Assault on Aconcagua
The interesting thing about the Andes is how dry they are. I had heard about the Atacama, but I didn’t necessarily realize that the balance of the range was similar. There aren’t any trees. Spiky little shrubs are the extent of plant life and even that’s limited. Even birds were limited. We saw a few, but it was nothing like hiking in the Cascades. There were times I thought: if it wasn’t for the sound of the wind and people talking, this would be the quietest place around.
Our base was Mendoza, Argentina – the nearest “major” city. From there, it was a several hour drive to the Andes. Our real base was a town called Penitentes, right on the border of Argentina and Chile. It was also where the primary trailheads began for Aconcagua. It was a rundown area that had clearly seen better times. Half the “hotels” were boarded up. We stayed at one that was operated by an expat from London and his Argentinean wife. It was everything you’d expect from a mountain climbing hotel in Kathmandu. Trippy interior, 70s London soul music playing, the owners gave us a great deal of free beer and food, perhaps because we had a Sherpa with us – almost the equivalent of a rock star. We didn’t really get to enjoy the hotel at that point. We were gearing up to begin the climb. For myself, I tend to become quiet. It almost doesn’t matter what mountain it is. It can be something difficult or Mt Adams. In both cases, I’ll grab a book, find a dark corner, and want to be left alone. The real fun from the hotel came at the end of the trip when we arrived for New Year’s Eve.
But now we separated our gear into two portions – one for the trek in and then another for the climb itself. The heavier gear needed for the climb would be carried by mules from the trailhead (8,000’) to the base camp on that side of the mountain (Plaza Argentina) at 13,800’. That left three days for us to cover 30 miles and get warmed up. For the most part, the hike in was dusty and somewhat ugly. It was almost like Arizona or New Mexico without the great scenery. It may have hurt that there was no vegetation. After a while, everything just looked grey. Periodically, we’d run across the picked-over bones of dead mules. It was somewhat otherworldly in that respect. It was during that time, I learned how to wear a “buff”. It’s basically like a neck gaiter – a thin layer of cotton that covers the neck and mouth. That became critical since dust was always in the air and as the wind picked up, there were clouds of it.
We were told there was a real risk of catching the “Khumbu Cough” as a result – and even now, I have a minor cough that’s not completely gone. I remembered similar issues from volcanoes in this country. Mt St Helens was an adventure in trying not to cough up a lung. Humphreys Peak in Arizona felt the same way, especially as I accidentally stumbled over an ash mound and breathed in too much. We didn’t want the same thing to happen here. On our first day, everything was really easy-going. The weather was great – not hot, but really comfortable. We weren’t rushing. We had 10 miles to cover before the first camp. Around midday, we heard this huge rushing sound down the river canyon. Suddenly a helicopter appeared in full Airwolf mode and roared down the trail behind us. There was silence for a moment and then someone said: “shit just got real”. We didn’t know how real till later.
We ended at the first camp and learned how to set up a tent properly. It seemed pedantic, but we were warned that at high elevations with hurricane-force winds, the risk of losing a tent could be catastrophic. This was also our first experience with Aconcagua outhouses (the infamous blue bags were still to come). It was almost like climbing into a metal coffin, holding onto hand rails, and leaning back over a pit. Our first night was basically spent in a mule resting area. So our primary goal was dodging all the landmines left on the ground. The second day was much the same, only with a higher elevation. The only interesting thing at this spot was that I accidentally locked myself in one of the outhouses and they had to find maintenance to get me out.
Day 3 is when the pace picked up. We had to get to base camp by the end of the day, and it was the first time many of us experienced AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness, altitude sickness) on the trip. It was also the first time we saw Aconcagua and its neighbor Ameghino. After days going through truly arid country, seeing these massive mountains changed the perspective. We hiked past canyons that seemed to have gargoyle heads carved on them. At the end of the day, we arrived at base camp. We were supposed to spend about a day and a half here, then begin the cache/carry and move routine. But on the second day, a snowstorm rolled in producing conditions so bad, porters refused to move up the mountain. We lingered a bit, killing time. During that time, we had to meet with a doctor and get an ok that we were healthy enough to proceed. One test was for blood oxygen content. I passed that, but surprisingly a couple people didn’t and were asked to come back a day later to be re-tested. The idea was that they needed to properly acclimatize before moving into a more life-threatening environment.
In my case, the problem was sickness. Upon landing in Argentina I caught either a bad cold or the flu. The doctor gave me a nasal decongestant. Basically it was sprayed into a cup of warm water and salt. Then, because this was South America after all, there was some entertainment with how the medicine was administered. I was put in a common area at a table. In the cup, a straw was added and I was instructed to basically snort the water. This was enjoyed by a lot of people. They huddled around, watching me do this. And the medicine worked…for a few hours. But it was good enough to pass the doctor’s test. Then we moved uphill. Before we left base camp, though, we had our “shit just got real” moment. Earlier we had seen a helicopter evacuating someone. While at 13,800’, the South African I was sharing a tent with began getting an odd cough. At first it didn’t seem like much, but it got progressively worse. Within a couple hours, he was coughing up blood and when he breathed, his lungs gurgled. The guides took a look at him, but there wasn’t much they could do. It was dark out and an emergency rescue couldn’t happen under those conditions. They said to me: if there’s an emergency, find us. I kept thinking: is this guy going to die? Finally, he said: “this isn’t working, I don’t know what to do”, and went to find the guides. The guides returned and moved me to the meal tent, for fear of contagion, and Robert was left to hack until morning.
