The Sentinel of Stone
A new beginning.
2018 marked my first year out of academia. I had spent the past two years completing a post-doc at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. My worked had becoming some kind of a routine office job and I desperately missed glaciers, expeditions and high mountains. This is how we came to put together a trip to Aconcagua. I was looking for a way to test myself at high altitude without having to worry about technique. Aconcagua, the "sentinel of stone" in Quechua Ackon Cahuak, is described as the "highest walk in the world". I contacted my friend Anne, who had also done her PhD in Svalbard to join me, Anne called Dorotha, Dorotha called Inge, and suddenly my brother wanted to join, and his friends, what was a small team became a group of 9 people! But 9 of the nicest, most bubbly and keen people I know, this was going to be a fun trip. After months and months of preparations, we all found ourselves in beautiful Mendoza, Argentina, ready to tackle our biggest challenge so far.
Aconcagua can be climbed from different routes. We picked one of the least technical ones, the 360-fake polish glacier route, a 19 day long adventure all around the mountain, going up on the Polish glacier side, and down the normal route. This was a way to see more of the mountain, to escape from the crowds and not go up and down the same way. Of course this choice came with its caveats, this route had less resources / medical help than the normal route, and would force us to reach camp 3 at 6000 m to make our way back to the normal base camp.
As it was our first time on the mountain, we decided to go with local guides from a company I will not name, you'll understand why later. For the first part of the trip, from the entrance of the park to base camp we would have one guide, mulas, and carry our own food, but from basecamp to the end of the trip we would use all the services from the company, having 3 guides and letting them organise the camps and the food. We left Mendoza on the 9th of January 2018, to meet our first guide at Los Puquios, close to Los Penintentes. The bus journey was so out of this world, the mountains grew so tall, and the landscape looked to dry, we were getting in the thick of things.
The first three days were testing. Our guide was keen to get us from A to B at the speed of light, making us always arrive at camp super early. Plenty of time to rest, eat, and explore the surroundings. Meet my friends: Anna Elina, Aurélie, Dorota, Niels, Inge, Jerem, Nathalie et Mael!
Being such a large group is not easy, there are always those who want to run to the camp, those who want to take pictures, those who have bad shoes etc, but I was SO happy to be with my friends and my brother again, and ready to have the adventure of a lifetime. What a better place to catch up than on the trails of Aconcagua?
These first days were quite tough for us polar peeps, the temperatures were raging high, the trails are extremely dusty, and when your eyes are not bothering you any more, then the flies are ready to a good biting session at camp. Nonetheless, the landscape was changing fast. We walked up long valleys, crossed a few rivers (that were nothing like what I had read, super easy), but the mountain was still nowhere to be seen. I was happy with the choice we made of avoiding the normal route, this area felt pretty quiet and preserved. Camp 1 was called Pampa de Lenas, Camp 2 Casa de Piedra. We took every chance we had to dip our feet into the fresh water from the rivers, and day dream looking at clouds passing by. As the altitude is rapidly increasing it is essential to save on energy during the approach.
On day 2 we finally saw it! Mt Aconcagua. Our guide was not able to point us to the right mountain but after noticing there was one standing out, much higher that all the other ones it became pretty obvious which one was our goal. We all got pretty spooked the first time we saw it. It was huge, menacing, surrounded by rapidly drifting clouds and vertical cliffs. It was hard to imagine that in a few days this is where we'd be.
Eventually, after 3 days of walking through beautiful landscapes we reached Plaza Argentina, the other base camp of Mt Aconcagua. The plan was to stay there for 2 nights in a row, and then start our rotations to the high altitude camps.
BASE CAMP LIFE
We were all so proud to have made it to Plaza Argentina. We are already at 4200 m, but there's still a long way to go to 6962 m! The goal is really to rest, drink, eat, and rest more. Easier said than done! We have a lot of things to go, starting with a compulsory medical to get our blood oxygen saturation. The doctor can literally force us to get down the mountain if our results aren't good enough. This was all a bit stressful, and I am sure that the threat of having to give up on the climb increased the blood pressure of some of us! Out of 9, 4 of us had worse results than we hoped, but luckily the doctor gave them a second chance, another test two days later. Oxygen saturation is such an important metric at this altitude. Having values below 80% meant that the acclimatization process isn't complete, it takes more time for some people than others, increasing the risk of acute mountain sickness when climbing further up.
