Climbing Aconcagua via the 360 route (Vacas Valley)

Our friends and instructors, thanks Tyler and Tim.

This is my day by day description of climbing Cerro Aconcagua, the tallest peak outside of Asia at 22,841 feet.

Emil and I were climbing with Alaska Mountain Guides. We had two amazing instructors, Tim and Tyler. For the last month and a half Emil and I have been a part of the International Wilderness Leadership School, a division of AMG. This program was amazing especially on Aconcagua because we had a student instructor relationship, as opposed to a client and guide relationship. Emil and I learned a ton and did our part in carrying the load, cooking, and cleaning, and just taking care of ourselves. Aconcagua is an incredibly commercialized mountain. I’m glad to have climbed it, and I’m glad I did in a somewhat authentic way. Our didn’t use porters on the upper mountain. Most commercial groups use porters, but we carried our weight and I’m proud of that. I also did not use diamox or any other altitude specific medication to acclimatize. There’s no mountain climbing sanctioned group, but it’s pretty similar to the use of PEDs in other sports. Morally I felt much better not using anything besides Ibprodun here and there (the poor man’s diamox.) Here are some basic facts about the tallest mountain in South America.

The route we took is generally known as the 360 route. Here is a video of our route. We came up the Vacas valley route, and headed down the moral route. Although not technical, it was long and the altitude made it killer. Everything was pretty much tolerable until the day before the summit bid, sleeping at 19,500 feet doesn’t work too great. 19,500 feet is about as high as your body can officially acclimatize too, after that it’s adjustment and suffering. And on the summit day, after I got higher than about 20,500 feet, every step need about 5 seconds of rest. I just felt like I was sprinting at 1/2 mph.

The snow level was quite low this year, but it doesn’t mean the weather was any better. Several nights we were pounded with 50mpn gusts with the raw temp hovering between 0-15 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s easy to see how one could get in trouble very easily on that mountain because of the weather. I was supper fortunate to be able to bring my own tent, the Hilleberg Nammajti 2. I spent a pretty penny on this tent but it’s been so worth it. I’ve used it over 40 days this season, and it’s like home for Emil and I. It might sound stupid, but mentally it was nice to have my cozy tent.

Everything about this trip was perfect. Everything that could have gone right, went right. We were very lucky with our health and the weather. Just two days before we summited there were two rescues high up the mountain. One climber was found at 21,000 at 2am suffering from hypothermia, nearly left for the dead. In the same day a Japanese climber broke his arm coming down from the ascent. Many people before and after us could not summit because of the weather, so we definitely picked a good weather window. The day after after us no one could summit because of the wind. Only 30% of climbers make the summit. Every time we went higher you noticed how clients were dropping like flies.

In all we climbed more than 22,779 feet and nearly 72 miles in two weeks. I’m tired!

The biggest challenge of this mountain was moving the gear up and acclimatizing properly. The terrain itself is not too bad. But since we had so much stuff you would have to make two trips, even with 100 liter packs! We did much of the route up the mountain two times, just to get all the food, fuel, and warm clothes onto the upper mountain. The nice part about doing many of the sections twice is that it very much helps you to acclimatize. We kept moving, everyday a haul, hike, or move. Other groups would just rest for a day while their porters carried their things up. They way we did it definetly helped us to get stronger and move more quickly on the upper mountain.

Tim, our lead instructor had been on Aconcagua 5 times before. And our whole trip was the fastest and easiest trip he’s ever had before. I don’t want to brag, but in all honestly we were speeding past the other groups. Tim had only summited 3/5 times while working for Alaska Mountain Guides, and had never summited on day 12 of the trip, the usual summit window is between Day 15-17. But we were very strong and acclimatized coming off our last trip, everything went perfectly! Honestly could not have gone any better.

So anyways, please enjoy my documentation of this awesome climb I am very much proud of.

12/9/17

Day 0- Driving from Mendoza to Los Penitentes

This morning we payed for our permits and got all the logistics set into place. The permits were not cheap, this is in fact the most expensive piece of paper I’ll own until my college diploma.

By now I’ve gotten used to the 3.5 drive to Los Penitentes. Is a beautiful drive, surrounded by amazing geology. Packing and planning in Penitentes was even easier than the last trip. We were even more organized this time and quicker with just 4 people. We packed up the food, decided how much fuel to bring, and put everything into boxes for the Mules to take to base camp. Having the Mules is quite nice, it’s extremely hard to do this climb without mule support to base camp. So for the first few days, 24 miles and 6-8,000 feet vertical, we were just carrying day packs in the day. And again a HUGE shoutout to Grajales Expeditions for making our last two trips go so well. These guys provided us with the Mules and base camp services. The best in the business and some of the nicest people I’ve met on the mountain. It’s really incredible to see how big of an operation climbing on Aconcagua is. It’s massive, you’ll see in some of my pictures. Grajales does such a great job of making sure trips run smoothly!!!

