DISCLAIMER: All the equipment used as well as the sets of meds were picked based on my previous, personal experience and the recommendation of my doctor.
Please do not blindly copy that, as this may be inadequate for your needs and frankly, quite dangerous.
Also, please forgive me the spelling and grammar. English is not my first language and most of this was written while sipping on Fernet Branca. ( by the way, you have to try it when in AR )
I am sitting comfortably on a AA flight to Santiago, Chile. Altitude according to my phone and build in GPS is 22007 feet and climbing. I am looking outside the small window and I am thinking that if everything goes well, I will be at this altitude again, soon – but this time, climbing up here with my own legs. On the airport this half Polish lady behind AA counter was kind enough to fit me in a middle of 3 empty seats, so I am comfortably stretched.
Nervously, I am hoping that my luggage arrive with me in South America. So many times AA lost my stuff.. This cannot happen. Everything is scheduled and I have only few hours before leaving Mendoza. Fingers crossed.
Dinner on the plane is served, as usually, super nasty stuff, some lasagna with something that remotely looks like a dinner roll. I am asking for a wine, and a nice lady hands me a bottle of Malbec, saying: “on the house”. Wow. Am I in AA plane or somehow I teleported to my favourite Cathay Pacific Airlines ?
One ambien, wine, earplugs and after piling up multiple pillows I am suddenly waking up to the voice of the capitan: "“cabin crew, please prepare for landing”.
Day 2 - South America
November 15th, 2011
Wow. I am in Chile! I have about 2 hours of wait on the airport, before switching to a regional LAN plane that will take me to Mendoza. I am debating if I should use my Priority Pass to refresh in the suites, but I am opting for just relaxing and checking the airport stores. Suddenly I hear string of Spanish words followed by my name. From the airport intercom. Not good! : ) I am checking at my gate, and a girl is telling me in a broken English, that the security found “guns” in my luggage and they need to be removed. I am suspecting some translation errors, thinking they are referring to my gas cartridges. Soon I am on a small car speeding alongside the runway toward an old looking building. I am a little nervous, since my plane is taking off in about 15 minutes.
Mystery solved: they are referring to my MSR gas cartridges. After removing all 3 of them from my checked-in luggage, I am speeding back to my plane.
Everyone is on board. They are just waiting for me.. whoopps.. : ) Yes - somehow the luggage made it as well. So I am finally flying to Argentina.
We are passing Aconcagua. This mountain is gigantic. I don't think that the plane was actually flying higher than the summit. I couldn't check it, my GPS wasn't really picking up the signal then.
Aconcagua from a LAN plane.
Around 3PM I am landing in Mendoza. The taxi takes me from the airport to the hostel for about 30 pesos. ( 40 pesos = $10.00 US ) The hostel name is Salvigliano and since it is located pretty much at the main bus station it is a hostel of choice. Also at the hostel I suppose to meet Nick, a guy I met here, on 14ers.com that wanted to join forces and summit Aconcagua together.
Nick was supposed to be there, so I am telling the guy behind the hostel's counter that I have reservations under Nicks name and theoretically, he should be here. But.. according to the computer, no one is waiting for me, and there are no guests with the name “Nick” or “Nicholas”. Hmm.. what happened to Nick ? He was supposed to climb Pico de Orizaba before Aconcagua. Did something happen to him? Darn.. that wasn’t the plan, but oh well - I was going to do it solo anyways, so I guess small change of planes is in order.
When I decided to just book a dorm room for myself, Nick shows up. He was there since the morning, and somehow the computer did not register his name properly. Weird, but I am glad he is there. I’ve never seen him before, so we chat a bit, unload my luggage at the room and soon enough we go for a “city tour” to check a few places. Mainly, Nick needs to get warmer mittens. His current ones were not warm enough in Mexico, so they definitely will be too cold for Aconcagua. I also need to get gas cartridges, plus batteries for my Suunto which is suddenly dying. We find local outfitters on Espejo Street near Plaza Independencia. It is a well-equipped store, but the prices are steep. To rent so-so looking mittens they charge Nick I think 70 US dollars.. this kind of sucks, but oh well. I am getting my cartridges ( around 10 US each ) and we are heading back to the hostel. The hostel is in a pretty decent shape and I think we paid somewhere around 120 pesos per night per room, so roughly 15 US a person.
The outfitters in Mendoza
Our hostel in Mendoza. Nick in the background.
Day 3 - Camp Confluencia
November 16th, 2011
Our bus to Los Penitentes is schedule to leave around 11AM ( there are 3 buses going in this direction every day ), but before that we need to get my climbing permit. You can get it in a Ministry of Tourism, they open at 8:30 AM I believe. We wait a few minutes before they open. Short paperwork and I am on the way to the cashier on the other side of the street to pay for the permit. Once paid, I am on the way back to the office to get my actual "permit card".
With all of the proper paper work we are going back to the hostel and then to the bus station. One way ticket costs us 26 pesos plus 10 pesos for extra luggage ( 2 duffle bags and 2 backpacks ). The bus ride takes around 4 hours.
After 4 hours we are in Penitentes. The bus drops us off in the middle of the town. It is not even a town, just few buildings on both sides of the highway.
Los Penitentes in the distance.
First, we need to find Fernando Grajales. We decided to take mules one way and split the costs. This year they charge 180 for 60KG - which is plenty to split between us two. I am off to scout and the first person I ask in my poor, poor Spanish “ Perdon, donde esta Fernando Grajales expedicion” answers: “aqui”. Bingo.
We put our duffle bags on the scale, the man attaches little tag with my name, we pay ( you can pay in Pesos or Dollars, they will do the math for you. Dollars and pesos are accepted pretty much everywhere, and the exchange rate is usually better than in banks, plus they won’t charge you any exchange fees ). We are getting terrific exchange rate of 1:4.9 ( Nick said it was 4.3 ) We are promised to see our luggage tomorrow at the base camp. No receipt was given, so we hope for the best : ) After all Fernando is well established service.
