It is late evening, December 1983. I am sitting in my 3000 m Base Camp looking over the ski resort Parva, above Santiago. This is the start of my acclimatization for Aconcagua, at 6960 m the highest peak in the Western World while my climbing partner, Dave, is doing the same at the Aspen ski resort in Colorado. Getting here was quite easy. My contact in Santiago pointed me to a convenient place for getting a lift so after spending $20 on food in a supermarket I got free transport to Parva and carried my pack a short distance further up where I found a nice meadow for my tent. This is a perfect level for getting used to higher altitudes.
Next day I go for a hike and reach the summit of La Parva (4150 m) which seems to lie in the direction of the route but my scant information is not sufficient to identify the trail and I later choose the wrong branch. At first I don't realize that the massive mountain facing me is in fact my objective, El Plomo (5424 m). Another day is spent exploring the upper levels. It is wonderful to have a dip in a lake at the col (3680 m). I meet two climbers returning from Plomo who speak about two refugios (huts) at around 4100 m being full of ice and no available water. A large glacier could be seen across from the ridge and there is an obvious path going up on one side.
Now it becomes serious. I pack up and leave extra items behind at a cafe and set off. Six hours later the summit of Pintor (4270 m) is reached. It offers a stunning view of Plomo which has a huge amphitheatre. A welcome trickle of water is provided by melting snow. Further along no more tracks can be seen and I get stuck trying to find a way. It has been a long day and I make camp at 4470 m next to some water. I am off early on Christmas Day with the intention of going for the top. Problems present themselves in the form of a steep rock section which calls for care. Finally I get stuck but can see an alternative way through some neve penitentes (ice pinnacles). My informants did not mention any difficulties on this part so I begin to wonder about the route. Having lost valuable time, I call a halt and return to camp.
After a meagre breakfast I set off again and tackle the tricky scree slopes in fine style. As usual, the second time of facing a difficulty is easier. I make a small stumble before reaching the bottom of the glacier but this is fixed by a bandage. Now follows an easy walk across the lower part of the glacier to save time and further progress up the long scree is rapid. Then there is a ridge which joins up with the summit snow field. Prudence calls for crampons and ice axe even though the angle is moderate. It only takes 45 mins to reach the final scree slopes and at 2 p.m. I gain the snow-free summit. The altimeter measures 5440 m which is rather close to the quoted value. Conditions are good, with impressive views in the direction of Aconcagua. Because of the two nights at 3000 m and two more at 4470 m, the altitude did not seem to affect me much when going up. It only remained to make an easy descent and face an uphill gain of 200 m to reach the camp, nearly 11 hours after setting out. On the last day I could enjoy a refreshing swim in the lake before getting a lift to the big city and catch up on feeding my neglected body. It was quite pleasing to have soloed such a splendid mountain, sometimes visible from Santiago, and acquire a good foundation for the challenge ahead.
Following a rest day and recuperation I am off to Mendoza by bus. Once past the border col, impressive buttresses can be seen but the mountain itself is only visible for 30 secs. By the evening my Aconcagua team mate has joined me, fresh from the high ski slopes of Aspen where he has spent a costly period of acclimatization. Next day we present my summit plan in Spanish together with doctors' letters and ECG graphs, whereupon we obtain permission to climb (no longer required). Already at lunch we are off to Puente del Inca on the international bus which does not stop for any permit check. Four hours later we get off at the trail-head and start negotiating for mule carry with the redoubtable Senor Grajales. Because of rampant inflation, the charge for a mule or rider is now considerably reduced to $14 per day. The total weight of 130 lbs only needs one mule but with two riders for safety the total bill is $140, including our return journey. There is time to inspect the colourful natural bridge which gives the place its name and listen to a guiding talk by Grajales after a good dinner.
Day 1: The trek begins early next morning and after only 3 hours we reach Confluenca (3200 m) which is the usual target for the first day. However, we don't discuss this alternative and carry on up the valley. A bit below 4000 m I recognize the landscape from a small guide-book. The roof of a hut has blown off and the solid steel flag-pole has been bent by the wind; a timely reminder of the dangers ahead. Here we meet our mule drivers coming down, carrying an expedition doctor who has caught the dreaded pulmonary at Base Camp. So in a nutshell here we have evidence of the two main dangers on a high mountain. We reach Plaza de Mulas (4200 m) just over 10 hours after setting off, with an altitude gain of some 1400 m and 23 km on the trail. A credible performance, but being in a hurry is invariably punished higher up. It is early in the season and with few climbers in camp, we move into a hut which provides an easy introduction to our quest.
Day 2: We wake very late. Dave is keen to move camp and I have to restrain him. So we settle for a carry of heavy items to ABC (4720 m) in only 2 hrs 10 mins. This camp has some platforms and there is running water near by. Down at BC I refresh myself with an invigorating wash to see in the New Year. We manage to hold on to our luxury hotel as a soft option and enjoy a small brandy in celebration.
Day 3: The move to ABC is less arduous than feared and the tent is soon up. We are ahead of the crowds and can choose the best places. While resting in the tent, the temperature reaches 89 F which makes any action an effort. I am nursing a badly sunburnt neck after being careless on Plomo. My stove adds to the problem by flaring dangerously (after returning home it did a self-destruct so we were close to disaster). The wind is also testing us but in the end we manage three warm courses.