All the gear packed up in the Grajales

staging area

At the entrance to the Vacas valley! 12/10/17

12/10/17

Day 1: Road to Pampas de Leña

What a great start to our trip. We left Los Penitentes at around 10am for the short ride to Punta de Vaca, the starting point for the Vacas valley route. My pack was incredibly light. For the two nights on the way to base camp, the mules walk with us, so I only kept my water bottles, camera, and a few layers in my pack. Supported trips are the best! Of course I really didn’t need those layers yet. It was probably in the 70s or 80s! After checking in with the park rangers at Punta de Vaca we started to hike. The ranger made a point of making sure I really was 18 as it said on my permit. If you’re below 18 you need a special permit and need to get lawyers involved if you want to climb Aconcagua. But I’m 18! And after that we were off! We started hiking at 10:30am alongside a river up the valley. The hike itself was not tough, it was just so hot. We walked along a dusty trail, gaining about 1,400 feet in elevation. Apart from seeing ten or so lizards, and of course the mules, we did not see any other animals.The lizards were awesome however, very colorful and quite a variety. It is after all almost summer here! At least in the valley!I learned very quickly how awesome it was to be a group of 4. We passed the two other groups that started a few minutes before us, and we were the first ones to camp by a half hour. We arrived at our first camp just before 3pm. This camp is called Pampas de leña. Tonight we had a quick history lesson on Aconcagua. A few quick facts: 3,000 people attempt Aconcagua every year with a 30% summit rate, the first ascent was in 1897. Had a great dinner of Mac and cheese with Tuna. Apart from it being so hot, I felt really good today. Excited to start getting higher.

12/10/17 stats

Distance: 9 miles

Time: 4 hours and 20 min

Elevation gained: 1,400 feet

Current camp and elevation:

Pampas de leña; 9,413 feet.

Weather:

10:30am

Clear, in the 70s, occasional winds west at gusts of 5-10mph

7:00pm

Scattered clouds, high 50s, winds west at gust of 5-10mph

First waypoint is Pampa De Leñas!

Night one campsite

12/11/17

Day 2: Pampas de Leña to Casa de Piedra

Today was a bit cooler and much more pleasant. We woke up around 7:30am and had granola with dried fruit for breakfast. First ones out of camp at 8:45am. The weather in the morning was quite pleasant, but we could see clouds forming from the West. The hike was similar to yesterday, rocky and dusty. Not a very hard hike however. I still have a super light pack which is awesome. Today we got to see some guanacos which was a special treat. Apparently you don’t see them too often in the park. Majestic creatures. A real good omen. We got to camp around 2:30pm. This camp is called casa de piedras. Basically “house of rock.” There’s a refugio built into a big boulder, so it makes sense. First group there, rightfully so. After we set the tents up it began to rain and the wind picked up significantly. The wind was whipping. Can’t imagine what it would have been like up at high camp (19,500 feet) Finally a decent camping temperature. Had a great dinner of Thai noodle. Harder day coming tomorrow. 3,000 foot elevation gain to base camp in just 6 miles. Feeling good, ready to keep going up.

12/11/17 stats

Distance: 9.5 miles

Time: 5 hours and 20 minutes

Elevation gain: 1,250 feet

Current camp and elevation:

Casa de Piedras, 10,663 feet

Weather:

10:30am

Scattered clouds, in the 60s, occasional winds west 5-10mph

7:00pm

Scattered clouds, in the 50s, consistent winds east 10-20mph

12/12/17

Day 3: Casa de Piedra to Plaza Argentina Base Camp

Another beautiful day. Morals are quite high, especially after today. Today we left Casa de Piedra camp rather early, around 7:45am. This is so the mules have enough time to get our stuff to base camp, and then return to Penitentes in the same day. Today was our biggest jump in elevation so far. About 3k feet. It was rather cold when we started hiking, but quickly warmed up with the sun on us. There was a river crossing early but we got a mule to take us over the river. And of course as always, we passed the other group quite early. This hike included a few hills that definitely woke me up. We cruised up one hill of a few hundred feet, Tim commented that previous groups would have taken two breaks coming up the hill. After the hill we got a great view of Aconcagua. Just beautiful. Not as much snow as I would have liked to see, but heck, she looks great. I’m getting super stoked! Another hour of hiking and we got to base camp. When we arrived, the service manager at Grajales said he was surprised to see us so early, saying most groups don’t get there for another two hours. That was nice to hear. So we weren’t exactly supposed to have base camp services at Grajales, but since the other actual client cancelled so recently, (actually client, not a student like us) AMG never cancelled the services…can’t say I can complain. We were shown to our base camp “dome” for the next few days. Pretty cool. Nice to have a place to hang out. With real chairs! And then Juan, the base camp manager, brought out two cheese pizzas. And wow. Just incredible. I’m not one for plush, but I’m sure not complaining. I payed an absurd amount of money for WiFi today. Nice to talk to family and friends up here however. Does make me miss home and friends and family quite a bit. I’ve been away for a quite a while now. Still, I’ve enjoyed the contact. This evening we had a lesson on Aconcagua geology and also helicopter and plane rescues. One of the park ranger helicopters landed twice tonight, it was super cool to watch. For dinner we had ribs and potatoes. Yes I’m not kidding one bit. The best meal I’ve ever had at 13k. Our base camp services include 3 nights of dinner which is just awesome. We even had desert! A great cake with “welcome” written on it. Ahhh too great. Feeling good and happy to be getting higher.