Inside the Fernando Grajales headquarters. Also this is the only place we found in Penitentes that has open internet wifi. Not sure how long will it remain open. If you sit outside you can connect with your phone and connect with the world for the very last time before starting the summit journey.)
The price of the mules also includes taxi from Los Penitentes to the trailhead. After 10-15 minutes, the taxi appears and takes us the park entrance. (around 10 minutes driving).
First we need to check in at the Ranger Station. Our permits are checked and we get the famous numbered shit bags - one for trash one for poop ( labeled FM ). We laugh, as the bags look worse than a standard US trash bag. I guess they assume you will pack your crap in something else and then put everything in that bag. The wind outside is terrifying. Super windy. We ask if that weather is normal here and get a positive response They add: "up the top is much worse" Haha. Alright.
We are on the trail! The signs show 3-4 hours to plaza Confluencia, our first camp.
Fast start! Nick on the left.
The polished, tourist road soon becomes rockier and in about 20 minutes we reach a bridge that takes us to a sort of singletrack path.
According to Nick this bridge was build for the movie "7 Years In Tibet".
The beginning of the Horcones Vallery.
The temperatures are not so warm, but not too cold either. I got my smartwool baselayer and Monkey Jacket on. Wrapped my scarf around my head. It looks dorky but feels comfortable. 2 hours later and after 4.5 miles hiked, we are in Confluencia. Good times. The camp looks empty. Just very few tents, maybe 5-6 the most.
Empty Confluencia Camp - EV2 in the foreground.
No rangers, no doctors and no .. bathrooms. Where is everyone ? After a quick chat with a local guide (guiding two Australians) it appears that the bathroom service that was included in Grajales mule services is not available, because Grajales haven’t established any camps neither here nor in BC (base camp). Shit. Seriously. No one informed us of that. This is not fair. We paid for this service. We are bummed. Worth mentioning is also the fact that the climbing fee is so high ( 300 US - Low Season ), because it covers helicopter rescue, in case of an emergency. But.. of course, it is too early and "de choppa" is not here. It may be here in about 8 days, but not now. Well, thanks for nothing Argentinian Parks and Rec!
But enough of complaining. Time to set up tents. My EV2 is easy to set-up and looks just great . My partner is cussing; he has a hard time putting it up. He didn’t take groundsheet or tent pegs, snow anchors or anything similar. Someone told him he won’t need it, so he is guying up everything with rocks and it just doesn’t go well. On the top of that he cannot start his white gas stove. The pos Primus OmniFuel stove isn’t lighting up. Without working stove Nick cannot continue the climb, as I don’t have enough fuel for two. Nick is considering heading back and trying to rent something else. Ouch. Thats sucks because he is a strong climber. A few people try to start it without success. After about an hour a local guide gets it to work, sort of.. he says that MSR is the best, and he shouldn’t buy anything else but MSR. He is using his old XGK MSR that is out of production, looks like it was run over by a truck but lights up almost immediately.. Good, ol’ MSR. I love this company. We eat, drink and talk to some other groups.
Luckily there is a running water, so no need to melt anything. According to the local teams, the water is safe to drink, but I filter it anyways. Better safe than sorry, especially before such a challenging hike.
DAY 4 - Base Camp
November 17th, 2011
The night goes well and we wake up in the morning around 8:30. Nick is already up, Canadian team is already gone ( we met them yesterday ). British team is packing. Nick tries to hurry me up but I decide to delay everything a bit, and let him go ahead of me. I need some time to myself, enjoy the tranquility, peace and just the beauty of this place. I like hiking alone. Nick takes off, then the British team with John & Heather and then 10 minutes after them – me. It is around 9:45.
The hike from the Confluencia camp soon takes a dip in a big valley with rushing river and climbs back up.
The valley, right after Camp Confluencia. The muddy river on the left.
The weather is perfect; sunny but not too hot, windy and a clear sky. I am putting my MP3 player on. “The Wailin Jennys” is on and I feel like million bucks. It is just me, the Horcones Valley and the sky.
This place looks like Mars. Or like Colorado on steroids.
After jumping over few muddy creeks, multiple stops, around 5:30PM I am arriving in BC-PM. I am not going to lie, this was a challenging hike. Especially, right after Plaza Ibanez, there were some gnarly slopes that took lots of breather brakes. The worst thing is that you don’t see PM until you are almost there. So it is a guessing game.. maybe it is around the corner ? On the top of the slope? Behind this valley? Every time the answer was.. no. Not there yet. I hate that. : ) I also developed nasty blister on my heel. Must be the 11 miles of scree.
BC - aka PM - Plaza De Mulas is .. vacant. Barely anyone there. The only expedition ready to go is Incas Expedition. And they know that.. greedy ba$tards try to charge us 5 bucks for EACH use of their toilets. I am glad that after 8:30 PM ( sunset ), they cave in and never go out the tents. Then you can do whatever you please. But still.. 5 bucks for each use is nuts, especially when it is only a handful of hikers there. Really, there is only myself, Nick then the British team of John & Heather, Canadians – Jarrett & Tanya and the Czech team of four – Jenna, Anthony, Pedro and Zach Galifianakis (at least he looks like him). Behind us there is a team of two Aussie guys – Grand and Jim (?) with a local guide, but they went to Plaza Francia first, so they should be arriving in PM in 2 days. Oh and there is a Brazilian team too, 2 guys, but never really learnt their names. So, all in all.. Not a lot of folks here.
)Plaza De Mulas and the Incas Tents.
My luggage is here. It was just dumped behind some rocks, but as expected – everything inside is there. Looks like the bags got some beating, but the REI hardcore duffle bags survived without any issues.
The weather is ok. Not too cold, at least not before the sunset.
After the sunset the temps are dipping below freezing, which is kind of expected. PM is at 14,435, roughly the height of Mt. Elbert here in Colorado. I am checking my pulse oximeter; the levels are not the best around 83%. I am deciding to stay in PM to adjust to the elevation better and take care of my feet. Honestly, there is no need to rush; I am here for another 15 days if needed. I‘ve got plenty of spare time.
