Denver to Puenta Del Inca (Decemeber 25- 31)
It was late at night, snowing, cold, and everyone had said their goodbyes. My last view of my wife was of her following the bus for a ways as she went home. We arrived at the airport, full of excitement and anticipation. But mostly we were just tired and ready to sleep on the plane. Our departure was just before midnight, December 25. At a p[personal level, I was very excited to be doing a large expedition with a group, as opposed to summiting such a big mountain solo. Being away from my wife has always been my biggest Achilles heel when it comes to mountaineering, and having a group would help a lot in this respect.
By the time we reached Miami, it was 3 or 4 in the morning. The airport was empty and we quickly made our way to the luggage carousel to grab our 24 bags of gear. Between all of us, we carried some grand total of 36 bags, 24 of them weighing close to 60 lbs each. With all this luggage, logistics were going to be a problem. We wanted to go to the beach as we had a 12 hour layover, however we had to check our bags somewhere in order to make this happen. Unfortunately, the airline would not allow us to check in our bags more than 3 hours prior to our flight (even though it was international!). So once we had all taken a short nap and the sun had risen a little higher, Derek and Justin elected to stay behind and rest while the remainder of the group hopped on the bus to Miami beach. It was a breezy day, but warm. A huge difference from having just boarded a plane in the snow and wind of Denver! After grabbing a bite to eat at a local burger joint, we hopped back on the bus and made our way to the airport. Thankfully, Derek and Justin had been hard at work while we were gone and had moved all of our bags closer to the counter so we only had to transport our bags a short distance to the check in. Once through security, I went directly to the kiosk for our gate, hoping I could snag a first-class seat at the last minute (a trick my dad had taught me). Unfortunately, they could not help me. Once aboard, it was like we were already in Argentina! All of the attendants and many of the passengers were Argentinian, and all the instruction videos were in Spanish.
Thankfully, the plane was almost completely empty, and we were able to spread out and walk around the plane. I slept a good portion of the way, as I was very sore from the previous flight since I had not been able to lean my seat back, and I had been trained from a young age to sleep on almost any form of transportation (I can sleep better in a car or plane than I can in my own bed!). We were on our way to Argentina at last!
The flight was long, but not bad. It was odd to look at the map and see our flight soaring over Brazil, then Peru, then on to Argentina. To think somewhere beneath my feet was a continent I had never been to before and cultures unexplored. My years of research, planning, and investing had all lead to this trip. A dream had materialized and I was about to land in Argentina for the sole purpose of climbing one of the highest mountains on earth. Upon arrival, we had to book it through customs and baggage claim as our next flight from Buenos Aires to Mendoza was in less than two hours! We were able to make it just in the nick of time, as our flight was boarding just as we cleared security. Luckily, all 24 bags made it through as well! Once in Mendoza, we had to stuff two people and 6 large bags into very small, almost Beetle sized taxis which brought us to our overnight hostel in the heart of town. It was swelteringly hot, and we were exhausted, but we had a lot to do before departing in the morning for our next stop; the small ski village of Penitentes.
We took an hour or so to nap, before reconvening to decide on what the next steps would be. By this point we had completely lost track of time, not because of the time change, but because of the 36+ hours of being in transit. It was early morning, so we had a good portion of the day to get our work done. My feet were already swollen and slowly growing blisters from the new sandals I had bought before the trip and constantly being in a seated or standing position. I needed to elevate my feet soon, but we had to get our work done. We quickly made our way to the guide company who would hire the mules to transport our bags up to base camp, and who would also sign a waiver saying that we could receive a discount for the $800 permit (per person!). I want to make it clear at this point that we were not hiring guides. Many who summit this peak do hire guides, but we wanted a true expedition where we did all the cooking, planning, and work. We then made our way to the shadiest money exchange place I'd ever been to. Normally we would find a bank and exchange their, but we were told that these guys would give us an even better rate... mostly because we wouldn’t have to worry about taxes. It was a bit strange to walk into an empty retail store, and then to meet some guys in a back room to exchange thousands of US dollars for Pesos, but everything went smoothly.
Once we had finished exchanging money, we went to the nearest italian restaurant. Strange, I know, but many of the locals are descendants of Italians, and so Italian food in Argentina is acutally authentic Argentinian food! After a long lunch (which would be the norm whenever we ate out in Argentina because of the culture), we tried to find a bank that would allow us to pay for our permits. The whole process is a mess, running from one location to the next, jumping through all the hoops to get these permits. Because of siesta, however, we would not be able to pay for the permits until 6 PM than evening.