Stoke levels are high!!!!!

12/12/17 stats:

Distance: 6 miles

Time: 5 hours

Elevation gain: 3,116 feet

Current camp and elevation:

Plaza Argentina Base Camp, 13,779 feet

Weather:

10:30am

Clear, in the 50s, occasional winds west 10-15 mph

7:30pm

Scattered clouds, in the low 40s, winds west 15-20 mph

12/13/17

Day 4: Active Rest day

Today we started woke up around 8am. Last night I got a few star pictures, absolutely beautiful, worth getting up in the night. The wind last night was howling. Definitely over 30mph at times. I can see how the wind can get freaking crazy on this mountain massif. After a wonderful breakfast of breakfast burritos, we all headed over to talk to the base camp Doctor. It’s required to be approved by the base camp doctor to move above base camp. The doctor asked me a few questions about my previous experience at high altitude, how I was currently feeling, and he took my O2 % and my blood pressure. My O2% was 90% and my blood pressure was 120/80, pretty normal for me. He then chatted with Emil, and the Tyler and Tim. Everyone’s vitals were good to go higher. Good news! After our visit with the doctor we went for an acclimatization hike. Hike high and sleep low, that’s the name of the game. We just ascended about 1,200 feet over the course of 1.5 miles towards camp 1. I felt strong on the hike today. The wind was picking up which wasn’t super pleasant, but it was a good hike. Walked by some snow for the first time this trip. After our hike we had lunch, quesadillas and soup. Tomorrow we are doing a haul of food and fuel to camp 1, so we organized our packs this afternoon. Our lessons today included going through the big medical kit and learning how to use the satellite phone. Tyler also taught us about different ropes and their strengths, as well as fall factors, even a little bit of physics! Had an amazing base camp dinner of risotto and chicken with chocolate flan for desert (not cooked by us.) Tomorrow we haul up to camp 1.

Stars over Plaza Argentina

12/13/17 stats

Distance: 1.5 miles

Time: 2 hours

Elevation gain: 1,200 feet

Current camp and elevation:

Plaza Argentina Base camp, 13,779 feet

Weather:

10:30am

Few clouds, in the 40s, winds west 15-25mph

7:30pm

Clear, in the 40s, winds occasional 5 mph

12/14/17

Day 5: Haul from base camp up to camp 1

Today we moved food and gear up to camp 1 from base camp. It wasn’t the easiest thing in the world, but I keep forgetting I’m with a group of very strong climbers. Meaning we’ve been going wayyy faster than the other groups. This morning we woke up at 7am and had instant mash potatoes for breakfast. I have to say, add some pepper, salt, and tabasco sauce and wow am I a fan. The point of the haul today is that you just can’t bring all your personal gear plus 14 days of food in one carry. My pack probably weighed between 60-75lbs with all the food and some fuel. Yesterday, we pretty much did half the hike up to camp 1. The terrain is pretty steep and rocky with the occasional snow patch. We went pretty quickly through the first half of the hike, but the last 1,000 vertical feet was not very fun at all. Steep hiking through melting snow and then scree walking where you slip down after every step up. Finally, after 3.5 hours we made it up to camp 1. Tim said it usually takes groups about 5 hours for the first haul. He also said this was the hardest haul. That made me feel better. The last hill was quite tough. Snowy and rocky. At camp 1 we stashed our food in rice bags and left some personal gear as well. The weather was beautiful today. Nearly no wind and in the 50s. On the way down we passed several other groups making hauls, they were going quite slow. I hate to sound rude to those people, but it made me feel strong, we were moving much quicker. I did see a guy wearing 8000 meter boots. Like the boots you were on Everest. Holy crap, way too hot for today, maybe even the entire climb. He was wearing 8000 meter boots and a puffy jacket and ski googles. Rather humorous, just not the climate for that. After we got back to camp we chilled out for a while, and then had some lessons. We learned about prevention and treatment of altitude illnesses and we also learned about weather currents in the mountains. Very interesting. Tonight we had our last base camp service dinner. I’m going to miss these meals. Tonight it was a very good pasta meal. For desert we had a chocolate mouse with a strawberry! It’s honestly impressive the range of ingredients they have up here. Ahh too great. Tomorrow we move up to camp 1. I’m stoked!!

12/14/17

Distance: 4 miles

Time: 6 hours

Elevation gain: 2,557 feet

Current camp and elevation:

Plaza Argentina base camp 13,779 feet

Weather:

10:30am

Clear, in the 50s, winds east 0-5 mph

7:30pm

Clear, in the 40s, winds west 5-10 mph

We didn’t suffer at basecamp.