My little Mountain Hardwear fortress
Also, since there are no medics at the PM I am the only person who has the oximeter device. It is a popular gadget. In the middle of the night a Czech guy comes over and asks for it. His teammate isn’t feeling too well, but it appears to be a false alarm. His 02s are alright.
DAY 5 - Rest day at PM
November 18th, 2011
Woke up around 8:30, which becomes my normal wake up time. There is really no point in getting up any earlier than this. The sun rises around 6:30 but because we are surrounded by mountains the direct sunlight doesn’t reach us until around 9 ish. It is cold and windy before that, so the only motivation to get out of the tent is to check the Inca Restrooms. They - Incas don’t show up until around 9 ( what a coincidence ), so if you have to go #2, this will be your chance, unless you want to squad and bag your own poop in the middle of freezing weather.
Inside of the EV2. Looks roomy on the wide angle
After a short breakfast consisting of DELICIOUS Mountain House Blueberry Granola bfast meal I am reorganizing and trying to rehydrate. My goal is to get around 5L today. There is a small creek on the east side of the camp with running water, which freezes over at night. As the risk of getting sick from water is very high here, we either filter it / zap it with UV or chemically purify it before boiling it.
Today, most of the teams decide on moving a cache to Camp Canada but I am sticking to my plan and staying here. I am taking some pictures, eating, hydrating and checking my O2s. My levels definitely improve and by the end of the day I am at almost 90%. Good enough . By the way, I am on Diamox now. I understand the risks of it, but I decide to take it anyways. I didn't have issues with it on Elbrus, so I am expecting similar results here.
Empty ranger stations in the background.
In the late afternoon the teams are back from Camp Canada and report that the place is pretty sucky. No wind protection around tents. Grueling climb over a scree field.
My water filter suddenly dies. I know.. everyone talks about that. Don’t take filters with you on Aconcagua. Even though I filtered clear water, something clogs it. I am glad I have my Aquamira drops and Nick has UV purifier. After over 5L of water, 3 ProBars, beef tortillas and some Pasta Primavera – I am off to bed.
DAY 6 - Cache to Canada
November 19th, 2011
After the short breakfast I am ready to cache to Canada. By the way - my awesome MSR Reactor is a blessing. Before others start priming their white gas stoves, I am already sipping on a hot, morning cocoa. This thing is a beast. It takes longer for me to prepare cocoa (getting it from my pack and putting it a cup) than for the water to boil (!).
My boo-boo on my heel is feeling better, especially after some Glacier Gel. Not the best stuff, but it works for now. Around 11 AM I am leaving PM with the Czech team and we are going up together. Most of the groups are heading there today to camp. It is cold and windy, I am wearing 3 layers, smartwool, monkey jacket and eVent shell ( my favourite combination on the mountain ). Half way up Canada there is a large rock that shield from wind. We stop there, the Czech team is kind enough to share a hot, yummy black tea with lemons. Pure European love : ) They apologize for the luck of rum in it. I love those guys!
Soon we are in Canada. This place sucks, but I guess it is a progress. It is windy and cloudy. Groups of people are scrambling to find a good camping spot. I pick up a place and I start to build a windwall from large rocks lying around. If I am going to get here tomorrow, my windwall will be half done.
Nick, Heather & John and the Czech team will be staying here tonight. Jarrett & Tanya the Canadians are going to scout Nido de Condores, and after that will come back all way down to PM to sleep. Smart, but their legs must be made of a solid Canadian Steel.. that’s a lot of walking for one day!
Camp Canada and the Czech team
By the end of the day I am back in PM. Pretty much by myself. Only Brazilians and Canadians are here with me. The rest of guys are staying in Canada tonight. Around 8:45 the wind is picking up a lot. I am scrambling for some water, food and quickly caving in my down bag. The weather outside is getting worse and worse by the minute. I am thanking God I am not in Canada now. That would suck royally.
DAY 7 - Camp Canada
November 20th, 2011
That night was pretty messed up. The wind was drastic, it was cold and in the middle of the night I had to check the restrooms. As the Inca outhouses are built out of metal frame and aluminum sheets, each wind blast resonates and being inside, feels like being on a Sepultura concert. I hate Sepultura.
By the morning, winds die a little bit. The wake up routine is now fully established – 1) Get water from a local stream ( in the morning you have to break through ice to get to water ) 2) purify it 3) warm up to almost boiling level and.. 4) indulge in dry food.
After breakfast I ask around for a weathercast. The word around the camp is that a snow front is coming, but I am really itchy to go up. Enough of the base camp. I am heading to Inca tents, they have the radio, they should know the weather.. My Czech friend asks politely if they can call the ranger station at the entrance to park ask for the meteo. They reluctantly agree. In 45 minutes we will get our meteo.
In the mid time I am heading to another tent that just appeared, Aymara Expedition. They are not set up yet, just one big tent and the end of the PM. Everyone is inside gathered around a small table. Maybe 10-15 people. Only one person speaks English. We get confirmation that a change of weather is coming.
Incas relay the message that tonight a snow storm is coming but the 24th and the 25th looks like a good weather window for a summit push. I am acclimatized well, my o2s are in mid 90s%, and 5 days to the top looks reasonable. I am deciding to push on, regardless of the upcoming storm. Canadian and Brazilian team decide to wait yet another night and shelter from the storm in the base camp.
Around 12 PM I am on the way up to Canada. I hate that part of the trail. The scree field is really annoying, 2 steps up one step down. On the top of that, I am all by myself and the winds are picking up. The clouds are covering pretty much the entire sky and snow flurries start to appear everywhere. I stop to put a heavier layer on, and change my gloves to warmer ones. I feel pretty crappy; it is cold, I am tired its windy and still so far up.. And it is just the beginning of the mountain. Ah. What am I doing here? I had enough miles on my account to fly to Thailand and enjoy green curry in Khao Lak. But after a few minutes of nostalgia I am just pushing up. Rest step and another big breath.
