It was not much of a surprise that after a 24-hour journey and three connections, we were missing a backpack full of climbing gear when we finally arrived in Argentina. Our questions came quick and loud, leaving little time for the airline staff to catch their breaths. “Where is the luggage?” we asked. “Why can you not locate it with your system? What do we do? We need the equipment inside! The schedule is tight indeed. We have only 17 days to summit Aconcagua, the highest peak in South America!”
But our worries disappeared the moment we exited the airport gates. Ripening in the 90 degree sunshine, grapes caught the attention of the visitor and reminded the frustrated mountaineer that Mendoza is not a bad place to be stranded while waiting for luggage. Tucked at the bottom of the Andes in Northwest Argentina, benefiting from ideal sun exposure and irrigation from the glaciers, Mendoza is the wine capital of the country, with gorgeous malbecs, semillon, syrah and cabernets.
We were one day behind schedule when we started the climb. Our first stop was Confluencia at 10,000 ft elevation. That is the altitude where the body realizes a serious oxygen deficit. We all suffered minor headaches, which disappeared after the right amount of sleep and hikes in the surrounding area (and ibuprofen). The weather was splendid the day we hiked to Plaza Francia, where we got a magnificent view on the jaw-dropping south face of Aconcagua. The wall is about 10,000ft high (3,300m), which makes it the highest wall in the world outside of the Himalayas. The best mountaineers have tried this face, now routinely swept by avalanches and extremely dangerous. The impression left on the team was unanimous; it is going to be a long hike.
Our route was the more traveled north face approach, aptly named the Normal route. We had to walk around the mountain and stay at base camp for acclimatization purposes for four to five days at 13,000ft (4,300m) before climbing to the higher camps. Plaza de Mulas, the name of the Base Camp, is a semi-permanent set-up with satellite internet access and dining tents that can also be transformed into camping showers for a $10 fee. After four days at the camp, when there were few books left to read and fewer headaches to worry about, the mountaineers watched the incessant ballet of the mules carrying the luggage of more hopeful climbers through rivers and up steep climbs. The other way people could spend their time at the camp was to narrate summit horror stories. That was when we learned that, due to weather, no one had summitted in December. We also tried to figure out who had to return down to Mendoza in a rescue helicopter. Encouraging. Before night fall, Aconcagua, our “new girlfriend”, as our guide Carlos liked to put it, was teasing us, red hot in the sunset light. The next day we left for the higher camps. Having checked our oxygen saturation levels with the camp doctors we knew we were good to go!
Because of the one day delay at the onset of our trip, Carlos decided to shorten our stay at the higher camps. We took only two days to get to Camp Berlin (17,500ft elevation, 5,800m) instead of three. Our camp stops had easier access to snow, which we melted to get water. This also allowed us to reduce the amount of food we needed to carry. Despite this, the backpacks were heavy. The air pressure was less than 50% the amount at sea level now. It was getting harder to carry the 30 to 35 pounds on our backs. As we followed other groups up the mountain, there was not much talking, a lot of drinking and steady slow progress. We made it to Camp Berlin without a problem. At Berlin, everyone was suffering from altitude. Getting out of the tent, lacing the shoes, and picking up the bag became an activity which required preparation and due rest. The headaches persisted. We had a light dinner and prepared the drinks for the next day, the summit day. It was Tuesday, January 9. We did not sleep much that night.
Hours later, at 5:00 p.m. on Wednesday, January 10, the HBS Outdoors Club team gained the summit of Aconcagua. This season’s lack of snow and the continuously moving scree made our hiking even more difficult. We reached the top exhausted but happy to be together. The average success rate on Aconcagua is only 35% but thanks to Carlos, his wife and clement weather, Dan, Derrick, Sam and I all enjoyed the 22,800ft/6,962m view as a team.
Note: The Aconcagua trek was organized by the HBS Outdoors club over the winter break. During spring break, the club will organize additional multi-sport treks in Peru, Morocco and Mexico-please check out our website for more info (www.studentclubs.hbs.edu/outd).