By : Sara Norton

Cerro Aconcagua

19.1.12 – 3.2.12

Mt Aconcagua is the highest mountain in the Andes and the highest mountain in the Southern and Western Hemispheres. It is the second highest of The Seven Summits after Mount Everest. The only mountains to soar above its lofty height of 6962m lie within the Himalaya Range. Aconcagua lies 12km away from the Chilean border in Argentina, the nearest city being Mendoza.

Renowned for its unpredictable weather, it is a challenging mountain to summit. On average only 25% of attempts are successful each year.

I arrived in Mendoza a few days before we were to begin our trek through the Aconcagua Provincial Park towards the mountain itself. I needed time to prepare my kit and hire items I required. Huge consideration needs to go into what you are to take up the mountain, as weight, pack sizes and the weather conditions are areas of limitation. You do not want to carry anything unnecessary, however, you do not want to find yourself short of clothing or equipment in a place so inaccessible.

I travelled alone, but, I had booked the trek through a local mountaineering company, Aymara, and joined a scheduled trip. Our group consisted of 12 people, two of whom had decided to go only as far as Plaza de Mula’s (Base Camp). We had three local Argentinian guides, our Head Guide, Mariano Vazquez having summited Aconcagua 25 times. Gabi our other senior guide had summited ten times and they both had a passion for rock climbing. I was relieved there were no big egos in the group and despite the language barriers everyone was very friendly and we shared and pulled together as a team from the outset.

After meeting the group and hiring and checking our kit, we purchased our climbing permits and boarded the transfer to Puenta del Inca, a small, characterful and dusty little town near the Park entrance. On arrival we sorted through our kit and each made up a day pack for the following day, as the mules carrying our backpacks and extra kit bags were leaving early in the morning for Camp Confluencia.

After a short transfer to the Park gate to check in, we put our packs on our backs for the first time, and had two weeks of transporting ourselves to look forward to. I was filled with so much excitement after the months of training that I had barely slept the night before. We left Puenta del Inca at 2725m for the easy trek to Confluencia Camp at 3300m, which took three hours. There is still some vegetation at this altitude and a fair amount of birdlife. This changes completely higher up as the environment becomes harsher and the air gets thinner, the only natural life you see thereafter is the odd bird of prey.

Rest days are as important to the acclimatization process as is the practice of walking high and sleeping lower. However, it is important to still be active so that your body is gently being challenged and makes the necessary adaptations. Despite a lot of down time, there is always something to busy yourself with, repacking kit, charging electronic equipment, cleaning yourself and your equipment in limited circumstances and entertaining one another fills up the hours. Discussion of the conditions of the toilets abound.

Confluencia to Plaza Francia (4 000m) and return took 5 hours and it was quite taxing, albeit very beautiful. The mountains although stark and devoid of vegetation have striations of different colored rock that transform as the sun moves through the sky. The texture of the rock and the formations change constantly and I was in awe of the diversity of the place. Beautiful and colorful flowers blossom in the harshest places. Rivers flow down the ravines and across the valley floor, brown stained from the run off of glacial moraine.  There was snow and glacial ice on some of the high peaks on the way to our first open view of the South face of Aconcagua. It was amazing to gaze on this beautiful but difficult mountain and imagine reaching the top of it. There were high winds that day and the snow was swirling at the top of the mountain, which looked so unattainable.