Rest stop by a large rock ( I believe called Piedras Conway ), on the way up to Camp Canada
I arrive in Canada, it is windy and snowing. Setting up a tent during this kind of weather is not a fun thing. It takes me good 20 minutes before I pick up a right angle and anchor down the groundsheet. The pegs don’t work now, because of cold, they simply break when you try to hammer them down in the ground. Besides the ground is frozen. I am glad I took my snow anchors. I pay special attention to all guy lines, this need to be a bombproof tent for tonight.
After all is set I am heading to see Nick. "You alive?" - I ask. He pops out of the tent; looks miserable and visually discouraged. “Dude, last night was a nightmare. I didn’t sleep almost anything. The winds were insane, and one tent ( from the Czech team ) got seriously damaged. This was the worst night so far”- he says.
Nicks Tent at Camp Canada - yes, we both have EV2s
Also Nicks stove isn’t working again, he has issues keeping it alit in this weather, so he’s been enjoying his mountain house meals with cold water, or just dry. Hardcore. I feel kind of bad for him. Nothing is working properly on his end. On the top of that his Spork broke.
In the afternoon John from the British team comes over and we have a nice long chat in my claustrophobic EV2. We talk about his adventures in Bhutan, whitewater rafting, our travels and Florida Keys, where John is heading after Argentina. Also I check Johns O2s which are not super awesome.. Actually, very low. Since he is a good climber, I assume he knows the risks of heading any higher.
Melting snow. My EV in the background. Czech tent in the front. Cool looking sun halo..
We melt snow for water, eat, chat with the Czech team and around 8PM we are experiencing a miracle in the nature because clouds are clearing up and we are presented with a spectacular sunset.
Snapshot from my gopro and xshot
Shortly after that we say goodnight and head to our own tent caves. For me - half of an ambien pill, ear plugs, hot Nalgene bottle in the sleeping bag and I am floating away.
DAY 8 - Nido De Condores
November 21st, 2011
In the morning, everyone else is moving up to Nido, where hopefully, we can find better wind protection.
Again, the perspective of staying alone in Canada is not appealing, so I make a quick decision to skip caching and carry everything in one load to the higher camp. I am ready to leave Canada as soon as possible. My 02s dipped to mid 80s level, which is ok for this altitude. We are on 16.5K feet.
Everyone is packing. Nido de Condores seems like a promise land and early scouts say that from there you can see the top. We need a morale booster after freezing weather in Canada. However, not everyone is going up. Jenna and Zach are deciding to stop the climb and go down. They don’t feel too good and the weather is wearing them down. I chat with Jenna who tries to hide her tears behind big Julbo glasses. She wants the summit, but doesn’t feel like she could continue the climb safely anymore. We hug and wish farewell to each other.
Soon, we are on the way up. My backpack is heavy as hell, so I am taking me sweet time. Again, rest step is a blessing. Actually rest step is so effective that soon I bypass the remaining Czech team ( Anthony & Pedro ).
As the trail to Nido isn’t clearly marked, I am taking a slightly different route than everyone else bypassing some snow large patches. Half way I am bit lost. Not sure where to go, so I waive to Anthony and in a “hiking-pole-language” I ask him for directions. He points to a far rock formation. On my 4 John & Heather are catching up. The wind and cold is pretty nasty, so I stop to drink, eat and put another layer on. I chat with John shortly before he takes off. The sky is clear but the mountain is surrounded by fast moving clouds that flow over the top, covering the summit completely. It doesn’t look very friendly at the top. I am glad to be here.
At 14:25 I am arriving at Nido. The hike wasn’t as hard as the one from PM to Canada, from the technical point. But the heavy backpack was definitely an issue. I am glad to be here. Nido is looking different than from what I expected. Actually it is nothing like what I expected. It is a hilly, open field, with random rocks sticking out here and there. On a good day you can see a summit from here, but today, the summit is covered in clouds. Nick tent is already set up. John & Heather picked a nice looking spot as well. I am heading up a little higher hoping to find a better, flatter ground. ( actually there is a really good one, right by a heli pad )
Setting up tent takes me around 40 minutes. I am ready to eat and drink. I am also ready to explore. Right by the heli pad there is a “ranger” station. It is the last station on the mountain where- in case of emergency – a heli can be summoned to pick you up. But, as I mentioned, this place is deserted. No rangers, no heli, no oxygen bottles. Just few of us on the mountain, breathtaking views and freezing wind. Yup, we are on 18K feet.
Views from Nido de Condores
The orange bus – as I called the ranger station - looked interesting. Nick & Anthony checked it yesterday, but said it is filled with snow, so useless for us. It is true. Even though the rangers tried to seal the doors to the “bus”, they left a small crack, possibly no bigger than half an inch, maybe less, but it was enough to fill the entire thing with snow up to the celling. I shrug just by thinking of how the winter looks like here. Winds that push so much snow through such a small door crack. That’s nuts. I peek inside and see that there is an area where I think I could move some snow out and put my bag. It is better than the loud tent .. hmm.. Since I had some time left before sunset and my tent was already setup, I got nothing to else to do. I grab a piece of wood and using it as a shovel I start to unshovel the entire thing.
In the process of getting the snow out. Most of the snow outside the bus is the snow I removed.
4 hours later, right before the sunset, 80% of the bus is free of snow. Under snow there were 2 mattresses, which I clean up and pile on top of each other. I am also making a spot on the remaining snow for my little kitchen setup. I can melt snow even without leaving the bus. Perfect!
Inside my orange bus!
I am moving my gear inside and get ready for a night. The wind outside is picking up, but it doesn’t matter, because there is not wind inside the bus. I feel really lucky, that hard work paid off nicely. The bus had some Plexiglas windows. I am watching sunset and soon fall asleep. I am waking up in the night to a sounds of fierce winds outside. I am checking outside the window to see if the tents below are still there.. they are. My alcohol thermometer shows -15 degrees inside, but I am comfortable.
DAY 9 - Rest Day
November 22nd, 2011
The first thing I check waking up are my O2 levels. 79%. Crap. Not that good. Hear rate over 100BPM. I decide to stay in Nido until oxygen goes up to a solid mid 80s. I know that I am on the edge of the altitude where the levels of oxygen will drop drastically.. But once over 6500m the O2 levels should flatten around 60-65%. Something changes in blood, something to do with alkalosis, but not sure exactly what.
