Sunday, August 21, 2011

Climbing Aconcagua: Argentina's Stone Sentinel

It's late afternoon at Camp 3 on Aconcagua, 6,000 metres above sea level. Huddled inside my sleeping bag, I listen intently for changes in the sound of wind and snow against the tent. Gradually, the wind drops to a whisper. Then, the yellow tent wall begins to brighten, filtering an unmistakeable warmth through the canvas. Sunlight! I unzip the tent door, spend a couple of minutes wrestling to get foam liners and feet into the plastic boots sitting outside, then haul myself out into the freezing air. Outside, a few flakes are still drifting, but the clouds have rolled away and the sun is glowing crimson on the western horizon. Below our eagle's eyrie of a camp site, the serried peaks of the Andes fade into the north. Above and behind is the flank of Aconcagua itself. I feel a thrill of elation. After nearly two weeks of struggle and uncertainty, tomorrow we will be making an attempt on the highest summit in the western hemisphere.

Towering above surrounding peaks near the border between Argentina and Chile, Aconcagua’s 6,962 metres make it not only the highest mountain in the Andes, but the highest anywhere outside Asia. Even more notable, the standard route to the summit is free of glaciers or crevasses and can be attempted by those without technical mountain-climbing skills. That doesn't mean it can be taken lightly. Aconcagua's altitude is literally breath taking, nearly twice that of New Zealand’s Mt Cook. And its weather is notoriously unpredictable, with -30 degree temperatures and fierce winds that sweep in from the Pacific. Every summer, the mountain claims some lives.

Our group of eleven climbers is on an expedition organised by Wanaka's Adventure Consultants. The journey starts in the leafy Argentinean city of Mendoza, where 35-degree afternoons and enormous juicy steaks make for pleasant preparation. Before we head to the start of the expedition we are briefed by our guides: leader Matias from Chile, and Mendoza locals Leo and Agustin. Between them, they have summited Aconcagua thirty-six times.

To even arrive at the foot of the mountain is a three-day, 50km trek in from the road up the Vacas Valley, over relatively gentle terrain but under a parching sun. Fifteen minutes before arriving at our second camp, we get our first glimpse of the mountain, glimmering blue-white and symmetrical through a gap in the hills.

The next morning comes the only river crossing of the expedition. It's just twenty seconds, but the numbing icy water leaves even the guides hopping and cursing on the opposite bank. From there we work our way up the Relinchos Valley to Plaza Argentina, our base camp at 4,200 metres. For two days we rest and acclimatise enjoying the relative luxury of permanent metal-framed cooking and dining tents, a water supply and long-drop toilets.

The gear carry to Camp 1 is the first real challenge of the expedition. With communal food and supplies as well as personal equipment, we'll need to carry as much as 25kg up steep and difficult terrain culminating in a brutal scree slope that crumbles and slips under our boots. For one expedition member, it’s too far beyond his previous experience on Africa’s Kilimanjaro, and he reluctantly abandons the expedition.

The “climb high, sleep low” policy sees us return to base camp before moving permanently to Camp 1, from where we do another five-hour gear carry to Camp 2 at 5,500 metres. After getting back from the carry, two more members of our group decide to pull out. A Brazilian team accompanying us up the mountain has also lost a third of its members. The afternoon weather closes in and it begins to snow heavily. The snow continues into the next day, preventing any further move.

The following morning a dazzling sun reflects off the snowed-in tents. We hurriedly pack up our gear and begin our move to Camp 2. But after only an hour the clouds roll in again. Snow falls, first gently, then horizontally, as wind howls into our faces. The weather worsens as we work our way around the mountain's northwestern flank, until visibility drops to twenty metres. Finally arriving at camp, we work desperately to pitch the tents and scramble into shelter.

The next morning there's grim news. A number of people have been reported missing, including climbers we had seen working their way up the Polish Glacier route the previous day. We'll later get confirmation that the storm has taken the lives of three people higher on the mountain and seen several others evacuated with frostbite.

