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Aconcagua 2004 - Once more unto the breach

The following pages contain photographs from the Aconcagua 2004 trip, the third attempt in three years to reach the top of this fascinating mountain, at 6959m the highest in the western and southern hemispheres.

This year there were only two of us in the group;

  • Dean James (without the Porsche), welsh druid, man of Everest, and otherwise known as ’short but reliable’.
  • Bringing up the rear as usual, Andy Clark, lanky and doomed by fate of birth place to only gaze in envy at ’God’s own Country’.

Their contrasting heights would mean that this pair would be instantly recognisable from any distance on the mountain.

 

Clare waiting at Totnes railway station

The journey started, as usual, from the sleepy railway station of Totnes in Devon.

Pausing only long enough to pick up a few bugs at Heathrow, we flew onward with United Airlines to Washington where, following a not so brief battle with the American immigration and agriculture departments - ’look, we’re in transit, we don’t want to be here’ - we emerged with our corned beef supplies intact.

 

The Argentinian flatlands seen from the Lan Chile flight on the way from Buenas Aries to Santiago in Chile
Classic cone shaped volcano, name unknown, located in the Andes not far from Aconcagua.
A snow covered Aconcagua, seen from the air, rises above the surrounding Andean moutains. [Photo: Dean James]
A layer of cloud covers much of the Andean foothills.
A layer of cloud covers much of the Andean foothills.

From Washington we boarded another United flight to Buenas Aries, Argentina. Miraculously we made it to BA in time to make our connection to Santiago in Chile, where we then caught another flight back into Argentina, to our final destination, Mendoza. Mad or what? Only Dean’s travel agent knows why we took such a roundabout route, paying to leave the country just to return again a few hours later. On the plus side, we did gain 18,000 Eurobonus points on the trip which meant we still came out ahead, financially.

An added bonus was getting to fly past an unusually snow covered Aconcagua on the way to and from Santiago. The photographs below show some of the views from the plane:

 

Our favourite hotel in Mendoza, excellent coffee, Andes beer and a pool - what more could you ask for?

After the long series of flights we were very grateful to arrive in Mendoza to be met by Guillermo, our friendly if musically challenged bus driver from previous years. A quick bus ride deposited us at the Nutibara Hotel; burgers, toasted sandwiches, Andes beer, great coffee and a pool. Excellent, and now with the added attraction of broadband!

Alas, we had only a brief night here before heading off to the park office to purchase our Aconcagua entry permits ($300 this year). 2 1/2 hours later we were at 2500m in the Andes and pulling in to the dirveway of the Ayelen Hotel.

 

The ski-resort of Penitentes, virtually uninhabited during the summer, looking up the valley towards Aconcagua and Chile.
The Ayelen Hotel in Penitentes, a refuge for Andinistas on their way to and from the mountain and a watering-hole for travellers on the road between Mendoza and Santiago.
In the restaurant at the Ayelen.

The Ayelen, home to many a hopeful Andinista, was largely unchanged although we did notice a distinct shortage of crippled climbers this year, the lack of blackened digits and blood soaked bandages we put down to the recent extended period of good weather. It may also have been a result of a new trend - many people were avoiding the Ayelen on the way back from the mountain and heading straight back to Mendoza.

While Clare headed off to the Pacific beaches of Chile, Dean and Andy took the familiar path up the grassy slopes around Penitentes on the first acclimatisation walk. We were both surprised at how relatively easy it seemed compared to previous years, climbing higher and faster than before.

 

The ski slopes above Penitentes make a useful playground for acclimatisation. Steeper than they look in the photograph, an altitude of over 3500m can be reached with relative ease.
Andy on the ridge above Penitentes with Aconcagua in the far distance. A classic pre-trip photo opportunity.
The summit of Aconcagua streaming spindrift, seen from the ridge above Penitentes.

The acclimatisation walk also provides an opportunity to see Aconcagua for the first time (unless you happen to use Dean’s travel agent, of course, in which case you’ve probably seen it enough already) and to check out the prevailing weather conditions.