12/15/17

Day 6: Moving from base camp to camp 1

Today we finally started moving up the mountain! As nice as base camp was, it’s nice to finally be up on the mountain. And wow is base camp plush. I’m not one for plush, but I can’t say I disliked the gourmet dinners and use of the base camp dome. Plaza Argentina base camp is home to two heli-pads (helicopters are in and out of base camp daily.) Theres also a ranger office, a doctors office, satellite WiFi, amazing cooking, plenty of porta potties, a slack line, and even a few makeshift swimming pools. In climbing season, this place is nearly a small town. Apparently Plaza Mulas, the other base camp, is nearly twice as big! At Plaza Argentina base camp support staff from several different companies (we were with Fernando Grajales Expeditions) stay up at base camp for most if not all of the season. Grajales was the company that also supported us on the 20 day training course. Grajales sent most of our gear to base camp on Mules and provided dinner to us for three nights. This is on the low end of support for Aconcagua expeditions (most companies have porters bring needed gear and food from camp to camp) but heck, I enjoyed the awesome help from Grujales. Plaza Argentina base camp is a pretty interesting place, something I’ve never seen nor experienced on a mountain before. Anyways, back at camp 1. We arrived just after 2pm, and decided to hang out for the rest of the day. We made it pretty quickly up there, only 3 hours, much quicker than some of the other groups. I sat outside much of the afternoon reading “Last days of the Incas” on my new kindle, throughly enjoying life. As I write this the wind is whipping. Super happy to be cozy in my expensive hilleberg tent. Great to bring my own tent, a sense of home for Emil and I. But wow, I get how the weather can get crazy here. Even at 35-40 mph gusts tonight the wind is keeping me very much awake.

12/15/17

Distance: 2 miles

Time: 3 hours

Elevation gain: 2,557 feet

Current camp and elevation:

Camp 1: 16,339 feet

Weather:

10:30am

Few clouds, in the 40s, winds 5-10mph from the NW

7:30pm

Scattered clouds, in the 30s, winds 20-25mph from the NW

Views at camp 1

12/16/17

Day 7: Acclimatization hike up to 17,500 feet

For a hike up to 17,500 feet, I’m feeling pretty good. The wind was keeping me up last night, I probably woke up 6-7 times because of it. It was still whipping in the morning, making it pretty undesirable to get out of the tent. After breakfast we went on an acclimatization hike. The best part about getting higher is the hiking distances get shorter. It’s less than two miles up to the next camp. For this hike we pretty much did 3/4 of the hike up to camp 2. Heading up to the col was not too bad. Substantial trail on a very rocky gradual hill with the occasional snow patch. As soon as we gained the col we started traversing west and were rewarded with an incredible view of glaciated peaks in the distance. And oh, yeah the wind from last night hadn’t died down at all. Whipping up on the col, literally drowning out your breath if you tried to talk while hiking. Up at this point we also got a cool view of the Polish glacier. This more technical route looks awesome, except for the face that your summit day would be a 5,000 feet gain. A great way to get an altitude illness. After hitting 17,500 feet we took a leisurely break before we were to turn around. A lone climber whom we had passed earlier took a break in the same place with us and struck up a conversation. Bjorn, from Sweden was on Aconcagua preparing for his spring 2018 climb of the North Col of Everest. I hate to be judging, but it was pretty clear he was the epidimy of the classic CEO entitled client on Everest. I mean he was laying down eating a chocolate bar while pointing out his personal porter on the trail carrying his 8,000 meter boots. And of course, if you have $65,000 to spend by all means go climbing, but don’t go climbing if you’re going to have your stuff carried up all the way and be treated like a plush 5 star hotel resident. And I know I shouldn’t be talking, I’m only 18 and quite new to this sport. But I can already tell that that’s not the true spirit of alpinism. The true spirit is constantly challenging yourself to your capacity, not being helped along the way. I feel like being helped so much is just cheating yourself in this game in the mountains. All I’ve done the last few months with climbing is challenge myself, and I want to continue to climb higher, and oh wait…that’s what I’m doing right here. I wanted to stop today’s entry there, but for the sake of record keeping, this afternoon we had a lesson on map and compass (more of a review) and also a lesson on careers in the outdoor and climbing industry. I’m thinking I want to help lead trips at the outdoor club in college. So the wind hasn’t stopped. In fact it’s probably occasionally gusting over 40mph now. It’s 10:30pm right now, rather late to be up in the mountains, but the wind is not helping me fall asleep. It’s even snowing a bit out there. I felt a little more tired than yesterday on the hike today, but I’m allowed to. We’re at 16-17,000 feet. You’re not supposed to feel amazing at this altitude. Still, I feel the group is doing great and we will continue to move slow and steady up to high camp for a summit bid. All good so far. Tomorrow we will haul food and gear up to camp 2.

12/16/17 stats

Distance: 2.5 miles

Time: 2 hours 30 min

Elevation gained: 1,161 feet

Current camp and elevation:

Camp 1: 16,339 feet

Weather:

10:30am

Scattered clouds, in the high 30s, winds 15-25 NW

7:30pm

Overcast, low 30s, winds 20-35 mph NW

12/17/17

Day 8: Haul up to camp 3 (guanacos camp)

