Entries from Aconcagua
November 5, 2015
For those of you that know me, you are aware of my love affair with Argentina and Aconcagua. For those of you that don’t know, let me explain. It was 1998 when I first visited Argentina and it didn’t take but a few hours from stepping off of the plane to say to myself, “I love this place!”
The first thing you notice while in Mendoza is how beautiful the city and the countryside are. As you walk along the wide city sidewalks that are lined with cafe after cafe, you can’t help but sit down to order a double espresso and watch people. As you sit and watch you notice a different atmosphere that rules Argentina as a whole. That is, people enjoy living! At one table there is a group of businessmen taking a break from work. At another table sit a group of old men in a heated debate over Argentina’s favorite sport, futbol.
Of course coffee isn’t the only thing consumed in Mendoza. The region is best known for its wine production, as Argentina is now regarded as one of the largest producers of quality wine in the world. That leads me to another reason I absolutely love Argentina: no, not the wine per se, but the amazing food and restaurants that inhabit the culture. Whether it be the amazing steak that leaves every single person saying the same thing – “that’s the best steak I have ever had!” – or authentic Italian cuisine, if you are a “foodie” like me Argentina is amazing. Sure, Aconcagua is supposed to be all about climbing; however, as an international adventure, an expedition to Argentina could not start or finish any better than in a city like Mendoza. Now, for the climbing part:
Aconcagua of course is one of the seven summits and at just under 23,000 feet it is the highest mountain outside of the Himalayas. It is the perfect mountain for climbers who want to get a start at expedition style climbing. The climb starts in the rugged, high mountain desert landscape where temperatures can be very warm. Mules carry our climbing gear the three day trek to base camp at Plaza Argentina. That means a couple of things: One, you get to trek into base camp with a light backpack; two, you get to hang out with the cowboys, also known as Arrieros, every night at the campfire; and perhaps most importantly, you get to experience a true Argentinian Asado as the cowboys cook steak and chicken over the campfire under the stars.
Once you arrive at base camp, most climbers are pleasantly surprised at how civilized it is. It’s very reminiscent of Everest Base Camp in that there are dining tents, toilets, and even showers. Since acclimatization is very important on such a high mountain, it certainly is nice to have some creature comforts and incredible support from a great base camp staff. The climbing above base camp is physically demanding. When I first climbed “The Stone Sentinel” in 1998 we only made two camps above base camp. Today RMI makes three camps. Camp One sits at 16,200 feet. Camp Two at 18,000 feet and Camp Three at 19,600 feet. With 20 summits of Aconcagua I have seen the success rate go way up due to the more strategic nature of making three camps. This acclimatization schedule helps to make our climbing teams much stronger, but the climb is still a lot of work!
I would love to explain to you how amazing the world looks up high on summit day, but it’s like every mountain I climb: you cannot fully explain the beauty of the high alpine world until you see it for yourself. As you stand on her summit and gaze out, you see a world that never ends; mountains beyond mountains as far as the eye can see. While you contemplate, it doesn’t take too long to begin to smile knowing that as soon as you get down, you are returning to the beautiful city of Mendoza to enjoy the hot weather and swimming pools, after an evening of dining once again on the most amazing food you’ll ever have in your life, that is!
For the past two winters I’ve traveled to the south side of the globe to join RMI’s teams on Cerro Aconcagua (Argentina). Despite being a skier and winter-lover through and through, each fall I find myself eagerly anticipating my trip to Argentina. Thanks to the Andes, the cuisine, and the new friends I make there each year, I’ve fallen in love with Aconcagua. Here are the top five reasons I look forward to making the long voyage south each winter:
Mules: Aconcagua is a unique mountain in that it is exceptionally dry. Its base camp at 13,800’ is reached by hiking twenty-seven hot, dusty miles along the Vacas river which sits deep in a rocky and sparsely vegetated valley. We rely on mules to carry our heavy expedition equipment to Base Camp over the course of our trek. The mules, loaded with two or three 30 kilogram duffels a piece, run along the river kicking up dust with the southern flanks of Aconcagua as a backdrop. Unlike horses, which expire quickly without water, the mules can run the 27 miles to basecamp fully loaded in a single morning and make the return trip to the trailhead that same afternoon. The mules are cared for and driven by Herrieros, the predecessors of the iconic South American Gauchos. The Herrieros ride the largest and sleekest mules and wear a traditional red cap that looks like a wool beret. They tie large patterned sashes around their waists and tuck a large, leather-sheathed blade in the back. At night the sashes are used to cover the eyes of the younger or more rambunctious mules in camp while the riders sit around a fire and grill in the Argentinian style. Which leads me to another part I love about an Aconcagua expedition…
Asado: A traditional grill that sits just off the ground. Slow burned hardwood provides the coals to cook large slabs of heavily salted steak. There is simply nothing better than coming down from climbing to a camp dinner of fresh steak and wine. Over our Asado dinner the last night on trail, the team has a chance to reflect and enjoy each other’s company, knowing they’re reaching the end of a successful expedition.
