Aconcagua, South America

My 1st of the Seven Summits

Aconcagua, the Stone Sentinel, located in the heart of the Andes in the Northwest corner of Argentina, is the tallest mountain in the world outside of Asia. At 22,841’, it is also the second tallest of the Seven Summits (second only to Mt. Everest). However, the climbing is not terribly challenging on the standard route aside from the extreme altitude and sometimes-extreme weather. These factors make it a great testing ground for one’s physiology and ability to acclimate to extreme altitudes. Therefore, as my early mountaineering skills and experience accumulated, Aconcagua was a logical next step, and I departed for an expedition there late in 2000.

Remote in the Argentinian Andes, Aconcagua is not an easily accessed mountain. As a result, it was a three-day, thirty-mile trek for us to simply arrive at base camp. The altitude gain was gradual as we started at 8,000’ and worked our way up the Vacas river valley and then the Relenchos river valley until we reached base camp at 13,788’.

Once we arrived at base camp, we took a rest day to allow our bodies time to acclimate to the new altitude. After the rest day, we did a carry to Camp I (16,200’), which entails climbing to Camp I, caching all extraneous gear (extra food, fuel, clothing, and technical climbing gear we would not need until later in the expedition), and then returning to Camp I to sleep. This “climb high, sleep low” approach is critical for acclimatization in the high mountains as it allows the body time to adjust to new altitudes gradually by exposing it incrementally to new heights before fully committing to that new altitude.

The following morning we packed our remaining gear and moved to Camp I, where the weather took a precipitous turn for the worst. The infamous “Viento Blanco” made its debut. El Viento Blanco (“white wind”) is a result of highly unstable air in the upper atmosphere signaled by the telltale lenticular cloud sitting on Aconcagua’s summit. It is a definitive sign of extreme winds and snow at upper elevations. Pinned at Camp I on Christmas day, as we were buffeted by 70-80 mph winds, we made the most of it. Playing cards and telling jokes, I laughed so hard that I developed a splitting headache from the altitude, but it made a Christmas away from friends and family tolerable.

A few days later, we moved to Camp II in blustery weather. Upon reaching Camp II and setting up our tents, we went to retrieve water. As we were getting water from the trickling stream in the adjacent valley, we noticed a whole slew of lenticular clouds had formed on the western horizon. Knowing that they were the harbinger of an intense Viento Blanco, we returned to camp to shore up our protective rock walls surrounding our tents, tent anchors, and any loose gear. The wind howled that night and we experienced gusts upwards of 100 mph, which even destroyed some of our tents. No one slept that evening.

The next day was still windy with snow squalls, but Camp II (on the ridge at the top of the col between Ameghino and Aconcagua) was our most weather-exposed camp on the mountain. Therefore, it was time to continue up regardless of the weather conditions. It was another unpleasant day, but we were able to make it to Camp III (19,200’). When we awoke the next morning, the weather was finally calm so we spent the day acclimating and preparing our gear and minds for the imminent summit attempt.

We made one final move to Camp IV (20,600’) the following day, while the weather remained calm and stable, so we knew that the following day was going to be our summit attempt. We awoke early and awaited the sun’s arrival on our tents it would have been too cold to start climbing otherwise. About 7am, we finally departed for the summit.

We progressed in relatively good time and arrived by mid-morning at the Canaleta (“gully”), a steep, 800-foot couloir that leads to Guanaco Ridge, from which it is an easy traverse to the summit. This is the standard route on Aconcagua but nonetheless can be tricky. On the day we climbed it, we found it to be a very steep scree ascent (which is essentially a climb up a very steep hill comprised of loose pebbles). At that altitude, climbing the Canaleta was exhausting work because with every step up you would slide back nearly as far as you originally stepped. However, we reached the summit at 2pm on New Year’s Eve 2000, the last day of the Millennium. Not a bad way to cap-off 1,000 years.

Unfortunately, one member of our team developed High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE) during the ascent. HACE is a physiological reaction to altitude where a person’s brain literally swells and causes that person to become very disoriented, uncoordinated, and delusional, sometimes followed by unconsciousness and even death in its later stages. It typically starts with a severe headache but then subtly advances to where a person starts to act as though they are intoxicated. We administered her Dexamethazone, which is a high-powered steroid that helps stabilize victims of HACE so that they can descend under their own power. Fortunately, with much effort, we were able to get her back to high camp, where she responded to the increased barometric pressure and oxygen levels at 21,000’. Thankfully, everyone made it back to Camp IV safely yet exhausted.

The following morning we awoke to the year 2001, packed our gear, and headed for the lower climes of base camp. The mountain that took us eight days to climb, once we departed base camp, required little more than half of a day to descend. Soon thereafter, we departed on the three-day trek out, and after some famous Argentinian steaks and Malbec in Mendoza we departed
for home.