climb story

Our Climb of Aconcagua 

 Aconcagua is the highest mountain outside the Himalayans at 21,850. I took my nephew down to climb it together and we used Amyara Climbing services.  WE signed up for the early acclimatization program (EAP) through AMYARA and we met our EAP group in Mendoza: Rudi from Germany, Kip a lawyer from Arizona and Aaron from the military.

Mendoza is a beautiful high plains semi-arid town located in the foothills of the magnificent Andes.  It boasts some of the world’s greatest activities like: Skiing, fly-fishing, rafting, biking and of course hiking and climbing the big mountains. Mendoza is also known for its Malbec wine and we took a vineyard tour after the climb. While in Mendoza we visited the local museums and old church’s and I prayed for those that had gone before us including my brother Tom (I carried his ashes with me).  We walked around the tree lined streets and relaxed in the many city parks with flowers galore and hosting many sparkling fountains.  We dined in many fine restaurants and the fine dining was a bargain but they ate late at night like 10 PM.  In the evening we retired to the fine hotel with pool .

From Mendoza we traveled by bus to Penitenents a small village where we started our climb at about 8,900 feet. Our hostel was called Hotel Penitentes and it would get quite cold at night.  From here we would hike about 30 miles and it would take about 4 days to get to base camp (Plaza de Mulas). Plaza de Mulas sits at 14,000 feet higher than most any mountain in the Continental United States.  On our first day out walking towards Mulas, we passed the climbers graveyard and fell to our knees saying prayers for the deceased climbers and my brother. (At times during my hike my brother was beside me.  The vision was of ecstasy and was like a light of revelation and the vision was of me holding Tom’s hand and speaking with him as we walked.

The Scenery was amazing: the early morning golden and amber hues of light and how it stretched out its hand to brush the verdant mountain sides in hues of menagerie of orange and red colors was just incredible and spiritual.  A raging river in madding furry cut through the mountain side and Andean vultures soared overhead and looked like winged beasts from the darkness of the underground where the shadows ran from themselves. I watched the birds rise with the thermals and then they circled the craggy peaks looking for their next kill.

By the end of the first day we reached Confluence situated at about 12,000 feet.  Ryan and I established a camp on a dinosaur backbone of a ridge, away from our buddies and watched the blood orange glow of the setting sun drop below the purple haze that shrouded the magnificent mountains.  As night settled in, the emptiness of the night sky was flawlessly clear.  The stars shimmered in all their glory while we watched satellites fly by.  The moon’s glow washed the hillsides in soft cotton and we were awakened at night by the fluttering of wings next to our heads of some demon that taunted us.

The next day we hiked to Plaza Francis and viewed the backside of Aconcagua and its monstrous 10,000-foot precipitance – one of the largest in the world. The land rose to become the sky and they melded together in watercolor strokes of distant snow clouds.  We skirted a massive chocolate colored glacier, infused with stone, dirt, boulders and rock – it was more than 100 yards thick before returning to camp. By evening the clouds were burning crimson red and at times flaming away before being extinguished in pillows of cotton ash.

The next day was a grueling ten-hour trek from Confluence to Plaza de Mullas at 14,100 which is the base camp from which we would attempt the reach the summit about 8 days later.  The verdant mountain sides gave way to dry desert like conditions.  Head winds of 20-40 miles per hour winds pummeled us all day and it drained the liquid in our veins and the energy from our souls. It was cold and we got wet crossing the many streams that snaked its way through the valley floor. We passed the carcasses of horses and mules along the way and passed a human couple that had to turn back due to altitude sickness. At times, I thought I would not be able to go on as I was so exhausted. We finally made it to Mulas and were escorted to the medical tent for review. My  oxygen saturation had dropped to 75% and blood pressure was 180 over 110. I totally freaked out but was told by the medical staff that this was normal and things should improve in the coming days as my body acclimatized. I can tell you people were blowing chow at Plaza de Mulas from the altitude. 

Mulas was the base camp from which all outfitters would start their climb. Each had their territory staked out with their headquarters in a Tyvek style Quonset hut.  There was actually internet service here, beer, showers and toilets.   No one drank alcohol except the porters and the porters and guides would gather in their tents huddled in their down parkas and play their guitars and sing their melodies into the night.  The music wafted through the thin air and lasted well into the night sending us into world of unknown dreams. During the day, we heard the cannonading of avalanches and rock slides from the living mountain that surrounded us and we were reminded that death walked with us.  It could be warm during the day but when the orb closed its tired eye there was a tidal movement of cold air that descended from the ice fields above as temperatures could drop 30-35 degrees quit quickly. Al Plaza de Mulas, this is where we also met our other climbing members – the ones that did not sign up for the Early Acclimatization Program (EAP) program. These individuals came from all over the globe and had climbed many mountains around the world.

Over the next few days we climbed various peaks around Aconcagua to acclimatize and we climber Bonete at 16,700 feet as well as another peak at 18,500 a great accomplishment for us.  On the climb to 18,5000 it was very difficlut for me and I thought I would not make it but we all fought off the desire to quit and made the summit that overlooked Plaza de Mulas.  To sit on the small rock outcropping at the summit was just amazing and all inspiring and it took a total of 11 hours from base to summit to base and we hiked though “Penitenents” that are ice swords/ice spires that stand 6 to 7 feet high and when combined with the steep and narrow paths it made the climb very difficult.  On days like this you feel the presence of God and I thought of my brother Tom and the thoughts and prayers kept me going as well.  