Mendoza: This small city nestled in Argentinian wine country is our jumping off point for all Aconcagua expeditions. Mendoza draws tourists of all sorts: wine connoisseurs, climbers, fly fishers, horseback riders, and a host of others. But all of them find in Mendoza some of the best cuisine and wine South America has to offer. The rise in popularity of Argentinian wines complements a rich food culture that descends from a mélange of European and native cultures. Whatever you crave after three weeks in a tent, whether steak, authentic Italian pasta, empanadas, fusion, or just pizza, you’ll find it in Mendoza. I promise, it will be delicious.
The View from Chopper Camp: So far everything I’ve mentioned about climbing Aconcagua has been about food and culture (forgive me, I love a good meal!). And while the cultural experience in Argentina is undoubtedly one of my favorite parts of the Aconcagua expedition, the view at Camp Two on Aconcagua takes my breath away every time. Sitting below the Polish Glacier on a small ridge at 18,600ft, Camp Two (or Chopper Camp) offers up the first views of the greater Andean range. From Base Camp on up, climbers see Aconcagua towering above them day and night, until suddenly we come around the final traverse into camp and the Andes stretch out as far as you can see: to the north and east toward Mendoza and west all the way into Chile. It is here, at Chopper Camp, that the expedition picks up energy: the summit is close, the final push on the horizon!
The Team: As the old adage goes, it takes a village to climb a mountain, or something along those lines. Aconcagua requires a tremendous amount of teamwork every step of the way. Our broader team includes the mule drivers who make sure our equipment arrives, the porters who help a climber with an especially heavy load, the Base Camp staff who cook us our first dinners, the drivers, expedition providers, hotel staff and numerous others who work with RMI year after year to make sure climbers and guides are cared for along the way. These people become part of our team. They have become friends and mentors and I look forward to seeing them each year. And then, there is our expedition team: the three guides and ten climbers who live together, work hard building camp together each night, eat every meal together for almost three weeks, and learn more about each other in that time than most people learn in a year. This network and the chance to be part of a new climbing team, more than anything else, calls me back to Aconcagua year after year.
Katrina Bloemsma hails from the mountains of Colorado, but now calls the Pacific Northwest home. She guides in Washington on Mt. Rainier and the North Cascades, and further south, on Aconcagua. An avid skier and climber, Katrina can be found chasing deep snow and warm rocks when she isn’t guiding.
Having recently returned from an Aconcagua expedition, and having unpacked all my duffels, it was time to reflect on what I learned from the experience. I learned that I will never be called out for breathing like Darth Vader or for taking too many rest steps, resting spots are always further away than they initially appear (or are promised) and it is statistically impossible to pack too many gummies. In fact, learning the exact food preferences of your guides, and anticipating their needs before they become hypoglycemic (or just cranky) is key to any successful Aconcagua expedition. For instance, I am now equipped with the powerful knowledge that Steve is partial to sour worms, irrespective of the time of day or the altitude, and Mike has an aversion to any form of fruit and won’t touch chocolate on summit day. And you can never EVER pack too many tubes of Pringles. I will forever carry this insight with me on future climbs.
So what else did I learn? I admit that initially I had reservations about my ability to handle the rigors of an Aconcagua expedition, my “level” being best described as “enthusiastic”. I wondered whether I had sufficient experience to effectively prepare for an extended trip. I had deep concerns about my long-time nemesis, altitude, and how I would acclimatize “on schedule”. And I wondered if being a female climber (and therefore packing less than 200 pounds of pure muscle – a “lightweight”) would prove to be a limiting factor for a climb of this nature. As it turns out, picking rocks up and putting rocks down is not the most important expedition skill after all. In fact, as a female climber you probably innately possess many of the skills you will need.