I decide to fuel up on food and water and rest. While making breakfast, Heater & Nick come over. Heather breaks the news that John went down to BC, early in the morning suffering from a severe case of AMS. He was vomiting, couldn't sleep last night and had severe headaches. I am not very surprised, as John’s levels were so low starting with. If the doctors were at the BC they would not let him go up. At least that’s my guess.
I am checking my med box for my dose of Dexamethasone. Still there. Last resort if something happens. I show Nick & Heather where I keep it in my backpack.. just in case. Hopefully we won’t have to use it.
Nick & Heather in the bus. Nick with his broken, duct-taped spork.
Heather is quite sad that John had to go down. She asks if she can join us on our way up. We of course agree; it is good to have more people in the team. Heather is pretty hard core, as she is currently the only chick that high up. The Canadian team will be here today, but as of now, she is the only female here. We made a quick decision to split responsibilities. I will stay in the bus, make water for all three of us and Nick & Heather will go scout the next ( and the last ) camp – Berlin at 19,400. The weather is nice, so shortly after breakfast ( and after singing happy b-day to me, yup, it is my 33rd birthday today ) they disappear over yet another, frozen scree field.
In about 3.5 hours Nick & Heather appear back. Great news, the Berlin has emergency huts, so no need to take our tents up there. Usually the A-framed huts are used for emergency situation only, but since we are the only one on the mountain, I guess it won’t matter.. we are taking the hut!. The weather, even though is cold, is manageable and the sky is perfectly clear, yet still windy.
We decide on the plan of action – on the 23rd which is tomorrow, we will move to Berlin , stay there overnight and go for the summit on the 24th. Not a lot of people usually stay in Berlin. Lots of guides discourage it, because of the altitude it is usually better to sleep in Nido and attack the summit from here, but we feel alright, so we decide to move up in the morning.
Heather asks is she can stay in the bus tonight and Nick heads back to his tent. Heather and me chat a lot about Europe, home, family stories. Good times. Right before sleep I heat up water in my MSR Reactor for a hot tea and water for my nalgene bottle. Amazingly, the Reactor still works like a champ, and I never had to warm up the gas cartridges. The cold definitely has an effect on it – it doesn’t have its normal boiling power, but heats up water and still melts snow faster than any stove on the camp. So, for all the doubters - yes, the reactor works at high altitude – it worked perfectly in Berlin at 19.490K feet and in below 0 temperatures.
De-snowed stove and working Reactor : )
We are watching the sun setting behind mountains and cozy up in our sleeping bags. That was a good 33rd birthday.
DAY 10 - Refuge Berlin
November 23rd, 2011
The Brazilian – Canadian team is here. They have the newest weather updates which is: windy for the rest of the week. On the 26th the weather will deteriorate dramatically. Also, 3 rangers are on the way up here. Time to move to Camp Berlin!
We cleaned up the “bus”, cached our trash by the tent and started our haul. At this time, pretty much everyone was hiking up. The Brazilian-Canadian team was heading up but to Colera, I think also called Ellena ? Colera has an expedition style shelter, but it is higher and off the main route to the summit, so we decided to just stay in Berlin. Czech team wasn’t there, so we thought that they are resting at Nido.
Again, doing the rest step I am bypassing most of the teams and catching up to Heather. Nick is extremely fast, so he is almost at the top already. We arrive at the A-frame Berlin hut probably within an hour and 30 minutes after leaving Nido. Contrary to a what everyone experiences. The camp is clean and there are no smells. Behind one rock we find a gigantic pile of crap, but since it is from last seasons, the smell is gone, and you really cannot see if from the hut. I guess this is another point for coming here so early, haha.
We open the small doors to the hut and we are welcomed by.. Pedro from a Czech team. He is fully dressed in climbing clothes, with his backpack on. His eyes are looking mad, he looks .. scary. In a broken Czech / Spanish / English I am asking what happened. Where is Anthony ? Pedro blurbs that they tried to summit but Anthony turned around. He felt feeling bad, so he turned around too. Nick & Heather are puzzled – if Anthony turned around, why is he not with Pedro. Anthony's sleeping bag, and pad are still here. Did he take the escape route ? Has something happened to him ? We ask “ Pedro, where is Anthony?” – Pedro looks at me and points at a sign on the side of the hut. I look at that and it reads “German Expedition 2003”. What ??
We are even more concerned. What happened here ? Pedro is visibly hypoxic, Anthony missing. This is not good. First - Pedro needs to get down. There is the Canadian & Brazilian team on the way up and rangers on the camp below. Nick escorts him outside and makes sure he is on the right path down. From there it is only 30 minutes to Nido, plus we know there are 2 teams going up, so if something happens, they will take care of him. But still we are puzzled, what happened to Anthony..
Inside Refuge Berlin. Nick & Heather are setting up their sleeping areas.
Around 8:30 we hear banging on the door and to our surprise, Anthony shows up. His face is bright red ( Nick claims that it was white covered in a sunscreen ). We are in disbelief. Tony summit Aconcagua around 5:00, battled winds and cold and just got back. Pedro felt really sick and had to turn around. We offer Tony hot water and ask him for the info on the mountain.
The Canaleta is supposed to be cold and windy. Most of the route is free of ice and snow, but we decide to take crampons no matter what. We melt more water, eat some food and try to get some rest before summit. Anthony’s bag is thin. I don’t know how he is managing the cold. His breathing is extremely irregular - I am suspecting Cheyne-Stokes and he shows early signs of pulmonary edema. Sounds like he has tons of fluids in his lungs.. It is too late to go down so we are all trying to sleep. Hopefully he will be ok.. I am skipping my ambien pills, it is too high for this medicine here, ear plugs should be sufficient. Plus we are all exhausted, everything here takes an effort. It is scary to think we still have 3351 vertical feet to go. For the first time I have a solid head ache but I fall asleep around 11 PM.