The following day we trekked through the Horcones Valley to Plaza de Mulas Base Camp (4260m), where we would spend the rest of our acclimatization process until we were ready to attempt the mountain itself. The weather looked fine on departure but high winds gusted through the dusty valley making it difficult to walk at times. I put my headphones in both ears which helped to dim the sound of the wind and therefore some of its effects. It was surreal to observe the mule trains moving kit through the Valley driven by traditionally dressed Gouchos. Before moving out of the Valley and climbing up towards Base Camp itself we stopped for a good rest and rehydration. We looked up to where we were to trek and saw a great change in the weather. The temperature dropped drastically and before we could move out the snow started to fly in horizontally on harsh winds. Despite it being a grueling walk, I was very excited to finally be in Base camp and on the foothills of Aconcagua. However, the mountain seemed entirely hostile and we could not look at her much. Some of our party had battled that day with exhaustion and the affects of altitude. The party had split up into two groups, with a third trailing way behind. On arrival most of the group fell asleep in their chairs unable to bring in their kit that the Mules had offloaded, out of the snow. A couple of us found the energy to put up the few tents that were required and settled in for a much appreciated hot dinner.  The snow had continued to fall and it was minus 3 degrees Celsius in our tent that night. Snow brought in by our shoes was still frozen in the morning.

The weather reports being received were not good and snow was predicted for four to five days. I considered this a good thing, thinking that it would be great to get all the bad weather over and done with at a lower altitude before we moved onto the mountain itself. The following day we awoke to sunny skies and warm weather and quickly learned that weather predictions in that area were not always accurate.

There were now some limited communication facilities, however at a huge price. It was wonderful to be able to access the internet and touch base with home and to know I could phone my family before going up the mountain. Some of us had become obsessed with our medical checks, pulse rates and blood oxygen levels and it became a humorous competition between us.

After a much welcome rest day we had our first mini summit, Mt Bonete (5 100m). Some of the group continued to be affected by altitude and had decided against going that high on that day, in the hopes that another day of rest would help them more. It was the most incredible experience getting up to that height, with no obstructions to the view right across the Andes and into Chile. We walked through sculptures of ice and rock and on the way up heard the crackling announcements on the radio of a group from the same trekking company as us making it to the summit. Our guides were close friends with the guide on the mountain, and it was wonderful to see their shared joy of his summit success, as we gazed across the valley at Aconcagua itself. They never lost the joy of summiting and explained that each and every time was different.

Sadly, a member of our team became seriously ill with HAPE (High Altitude Pulmonary Oedema). He and I had spent most of the climb up Mt Bonete together and it was a shock to see how quickly he deteriorated as we got near the top. After medical checks back at base camp he was told he would have to be evacuated out as soon as the helicopter was able to land. The following day was his 30th Birthday and he bravely left his two mates to go on without him. I’m not sure that my Birthday present of a cigar was entirely appropriate but it cheered him up enormously.

News of bad weather abounded and the guides were taking it very seriously. People were turning back from the summit daily and returned to base camp looking alarmingly exhausted. Ten percent of people were managing to make the summit while we were there.

After a long group discussion it was decided that we would use one of our two contingency days in Base Camp as it is harder to hole up higher up the mountain, in bad weather and it was decided the benefits of rest at a lower altitude would suit our group. It was frustrating but high altitude trekking is all about patience and discipline and changes of plans. The group continued to be cheerful, amicable and sociable despite the difficulties and general lack of sleep. The last two in the ‘A Team’, as I had dubbed them, decided to go ahead with their private guide and attempt a two day up and down summit bid. Sadly, they failed at Camp 3 on the second day when one of the party started showing serious signs of altitude sickness. In any event, high winds prevented any summit attempts that day.

As our party waited patiently in base camp, the weather turned as predicted. It became very windy and cold. Two further members of the party could not adjust to altitude and one of them decided not to go higher than base camp and the other decided to leave altogether with his partner who was exhausted. This left four of us to go up the mountain. It is very difficult to say goodbye to people you have formed speedy but close relationships with, due to the nature of your dependence on one another. You live in very close proximity and all activities are shared. Our group had been incredibly generous with one another.

Finally, after having trekked to Camp 1 to stash our food, having a demonstration of tent erection at high altitude in a high wind and crampon practice, we packed our kit in our backpacks. There are porters who carry the tents and kitchen equipment, but each person carries their own food, clothing and equipment. We had been debriefed on what to expect and what the protocol was.