 

One of the rescue helicopters stationed at the park entrance.
The Horcones Lake at the start of the walk-in to basecamp, cloud covered summit of Aconcagua rising in the background.
The cloud covered summit of Aconcagua, reflected in the waters if the Horcones Lake.
Andy contemplating the objective. [Photo: Dean James]

Afer two nights at the Ayelen we boarded another minibus, feeling a little self-concious that just two of us were using facilities normally provided for goups of 10 or more, for a chauffer driven trip to the entrance of the Aconcagua National Park.

This time we passed through the park entrance in sunshine, a contrast to the blizzards of 2003.

After checking that the recue helicopter was in position (better safe than sorry) a short walk took us to the Horcones Lake, a major attraction for photographers hoping to catch the reflection of Aconcagua in its waters.

 

A condor sweeps over the hillside.
A condor sweeps over the hillside.
Condor.

Continuing the gradual climb from the park entrance to our first camp at Confluencia, we were treated to the sight of a Condor sweeping down the valley. Very difficult to photograph but an impressive sight and the first one we’ve seen.

 

Mules on the trail to Confluencia.
Mules on the trail to Confluencia.

Once inside the national park no vehicles are allowed. Everything has to be flown in or carried by mule. The mule drivers are a rugged bunch and their animals are easily capable of carrying a 60 kg load over 100km per day. The mules know the route and it’s not unusual to be passed by a convoy of mules with the driver fast asleep in the saddle.

 

Daniel Alessio’s facilities at Confluencia.
It’s early days and Dean has no problems downing a brew in our small mess tent at Confluencia.

As usual we were signed up with Daniel Alessio for basecamp and mule services. His staff are amazing and the service is out of this world. Arriving at the intermediate campsite at Confluencia we were surprised that the walk-in had taken less than 2 hours. In fact, we were just looking for somewhere to stop for lunch and had to do a double-take as the camp came into view below us.

 

Acclimatising on the hills around Confluencia, Dean searches out a route across the river. Looks like down is the only way to go.
View of the camp at Confluencia from the hillside above.
View of the camp at Confluencia from the hillside above.
View of the camp at Confluencia from the hillside above, the large dome contains a large number of bunk beds not unlike a Welsh bunkhouse. Some people will go to any length to increase their discomfort.

We spent two nights acclimatising at Confluencia before pushing on to basecamp. This year, in a break from tradition, we didn’t go to Plaza Francia for a view of the south face, choosing instead to mess around on the small peaks around Confluencia. Despite the fact that these were not as high as they appeared, we had good fun scrambling around on the rotten rock and bouncing down the excellent scree slopes. We were still amazed at how well we were moving and how little the altitude was affecting us.

 

Dean risks all on the rotten crags above Confluencia for an epic photo opportunity.
Dean poses before the massive bulk of Aconcagua.

Not being one to miss a photo opportunity, Dean risked life and limb to position himself in the optimum position in front of Aconcagua for an ’action shot’. Nice one Dean - rather you than me, but I won’t tell Karen!

 

The so-called ’pleasure beach’, an endless rocky desert which has to be crossed on the way to basecamp at Plaza de Mulas (basecamp).
The so-called ’pleasure beach’, an endless rocky desert which has to be crossed on the way to basecamp at Plaza de Mulas (basecamp).
The so-called ’pleasure beach’, an endless rocky desert which has to be crossed on the way to basecamp at Plaza de Mulas (basecamp).
Approching basecamp, the massive west face of Aconcagua starts to dominate the scenery.

One major downside of this trip is the approach to basecamp - a 20 km uphill walk through a dessicated river valley. The last vegetation is quickly left behind as you enter a seemingly endless stretch of barren, rock strewn desert. Despite the altitude, the sun beats down and the temperature can quickly rise into the high 20s. This year we put our heads down and went for it. With Dean’s short legs pumping away to keep up with Andy’s extended stride we reached basecamp in 5 hours instead of the normal 7 1/2. But then we did have the incentive of knowing that Daniel’s 16 year old sister in law was waiting for us at Plaza de Mulas. Our rapid progress catching her out as well - sorry Paca!

 

Plaza de Mulas - one of the more bizarre outposts of civilisation on the planet.
The Jagged Globe tents parked in front of Daniel Alessio’s basecamp area.