Sunset from Refuge Berlin. Cold evening.
DAY 11 - SUMMIT
November 24th, 2011
5:00 AM Heather wakes me up. The idea was to leave around 6. I got at least 5 hours of sleep, not bad at that altitude. Nick didn’t sleep a lot, neither did Heather - so they said. They blame me snoring. Sorry guys : ) Also neither of them Diamoxed, so I guess here is where the meds pay off.. a good night of sleep at 20K.
5:30 We move so slowly. It is bitter cold, dark and the wind outside sounds like a jet engine. There is no way we will summit in this weather. We decide to wait until sunrise to have warmer temps and hopefully winds will die as well. Tony is sleeping. His breathing is much more regular now.
5:50 The Reactor pumps out heat and we make a liquid breakfast. Nick & Heather drink hot cocoa and coffee. I skip the caffeine, my heart already is at high speeds. Instead I opt for my blueberry granola. I force it down, it doesn’t taste good here. I eat one ProBar and a snicker bar, I know it is not enough cals for the summit, but at least it is around 1K, so should get me started. Nick mixes electrolyte drinks for us and we get ready.
6:30 Quick checkup of the gear. Crampons, boots, headlamp, meds.. everything at the right place. I feel my heart pounding. I cannot believe that .. this is it. The summit bid!
We talk briefly on the strategy of what if someone needs to get down. Who goes with who and how we proceed.
Here is my summit gear list:
• BD heavy fleece long johns
• MH Compressor Pants
• Koflach Exped boots & SM Expedition socks with merino wool liners
• Thermal boxers
• Long sleeve SW base
• MH Monkey Jacket
• eVent hard shell
• Marmot Down Parka
• OR Gorilla Balaclava
• TNF Himalayan Mitt
• Altra 75 backpack with
• water ( around 3L )
• Food ( 12 packets of Gu ( most of them with Roctane – big fan of that ) and some ProBars )
• emergency blanket
• signal mirror
• meds ( Dexamethason only )
• Grivel G-12 crampons
• Expedition Gloves
• 3 cameras ( canon dslr, freezproof nikon as backup cam and a gopro )
• Julbo glasses
• snowboarding goggles
• BD hiking poles
• freezproof headlamp - Fenix HP20
6:55 We are out! It is light outside, but the direct sun is not here yet . My relatively light layer is feeling cold. I feel cold, but my hands and feet are ok. I am trying to put my gigantic mittens in the loops of my hiking poles, but the mittens are too big! Ah, I am an idiot for not checking it before. I struggle for a few minutes before I can adjust the loops. Heather and Nick are racing up the top, and there is a visible gap between us now. I stop the urge to continue at their speed. My philosophy is to go slowly. Just continue going at a slow paste, but without stopping. Again, rest stop is perfect here.
7:10 I am by Heather. She is asking how do I feel. I tell her that generally a bit cold, but manageable. She responds that she feels ok too. I decided to keep her company ( Nick is ahead of us, we cannot see him anymore ), and stay with her for the rest of the climb.
7:35 Heather stops and she looks a little disoriented. Hard to read body language under layers of down clothing but I am asking if she is ok, to which she responds that not. She is not feeling good. She wants to stop the climb. She sounds reasonable, doesn’t show signs of hypoxia or AMS but I believe her and we hug goodbye. I ask her if she wants me to go down with her, but she says she is ok enough to get down to Berlin on her own. She slowly turns around. One last look at the summit and she disappears behind a corner of a rock formation. So it is only Nick and me now.
8:00 Nick is waiting for me at the Independencia Hut, or at least the ruins of the A-Frame. I don’t know why would anyone stay here, this place looks like a nightmare. No wind protection, just a small area to pitch a tent. At this altitude sleeping here seems suicidal.
Nick is trying to warm up. His hands and feet are really cold. I eat my gu, drink water and start moving again, staying in one place without moving for longer than few minutes is impossible. Too cold. The altitude is crazy. We just went over 21K. Each step is taking longer and longer. I catch myself counting my breaths with each step. Sometimes I take 2 breaths before taking another step. Sometimes 3 or 4.
8:45 We get to the traverse. The wind is insane. Later, we checked the weather and during this time the temperatures with the windchill were dipping below -40*. There are numerous snow/ice patches. Nick is ahead of me trying to go around the first one, I follow him slowly. Again, he is just running up. Great condition man.
The windy traverse. Looking down.
8:50 We are facing another large ice field on the traverse. I test it with my boots. Slippery & frozen snow pack. Nick managed to pass it without crampons, but I am unsure. It isn’t looking like the safest pass. I quickly decide to stop and put my crampons on. In the corner of my eyes I see Nick standing still. Not a good sign. What is happening ? After around 5 minutes my crampons are on and secured. I catch up to Nick and ask whats happening. His hands are crossed with his rented mittens under his armpits. “Dude, I cannot feel my legs and hands. I don’t want to lose them, I am going back”. I fully understand. We say good luck and Nick is bombing down. Gez, this guy is fast. The elevation is around 21300.
9:25 End of the diabolic traverse. The wind stops a little bit. I stop to eat my gus and drink more water. I look around and see empty syringes lying around me. Possibly with doses of Dec. I am catching myself looking at the sky and the watch. No clouds so far. I am making fantastic time, but I still have hard time believing that I will summit. My head spins with thoughts about family, my kiddo at home, my friends. I am thinking of my work, plans for the future, ideas, personal issues.. Somehow everything is clear, simple. As no issue is too hard to be worked out. Everything is secondary to now. This feels almost like reaching Nirvana. Is that the effect of low atmospheric pressure ? Being alone ?
End of the traverse. Good Jesus, that was windy.
11:30 At this altitude even slow rest step isn’t working well. I stop every few hundred feet to take a breather. Winds pick up. The summit is looking so close. I start to think that I will actually make it. It gives me extra energy. Or maybe the fact that I just ate bunch of gu. I am following steps of Anthony and from time to time I see crampon marks. Strange, because Anthony said he didn’t use it. Unless there was someone else. But there wasn’t anyone on the mountain besides us. Maybe it was Pedro that got so high up ? Or maybe someone from the Polish Direct / False side ? Not sure, but I am going up. One more traverse. One more false summit. One more corner. This never ends, but the sky is clear. Temperatures bitterly cold.