Last night the wind was whipping like crazy. I bet it was gusting over 45mph at times. Incredibly hard to sleep. Kept waking up. I did however stay up and read for a while, I finally finished “Last Days of the Incas.” Great book, just long. After spending time in the Corderilla Vilacamaba climbing and also just being a tourist in Cuzco, it was awesome to know all the places referenced in the book. This morning we woke up to the wind again, just howling. Not stopping. Very unpleasant making breakfast. Today we took a haul up to the next camp. The hike itself isn’t too bad but the wind was just not stopping. 25-30mph gusts with the raw temp already below freezing made it hard to get up hill. The wind was just sucking the life out of me. The first hour of today was hard. For me it seemed like one of the hardest hours of the trip. Pack weight, steepness, and the high winds were not a good combination. Packs were also heavier than usual, probably between 60-75 lbs. Getting up to the next camp (camp 3, also called guanacos) only took about 2.5 hours. So this camp is called camp 3 (and not camp 2) because it used to be the camp 3 for the guanacos route, a more southerly route up the mountain. This route is no longer used. Getting up to guanacos camp felt good. I felt tired but I keep forgetting it’s ok to feel a bit tired. Also our team is just booking it. Most groups take 3.5-4.5 hours to make it up to this camp. We cashed our food and some personal gear and had some lunch up at guanacos camp. We made sure to hang out for a while so that the porters wouldn’t set up camp in our cashed spots. At this point in the climb porters cost climbers between $200-350 per day! Pretty crazy. I feel like paying someone to take your stuff up defeats the purpose. But I guess if I was older and weaker and had a Grand in cash in my pocket I may consider hiring a porter. After getting back to camp 1 we just hung out for the rest of the day. I read Yvon Choinland’s book, “Let my People go Surfing” for serval hours. Great book, dives into the background and philosophy of the company Patagonia. I’ve always been a huge fan of the company, especially after their fight in saving Bear Ear’s and other national monuments. I’ll never forget the email I got from Patagonia a few weeks ago, “the President stole your land.”

Tomorrow we move up to camp 3! Super stoked. Also, Tim is speaking with the big boss in the states right now, so tomorrow morning we’ll know what our summit day could be!

12/17/17 stats

Distance: 3.5 miles (round trip to camp 1)

Time: 5 hours (1.5 hours hanging at camp 3)

Elevation gain: 1,611 feet

Current camp and Elevation:

Camp 1: 16,339 feet

Weather:

10:30am

Scattered clouds, mid 30s, winds 20-35 NW

7:30pm

Few clouds, low 30s, winds 10-15mph

12/18/17

Day 9: Moving up to camp 3 (guanacos camp)

Last night the wind finally died down. Finally. I woke up this morning at 7:15am to silence. I couldn’t believe it. Absolutely amazing honestly. Today we moved out of camp 1, finally! We got some pretty awesome news this morning. Tim said based on our acclimatization and the current weather we could summit as early as Thursday the 21st. Awesome news! Super stoked to hear this. If not the 21st we will push back a possible summit day to the 23rd or the 24th. The 22nd is looking like the winds could be pretty bad. Game on! I’m hanging out at nearly 18k right now and feeling pretty good, but I’ll find out tomorrow how I’m really when we get higher than 20k. The other groups that started the same day as us are doing well, but I’ll be honest we’re much stronger and faster. Today on the hike up to camp 3 we got here 2 hours quicker than another group, one that we started 15 minutes after them this morning. And I’m not to say they aren’t strong either, I do think they will all make the summit, but heck, team USA over here is killing it! We got up to camp 3 today in just 2 hours 15 minutes. Our packs weren’t a heck of a lot lighter than yesterday, today was probably 50-65lbs. We got good tent spots at camp 3. Fortunately no one moved our cash and set up camp. As soon as we got here I sat down and rested for a few minutes, but of course Emil just started doing push ups and sit ups, as usual. I’m really hoping we can shoot for the summit on Thursday. Of course we can always wait till the weekend, but who wants to sit around! I felt strong on the hike today. I was setting the pace in the front of the group and wow did we book it. Tomorrow we will haul gear up to High camp (19,500 feet) and then we will hike up past that to a point called black rocks at 20k feet. Tonight I break my record for the highest I’ve slept (previous record was 16,500 feet) and tomorrow will be the highest I’ve ever climbed! I’m feeling pretty strong. Very happy to be acclimatized pretty much before this climb started. Talking to people in other groups, I think I’m doing quite better than the average person up here. Also, one of the groups that started the same day as us had three clients head back down and calling it quits. But anyways, on more important matters, Emil is killing it. But I’m not too far behind. Even he has commented how much faster and seemingly stronger I am than the previous months. Feeling confident and doing my best to keep faith in myself.

12/18/17 stats

Distance 1.7 miles (one way)

Time: 2 hours 15 minutes

Elevation gain: 1,611 feet

Current camp and elevation:

Camp 3 (guanacos), 17,950

Weather:

10:30am

Clear, in the high 40s, winds 0-5 mph NW

7:30pm

Snowing hard, in the teens, winds 25-35mph NW

12/19/17

Day 10: Haul up to high camp

Last night it stormed. Not even that bad, but enough for me to understand how bad weather can get on Aconcagua. Emil and I woke up at 1am to 45mph wind that had knocked two of our tent guidelines off. The wind had also drifted several inches of snow into our vestibule. Bless Emil’s soul for going out in the storm and fixing the storm.

It was very cold when we woke up this morning. Not very pleasant. Other than the cold I was feeling pretty good.