Basecamp is Plaza de Mulas. A bizarre outpost of civilisation that offers everything from burgers to broadband. Like colonies of penguins, different agents have laid claim to small, jealously guarded, pockets of land on the Horcones glacier and errected large frame tents for cooking and eating. Around these clients and individuals try to find space for their personal tents, and there is continual competition for large rocks for tying down guy-ropes.

 

For 300 bucks you get all your waste removed by helicopter - I’d like to see them doing this in the North Sea.
Taking the strain on the toilet barrel before
lifting it up, up and away into the wide blue yonder. This is why you should never put your tent too close to the toilets.

Every community generates waste and Plaza de Mulas is no exception. Due to the quantities involved it’s no longer viable to bury it in the glacier and it’s now shipped out by helicopter. This involves some brave individual fastening a cable from the toilet barrel to the helicopter’s cargo hook. The helicopter then lifts the barrel out of the ground, shedding toilet paper and other substances, and carries it off for disposal. An environmentally friendly if noisy process, especially as the choppers make use of the denser cold air in the early morning, typically arriving at 7AM.

 

Bonete peak: Andy walking beside penitents on the upper scree slope.
Bonete peak: Andy walking beside penitents on the upper scree slope.
Bonete peak: Dean snacking on the upper scree slope.
Bonete peak: Dean improvises on the summit of Bonete after discovering that the old summit cross has disappeared.
Bonete peak: Andy ponders the normal route on Aconcagua, visble in its entirety from the top of Bonete.
Bonete peak: Andy on the summit of Bonete. [Photo: Dean James]
Bonete peak: View from the summit, looking down the Horcones valley towards Confluencia. Much of the walk-in to Plaza de Mulas is visible from here.

After a rest day at basecamp we headed off for our traditional acclimatisation trek to the summit of Bonete peak (5000m). This year there was little snow and a lot of ’permanent’ ice seemed to have disappeared, only the penitentes on the upper ridge remaining. Still, this is a great little walk and we were both going well, taking only a couple of hours to reach the top. On the summit we met a lone climber who had decended from Aconcagua the previous day - after reaching 6500m he’d decided to come down because his feet were cold - given that he appeared to have been wearing trekking boots this was a probably a good move - beware of ze black digits!

 

Bonete peak: The west face of Aconcagua seen from Bonete, the entire normal route is visible.

A fantastic view of the entire west face of Aconcagua is the reward for anyone climbing to the top of Bonete, virtually the entire ’Normal Route’ is laid out in front of you.

 

Sunset on the west face of Aconcagua.
Sunset on the west face of Aconcagua.
Sunset on the west face of Aconcagua.
Dean and Andy caught on film admiring the sunset.

Back at basecamp after trekking on Bonete, one sight that never ceases to impress is sunset on the west face of the mountain. As the mountain changes colour from brown to orange to vivid pink progressively more and more people emerge from the mess tents to watch. Down jackets are essential because the camp is already in the shadow of Aconcagua and the temperature has dropped instantly from +15C to 0C.

 

The moutain attracts many groups from the commercial companies like KE Adventure and Jagged Globe in the UK. Observing these groups and their leaders can be highly entertaining, usually for the wrong reasons. However, we were pleasantly surprised to be on the mountain at the same time as one Jagged Globe group lead by Andy Chapman. A friendly bunch, we leap-frogged past each other several times.

 

At some point during the trip it’s traditional to interrupt your life of leisure at Plaza de Mulas in order to make an attempt on the mountain itself. How long you can stay away from basecamp depends largely on the intensity of your pizza addiction and your need for a decent toilet.

Regardless, one thing you quickly learn is that distances on the moutain are relatively short, two or three hours is generally enough to get between camps, and therefore there’s absolutely no point in doing anything until the sun has risen. This means you can easily justify staying snug in your sleeping bag until 10AM almost everyday. Unfortunately for the Jagged Globers, they had yet to learn and consequently were to be seen packing their rucksacks in the bitter, early morning air. Shame.

 

Members of the Jagged Globe group preparing their loads in the pre-sunrise chill.
Jagged Globe member, Ian Arnold, in good humour despite the cold.
The sun has not yet risen but members of the Jagged Globe group are already setting off from basecamp to make a load carry to Camp 1 (Canada).

The first trek onto the mountain is normally a food and fuel carry to camp 1 (Canada), after which a rest day is in order back at basecamp before moving up to Canada with the tents and personal equipment.