Going higher up.. and up..
12:14 I am standing on the top of Andes! Yay! 22841 feet above sea level! At this moment, there is a high chance that no one else is standing higher than me, on the entire globe. It is a night time in Himalayas now, plus it is not a climbing season there either. ( if I am wrong, please correct me! ) The views are just out of this world. I am quickly putting on my Marmot down parka. It is too cold for my climbing layer. I feel ecstatic. I made it! Alone on the summit! All the years of planning – and I am finally here. Damn, this feels good. Frrrrreaken awesome.
Summit Trophy Picture
I am gulping down some water. The edges of the bottle freeze almost instantaneously. I drink it as fast as possible. Funny observation – it is impossible to burp. Not sure if this was because of cold water or the altitude. You feel like you want burp, but nothing comes out
More Gu and a probar. Acutally it tastes good. Besides heart rate being as on an acid trip, everything is ok.
12:35 I am heading down. Around 2:35 I am back in Berlin. The hut is empty. Nick, Heather and Anthony are gone. I quickly eat a hot meal, drink some water and pack my pad and sleeping bag in the backpack. I pick up my trash and I am on the down. Amazing, how much easier is to walk here at 19K feet!! Around 3:45 I am in Nido. I unpack and get ready for the night there. I melt some snow and snack of remaining food I have in my tent. My fingers hurt. The cold weather makes small cracks in my skin on my fingers. Small but quite painful.
Showing off my hurt fingers. Haha.
The video captures some moments from the traverse, right after Nick took off and then video from the top.
Soon I find myself heading to the “bus” to meet the rangers. I decided to keep the bus sleeping story to myself and I greet them. They say hello, but not really in mood of talking, until I tell them I just got back from the summit. That changes everything! They invite me inside the bus and offer hot tea and cookies. We speak about the conditions and the route (amazing, how much Spanish you pick up just being there for 10 days) of the mountain and other hikers. They are clearly amazed with my summit time and they suggest I should go down tonight to PM. They have arguments such as: chickas y cerveza. I guess this was convincing enough, so I thank them for their hospitality, pack my entire camp in 30 minutes flat, and I am heading down toward Canada ( where I cached some gear ). In general it was a stupid idea to get down. It was too late and I was too tired, but once I started I didn’t want to stop.
I got to Canada around 7:30 PM, repacked, met a Russian hiker who gave me some of his hot soup ( thank you! ) and by 8:10 I was on the way down to PM.
The backpack had to weigh over 60 pounds ( trash and extra food I cached at Canada ). It was insane. Soon it was pitch dark and I was on a scree field with a heavy backpack. Never again. Stupid, stupid idea. I was exhausted.
Around 9 ish, I think I got back to PM. Heather & Nick were in tents. The base camp looked different, tons of tents, lots of expedition tents already set up. Fernando Grajales was supposed to be here next day. I ask if anyone has any water. It was too cold to get the running water from the creek, and I am too tired to melt anything. I am too tired to set up a tent, so I inflate my exped down pad and decide to stay outside, hoping for a good weather. According to my calculations, in the past 14 hours my legs and lungs experienced almost 12K feet of elevation change. Enough for one day.
I fall asleep looking at a perfectly starry night. Since there was no light pollution hundreds of km from here, the sky is perfectly bright. Moonless night, galaxies, shooting stars, billions of stars shining bright.. Possibly the best night so far. I am tempted to set up my camera for a long exposure picture, but getting out of my bag in that weather is not an option for me. Few cheese snacks, another bottle of water and I fall asleep. Perfect night.
My king size sleeping pad in the morning.
DAY 12 - Hike out
November 25th, 2011
We decide to rent mule service for the way back. Heather decides to take the cheaper route and sets to hike out without mules. She leaves the camp around 9 AM. Jose, from Lanko expedition chats with me - they can hook us up with mules for a really good price. We get 120 US quote for both me and Nick, so 60 US per person. Not bad. We leave our luggage with them and set to go all the way to the entrance of the park before sunset. A quick stop at the ranger station where we give them our crap bags. The PM rangers sign the permits and we are on our way.
Right after PM there is a large hill that you have to climb to get to PM. It is a bad scree field, really steep. The mules have to climb it everyday. Some don't make it. Their white bones are all over the lower part of the hill..
Danse Macabre. Munching on a donkey leg.. Photo (c) Nick Montelli.
Fallen animals. Photo (c) Nick Montelli.
We speed through the valley seeing few people heading up. It is good to be "done" and on the way down. We make a short stop at the Confluencia base to fill up the water bottles and at exactly 6:04 we are at the entrance of the park. Less than 6 hours from PM to the entrance.. not bad
Back to the bridge, where we started 10 days ago.
We have to "check out" at the ranger station. We give them our stamped permits and we are asked if we summit. According to the official registry, I am the second person this season to successively summit the mountain. I am not too sure about that because of those crampon marks on the trail.. but for sure I am one of first 3.(*) The rangers call for our "mule service" taxi to come pick us up.
Speeding with Nick to the ranger station at the entrance to the park. We weren't sure if they close at 6, so we needed to hurry up.
Departing picture. Me with a Polish Flag. Photo (c) Nick Montelli.
Jose's truck picks us up ( part of the service included in the price for the mules ) and drops us off at the Penitentes. He tries to offer us a hotel for 35 bucks a night per person, but we opt for going to a hostel where Heather was supposed to be staying for 100 pesos a night with dinner and breakfast included. For all interested folks, it is that building with red roof and big Coca Cola sign. The 100 pesos / night price is for a 4 person room, kind of like a dorm, but with its own shower and toilets.
Back in Los Penitentes.
The hostel. Photo (c) Nick Montelli.
