Aconcagua 3 of 4: Summit Push

In 2. Aconcagua, South America, Project 7in4by Steve

Wind, Wind and More Wind

After a couple of days climbing up and down acclimatising, Friday we just kicked back in Base Camp relaxing and trying to pick a good weather window for our summit push. On the lower slopes it’s not too critical, but bad weather as you push higher can make for a miserable day out and feel very cold.

There are several mountain weather forecasts available free online which we’d been monitoring. They all varied so it was hard to know what to take as the truth, but then again, is there any truth when it comes to weather. For the most accurate weather you’re best off sticking your head outside the tent in the morning but unfortunately that doesn’t have a very long outlook.

From the various weather forecasts they were all predicting clear but winding conditions. The forecast we trusted the most had winds for the coming week at around 60 to 70 km/hr, not ideal, but with a slight lull on Sunday. Sunday’s summit forecast was for clear skies, winds 25 to 30km/hr, ambient temperature -18deg C and windchill -38degC. It wasn’t perfect but good enough.

Based on the speeds we’d been climbing at we felt we could easily get up and down in 2 days, instead of the normal 4 or 5 days. So our plan was to climb up to Camp 2 on Saturday, overnight there, then continue to the summit Sunday to take advantage of the lower winds then drop straight back down to base camp in the day.

In Argentina apparently it is customary for families to get together on Sunday’s for a large BBQ. From talking with locals it sounded almost like a religion. Inka, the company we were using for Base Camp logistics maintained this tradition which provided added incentive for us to get up and straight back down in time for Sunday’s Base Camp BBQ. Priorities!

Expedition Life – Sleeping, Eating and Connect 4

People think that expeditions are tough and physically grueling, day in, day out. I should probably try and maintain that perception, but the fact is, they are not, particularly not high altitude expeditions. I try to keep on the move and keep as physically active as possible, but you have to take time out to acclimatise and then there is always the inevitable WOW factor (sounds exciting but it’s not, Waiting On Weather). So in general, there is typically a lot of time to kill.

With time on my hands, I generally aim for 10 to 12 hours of sleep per night, more if I can. I know, it’s a tough life right! Then during the day, eating and hydrating interspersed with Connect 4 passes time nicely, maybe with an afternoon siesta thrown in as well. That was basically what Friday consisted of anyway. And while on the topic of Connect 4, as a novice expeditioner I am currently getting my butt kicked against seasoned professionals.

Best Dinner Yet

Dinner time in Base Camp is always an exciting time to see what the friendly Inka crew will serve up and Friday did not disappoint. They started out with their usual tasteless soup which we’ve become accustomed to (no amount of seasoning seemed to make any difference). It’s not great but I drink it just to get fluids in. But then they served up the most superb selection of pizzas, and that’s not just relative to the environment. Put these pizzas into a gourmet Italian restaurant back home and it would still rank up there with the best. It was incredible. I don’t know how they do it with such basic ingredients and appliance. It was a great last meal before heading up the hill.

Base Camp to Camp 2

Saturday morning we had a leisurely start, had breakfast, packed our bags and wondered up the hill. This being my third time up, I am starting to learn the route well.

We had medium sized bags carrying tent, sleeping bags, cooker, warm clothes, etc. Fortunately we had carried food and some other equipment up to Camp 2 on one of our previous acclimatisation days and stashed it up there which saved our bags from being too heavy this time. But they still weighted enough.

Again we zig-zagged up the loose scree slopes to Camp 1 and from there on we were on snow. I gambled and stayed in my trainers instead of swapping over to my altitude boots which worked out well. Trainers generally aren’t great on snow but there was now a well-trodden path with others going up and down so it was OK. Plus trainers allow for much better mobility compared to my clumsy high altitude boots hence I can move much quicker in them so I do wear them as long as I can. Above Camp 2 however there is no choice, only boots and crampons will suffice in the current conditions on the mountain.

This time it took me 2hrs 40min to get from Base Camp to Camp 2. Pretty good going with a mid-weight pack. With a late start, we were up at Camp 2 early afternoon, pitched the tent and spent the afternoon sitting around, rehydrating and eating cheese, pate, salami, crackers, dried fruit and nuts.

