Climbing Aconcagua is a duanting undertaking. Posted here is a trip report by John Black, an equipment buyer for Cape Union Mart, a chain of South African hiking and outdoor gear stores that provide reasonably priced gear under the K-Way brand. I own and use some of their gear, which may not be the lightest or most technical kit on the market, but does the job and is good value. More reviews of their kit will follow, but look for John’s comments a the end of his report where he deals with some of the gear he used.
A Return to the Stone Sentinel & a Journey to the Top of the Americas
At 6962m, Aconcagua is one of the world’s great mountains and a challenge worthy of any mountaineer. It is the Highest mountain in South (or North) America and the highest mountain in the western and Southern hemispheres.
The lead up to my third trip to Aconcagua had been a strange affair indeed. After two unsuccessful attempts during 2001 and 2002 the apprehension within me was huge and self doubt was certainly present. The 2001 trip was plagued by ferocious weather, whilst 2002 was put to an end by health (or lack of), the questions surfacing within myself were whether this trip would be any different, was it worth going through a third month of living hell, did it justify my third Christmas and new year in a row in the Andes? And so the questions kept coming.
Despite all of this, my planning started in February and by April, the training had started; cycling, running, gym, spinning, squash, hiking etc. This time I would be returning to “the mountain” with two good friends, both of whom had attempted Aconcagua with me in 2002. We made a number of strategic changes and amended our itinerary as well as some of our equipment in order to do what we felt would maximize our chance of getting to that elusive summit. More important than all of this we had a change in mindset, one that is difficult to put down on paper. We toughened ourselves mentally, we accepted the inevitable challenges and hardships, and we mentally planned for the trip in a way that we hoped would see us to the top.
With months of training and planning and saving behind us, the last few weeks and days came and went before our departure, we had tested every piece of gear repeatedly, we had packed and repacked and felt that we were ready. The morning of the 10th December dawned bright in Cape Town and I was off to the Airport to meet my companions who had flown in from Johannesburg. Our flights took us to Buenos Aires where we spent a night before flying on to Mendoza where we eventually spent two days. These two days were full of activity; we went shopping for all of our food, purchased fuel, permits, gas etc, and then took the 4 hour ride to Penitentes.
Penitentes is a Ski resort and at nearly 2600m it is at a reasonable altitude. We spent two nights taking advantage of the higher altitude as part of our acclimatization program and spent an entire day sorting kit out and dividing loads for the Mules. We met a group of 8 South Africans who had not gotten much higher than Base Camp.
By the time we got to the park gate we were eager to get going and began our three day approach to our base Camp, Plaza de Mulas. We spent two nights at a transit camp along the way, Confluencia which assisted with our all important process of acclimatization. During this period, we did an acclimatization trip which took 6 hours to the base of the Aconcagua South Face (4200m). After my first trip to the Polish glacier and now having been to the south face I had been to all three major faces on the mountain. During this walk we got the breathtaking view of Aconcagua in all her splendor. I say breathtaking, not only because it is beautiful, but also because we crapped ourselves!
On the third day we began the torturous 8-9 hour march to base Camp up the infamous Horcones valley where nothing is pleasant and everything is awful. We arrived in good time in Plaza at 4400m and after a brief rest set up camp and tried to make ourselves as comfortable as possible. We spent the next two days and three nights in and around Plaza as we improved our level of acclimatization and worked on eating and drinking as much as possible. In the end, it was all of these rest days along the way which had a marked effect in the success of the trip. We also repacked our loads and rechecked our gear in Base Camp. It goes without saying that to have even a small chance of getting to the top, our clothing and gear had to perform perfectly. We met a group of South Africans in camp who had just finished their third trip to the mountain and had not made it! Most of the stories we heard in BC were horror stories of high winds, extremely low temperatures, snow falls, ice, edema etc.
On the morning of our departure from BC, we packed our packs and to our horror realized that they weighed in excess of 32kg each. At the kind of altitude we were in, just walking was a mission, let alone walking uphill in mountaineering kit with ridiculously heavy bags. We bid farewell to our new found friends and zipped up the tents where we had been reading and chilling for nearly three days and began the long slow slog up to camp Canada, Camp one. At altitude such as these, there is very little oxygen available for consumption and this has a dramatic effect on breathing, heart rate, as well as the blood cells and an extremely complex process begins in your body to counter this, although it never manages to completely compensate, meaning that even the simplest task becomes hard work. Temperatures in Plaza hovered around -10 to -13 degrees and as soon as the wind blew, the temperatures plummeted.