My O2 % was 88% which is pretty freaking good for nearly 18k. We left at around ten for the slog up to high camp. The start of the hike was miserable. It’s always hard to find your pace first thing in the morning, especially with it being cold and a decently heavy pack. 3 hours of switch backs through scree and snow, and we made it to high camp. We ran into our friend Bjorn today, he’s attempting the summit tomorrow. When we walked into camp he was trying on his customized absolute zero suit. It basically looks like an astronauts suit. Ok yeah it’s kind of cool but it looks funny when I’m just wearing a sweater and a light synthetic jacket. We also chatted with a guide from Alpine Ascents. He had recently been fully AMGA certified. This is a big deal in the guiding world. It’s like getting multiple PHDs in mountain guiding. There’re only about 130 fully certed AMGA in the country. It takes years to get and it was pretty cool to talk to him. This Alpine Ascents group started with 14 clients…they only have 2 left. Combination of issues, one client even got HAPE at 12k. Anyways, I’m happy to even be able to get this high. After chilling for a little while at high camp we hiked up another 700 feet to acclimatize better. We pretty much hiked up to the first break spot on summit day. We hit 20,200 feet! A new PR for myself, Tyler, and Emil. I couldn’t believe how good I was feeling up there. Yes I was tired but no headache. An awesome feeling with an even more awesome view. Even at this altitude it seems like you’re on the top of the world. Seeing out into the horizon. Wow, this is why I love being up here. We hung out at this break spot for about a half hour before heading down. Tyler and Emil had a push up contest at 20k. Unbelievable. Tyler got 51 and Emil got 29. The four of us were feeling pretty good up there so we were all quite chipper on the way down. When we got back to camp 3 I was surprised to see 3x as many tents as the morning. There must be nearly 25 people up here. Which seems like a lot. Emil and I had a good time talking to some of the other climbers that started the same day as us. One couple in another group is planning on exchanging vows at high camp or on the summit. So very awesome and such good vibes. After dinner we got official world on the weather. We’re going to attempt on the 21st! In two days! Crazy. I’m so stoked. Winds are looking like 20-30 mph which won’t be pleasant but apparently isn’t the worse it can be. If the winds pick up bad we will turn around and attempt again on the weekend. It’s been nice we’ve been so speedy, now we have this extra time Incase something goes south on Thursday. I’m definitely nervous but feeling good. I really hope we summit. Our group has been moving so well and our instructors keep commenting to the other guides about how strong and fast we are. Such a good feeling. Having an amazing time with Emil, Tyler, and Tim. I’m super stoked and hoping the best for 36 hours from now. Hard to believe we’re so close. Ahhh 🙂 good vibes. Tomorrow we hike up to high camp and then leave for a summit bid at around 3-4am on Thursday, December 24th. We’re so close to the top of the America’s.

12/19/17 stats

Distance: 3 miles round trip

Time: 6 hours

Elevation gained: 2,325 feet

Current camp and elevation:

Camp 3 (guanacos) 17,950 feet

Weather:

10:30am

Clear, low 40s, NW winds 15-20 mph

7:30pm

Clear, high 30s, winds 0-5mph

The red flag is high camp. Officially known as Cólera camp. Berlin camp (marked on the map) is the high camp for the normal route.

Snow storm from the afternoon and night of 12/18/17

Progression of a sunset at camp 3

12/20/17

Day 11: Move up to high camp

Today we moved up to 19,500 feet for a pre summit sleep. It started out chilly and windy in the morning, but not as bad as the day before. Today I’m just trying to zone out, and not think too much about tomorrow. I really don’t want to psych myself out. I know I can do it, just nervous of course. My O2 % was 91% when we left this morning, I think my body could handle nearly 23,000 for a few minutes, but we will see. The nice thing is that if we don’t make the summit tomorrow, we can try again this weekend, since we’re currently so ahead of schedule. This is a luxury compared to other groups, they almost always only get one shot, no matter the weather or acclimatization. It’s pretty hard to believe we’re going to sleep at 19,500 feet, or at-least try to sleep. It’s hard to believe that tomorrow we could be on the top of the America’s, and most likely the highest standing people in the world (it’s not climbing season in the Himalayas). I’m nervous. I really want to make the summit. If we summit tomorrow it’ll be the quickest this company has ever summited (12 days) and I’ll also be the youngest student of Alaska Mountain Guides to summit! I know it’s going to be a physically and mentally challenging day. Wow. Until tomorrow I guess, it’s bed time. Alarm is set for 2:50am. Game time. I’ll be honest I’m freaking out.

12/20/17 stats

Distance: 1.5 miles

Time: 3 hours

Elevation gained: 1,550 feet

Current camp and elevation:

High camp (Colera camp) 19,500 feet

Weather:

10:30am

Clear, low 40s, winds 10-15 mph NW

7:30pm

Scattered clouds, low 20s, winds 15-20 mph SW

High camp! 19,500 feet

12/21/17 Summer solstice!

Day 12: Summit day.

We did it. It’s so hard to believe. I’m so tired. Mentally and physically. It was very hard. Today, 12/21/17 at 11:40am our four person team reached the summit of Cerro Aconcagua, at an elevation of 22,841 feet.

Let’s start from the beginning. We woke up at 3am and had mashed potatoes with cheese for breakfast. I guarantee it’s actually delicious, especially at 3am on a summit bid day.

