Quest for the summit
Two zoroastrians's attempt to climb the highest mountain outside
By Ronnie Shroff and Zenobia Bhappoo
October 15, 2001
All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty
recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but
the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act out their dreams
with open eyes, to make it possible.
-- T.E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom
The barely audible beep beep beep of the wristwatch alarm had been anticipated
during a fitful sleep for the last 2 hours. It was not welcome, nor, was
it necessarily unwelcome. It was fact and one that needed to be dealt with.
Sleeping in was not an option. Spending the last night camped above 19,000
feet had weakened our bodies, so, we needed to take advantage of the strength
of our mental resolve and, once again, continue our upward movement. I have
slept with my water bottle nestled in my sleeping bag the last two nights
and still the water very quickly turns slushy when exposed to the night
air. Photos here
Willy's state-of-the-art wrist altimeter / barometer / watch / thermometer
registers -17°C. I slip on two layers of thermal underwear. Over this,
I add my climbing fleece, a down jacket, and my mountain parka. After each
additional piece of clothing is added, I lay back and get my breath. The
dressing process has taken nearly an hour and now I join the others outside
under a clear starlit night. Each star is like a brilliant pinprick of light
and the Milky Way has brushed a stroke of glitter onto the canvas. I gaze
up towards the elusive summit and reflect on the eleven grueling days we
have succumbed on this perilous mountain...
Argentina's Cerro Aconcagua, the "Stone Sentinel", colloquially
known as "Viento Blanco" (White Winds), stands of note as the
highest mountain in the world outside Asia and thus. As such it is one of
the "Seven Summits" -- those peaks, each of which is the highest
mountain on one of the seven continents. The mountain is a true expedition
peak in that three camps must be established on the mountain before the
summit can be attempted. With its elevation of 22,835 feet comes the inherent
dangers of extreme winds (Viento Blanco can reach 300-mph), frigid temperatures
(-45°C is not unusual at night, even in mid-summer) and physiological
and acclimatization problems.
Considerations for any party venturing onto the mountain are the concerns
associated with high altitude and its associated Acute Mountain Sickness
(AMS). Aconcagua claims more lives annually than all other continental summits
combined (Everest, McKinley, Elbrus, Kilimanjaro, Carstenz Pyramid and Vinson
Massif). Another sobering statistic: records show that in total, 40 percent
of the summit bids are successful, and of these, 20 percent of the climbers
suffer death or serious injury (sadly one person died in the short time
we were on the mountain).
Day 1: Mendoza to Penitentes (7,500 feet)
After a morning breakfast in our hotel in Mendoza (2,428 feet), the group
made final arrangements of getting the climbing permits and boarded the
van at 11:00 PM. Blue skies and virtually no cloud provided us with excellent
views of the entire route as we traveled almost directly over the road head
towards Puente del Inca (8,924 feet). The drive took approximately 4 hours
to the Penitentes ski resort (7,500 feet), three miles below the staging
area at Horcones, which was the start of our trek to base camp. A rest here
provided an excellent location to spend a relaxed night and ease into acclimatization
before spending the next two days wending our way from 8,000 to 14,500 feet
- a 40 km hike through an incredibly rocky and arid wasteland.
Day 2: Laguna Horcones to Confluencia (11,400 feet)
"Hola Amigos! Cómo están?" Now we felt like we
are on an expedition as we greeted the park rangers at Laguna Horcones and
bid farewell to them. The trek to the intermediate camp at Confluencia took
us through the beautiful Lower Horcones Valley. This path took us through
a beautiful system of moraines and the contrast in the colors became even
more prominent after passing Laguna Horcones. From then on, we continued
along the left bank of the river. Not a tree was to be seen along the banks
of the chocolate brown rivers of the Horcones river valley. Sitting defiantly
at the head of the Horcones valley was the immense bulk of Aconcagua, its
south face festooned with snow and ice.
