Cerro Aconcagua

The Rematch

2004-01-19

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  • Andes - Argentina - South America
  • 6,960 m / 22,834 ft
  • S 32o 39’ W 70o 01’
  • Expedition Length: 20 days
  • Summit: January 19, 2004

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On January 2, 2004, I set off on my second trip to Argentina, in order to revisit the Seven Summits peak that provided me with my rst bitter taste of defeat just under a year earlier: Argentina’s Cerro Aconcagua.

After a combined 20 hours of ying via Paris, Buenos Aires and Santiago de Chile, I arrived in Mendoza, the capital of the Argentinian province that bears the same name. Here, there’s a world of difference between the mostly at Cuyean plains and the craggy bulk of Aconcagua, located about 110 kilometres north-west of Mendoza and 15 kilometres from the border with Chile. Indeed, both the Cuyo region and Mendoza city are extremely popular with tourists, who ock there to see – albeit from afar – South America’s tallest mountain, ski at the resort of Las Leñas, or simply visit the many restaurants and bars. These offer the local wines which account for more than 70 percent of the nation’s total wine production.

As a part of the world’s longest mountain range, the Andes, Aconcagua is not only the highest peak outside Asia, but also within both the Western and Southern Hemispheres. According to some sources, its name was adapted from Chile’s Aconcagua Riv- er, while according to others it came from Ackon Cahuak, which in Quechua (a Native American lan- guage of South America) means ‘Sentinel of Stone’. Either way, this giant mass of rock, ice and scree has quite a few glacial elds, including the north- eastern Polish Glacier which is central to the ‘Polish Glacier Traverse’. This approach, also known as the ‘False Polish Glacier’, which runs through the Vacas Valley and ascends to the base of the Polish Glacier

before traversing over to the normal route, is the second most popular path up the mountain. It is a long and beautiful, less crowded, more remote jour- ney than the normal route and the one that I would be taking – at least, according to Mark Gunlogson of expedition organisers Mountain Madness, which I have subsequently come to like and respect as one of the top guiding companies out there.

As I would subsequently discover, even the best laid plans can change at a moment’s notice. In this case, instead of accessing Pampa de Leñas (2,800 metres) and Casa de Piedra (3,200 metres) to reach the Plaza Argentina Base Camp (4,200 metres) and the three camps above, we were, for some reason, redirected to take the normal route all the way up and down the mountain. This, in my opinion, is no- where near as exciting as a traverse. As such, I’d be passing through Puente del Inca (2,740 metres) and Con uencia (3,380 metres) to reach the Plaza de Mulas Base Camp (4,370 metres), from where I was to attempt the summit via Plaza Canadá (5,050 metres), Nido del Cóndores (5,400 metres) and the ‘Cólera’ High Camp (5,970 metres).

On Tuesday, January 6, 2004, I ascended from the trail head to Puente del Inca in just under four hours, as part of a group that included Todd, Anne and Rose, a couple of Greenbay Packers football fans from Wisconsin who proudly and righteously referred to themselves as ‘Cheeseheads’, Jason and Michèle, who would later get married, and Augus- tine, an assistant guide. Augustine was also the nephew of Willie (short for Guillermo), our highly quali ed Argentinian guide, who is a top climber, at the time sponsored by both Scarpa and The North Face. Everyone on the team, aside from Willie, Au- gustine and me, was American.

Afterwards, I had a dinner of chicken and vegeta- bles that gave me a bad dose of food poisoning, and the next day, doubled up with stomach pain and mainly con ned to the tent that I shared with Todd, I was unable to undertake an acclimatisation hike to Con uencia. Thankfully, a couple of days later, I was suf ciently recovered to go there and then on to Base Camp. We passed by the debris of a crashed Ar- gentinian army helicopter whose rotors, in the thin air at 4,000 metres above sea level, had apparently lost the necessary lift to keep it airborne. In between rest days on 10 and 12, we carried a cache to Plaza Canadá, and then moved there on January 13.

When word reached us that another expeditionary team had been forced to abandon its attempt on the summit, I grew a little concerned that, like the previous year, this might be another wasted trip.

A cache delivered to Nido del Cóndores on the next day was followed by a bad weather day due to snow and high winds. By then, the going was beginning to get tough, and Anne, who hadn’t been feeling too well, decided that she’d had enough, so she was escorted back down to Plaza de Mulas by Willie. As it happens, by the time that Willie returned, the weather had cleared and he was kind enough to prepare an exquisite dinner of Spaghetti à la Carbonara, which we all ate in our tents. Room service at just over 5,000 metres above sea level – we could hardly complain!

While en route from Canadá to Nido del Cóndores the following afternoon, it occurred to me that it might be a good idea to hire Willie as my private guide when attempting to climb Everest about 18 months later, in the spring of 2005. After all, not only was he really good at his job, but he also had extensive high-altitude lming experience, so he’d be able to shoot video along the way.

