digging deep or climbing aconcagua solo (6,962m)

 
After warming up with the Welsh 3000s and Mont Blanc over the summer (and continuing with my regular 5-6 times a week training schedule after that), I felt ready to tackle Aconcagua which had been on my list for a couple of years. It was not the easiest of decisions as I’d never been higher than Kilimanjaro with its 5,895m and that 1,000m+ elevation gain on top of what was already a high peak seemed daunting. What’s more, an annoying knee injury in September also had me worried I wouldn’t recover before December, but there’s never a perfect time so I booked my tickets.

To make things more interesting (or worse, depending on who you’d ask), I decided to climb it solo — no guides, no porters, no cooks, just me and my (heavy) backpack. Some of my friends said it was reckless, but I knew this was the perfect opportunity to try to be on my own at high altitude. I had been on a few guided climbs, gaining enough experience to know what to do in different situations, and had also accumulated a decent set of gear. Plus, I’d researched the mountain quite well (including speaking to a couple of people who had summited) and knew it wasn’t technically challenging on the northern route and the chance of mixing up the path was really small. These things add up and help you feel mentally prepared.

A few fun facts about Aconcagua — with its 6,962m (22,837 ft) it’s the highest peak in South America (Southern and Western Hemispheres, actually) and also the highest outside the Himalaya / Asia. It is the second most prominent mountain in the world and second highest of the Seven Summits after Everest. It’s located entirely in Argentina, though close to the border with Chile. There are a couple of routes up the mountain, with the easiest being the normal one from the north which I took as well. It’s not a technical climb at all and the biggest challenges are the wind, cold (usual temperatures at the top are around -20/30°C), and altitude. Due to the former, many people underestimate it which is why every year there are multiple deaths on the mountain. Around 3,500 people try to summit each year with a success rate of about 60%.

For me personally this was by far the most difficult climb I’ve attempted. I was the under the impression I was fairly well prepared physically, but the 16-hour summit day was gruelling despite the fact that we were really, really lucky with the conditions. Can’t imagine what it would have been like in worse conditions. I almost quit a couple of times and genuinely thought I might pass out at one point just below the summit. Not sure if this was because I wasn’t well acclimatized (I reached the top on day 8 as there was an opening of good weather that was worth going for whereas most groups try after day 11 or 12 I believe) or because what I imagined was a good fitness level is no where near what I need for those altitudes. If it’s the latter, then I’m in deep doo-doo 🙂 Regardless, I gained even more respect for the guys climbing the 8,000m+ super technical peaks in the Himalaya, they must be insanely fit.

Here’s a useful map of the normal route with the camps.
– Confluencia (3,300m)
– Plaza De Mulas (4,300m) — Base camp
– Plaza Canadá, high altitude camp 1 (5,050m) — not shown below
– Nido de Cóndores, high altitude camp 2 (5,520m)
– Berlin / Cólera, high altitude camp 3 (5,930m / 5,970m)

I’ve broken down the post into days to make it easier to follow. For the sake of brevity (I use the term loosely, the post will be long) I haven’t included any info on my equipment, but there are plenty of videos online like this one, assume I’ve taken all of this.

*****
 
Day 1, December 17th: Horcones to Confluencia (3,300m), 2-3 hours

After getting final supplies in Mendoza (gas, some food, etc.), I got on a bus that drops you off at Los Penitentes, pictured below. It’s a super small town that people normally sleep in for a night as part of their acclimatization and arrange how their bags would be transported to the camps. I paid for a mule to take my duffel bag with the high altitude gear directly to Plaza de Mulas (Base camp), but decided not to stay the night as I felt ready to go directly to the first camp, Confluencia. The company I used for the mule also arranged a car to drop me off at Horcones, the Aconcagua park entrance which is ~2,700m above sea level, a further 10km away from Los Penitentes.

