Aconcagua

Facts and Figures (courtesy of 7Summits.com)

Original name:Cerro Aconcagua (Cerro means Hill)

Height:6962 meters or 22,841 feet. This makes it not only the highest peak of the Andes and South America, but in fact the highest point outside of Asia.

Location:32° 39′ S Latitude, 70° 14′ W longitude

The Sentinel of Stone

Translated from the local Quechua language, it means “The Sentinel of Stone”. Aconcagua, towering above the surrounding peaks in the Argentinean Andes, is 22830 feet (6959 meters) and is the highest point in the Western and Southern hemisphere.

The mountain stands on the border with Chile, some a day-and-a-half from the Puente del Inca settlement. It has a very steep and massive face on its south and a gentle slope on the north, with a huge glacier, named the Polish glacier, flowing to the east and a series of aretes and couloirs to the west. Considered as the highest point in South America, Aconcagua is one of  the much high profile mountains of the Seven Summits and a very challenging peak.

Acongua – my nemesis.

Aconcagua has been one of my most frustrating mountains so far – it took me three tries to climb it!

Aconcagua is the highest mountain outside of Everest in the Himalayas. It can be hiked up without any technical skills via the normal route, it is a very challenging mountain because of its sheer height and frequent storms. I attempted this mountains three seasons in a row, from February 2006, January 2007, then finally succeeded in January 2008.

In fall 2005, after I posted my trip report about Elbrus climb, Roberto invited me to join the Aconcagua trip he was organizing for the coming season. He invited me because he thought I was mentally strong based on my trip report, but he didn’t know I was new to mountaineering and had a low starting point for my fitness training. Elbrus was a thrilling success for a newbie like me, when some veterans didn’t even succeed because they underestimated the mountain.

Getting serious about training

Aconcagua was my first real challenge I faced and a giant step forward in my burgeoning mountaineering career. I felt it would be a great opportunity to partner up with some other climbers to climb together. I did not know anyone when I first moved to Boston. At that time, my friends revolved around my running group who I trained with. In January 2005, I joined MITOC, MIT’s Outdoors Club, to learn winter hiking. I soon became confident in handling winter conditions and started soloing within a few months of training. I also seriously started getting into fitness training to get into better shape.

I discovered the online hiking group (VFTT) by chance, and did some hikes with people in that group. But I still didn’t know too many people. I was mostly training by myself through running and frequent hiking/climbing locally. In hindsight, I know my training intensity was too low, and I was in no shape to be able to take on a challenging mountain such as Aconcagua.

However, all the training was a big change for someone who had never trained in a gym before. I had become someone who was active and could hold my own against some experienced climbers. I knew I had improved a lot from the Kilimanjaro days, but wasn’t sure how much of a challenge Aconcagua was going to pose for me.

Upping the intensity!

I was training for the Philadelphia Marathon in November 2005 as a way to keep myself in shape. Unfortunately, I injured my IT Band in my right leg late October while doing a training run at the Bay State Marathon. The injury took me offline for a few weeks and in December, I had a bad fall while hiking off Mount Adams, after a stormy night bivying on top of King Ravine. That accident partially tore my MCL/LCL in my left knee, and I was off training for a couple months.

This put me out of commission for the next few months and was on brace for a couple weeks.  When my knee started healing, I managed to do some light training on the elliptical machine in the gym, but at a much lower intensity. By the time we were to depart for Aconcagua mid-February, I was woefully unprepared physically for the mountain.

Park entrance

First attempt – Doomed from the start!

The original team was composed of 6 people, and the climbing permit was bought. However, the permit was bought for an off-season climb based on the permit price being lower.  Three people dropped out, one from injury the others due to various commitments. The remaining – Arm, Roberto, and myself decided to go ahead with the climb during the late season as we were locked in. Both Arm and Roberto were very strong, and they were close friends. I didn’t know them well, and they didn’t know I was so weak.

This trip was doomed from the start! None of us spoke Spanish, we’ve never been  to the Andes before, and as we were climbing during the off season, there was no guide service to help us! By the time we arrived at base camp, there was almost nobody there! All the commercial teams had left, none of the professional guides were there. The Mountain Rangers were about pull up their camp .

The only camp remaining was Fernanditio. His service camp was still there this late in the season. As soon as the climb started, I was behind Roberto and Arm by a good distance, by almost an hour. When we headed for higher elevations, I was left behind quickly. The team of three actually spread out to become three individuals, we all went at our separate pace. And because of my lack of fitness, I was the weakest, exhausted by the end of the day.

Climbing a mountain in a storm. Bad idea.

We hiked to camp 1, rested for a day to acclimatize, then started to bring in our supplies from base camp to settle in at Camp 1. Pretty soon, a storm system had moved into the area. It started from a lenticular cloud that I saw earlier at basecamp and developed quickly into a winter storm within a few hours. I remembered what the guidebook mentioned, and decided to head back to camp immediately. By the time I reached it, that cloud grew large and dropped to cover up the whole mountain. The wind had picked up very quickly and was blowing snow around. Without a professional guide around to give us advice on the weather, we still decided to move up the mountain the next day. It turned out to be one of the many bad decisions we made.