When we woke up the stars were incredible, the milky way shining bright overhead. Always a good omen. I started the morning with all the layers I had with me on. Base layers were boxers, long underwear, Arcteryx climbing soft shells, goretex pro hard shell pants, AND my mountain hardwear puffy pants. On top I was wearing a wool shirt, Patagonia hiking shirt, a fleece, Outdoor research wind jacket, Mountain Hardwear synthetic jacket, Arcteryx goretex pro hardshell, AND a synthetic 850 down Mountain Hardwear parka. To top it off I had on my Outdoor research alti mitts, which are so intense I’ve never worn them more than a half a hour before, they’re rated down to something like -40 Fahrenheit.

For breakfast at 3am we had instant mashed potatoes with butter, and quite spiced up.

We left camp at 4:30am in the bitter cold. Our first break was at around 5:30am at just over 20k, at a place called black rocks. And yes, there are many black rocks.

Another hour later we stopped at a break called refugio independencia. Named after an old Refugio, there is a small wooden building that used to hold rescue equipment, but now it’s just half a wooden building.

Here we got first light, the shadow of the mountain seemed to be broadcasted for hundreds of miles, it was pretty incredible.

At this break we put on crampons. Our instructors advised us not to take our gloves off, in order to prevent frostbite. After this break we started up the traverse. This is where the weather got nasty.

The traverse is known for its nasty weather because it’s very exposed. My face had to be covered in multiple layers in order to not get frostbite. It was frigid cold. Most definitely the coldest I had ever felt in my life. Bitter. Tim questioned turning around and abandoning our summit attempt at this point, but we decided to move on hoping the wind would die down.

The traverse

At around 8:30am we took a break at the at spot known as the cave. It’s not really a cave, but an indent in the rock that does give a decent amount of coverage. We were here much earlier than teams get here, and with the wind still howling, we decided to take a nice long break. We breaked here for about a hour. A well needed break for sure. I was tired at this point. We were only 1,000 short of the summit at this point, I knew we were going to make it. But it was so hard to breathe! Nearly at 22,000 at this point. I did my best to hydrate, but my bottles were completely frozen. Hard to eat as well. I downed a little bit of my icy water bottle and a half a chocolate bar.

Taking a break at La Cueva

And then came the last push but also the hardest part. The canaleta. A 1,000 push, with some sections about 45-50 degrees steep. It was so difficult. Steep. Gasping for breath. I could literally SEE the summit ridge so close, but I knew it would be atl east another 2-3 hours.

Gasping. Every step needed another 5-10 seconds to catch your breathe.

Gasping. Not enough oxygen. But it was so close. One step at a time, 5 seconds to breath, same cycle again and again.

Gasping. We took a break. Only another 45 minutes or so. I couldn’t believe it. We were finally out in the sun. It was frigid, but not like before. The wind had died down too. Blessed. I had to push on. So freaking close. I cold feel the lure of the summit. But so hard to breathe.

Gasping. Still. One step in front of the other. So close. Feeling like I’m going to puke everything out. Like I’m back at home in the gym sprinting on the treadmill, except 20x faster and harder.

And there we were. At the final rock scramble. Tim and Tyler in front of me, and Emil a few steps behind me. Tyler did the honors. The last 15 feet of scramble. I couldn’t never imagine a few boulders would be this hard to walk over. Gasping. A trade off between losing my breathe and just wanting to get up on the summit faster!

Finally, I did it. We did it. I honestly didn’t know what to think or do. I just collapsed and layed on my backpack for a minute. Gasping.

But happy. We all embraced. 11:40am. A 7 hour ascent from cholera camp. Some what fast. Tim’s other 3 teams that have summited in the past have only made it to the summit by 2:25pm, leaving at 4:30am as well.

Happy. Hugging Emil. We did it. We get stuff done. Every goal we’ve had this trip has been completed. Obviously due to many factors but I can’t help but be proud of how determined we’ve been.

We took several pictures and enjoyed the view. Unbelievable. It seemed fake. Because it just went on forever and forever. The views didn’t stop until they hazed out to what probably is the ocean. So blessed. I was so happy to have made it. No it wasn’t technical, but it wasn’t easy at all.

With the altitude clouding our memory, neither of us could remember exactly the right way the Maryland flag was supposed to go. So, we took the picture as many ways as we could think, just so we wouldn’t screw it up.

Forever

Famous South summit.

The way back to high camp only took us two hours. We passed another group of middle aged climbers heading up from

the canaleta. They didn’t make it back to high camp until nearly 6pm, we got back at 2pm. (We started at 4:30am and they started between 5:15-5:30am.) So yes, I am going to brag a little but about how we were faster than the older guys.

I didn’t realize how tired I was until I got back to high camp. The air was so much thicker down there! 19,500 feet!

12/21/17 stats

Time: 7 hours

Distance: 3 miles

Elevation Gained: 3,100 feet

Current camp and elevation: High camp (Cholera camp: 19,500 feet)

Weather:

10:30am: -5, winds 25-35mph

7:30pm: 5 Fahrenheit, winds 15-25mph

12/22/17

Day 13: High camp to Plaza de Mulas

I didn’t sleep well that night. And when we woke up the wind was howling, 35mph.