 
After registering with the park rangers, I was on my way. Within 10 min of walking you get your first full view of the goal — Aconcagua and its majestic South Face in all its glory. Quite beautiful and a bit scary to see the scale. Thankfully I would be climbing from the north, a much less steep face. The weather was on my side, it stayed like this throughout the entire trip.

 
An hour or so into the trek, you’ve already gained a bit of altitude and start seeing more of the landscape. Typical rocky vistas for the Andes.

 
The first camp, Confluencia, sitting at 3,300m. Notice the lack of vegetation. You’re supposed to check in with the park guard service at every major camp. Also, the doctors at this camp as well as Plaza de Mulas give you a check up (oxygen saturation, pulse, blood pressure, breathing, etc.) and don’t let you go higher unless you’re in a good shape.

 
Layers. So cool.

 
Day 2, December 18th: Confluencia to Plaza de Mulas (4,300m), 6-8 hours

The second day is the second longest trek on the way up in terms of distance, almost 20km, with a 1,000m elevation gain. Nothing too steep, for the most part you walk up the valley you see below so a very gradual incline. Quite incredible though, I was mostly entirely alone the whole day amidst these grandiose peaks around me.

 
Looking back at Confluencia, somewhere around 8am.

 
The infamous mules — best way to carry equipment up and down the valley. I’m not sure if you can tell how dusty it is, a recurring theme around Aconcagua. The damn dust gets in everywhere, you’re almost constantly dirty.

 
After 4-5 hours of largely monotonous walking, you finally reach the last climb before Base camp which is located at the foot of that peak you see in the distance (Cerro Cuerno). Just another 300-400m of vertical ascent.

 
Base camp! 20km with an 18kg backpack in the sun was not the most pleasant of treks so I was quite glad to arrive in just over 6 hours. The tents you see here are for eating / chilling, you sleep in smaller ones.

 
Life in a tent is not what I would call orderly 🙂 But you get used to it and in fact I found it fairly cosy, everything you need is within reach.

 
Day 3, December 19th: Rest day around Base camp with a short climb (up to ~4,600m)

Day three was about getting used to the altitude and generally doing nothing outside of eating, reading, and sleeping. But the temperatures were so nice that I couldn’t help do a small trek up to aid my acclimatization. Below me is Plaza de Mulas (Base camp) and on the right you see Cerro Cuerno with its 5,462m. The wide angle lens distorts the image a little bit, but it’s actually a very steep peak with a couple of glaciers coming down it.

 
Glaciers. Just as a reference, this ice wall is probably 60-80m high…

 
What else to do around camp on a rest day? Why slacklining with nothing but jagged rocks underneath, of course! 😀

 
The end of day three also saw the most beautiful sunset on the mountain. This is Aconcagua from the West. It seems so close! Just some measly 2,600m to the top 😉

 
Day 4, December 20th: Equipment carry to camp 2 (Nido de Cóndores, 5,520m) and back to Base camp, 6-7 hours

It was important to start moving my heavy gear to the higher camps such as tent, some food & gas, warmer clothes, crampons, and so forth. Another 12-14kg backpack and up I went. Photo is taken at the first high camp called Canadá, around 5,000m above sea level, looking up at what lies ahead. That ridge you see seems close, but actually takes a bit of effort, sitting at almost 5,300m. I decided to skip camp 1 for a couple of reasons — for one, the guides at Base camp had already told me December 24th was looking most promising for a summit day (winds below 40-50km/h) and I wouldn’t have had time for a “normal” program with sleeping in all 3 camps; but I also felt quite strong without any altitude problems and preferred to spend time higher up to get me ready.

 
I’m at the ridge you saw earlier, approximately 5,300m. Down at the bottom is Base camp and on the left is camp Canadá.

 
Angles.

 
I don’t really have more photos of that day. I reached Nido around 5 hours after leaving Base camp, dropped off my stuff and tucked it away under some rocks, rested a bit, and then headed back down.

 
Day 5, December 21st: Rest day at Base camp (4,300m)

I did very little that day so nothing to show. But the first song should have ended by now, here’s another great one.

