Beauty and brutality on Aconcagua

Expedition: Aconcagua

Mark Sullivan

Aconcagua – Man… what a beautiful beast of a hill!!!

Holy sh*t…. What a mountain! Several days after landing back from Argentina and still minus feeling in my right big toe due to a little touch of frost nip I picked up on summit night, I’m still left a little dazzled by the beauty and brutality of Aconcagua. I’d heard it was a tough one but I hadn’t properly registered just how tough until the physical and mental reality of it unfolded in the flesh and I was caught in the blast.

Having made the top of Kilimanjaro in 2014 and having sought some views as to what to try next, Aconcagua seemed a logical next step for me and so the fabulous people at 360 gave me some great advice and I signed up for the mission departing in late Nov 2015. We had a small but perfectly formed team of 3 clients and 2 of the best guides in the business in Rolfe Oostra and Gianni Capano.  I mean where do you get experience and guide ratios like that?!! 2 guys who between them have summited about 30 times and they were taking us up virtually 1 on 1!! Result!

After spending a couple of nights in beautiful Mendoza eating meat and drinking wine, we headed out to the national park and after 3 hours or so fetched up in Penitentes where we handed over our mule loads before heading up to the gate so we could begin the 12km walk up to Confluencia.  On registration in the visitor centre a girl working there looked at me and said…’you look scared….’ I laughed and said…’kind of yeah!!….’, ‘you should be’ was the response. After that morale booster we cracked on and headed on up….   The walk from the gate is about 3 hours to Confluencia and the views along the way are simply sensational. After hammering away feverishly at our cameras for the first hour or so, Ian and I were given a word to the wise by Rolfe….’guys…. save your film…. In a few day’s time this scenery won’t even register as anything special compared to where you are going…..’ We cooled our photographic ardour according, and unsurprisingly, those words bore out.

Confluencia at 3300m is a staging point on the way up to base camp and we settled into our tents to pass a few days of acclimatisation before hopefully getting the thumbs up from the Doc to go higher. Essentially you should see a trend of increased oxygen saturation in your bloodstream over the days at altitude as your body adapts and they also keep an eye on pulse rate and blood pressure. On the first night a medical situation of a slightly unexpected nature materialised however in that an orange flavoured boiled sweet decided to smash its way through a molar and I was left with a cracked tooth that was split down the middle and half hanging out. I pushed it back into place but sheepishly had to divulge my news to the guys. On the basis that the bloody thing could start causing me grief higher up the hill where I was further from potential help, it was decided to take me down and try find a dentist that could at least fix the issue temporarily. So, on day 2 I headed DOWN! Wrong!! Thankfully and after some serious lateral thinking and phone activity, Gianni found a dentist…. A children’s dentist. Hey… a tooth’s a tooth for me and after having a quick look he pulled the bugger out and put some temporary filler in to see me through the mission. Job done and we rocked back up to catch up with the team.

We took the next day easy and had a gentle walk around the hills by camp and were kept amused with seeing a rabbit being stalked and nailed by a group of hungry condors…. It was like David Attenborough Live!! Obviously once the poor little sod had been ripped limb from limb, our Rolfe thought is best to go up and pick up what was left and hold it up to show us. There wasn’t much!

The next day was a change of pace and we took a leisurely 28km stroll up the Horcones valley to Base Camp, Plaza da Mulas at 4,300m. Once again the scenery was PHENOMENAL and the regular traffic of mule trains pinging up and down the valley as well as the occasional helicopter firing to and fro made for a real feeling that the mission was getting serious now. Grinding out 28k at altitude is just that, a grind. Plugging in the tunes and getting your head down is the way through it and thanks to some belting tuneage the day cracked on and we rocked into Plaza da Mulas amid a blizzard which gave the place a super atmospheric feel. And there we were… Base Camp!

