Aconcagua Expedition • December 31 - January 19, 2012

We have not been back to Aconcagua for nearly a decade. So when our Belgian friends Ive and Raf asked us about the possibility of organizing a trip there, we jumped at the chance. Aconcagua is primarily a fitness / acclimatization / weather challenge, and after years of soft living in the Alps (read catered huts and light packs) we wondered if we still had the guns for the type of work Aconcagua requires.

Our plan was to approach the peak from the Vacas side, climb up to High Camp at almost 6000 meters, summit and then descend the normal route to Plaza de Mulas, finishing with a hike out the Horcones Valley.

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Here's the team (less Kathy, who is behind the camera). The photo was taken at Camp 1, nearly 5000 meters high, after a carry from Base Camp. Starting on the left, we have David Dougherty, from Wales, Steven De Decker, Matt Croy from Connecticut, Raf Boudart, Koen Verschraegen, Ive "the instigator" De Kerf and, looking the wrong way, Mark.


With all of us coming from the northern hemisphere, arriving in mid-summer in Mendoza was a shock (though a pleasant one) to the system. Here, we are waiting in front of our hotel for our transport up to Penitentes and the start of our trek.


Stopping in Uspallata for lunch. Someone ordered the (scary!) trout.


We arrived in Penitentes, met up with our logistical support people at Fernando Grajales's agency, and had a mad bag sorting and weighing session before retiring to our hotel for the evening. It being the 31st of December, we enjoyed a special dinner with the hotel staff, though no one was quite able to manage to stay up to midnight to usher in the New Year.


Near the start of the trek into the Plaza Argentina Base Camp.

The hike into base takes 3 days. Mules carry our bags and we only need to have the essentials for the day in our light packs.


Mules awaiting their loads at the first night's camp, Pampa Leñas.


Just before arriving at our second camp on the trek, Casa de Piedra, David and Kathy take in our first view of Aconcagua, partly hiding in the cloud on the left in the background.


Our second trekking camp at Casa de Piedra.


The small "casa" after which the camp is named.


Our last day of hiking to Base Camp, takes us up the Relinchos Valley. Aconcagua grows larger and larger as we near. Conditions look excellent with enough snow, but not too much.


A last little valley before we arrive in the Plaza Argentina Base Camp, only some five minutes further.


This camp was much larger than our memories of previous years. Time marches on. We found several pleasant and empty sites at the upper end of the "village".


That night we had the first of what were to be nearly daily snow storms. Though the snow fell thick and heavy in the evening, for the most part mornings would be clear and lovely. At the lower elevation, such as the 4200 meter-high base camps, it would melt off in the mid-day sun.


One evening was so snowy we rented a cooking and dining tent from our mule outfitter Fernando Grajales, for a more comfortable dinner experience.


Ive and Raf enjoy a bit of wine.


Getting the morning brew on.


After a rest day in Base Camp, we made a carry up to Camp one, returning to Base for the night.


Due to a bit of illness in the group, we decided to add one more day of rest for some of us, with the healthier folks making a second carry up to Camp One.


Camp one, at about 4950 meters above sea level. This can be a windy spot with gusts blowing down the valley from above.


On the carry to Camp One.


Looking back down at Base Camp from about 4700 meters.


We established and occupied Camp One, finding three secure rock-walled sites for our tents.


The wind came up that night and blew hard for some 36 hours. A park ranger was camped in this (what remains of it) tent. In the middle of the night, his tent was destroyed. Fortunately Steven heard his yells for help and ventured out to investigate (Kathy and I sleeping with earplugs, to make tolerable the incessant flapping of the tent, heard nothing). Steven came back for more help and we managed to help prevent the loss of nearly all of the park rangers belongings. With his tent completely destroyed, he squeezed into our tent for the remainder of the night.

This photo was taken the next day.


We decided to take another day of rest at Camp One while the wind whipped up the new snow above.


The following day was lovely, however, and we made a carry up to Camp Two at about 4750 meters.


Arriving at Camp Two. Oddly, this sign claims it to be "Camp 3". However, our schedule, and nearly everyone else's, makes this as a second camp. At one point in time, you cold reach this camp from the Guanacos Valley route (now closed by the Park), reaching this site as your third camp.