We returned to our hostel and began our food check, making sure all of our food had made it through customs. Thankfully it all had, and so we decided to divide and conquer. A group would stay and repack, another group would pay for the permits, and a third group would find a place to buy the rest of the food we needed (the group I was in). Needless to say, trying to find backpacking food in a city that speaks little to no English was very difficult, but once we had our supplies, our team met back at the hostel. For the first time in the past 48+ hours, we were able to just sit and rest. A quick shower was very refreshing, and by the time I laid my head down, I was completely knocked out asleep. Early the next morning we were up and in our vans to the final location to pick up our permits before actually heading up into the mountains.
Penitentes was small ski area about 3 hours by bus, I would compare it to Loveland Ski Area in Colorado: Small, local, and "easy" to get to. The area immediately surrounding Mendoza reminded me more of California, but once in the upper parts of the road nearing the Chilean border, the mountains began to take a more rugged feel that one would expect to see in the greater mountain ranges. There were a few sections of the road that had been washed out where the buses were forced to drive on a road similar to what you'd expect to see in a place like the Karakoram or some other remote region of the world. But for the most part, it was an easy paved road all the way to Penitentes. Off in the distance, a peak loomed high above the others, snow covering its face. It was not Aconcagua, but it was the first high altitude peak we'd seen since arriving in Argentina. Immediately, my instincts for adventure kicked in and I wanted nothing more than to get out of the comfortable (though windy) ski area and up into the mountains to take a better look at the peak. I never did learn its name, but I'll never forget the awe inspiring steepness of the glaciated slope just below the summit wall.
At this point, we got to the task at hand: unpacking and repacking for the mules, and deciding how we would approach base camp. We ultimately landed on staying 2 nights in Confluencia before making the final approach to Plaza de Mulas Base Camp. The next morning, we were shuttled in two trips over to the trailhead where we got our first glimpse of the summit of our dreams: Aconcagua. It loomed large in the distance. Even miles away it appeared close due to its sheer mass.
Eventually we arrived at our first stop. Confluencia was a relatively small camp set up 5 miles from the trailhead, often used as a layover for those making the trek to one of the two base camps on the west or south sides of the mountain. It is the last fresh water one encounters until base camp, so hikers often have to stock up on water here before making the long trip to base camp 12 miles away. At 3,600 meters, this camp was one of the hottest sites I had ever stayed at. In the shade the temperatures were approaching 96 F. I have camped at 11,000 feet in every season in multiple states, but I have never encountered heat like this at this altitude. It sapped our energy, and many of use received bad sunburns.
Two miles from the base of the mountain, we stopped for lunch. By this time I was out of water, and several of our team members were sick from a cold that was spreading through the group. The face seemed so small, and yet large at the same time. It appeared as though one could do it in a day, but we knew it would take weeks just to have a hope of scaling such a large face. It was covered in seracs and had been scaled by many of the greatest alpinists in the world. The mountain was on such a scale that the mind cannot comprehend just how far away each feature is. Prior to this, the largest face that sticks out in my mind is the Diamond on Longs Peak, but this was on a whole new level. We were already at 13,000 feet and there was almost 10,000 feet to go for the summit.
After a quick lunch, we began the long hike back to Confluencia. Once there, we spent another hot afternoon in the sun, followed by a cold night. Very early the next morning we packed up, and began the final approach to Plaza de Mulas. The hike was windy and cold, but breath-takingly beautiful. Most of the elevation is gained in the last mile or two of the hike, so the beginning is very flat and easy. Walking along this extremely large, glacially carved valley, with gigantic peaks on either side was other worldly. To our north-east barely visible over the sub-summits was the monarch Aconcagua, its summit covered in snow.
We knew the approach would be a long one, but I believe we underestimated just how long it would be. The last bit ascended and descended some massive debris fields left behind by thousands of years of large avalanches, with a sheer drop off to one side. We even occasionally passed the remains of mules who had slipped and fallen far to the valley below as they were shuttling supplies back and forth. Just as we arrived at Base Camp, the snow came making set up a dreary business. We had a brief dinner before going crawling into bed. Finally, we had reached the mountain itself and the real expedition could begin. It was not exactly the grand entrance we had hoped, but the morning would bring a new day and we would feel much better after a good nights sleep.