Update - 19 Feb 2013
Back in the very comfortable and warm beds of our respective homes, we have had some time to reflect on the expedition and our time away on the roof of South America. We have also had time to start putting on the weight that seemed to melt away over the weeks of climbing hard and becoming quasi vegetarians (at least for a while). Alas, our appetites are turbo charged and we must stop eating soon!
Prior to our summit attempt of Aconcagua, we initially acclimatized by climbing Cerro Vallecitos, a nearby peak in the front range. This was especially fun and considerably warmer than Aconcagua. With our home base at San Bernardo Refugio, we spent five days scaling Vallecitos in near perfect weather. The rocky peak is quite spectacular - the pinnacle has a vertical drop of about 3000ft into the valley below that ensures you keep focused on your footing and the 12 square feet of the summit. Following Vallecitos, we moved over to the main range and the entrance to Parque Aconcagua.
The blog covers most of the blow by blow steps to Nido and generally what was happened from day to day during our ascent. On reflection of our time in the tents at Nido, it was an interesting period where we all needed to make a very important and personal decision as to whether we would attempt the summit. Should we wait for the weather to get better, or to head down and wait for another attempt in the distant future? In mountaineering, Mother Nature and personal safety are inextricably linked – bad weather means additional danger, and generally the relationship is exponential. This means the worse the weather, the greater the danger that you and your team potentially face. Our dilemma at Nido was that we could not move to High Camp (Berlin) with the gale-force winds that were forecast in the short term. (Our tents were starting to fail with the wind conditions at Nido.) The forecast, however, showed the winds dropping for an 18-24 hour period on the Thursday, and then turning very ugly after that with winds predicted to be over 115 kph. This left a very narrow “good weather window” in which to get to the summit and get down fast before the wind became a bigger issue. Losing a tent at this altitude, and in this kind of weather, could have tragic consequences and
there is no safety net to rely on.
Noting the weather on Wednesday morning had not significantly improved, the only possible way to attempt the summit was to leave Nido very early in the morning and time the final leg of the summit attempt for the approaching good weather window (hopefully!!). This effectively required a 10-12 hour climb followed by 3-4 hours of
descent back to Nido – a long day even when you are not at 20,000 ft plus. The bulk of the team decided that this might push their own endurance too far or perhaps leave too little room for error. Gaspar, Jen, and I (Adam) decided to make an attempt, knowing that it is always possible to turn around. The consensus was that we would try to get in position for the better weather if it came, and otherwise
get back down the mountain if it did not.
In the light of our headlamps, we started out from Nido at 3 a.m. with a view to being on the summit before 2 p.m. The wind was still howling through camp and to be honest the group was not entirely hopeful. The traverse of the Gran Accoreo was perhaps the most testing period enroute to the start of the Canaletta - the wind was blowing up the 3000ft snow slope at 45 degrees and at 80 kph - enough to freeze exposed skin in minutes. Careful consideration was given to whether we continue our move upwards or retreat back to our camp. In the end, the weather did moderate and we made our way up to the cave at the start of the Canaletta. At this point, Jen had become so cold from exposure that she decided to stop, and sadly, head back down. She is a strong climber but unfortunately the weather had taken its toll.
Gaspar and I made preparations to head to the summit – we lightened our loads, drank some tea, fuelled up with food and started the last and very steep leg to the top. Through the clouds and the wind, we climbed for 1.25 hours to reach the summit in quick time – the wind had dropped to 5-10kph but the clouds still covered the mountain. At 1.47 p.m., 14 February 2013, we had climbed till we could climb no further – the summit.
Having spent less than 15 minutes at the summit, we returned to the cave and prepared for the long descent. At this point we made the decision to get down to Base Camp at Plaza de Mulas in one long haul – 5 to 6 hours if we packed all our gear at Nido quickly and moved. Heavy snow had started and we figured the high winds would come sooner than later. We roped up in order to avoid losing each other in the whiteout or to avoid falling down any of the drop-offs that we could no longer see! Moving past Independencia and enroute to Refugio Berlin, we came across two climbers who had both lost contact with their teams and had no idea of their location or the way to their camp at Cholera. It’s hard to imagine what
might have been going through their minds (one was Russian and the other
Polish, so we have no idea), but it can’t have been good. In any case, we showed them out of the storm towards Cholera and sent them happily on their way. As for
us – we tracked back over the ridge to the other side of the mountain and to the
relative safety of Berlin and its mini shelter. From there, it was a short hour to
Nido, load up and then a speedy 3 hour run to Plaza De Mulas (14,300 ft).
We would like to thank Gaspar and Rodrigo for their great leadership and guidance during our two climbs – these guys were awesome and thoroughly on top of things throughout. It was a pleasure climbing with you both and we hope we can do it again in the near future.
On a final note, I’ve been asked on several occasions which climb was harder, Denali or Aconcagua? Denali is certainly a challenging mountain and potentially more dangerous but in my humble opinion I think Aconcagua can easily be underestimated. In particular, the weather can make conditions extremely tough. In fact, many experienced climbers consider Aconcagua“the little 8000 metre peak.” I guess I may have been lucky with regard to weather on Denali…………
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.”
- Mark Twain