If you think Aconcagua is a walk up then you're among the 70 percent. At 22,841 feet Aconcagua is the highest mountain outside of Asia. It is located in the Andes of Argentina, between the Malbec wine capital of Mendoza and Santiago, Chile. Aconcagua is one of the high points on the seven continents that includes Aconcagua, Denali, Kilimanjaro, Everest, Elbrus, Carstensz Pyramid and Vinson.
I guided Aconcagua three times for Alpine Ascents International in 2005 and 2006. This winter Garrett at AAI offered me a private with JP Bailey, a Canadian living in Manhattan. From previous trips I'd grown to appreciate the quality AAI offers when guiding the Seven Summits. On Aconcagua, AAI's recipe for success was developed by mountain legend Willie Prittie (imagine a high altitude version of Willie Nelson). Following Willie's recipe, and if the clients are healthy and strong, clients will get to Aconcagua's summit. Without Willie's recipe you'll probably join the 70 percent who don't summit. For comparison, Denali has a 46 percent no-summit rate.
I tore myself from the Alaska Wonderland and spent three sweaty and sleepless days in Mendoza preparing food for our 21-day trip. I packed the food and gear into mule loads, each able to withstand three days of mule treatment, which is equal to a turbo-charged paint shaker.
JP and I got to know each other over steak and Malbec at Francis Mallmann in Mendoza. The next morning we drove two hours to Penitentes, a 70's-era ski resort at 8,500-feet between Mendoza and Santiago, and unloaded our stuff at Grajales, our outfitter for the trip. Here's Pollo of Grajales weighing our loads.
Then JP and I started the three-day trek into base camp. JP retired several years ago and spends his time travelling the world. Brazil is his favorite.
We hiked with light backpacks in the sun. Easy walking through a Tibeten landscape. The movie Seven Years in Tibet was filmed near here.
While we strolled, the mules and arrieros worked.
It's a tough life for beasts of burden. The trail was lined with bones. It appears that Andean Condors don't like mule muzzle.
The most unique part of the journey is hanging with the arrieros (mule drivers). These guys are real cowboys, with spurs and knives crammed into the back of their pants. Here we're sharing Argentina's legendary asado (barbecue) with arrieros at Casa de Piedra.
Vegetation on the approach is covered with spikes. These pretty flowers have glass needles instead of spikes.
After the approach JP and I spent three days at Plaza Argentina, the base camp at 13,800 feet. JP is explaining to Annita, the Grajales manager at Plaza Argentina, that she is beautiful, doing an incredible job, and that we'd like to further our five-day steak-eating streak.
Bring your shoes! Base camp has bouldering.
The Buff is Aconcagua's ubiquitous gear. By recycling breath moisture through the fabric it is possible to avoid turning your throat into 80-grit sandpaper from pressure breathing the dry, dusty air.
Camp II at 17,700 feet at Ameghino Col. Success on Aconcagua is achieved by going slow, balls slow. We used the basic altitude recipe of climb high, sleep low and ascending 1,000 feet per day with a rest every three days. This means using the daily progression of carry a load, move camp, carry, rest, repeat. AAI uses two extra camps to achieve this progression.
Acclimatizing is about patience. Movies and books help. JP educated me on essential guy movies. On his Ipad we watched The Lord of War, Seven, Troy, Connair, Black Hawk Down and Blow. I also read The Lost City of Z, I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell and No Angel.
Camp III at 19,200 feet with Cerro Ameghino and Aconcagua's shadow beyond. Each guyline is rocked down to withstand over 100 pounds of wind force. Due to logistics and weather we made this our high camp instead of the traditional AAI Camp IV at 20,600-feet. Summiting from Camp III made summit day long.
To the summit! Behind JP is the Polish Traverse that we just spent four hours climbing. Above this point we climbed at the rate of three breaths per step for 2,500 feet.
Summit! Yeah! Party like you're running with a sock in your mouth!
Descending at 21,500 feet at 7:30 pm. The route follows this trail to the Canteleta (couloir) that ascends 1,000 feet to the summit.
Looks more Fried than Chili out there.
The morning after summiting we packed up and crossed to the Plaza de Mulas base camp on the Normal Route, passing a mule that had a bad day at 19,000 feet.
JP descending to the city of Plaza de Mulas.
We could have stayed at Grajales in Plaza de Mulas and walked 16 miles out to the highway the next day. But we needed a shower and a bed ASAP.
Thanks for an awesome trip JP! I really enjoyed hanging with you. Good luck on your Seven Summits bid!