Our first view of the mountain -- what a sight! It almost appeared from
nowhere, standing head and shoulders above the surrounding peaks and it
was the only one with any significant snow. We marveled at the sheer South
Face looming almost two vertical miles above us. After four hours of winding
our way through the gentle V shaped valley, carved by the lower section
of the river, our trek finally ended at the dusty campsite of Confluencia
Day 3: Confluencia to Plaza de Mulas (14,400 feet)
From Confluencia it was 26 km in a roughly straight
line along the Horcones Valley to base camp at Plaza de Mulas. The approach
to Plaza de Mulas was similar to a Martian landscape. The scenery had been
arid on yesterday's hike and it was even more so today. We were well above
the treeline, and the only scenery as such was the intensely striated cliffs
to either side and the snowy peaks in the distance. It was a scene of incredible
desolation and stark beauty. Small threads of water crossed our path over
the bleached stones. It was a beautiful day, around 18°C with a light
wind and a blue sky. The track was stony but well traveled and our guides,
Mauriso, Pablo, and Balti, insisted on a slow pace a long the flattening
and widening river valley.
We spent approximately four hours in this high desert called "Playa
Ancha" (meaning wide beach), hardly able to sense the altitude that
we were slowly gaining. We rounded the south side of the mountain and broke
out of the plain with the mountain ahead and to the east of us. By that
time in the afternoon, the water was flowing fast and deep and we were forced
to forge across. We began to ascend a steep scree slope, "Cuesta Brava"
(meaning rugged slope), just as a line of mules were descending back to
Puente del Inca.
Perhaps our gear had already arrived, we thought, as we started to look
eagerly toward base camp. We didn't have the energy to appreciate the rippled
terrain, a series of slopes up and down to clefts cut by runoff. Eventually
we came to a side valley and framed in its sharp V was Aconcagua, a breathtaking
scene after the dreary sameness of the valley we had followed all day. We
finally arrived at our base camp, Plaza de Mulas, located at an elevation
of 14,400 inhospitable feet after walking for 10 hours.
Base Camp was a haphazard sprawl of tents pitched among the rocks. A
silty stream flowed off the glacier winding through the camp, freezing each
night and then running again each afternoon. After assembling our tents
we all gathered in the mess tent where a hot meal greeted us and contained
our appetites till the next morning. We rounded the evening off, headed
to our tents and fell quickly into a deep sleep.
Day 4-8: Plaza de Mulas to Canada (Camp One: 16,600 feet)
The following day was a planned rest day to get over the shock our bodies
were feeling after our walk from Confluencia. The day was spent sorting
out gear, deciding what loads we were going to carry the next day, and meeting
other climbers. We met climbers from around the world, most of whom were
retreating from the bad weather up high on the mountain.
For one climber, this was his second attempt in two years, and he had
turned back again at Camp Three after two nights of 70-mph winds and bitter
cold. He was disappointed, but would probably return. Another climber too
had turned back at Camp Three. "I'm 62," he said, "and this
is my last attempt here. We didn't make it, but I have to say, I enjoyed
every minute of the experience." I resolved to try to feel the same
about my climb.
The elevation gain up to Camp One (Canada) was 2,200 feet, from 14,400
up to 16,600. Within about an hour we were getting to grips with the switchbacks
beneath Camp Canada when the first of a steady stream of retreating climbers
passed us on their way down. "It's rough up there" were frequent
comments made to us. Everyone,s story was similar.
They had spent several days stuck in their tents waiting for the wind
to abate, and abandoned their attempts to summit almost before they'd got
fully under way. Unfortunately, up till now, six members of our team had
diminished. They had succumbed to viruses, physical exhaustion, and were
unable to acclimatize at altitude. They had to descend immediately and retreat
back to Mendoza.
Over the next three days, we launched equipment sorties over glacial
moraines and scree slopes to Canada (Advanced Camp One -16,600 feet), where
we cleared tent sites and built rock walls as protection from the wind.
We reached in a respectable time of 3hr 15mins, promptly erected our supply
tent, deposited our gear and returned to Base Camp.
Our schedule called for us to make a carry one day (carry a half load
to the next camp and return) and then make another move (carry the rest
of our equipment to the next camp) with a rest day in between. Another purpose
of this gratuitous exercise was acclimatization to the altitude. The motto
is: Climb high, sleep low.