 

On the path to Camp Canada, looking back down on basecamp.

The trail from basecamp crosses a short section of lethal penetentes before rising steeply above the camp. The initial start is a bit of a shock, coming so early in the morning, but the inclination quickly drops to a more lung-friendly angle. From the slopes above basecamp you can look down on the entire, isolated community and savour the thought of more pizzas to come.

 

Camp Canada: Looking towards Bonete peak from Canada after the food carry. Caches and residents in abundance.
Camp Canada: Dean rehydrates at Canada following the food carry.
The Jagged Globe team catch us up at Canada with their own load carry.
The Jagged Globe team catch us up at Canada with their own load carry.
Camp Canada: The track from Canada to Nido de Condores (Camp 2) is steeper than it looks in this photograph. Camp 2 is some distance beyond the shoulder.
Camp Canada: Our tents are alone at Camp 1.
Camp Canada: Dean jealously admires the spacious green Quasar before returning to his own tent.

600m of ascent in something under 2 hours (if you don’t stop for lunch) brings you to the first camp on the moutain, Camp Canada at around 4800m. Located on a shoulder behind an isolated rock pillar there is very little to recommend this place. Due to the lack of snow, ice has to be dragged from a frozen stream about 300m away. One benefit is that the decent time back to basecamp is very short on the loose scree and you can be enjoying a brew in the comfort of your mess tent within about 30 minutes.

 

Camp Canada: Rich pickings were to be had by the only other resident of Camp 1.
Camp Canada: Rich pickings were to be had by the only other resident of Camp 1.

There’s not too much life on Aconcagua, but this bird has obviously learnt that there is plenty of food to be had scavenging around the lower camps.

 

There’s not a lot to do at Camp 1 after you’ve put your tent up, forced down a couple of brews and indulged in one of Dean’s famous Tuna & Mash dinners. But the views of the surrounding peaks are quite spectacular, especially when you consider that these are as high as Mont Blanc. You can also see the first part of the route up to Camp 2, Nido de Condores.

 

Camp Canada: The ridge that forms Camp 1 in the foreground with Cerro Cuerno to the right in the background.
Camp Canada: Cerro Cuerno seen from the Quasar.
Camp Canada: Dean’s high altitude restaurant is open for business - anyone for a brew?
Camp Canada: The sun sets on our tents at Camp 1.

While at Canada we also encountered a patrol from the Park Police, lead by an individual with the most impressive lycra clad thighs we had ever seen, he would have been the envy of any Norwegian speed skater. Having observed the patrol coming from an unusual direction we were enlightened when ’Magic Thighs’ revealed that the rescue team always used the ’directissima’ route. His two colleagues, however, seemed rather less enamoured of this approach than their enigmatic leader. Since it seemed to involve the ascent of several hundred metres of vertical rock we weren’t too surprised.

 

Camp Canada: Refractively coloured clouds build up over Aconcagua as a result of early morning wind streaming in from the Pacific.
Camp Canada: Refractively coloured clouds build up over Aconcagua as a result of early morning wind streaming in from the Pacific.
Camp Canada: Refractively coloured clouds build up over Aconcagua as a result of early morning wind streaming in from the Pacific.

Waking up at camp 1 we were relaxing with an early brew when we suddenly noticed a strange disturbance in the sky over the summit. A patch of white cloud was growing rapidly in the air behind Aconcagua, the result of strong wind from the Pacific being deflected by the upper slopes of the moutain. The strength of the wind was demonstrated by the fact that we could actually see the clouds rippling. The sun, still behind the moutain, added an interesting rainbow effect to the clouds as they refracted the early morning rays. We watched the clouds growing rapidly over a period of 15 minutes, and then remain in place for a couple of hours before dissipating as rapidly as they had appeared.

 

The walk from camp 1 to camp 2 can be an ordeal since it’s normally done in one trek, carrying all the food, fuel and equipment. We did cheat and use a porter to help with some of the gear on this stretch, but still ended up carrying over 15kg each. Still, it’s only 2 1/2 hours of upward slog and we were still going remarkably strongly. Even putting the tents up in the rarified air didn’t cause us too many problems. Then it was just a case of settling down and drinking as much as possible.

