I just came back from my latest adventure, climbing Aconcagua via the 360 Route. Aconcagua is the highest mountain in the western hemisphere (and the second highest of the “seven summits”).
I climbed with Sunny Stroeer from Aurora Women’s Expeditions (AWE) – who was, in fact, awe-some! I would highly recommend going with Sunny on any of her trips.
It was so fun that, having now completed washing all of my stinky laundry and cleaning my gear, I’m already eager for my next adventure. Speaking of gear, you can read about some of my gear reviews and comments here.
February 3 – Mendoza
In this post, I’ll focus on what our team did on our trip: Four of us (Sunny, Tara, Kristin and I) met in Mendoza, the capital of Mendoza Province in Argentina, where we spent one night. This was to organize, get permits, and already spend one night at something higher than sea level (about 2500 ft / 750 m altitude). In Mendoza, we stayed at the very lovely Hotel Diplomatic, which I can highly recommend. The staff and service were outstanding, the location convenient, the rooms comfortable, and the breakfasts plentiful.
February 4 – Penitentes
The following morning, we went by van to Los Penitentes, which is a ski resort in the winter and serves as great base for Aconcagua trekkers/climbers in the summer.
Staying here made the start of the trek easier, because the resort is a few minutes by car from the trailhead, and also helped a lot with acclimatization, since Penitentes is at approximately 8500 ft / 2600 m altitude. We were gasping for air while heaving our heavy bags up and down the stairs. At Penitentes, we also gave some of our gear to our logistics provider, Inka Expediciones, to carry on their mules (as far as basecamp).
February 5 & 6 – Trailhead to Pampa de Leñas and Casa Piedras
From Penitentes the next morning, we were off and if not running, then at least hiking slowly (altitude appropriately!). On the 360 Route, that means the first night on the trail is at Pampa de Leñas, and the second night is at Casa Piedras. Both are campsites with outhouses (of mixed quality…) and little else provided. Still, we were happy to have outhouses, as above basecamp, we’d be using plastic bags for our human waste.
The awesome folks at Inka did provide us with grilled meat and vegetables for dinner at Pampa de Leñas – what a way to start the trek! Sadly, we did not eat that well every day on the mountain.
There is little climbing to be done between the trailhead at Punta de Vacas and these two camps, maybe a thousand feet / few hundred meters. This gradual approach was great, as it further helped with acclimatization, which simply cannot be rushed, no matter what people like to believe.
The trail up to here is largely dusty and hot, and it is often windy. We tried to breathe through our Buffs, covering our mouths and noses. I did get sloppy on that on the way down and paid the price for that choice, with a dry cough lasting for about a week, from having breathed in a lot of dust. Still, better to deal with that at home than while climbing on the upper mountain.
February 7 – Casa Piedras to Basecamp (Plaza Argentina)
On the next day, we arrived at Plaza de Argentina Basecamp, at about 13,800 ft / 4200 m – a noticeable climb. This was exciting to me, as it was my first ever basecamp experience. In my climbing to date, I have almost always been in remote and far less popular mountainous locations, so there weren’t any established basecamps. (An exception to the “far less popular” statement was climbing Kilimanjaro, but the situation there is different; people tend to just go up and up at whatever speed their itineraries and bodies allow for; there are just camps, but no real basecamp – that I’m aware of.) I had no idea what to expect.
Fascinating! A mini city in the middle of “nowhere.” I wasn’t quite prepared for the infrastructure that awaited – with several logistics providers having semi-permanent (for the season) outhouses, cooking tents, dining tents, dormitory tents, hot showers, solar chargers, etc.
February 8 – Rest Day at Plaza Argentina
This was our first planned rest day. I don’t remember that much of it… Perhaps that means I really needed a rest day! We did sleep in and then tried to consume as much breakfast as we could. I say, “tried to consume”, because as of basecamp, my appetite started to dwindle, and my caloric intake was severely diminished. I’m not a great eater under the best of circumstances, and altitude does not help me. Having said that, Inka provided exceptional cooking at their basecamps. Not eating was not for lack of quality food.