Day 9-10: Canada to Nidos del Condores (Camp Two: 17,600 feet)
The morning dawned fine again with a slight breeze and no cloud. We packed
six days worth of food together with our equipment and headed back out onto
the 35º scree slope. The path out of Canada was long and straight,
possessing a moderate incline. Within an hour we passed through the empty
camp at Cambio de Pendientes (change of slope), which as the name suggests
is placed where the slope changes from a 35º slog to a very gently
inclined snow covered slope that leads up to the large plateau at Nidos
del Condores (Condors nest) at 17,600 feet.
We pitched our tent at the Southeast end of the plateau as it was cleaner
and closer to safe snow for drinking water. The views from here were even
more spectacular. For the first time we could see clearly out over the Andes
toward the Pacific and also into Argentina. To the north was an uninterrupted
view of the central Andes. With plenty of time on our hands and a rest day
in between, we were able to sort out our loads for our next climb to Camp
Three, Berlin. We planned to continue from now in a single push to high
camp to Berlin, and then on to the summit.
Day 11: Nido del Condores to Berlin (Camp Three: 19,300 feet)
By mid-morning we were toiling on the switchbacks that led up a steep
slope from Condores to Berlin. Although we were now moving relatively slowly,
due partly to heavy rucsacs and mostly to the rarified air, we arrived at
what turned out to be Berlin, a flat clay pan 19,300 feet above the sea
and subject to the rough handling of viento blanco's whims. It got cold
up there, minus -17°C with a 70-mph wind.
It was here at Camp Three that we were exposed to the true fury of Aconcagua,s
jet stream gales. The wind was strong and the temperature plummeted to -25°C.
Aconcagua dispensed the pale remnants of its white winds down the valleys
blasting us with snow and flattening tents.
Day 12: Summit Bid
Our wake-up call was at 03:00 and after donning full
battle-dress I strolled out into the cold darkness and the blackness of
the night to begin the 'assault' on the final 3,600 feet or so remaining
to the summit. Madness? Surely. The wind was a steady 40-mph, with frequent
gusts that swept my feet out from underneath me. I began to climb with the
others, confident that in eight hours I,d be up top. Instead, four hours
later I found myself crouched beside a pile of rocks, seeking shelter from
the wind,s unholy intensity. I watched as the summit, which seemed so close
all day, disappear behind milky gray clouds.
One by one, I could see climbers ahead of me turning around and heading
back. Some walked by me without saying a word. Others stopped briefly to
lament their failure. One man cried when he tried to describe in broken
English how cold and windy it was.
A Czech climber, hobbled down to Berlin, only to be told that he would
have to walk to base camp before he could be ferried out by mule to have
his frost hands amputated. At Independencia (21,100 feet) things began to
change quickly. Viento blanco ripped into us and it was difficult and dangerous
to stand even with the ice axe firmly planted.
The few other climbers in front were pinned behind a large boulder and
we could see the Canaleta quickly being consumed by cloud. By now I was
higher than at any point in my life before and I was reduced to climbing
10-20 steps before stopping to gasp for air. I forced myself to take a few
more steps upward, but each footfall felt like a marathon.
Completely exhausted, I sat down in the rocks and watched as the wind
erased my chance of getting to the top. I was too cold and too tired to
cry; almost too cold and tired to move. At -35°C, and a wind chill factor
near -55°C, I had to descend, and began the grueling walk back to Berlin.
Hours latter we staggered like drunkards into our tents with all the energy
blown and frozen out of us. We had failed to reach the top, turned back
1,700 feet short, without sufficient energy to make another attempt and
quickly wasting due to the effects of exertion at altitude. We spent another
exhausting night at Camp Three.
Day 12: Berlin to Plaza de Mulas (Base Camp 14,400 feet)
The next morning we descended 5,500 vertical feet to Plaza de Mulas where
we spent a final night on the mountain. We were back in Base Camp, a place
I had come to both love and hate. As I dropped my enormously heavy backpack
onto the glacial moraine I felt the weight of the past two weeks still on
my back. I sat down on my pack and rested my head in my hands. Somewhere
in the evening sky, buried deep behind a wall of thick storm was the summit
of Aconcagua. I strained to see it, if only for a moment. It remained elusive
and the mist imprisoning the summit melted my dreams away...