We walk to the hostel.. Heather is already there sipping on Malbec and watching "Sex in The City" - The Movie on a large TV. Welcome to the civilization!! We are all excited to see each other. The shower seems like the best thing in the world right now. Included steak dinner even better. We celebrate being alive and the adventure we just went on - until late, late that night.
Life is good.
A BRIEF SUMMARY
Going so early in the season is perfectly doable, and much cheaper ( low season permits ). Sure, you may encounter slightly colder weather, and no comfort services, but that means less crowds and better camp sites. It actually feels like a proper mountain adventure : ) Here is a summary of the days on the mountain. The numbers on the end are my Sa02 levels.
DAY 1: Confluencia. 91
DAY 2: Plaza De Mulas. 83
DAY 3: Plaza De Mulas 90
DAY 4: Cache to Canada. Sleep in Plaza De Mulas. 93
DAY 5: Canada. 85
DAY 6: Nido De Condores. 79
DAY 7: Nido De Condores. 75
DAY 8: Berlin ?
DAY 9: Summit ? & Back to Plaza De Mulas. 95
DAY 10: Hike out and hostel in Penitentes. 97
GOOD EXPEDITION SERVICE ?
- The very first in BC were Incas Expedition. But their prices were high and generally, they are not the nicest people to deal with. Before you book anything make sure what services exactly you are going to get. Ex.: transport to-from the trailhead, restrooms, trash service ( poop bags are collected by the rangers in BC ).
If you do decide to use mules, check these guys out: http://www.lanko.com.ar. Smaller company, but been on the mountain for a long time. Just down to earth normal folks, professional and not greedy for money as the rest. Plus their prices where the cheapest we found. This is a personal recommendation.
Also, if you decide on mules, don’t buy both ways. Get just for the way there. You can always buy your way back in PM, but you can then negotiate a better price. Every day there are empty mules coming down. If you pay everything at the start, they will charge you 180 for each way.
SHOULD I DO IT WITHOUT THE MULES ?
- Going without mules is possible, but really, really hard. You could go with less food ( as suggested by one person here on the 14ers.com ) and buy your stuff in PM, but meals are really pricey – around 30 bucks for dinner ( 2011 ), and still you would need food for camps higher up. I also don’t imagine anyone summiting from PM.. I know it’s been done at some mind boggling speeds ( record time was somewhere under 3 hours to the top ) but I would say the chances of summiting from BC are low. Very low and dangerous.
Even with ultralight gear my pack without food was around 60 pounds. And trust me, I tried to cut down to a bare minimum. Hiking 14 miles to BC with that weight is a torture. Even worse if you go via Plaza Argentina.
- Pulse Oximeter! It will allow you to monitor how your body adjusts to the elevation, so it eliminates the guessing game. It is less than 30 bucks on amazon ( see my gear list), ) but really, really worth it.
USUALLY UNDERESTIMATED GEAR
- ultra warm mittens
- ultra warm boots
- full face balaclava ( like OR Gorilla )
Also, really handy were the following: earplugs, light gaiters for the hike up to PM, sun hat and multiple ziplock bags.
CHEAP PLACE IN PENITENTES AFTER THE CLIMB
- There is a hostel with red roof in the middle of Penitentes. Impossible to miss it, as it has Coca Cola sign on it. For 100 pesos a night you can get a room, dinner with desert and a b-fast. The owner/server speaks English pretty fluently. They accept VISA. No internet. Clean and perfect.
PLACE TO EAT WELL & CHEAP IN MENDOZA
- Carrefour Market. It is like French WalMart, but better quality, like Costco. For 3 New York strips ( see picture above ), I paid total of ~7 bucks. Get some salt, pepper and hardwood for grill ( all can be purchases at the store ). Virtually every hostel has a grill in the back yard. Really good bottle of wine is 30-40 pesos ( about 8-10 bucks ). So for 20 bucks you can get a feast in the back yard, plus the smell will attract multiple females & males from the hostel. Good conversation starter
GOOD HOSTEL IN MENDOZA ?
- matter of taste I guess. The absolutely closest one to the bus station (that you will have to visit) is savigliano.com.ar. Prices are pretty low.
- the nicest hostels are on Arístides Villanueva. Itaka ( we stayed there. great place ) , Damajuan ( fancy, kind of party hostel ), Break Point, Mendoza Inn ( right by Itaka hostel ). The Itaka hostel and Damajuan host "free wine nights" a few times a week. Yes, you heard it right. Free wine for everyone. Lots of it. Prices for the above are still moderate, usually around 12-14 US / night for a dorm or 150 pesos a night for double private.
ANOTHER THING TO TRY IN MENDOZA
- gelato shops, which are not like the gelatos we get in the US. Much, much more delicious and way cheaper. Ahh.. Also winery bike tour. Not only fun to drink and drive, but this is a great chance to meet really interesting, international crowd. Also , Plaza Independencia has hippie stands where you can buy some handy work, like bracelets, necklaces, sculptures. etc. Great place to get local, cheap gifts. You will also support local artist community. Win-win. Also, when a local offers a drink with Fernet Branca, don't say no. It is strange tasting first, but then you will love it. Also, try Mate.. actually try everything
Everywhere you can use dollars. The seller will usually give you a good exchange rate. ATMs are pretty much everywhere in the city. Outside Mendoza, bring cash ( dollars or pesos ). Los Penitentes does not have ATMs, neither Puenta del Inca. In the mountain the closest town with ATM is Uspallata.
In upcoming March I will host a presentation about this adventure in REI Westminster. If anyone of you is interested, please come and join me there. I will be happy to answer any questions and share more pics. Also, if we will have more time I could answer any questions ( if anyone is interested ) regarding logistics on climbing Elbrus.
The presentation will take place in Westminster REI on March 5th, 2012. More info here: http://www.rei.com/event/34297/session/42972
Thanks for reading !: )
JUST IN: Nicks story and his pictures are also online. Please check out his blog here.
Nick thanks for a great adventure!
(*) Just found out that unfortunately, I was not in the first 3 who summit this season. I missed a group of 2 climbers/skiers by an hour window. The crampon marks were left by that group. I guess I would have to settle for #4 myself.
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