It is precisely because your mindset is not that of muscling your way up the hill, that as a lightweight, you will appreciate that technique matters. You will quickly grasp that rest-stepping is a technique and not a pace. It is because you will be more open to learning how to do things differently that you will pay closer attention to what your guides are doing and follow their lead. It is true that stuffing your too large a sleeping bag into your too small a compression sack will always remain a fun, high altitude workout, however being inherently more detailed oriented, you are more likely to remember to weigh down the tent bag and keep a firm grasp on the tent while setting it up in hurricane-force winds so it doesn’t blow away into Chile, and to remember to double check that the tent fly is fully zipped so it doesn’t rip in the wind. Perhaps it is because you are more likely to be aware of your own limits that you will appreciate the value of thorough preparation, of perseverance and of thinking several steps ahead. You will naturally be more disciplined, and always purify your water, pack that extra layer and know where every item in your backpack is located. It is because you are more cautious by nature that you will take care of all the details (whether it is cold fingers or simply reapplying sunscreen). All these details will add up over the course of an expedition. Ultimately it is what is in your head that counts the most – your own sound judgment, your own inherent sense of self preservation, that only becomes more deeply ingrained with each climb, that will prove your most valuable expedition skill.
Aconcagua is set in a strikingly harsh environment. You will spend many hours scrambling over a glacier in a desert, as the mountain slowly reveals itself the higher you climb. You cannot take a bus to see it – there are no short cuts. You will only be privileged to see it if you climb it. It is hard. And it is worth it. It will be difficult to recall the exact moment when, reservations aside, it occurred to you that the expedition had been a success, and not only did you cope, but in fact you thrived. Perhaps it was the moment you mastered skiing down scree, or when you welcomed snow as now there was an easily accessible water source and an opportunity to strap on crampons, that you realized you had gone further than you ever thought you could. Maybe it was when you were completely at ease being tent-bound for 4 days at 18,000ft, wondering not if but when your tent would be shredded by the wind, or were content to spend an evening watching snow slide down the tent fly, mere inches from your face. Surely it was the moment you realized you were actually looking forward to ramen night (again!). No, it must have been when you thought nothing of foregoing the tent altogether, and were perfectly satisfied simply to lay down your bag among the rocks and the mule droppings, with a rock for a pillow and just count shooting stars and watch the moon rise beneath an Andean sky. Perhaps it was at that moment that Aconcagua had worked its magic, and you had fully assimilated into expedition life. It is at that juncture that you will realize, that despite being a lightweight, YOU DID IT!!!!! And you can start to dream of your next climb.
Rebecca R. - Aconcagua, February 2015
WOW!!! Every time I read your climb reports I feel like I’ve been there with you from your preparation to your climb to sitting in your tent with you. Well done on a fantastic insight on your experience, please keep on climbing and telling us land lubbers all about it.
Posted by: Sharon on 3/11/2015 at 3:36 am
CONGRATULATIONS!! Reads like a very meaningful experience. Excellent writing skills. Be proud of yourself for sure.
Posted by: Fran on 3/10/2015 at 5:59 pm
February 13, 2015
We are currently back in Plaza Argentina enjoying some well deserved pizza and ice cold beverages. The team cruised down hill this morning, picking up gear and waste, leaving Aconcagua in better shape then we found it. When your descent takes only 4.5 hours compared to the 9 days it took on the ascent, you have to just shake your head a little.
The team is all smiles, waiting on shower water to heat up, enjoying time out of their boots and laughing.
This will be our last dispatch of the climb. We will walk to Leñas on Saturday for an amazing Argentine BBQ (that’s slow cooked beef for you non-southerners). Sunday will see us with a short hike to the road and back in Mendoza.
Thanks for checking in on us during the climb.
February 12, 2015
February 12, 2015 - 11:56 am PT
The team is all safely back at Camp III after a successful summit day! Warm temps and literally zero wind made it one for the record books!
RMI Guide Steve Gately
9:20 am PT
Hi, this is Mike King with RMI Aconcagua Team 7 stand on the top of South America! We had a challenging day with extremely cold weather, and wind in the morning. We had a lot of new snow and scree on the way up on the upper mountain. The team did great. We’re gonna be heading back down in about 20 minutes. A beautiful day, I don’t have ever seen a more beautiful day on the top of Aconcagua. We will call or send a posting when we get back to high camp. Thanks for joining us!
