By: Steve Smith
Several climbing friends and I decided to attempt a climb of Cerro Aconcagua during February. We had a total of eight participants - six who would go for the summit and two wives who would wait at base camp or Mendoza. Our six climbers were four Desert Survivors (Doug Kari, Morgen Irby, Mobby Riedy, Don Falk), a BLM Friends of the Inyo WSA volunteer (Wendell Moyer), and myself. Dale van Dalsem and R.J. Secor provided me with excellent information which we used in making the climb.
Morgen Irby went down to Santiago two weeks early to travel down to Tierra del Fuego but before starting his odyssey to southern Chile, he traveled to Mendoza and obtained all six climbing permits for our summit group. The permits cost $80/person and we had to provide a recent EKG and doctor's letter that said we were physically fit to do the climb. While there, Morgen also made an initial quick solo recon of the route and carried a load of group supplies up to Plaza Canada (16,300').
During the recon, Morgen discovered that the Hotel Refugio at Plaza de Mulas had just opened - its billed as the highest hotel in the world. He also made arrangement for our group to stay in nice lodging at the Penitentes ski resort three miles below the usual staging area at Puente del Inca. It is the base of operations for "Aconcagua Express" mule service operated by Ricardo Jatib, C.C. 15-5545 Uspallata, Mendoza, phone 061-247062, which provided us with outstanding support.
Our overall trip plan was to dedicate as much time as necessary for Aconcagua and then see as much of South America as possible following the climb. The trailhead for the Route Normal leaves Argentina highway 7 at the small village of Puente del Inca. Its a 26 mile trail up the Horcones Valley to the 14,300' basecamp at Plaza de Mulas. From basecamp, we would do shuttles to Plaza Canada at 16,300', Nido de Condores at 17,600', and to the Berlin high camp at 19,300' We did not use the higher Refugio Independcia at 21,100'.
Our flight to Santiago went fine and we enjoyed the city where costs were very reasonable - we stayed at a pleasant hotel downtown for $45/double and a great dinner was about $l0/person. Next morning, we hired a large van to transport us across the Andes to Puente del Inca which cost $30/person.
On Monday, Feb. 8th, six climbers plus Doug's wife Eureka were driven up to the trailhead where a park ranger carefully checked our permits and issued us numbered litter bags - they were numbered for checking at trips end to assure that each group brings out their trash. A commercial U.S. group of one guide and eight other American climbers walked up and started the ascent at the same time. We saw them periodically for the next two weeks and went to the summit on the same day - 10 days later on the 17th.
The first three days were relaxing as we followed the Horcones River up to our camps at La Confluencia at 11,400', Camp Ibanez at 12,800' and then to Mules basecamp at 14,300'. There were several stream crossings but only one was any problem where we had to wade across 15 feet of cold water. Our unconventional camping at Ibanez worked out fine - except that there was no fresh water. The silty Horcones stream quickly clogged up one of our filters so the only recourse was to use the chocolate brown water straight - ugh!
At Mules basecamp we visited the hotel which unfortunately is located .5 mile east off the trail - probably to keep it well away avalanches at the base of Aconcagua but being away from the base it has a great view of the north summit and trail up to Nido. Day four, we carried supplies up to Plaza Canada and returned to basecamp to try the comforts of the hotel. Rooms are $40 and great chicken and steak meals were $15. Lounging in the large dinning room with climbers from around the world and discussing our climbing experiences was really nice. We discovered that we were actually toward the end of the climbing season so there were not too many other climbers in basecamp, or on the mountain.
Day Five, we were off to Plaza Canada with the rest of our gear. Its a good trail and a great camping perch where we spent the night. Day Six, we all did a carry up to Nido de Condores with Don and Morgen staying at Nido in order to do a carry the next day up to Berlin while the rest of us retreated back down to Canada. On Day seven, while Don and Morgen carried a tent, fuel and supplies to Berlin the rest of us carried the remaining gear to Nido. Day eight, we were successful in everyone carrying our remaining gear up to Berlin with enough supplies to last a week. Everyone was feeling good when we reached Berlin so we decided if the weather was good the next day, we would go for the summit.
On day nine there was a bad wind with some snow so we just stayed in our two tents. It was quite cold, it periodically snowed, and it wasn't a comfortable place to be with three/tent. The views were magnificent but at the high altitude of Berlin at 19,400', you didn't feel like doing much beyond the required melting of snow for water and cooking food. Day 10 on the mountain started out calm and clear so by 6:30a.m., our six climbers were heading towards the summit with the first light of daybreak just becoming visible.
The weather started out nice and we made good progress up to 21,100' at Refugio Independcia. Next came crossing the Gran Acarreo - a steep slope about .25 mile wide. It was impressive looking down that slope for 8,000' to the floor of Upper Horcones Valley. Next came the Canaleta - a steep, narrow 1,200' chute to reach the summit ridge. It was slow going with more breaths per step than I had ever done before. Our mouths were open breathing hard so much that most of us even got some sunburn on our tongues. The weather started deteriorating and a foot of new snow in the Canaleta really slowed our progress but fortunately, there was no wind so we were able to keep going.
Our group of six climbers reached the north summit at 3:00p.m. simultaneously with eight members from the commercial group. We could not see much through the falling snow but were happy enough that the weather had allowed us to keep going. The descent got more difficult in the deepening snow. With the fresh snow on top of the harder snow, we carefully kicked steeps across the Gran Acarreo and it wasn't until about 6:00p.m. that we got back to the Refugio Independcia. Navigating on down to Berlin Camp in the was difficult since all route markers were covered in snow. The first people were back to camp, at 9:00p.m. and the last of our group came in at 10:30p.m. It turned out that four from the commercial group ended up bivouacking at Refugio Independcia with little extra gear - fortunately the storm was not too severe and they were back with their group by midmorning to the obvious relief of their guide.
Day 11 was a pleasant hike back down to base camp although it was again snowing heavily on us for the last couple of hours before reaching the hotel. The next day we spent enjoying the Hotel Refugio as they began making preparations for closing it down. On Day 13, we hiked all the way back out to Puente with Doug and his wife trying a five hour mule ride straight through - they had a hard time sitting down for the next couple of days. The only real problem we had were our sunburned lips which took several days to heal. We decided to take three days for the 26-mile trek to basecamp instead of the normal two and Sr. Jatib made all the arrangements to assure the proper gear was at our two camps going up the Horcones Valley. My cost for staying three nights at Penitentes at the start and after coming out, breakfast and dinners, transportation to and from Puente, mules carrying my gear to Mulas basecamp and back out, getting extra gear at basecamp, and securely storing our gear at basecamp - all that for $260/person. What a bargain. Other services available at the hotel include porters who carry 60# of gear to Berlin Camp for $140 and helicopter transport to/from the hotel for $120 each way.
From Penitentes it was a bus ride to Mendoza and then 18 hour train ride across the Pampas to Buenos Aires. Prices were very reasonable and we enjoyed three days in B.A. seeing the sights and taking a British built hovercraft ride over to Uruguay to tour the rustic coastal town of Colonia. Touring in Chile, Argentina and Uruguay was really enjoyable. Colonia reminded me of a small 50'0 era midwest U.S. town with its pleasant, relaxing atmosphere and large tree lined quiet streets, We finished our trip by with a stopover in Rio Be Janeiro for a pleasant two days of relaxing on the Copacabana beach and sightseeing before returning home.
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