The trip to Canada (5000m) took a few hours and we were ecstatic with our pace, we had set s rule that we would only stop for a two minute break every hour, we could not stop for longer as we were weary of succumbing to Hypothermia or Frost bite. Once in camp we began the task of pitching the tent (We used one tent for the three of us above BC to save weight) and then building a rock wall around it as shelter from the devastating Viente Blanca (White winds) which will shred even the best tents. The tent had to be weighted down, a kitchen “built” and then our worst, melting ice. This was three to four hour exercise every day, collecting and melting ice for water. It soon started snowing heavily and so we retired to the cramped shelter of our tent for the remainder of the afternoon. A glorious sunset over snow laden sloped bid us goodnight. The following day was also spent in Canada as we improved our level of acclimatization.
The day came when we had to move to the next Camp Nido de Condores (5400m). Once again, it took two people to pick up a backpack before we stumbled up the route on to Nido. The weather was not kind to us on this day and temperatures were pushing -16 to -18 in the sun and no matter what we did, it seemed to penetrate our very souls as soon as the wind picked up. Once again we followed our hourly rest regime and progressed to Nido in around four hours (another fast time). The going to Nido was exceptionally slow and indescribably difficult. It began to dawn on us that humans were not designed to exist at these altitudes; nothing was easy, everything was difficult; going to the toilet, sleeping, eating, walking, breathing, drinking, it was all a nightmare. Having said all of this, this is what we had planned for and had expected. We arrived in Nido, one of the guys in the group felt awful and collapsed for about 2 hours once we reached camp. Once again the ritual started, pitch tents, sort gear, build a wall, weight the tent, make a kitchen fetch ice, melt water, cook, clean, drink, etc etc
We had a restless night in Nido and woke the next day for a reasonable day acclimatizing in camp, reading, eating, drinking and not much more. Since base camp, the temperature at night dictated that we could not leave the tent to go to the toilet, so we made use of “pee bottles”, our favourite friends, when the weather outside was nuclear. I am sure that the use of such a device needs no explanation.
As on all mountaineering trips, in between we all the hard work of each day, we had ample time to reflect on many issues and thoughts that were relevant to each of us, and there are few better places to do this than high on mountain looking to the horizon.
After a second night of restless sleep and mild appetites we woke to a bitterly cold but clear day and started the ritual of cooking, eating, melting and packing up our mounds of gear and clothing before beginning the move to Berlin, our next and final camp. Situated at 6000m, Berlin is an exceptionally difficult place to get to considering the amount of clothing you wear whilst walking as well as the ridiculously heavy packs we were carrying, the pace consistently got slower as we got higher, the last few hundred metres into Berlin were done with no more 30 or so steps at a time before we had to briefly stop, just long enough to regain our breath.
Once we finally reached Berlin we took a while to regain our strength and to allow our pulse to slow to down to rapid. Once again we established our camp and did the usual. We began supper quite early and then immediately got going with our preparations for the Summit attempt which we were planning on making the following day. Because of its extreme altitude, Berlin is not a place where you want to spend more time than you have to. Above 5000m, your body is not able to maintain itself and you actually begin eating away at yourself and degenerating physically as well as psychologically. This was now our 6 night above 5000m and at 6000m the situation is even worse. So we decided that weather allowing, we would only spend one night in this inhospitable hell hole. We spent remainder of the afternoon and evening packing our bags for the summit, checking and rechecking gear as well as clothing, replacing batteries, gathering snacks, preparing liquids etc.
We eventually went to bed quite late by mountaineering standards at 9pm or so, but sleep did not come easily. The asphyxiating effect of the altitude combined with a resting heart rate of around 140bpm as well as the regular effects of being at that height all combined to make the night a very long one indeed. The even bigger for lack of sleep was the fact that my mind was absolutely galloping away with me, I had thoughts rushing through my head of what may happen the next day, would we make it, would we survive, how hard would it be, was our gear going to hold out, would we getting altitude sickness, would I have the strength and so the thoughts went on and on and around. I though back to my previous two trips to this mountain and how they ended, I asked myself what would make this time any different, I thought about friends who had died in the mountains, I thought about home and the people there and so the night progressed.
The predominant concern all night long was what the weather was going to do. There is a lot that has to be done for one to even have even a glimmer of hop of reaching a mountains summit, you need to train, save, practice, get healthy, get the gear, work hard suffer etc, but even with all of that, there is a degree of luck involved. We just hoped that we had made the right choices along the way and that these choices would enable us to be in the right place at the right time and with a bit of luck.