 
 
Day 6, December 22nd: Move to camp 2 (Nido de Cóndores, 5,520m), 5-6 hours

Back at Nido and time to put up my tent. Behind it is Aconcagua, though you can’t actually see the top. Not a lot of snow on this northern side. You ascend on the left, beyond the frame of the image and behind most of the rocks you see, until you emerge near the top and traverse on this side.

 
An extreme close up of “almost the top” 🙂 You can now clearly see the traverse that takes you from approximately 6,400m to around 6,650m in around 2-3 hours. Perhaps the scale is a little hard to judge, but a person would be no more than a dot on the traverse path. Crazy.

 
Views around Nido in late afternoon.

 
Other people around camp, there were around 10-12 tents in total. Notice how crisp the atmosphere is.

 
Some breathtaking (and not just because of the lack of oxygen 😉 ) views from camp. That on the right is Cerro Cuerno which we saw earlier, we’re now pretty much level with it.

 
Sleeping at this altitude with 50% of the oxygen at sea level is not easy, especially when there are 50-60km/h winds outside and your tent is shaking and making all kinds of noises. The temperature fell to around -10°C inside the tent that night… Also things take longer than you expect, just getting out of your sleeping bag is a slow process. Time moves differently 🙂

 
Day 7, December 23rd: Rest day at camp 2 (Nido de Cóndores, 5,520m)

Once again, a slow day for gaining back some strength, eating, and sleeping. This is what my mornings looked like — first melting water for the day, then “cooking” breakfast by pouring boiling water in my freeze dried packet. That MSR stove is incredible, btw, could not recommend it highly enough. It saved me so much time, pure genius.

 
The liquid bottles you need. Two Nalgenes for normal water (which I keep in these neoprene anti-freeze pouches), one thermos (it’s a life saver to have a sip of warm water at the right moment on a tough climb), and one pee bottle (yellow-green-ish cap). Quite important not to mix those up in the middle of the night 🙂

 
Day 8, December 24th: Summit day! (6,962m)

The long awaited big day was here. As usual for those climbs, you start early (3am in this case) and it’s a process to get ready. Just putting all my equipment and layers on took almost an hour. Trust me, finding the motivation to step out of the sleeping bag and tent at that point is a big hurdle 🙂 As with other night ascents, I didn’t take any photos before dawn in order to keep warm and not break my rhythm.

I had met a couple of other solo climbers (Paul and Aurélien, both from France) the day before and agreed to climb together. We kept a good pace and quickly reached camp 3 (Berlin / Cólera, 5,970m) around 4.30am. The below photo was taken at about 6,100m perhaps, somewhere around 5.30am. What a view of the Andes! You can see a guided group that slightly behind us, they started at camp 3.

 
At around 6am the long anticipated sunrise was almost upon us. I can’t even describe how good it feels to see the sun, despite this not being the coldest of nights (I was prepared for much worse), it just gives you extra motivation. Love this photo.

 
Soon after the sun lit up the horizon and surrounding peaks.

 
Paul and Aurélien ahead of me. The curse of the photographer, to be behind. I need to stop carrying around my big DSLR on climbs like this. It’s heavy and taking shots requires a lot of precious time. Hopefully the results are worth it at least. These guys were better climbers than I was, btw, certainly faster. Sadly Aurélien didn’t reach the top as his equipment wasn’t adequate and his hands and feet were freezing. I gave him hand warmers earlier in the night, which had helped, but when we reached the windy traverse his feet gave in to the temperatures and he turned back. It’s a shame. Despite not having any problems myself until camp 3, by this point I was noticeably slowing down and having some difficulties in keeping with my usual pace.