RMI Guide Mike King
Mike King Calling from the Summit of Aconcagua February 12, 2015
Congrats Candace! Can’t wait to hear about your trip! Well Done!
Posted by: Billie on 2/17/2015 at 9:14 pm
Posted by: Melissa on 2/13/2015 at 8:02 am
February 11, 2015
We finally got around to packing up camp and climbing up to 19,600 feet, our High Camp for the expedition. Extremely cold and calm morning with a new blanket of snow on the surrounding Andean peaks made for a scenic day.
High Camp is never anyone’s favorite camp for a few reasons:
1. Sleeping at 19,600 feet can be difficult.
2. There are no ‘great’ tent sites due to how the wind swirls around.
3. Lack of snow makes drinking water a time consuming process.
Good thing we are making our summit bid tomorrow and will be back in Base Camp telling stories before to long.
Wish us luck! We will check in hopefully from the summit on Thursday afternoon.
On The Map
i hope you will all be home soon.I wish you safety and ssurefootedness. I send Valentines love.
Posted by: tina baker on 2/12/2015 at 6:46 am
February 10, 2015
The Gambler said it best, “you have to know when to hold em, know when to fold em”. He wasn’t referring to his chain of Kenny Rogers’ Roasters, but to our team taking another weather day at Camp 2.
We received only a few inches of snow, and with strong winds our tents were drifted in this morning. A cloud reminiscent of Mordor hung over the upper 4,000 feet of Aconcagua until 11am. Instead of getting a late start and arriving in High Camp later in the day, we will dry our sleeping bags and acclimate.
Our summit day will be the 12th. The Gang is hangin’ tough and enjoying the saxophone riff from WHAM’s “careless whisper”.
On The Map
It will happen. The wait is tough but will be worth it. Good luck!
Posted by: Melissa on 2/11/2015 at 8:54 am
stay strong and keep your dreams!
Posted by: tina baker on 2/11/2015 at 6:54 am
February 9, 2015
This morning we woke to the traditional Aconcagua weather pattern, cold temps and consistent winds. We watched snow billow off the upper Polish glacier into the sky forming clouds that resembled smoke rising from a 23,000 ft bonfire.
Everyone is chomping at the bit to move camp and begin our summit attempt, but we will spend one more night at Camp 2 and hope the forecast of 5-20 mph winds holds out.
Quesadillas for lunch and more tent time. If you are reading these blogs with any desire to go expedition climbing get a Kindle and crush tent time like a pro.
RMI Guides Mike King and Steve Gately
On The Map
Candace, we are following your team’s progress. What an amazing experience.
Stay strong and safe.
Posted by: susan on 2/10/2015 at 7:38 pm
Candace!! I’m eating a Newport brownie, sitting at Tidi’s counter!! You are doing awesome!! Can’t wait to see you soon!!! Love you! ~tiff
Posted by: Tiffany on 2/10/2015 at 12:07 pm
February 8, 2015
Rest day at Camp 2:
Our coldest morning of the climb here at Camp 2 on Aconcagua. Our water source is a large snowfield, that lately has been a raging torrent due to warm temperatures and almost zero snowfall this season. The amount of water and ice that has melted at Camp 2 has begun to erode tent sites that have been staple spots at an already cramped camp.
We are going for a walk to 19,000’ this morning to stretch our legs and lungs. 18,000 ft is the highest our group has slept and the guides are pleased with how everyone is acclimating. We are still anticipating high winds tomorrow and remain flexible in our ability to move up if we see a significant difference in the forecast.
RMI Guides Mike King, Steve Gately & Team
On The Map
I’ve got a detailed map of Aconcagua, and it’s extremely cool to see your photos and locate them on the topo map. I can’t wait to take a shot at Aconcagua! It may still be a year or two away, but I’m working my way up to it.
Posted by: Michael Gibbons on 2/8/2015 at 3:54 pm
February 7, 2015
The Gang Moves to Camp 2
Well the good weather only lasts for so long when you are climbing in the big mountains of the world. We moved camp this morning after enjoying another warm and calm night.
We spent the day looking at high wispy cirrus clouds over the summit from the West and ominous lenticular clouds building in the East. The most recent forecast has high winds entering the picture starting tonight and lasting several days.
We are in a good position to wait for better weather with a rest day tomorrow and the ability to use two weather days if needed. We are sitting on a lot of food and fuel.
Until next time,