Day after day we crept upward over the scree and ice towards the peak that stood over us – the towering monster and “stone Sentinel”. Our first camp was located at about 16,568 called campo Canada.  The camp was nestled in a rocky niche overlooking the valley floor and the visions were breathtaking: ice, clouds, sunrise sunsets.  Upon arrival, I help the porters to gather snow to make tea, soups and dinner. It was here we lost our first person to altitude sickness – constant vomiting and so on so she was escorted back down. 

The next day we hiked up to Nido de Condor (Nest of the  Condor)  situated at about 18,206 feet. This was as difficult day but the EAP group – Rudi, Kip Aaron and Ryan and I did the best. It was here we lost another few climbers due to altitude sickness. Nido de Condor is an interesting place as it is a large flat plateau.  At the far end (away from camp) there was a large outcropping that looked like an old crusader fort from ages long past.  We all walked over and looked at the views all the way to the Pacific Ocean. The firmament was brilliant: dark blue sky, wispy blue sky, wispy clouds with huge nimbuses on the horizon and the air was dry and cold.  It was the coldest day we had experienced but it would get far colder.  I continued to investigate “the fort” and after some time came across a blessed Mary stature that was in a cleft inside this huge boulder. For reasons unknown, I had my brother ashes with me in a small container and a prayer I had written for him.  At that moment, I thought of my brother and all we had done over our lives and with those thoughts I fell to my knees and prayed to God, read the prayer and I was crying the entire time with the memories of my brother.  When I finished, I left the prayer and a small cross I carried – I left them in that stone cleft and walked to my tent thinking of my brother.  We spent another day here hiking around Nido de Condor before hiking to the next camp  – Camp Colera – 19,568 and then hiking to Indeendencia at about 20,931.  We passed camp Berlin because it was contaminated by human waste. I thought the guides were kidding to make us go higher but we could smell it.  We were down to 6 team climbers, down from 12 all due to altitude sickness. 

Indepencencia @ 20,931 was a flat little rocky place and home to the hard land of winter. It was cold and this is where we felt the Storm gods. It started to snow and the wind howled. At first it was wispy and caressed our face like a lover’s hand and then it rose like a mighty warrior and descended on us to destroy us. We hiked back down to Camp Cholera @ 19,568 and spent the night and it was like 30 below zero wow that is cold. Hour after hour it howled outside and sounded like a jet engine. Our tents were pummeled and even though the tents were well secured one empty ten for food and gear was ripped apart. That night our thermometer registered 25 below and the winds were about 70 miles per hour in camp and about 100 at the summit. All our water bottles froze in our tents and it was snowing in our tents from the vapor we exhaled. Electrical charges were flying around the inside of the tent caused by the wind and the electrical charges went from my fingertips illuminating the tent in an eerie green glow.  It was as if the tent was on fire.  The storm raged all night and I could not sleep as I developed Cheyne Stokes Syndrome, a nightmarish breathing problem. I forgot to breath then would wake up to panic breathing. At about 4:30 we were awaked by the guides and told we might not make the summit due to the weather but would start. 

The wind was so powerful on our summit attempt that I was knocked down twice. The wind was hostile and relentless. I begged God to let the sun rise to bring some warmth into the darkness and onto hard land of winter and onto the frozen silence, where the shadow run from themselves. Dawn poured over us and the horizon flamed amber and the light washed the rocks and filled the darkness with hues of golden amber light that turned to whitewash the more it rose. The shadow of the mountain reached the pacific in a perfectly posed pyramid.   The struggle was as much mental as physical as the mind became cloudy and confused as I struggled to fill my lungs with every step. We passed the Independence Hut again and it had been blown to shreds from the wind = wow. 

We continued to climb to the next spiny ridge line right before the cantilever at about 21,817 to la Cueva before stopping to catch some air and consultation – now it had warmed to about – negative 5 degrees F.. Our guides said we could not go on because of the weather and the weather was getting worse so with only about 1,000 feet to go we turned around at 21,817 feet just short of the summit. We had been climbing since 4 Am and were tired but still had to dismantle our tents and gear to take back down to Mulas.  Amazingly at Camp Cholera we say a “Patagonia Wolff” rummage through our gear = how could he survive.

Ok so after packing the gear we climbed back down to Plasa de Mulas and after climbing for 14 hours and we were all exhausted.  Rather than camp and having to set up the tent, I went to the highest hotel in the world and got a room with a 6 pack of beer and crashed there.  I was awakened by Ryan a couple of hours later and grabbed another 6 pack and downed it.  Although disappointed we did not reach the summit we were happy for the experience shared and the friends made.  The next day we were to hike all the way out = an all-day event but I came up with a great fun idea of a horseback ride out. 

The horseback ride out was a challenge and dangerous as Ryan flew off the horse full on as the hose fell and we crossed rivers and streams and we could have fallen off cliffs.  Upon arriving at Penitentes we visited the climber’s cemetery and gave thanks and praise and prayed for those that had died. WE prayed for my brother as well. I knew my brother would have been happy knowing I took his son Ryan on this adventure and now he is my son.  My brother’s ashes rest at Nido de Condor in the niche on the boulder with the Virgin Mary, my prayer and my cross of Jesus and May God watch over Tom and one day we will all be reunited again