 
Perhaps my most favorite photo of the trip — the shadow of Aconcagua around 6.30am, close to 6,150m. What a moment! Interestingly, not long after that was also the moment when I almost quit the whole thing. By the time we reached Plaza Independencia (~6,300m) I felt completely drained. I wasn’t sick, no headache, not cold or anything like that. Just started walking quite slowly and had very little energy. I stopped at the old hut at Independencia thinking for some reason we must be around 6,500m (my altitude watch was tucked in under a few layers of clothes) and I was almost crushed when the guide coming up behind us told me we were in fact around 6,300m and there were still another 6 hours to the summit. We had already been walking for almost 6 hours! Oh man, such a tough moment. But luckily I remembered a similar situation on Elbrus so I just sat down in the sun, rested for 20-30 minutes, drank some hot water & ate some chocolate, and decided to take it a step at a time. It took a lot of self-persuasion, but it worked…

 
For the next 2-3 hours I didn’t take any photos. I had somehow found my groove again and I did not want to stop and lose it. This photo was taken at what’s known as La Cueva (the Cave, altitude of 6,650m), at the end of the traverse I showed you earlier. The weather was great, almost no wind with decent temperatures, and I felt in good shape. This is where you rest for an hour (some even take short naps), eat and drink, and prepare for the final push. Most leave their backpacks and just carry water and cameras for the summit, which I did as well.

 
The infamous traverse as seen from La Cueva.

 
A rest at ~6,800m, this is the guided group we kept trekking alongside with all day. By this point, you start walking really slowly. Most steps require a significant effort and you stop often to breathe and normalize your pulse.

 
At 6,850m we’re literally 100 vertical meters away from Aconcagua (on the upper left). You may find it hard to believe but this remaining distance — that at lower altitudes you can sprint to within 10min probably — took us a solid hour, if not more! Not going to lie, it was quite a struggle for me by this point. Once again I felt completely drained with almost zero energy and was barely able to make a couple of steps before stopping, at times feeling I was going to just pass out.

No idea if I wasn’t acclimatized enough (this is day 8 for me, most people come here on day 11-12 of their trek) or whether my fitness level just wasn’t what it needs to be, but these were the toughest 100m of climbing ever, by far. It also might have been the temperatures — I was ready for much worse conditions and often felt quite hot as my down jacket is super puffy. Yet I couldn’t just take it off as my pack was a few hundred meters down and plus I wasn’t sure if the conditions would be different at what’s normally a windy summit. Still not aware of how I convinced myself to not turn back and take it slowly, 2-3 steps in one go. Too close to the target perhaps and time was on my side.

 
Yet once you reach the top, a huge sense of relief comes over you. You suddenly feel lighter somehow and quickly regain your breathing and strength. I was at the top almost exactly 12 hours after starting from Nido, at 3pm with a ~1,500m vertical gain. Despite the fact that I’m smiling, I actually (and strangely) felt and showed little emotion at the top. Perhaps I had used it all up on the trek to here, there were a lot of ups and downs along the way. But it’s a really great feeling, realizing you’re at the pinnacle of an intense 6-month effort 🙂

 
I took a bit of time to admire the amazing vistas. We were extremely lucky with the weather, look at those views!

 
Oxygen overload 🙂

 
Not much to share for the way down — 4 hours to camp 2 and then straight to sleep. The next day (Christmas, actually) I packed all my gear and headed to Base camp where you normally stay one final night. But I was desperate for a normal bed and a shower so I got my bags on a mule headed for Horcones and I just walked the 25km back to the Aconcagua park exit. It was a long day (had a 4 hour ride to Mendoza that I hitchhiked for as well) but boy was I happy to be back 🙂

Hope this was interesting, albeit a little long.

Stay tuned for more!

 
 

Advertisements

18 thoughts

  1. I always used to wonder why anyone would go through the trouble (and risk) of climbing a mountain. You’ve answered all of my questions with this post! Congratulations on a fantastic climb — and thank you for sharing your story and gorgeous images.

  2. Fantastic, did you need to pay park fee’s etc? One day I might have a go myself, it’s cool to read an article of going alone rather than hiring guides, a much greater achievement!

What are your thoughts?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: