Aconcagua 2005 – My first of the Seven Summits
Towering above the surrounding peaks, Aconcagua rises to 22,841’ above sea level. It is the highest peak in the Andes range and the highest in the world outside of the Himalayas. Aconcagua is known as the “Stone Sentinel” or “The Roof of the Americas”. More than 3,500 climbers attempt to climb Aconcagua each year. About 80% of these climb via the Normal Route, 15% by the Polish Traverse, and the other 5% by the rest. Aconcagua has many different routes, some not technical at all, and others very technical like the formidable South Face.
On January 4, 2005, I left for Argentina to climb Aconcagua, after joining an expedition with Mountain-Link. In the group were 4 climbers from the United States, John Turner, Jim Thornton, Kyle Dwyer, Beverly Signor and me, Gineth Soto from Costa Rica. Our guides from Mountain-Link were Jeff Justman (JJ), Cathy Caenepeel and Llawand Dhondup.
January 5, I arrived in Mendoza, Argentina, where I met the rest of the group, and traveled to check into our hotel for the night. The rest of the day, we wandered around the city of Mendoza, rested by the pool, and enjoyed the good cuisine of Argentina. Starting from this day I started drinking a lot of water, as a preparation for the days ahead. Later, we all went out for another great meal, and then retired for the night.
January 6, This day we traveled to Penitentes. In the morning after breakfast at the hotel, we stopped to pick up our climbing permits and did our last grocery shopping for the mountains. Then we drove about 4 hours to Penitentes (8,200’), through a lot of canyons and some mountains, but no view of Aconcagua. We checked into the hotel Ayelen and spent the rest of the day resting, drinking a lot of water, and eating the great food of Argentina.
January 7, This day was a day for an acclimatization hike. We hiked to the top of this big hill 10 minutes from the hotel, to an elevation of about 10,500’. Here, for the 1st time, we saw Aconcagua. It was a beautiful, clear, and hot day, and the South Face looked impressive. We saw a lot of resting mules, and it was a good place to get a good view of the entire area. After lunch, we spent the rest of the day packing all of our gear for the mountain, and weighing our bags that needed to be carried by the mules.
January 8, We began our first day of our three-day trek to Base Camp. To beat the heat, we started early, trekking along the Rio de las Vacas and sometimes it seemed like the trail and the river joined together. It was another very hot day and there was no place to hide from the sun. After about 4½ hours, we reached camp 1, Pampa de las Leñas (9,000’). It was here where the Park Rangers checked our permits. This was a very beautiful and clean camp. There were other expeditions here at the same time. Later, the mules arrived with the rest of our gear. We had pizza for dinner, which I ate a lot of, and we decided not to put up our tents, but instead to sleep under the stars. I lay back and watched shooting stars and the enormous, clear sky, full of constellations.
January 9, Our second day of the trek to Plaza Argentina, again we started our walk very early to avoid the heat. We climbed through the Guanacos Valley along the Rio de las Vacas, for about 4-5 hours, until we finally got to Camp Casa Piedra at 10,500’. It was here for the first time after 2 days of trekking, we finally saw Aconcagua and Ameghino, Aconcagua’s 19,300’ neighbor peak. From here is one of the most photographed views of Aconcagua. After the mules arrived, we set up camp, purified some water, ate, and tried to rest. It was difficult to rest, though, because it was so hot. After a dinner of hot dogs, we retired for the night.
January 10, Our final day of trekking to Base Camp, Plaza Argentina (13,800’). Another early start to beat the heat, with help from the mules we crossed the Vacas River. It was a fun experience to get on a mule while carrying a backpack! No one fell from the mules, but Jim came close. We continued our way up hill through beautiful canyons until we finally got to the Relinchos Valley. This time we crossed the river on our own. From here on we always had the view of Aconcagua in front of us. We arrived in Plaza Argentina after about 6 hours on another very hot day. Plaza Argentina sits in a glaciated moraine overlooking the valley of our approach. Trying to avoid the sun, we all sat back and relaxed in our big Mountain Hardware Dome tent. Later, we set up our own tents. My tent mate was Jim, who let me use his inflated pad since I was starting to have a sore back.
January 11, Our first rest day. After wandering around the base camp for a while, I heard the news that a climber had died from cerebral edema and his wife had 3rd degree frostbite. Another reminder of how serious we should take this climb. After waiting for my turn, I took a warm shower. We re-packed our personal gear and got everything ready for our first carry tomorrow. No more mules, from now on, we are the mules. By the evening, the weather seemed to change, since it got colder and the winds increased. But, nothing to worry about, because there was still many days ahead from our summit day.