As a mark of individuality we chose to errect our tents at 90 to the recommended direction, perpendicular to the prevailing wind. This may have raised a few eyebrows amongst the other inhabitants, but, what the hell, we’re British and we don’t care!

 

Nido de Condores: Dean in his favourite position, preparing another 2 litres of delicious (?) soup.
Nido de Condores: Perhaps a soupcon more bouquet garni?
Nido de Condores: Don’t look now but I think the Germans may have taken our toilet waste down with them.

Observing other people at Nido is highly entertaining, especially the ones coming back from the summit. Total fatigue can lead to some interesting confrontations between group members. German women, it seems, are particularly susceptible to the odd emotional outburst. Mind you, we’re very grateful to the two Germans who mistook our shit-bags for part of their equipment cache and carried them off down the mountain for us - very hospitable!

 

Nido de Condores: The triangular pyramid of summit of Aconcagua rises above the snowy covered slopes of the Gran Accareo. The traverse is on the shadows below the summit.
Nido de Condores: The plateau of Camp 2 with the ridge of the normal route rising behind.
Nido de Condores: Mid morning sun shining on a tent at Camp 2.
Nido de Condores: Sunset on our tents at Camp 2, the normal route to the summit of Aconcaga follows the ridge in the background.
Nido de Condores: Sunset from Camp 2.
Nido de Condores: Sunset from Camp 2.

From the plateau of camp 2 you have a fantastic view of the ridge that leads up to the summit pyramid. It looks so close but is still 1500 m, virtually a mile, vertically above us.

 

Andy on the trail from Camp 2 to Camp 3, Mercedario in the background.
Dean looking fit and happy on the trail from Camp 2 to Camp 3.
On the trail from Camp 2 to Camp 3, looking back towards Camp 2 and Cerro Cuerno.

After arriving at Nido we treated ourselves to a well earned rest day, idling around and allowing our bodies to acclimatise to the new altitude.

The next step is a load carry to camp 3 before moving up the following day with the rest of the equipment. From camp 2 to 3 is a relatively short though steep section which took us a couple of hours. From the trail you finally get a view of the Andes moutains to the north, a part of the range previously hidden behind Aconcagua.

On the second trip up to camp 3 we were particularly pleased to overtake our old friend Magic Thighs from the Rescue Patrol. Just goes to show, size isn’t everything, although, to be fair, he was probably carrying rather more than we were, especially as we’d chucked out every unecessary item we could find at camp 1.

 

Berlin camp, the normal high camp for most people, we decide to climb another 150m vertically to the infamous White Rocks.
With the Jagged Globe group at Berlin - Nestor (Alessio Guide), Andy Chapman (JG Leader), Dean, Ian Arnold, Andy, Matt Albutt.
With the Jagged Globe group at Berlin - Ganesh, Nestor, Andy Chapman, Dean, Andy, Matt Albutt.

Berlin camp at around 5800m is the usual stopping place before making an attempt on the summit. This year we decided to continue on a further 150m higher to a place called White Rocks, hoping that the advantage of a higher start the following morning would outweigh the detrimental effect of the additional altitude. This turned out to be something of a mistake.

Having made a late start on the day we moved up from camp 2 to camp 3, we found our friends from Jagged Globe, together with most of Daniel’s basecamp staff who were acting as porters, already in residence at Berlin.

 

White Rocks: Feeling the altitude after carrying a full load from Camp 2. Our cache of food is in the orange bag under the rocks to the right.
White Rocks: Dean contemplating the view from our high camp, there’s no wind but the bizarrely eroded rock formations should have given us some clue as to what was about to hit us.
White Rocks: Wind blasted rocks with holes at our high camp, 150m above Berlin.

Any illusions that the Jagged Globers might have had that we were moving more strongly than they were would have been totally shattered if they could have seen us on the steep slopes above Berlin as we humped our heavy rucksacks up to our chosen high camp. From feeling fit and acclimatised at Berlin we were reduced to gasping wrecks capable of only a few paces between rests. Staring at our altimeters, willing them to increase faster, didn’t seem to help much either. But, eventually, the rocky shelf of White Rocks, together with our bright orange cache bag came into view.

