Category Archives: Aconcagua

Aconcagua photos

I recently just finished cleaning up and culling my Aconcagua photos. See them here.

I didn’t realize until I got home that my camera’s sensor had somehow gotten a couple of specks of dust on it, so pretty much every single photo with sky in it had to be repaired. Luckily, Adobe Lightroom makes that pretty easy — but still tedious if you have to clean up 150+ photos!

Days 11-13 on Aconcagua

Note: I’m writing this almost two months after our summit day: 12/14/2014.

My final days on Aconcagua were very difficult both physically and emotionally.

Our summit push began early in the morning just before sunrise. We had been concerned about weather for the past few days, but that day it looked pretty good: few butts and light winds. It was going to be a great day to summit.

Our pace was slow and deliberate; we were in no rush at this altitude. Every breath was difficult, but our packs were light. We only needed to carry extra layers, our snack food, and lots of water. Climbing at those altitudes is a strange physical experience for me. While physically it is not that challenging, the lack of oxygen makes everything frustratingly difficult. So, as I reflect on it now, I don’t remember it being that hard, but I’m sure at the time I was annoyed why even slow, small steps could be so hard.

The first big rest stop was at Independencia at around 21,600ft, which is higher than Mt McKinley the highest peak in North America. I remember getting there around 9 in the morning, and I felt great. Yes, there was lack of breath and it was hard just to take a step, but I felt strong, I didn’t have any altitude problems, and I was so happy to be up that high. We rested for about 20 minutes before started the next leg taking us to “The Cave” which was to be our last big rest before the final push to the summit.

As we climbed higher, my mood ascended with me. At one point when we were coming to the end of “The Traverse” and close to “The Cave” I was in such a euphoric mood I was nearly in tears. I was so happy to feel so good, so strong, and so close to finishing something I had been planning and preparing for for nearly two years. I was imagining the joy of standing on top of the summit, done with this arduous effort and ready to go back downhill to my home and wife.

I’m not sure exactly when it started, but it was soon after I checked myself back in to reality. We were close to The Cave, which was really just a hollow in a cliff side rather than a cave, when I noticed my legs were not working like they were supposed to. My steps and balance became unsure. By the time we reached The Cave a few minutes later I could barely walk straight. During our rest there, I could feel my strength draining quickly. Our guide noticed it too and said when we started again I would go up slower with another group member and the junior guide.

I knew I was in trouble very quickly once we began the final push. My balance was almost completely gone, and with the crampons and double heavy boots my legs became exhausted after only a few dozen meters of climbing. At our first brief pause, I almost fell over when I stopped climbing and had to sit down. At that point the junior guide rightly became very concerned and began a radio conversation with Ilan about what to do with me. I asked — pleaded? — for one more chance, and they eventually agreed. I didn’t want to quit, but somewhere in my increasingly hazy thoughts I knew I probably wasn’t going to make it to the summit. At our second pause, maybe 10 meters farther up and roughly 125m from the summit, I nearly tipped over when I tried to sit down. That was it. I knew my would not summit. At this point, my grasp on what was happening around me was so loose, I was numb to my failure and my need to go down. I just accepted it as it was supposed to happen.

I descended with the junior guide. It was the hardest physical task I’ve ever done in my life by far. My quadriceps were constantly burning, my knees were weak, my balance was barely there, and I was exhausted. Long before we reached our high camp, I had to sit down every 10 minutes to re-gather what remaining strength I had. Those last few meters into camp were too much for me alone, and my guide had to give me his shoulder. Collapsing in my tent, I immediately fell asleep.

Day 12
The next day we descended from Camp Colera to Plaza de Mulas, a total of ~1600m or 5300ft. In good condition, I could have basically jogged off the mountain. Instead I had to go very slow and take lots of breaks. I had recovered some balance, but I was still very unsteady. By the time we reached base camp, my legs were so exhausted again I was about to collapse. The rest of the afternoon I stewed silently, rested, and then we drank a lot of wine. That helped a little.

Day 13
Our last day on Aconcagua. We started down soon after the sunlight hit us. Heading down we all went our own pace, and I was soon separated out from everybody else by hundreds of yards. My legs were good enough again. My balance was better but at any point that had more than a gentle downward slope, I had to be careful.

I was glad to be alone most of the 25km walk to the park entrance. Emotionally I was wrecked, constantly fighting back waves of frustration, anger, and feelings of failure. It was hard not to break down weeping periodically. I’ve found it is very difficult for me to describe how I felt that day. Perhaps it was a crushing sense of failure and unfulfillment.