After seeing the massive South face from Confluencia and then walking round along the massive West face where the only way to describe the thing is EPIC, you suddenly realise that up there at a mere 2,600m is the summit and it all suddenly seems within your grasp…. and then you notice the spindrift being ripped off the top by 80-100k winds and you realise that it really isn’t! From Base Camp you can make out the route to Camp 1 (Canada) but the route beyond isn’t visible.

To get a good view of the route up and also get some more acclimatisation in, we set our sights on Bonette Peak at 5,035m for one of the following days and on a super sunny day (I got toasted), we put on the plastics and crampons and headed up it. A solid 4 or 5 hours later we summited and had the whole of the gigantic West face of Aconcagua to look upon and we could see the route up through the higher camps that we would be following once the rotation started and we started to push for the summit in later days. My relative lack of time in plastics and crampons really told on this day and I was blowing out my ass on the way up! Rolfe has a video clip of us summiting and in it a very tired me can be seen bending over to kiss the cross at the top. I suspect many have bent over and done the same, uttering something religious such as ‘thank god’ or some such and in my own way, I did too… ‘THANK F*CK’, I think were my special words.

We rested the following day and got the calories and water in. With an aim of getting 6 litres in a day, hydration is a constant mission but one that has to be kept in focus as at this altitude your body must stay as hydrated as possible for it to function and allow you to perform as best you can. Mooching around BC, Ian and I headed up to take some pictures of a serac at the top of the valley head. We were also keeping an eye on things up on the route and our eyes were caught by a couple of American guys who were skiing down one of the couloirs. They had muled in their skis and were intent on skiing what they could on the hill rather than climb it as such. After they had made their way down we noticed another guy on his own who seemed to be moving pretty slowly down another really steep couloir. We guessed he’d been involved in a summit attempt and was tiredly making his way down as quick as possible. We weren’t expecting to see him fall obviously and, after losing control on the slope he fell maybe 200ft and was completely out of control. It was a sickening moment as I think both of us were probably thinking ‘crap…did I just see someone die?!’ Thankfully after about 10mins he stirred and staggered off the snow slope on the rocks and shuffled his way slowly down to BC. You could almost make out the tweeting birds spinning round his head!

A day or so later and again after medical clearance from the quack we started to move up the hill. The first rotation is a 4-hour load carry up to Camp 1 (Canada), overnighting there and then on up to Camp 2 (Nido) to stash some stuff and then get back down to Base Camp for the following night i.e. the tried and trusted method of climbing high and sleeping low to speed your bodies acclimatisation curve. That night in Canada was unbelievably blowy and the wind was such a force that the tents were getting a real kicking for pretty much all of the night. Rolfe and Giannis tent in particular (which had seen a few more seasons than Ian and my tent) saw several important looking bits get ripped off to the extent that that old girl was retired to Base Camp usage from that point on! The following days carry up to Nido saw the wind continue along with a fair amount of precipitation and there is some video footage of the team being pummelled on the way up which looks absolutely AWESOME quite frankly. What a day that was!

We headed back down and spent a rest day at BC before finally cutting the cord and beginning the push up the hill proper the day after. Thankfully at this stage we were now a full team again after Kam had been slow to acclimatise (can be normal) and he needed a few extra days at BC to catch up the curve. We all headed up to Canada and spent a quieter night than the previous night there and then the following day moved up to Nido. We spent a couple of days/nights at Camp 2 again to help acclimatise. We were now at 5,500m and that’s some serious altitude right there!! It was during one of these days that I decided to have a lovely wet wipe bath being I’d not had a wash of any kind since leaving the hotel. I’m sure I stank and I’m sure I stank moderately less after the wet wipes but it felt good at the time.

And so up to High Camp – Camp Colera at 6,000m – situated higher than Kilimanjaro’s summit. Sleeping at this altitude is a toughie especially when you consider we were clocking temperatures of -27 INSIDE the tents at night. Personally I am really prone to periodic breathing at nights anywhere north of 3,000m so as well as that, the cold, the fact that it was snowing inside the tents with the breath moisture and I was sleeping with water bottles and all my electronics, I didn’t get a tonne of kip in up there at night!!

The views from Colera were OUTRAGEOUS obviously and the summit seemed tantalisingly close but you knew that there was one hell of a fight between here and there and so far this hill had only let 2 through to the top in the season. Summit success rate is 8% on Aco and any summit made will be a combination of seriously hard graft and the weather gods smiling on you to allow you that slot to get up there and down without all hell breaking loose and kicking the shit out of you. The wind speed forecast either side of our summit night was showing 80-100kms plus winds and some serious wind chill of -40 but thankfully our guides had timed us up to take advantage of a small lull and with wind speed in very acceptable ranges. With so many unguided/ illegally expeditions going up, the phenomenal edge of having Rolfe and Gianni take us up was hugely apparent many times during the climb and this was a great example; the rumour on the hill earlier in the week was that a slot some 4 or 5 days earlier would be the one but the reality proved different and those teams who went early and weren’t patient got hammered. There are many reasons why these guys are so successful in what they do – this measured patient approach is clearly one of them.

Summit day kicked off into a super cold night and we were off at about 3:30am. We were aware we had a very small weather window with reasonable wind speed and the precipitation which had bucketed down the day before had stopped. There was a fair dump everywhere and so from the off we were in crampons and pounding out the hard yards up the slopes. To allow us a chance to get up and down in the window a steady pace needed to be maintained. Kam found his personal best high point at 6,200m before turning back and the rest of us pushed on in the frigid air towards dawn. And my god what a dawn it was. Completely mind blowing. We didn’t get many pictures between us that night as we were all far too focused on the job at hand but what pictures we did get show one of the most beautiful dawns you will ever see. Peak after peak after peak for hundreds of miles around including the hulk that is Mercedario off to the North. It was gobsmackingly beautiful. By this time, I had been bollocked by Gianni several times for having my mouth and nose exposed and he threatened to turn me around unless I covered up. With wind chill that low there was a risk of causing some serious damage to exposed tissue. The issue I had was that I was struggling to get sufficient air in through the balaclava so it was a constant battle to keep a happy medium. This was compounded by my breath fogging up into my goggles and freezing. I couldn’t see a bloody thing at times which is interesting on steep snow slopes but we solved this by switching out to glacier glasses.

And so to the summit, or at least my summit. In the end my personal battle with the mountain ended this time around at 6,400m. After feeling pretty strong for the first 3 and a half hours out of camp I hit an absolute brick wall and couldn’t get through it. It was like someone had turned off the tap on my gas tank and I was running on total empty. I’ve never experienced an energy drain like it and it totally floored me. Knowing that we probably had 4-6 hours to go just to get to the top and that my pace was seriously off compared to where we needed it to be I limped to the Refugio Independiencia and had to admit it wasn’t going to be possible to continue. Aconcagua had officially kicked my damn arse.

After trudging back down to Colera I got my head down for an hour and reflected on what wasn’t to be. Another hour or so later the other members of the team arrived back at camp having topped out at about 6,700m. They had been stopped in their tracks after the traverse by a loaded snow slope that failed Gianni’s avalanche test and so were forced to abandon their attempt. Far from being too downhearted I think everyone felt like they had done what they could but just had to accept that this hill is a total monster and for various reasons we couldn’t better it. Sitting here writing this now some 10 days or so afterwards I still feel that way and in a slightly twisted reason I’m actually excited that I will just have to try do the damn thing again in a year or two. I think I know the lesson’s that need to be learnt from this to make me stronger for next time and even walking away back down to the gate on the 40km walk out (on a MAMMOTH hangover) I felt like I would see that place again and felt no sentimentality about leaving it behind for now.

So that’s it. An EPIC mission and one that I totally loved despite the hardship and thorough ass kicking it gave me. I loved Argentina and was privileged to eat and drink phenomenally well on and off the hill as well as meet and spend time with some utterly amazing people. I’m proud of what we all achieved and have banked some amazing memories.

Elbrus next for me with 360 in 2016. Cannot wait!

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