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Quest for the summit
Two zoroastrians's attempt to climb the highest mountain outside Asia

By Ronnie Shroff and Zenobia Bhappoo
October 15, 2001
The Iranian

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 (11,400 feet).

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...
Photos here

Comment for The Iranian letters section
Comment for the writers Ronnie Shroff and Zenobia Bhappoo

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