I felt euphoric at moments during this particular walk from Base Camp to Camp 1 ‘Canada’ (4 910m), as we climbed up the mountain, knowing that if we were successful we would sleep on Aconcagua’s slopes for four nights getting ever higher and the views becoming more exquisite. Despite having an 18kg pack on my back, the walk was not too taxing. We enjoyed an incredible sunset that night and ate our first serving of high altitude food. That particular night it was lentils and beans which caused huge amusement and concern as we were all sharing tents and staying in close proximity to one another at all times.

We took all our food from our food stash and rearranged our bags to accommodate it. Generally, for breakfast we now ate oats with powdered milk and sugar. At this altitude ones metabolism has increased hugely as has the heart rate, a lot of food is required to fuel the body with the extra demands made on it. Many people lose their appetite at the same time which makes it difficult to force down the amount of food required. Luckily, this did not happen to me and I focused on eating and drinking as much as possible. 4 to 6 liters of fluid a day is also required at this altitude.

During the walk we would often stop for food and drink breaks, the food generally being very sweet cakes, biscuits, sweets and muesli bars. We had instant soup to make on arrival at the next camp, and a high altitude meal in a bag for dinner. The porters would bring a lunch pack everyday which was normally a sandwich (mine arrived frozen on one of the days as the porters have no insulation in their packs). The little boxed juices they would give us would freeze too from Camp 2 onwards so we ate them like ice creams. Any fluid is good for you at that altitude, nevertheless, as the guides were melting ice and snow for us they advised that we needed to add powered juice or tea to it to try to add some mineral content.

Camp 1 to Camp 2 ‘Nido de Condores’ (5 250m) was grueling. My pack felt heavy and uncomfortable, the slopes were steep and becoming icy. We did not use crampons as it takes such effort to remove your pack towards the end of a walk and the ice only began quite close to camp. I found it difficult to keep my footing and I was light headed. On arrival we erected our tents in high winds which was demanding, as apart from ensuring they don’t fly away, a lot of rocks are required to secure the ropes and flaps, which you have to collect and move. We had a new toilet system and we were given a demonstration and instructions on how to utilize ‘Margherita’ the toilet tent. Thankfully, there are very strict restrictions on ‘waste’ on the mountain, nevertheless, it isn’t easy at that altitude with bodily functions collapsing.

My tent partner had considered turning around half way through the day to return to base camp due to exhaustion. We encouraged him on, but on reaching Camp 2 he decided that he would leave us the following day as he had reached the limit of what he was prepared to endure. That night was very windy and it is difficult to sleep with such noise and cold. With Vincent leaving and, having to sleep in Camp 2 alone, I had to move large rocks into my tent to secure it and ensure I wasn’t blown over in the middle of the night.

Mats, a client from another group, joined us as his entire group had decided to leave due to a bad weather experience at Camp 3.

We had to use another contingency day at Camp 2 and postpone our move up the mountain as the weather was extremely windy and cold and the visibility was poor at times. It had often been felt that the later we could leave our summit bid the better our chances. I had always had a good feeling about summiting on 2nd February, but it was concerning to have no further contingency days left. Any delay or difficulty from then on would mean an end to our attempt. We practiced our crampon use on the glacier and tried to alternately rest and move around. It was difficult leaving the tent for long as the weather was so uncomfortable. The sunset from Nido de Condores on our first night was most definitely the most dramatic and beautiful that I have ever seen. At one point I indicated a small glow on the horizon to Gabi, our guide, and enquired as to what it was. He advised that it was the sun reflecting off the Pacific Ocean in Chile. I realized that I was gazing across the breadth of a range of mountains and an entire country to the sea beyond.

Whilst sitting in Camp 2 gazing towards the summit, Mats my new tent mate pointed out the route from there the entire way to the top. It seemed impossible, it was so steep and looked so arduous, I decided to think only as far as my next stop. Letters and reminders of home, family and friends are a great comfort at these times. Items of my clothing were covered with our dog’s hair, as she had sat on my kit before my departure hoping this would prevent me from leaving. I had lucky charms and tokens of support that I had brought with me and carried in my pack.