Just before reaching the park entrance, the trail climbs slightly and bends around the base of a mountain. When you’re going up, this is the first full view of Aconcagua’s ridge. When you’re doing down, it is the last. Here we turned and took our final pictures of the mountain. As I snapped a few photos I could feel my despondency well up again. When I turned my back on Aconcagua, I couldn’t hold in all my tears. I still can’t two months later.

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I didn’t fully recover my balance until the following morning in Mendoza. Our conclusion was I suffered high-altitude cerebral edema.

Day 10 on Aconcagua

We moved camps again today. From Nido to Colera which is at 5980m. Just the ~1000ft increase in altitude made a big difference. Every little task leaves me out of breath. For the first time the climbing part was physically challenging. I have a slight headache, and we are told to hydrate, hydrate, hydrate.

Camp 3 is filled with strange rock formations. It finally dawned on me when eating dinner what it reminded me of: old strange planet sets from Star Trek the Original Series.

Again an early bed time but tomorrow morning we start our summit! It will easily be the longest and hardest day of the expedition.

Day 9 on Aconcagua

I actually slept really well last night as we are finally in temperatures that it was made for (it is rated down to -30F).

The weather has not been the greatest. Cold, windy, and overcast. The clouds really are the biggest downer for me.

Today was much like yesterday: slog from a lower camp to a higher camp, pitch tents, hydrate, eat, rest.

Good news came in the evening with the weather report! It looks like our original summit day, the 14th, has opened up! What a huge relief. Not only does it mean we will have an actual shot at the summit (before it was in doubt), but it also means we won’t have to spend an extra night on the mountain. When Ilan came to our tent with the update I nearly cried. I think it was the altitude. Anyway, I was amped the rest of the night.

Day 8 on Aconcagua

Not much to say today. We moved up to the first high camp, Canada, at 5030m. Even with a heavier pack, the climb wasn’t that difficult.

Upon arriving we immediately pitched the tents and hydrated. Our guide, Ilan, made us hamburgers as a treat for dinner. They really hit the spot. Camp Canada is pretty exposed so we stayed in our tents the majority of the time. It is like having a 7:30 bed time. I’m getting lots of reading done.

Tomorrow we move up to Camp 2, Nido de Condores which is at 5600m.

Day 7 on Aconcagua

Hard to believe it’s been only a week as it feels like longer. Probably because I never sleep that well. Frankly that’s the hardest part for me (aside from missing my wife). I sorely miss a good solid night of sleep.

Today is our last rest day, and tomorrow we begin our summit attempt. The window on the 13th has been slammed shut by high winds, so even though we will start up it looks like our only chance to summit is the 15th or 16th, which means we will spend at least one extra night up at Camp 2 or 3. Of course weather can change. It is doubly frustrating because over the past week of acclimatization the weather has been uncommonly good. Now that we are about to star, the weather gets bad long enough to potentially block our summiting.

Still could be worse: this morning a member of the French party fell within 5 minutes of starting up, dislocated his shoulder, and had to be medi-vacced to Mendoza.

I am getting tired of this though, and I want to get off the mountain as quickly as possible. I’m tired of poor sleep. I’m tired of being dirty. I’m tired of sleeping in a sleeping bag. I’m tired of the dust. I’m tired of peeing in a bottle at night. I’m tired of being away from home and my wife.

I will be glad to get away from Plaza de Mulas tomorrow and have finally started what we came to do: stand on top of Aconcagua!

Day 6 on Aconcagua

Today we did our one and only carry to the first high camp. A carry is when you haul gear you need higher up but don’t need at base camp. We also took up all of the food we will need for our summit attempt. After dropping the gear off at the high camp, you then go back down to the lower camp to sleep.

Today however after dropping off our gear at Camp 1 we went up to Camp 2 to further acclimatize ourselves. The weather was great with some wind but mostly sunny. Camp 2 is at 5500m. As we were approaching it, I realized that physically I could beat this mountain. I felt great, I had no problems with the altitudes, I had the energy. That was a very important mental milestone for me.  The training hikes I has been doing for so long had prepared me so well for this that I would say it is easy. I was overjoyed to get to Camp 2 with such ease. Of course things can change over the next 500m to Camp 3 or the 1500 or so meters to the summit, so I’m not trying to be too cocky.

The descent was rapid as we could skree ski almost the whole way down. What took us about 6 hours to go up we went down in just over an hour. It was a long and exhausting hike, but very fulfilling.

Tonight at dinner one of our group informed us he would not be going up with us. He had a family emergency and needed to head back to Norway as quickly as possible. Another downer was the weather report. Our scheduled summit day, the 14th, was almost certainly not going to happen due to high winds. We have two options: skip a high camp and summit a day early or wait until the winds go down. Most of us were strongly for a summit attempt on the 13th, but a couple of others were struggling with the altitude and weren’t that interested in speeding things up. We will make our final decision later as weather changes quickly.