We also had to sort out our equipment. Abandon all the light/hot weather gear, that will be transferred to the main base camp on the other side of the mountain. From then on, we will have to carry almost all of our gear ourselves, only the tents will be moved by strong porters, everything else will have to fit in our backpacks during the rotations. We would hire some more porters to help us out but it was a bit too expensive for us.
The atmosphere at base camp was great. We could have showers, use WiFi, sit down on "real" toilets, luxury all around. I was more interested in exploring the surroundings, since we were on a debris covered glacier, with penitentes not too far from us, and boulders to climb. But time flies when you're having fun, and it was time to start our rotations.
Rotations are the best way to get acclimatize, by climbing high and sleeping low. We will start by moving equipment/food to camp 1 (around 5000 m) and walk straight back down to sleep at base camp. Have a rest day, and then move everything to Camp 1. The first rotation is always tough, but the second one is pretty much fingers in the nose.
HIGH ALTITUDE CAMPS
We were so excited to finally start tackling the higher camps. The path was taking us through narrow couloirs with lots of potential rockfalls, hence the helmet. We started with pretty decent weather but it rapidly deteriorated and became a full blown storm. For many of us it was their first time at 5000 m, not the best conditions to feel confident about your acclimatization. We buried our equipment as quickly as possible, hoping to find it again in a couple of days. We rushed back down to base camp in record time.
The next day, and last full day at BC, those who had failed the medical gave it another go. And all passed! This was a huge relief for all of us, no one wanted another 3 days of walking back to the entrance of the park on their own. The next day it was time to finally move to camp 1, but this time with much better conditions, we could finally see where we were going, and appreciate the stunning deserted landscape of Aconcagua. The camp was small, super packed, surrounded by my fav, penitentes. We were ecstatic to have made it there.
But there's no time to waste on Aconcagua, and the next day we started our rotation to Camp 2, moving as much stuff there as possible. Camp 2 is at 5500 m, not much higher up but at this altitude every little bit hurts. The first part was a bit steep, before a long traverse to a little plateform on which Camp 2 was nested. The walk was so so beautiful. We were above the clouds, it felt like we were in paradise.
It is hard to describe what altitude does to your body. Every muscle screams for oxygen, even just thinking takes so much out of you. So of course, walking with a 20-25 kg backpack on a steep scree slope above 5500 m can bite, hard. Walking from camp 2 to camp 3 is what really proved too much for some of my friends. But again teamwork makes dreamwork and we all helped each other out, carrying some of their gear, backpacks etc. Altitude does not care about how fit you are, it will get to you no matter what. We all made it to Camp 3.
I will admit that by that time, we were all badly undernourished. Our guides, our company had made a big mistake and had forgotten all our dehydrated meals. After Camp 1, all we had were cereal bars, tang, and porridge. I usually double or triple my food intake at high altitude, but this time we were properly starving. We had to beg other teams to give us food. And when we reached camp 3, one of our guides dug out a bloc of cheese that we all devoured in an instant.
Camp 3 is at 6000 m. It was the last camp before attempting the summit, but luckily it is also at the crossroad between the traverse route and the normal route! Which means that whatever happened from then on, we could "just" walk straight down to the main base camp of the mountain. And for many of us, this would be the highest point they will reach, the combo altitude/no food was too much and they very wisely decided to make it down to base camp the next morning.
At Camp 3, we had a bit of a crisis meeting with our guides. We knew the weather the next morning was not good at all, way too windy, and we wanted to have a rest day to be fit enough for the summit. But our guides were not having any of it, they wanted to finish this trip asap. This meant that after finally moving to Camp 3, we would rest for a few hours and go for the summit. Game time.
We spent a terrible "night" at camp 3. The lack of oxygen, relentless wind and excitement was a recipe for no sleep. I remember worrying about our tent blowing off. I got out a couple of time to fix our tents, move rocks and shelter boots that had been blown off. No rest before the summit attempt. We "woke up" around midnight or 1 AM, and it took us 2 good hours to get ready. I forced some terrible breakfast down my throat (oreos and oats, covered in sugar, all we had left), and was lazer focused on packing for this important day. We were ready for a grueling 14 H long flight with the mountain, in the worst possible conditions. As soon as we started walking, the group split in two. One group of 4 people with our main guide, another group behind.