February 9 – Carry to Camp 1
This was the day to start moving to the upper mountain! The idea behind “carrying” is to move some of your stuff to the higher camp (at higher altitude) and then return to the lower camp (in this case basecamp) to sleep. The goal is two-fold: First, it enables you to move camp in two trips, so you don’t have to carry quite as much on each trip; second, it enables your body to experience the higher altitude and then to recover at the lower altitude, to help you to acclimatize.
The hike to camp 1 was fairly straightforward, though it did contain one fairly steep section through snow/ice (a field of “penitentes”). At the camp, we put our gear into heavy duty plastic bags and weighed them down under piles of rocks, since we were going to leave them there for a night or two.
Once at camp, I sat down in a semi-reclining position and propped myself up against some rocks to rest. Almost immediately, I rolled over… and threw up! Sadly, I had rolled over onto the side in which I had a pocket full of clean tissues, but Tara came to my rescue with spares. Before and after, I never felt nauseous, but in between there was a short moment in which my brain said, “throw up now‼” I guess I should be thankful that I didn’t have long bouts of nausea before or after the fact, although I did feel weakened afterward – and proceeded with some caution on my descent back to basecamp. (Thanks, Sunny, for waiting for me.)
As soon as we got back to basecamp, I took a nap. For dinner, I couldn’t face another deliciously cooked but very rich meal (Inka wisely tries to pack in as many calories as possible for their climbers). Instead, I requested a big dish of plain boiled rice, which the cooks were happy to provide. I explained to the staff that there was nothing wrong with their meals – I’m just not used to food that rich and couldn’t face it again after my experience earlier in the day.
February 10 – Rest Day at Plaza Argentina
Because of my bout with vomiting the previous day, we opted for another rest day at basecamp, to help me acclimatize further. This was possible because of our schedule, which specifically allowed for some flexibility for weather and acclimatization reasons – because you just never know what will happen on any given trip.
The decision turned out to be a good one for everyone, in part because there was a storm moving in. No summiting for anyone during that storm, which was predicted to have 90 mph winds.
February 11 – Move to Camp 1
The second hike up to camp 1 was supposed to be easier than the first. Instead, we got hit by the initial part of the predicted storm and hiked up in the beginning of a blizzard.
On this day, my fingers started to freeze, even in my liner gloves and heavy mittens. I don’t have good circulation in my hands and feet! To keep them from freezing, I bunched up my hands into fists within my mittens. That worked for a little while, and then even that was insufficient, and I needed a new strategy.
Normally, I like to hike slowly in the mountains. “Po-le, po-le” as they say on Kilimanjaro… “slowly, slowly” – don’t underestimate the altitude! My new finger-saving strategy became: sprint for 30-40 breaths, stop and put my frozen hands into my down parka, under my armpits, and thaw them out. Repeat. Endlessly. I’m not even a sprinter a sea level, but this approach got me through the snow and ice and into camp, with all 10 digits still attached to my hands! Still, I and I think several of us ended up in camp with the screaming barfies and had to spend a few minutes getting past that stage of pain.
By the time we reached camp 1 in the afternoon, the winds had fully developed, and we had the (type 2) fun of putting up our tents in what we estimated were 40-50 mph winds with 80-90 mph gusts. (This was consistent with the forecast, so I don’t think our estimates were too far off.)
We were too busy holding on to the tent to check our watches, but it took 4 of us probably over a frozen hour to put up one of our tents. Because of the great teamwork and the challenge involved, that turned out to be one of my favorite times on the mountain!
Less enjoyable was having to go out 5 times that night to go pee in the storm… and seeing more and more snow accumulate each time I went out. After the first time or two, and after almost being blown over, I did get really good at timing the wind gusts so that I could do my business in relative peace. I tried to remind myself that getting up in the middle of the night meant I was drinking my requisite overnight liter of water; plus, I got to see an awful lot of stunning, star-studded, nighttime southern hemisphere skies – without light pollution.
February 12 – Rest Day at Camp 1
Brrrr… a chilly rest day to acclimatize at camp 1, which is at somewhere around 16,000 ft / 4900m altitude.
February 13 – Carry to Camp 2 (Upper Guanacos Camp)
From here on out, climbing became tougher and tougher due to the increasing altitude. Still, after a rest day, it was time to move on, and we carried our gear up the mountain to camp 2, a beautifully situated camp at approximately 17,700 ft / 5400 m altitude.
