||...continued from Part 2...
Plaza Argentina is a small tent-city situated in a shallow basin beneath Aconcagua. Several outfitters maintain a presence here, and you can find any number of creature comforts…for a price. Want a Coke? Sure - $5. A hamburger is $10. Satellite phone service is $5/minute, and internet access can be had for $30 per half-hour. A hot shower that’ll be $20. And after three days of dry, dusty hiking and the knowledge that this is the last chance for another couple weeks…somehow $20 to stand under a 3-gallon bag of solar-heated water seems like a good deal!
We settled into our campsites at a leisurely pace knowing that the next day was a rest-day, and that there was nothing significant on the agenda. As part of our acclimatization, we had three scheduled rest days built into our climb, and this was the first of them just a chance to get used to the increasing altitude, keep hydrated, well-fed and healthy. We mostly spent the day off puttering around camp, taking advantage of the local services, and watching the supply deliveries and garbage extraction via helicopter.
Days 8/9 carry & move to Camp 1
On our eighth day (Jan 16th), we did our first carry to Camp 1, ferrying up a combination of personal gear and group gear to be cached for the next day. Heading out of Plaza Argentina it really hit home that we were at higher altitude now. The light hiking shoes used for the approach had been swapped for plastic mountaineering boots, and our heavy expedition packs took the place of the light daypacks from previous days. There wouldn’t be any mules or porters here all the load-carrying was on us. The group pace slowed considerable in the thin mountain air as we picked our way up a loose scree trail through fields of icy penitents (strange, spiky snow formations common in the Andes due to a very particular combination of weather-related conditions). The morning was dry and warm, but the moderate breezes coming off the glacier-covered upper slopes of the mountain kept things from getting too uncomfortable as we slowly trekked upwards with 50-60 lbs or gear.
While other teams of climbers continued past 15,500’ up a switchbacking trail through a large field of penitents, our guides led us on a small side-trail to a hidden plateau with a small number of established campsites. This would be our Camp 1 not to be confused with the “standard” Camp 1 on this route, up at 16,200’. AAI uses 4 camps on the route, whereas most other expeditions use two camps. The additional camps help cut down on the long carry-days on the mountain and provide for additional acclimatization. It adds time to the itinerary, of course…but also maximizes the chance for a successful summit bid. Depending on the source you reference, the success rate overall on Aconcagua is between 30% and 55%, but Alpine Ascents boasts a success rate in the high 90s. The additional camps and longer climb itinerary are a big part of it.
We dropped our gear, piled on a few rocks to secure it, and then began the quick downhill descent to Plaza Argentina. Even after a short period of time at 15,500’, the air at 14,000’ felt thick by comparison. Time for one last night at base camp, and one last meal in the dining tent.
The next morning we did a final separation of our gear, sending our duffels and approach gear back to Penitentes on mules. A separate load with our light hikers and light hiking clothes was to be taken on to Plaza de Mulas where we’d meet up with it in a couple weeks…much better than having to clomp all the way out in our plastics! After squaring everything away and breaking down camp, it was off to Camp 1 and higher altitudes for good. The now-familiar climb was uneventful and seemed to pass more quickly the second time around. Seemed like no time at all before we were at Camp 1 and methodically assembling tents and being treated to campstove-fired quesadillas! After some exploration, we found a good, pristine water source about a quarter-mile beyond camp in the form of a small waterfall. I and another climber (Robert) put ourselves on water-duty, gathering water bladders and bottled from the rest of the team and setting off on a filling mission. Our guides had brought along more fresh filet mignon and dinner was helping after helping of freshly cooked meat. Mmmmmmm
Day 10 was a carry to Camp 2, which started with a steep and loose slog up the scree next to a huge penitentes field, up to 16,200’ (the location of the more ‘standard’ Camp 1). The terrain got a little more consolidated but the grade continued unrelentingly as we passed through 17,000’, finally gaining the Ameghino Col and Camp II at about 17,500’. The Alpine Ascents Camp II was a newly established camp behind a huge boulder, affording some privacy from other hiking groups. It also afforded us our first views of the rest of the Andes. The glaciated peaks lined up to the horizon across the valley and disappeared into the hazy clouds…an awe-inspiring sight. We cached our gear and headed back down to Camp 1 for another rest-day.
Day 11 was our second of three planned rest days, a chance to acclimate at Camp 1 after carrying to Camp II on the previous day. A day to really do…nothing. Eat, drink, nap. Read a book. Listen to your iPod. Our first rest day at Plaza Argentina was well-received and easy to fill up since there were plenty of things around the camp going on. Not so up here. And I watched a few folks of the more Type-A personalities almost go crazy, wanting to have SOMETHING to do, despite the whole point was to rest and allow our bodies to adjust to the altitude. And the altitude was definitely evident. Sure, it felt fine just sitting around, but as soon as you’d actually get up and start DOING something, you were quickly reminded of the thin atmosphere at this altitude. And everyone grudgingly acknowledged the fact that yes, resting was the best thing to be doing.
Day 12 was our move from Camp I to Camp II, and it was a day we weren’t especially looking forward to after the painful slogging of the carry the day before last. But we altered the ascent somewhat to take advantage of a path that had been beaten down into the penitentes field above camp, which proved to be a lot easier to deal with than the loose scree from the first ascent.
Day 13 dawned cold and clear after a noisy night of wind and snow hammering our tents. Our carry day from Camp II to Camp III was made more interesting by a fresh 4-6 inches of snow from the night before, which was in fact a bit of a blessing in disguise. The slow and steep trek to Camp III is an arduous scree-slog (as is a LOT of the upper mountain) in dry conditions, so a few inches of snow did a lot to help consolidate the trail and make for a somewhat easier hike. The cold and clouds of the morning broke up somewhat as we crested the slope at 19,200’ to cache our gear. By the time we descended down to Camp II, most of the new snow had melted/sublimated, leaving the terrain dry and loose.
Day 14 no new snow on this day, so we had to pack up camp and trek up the now-dry-and-loose gravel.
move to Camp III
Day 15 rest day at Camp III
Day 16 weather day at Camp III. The original plan was to move to Camp IV today, but we ended up having to take one of the ‘extra’ days built into the itinerary, specifically for adverse weather. Throughout the night the wind had picked up and by morning was blowing at 40-50 miles an hour, and gusting even higher. Our guides made the decision to just stay put at Camp III for one more day, rather than ascend into undoubtedly even higher winds. So once again, it was a day of…not much. For most of the morning we stayed in our tents, keeping sheltered from the strong winds and dangerous wind chills. By early afternoon the wind had abated, and we all eventually emerged to stretch our legs and take care of various bathroom-related necessities. JJ radioed down to base camp for an updated weather report, and received the best possible news…high pressure and calm weather expected for the next 4-5 days before the next weather system would move in and cause problems.
Day 17 move to Camp IV. The transition from Camp III to Camp IV was the only one not requiring a separate “carry” day, primarily because we has already eaten most of what we had been carrying, plus the addition of Lawhang as our third guide added enough gear-carrying capacity to make up the difference. True to the weather report from yesterday, it was a calm, clear day as we ever-so-slowly made the long ascending traverse from Camp III. Climbing at 19,000’+ is definitely a slow-going enterprise.
...on to Part 4 - Summit Day!