Camp 3 ‘Cholera’ (6 000m) was hardly habited and hostile. Mats and I were put together in a tent as no-one is allowed to sleep alone at this altitude. He was as determined to summit as I was and we made a good positive partnership. The walk up was exhausting and the weather extremely difficult. Despite this, the feeling of being one day away from a potential summit was exhilarating. The lack of oxygen contributed to the heady feeling of excitement and silliness. We ate and drank as much as possible knowing the next day was going to be very lean. It was minus 9 degrees Celsius in our tent and even using all of my equipment and clothing, I was bitterly cold. We prepared our packs for the summit, taking as little as possible in terms of weight. We were limited to 2 liters of water with a maximum of 3. This is not nearly enough to sustain you through such a grueling day but every gram of weight counts at this height and water is heavy. The water must be boiling hot before departure and clipped on the inside of your down jacket in insulated sleeves, to avoid it becoming frozen.

We took little food from camp and relied on sweets and energy gels to see us through. That, and a hope and a prayer.

One of my group had reached his limit and decided he would not come out on summit day which left two of us from my group and Mats from his. Due to the fact that we had three guides for three clients, we were fortunate that they would take more risks in their decision the following morning about whether to attempt the summit or go back to Base Camp. We were awoken as instructed at 3.45am and began the two hour feat of getting dressed, collecting hot water and attempting to eat. At 5.45am we were informed that we would be departing despite the temperature being minus 35 degrees Celsius with the wind chill factor and the winds howling at 50 – 60km’s per hour. Within two hours I felt panicked by how tired I was and so began the constant argument in my mind as to whether I was capable of summiting or not. The air at that altitude is so thin due to the lack of barometric pressure, that far fewer molecules of oxygen are available. It was pitch black for hours, the slopes were steep and the switch backs became virtually non- existent. You move at a chronically slow pace, yet have no breath. Lactic acid builds up in your muscles until you screw your eyes up in pain, there are sheer drop off’s 2kms down to base camp at times and you have to walk sideways or duck footed due to the steepness of the slope. I relied heavily on my trekking poles for stability and strength, it would have been impossible without them. Every twenty minutes I had to fight the urge to vomit due to overexertion.

Sadly after 3 to 4 hours our Head Guide, Mariano, had problems with his feet and realized if he continued he would get frost bite. The last person in my group was not faring well and the guides decided to turn him around and send him down with Mariano. It was now only Mats from his group and me from mine and our two guides Gabi and Frodo.

When we had crossed the traverse, a long section of slow inclination and sheer drop offs I was relieved. It was frightening to feel weak legged with such an exposed side to fall off. However, within a short period we stopped at ‘The Cave’, the guides were obliged to ask us if we felt we had the energy to not only summit but get ourselves back down to Camp 3. I did not know, and despite not wanting to be turned around, I felt I had to be honest. I did not want to endanger anyone or preclude anyone from summiting due to what I thought was a very slow pace of my making. Gabi reassured me that he felt exactly the same and that is just what high altitude walking is all about. He felt our pace still gave us sufficient time to summit and that we were actually on time and doing well. It is hard to judge when you have never been in such a situation what is normal and at what point you are bordering on risking yourself or others. The path was so treacherous that we were unable to enjoy the views or to take our eyes off the boots in front of us.

Eventually my neck became very stiff and I had to shake my head from side to side to avoid it seizing altogether. Once out of ‘The Cave’ we turned to face ‘The Canaleta’, which was terrifying to say the least. It ascends so steeply, it appeared impossible to walk. I concentrated on watching Gabi’s boots and decided to look no further until I either collapsed from the exertion or I found myself on the summit. Gabi had adopted a walking rhythm that suited my breathing pattern and it helped to distract me from the difficulties and gave me a point of focus. We passed trekkers who looked like zombies as they sat on rocks unable to move either forwards or down.