Eating at this altitude continued to become more problematic for me as well. Probably, the prospect of having to eat freeze-dried food packages didn’t help. I dreamed of fresh salads and fruit. To Sunny’s credit, she did carry several fresh carrots and apples up the mountain, to bring out at times of dietary desperation.
February 14 – Move to Camp 2
Moving to camp 2 went as planned, and we started to get good at the carry-move schedule of traversing sections twice (well, three times… twice up and once down, in between). With each struggling step carrying my pack on the move days, I reminded myself that I would not have to walk that particular stretch of trail again!
February 15 – Rest Day at Camp 2
Camp 2, being higher, was colder than camp 1 – but at least the high winds had largely died down, and it was n
o longer snowing. One of the things we did on this rest day was practicing (in the cold and at altitude…) putting on our crampons and using our ice axes.
February 16 – Carry to Camp 3 (Camp Cólera)
The carry to camp 3 was not easy, since camp 3 is at 19,200 ft / 5950 m altitude – almost as high as Kilimanjaro’s peak!
This was it for Aconcagua via the 360 Route: At camp 3 we also met up with the Normal Route, which is the more common approach to the mountain. Camp 3 is shared by both routes.
I’d been dreading camp 3, based on stories from the previous year told by my tent mate, Kristin. Being an English speaker, I also thought when I first heard the name of the camp that it was “Camp Cholera” – which did not seem like a promising name! Instead, it is Camp Cólera and (apparently) referred to – with Spanish spelling, of course – some prior outbreak of hostilities between 2 parties.
When we got to camp 3, however, I realized how beautiful the setting was (admittedly, the most beautiful views were from the “toilet” area!), and after a long hike from camp 2, was overjoyed to reach camp 3. The difference was in the weather – this year we had a lovely time at camp 3, whereas the weather was not so benign in the prior year. It was a good reminder of how much of an impact mountain weather has on the safety and the comfort (or lack thereof) of any given climb.
February 17 – Move to Camp 3
No time to rest: The day after our carry, we moved our gear up to camp 3. Once there, no rest day was planned. A rest day might have been nice for me, to get further acclimatized, since I am not genetically one of the super-acclimatizers who can just continue upward without any apparent trouble.
We opted against resting at camp 3 for two reasons: 1) It’s hard to really “rest” at that altitude; the body doesn’t have that much of a chance to recover from the strains of altitude – it’s just surviving; and 2) the weather looked better on the following day than the day after. For better or for worse, since weather dictates almost everything on the mountain, we determined our summit day would be the following day without resting further at camp 3.
February 18 – Summit Day
This was it, our big day! We started early, getting up a few minutes before 3 am, and got on the trail around 4 or a few minutes thereafter. It was dark and cold and I was finally thankful for my big, heavy mountaineering boots to keep my toes warm!
Phase 1 was getting to Independencia, which was already a several hour challenge up steep terrain. At Independencia, our first order of business was thawing out Kristin’s frozen toes, which caused our break to be a lot longer than we’d planned. I was thankful once again for my boots. I was also happy, because I had by now set my new personal altitude record – as Independencia is higher than Kilimanjaro’s summit!
After getting warmed up (sort of… toes were again painful, no longer numb), we put on our crampons and prepared for “the traverse” (parts of which are a lot steeper than it sounds like a traverse ought to be). On this date, most of the traverse was snow and ice-free. The traverse leads to a point called “la cueva”, which isn’t that much of a cave but is an area of overhanging rock – with danger of rock fall around it but where one can find some shelter in an emergency, if one goes right up to the rock wall, i.e., the back of what shallow “cave” there is. Apparently, a few years ago an Indonesian group of climbers had to spend the night there, and somewhat miraculously, all survived.
The cueva is a last resting spot before the final push, up the Canaleta. The first half or so of the Canaleta was steep snow and ice, followed by a second half of equally steep (steeper?) scree, until one reaches the last few feet before the summit altitude.
I spent much of the day vomiting up everything I put in my stomach, including foods and liquids, and ended up weak and dehydrated, especially after several days of already pretty much not eating. I talk about my decision-making after getting through the ice and snow portion of the canuletta in this post. The short version is that I decided the risks of completing my summit bid that day were greater than I wanted, and I turned back, somewhere near the beginning of the scree portion of the Canaleta.
I’m very happy with that decision. Will I go back and summit some time? I might! It would be fun. On the other hand, I have an awful lot of other adventure projects planned, so we’ll see.
February 19 – Camp 3 to Basecamp on the Normal Route side (Plaza de las Mulas)
The first descent day seems endless, because you pass down steep scree slopes from camp 3 to camp 2 and past camp 1 all the way to basecamp on this side of the mountain. Surfing down the scree slopes was fun; slipping and sliding down the actual trails that were covered in loose rocks was not. The sharp rocks on the mountain kept eating away at the soles of my trail runners (see my gear review post here – on the whole, I was still really happy with having brought them), and by the end of the day I was left with virtually no remaining traction.
Still, one of my favorite moments of the trip happened on this day: In the middle of a long surf down a scree slope, I had taken a fall and landed on my backside. Just as I was about to get up again, Sunny, who was a few feet ahead of me, said, “wait for the pros to go by.” I figured someone was coming up behind me, and I didn’t want to present a moving target for them to go around, so I sat for another moment. Within seconds, several Inka guides had swarmed around me, laughing and removing items from my pack (and Sunny’s) and strapping them onto their own packs. Before I even had time to say “huh?” a photo had been taken of me with my “rescuers” posing behind me as if we were in some campy musical! Thanks, Agustin and friends!
We all decided that we liked Aconcagua via the 360 Route approach better than the much steeper Normal Route approach. It would have been a tough climb coming up, especially with fewer acclimatization days (as I think is typical on the Normal Route). If you have a choice, pick the 360 Route!
February 20 – Plaza de las Mulas to Normal Route trailhead / Penitentes
This was the last hiking day – another very long day, approximately 15 miles from basecamp to the trailhead. The distance seemed like about 60 miles. The Horcones valley is beautiful – but endless. After hiking down and wanting to reach the destination, seeing the same scenery hour after hour after hour became tiring in and of itself! I think we all mentally celebrated when we saw our first grasses near one of the streams, which introduced some much-needed greenery into the rock and dust scenery.
I did have one nice surprise: when we reached Camp Confluenzia, where we had fresh fruit and other snacks provided by Inka, I thought it was at about the halfway point of the hike. In reality, we only had about 3.5 miles to go from there. As we got closer to the trailhead, we started seeing day hikers… further evidence of reaching civilization (a.k.a. hot showers)! Make that two surprises: Confluenzia had a sink with warm running water with soap! And flushable toilets! Unexpected luxuries on the mountain… We all still smelled horrible after Confluenzia, but at least my face and hands were clean.
February 21 – Penitentes to Mendoza
Mmmm, hot showers, sleeping in, clean sheets, fresh fruit at breakfast… the wonders of spending the night at a hotel instead of in a tent.
We did discover that, while we all had no trouble breathing the air at 9000 feet, we still had trouble getting up and down the stairs, especially with our heavy bags… this time, because our legs were feeling rather rubbery after our quick descent and long hikes down the mountain. Sometimes you just can’t win!
Late morning, we were picked up and headed back to Mendoza.
February 22 – 23 Mendoza
Since our itinerary had some flexibility to allow for capricious mountain weather and other unforeseen circumstances, we got back from the mountain one day earlier than “necessary.” By then we were all more than ready for hot showers anyway… as a result of the schedule shift, we had not just one but two nights in Mendoza and thoroughly enjoyed the luxury of the Hotel Diplomatic after being on the mountain. On our “free” day, we did what many a Mendoza tourist has done before us – we went wine tasting!
For a very reasonable amount of money, we were driven to/from a winery (Bodega Vistalba), had a 5-course meal (officially their 3 course option but with a few extras thrown in), and tasted some untold number of wines. I don’t actually know how many since I don’t drink wine, but it seemed the sommelier was very generous with her bottles. What a fun way to reintroduce ourselves back to civilization and to celebrate our successful mountain trip, before we all headed off to our respective homes!