Trip Report #8 – Aconcagua

In December 1991, the highest I had ever climbed was the summit of El Pico de Orizaba, the high point of Mexico, at 18,700 ft. My new goal was to summit Aconcagua in Argentina. At a height of 22,841 ft, Aconcagua is the highest mountain outside of the Himalayas. Our expedition party was made up of my friend Sean (with whom I had climbed Orizaba) and his friend Brian.

We arrived in Mendoza, Argentina on Monday, December 23rd. Our plan was to spend two nights in Mendoza, at the Hotel Argentina. After we checked in at the hotel, we went to get our climbing permits at the Office of Tourism, which was close to the hotel. We each paid $80 (USD) for our permits. Interestingly, the high season summit permit now costs ten times that! The weather was beautiful: sunny and in the nineties. We had dinner outside at an Italian restaurant and afterwards, we went to bed.

The next day we went shopping for food and gas for our stoves—the usual pre-climb preparations. We organized and packed for the climb, and then we bought our bus ticket to Puente del Inca. We explored Mendoza a little bit and then rested and ate, getting ready to head out the next day. On Christmas Day we left Mendoza (2000 ft) and arrived at Puente del Inca (9000 ft). It was snowing at Puente del Inca, but we weren’t going to let that stop us.

At Puente del Inca, we arranged to have mules carry half of our gear to base camp, which was at Plaza de Mulas. After making arrangements for the mules, the three of us caught a bus that was headed all the way to Chile; it dropped us off 4 miles up the road, at the beginning of the trail leading to Plaza de Mulas. Base camp was about 30 miles from where we got dropped off. We hiked in to just past Confluencia (about 10 miles) and spent the night. Even after sending some of our gear up with the mules, our packs were still fairly heavy; mine weighed 55 lbs. It was still snowing, so we didn’t have a view of Aconcagua (or anything else, for that matter). We ate and went to bed.

The next day was the first full day of our expedition. We woke up to great weather. It had stopped snowing during the night, and we had an amazing view of the south face of Aconcagua. We were pumped up and ready to go. After breakfast, we broke down camp and started the 20 mile hike to Plaza de Mulas (14,100 ft).

We arrived at base camp at 4 PM. We were surprised to see a huge lodge under construction at Plaza de Mulas. It looked like it was almost finished being built, but they told us that it wouldn’t be officially open full-time until the next climbing season. They did serve lunch and dinner, and sold ham sandwiches, snacks and drinks all day long. Brian, being a purist, didn’t want anything to do with the lodge. We had planned to climb without a lodge, so we decided not to use the lodge, or take any food from there. Instead, we found a good spot, set up camp, ate, and went to bed.

We woke to another beautiful, sunny day and planned to do a little altitude training. We hiked to Camp Pendiente (17,400 ft), had lunch, and ran back to base camp, where we just hung out and relaxed for the rest of the day. The next morning, the weather was not as good as it had been the day before. It was partly sunny, snowing a little, and windier. Our plan was to start our ascent. Sean and Brian decided to carry partial loads up to Camp Pendiente and descend to sleep at Plaza de Mulas. I chose to take my whole load to Camp Pendiente and sleep there.

When I woke up on Sunday the weather was mixed, so I decided to move up the mountain to Nido de Condores at 18,200 ft, taking all my gear with me. By the time I arrived at Nido de Condores, the weather had deteriorated. It was a real struggle to set up my tent in the wind and snow. I didn’t see Sean or Brian that day. I stayed in my tent the rest of the day and listened to my tent flapping in the wind all night long.

The next morning the weather had taken a turn for the worse. It was still snowing, and even windier. I was getting very hungry, and pretty tired of my freeze-dried food. I started thinking about the new lodge at Plaza de Mulas, and about the food there. I decided I was going to the lodge. I left almost everything in my tent at Nido de Condores and arrived at our base camp at noon.

I caught up with Sean and Brian and told them I was going to the lodge to eat. (I thought it would be rude to eat first without letting them know.) Brian wasn’t interested, but Sean went with me. We got to the lodge just before 1:00 PM, which was great timing because they were just about to start serving lunch. We had as much as we wanted; soup, bread, pasta, meat and dessert! It was awesome.

The weather was still bad, so I decided to spend the rest of the day out of the elements, in the lodge. My original plan had been to descend to the lodge, eat, and go back up to Nido de Condores to sleep in my tent. I decided sleeping in the lodge was a better idea. Sean agreed. He went back to our base camp to let Brian know, and to pick up a few things. I stayed at the lodge, hung out, ate a ham sandwich and drank lots of sodas. Sean and a reluctant Brian showed up a little before 5:30, ready for dinner and a good night’s sleep. Dinner was at 8:30, and it was great!

We woke up on New Year’s Eve and had a continental breakfast. Sean and I each took two ham sandwiches to go (Brian didn’t want any) and even though it was still snowing and windy, the three of us decided to go up to Nido de Condores. We went back to our base camp, and Sean and Brian packed up their stuff. My pack was very light, since nearly all my gear was already up the mountain. Sean and Brian carried partial loads to Camp Pendiente, where they picked up the supplies they had left there on the 28th.