The first slope looked like a vertical wall in total darkness. It was so freaking cold. Easily -40°c with the strongest wind I've ever had, I can't even imagine what the windchill was like. I was just terribly cold, trying to keep moving as much as possible. We had breaks every hour, and I remember having to make a conscious choice between either doing squats to warm up, or drinking and eating. We could not stop for more than a couple of minutes at a time.
After 3-4H of ascent the sun came out. Finally! I thought that we had gone through the worst, that we would get a bit warmer thanks to the super strong sun. We could see the shadow of the mountain covering the horizon. In between all the suffering, I tried to enjoy every minute of this last climb.
Every picture I took instantaneously froze my fingers. I tried to ask my teammates if they were doing ok, and they just looked shell shocked. I had to scream, and grab them by the shoulders to make them talk to me. The sun didn't make us feel warmer. Quite the contrary, the wind grew stronger and stronger. I remember seeing pizza-size plate of snow flying up in the air and crashing down on us. Most people were already turning back, we keep going. This is when one of us started to get really cold toes. She had been struggling since we left camp, but this was getting too much. The guides had told her to wear three pairs of socks.. Our guides really had no idea what they were doing. Halfway up a steep slope, we decided to stop, remove a pair of socks and put toe warmers instead. This is always the time when no one wants to help or take their gloves off, but we managed! This probably saved her toes.
We started the long traverse between Independencia and La Canaleta. This is when our guide paused. We asked her how much longer we had to reach the summit and she said 7 hours.. We were not even halfway! We had another 400 m of elevation to gain, and were really struggling because of the cold. We kept going for another 30 minutes. From the traverse you could see the entire face of Aconcagua, all the way to the main base camp. Better not slip! 3 km of vertical wall below us. We stopped once more. We had a short but efficient chat among us. We agreed that on that day we would never make it to the summit. It was too cold, too dangerous, especially since one of us already had really cold toes. One last look at the summit, and we turned around.
We traversed back and took a few shots. We were all relieved by the decision we had made. Relieved but focused, there was still a long way down back to Camp 3, and it was just as dangerous as on the way up. We made it back to camp 3 for lunchtime. The rest of the team was there, happy to see us coming back in one piece. We learnt that, on that day, only a handful of people made it to the top, at a huge costs (frostbitten faces, fingers and toes). This was not worth it. We collapsed back at camp and slept the whole afternoon. And slept some more during the night. I woke up the next morning feeling like a zombie, but excited about reaching base camp that day.
The longest downhill ever. My knees can still remember the way back down to base camp, it took us a good 10 hours, but was totally worth the effort. We knew that we would get real food there, and that's something we hadn't had for more than a week. And also see our friends who didn't join us on the summit effort. The landscape was absolutely unbelievable. We were so happy to see another side of the mountain, discover new glaciers, new trails.
There's no bigger relief that the one of reaching base camp and meeting our friends again. They were doing well, had found food and sleep and peace with the mountain. Plaza de Mulas is the largest base camp on earth after EBC, Everest Base Camp. There were hundreds and hundreds of tents there, even people who were living there for the season. It looked like a beautiful little village of hippies and climbers.
Finally, we got some food. We downed 2 or 3 burgers each, we needed it! We slept in the kitchen tent, that had huge plastic windows and offered the most amazing view on the summit of Aconcagua. When the night and the stars came, I spent the night photographing the Sentinel of Stone. The milky way was just over the summit. The mountain was bidding us goodbye.
The last day was grueling, but let's not underestimate the motivation of getting rid of our pack, our boots, and getting a nice shower and comfy bed. We had 30 kilometers to cover on this last day to reach Horcones. Some say that Aconcagua is a pretty boring mountain, just a big pile of rocks. I completely disagree. The geographers and glaciologists among us could not believe their eyes on the way down the normal route. The landscape was jaw dropping, mind blowing, just what we needed to forget our painful feet.
Even though we never made it to the top, this expedition was about spending time with friends, and for that, the expedition was super successful. I was so happy about my adaptation with high altitude, and impressed by my teammates. Sadly, a bad organisation really diminished our chances to reach the summit, but now we know better. You either win or you learn. I'll be back Aconcagua!