Once we’d arrived and dumped our sacks we sat around and admired the fantastic shapes eroded into the rocks by the high winds. This is amazing proof of how altitude destroys your brain function (at this height the atmospheric pressure is less than 0.5 bar), since we never considered the connection between the erosion and the potential weather conditions at our little campsite.

 

White Rocks: Probably the highest residence on the American continent.
White Rocks: Probably the highest residence on the American continent.
White Rocks: Preparing the tent before our first night at high camp.
White Rocks: Andy outside the tent.
White Rocks: Dean forcing down a brew at 6000m - it’s not easy.

At this altitude it’s quite likely that we are the highest people in the western and southern hemispheres at this moment. And there are probably not too many people sleeping higher than us in the Himalayas.

 

After a relatively good first night at White Rocks we woke to the sound of wind trying to tear the tent from its precarious anchorage on the face of the moutain. Crystals of hoar frost cascaded from the roof of the tent on to our faces as we lay in the sleeping bags. It was cold, it was windy, we went back to sleep safe in the knowledge that nobody would be going to the summit that day. And anyway, it was too windy to light the stove and we couldn’t risk a summit attempt without fluid.

 

By 11AM we were convinced that anyone above us on the mountain must be dead, it wasn’t until later in the afternoon that the wind started to moderate. It was around this time that we had a visitor - Andy Chapman from Jagged Globe on his way back from the summit !!! Bastard! It turned out that conditions on the mountain were windy but nothing like the ones we’d experienced in our exposed position at White Rocks. Damn, damn, damn! There was nothing we could do but set our alarms and make an attempt ourselves the following day...

 

The second night at White Rocks was a total contrast to the first. It was less windy but considerably colder. Both of us suffered from breathing problems due to the altitude which could probably have been reduced by taking a Diamox tablet. Unfortunately, altitude apathy and cold prevented us from taking this simple step, as a result neither of us slept during the night, instead experiencing bizarre semi-dreams and partial suffocation.

 

Sunrise at high camp, the shadow of Aconcagua projected onto the clouds below, complete with snow plume blowing from the summit. [Photo: Dean James]

At 5AM the alarm forced us into action and we began the process of brewing and trying to eat breakfast. It took over an hour in the intense cold to boil a litre of water (and water boils at damn low temperatures at that altitude) after which we nibbled on some scottish shortbread biscuits.

Eventually emerging from the tent in a howling, freezing wind, we donned crampons and down jackets and, in agony from our frozen hands and feet, headed upwards along the ridge.

 

Dean and Andy with Clare, just after returning to Basecamp from Independencia at 6300m.

On the ridge the wind moderated slightly but it was still intensely cold and we never warmed up despite climbing in down jackets. After reaching Independencia refuge at 6300m it was apparent that the second night at White Rocks had taken its toll and there was no way that Andy was going to make the summit, even though Dean was still going strongly. There was no alterative but to turn round and head back to basecamp, collecting our gear on the way. Our camera batteries were dead in the extreme cold and we were unable to get any photographs of our high point.

 

Sunset on the west face of Aconcagua.
Clare in the mess tent at Plaza de Mulas.
Dean in the mess tent at Plaza de Mulas.
Cecilia and Ulf enjoying a well earned cup of tea after their nine hour stroll up the pleasure beach.
and everyone together in our mess tent. Great to finally have someone fluent in Spanish to help is communicate with our basecamp friends.

And so we returned once again to basecamp to eat pizza and soak up the sunset views before returning to Mendoza en route home.

 

We spent several days in Mendoza, moving from cafe to restaurant to snack bar as our bodies attempted to compensate for the weight loss experienced on the mountain. After a couple of days we were sufficiently recovered to be able to relax by the pool at the Nutibara. In fact, we were just getting the hang of lying in the sun when we were forced to leave, retracing our steps via Santiago, Buenas Aries and Washington on the way to London.

Views around Mendoza
Views around Mendoza
Views around Mendoza
Views around Mendoza
Clare, Dean and Andy having dinner in Mendoza.
The meaning of life.
Goodbye to the Andes for another year - on the flight from Mendoza to Santiago.
 

The west face of Aconcagua as seen from Bonete Peak. Showing the entire Normal Route from Plaza de Mulas to the summit. (large file - 160kB)

Aconcagua - the normal route

 
 
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