Teaming up with Willie – who was also carrying a heavy backpack – all the way to Nido del Cóndores, I made it there in just under two hours, yet I need not have hurried. Stormy, snowy weather cancelled our planned ascent to High Camp on Saturday, January 17, and when word reached us that another expeditionary team had been forced to abandon its attempt on the summit, I grew a little concerned that, like the previous year, this might be another wasted trip. Perhaps the Inca deities on Aconcagua didn’t like me.

As it turned out, there was no need to worry. Although the weather was still bitterly cold and extremely windy the next morning, we all made it to the High Camp whose name, Cólera, I learned, came from a story about an American climber growing angry when his Argentinian guide abandoned him to take part in a rescue. (In French, colère means anger.) Scrambling up the nal few rocks to reach Camp Cólera reminded me of descending from the nearby Berlin High Camp during my failed summit attempt the year before. This time, I sincerely hoped there would be no turning back before making it to the very top.

When I woke up shortly after 4:00 am on summit day, January 19, the temperature wasn’t as cold as before. Still minus 15 ̊C was enough to freeze my pee bottle and make the daily ritual of moving from a warm sleeping bag to the damp, cold outdoors that much more unpleasant. By 6:00 am, I was standing outside the frosty tent that Todd and I shared, with crampons attached to my new Millet Everest boots and my headlamp turned on.

As the morning light broke through the darkness, I set off ahead of everyone else in order to capture the moment both on a still camera and on video. Indeed, the process of stopping to catch my breath, lming a scene and then racing to catch up with my fellow climbers who had, by then, passed me, reminded me of the winter discipline of biathlon. The only difference was, instead of holding my breath to shoot pellets at a target, I was steadying my hand to shoot video. What’s more, removing the gloves from my right hand in order to hold the camera meant that I was increasing the risk of getting frostbite on these ngers, especially since these were invariably immobile and pointing upwards with the blood rushing away from them.

It was a mistake not wearing my down mittens from the outset, and this had to be corrected within 30 minutes of starting the nal climb. It was just like the nal ascent of Denali, where my frozen ngers had nearly sent me back to High Camp before reaching the summit. After all, even though each mitt weighs just over 100 grams and contains less than 30 grams of goose down, this small, light and compressible accessory could mean the difference between frostbite – and, perhaps, amputated digits – and warm, healthy ngers. Science, research and development have brought about great advances in the eld of insulation, yet I still believe that natural down does the best job, thereby reaf rming the theory that anything created by nature is invariably better than man-made inventions. Don’t forget, since geese were meant to y at altitude (some have been spotted as high as 9,000 metres above sea level), they just had to be ‘ tted’ with the warmest and lightest insulation possible.

After a little over an hour, we all took our rst rest at a place known as ‘Yellow Rocks’, where those coming from Camp II below the Polish Glacier hook up with the likes of us who climb from Camp Cólera on the other side of the mountain. Sitting down to sip some juice, I suddenly noticed the unpleasant – and, in this environment, unexpected – smell of cigarette smoke, and looked up to see a Korean climber puf ng away to satisfy his apparently desperate need for nicotine. “Hey, Willie, can you light my cigar?” I called out sarcastically. Willie just smiled. So much for the crisp, clean mountain air.

The mountain had chosen January 19 to open its arms and welcome what I later learned was a record number of 75 climbers atop its peak that day.

Although the sun was shining more brightly than ever when we resumed climbing, it was also colder than before. Following another short break at the Independencia Hut (at 6,390 metres, known as ‘the highest refuge in the world’), we moved steadily and then traversed the mountain in order to reach the ‘Cave’, at the foot of the notoriously steep Canaleta. By this time, all of us were pretty tired, and so, after a welcome 20-minute rest, we used the ‘Cave’ to of oad our down jackets, ski poles, extra food and anything else that we didn’t need, before commencing the nal climb to the rooftop of South America. It was fortunate that we did so.

The Canaleta turned out to be much longer and far steeper than I had imagined, especially since, to avoid the other climbers and the bottlenecks that could form, we veered off to the right and broke trail in deep new snow. This was exhausting at such a high altitude, yet someone had to do it. I took turns at the front with Damian, Willie’s identical twin and an equally gifted climber, whose team joined ours on the nal ascent.

The weather gradually improved, the wind died down, and by the time we reached the summit, the sky was perfectly blue. After a week of lousy weather, it was as if the mountain had chosen January 19 to open its arms and welcome what I later learned was a record number of 75 climbers atop its peak that day. Among them was a man named John, who had earlier been reprimanded by his guide, Damian, for not bringing any food or water on the nal ascent. Now, pulling out an ultra-light, small ironing board and Union Jack from his backpack, he proudly ironed the ag in front of the cameras and established a new record for ‘extreme-altitude ironing’.

