulous about keeping your hands clean, your feet dry, your body warm, your skin protected, and your things stashed and organised. There are many details to think about. Are your plate, cup and spoon quickly accessible? Can your jacket be easily pulled out and stashed again at rest stops? Are your trekking poles set to the right length for the terrain (shorter for up hill, much longer for down)? How can you secure your water bottle to allow you to take sips while you walk?
It's also important to be familiar with all your clothes and equipment before the expedition, including how things tie, zip and buckle, what can be worn with what, and so forth. More about this in the post on gear. Despite my efforts to improve my organisational skills, and many nights spent lying in my sleeping bag mentally organising my pack, I struggled with this aspect and was always one of the last to be ready, starting in the morning, pitching and packing tents, and at rest stops (to be fair, three of my companions were ex-military).
There was a lot of pre-trip information from Adventure Consultants, ranging from the essential to the relatively obscure, from advice on insurance to tips on high-altitude photopgraphy. Funnily, nowhere was there any comment about something that had inspired curiosity in most expedition members: how would we go to the toilet? Up to and including base camp, there's little mystery. Each expedition company supplies the camps with long drops -- barrels which are helicoptered out when full.
Beyond base camp, it's a different story. Within Aconcagua Provincial Park, the authorities have taken the admirable decision that you can't just "go" anywhere. Each person is given a quota of "wag bags" which they must use for any number two beyond 4,200 metres. The wag bag includes an inner, larger bag which contains a chemical powder that neutralizes and deodorizes excrement, as well as an outer ziplock bag designed to hold the inner bag.
For me, learning to love the bag was an important mental step in surviving and thriving on Aconcagua. It's tricky enough to aim into a bag in any situation, but when perched on a mountainside at -15 Celsius with snow and freezing winds, it becomes an adventure sport. Yet, it's not a good idea to avoid a showdown by eating less or just bottling it up. Staying healthy and comfortable means staying regular, so you need to treat it as just one more challenge to embrace.