When we arrived at Nido de Condores, the weather was bad: snowing and windy. This wasn’t a problem for me, because my tent was already set up right where I’d left it. Sean and Brian struggled to set up their tent, but they got it done. Later, when they were in their tent and I was in mine, I was getting ready to eat. Out of nowhere, three climbers appeared at my tent and invited themselves in, saying that there was an emergency and they needed to stay in my tent. I let them in and told them that they needed to put their tent up. They said it was not possible because of the weather. I told them that we had just put up the tent next to me (Sean and Brian’s). They didn’t show any signs of wanting to go put up their tent. Frustrated, I took their tent, went out into the snow and wind, and started setting it up myself. When I was nearly done, the guy who seemed like their leader came out and helped me finish. When the tent was done, the other 2 came out of my tent and that was the last I saw of them. Finally alone, I ate a ham sandwich and went to bed.

The next day was New Year’s Day, 1992! No college football for me. I spent the day in my tent, watching the snow and listening to the wind. When there were breaks in the weather, I went outside a little bit at a time; maybe a total of an hour outside my tent all day. I went to bed, hoping tomorrow would be a better day.

Lo and behold, it was! When I woke up, it was partly cloudy but not snowing, and there was much less wind. I decided to make a summit attempt from Nido de Condores. I told Sean and Brian that I was heading up to check things out in about an hour. Sean knew exactly what that meant: going to the top if all possible. He said he’d be going. Brian said he didn’t feel like going so he stayed at the tent. I started up a little before Sean, but we met up at Camp Berlin, the next camp up the mountain (19,450 ft.)

There were a dozen people at Berlin, but they had decided to wait and try the summit tomorrow. Above Berlin, Sean and I were alone on the mountain, just the way we liked it. The route was easy to follow, and there wasn’t much snow. I guess the wind had blown it away.

At the bottom of La Canaleta, we ran into 3 Japanese climbers. They had abandoned their summit attempt and were sitting on the ground (in the snow), smoking cigarettes at 21,000 ft. Sean and I pushed to the summit, standing on the top of Aconcagua in the late afternoon of January 2nd. It was nearly 5 PM by the time we got to the top. We hung out, took pictures, and enjoyed the view. We headed down, and by the time we got to Berlin, it was starting to get dark.

When we got back to Berlin, there were about 50 people there. With the better weather, they had all moved up the mountain to Berlin, with a plan to go to the summit the next day. It was like a little village. Since we were the only ones to summit that day, everyone wanted to talk to us. Sean took off and headed down to Nido de Condores, but I hung out, had a drink, and answered questions about the conditions above.

It was dark by the time I left Berlin, so I wandered off the trail a bit. In the dark, I nearly walked off the edge of a cliff. When I realized that the edge of the cliff was nearly under me, I grabbed a rock formation to try to steady myself and keep from going over. I was able to stop myself, but I watched my red Marmot Snow Goose sleeping bag sail away and disappear into the darkness of the abyss. I still miss that bag.

I knew that I needed to find my tent. Of course, I headed away from the cliff. In the distance, I could see a light. Soon, I realized that the light was in fact, a tent, and I continued to head towards it.

When I finally got to the tent, I said “Hello?” Four Japanese women inside unzipped the tent and invited me in. They didn’t speak much English, but were unbelievably nice to me! They fed me, offered me plenty to drink, and we all spent the better part of the night talking with our hands. They re-arranged their sleeping bags and let me spend the night in their tent.

At first light, I looked outside. It was a glorious day: blue sky and no wind. It was only then that I realized that I was at Camp Pendiente! I said my goodbyes, and headed back up the mountain to Nido de Condores. When I got there, I yelled to Sean that I was back, and went into my tent and started packing up my stuff.

About an hour later, I got together with Sean. He asked what I had meant when I yelled that I was “back”. I laid it on thick about spending the night in a tent with four Japanese ladies at Camp Pendiente. I didn’t know if he believed me or not, but I knew we’d run into them on our way down. Sean and I were heading down to Plaza de Mulas, and Brian had decided to stay at Nido de Condores and make a summit attempt the next day. On the way down, we ran into my friends from the night before, which validated my story. We got down to the lodge just in time for lunch!

Since Brian was making a summit attempt the next day, Sean decided that he would run up to the summit from Plaza de Mulas, taking a shot at the mountain’s speed ascent record. I decided that chilling out at the lodge and eating good food was a better plan. Sean and I spent the night in the lodge.

On the morning of January 4th, Sean took off running up the mountain. I wished him luck and went to breakfast. Around 2 PM, Sean and Brian got back to Plaza de Mulas. Neither had been successful in reaching the top. I said, “Let’s get out of here,” and Sean agreed. Brian decided to stay another night, and Sean and I started preparing to leave. We made arrangements for the mules to carry all of our gear. The mule wangler told us that it was too late in the day for us to get to Puente del Inca. We asked if the mules could make it, and he said “No problem.” We told him that we could do it in under 4 hours. He took our money and said “okay”. I’m pretty sure he didn’t believe us, but we ran alongside them and kept them in sight most of the way.

4 or 5 miles before Puente del Inca, a pickup truck drove towards us. The mule wrangler took our bags off the mules and threw them in the back of the truck and then we got in the back, too. We bounced along the dirt road until we got to the paved road that took us to Puente del Inca. We got dropped off at the hotel in Puente del Inca. We got the last room available for the night, had a big dinner, and went to bed.

After we checked out of the hotel the next morning, we explored the ruins of the Incan Baths and took the bus to Mendoza. Brian arrived in Mendoza 2 days later.

My Aconcagua climb was the first of many trips to South America, as well as being the first successful attempt at one of the Seven Summits. I found the Aconcagua area beautiful and easily accessible. The climb, via the Normal Route, is not technical, so the biggest challenge is successfully handling the altitude. For all of these reasons, I highly recommend an Aconcagua climb as a goal for aspiring mountaineers.