Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Aconcagua, Argentina

2009 January: 18 day adventure - Climb Aconcagua - Argentina

Aconcagua 6962 meters: Highest peak in the Andes in Argentina, and also the highest mountain outside the Himalayas.

Finally!!! I'm going to climb Aconcagua. Ever since the Dec 2004 NZ trip where I was huffing & panting after only a few hours of walk up the Franz Josef Glacier, I had been dreaming/planning for this. And today I am actually flying out to climb it!!!

Here is an account of the trip. Couldn't reach the top ... extremely disappointed ... high wind thwarted the attempt on the summit day. But first, some random observations of Argentina through my black tinted iris ...

Buenos Aires is quite an interesting city ... full of Spanish colonial architecture ... if you like that sort of thing. They like naming streets like "25th May Street", "9th July Street", so cute!!! There is a small China Town, but outside of it, there are no Asians. There are also no blacks, no muslims, no little green men. Small kids found me a curiosity, like someone from Mars!!!

The city is supposed to be dangerous. The hotel staff warned me not to wear a watch nor carry a camera on the street. I did that for half a day, then found it very inconvenient. So back to the hotel to wear the watch and took the camera ... well, hadn't been robbed so far.

After a few days sightseeing, it was off to Mendoza, 1000 km west of Buenos Aires, and it was there the Aconcagua trip officially started.

Mendoza is a small provincial town where midday siesta is strictly observed. From 1pm to 4pm, the town is virtually dead. All shops are closed, then re-open from 4pm onwards. Dinner usually starts from 9pm onwards which upset my stomach a bit ... when on the road, I prefer having dinner early and be in bed early.

San Martin seems to be Mendoza's patron saint ... everywhere there are San Martin Streets, San Martin Plazas, San Martin Buildings, San Martin Statues, San Martin Parks, San Martin This and San Martin That.

About Aconcagua... the company which organises the expedition has a trip up there every week in the Southern Hemisphere summer. So far this 2008/2009 season, every trip succeed in reaching the summit except ours due to high wind ... ah well, bad luck !!! No doubt, it was all because I didn't visit a San Martin Church earlier on.

But still, the scenery is fantastic. If you ever visit Argentina but don't wish to climb Aconcagua, it is worthwhile to fly west to Mendoza, and from there, join one of the day tours to the Andes Highlands and have a look.

Two minibuses took us and our gears from Mendoza to a small skiing resort called Los Penitentes a few hours drive further to the west. This was where the actual walk started. After 3 days of hiking along the beautiful Vacas River and Relincho Stream, we reached base camp, Plaza Argentina.

Base camp was like heaven after so many days on the feet ... because we had a rest day there. And because it had a hot shower ... which was only a 1-star treatment, but Geez, it had a 5-star feel about it. But I also wondered why bothered, because I put on the same dirty clothes afterwards. (I didn't take spare sets of clothes, else I had to carry them!!! So I was on the same undies for about 15 days.)

It also had internet service ... haha ... one just couldn't get away from this modern contraption. But after using it for only 10 minutes, it went belly up, because it was run on solar power, and a cloud came over, obscuring the sun. This was the start of our bad luck run, because the cloud brought snow with it, and it snowed almost every day from then on.

For us Aussies who hardly ever saw snow, it was a wonderful beautiful experience ... well, at first. Then we cursed it. The snow got into our tent, got into our backpack, got into our nose, and worse, got into our toilet business, because after base camp, all toilet business was done in the open!!!

Past base camp there were three high camps ... camp-1, camp-2 and camp-3. To get to one of these high camps took 3 days ...

- One day to carry and cache part of the stuff to a higher camp ... stuff like food and fuel for the rest of the expedition, and warmer clothes not required at a lower camp. Then straight back to the lower camp for the night.

- The next day was for the actual move to the higher camp, taking along the tent, sleeping bag and sleeping pad, plus pots and pans required by the group.

- The third day was a rest day.

At camp-1, there was a stream where one can collect water, but not in the morning as it would be frozen overnight as I found out to my chagrin and had to break open the ice to get to the water.