Finally, I followed Gabi up the last rocks before the summit, which is tricky in crampons, but I clumsily made my way up and onto the top. My first feeling was of huge gratitude to Gabi for his patience and skill in guiding me up to the top. Thereafter, I felt relieved to be there and very grateful to the mountain for allowing my safe passage. It was incredible on the summit to look back at where I had trained to get there. I had constantly thought of the Zambezi river gorge near the Victoria Falls where I had traversed up and down to strengthen my legs. I had walked kilometers in the beautiful rural areas surrounding my home and run and walked Victoria Falls town, avoiding as many animals as possible. I thought of all the people I would have liked to have shared the moment with, whose love and support had sustained me through some of the agonizing hours of that day. I shared the joy with Mats, Gabi and Frodo and then quietly performed a few ceremonies of my own, before recording the moment on my camera and beginning to make our way down.

The descent is very difficult for many different reasons. Our bodies were totally dehydrated and it was extremely difficult to stay alert. We had to move quickly but cautiously, but we were all drifting in and out of focus. Along the way there were many people who were battling and we had to inform the mountain rescue team of someone in a critical condition at one point. At times we would have to tell one another to pick up our trekking poles which had slipped out of our hands without our knowledge, or shake one another to ensure we were not actually sleeping on our feet.  Eventually we arrived back in camp at 7pm, it was freezing but we flopped onto the snow nevertheless, unable to remove our crampons and boots and get into the tent. It took all our sense and energy to rest and then move towards the kitchen tent to drink some soup and swallow some water before crashing for the night. Sleep at that altitude is very difficult and the weather was not being kind. I managed a couple of hours sleep and when snow began to fall on my head through two layers of tent, I realized that the likelihood of any further sleep was slim. It didn’t matter, I was sleepily very satisfied and content.

The following day we needed to pack up camp and have it ready for the porters, who would carry the heavy kit back to base camp. I had no idea how I would even lift my pack onto my back, let alone carry it down the mountain for four hours. Somehow we managed, but I couldn’t cope with my mittens and balaclava on so removed them which resulted in my face and one finger getting frost nip. To add insult to injury when I returned to Mendoza and went to a pharmacy to purchase a remedy the chemist thought I had come in for treatment for chronic herpes! The lower we got the better we felt and on seeing the tiny colorful tents of base camp and the motivation that it stored cold beer, our pace seemed to quicken.

After a great celebration and phone calls home, we prepared ourselves for an eight hour trek back to Puenta del Inca the following day. It was incredibly emotional to leave the mountain so quickly but luckily we had the stunning Horcones Valley trek to look forward to. Incredibly, due to the extra oxygen at this lower altitude and, probably, as a result of the endorphins coursing through our veins, we had a tremendous amount of energy and the silliness returned. Pranks on the guides and a few odd spurts of running made the trip go quickly and pleasurably.

It was without doubt one of the most incredible experiences of my life and not so much because of the summit, it was the entire journey. The people, the place and the challenge have taught me so much that I hope to hang on to and learn from. The entire emotional, spiritual and physical journey was an exquisite privilege.

The common question is “why”, and I have never been able to find the answer myself but I read a decent explanation in a pictorial book on Aconcagua. Excerpts of this are; “To begin, the power of the landscape has a geological beauty that is forged by massive forces and moments that can only be measured in millions of years, something well beyond our human scale; the distinctive atmosphere of such high places is hard to put in words. It is about the Elements in their barest form – stone, air and snow. At their mildest, they make up an ageless image of harmony: a spell that big hills can cast. But, when a storm hits, we see in the mountain a mighty power at its wildest. And there is human endeavor entrenched in the slopes. Pioneered by the Inca striders 500 years ago, the impulse to explore goes on. In short, each who toils uphill into this thin atmosphere has his own reasons for so doing, and each is a representative of the society below.“

Returning home has been a slow journey in mind, body and spirit but I am overwhelmed by the privilege of living in a place of such incredible natural beauty, community and love.