January 12, After a good breakfast we started our first carry to Camp One at 16,000’. In the beginning of the route, there is not really a trail. You just traverse through steep scree/moraine, trying to find your way out and not fall into the river. Later, the trail is well worn and travels along a receding glacier between Ameghino and Aconcagua. The last 600’ was the most challenging part of the route, since we climbed through the penitents trying to find our way to the top. Here we encountered another expedition from Mountain Link who was ahead of us. We enjoyed some good conversation with them, then left our carries and started our descent back to Base Camp. This is part of the acclimatization process, climb high and sleep low.
January 13, Today was a big day because we moved to Camp One. We carried our last load. This time it was more easy and faster, since we already knew the route. Some of our tents were set up already from the other expedition. The first few hours upon arriving, I sat, ate, relaxed, and drank a lot of water, trying to adapt to the new altitude. Everyone seemed to do very well. Camp One is very exposed to wind and weather, but offers a very good view of both the trail to Camp Two and our way back to Base Camp. Today, I drank six liters of water and my appetite was still doing very well. By the evening, the weather changed with clouds and wind increasing. This made it hard for me to sleep and to get up to go to the bathroom.
January 14, Today was supposed to be the day that we carry our first load to Camp Two. However, due to the Viento Blanco and weather, our plans changed. We decided to use this day as a rest day. This would make our next 3 days ahead tough ones, because we would carry, move, then go for the summit, with no rest days in between. But that was what we came here for. So most of the time this day, I just sat in the tent hydrating myself and eating. The wind was very strong outside, making it difficult to enjoy being out with the rest of the group. Here and there, I went for little walks around the camp, trying just to keep moving. During the night, the wind woke me up, it was howling so strong. Good for Jim, he was dead asleep! The Viento Blanco is a phenomenon unique to Aconcagua, which brings powerful winds and makes it impossible for anyone to summit. It can last for days.
January 15, we woke up to a calm day. To our luck, the wind had died out. So after breakfast we did our first carry to Camp Two, which is located at 19,200’ at the base of the Polish Glacier. This route was nothing but up and after a few hours we finally arrived. Camp Two offers unbelievably beautiful views. From one side, you have the entire view of the impressive Polish Glacier, and to the other side, you have the most spectacular view of the Andes. Today, our teammate Beverly, decided to drop out of the expedition. We descended to Camp One for the night.
January 16, Today we said our goodbyes to Beverly, who was escorted down by Llawand, and we moved up to Camp Two. After getting to Camp Two, I spent the rest of the day hydrating and eating and just trying to rest. Everyone was doing very well. I tried to remain focused on the summit. Tonight, I had the pleasure to share a tent with Cathy and JJ. After eating 3 bowls of soup it was time to go to bed. We would leave for the summit early the next morning.
January 17 – Summit Day! The night of the 16th, I didn’t sleep at all, due to extreme back pain. Funny, I had come to Aconcagua mentally prepared to deal with pulmonary and cerebral edema, and every single altitude problem, which I had none of. I had never thought about a broken back! I just rolled from side to side until 2:00 AM came. We awoke, put all our gear and every single piece of clothing that we had on. After roping up together, we left for the summit at 3:30 AM on a freezing cold morning, -20ºF. The cold helped me take my thoughts off my back pain at least! This route was a long gradual traverse, and after a couple of hours, it eventually joins up with the Normal Route at about 20,500’. Here we cached our ropes and glacier equipment and I left my helmet because it was giving me so much trouble. I was so cold. Even with my hand warmers, I was freezing so much that I just wanted to keep moving. My thoughts were occupied by waiting for the sun to come out and warm me up. We continued up past Refuge Independencia and then, finally, the sun came up. To my surprise, though, the route traversed up the shadow of the mountain, so I never felt the warmth of the sunshine. There were a lot of climbers on the way up. Finally, after a hard and long climb, we reached the bottom of the infamous Canaleta at 22,000’. Here, for the first time, the sunrays finally hit us. I put my down jacket on, because I was shaking so badly from the cold. JJ gave me some hand warmers, which helped me regain my heat. At this altitude, my body was starting to give me signs of exhaustion, but my mental determination for the summit was solid like a rock. So after a little rest and drinking some liquids, we left our backpacks behind. I only took my camera and my Costa Rica summit flag. JJ, John, Kyle and I left for the summit. Cathy and Jim were still coming behind us, trying to reach the Canaleta. We started our ascent up the Canaleta. The Canaleta is the last 841’ to the summit, but this is the toughest part of the entire climb. You are at 22,000’ and it’s a steep and long traverse to the summit, all loose scree, where you take one step up, and then slide two steps back. Oh boy, we continued up the Canaleta like in slow motion, passing other climbers up, then they would pass us, so on and so forth. Everybody was in silence with his or her thoughts. My thoughts were focused on the summit. I kept thinking and saying to myself, “Keep going Gina, you are going to make it. You are going to step on the summit of Aconcagua soon. Just keep making one step after one step.” Then, after two hours or so, I made the last five steps and finally saw the summit cross. I turned around and said to Kyle, “We’re here. We made it.” We all hugged and congratulated each other, me, JJ, Kyle and John. I was so happy that my eyes filled with tears as I looked at the world below us. I felt closer than ever before to realize my dream of climbing Mt Everest, I was at almost 23,000’, which represents almost Camp Three on Everest. This made me pretty emotional, but I’m saving my tears for that day.