At camp-2, the ice was permanent. Learning fast from my camp-1 experience, to get to the water, wait for someone else to break open the ice, then you quickly move in after him. To wait any longer, the water would be iced over and you'll have to break open the ice yourself.

At camp-3, there was no stream (it would be under inches of snow). Instead, you melted the snow for the water ... best was to avoid collecting yellowish looking snow!!!

The day after we moved to the final camp-3, the sky cleared. At 4am there was no cloud, and we could see the stars. So we quickly dressed up and set for the summit. The rest was history ... After we started climbing, the wind set in. It was so strong, it whipped up snow from the ground and formed a cloud around the summit, reducing visibility to almost zero. Thus after 1.5 hrs of climbing, we had to turn back ... so close yet so far. The next day was similar ... high wind again, and that was the end of the expedition.

Now, some photos:

1, 2, 3: We walked right through the following valleys on the way to Base Camp.


4: Aconcagua (East face)!!! Awesome!!!


5: Me drinking native tea called Mate (pronounced Ma-Tay) ... It tastes like green tea with a raw grass flavour. The Mate leaves are put into a gourd. Pour in hot water. The tea leaves will float on top. You sip the tea through a metal straw which has a filter at the bottom to filter out any errant tea leaves which may drop to the bottom. When the drink gets low, top it up with more hot water.


6: Crossing a river ... The water was freezing cold!!! You could sort of feel the blood freezing up. You almost couldn't move and your heart almost stopped beating. This is one of those situations you should experience once in your life time to know how it feels, but you wouldn't want to do it again!!! In the photo, the guy in white shirt was in trouble due to the cold - he almost couldn't move. Our guide (in green shirt) went into the water to help.


7: From Base Camp to High Camp-1 ... You can see a zigzag path up the mountain through a field of penitentes (see next photo). High Camp-1 is over the ridge, ie the sky line at the top of this photo. (Click on the photo to enlarge it.)


8, 9, 10: The next 3 photos are close up views of the ice field. The ice columns are called penitentes. At some places, they can be as tall as a man. Walking through them was fun, like walking through a maze. But it was actually quite a dangerous place. There were lots of pot holes inside them. I fell into one. And in a reflex action to stabilize myself, I used both hands to grab onto a nearby penitente. This was a bad bad mistake as the penitenties are made of ice and the edges are razor sharp. I cut 8 of my 10 fingers, sparing the 2 little fingers. Normally, it is not a big deal. But there, at such a high altitude where oxygen level was about half that at sea level, the wounds would not heal. I had to wrap the fingers up with bandaids and waited for them to heal when I'm back down the mountain. Again, normally it is not a big deal, except when going to toilet to do big business ... if you don't believe me, try to wipe your bum with 8 of your 10 fingers all wrapped up in bandaids!!!

How are the ice columns formed? Refer (Don't ask me questions. I don't understand the article myself.)


11: A frozen waterfall at High Camp-1


12: Waking up on day 12 at High Camp-2 ... "Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away!!!"


13: At High Camp-3 ... 8 climbers + 3 guides sharing 4 tents (There should be 9 of us. But one guy dropped out earlier at Base Camp.)


14: Me all dressed up on summit day but going no where ... High wind prevented us from getting to the top.


15: Another view of Aconcagua from the west side (we climb up Aconcagua from the Vacas Valley and go down it on the Normal Route.)


16: I like this one!!! Attended a dancing show in Buenos Aires. Afterwards, took this photo with a dancer. This pic compensates for all the disappointment of failing to reach the summit.  (Thanks to Norunn, the photographer.)


To Eli who pointed out that San Martin was not a Saint. He was an Argentine general and the prime leader of the southern part of South America's successful struggle for independence from Spain.

To Pat who bandaged up my fingers when I fell and cut them badly while going through the penitentes.

To Michael, Bart and Liz who washed a sand out of my eye - especial to Michael who poured the water. Without you I would have to quit at High Camp-1.

To Bruce and Don who put up with my incessant snoring.

To Don again who mended my pants with duct tape.


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  2. A good read. Have spent a fair bit of time reading your write up's of walks in the ACT, but these international expeditions are amazing.


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