We started hiking up, moving slowly up the mountain, and pretty soon we became spread out. Gradually, lost sight of each other, and I had only their footprints in the snow to rely on. Soon, I couldn’t even see their footprints as the wind quickly buried all human trace left on the snow. I had my bivy (bivouac sack) with me, but I knew it was dangerous to bivy at altitude by myself. I wasn’t sure if I was on the right trail as I had never been at this altitude when we were acclimatizing yesterday.

Base Camp in a snowstorm
Base Camp in a snowstorm

It became a difficult decision in trying to decide what to do next. What happens if I bivy on the wrong trail when night falls? It became apparent that with my low level of fitness, I had a very low chance of making it to the summit, and even if I did, it would be even more difficult to get back safely. I started going over the many things that could go wrong in this snowstorm – the risk of getting lost and going off trail, not reaching Camp 1 before dark and knowing there’s no one close enough to hear me if I needed help. Any trace of me would be lost in the blowing snow. Taking into account all the factors against me, I had a low chance of success in safely summiting and getting back. It was safer to descend before dark,  to go back to base camp than to be stuck at high altitude at an unknown location. I was not experienced enough to handle such high altitude all by myself, and wanted to be safe than sorry. So, I turned and headed back down.

Waiting at base camp the next day, I received a radio message from Roberto and Arm. They were stuck in their tents at camp 1 and the storm had intensified, making conditions very harsh.  Then on the third day, they came down from Camp 1. The wind was too strong to even cook and they couldn’t even light a stove to heat water for two days. Everyone left the mountain that day, and the Mountain Rangers packed up as well.

Second time trying

In January 2007, I came back. This time, I joined a guided group to be safe, knowing from past experience that this mountain was a hard one. I was more prepared this time and in better shape – having been through a proper conditioning program. I had hiked a lot, gained more mountaineering experience, and practiced a lot of heavy load backpacking.

Despite being still slow, I adapted to the altitude pretty well. However, the weather was still bad the second time around. I arrived into base camp in a huge snowstorm, and many people almost had hypothermia in the first evening. While I was resting at Camp 1, the wind was blowing at 80 miles and learned that a lot of tents at base camp were destroyed. Several other teams had to abort their plans because of damage to their tents and equipment. To top it off, we were also threatened by lightning on the way to High Camp.

We spent days waiting out the weather, but it steadily got worse, and eventually I ran out of time to climb the mountain. It was disappointing to return without reaching the summit, but this time around, I was much more prepared to be able to handle the challenge.

Third time’s a charm, but at what cost?

The third time around, it still didn’t come easy! I came back to Punta Arenas from my expedition to the South Pole in the early morning of Jan 14, 2008. Without taking a break, I jumped immediately into climbing Aconcagua! Although I felt rested while waiting for my flight to Argentina from the South Pole, I didn’t know how much the extreme cold in the Antarctic sapped my energy level. I didn’t realize this until I started hiking up from basecamp at the base of the mountain. After my trip from Antarctica, my toes were in pain for many days from the extreme cold.

This time around, I arranged for a guiding company to help me and I could wait out the weather as long as I wanted. My guide was Esteban from the Patagonian Brothers. He handled everything for me and arranged it so that I had the maximum chance of reaching the summit. I was not as strong as I wished on summit day. My blood oxygen level was really low at High Camp. But I had a history of low oxygen level, so they let me continue on and push for the summit.

I found it hard to breathe, and wasn’t getting in enough oxygen as I hiked up to summit. It felt like my lung was so small that it could not dispense enough air to my body. I was slow and tired, but Esteban continued to encourage me. Summit day was really cold and snowy. I was tired by the time I I reached the summit, and I managed only because of strong support from Esteban. If it wasn’t for my guides, I wouldn’t have made it back camp safely. I was so tired after the climb to the summit that I couldn’t even hold my spoon steady to eat!

My energy levels were depleted for a few days after the trip. My body was screaming for recuperation and I spent my time eating and resting. I canceled my original plan to visit Ecuador after the summit, and went straight back home to Boston. Within a week back in US, I was normal and started winter hiking again. I was not very happy with my performance on Aconcagua, and didn’t expect to feel this bad after the Antarctica trip. My original plan was to go to Everest in March of that year.

I realized that I wasn’t strong enough to complete back to back expeditions. Which meant that I was not strong enough to survive Everest, my next trip. So I made the depressing decision to postpone climbing Everest. I planned to climb my final mountain (Everest) by 2008, and had sacrificed a lot towards that goal. In giving it up now meant postponing the final climb indefinitely. I would never know what would get in the way, to my career or to my financial status. With the postponement of Everest, everything became uncertain, my dream, my life, everything was on hold.

On the summit
On the summit