After an awful night, we all awoke at the planned 3:30am and began getting ready, we warmed all the water to help stop it freezing, we ate what we could, we checked everything again, and we began the marathon session of getting dressed: 4 Layers of socks, 2 layers of boots, gaiters, three layers on out legs, 4 layers on our torsos, 4 or 5 sets of gloves, tow beanies, hand warmers and so it went. Three of us crammed into a small tent with mounds of kit, all trying to get dressed in the ominous darkness at 6000m and at -15 degrees Celsius. This mission took 2 and a half hours and at 6am, just before the sun rose, as planned we began the long walk.
We began the climb from Berlin and made painfully slow progress, 6100m, 6200m, 6300m and so it was for the rest of the day, constantly checking our progress on my watch and GPS. We reached independencia refuge (The highest in the world at 6400m) and knew that we had reached a milestone and a great landmark. The temperatures had now dropped to around -30 degrees Celsius with wind chill. Two of us realized that Nature was calling and we had to go for a number two, I ask you!!!! A number two at 6400m, with 4 layers of bulky clothes at -30??? For me it was a record! And a mission that cannot be described on paper.
After a brief rest we continued up to and over a ridge, from the area below this ridge we could already see that as soon as we came over the ridge, we would be greeted by ferocious winds. As expected the wind was energy sapping and our body temperatures immediately started to drop to alarming levels. All moisture include tears (generated as a result of the wind), snot and moisture from our breathing immediately froze which meant that all fabrics around or over our face which were meant to protect us from the cold began to freeze. Fog which formed on our glasses or goggles froze instantly to icicles; all of this conspired to worsen our already precarious position.
We continued through the wind along a very exposed ridge for what felt like an eternity. We stopped once to insert hand warmers into our boots to ward off frostbite which felt like it had already set in. Our progress was now limited to 20 or 30 steps at most at a time before we had to stop briefly to recover. After what felt like an eternity we reached the base of the Cannaletta which is notoriously difficult and a point where many people turn around. Basically it is a 300m rock chute which leads up to the summit ridge. These 300m took us over 3 hours to do and was the most difficult thing I have ever done in my life. I was no longer able to walk or stumble more than 3 or 4 steps at a time before stopping to regain strength and my breath. By this stage the temperature had plummeted to -52 degrees Celsius with wind chill!
At 2pm local time (7pm in SA) we reached the top of Aconcagua and the highest point in the Western and Southern Hemispheres. I cried like a girl for about 10 minutes, this mountain had become a focal point of my life for nearly three years; I had spent three months in total in Argentina trying to reach the summit as well as countless hours training and preparing to get to this piece of heaven. It was a precious moment and that I will cherish for the rest of my life. We took a number of photos and flew the Cape Union Mart banner at nearly 7000m. It was fantastic.
Exactly a year to the day and hour before we got to the summit, I had left the Aconcagua National park after a trip ruined by sinus problems, yet now a year later I had accomplished what I originally came to do three years ago. We had accomplished a dream and got to the top on December 24th, Christmas Eve. I would remember that moment as the best Christmas gift for the rest of my life.
We left the summit like new men and began the punish descent down to camp which took another 4 hours. We arrived in Camp around 6pm and decided immediately that we were not prepared to spend another night in that place, so packed up and went to Base camp the same night, dropping a total of 3000m.
We spent the following day (Christmas Day) in camp recovering and sorting gear and also managed to call home on a satellite phone to share the good news. We walked the 36km out of camp the following day and spent another 10 days touring in Argentina.
The flights and travel home went smoothly and I was glad to be home and glad to be able to use all the things I take for granted on a daily basis.
I can attribute our “success” to a number of factors: Excellent planning, good strategy, health, good weather, good friends, support from family and a dash of luck. However, any trip at this level requires the best equipment, without this gear we would not be able to attempt such a mountain, and not using good gear would put our lives at risk. Some of the main things I used were:
K-Way Odyssey Jacket
K-Way Windshield Jacket
K-Way Polartec Thermals
Petzl Tikka headlamp
First Ascent Blue Wolf Sleeping Bag
First Ascent Salopettes and Down Jacket
K-Way Thermalator pants and jacket
K-Way Aconcagua Backpack
K-Way Kilimanjaro Backpack
K-Way XL Gear Bag
K-Way Moisture Manager Tops
Black Diamond gloves and Mitts
Primus, Karrimor and MSR Stoves
I hope that you have enjoyed my little story, and I would like to thank all of those who have helped and supported me along this long and steep road, including Cape Union Mart and our Suppliers.
The Adventure Starts Here
Retail Buyer – Cape Union Mart