As the storm continues, we huddle in the tents and try to conserve energy. Our guides melt snow for water and perform heroics to cook a nourishing dinner. Morale has dropped: with food and time running out, we wonder whether we’ll even get to make a summit attempt.

We're reluctant to believe in the still, clear skies the next morning. But the weather remains perfect as we carry gear to camp 3, taking turns with an American team to plough a trail through the thick snow. Another member has breathing problems and decides he’ll go no further. Seven out of eleven climbers remain.

Monday, 14 February, we complete the move from camp 2 to camp 3. Now at 6,000 metres, we’re poised for a summit attempt. But the afternoon clouds over and it begins to snow. Will we be frustrated at the final hurdle? Just before sunset, the weather clears. It looks like the mountain will grant us an opportunity after all.

After a long sleepless night, at 6am it’s finally time. By torch light we don balaclavas, down jackets and insulated pants, strap on crampons, and stuff energy gels into pockets. Dawn breaks as we trudge up through the snow. The arc of horizon evolves through an array of hues, unveiling a dizzying array of ridges and peaks below us. Daylight reveals a line of climbers on the slope above us. Some are already struggling, stopped, leaning forward on to their poles, breathing heavily. We inch our way up to the pass and into the shelter of a small hollow. This is Independencia, one third of the way.

Fifty metres up over a steep bank and we begin a long traverse across the mountainside where normally the wind screams in from the west. Incredibly, there’s hardly a breeze. After all the tribulations on the way up the mountain, today we’ve got very lucky.

At a rest stop, our guides take the tough decision that one of the group is struggling too much. With still five hours to the summit and three hours down, they judge he won’t have the energy to last, and he is escorted back to camp by Agustin. Two guides and six climbers remain, as we work our way up to a cleft in the mountainside known as the Cave.

Beyond the Cave, a steep route zig-zags upwards. This is the notorious Canaleta, which is usually dry scree. The snow cover makes progress slightly easier, but my calves burn with each step upwards. I later realize I've drifted into a meditative state: it’s hard to believe that three more hours pass as we ease uphill.

I can see two, three more bends before a jumble of boulders that mark the edge of the summit plateau. I feel a brief wave of emotion: after months of preparation and two weeks of climbing, I will make it to the highest point in the Americas. I think of all my friends and family that will be proud of me.

Nine hours after leaving camp, Leo stops by some large rounded boulders and waves me up. I scramble clumsily over them and lift myself on to the summit. Fellow expedition members join me and we share high-fives and hugs. We take photos next to Aconcagua’s famous cross, where climbers hang small trinkets to mark their ascent. Each year these are cleaned away by winter storms.

From there, we still have to make it down. It's several more hours, and two of the other group members are so exhausted they have to be roped to the guides. I have a little stumble on the way down to the Cave and a five-minute dizzy spell while resting there, but recover after half of litre water and an emergency One Square Meal. Ahead also is the next day's rapid descent, tired legs weighed down by overloaded packs and slipping on the icy slopes, to the Plaza de Mulas camp, with its almost unbelievable prizes of pizza and beer. Then the 30km trek out, along the dusty riverbeds of the Horcones Valley.

But the present moment is about the summit. It’s less joyful celebration than quiet reflection on the effort, team work and luck required to make it this far; and acknowledgement that we're here at Aconcagua’s grace. As the sign in the camp doctor’s office at Plaza Argentina says: “It’s not until you’re back at base camp that the mountain belongs to you. Until then, you belong to it”.


Cecilia said...

GREAT account, Simon! I was excited and nevous for you all over again just reading it. Intimidating and impressive stuff!

Susan said...

Me too - I actually had tears on my face by the time I had finished. Thanks for writing it up - even though I've heard it from you directly, this account was really something special.

Vince said...

It was a great achievement, Simon.

Simon Bidwell said...

Many thanks everybody for the nice comments!

I tried to make this post "feature article" length. A fuller account would include more of the gory details as well as the funny and personally embarassing bits.