This probably wasn’t all that important to him by the time we had regrouped at the ‘Cave’ near the foot of the Canaleta. Dehydrated, hungry and extremely weak, he was being fed Dexamethasone – a powerful drug to combat altitude sickness – by Damian, who also asked me to help him accompany John back down the mountain. This I agreed to do, and we began the descent way behind the others in my group, amid weather that had started to deteriorate the minute we left the summit. At this point, it was snowing heavily and the visibility was poor, and it wasn’t easy to guide John as he walked shakily on short ropes between José and Damian and kept falling every few minutes, while I followed a step behind.

The descent was both long and painful, yet the further we went down the mountain, the more the weather improved, and we were actually quite warm by the time we reached Camp Cólera. It was now 6:20 pm, precisely 12 hours to the minute since we had begun the summit round-trip! Everyone at the High Camp was exhausted, especially Willie, after he had assisted an injured Korean – the same man, incidentally, who had been blowing cigarette smoke in our faces. And so, since none of us felt like cooking dinner, we forced ourselves to eat whatever leftovers we could nd in our summit bags and call it a day. The next morning, we tried to compensate by eating a lavish breakfast – if anything can be called lavish above 6,000 metres – complete with hot dogs.

The traverse to Camp III at the foot of the Polish Glacier was both beautiful and dangerous due to the fresh snow concealing ice below, as well as hard- ened penitentes.

The weather was ne for the remaining descent, and in order to placate me for missing out on the Polish Glacier Traverse, Willie now ful lled Mountain Madness’s promise to descend via a different route that I hadn’t yet been on. Packing as lightly as possible, while hiring an extra porter to carry the remainder of our loads down the normal route with the rest of the team, Willie and I set off down the other side of the mountain on the morning of Thursday, January 20, en route to the Plaza Argentina Base Camp.

The traverse to Camp III at the foot of the Polish Glacier was both beautiful and dangerous due to the fresh snow concealing ice below, as well as hardened penitentes that Willie referred to as ‘knee breakers’. Then, after a ten-minute stop at Camp III, we headed further down to Camp II, where I ran into Michel and Jan, my team-mates from the previous year’s French expedition, who were now on their way up Aconcagua. Like me, they had failed to reach the top in 2003 and were back 12 months later for a similar rematch. Following a quick photo session, I wished them the best of luck as Willie and I continued our descent.

I noticed blood on the ice, as well as tracks that indicated someone – or something – had suffered a fatal stumble.

Finally, we arrived at Plaza Argentina, the Base Camp on the other side of Aconcagua, and all seemed right with the world. However, the next day would be a test of our nerves and perseverance. After setting off at around 6:30 am, just as the sun was rising, Willie and I enjoyed magni cent views of the gold-lit neighbouring peaks and, later on, of a river of broken ice that had been formed by a late surge of the glacier. After climbing the steep scree slope to the Ibañez Pass, we roped-up for the equally steep descent on ice, with myself leading and Willie anchoring from the back. We couldn’t spend too much time admiring the scenery, for the descent of the mountain’s dangerous South Face demanded 100 percent concentration. It was so steep and icy that just one small mistake could have resulted in a fall – one that would provide no chance for a life- saving self-arrest manoeuvre by using our ice axes and crampons to grip on to the frozen snow. Indeed, just a few minutes into our descent I noticed blood on the ice, as well as tracks that indicated someone – or something – had suffered a fatal stumble, and when Willie saw these, a worried look crept across his face.

“Keep going,” he advised me in a stern voice. “We may be in for a nasty surprise.”

I heeded the warning, and from then on, the thought of encountering a motionless corpse made the descent to Plaza Francia, the camp at the bottom of the South Face, a lot less enjoyable, even after the traces of blood disappeared about a third of the way down. Could we have somehow missed the body? Or could the victim have survived a fall of 30 to 40 metres? Surely not, and neither could it have been an animal – animals don’t fall unless they’re sick, and if they were, then it’s unlikely they would be on a steep, icy col.

When we reported our ndings to the guada- parque (park rangers) at Con uencia, none of them had heard anything about a missing climber, yet about ten days after returning to Beirut, I received an e-mail from Willie – the body of a middle-aged American had, indeed, been discovered between the penitentes, just below the spot where we had seen all the blood. Apparently, he was alone, and hadn’t been wearing crampons, leading me to surmise that perhaps he had just climbed up there from the dry, rocky North Face to quickly snap some photos while standing on the icy col, where he had slipped. Undoubtedly, he had paid the ultimate price. And I was reminded that, when people make errors of judgement, the mountain takes no prisoners.