Day 4: The wind increased during the night, which made for bad sleep. This time everything must be carried and it is a a real test. My day sack is strapped to the large one and Dave has a rope and his small sack on top of a 100 litres sack. It is an impressive sight but being a former US junior wrestling champion comes in handy. Being a less muscular type, I struggle to get the load on my back. Within 3 hours we gain the 5200 m col which opens up the view towards the South and North summits, including the dreaded Canaleta rock field. During the lunch break we chat with a climber who is coming down after turning around at 6700 m in strong winds; a foretaste of things to come. We continue up to the Antartida hut (5360 m) and find two Japanese have taken the best spot next to the hut wall. We clear some ice from a level space and wait for the sun to dry it out. At least the icy hut can be used for cooking which provides shelter for the troublesome stove. The bad news is that Dave has a headache with only aspirin for cure.
Day 5: In the morning we consider the game plan. As a compromise, we decide on moving up a short step. Our information says the col at 5400 m should be 5800 m and the start of the traverse to the Polish glacier route, our target. We agree to go to 5700 m but at 5600 m there is a Japanese tent and room for one more. After putting up the tent, Dave collapses behind a shady rock. Carrying at altitude in the murderous sun is testing our limits. Although gloves are worn all the time, my wrists are burnt which adds to the trials of cooking.
Day 6: Dave's headaches call for a rest day. At noon we wonder up the path to check out the 5800 m col where we plan to begin the traverse. After only 100 m we see a hut and realize it is the Berlin which is a key camp on the standard route. In the circumstances, we are relieved to change the plan. The idea of down-climbing from the summit to the upper glacier camp would avoid carrying big sacks over the top but also expose us to risk. One hut is vacant and in good repair so we move camp but leave behind the tent and extra climbing gear. The altitude is measured as 5950 m. Later we welcome the first successful summit pair who join our shelter. Cooking is done inside the second hut which is not habitable but at least we manage a full dinner menu.
Day 7: With lighter packs we set out for Independencia. Two hours later Dave's headache returns and we slow down, making it in 3 hrs 45 mins. At an altitude of 6420 m this is a good place for the summit attempt, provided some sleep is possible. The shelter has a gap in the roof through which we enter while keeping the door closed. The expedition down jacket is worn for the first time. Melting snow for water is not much fun but has to be done. We prepare hot bullion in a steel thermos to save cooking at breakfast. We are ready for the attempt but much will depend on the conditions. Meanwhile we endure a night with the shelter rocking in gusts.
Day 8: After a rough night we get up at 5. It is still windy and we delay departure until 7.30. A short distance from the shelter Dave is nearly blown over on the snow. The first bit is easy, followed by a gently sloping traverse. Dave's fingers are getting cold after an early toilet visit. We stop at a rock I name 'desolation tower' for consultation. (Referred to as 'El Dedo' or 'The Finger' in a web report.) His bottles are also freezing due to lack of insulation. We decide to carry on in the bleak conditions. After an easy snow field we enter the dreaded Canaleta where many people have succumbed due to exposure or falls. Here the scree is replaced by a veritable boulder field of 300 vertical metres at an average slope`of 33 degrees. It takes over 3 hrs to negotiate this section and we are overtaken by two strong Japanese who offer Dave aspirin. The final part is more straightforward and we reach the summit some 6 hrs after setting off. It is surprising to find the level summit plateau less windy than elsewhere. There is a stupendous view of the more difficult South Peak but no time to look down the Polish glacier or South Face. Only half an hour is spent on top of the Western World because Dave calls for return to relieve his headache. Descent of the Canaleta requires concentration and I steady Dave on this dangerous section. The wind still persists but we push on, only stopping at Independencia for a rest and to pick up some items. It is a relief to reach the Berlin hut and find it empty. Later we are joined by a climber from the Polish glacier route who shares our home. We don't have much food but raid an abandoned expedition sack; the summit party has to wait.
Day 9: We get going again quite late. Dave shows his blue thumb due to minor frostbite and I order a quick descent without any breakfast. On the way down, we pick up the extra gear. Some climbers give us drinks at 5400 m and we reach Base Camp around 4. Dave is attended by the expedition doctor who caught a lift on our mule and is given special tablets. This makes him lethargic but we manage to organize dinner. No breakfast and lunch on two consecutive days have made me weak but I feel surprisingly fit.
Day 10: The last day is not without interest. Dave needs a ride because his toes are damaged due to the pressure going down with heavy load. A bit before he leaves, I set off partly jogging. At Confluenca there is still no sign of the mule so I can't get a ride across the river. After a search I find a place which allows jumping. The wind is now coming up the valley but 6 hrs later I reach the roadside hostel ahead of Dave. I hear that he fell off the mule on the steep part and switched to a horse. The fee for this service was negotiated over a few beers, with a happy outcome. There is time for an immersion in the warm sulphuric water which recalls vividly a similar experience some 6 yrs earlier, except that this occasion feels more like a pilgrimage and celebration. All that remains to be said is that on reaching Mendoza by public bus next day, Dave jumped into a taxi for the airport and return to the windy and cold city of Chicago while I enjoyed a week of summer in the wine capital of South America.
Sverre Aarseth (22/2/13)