The following day, we moved up to Camp Two. As was all too common on this trip, we had a heavy afternoon snow shower.


The sky cleared briefly just before sunset, offering a lovely view.


The next morning we carry up to Camp Three, also known as Cólera Camp. The mountain above looks more suitable to skiing than climbing.


The team on our carry day to Cólera Camp. Almost there.


Camp at 5980 meters, Cólera Camp.


The following day we moved up to Cólera Camp, and sure enough, that evening more snow, and lots of it.


With all of us being somewhat tired, and the track completely covered, we decided to take an additional rest day at High Camp. Ive, Kathy and Mark wandered up above camp for a couple hundred meters, in an effort to put it a new trail, hopefully to be followed the next morning.


And finally our summit day. It dawned clear and cold, but only after snowing, again, much of the night. Being first out of camp, we re-broke the trail. A beautiful day, but moving through the deep snow was exhausting work.


Looking east at sunrise.


We arrive at the Independencia hut, about 6400 meters, just after sunrise.


Moving across the long traverse at about 6550 meters. Here the snow became so deep that progress slowed to a crawl. Also trying to climb that day were another 50 or so climbers. You can see many of them bunched together keeping a healthy distance from the trail-breaking end of the line.


We continued across the traverse for perhaps about half of its length, hoping that the snow would become less deep. Unfortunately, it was not to be. With a long, exposed and freshly loaded slope ahead of us, we concluded that the avalanche hazard was simply too high to justify continuing. We turned around with reaching the summit, at about 6550 meters.

Everyone else on that day's summit attempt also turned around.

Mouse over the photo to see our route (red), and where we had yet to go (green).


All climbers retreating.


Looking down from the traverse.


Ah well, better to live and try another day....

We spent one more night at high camp before starting down to the Plaza de Mulas Base Camp. Though we had an additional summit day, the high winds of the evening (drifting in our hard-won track), compounding health issues, and the forecast for more winds the following day, suggested that retreat was our best option.


The macrame of trails leading up the the Nido des Condores.


Arriving in the big city of Plaza de Mulas.


Raf prepares to attack his first cheese burger in more than a month.


We enjoyed a pizza dinner in Plaza de Mulas, along with the obligatory beer.


The following day we hiked out to the road at Horcones. The winds still rage, high on the peak.


On the hike out the Horcones Valley.


It is a long day's walk down the Horcones, but the pleasures of motorized transport are calling us.


Our baggage passes us.


Looking back back up at the South Face of Aconcagua, as we near the trailhead.


We were picked up at the Horcones station by the Grajales team, and driven to Penitentes where we had a couple hours to rest (and drink beer) before continuing on to Mendoza for a late night arrival.

Coming out early gave us some time to kill in Mendoza. And what better activity than to tour vineyards and enjoy some of the local wine?


We arranged a very fine lunch at the Belasco de Baquedano winery, complete with some five courses, each paired with a selected wine.


After the first pairing. The view from the dining room looked out over the fine vineyards.


Several more pairings and courses and we have the "Fourth Step". Raf looks pretty pleased about it.

"Grilled beef tenderloin gratinated with marrow, sauteed vegetables, potato cream with sprouts salad and fungi carpaccio"

"Swinto - 100% Malbec - 93 points plus Robert Parker

"Pairing: Elegant and balanced dark purple color with smooth silky tannins and a lingering finish. Gentle roast almond and apricot flavor. Full personality, acting as the perfect combination with meat."


After lunch, we made a quick tour of the somewhat unique "aroma room" where one can educate one's nose to the myriad of smells found in wine.

And then, on to the next winery, the Alta Vista, for a quick tasting. Stephen looks slightly dubious while our vivacious hostess (who's fluent command of English led to the discovery that she is from New Jersey!) holds forth well-informedly.


Matt gets lost in the Torrontés, a lovely dry white.


And, after a fine afternoon, back to our hotel for an oxygen enriched sleep.

We'll leave with a photo of the Plaza de Chile, just out the front door of our hotel.