It was a splendid afternoon topped off with an incredible sunset, brilliant reds, oranges and yellows cast across the horizon. We then settled into our sleeping bags for our obligatory 10hrs sleep.

Climbing to the Top

Summit day in the mountains people typically do an “alpine start”, setting out in the very early hours to maximize time to get up and down. I’ll do the early starts when I have to, but I’ll avoid it if I can simply because it is so much colder before the sun comes up. We knew we were moving pretty well so decided to give ourselves a sleep in.

Sunday morning. The alarm went off at 05:00. We put the cooker on to melt some ice and lay down for another 30min while it did its job. After a hot drink and bite to eat we were on our way just after 06:00. It was a cold, clear morning and took a good 30min or more just to start feel comfortable and get into the rhythm. The sun finally hit us around 07:30 and with it brought warmth.

It took us a couple of hours to climb to Camp 3, the site where most people stay before going for the summit. We stopped for a quick break then continued on. The route went up over a ridge before traversing across the North West face. At that point we were exposed to the wind and back in the shade making it much colder again.

By this stage we started overtaking a number of other groups who were going for the summit that morning, groups that had either set off from Camp 2 several hours before us or set off from Camp 3. Being one of the few nicer days with lower winds, there were a few other groups trying to take advantage of the narrow weather window.

Climbing up I felt pretty good but did start to feel the altitude a bit and got a light headache as we progressed above 6500m. We had pushed our acclimatization pretty hard so I guess it was to be expected. It was nothing sinister though, just initial signs of altitude sickness and it didn’t get any worse.

The last few hundred meters to the summit did seem to take a while. It was steeper and I was forced to stop more frequently to catch my breath in the thin air. Finally I climbed up a short pitch and looking straight ahead saw blue sky. After several hours of looking at the white snow face rising in front of me, it was a welcomed sight.

The Summit

Shortly after midday, 6 hrs after leaving Camp 2 and over 1600m of ascent we were on the top. 6962m! The highest point in South America and the highest point in the world outside of the Himalayas. The views were absolutely spectacular. Looking out across the surrounding Andes, the taller mountains all had white snow caps contrasting the reds and browns of the lower ranges.

We took about 15min on the summit to take in the view and get a few photos and videos. Despite being a calmer day, it was still exposed and windy on the summit. The forecast which had predicted -18degC ambient, -38degC with windchill, felt about right. I couldn’t stay up there too long without getting cold. I also knew I had pushed the limits of my acclimatization so I was keen to turn around and get back down quickly.

Aconcagua Summit:

The Race Down For An Argentinian BBQ

I hate going down. Give me up any day. I know what goes up, must come down, but I find it so painful. With my dodgy knees, I try to get down efficiently without too much pounding, without exacerbating the issues I already have, but it does mean taking it a bit slower.

On the descent we passed a few groups who we’d overtaken on the way up. Some hadn’t made that much progress from when we’d seen them a few hours earlier. They were still persevering but they were in for a very long day.

Going down in the afternoon sun it did start to get quite hot so I had to stop several times taking off more and more layers. It is one of the things I find most challenging in the mountains, trying to regulate temperature. It’s typically either too hot or too cold. It’s hard to maintain that happy middle ground.

Once back at Camp 2 we packed up all our gear, stripped down the tent, loaded our packs and continued on down to Base Camp. When we had done a load carry and dropped off gear on one of our acclimatisation days, we’d brought up enough food for about 4 nights on the hill as that is what’s typically required. Having only spent one night up high, we now had to carry it all back down making for an extra heavy pack. All the worse on my aging knees.

By about 16:30, approximately 10hrs after setting out that morning, we were back down in Base Camp. It had been a really great day out. It was tough at times but quite manageable. Apart from a few mild headaches near the top, I had felt great all day and we’d made very good time.

Best of all, we made it back to Base Camp in time for the weekly BBQ and it did not disappoint. Copious amounts of beef, chicken and sausages all grilled on a large, outdoor, wood BBQ. A great way to end a great day!

“Go with the decision that will make for a great story”.


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