Taking down camp was awful. I couldn’t even process that we had summited, due to the fact that it was still just uncomfortably cold and miserable.

Here was the disadvantage of climbing so early in our expedition. We had quite a bit of extra food. 4 days to be exact. And we were eating about 2lb per person per day. So sure, that’s only 32lb, but when your pack is already between 70-80lbs with everything else, those 8lbs each make a huge difference. This was by far the most I had ever had in my pack at one time.

The hike down to base camp was unpleasant. The heaviest pack I had ever had, and just pain in my messed up toes and knees, not too mention the wind just about blew me down the mountain several times.

On the way down to Plaza de Mulas we passed many people. I could see that the season was starting to heat up. We were headed down the normal route , and wow am I glad we didn’t come this way. It’s just so boring! Literally switchbacks up 5k vertical, and the views from this side aren’t even that good! It was cool to come down another way. I’m just so happy we didn’t come up the normal route.

After a painful 5 hour hike we made it down to base camp. 14,400 feet, wow such thick air! So happy to be down in some what of society. A more livable environment for sure. Grajales, our base camp supporter company gratefully let us sleep in one of the eating domes, putting the tents away was satisfying. We then packed up our gear in the boxes for the Mules to carry out from base camp. Ah. So nice.

And finally, we all decided we wouldn’t cook that night. So we went to the restaurant at base camp. Yes there is a restaurant. And I payed $35 for a sandwich. Absolutely no regrets. It was amazing. And I just climbed the tallest peak in the southern hempihsere. I think I deserved a $35 sandwich.

12/23/17

Day 14: Plaza de Mulas to the road, road to Mendoza

The next morning we started the long hike out. 17 miles. It doesn’t matter how fast you move, it’s still a long ways out. I zoned out in this hike, it wasn’t hard at all. Pretty, and just slightly sloped down. I listened to a few podcasts by “How Stuff Works” and just looked forward to putting on sandals in a few hours.

This bridge was used to film “7 Years in Tibet.” Brad Pitt was here!

After we passed the Brad Pitt bridge we were hiking along day hikers in the park. The bridge is the extent of how far Day hikers can walk in (about 3-4 miles.) It’s a very pretty day hike that shows off a great view of Aconcagua if it’s clear. The entrance from the park is also just a few miles from the Chilean border, it could definitely be a day hike for people who live in Mendoza or Santiago.

After 7 hours we made it to the park entrance. Wow. We did it. Climbed Aconcagua and made it down safety in just two weeks. It was the afternoon of Saturday, December 23rd. We drove to Los Penitentes from Mendoza just two weeks prior, on the 9th. It was so relieving to get back onto bus and take that pack off!

After deriging and taking our horribly smelling boots off in Los Penitentes we hopped into the van and passed out for the 3.5 hour ride back to Mendoza. And too top it all off, the four of us went to a buffet steak house. Hard to believe that that morning we woke up at Plaza de Mulas base camp.

Throughout the two weeks since we left Mendoza we had climbed about 22,779 vertical feet, and hiked nearly 74 miles! Incredible. This was the fastest Alaska Mountain Guides had ever done their Aconcagua expedition, and I was the youngest client to ever summit! With Emil being the second youngest!

12/23/17 stats

Distance: 17 miles

Time: 7 hours

Elevation gained: None! 6,000 feet dropped!

Current camp and elevation: Mendoza! Hostel Independencia! 2,400 feet

The 360 route.

Reflections:

I’m so happy and proud to have accomplished this climb. I was never wild about it being non-technical, but it still wasn’t easy. Summit day was probably the most mentally and physically challenging day I’ve ever had in my life. And I’m only 18. I’m only 18. I keep forgetting that when I’m up on the mountain and most people have 20 years on me. I won’t be the youngest to Summit this season, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m in the top ten or twenty which is pretty cool.

Signing our names in the rental shop in town, El Refugio

Just a few years ago after I climbed rainier, there is no way I thought I would have accomplished this much climbing in the two short years since then. I’ve been so blessed and wow do I love climbing so much. It’s such a challenge, and a metaphor for life. I’m super happy and proud to have this climb under my belt. Only 30% of climbers get to the top of Aconcagua every season, and I’m proud to be apart of that statistic.

I’m only 18 and this is only the beginning. I may not ever climb higher than I did on this trip, but I know I will do my best to challenge myself more.

People always talk about following their dreams and most people think it’s BS. But I promise it’s not. It’s real and I’m doing it right now.

After all that’s what being in the mountains is all about.

-Jack

3 thoughts on “Climbing Aconcagua via the 360 route (Vacas Valley)

  1. So fun to get the day-by-day account, Jack. You did a beautiful job of recording both the physical descriptions of where you were and your emotions. Delighted you made it and are back safely. Now on to the next challenge–because as you know, that’s what it’s all about! Just remember: Calculated risks. 🙂 XOXO-Aunt K and J

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Loved reading the entire post. Very informative for anyone planning to attempt Mt. Aconcagua. Much more informative than 95% of youtube videos out there! Wish you all the best for future summits!

    Liked by 1 person

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