At first light, he was taken to the doctor and it was confirmed: he had pulmonary edema. He was flown out by helicopter to Penitentes for immediate medical care. It had a strange effect on me too. I went into the climb very casual and unconcerned. But now I had become very cautious. I had seen about the worst that could happen, and it was a bit too real.
The next day was our first doing the cache/carry routine. We loaded up all the gear we wouldn’t needed till later and hiked up to camp 1 at 15,500’. I had trained quite a bit, but found the altitude unexpectedly difficult. At one point that day, I tripped over some rocks and at another, my back was bent at what felt like 90 degree angles, trying to hold the weight. We wound up to camp 1, stashed the gear under rocks, and returned to base camp to sleep. The next day, we loaded the rest of our gear and made the move to camp 1. Since we had lost a day due to the snowstorm, and were aware that the season’s weather had been poor so far, we were eager to get back on schedule. That meant foregoing a day of rest at camp 1 and transitioning to 5 days of concurrent work at altitude. The next day we moved to the cache/carry to 17,700 at camp 2. This was the point I thought I had completely burned out.
My altitude sickness was becoming progressively worse (headaches, difficulty getting enough oxygen, aggravation, lack of energy, trouble eating and breathing at the same time – without one process stopping) and about ¾ of the way to camp 2, coughed, fell to the side of the trail and said: I have a bad feeling my trip just ended. I didn’t have the energy to keep going. The guides talked for a bit and decided to get me started on a Diamox routine, to increase the oxygen flow. That got me to 17,700’. From that point, we proceeded onto camp 3 at 19,200’. The views were becoming steadily more amazing. A day later, we were moving to high camp at 20,600’. By that point I knew two things:
1. I was too sick and my strength was too low to make a summit attempt. And if I tried a summit attempt, I’d slow the rest of the team down.
2. I had to get to high camp. Getting there would ensure that the rest of the team wouldn’t be held back – because they’d have to return that way. That was critical from my perspective and besides, that elevation meant I was higher than Denali and Kiliminjaro. So I ordered porters for the last portion to deal with my diminished strength.
Now it was obvious I had to stop. At high elevation, strange things happen. While sleeping, the heart sometimes stops (almost like gears slipping). For me, whenever I tried to eat, I could feel my heart stop or at least struggle to breath. It was like the body couldn’t do two things at once. Alongside that, my cold/flu had intensified up the mountain. The body wasn’t really able to regenerate. Cuts wouldn’t heal and kept bleeding. Sicknesses lingered and got worse. I felt good stopping where I did, especially in light of what I heard later. My dreams had been surreal and I had a recurring one about frostbites. One of the other climbers got to the first rest point and had to turn around due to bad headaches. The rest of the team kept going. The day was very cold and windy. Shortly after, they encountered a team from Japan who was writhing on the ground with severe AMS. Luckily, most of our team was able to summit later that day, but clearly the risk was high.
The next day, we left as quickly as possible. We descended to Plaza de Mulas (the other base camp at 14,100 feet). It was amazing. Not only was it warm, but the oxygen levels were eye-opening. We got settled in and naturally went to the bar, proceeding to drink just enough to discover that yes, altitude makes alcohol that much stronger. For some reason the local cooks had a grunge fixation and played Pearl Jam and Nirvana almost the entire time. We got rid of our mountaineering boots and the goal the next day was to cover about 19 miles, leave the mountain, and get back to Penitentes.
We hiked down another dusty river canyon on our way out. Only this time, about halfway through, someone looked back and got out attention. Really, Aconcagua is an ugly mountain. But it turns out it’s because of the direction we were looking in. The south face, which we now saw for the first time, looked like Annapurna or some other dramatic mountain in Asia. We kept hiking from there to the bus that would take us back to Penitentes. It was now New Year’s Eve and we were returning (for the most part) as conquering heroes. I had an overgrown beard that was unable to shave – the razors were barely making a dent. An immigration officer on the climb jokingly said he could hire me as an undercover meth agent. Others were haggard. So naturally the first thing we did was go to the bar.
Steve – the co-owner – walked over and started talking to us. For the first round of beer, we paid ourselves. That must have been about 3pm. But now, he was sharing our beer and whenever his wife wasn’t around, giving us free beer. One of the oddities of South America is the schedule. Dinner typically doesn’t happen till about 10pm. We were starving, though. So he sent someone back to the kitchen to make us sandwiches. Hours started going by. More tired and drunk, we got our table for dinner around 9:30. We ordered more wine and gorged ourselves, all while talking to mountain climbing teams from around the world who were about to start. Some clearly looked strong. We joked that the Scandinavian team was the next cast of Thor. Another team was questionable. But it all made for good stories. We talked about mountains for hours. Jengbu, the Sherpa with us, regaled people with stories about the Himalayas. Last year he was supposed to guide a climber to the top of Everest and it would be filmed by the Discovery Channel (?), but due to the fatalities, it was called off. That client had been planning to paraglide off the summit. Sometime around 1 or 2 am, we said to Steve: we think we forgot to pay the bill. He just shrugged and said with a strong London accent: Happy New Year.
Then we all tried to clean up for civilization and the return to Mendoza, followed by the long flights home.