So after waiting for my turn, I took out my flag and got my summit picture with the cross. Proudly, I had become the first Costa Rican woman to summit Aconcagua, and the first Costa Rican at all to summit by the Polish Traverse route. There were about 15-20 climbers on the summit and more on the way up. We spent about 30-40 minutes at the top of the Andes and then we started our descent. The weather was changing, little flakes of snow falling here and there. Cathy and Jim had made an enormous effort to make it to the Canaleta at 22,000’ and had turned back there. We grabbed our backpacks, and continued a fast descent. We were all very tired, but very happy with our summit achievement. Finally we arrived at the merge of the two routes, got our ropes, crampons, etc. and began our traverse back down to Camp Two. The weather was changing quite a bit now, and we could tell something was coming up, but we didn’t worry because we had already summitted. After 13½ hours, we finally got to Camp Two. Exhausted, we all collapsed to sleep. It snowed all night.
January 18, We woke up to a white mountain. Today we packed all our camp, and started the long descent back to Base Camp. This day was so hard because our backpacks were so heavy, since we were carrying everything all in one trip down. We stopped at Camp One, and picked up more of our stuff that we had left behind. My body was still very tired from the summit, and sometimes I felt like throwing my backpack down the hill. We arrived at Base Camp, I’ve never been so happy to see the mules! We reunited with the other Mountain Link group and all congratulated each other. Later, JJ bought us lunch and we sat and ate a lot and enjoyed the rest of the evening. A helicopter rescue captured our attention for a while, as a climber with Cerebral Edema was airlifted out. Another exhausting day, and we all retired to bed for the night.
January 19, we woke up early, and after breakfast we started packing up our entire camp. Today, though, we have the mules to carry the heavy stuff. We said goodbye to Plaza Argentina, and started our long way out, all the way to Pampa de Las Leñas. On the way down, we saw groups going up who all seemed very happy as their journey was just starting. After 7½ hours we finally arrived at Pampa de Las Leñas, to the best surprise as Mountain Link had arranged to have the muleteers prepare us a special steak dinner and wine. This was a very enjoyable evening and our last night in the mountains.
January 20, Today was our last day hiking out. Part of me was happy because soon I would be able to talk to my loved ones and the other part of me was sad because I didn’t want this amazing journey to be over, since Aconcagua had brought me so much happiness and its always hard to leave the mountains. So after 4 hours or so, we were officially off the mountain. My Aconcagua journey may have come to an end, but it was just the beginning of my lifetime journey and my Quest for the Seven Summits.
The night of the 20th, we had a celebration dinner at the hotel.
January 21, we traveled back to Mendoza. During the day, we wandered around and did some gift shopping. At night, the entire group went out for dinner, joined this night by Fernandito Grajales.
January 22, rest day.
January 23, flew back home. Argentina was very beautiful. It had some of the best food and wine, and the people were very friendly.
Aconcagua was a huge step for me. After Everest, it is the summit that I wanted the most. I learned so much on this expedition. I joined this expedition as an individual, but became a good team member. We set up tents together, collected water, etc. Being in an expedition means that you share a tent with the group, there’s no privacy, and you get tired. Some people get irritable or get headaches, some people don’t sleep well. You have to learn to be tolerant, with yourself and the rest, and how you react to things and how you get along with the group is very critical. I learned here to take care of myself. I drank between 5-6 liters of water a day. I ate very well; my appetite never went away, even at this altitude. I didn’t need to take any pills or medicine for altitude. Since I want to climb Everest, I wanted to see how my body would react to this height. Pills and medicine can be dangerous since they can hide the effects of edema and AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness). Plus, we acclimatized very well.
I want to thank all the team members, who I enjoyed so much to be around, and Cathy, JJ, and Llawand, for doing such an amazing job guiding us to the summit. I also wish to thank Mountain Link and especially Robert Link for the opportunity to join this remarkable expedition.
Very grateful thanks to Eddie and Allison Howard for their generous gift of sponsorship and belief in my dreams.