This is the fourth installment in Dave Mauro’s Seven Summits series. In previous accounts, Dave was introduced to high altitude climbing on an unlikely ascent of Denali in Alaska, after which he successfully completed the classic trip to the roof of Africa, Mt. Kilimanjaro, followed by an ascent of Mt. Elbrus, the highest point in Europe.
Story and Photos by Dave Mauro
I was sulking.
Two prior attempts to organize an ascent of 22,841 foot high Aconcagua – the highest point in South America – had fallen apart. There was no climb on my horizon and I was itching to take something on. It was February of 2009 and I sat nursing a Manhattan, alone in a lousy restaurant. Poor me. I sent a text to my brother in-law, Ty. “Are you down for Aconcagua in January 2010?” “Absolutely,” he shot back. Done. We did not speak about it again until eight months later.
Ty was not keen on using a guide. By the time we had our first planning call I had already looked the routes over and observed established trails using Google’s satellite photos, and concluded we would not need a guide. Fair enough. We hatched a plan to do it old-school, two guys taking on the mountain by themselves. Ty began working on flights and provision lists. I searched out Muleteers and base camp support.
Ty and I arrived with our duffels of gear in Mendoza, Argentina on January 10th. It was summer there. We spent that first day enjoying the 90-degree heat as we walked about the old-world stateliness of the city’s parks and promenades. Most were abandoned to the comforts of siesta, coming to life later that night with a cavalcade of performers and vendors.
We caught a shuttle the next day to Penitentes, the off-season ski resort that would be our launching point. Several organized expeditions were there, filling the dining hall and crowding the lobby with piles of gear. I recognized Brian from my Kilimanjaro team and greeted him. He looked leaner than he had been on the Kili climb, but still sported the massive squirrel-tail ponytail that is his trademark. It was good to see him, but I was concerned that he would be climbing Aconcagua after having suffered cerebral edema on our much lower Kilimanjaro climb. Brian said he had spent the time since climbing some of the high volcanos in Mexico and several peaks in Colorado. He felt it had prepared him for Aconcagua and was ready to find out if he was right.
A van dropped Ty and I at the trailhead for the Vacas Valley the next morning. Our gear would meet up with us at the end of the day as the mule train pulled into camp one. All we had to carry was our day packs with lunch and water. Everything about the landscape we walked into was large and interesting. Steep canyon walls rose up from the Rio Vacas, which tumbled by; noisy and cocoa-colored. A perfect blue sky provided a dramatic backdrop to the rugged stone gates which seemed to open one nudge at a time as we pressed on. We did not talk much for the first several hours. Ever aware of the many miles to be covered that day, we clicked along briskly.
Pampa de Lenas was our first camp. Ty and I ate a modestly tasty freeze-dried meal and settled in for the night. As we lay there, too excited to sleep, the sound of coyotes calling to each other from across the canyon echoed in the night. I thought about what lay in front of us; the hard days ahead, the challenges we could only guess at. I fashioned a pillow from my camp coat and felt very small.
We continued our trek the next day, arriving at the rough and tumble outpost of Casa de Piedras. Along the way we spoke of dust. It was dusty in the Vacas Valley. Very dusty. That would not be so bad, except that it was also windy. Very windy. It was like living in a David Lynch film. Knowing we would spend the next many days in such conditions, Ty and I challenged ourselves to come up with three reasons why dust is good.
- Without dust, 70’s rock band Kansas could not have written the epic hit “Dust in the Wind.” It would have otherwise come out as “Dirt in the Wind”, as in “…all we are is dirt in the wind.” Not the same thing. This in turn would have adversely affected the teenage dating experience for most of us.
- Dust is really just tiny bits of soil. Since it has been said that “soil is the stuff of life”, to embrace dust is to embrace life itself …in really small portions.
- We could not come up with a third reason. We were too dusty.
The next day saw us pulling into base camp, Plaza de Argentina (13,800 feet). It is notable this elevation is only a few hundred feet short of the summit of Mt Rainier. The real climbing would commence here. No more mules. No more day pack. Yet several climbers saw their expedition end at this point. The pleasant trek to base camp gathers deceptively substantial elevation, and those who ignore the requirements of proper acclimatization quite often arrive at Plaza de Argentina suffering from pulmonary edema. Afflicted Climbers were medivac’d out of Plaza de Argentina by helicopter every day we were there.
The logistics support we had purchased provided all meals and use of a dinning tent at base camp. Again I met up with Brian and his team. They were assigned to share our tent. He seemed to be doing well, as was also the case for the rest of his team, save one member who appeared to be teetering on the verge of some kind of psychotic episode. He would say and do things that made the rest of us very nervous. His condition did not seem related to the climb, but rather something he had brought with him. Most guide companies rely on self-evaluation to determine if a climber should be on an expedition. There are serious problems with this approach when it comes to mental illness. For some reason this climber was not sent back down. This would later turn out to be a mistake.
Ty and I rested for another day at Plaza de Argentina, then carried our first load up to Camp One, 2,500 feet above. Another rest day followed, then we moved ourselves and the remainder of our gear up to camp one. Brian’s group had thought better of the climb ahead, after carrying a load to camp one, and hired porters to help through the remainder of their ascent. We were one day ahead of his team with our itinerary, but often connected with them in the time between when they arrived and we left a given camp.
We moved to Camp Two, Helicopter Camp, over the next few days. This camp is named for the scattered chunks of metal that caution against the notion of trying to land a chopper at 18,000 feet. Here we enjoyed fabulous vistas and plentiful water melting off the glacier. It was a climber’s utopia – a slow peaceful existence among the various teams camped out there. That changed the night Brian’s team moved in. Somewhere around 2 a.m. there came a strange commotion as the troubled member of his team burst from his tent screaming incoherently. He forced his way into their guide’s tent and demanded to be taken down immediately. We could hear the guide patiently explaining that it was not safe to descend at night and that he would take him down at dawn. The climber demanded. The guide refused. In the end, the climber spent the rest of the night pacing through camp like a tiger in a zoo. None of us slept much. He was taken down and put on a helicopter the next day.
Within a few days Ty and I arrived at high camp, elevation 19,620 feet. When we set out on this journey, so many days before, we had stepped into a big world. Everything was new, exotic, interesting, and beckoned our senses in broad ways. But we had left all that behind, below us.
The summit attempt the next morning was a scratch. Our white-gas stove had developed a problem that made it impossible to melt enough snow for the water we would need. Ty repaired the stove, but the time consumed in doing so would have made for much too late a start.
Brian’s team pulled into high camp that evening as the snow began to fall softly. It was good to see them, and we chatted casually as they set up their tents next to ours. “We are all on Diamox,” the assistant guide, Kevin, announced dejectedly. Aware of my journaling and concerned for the accuracy of posterity, Brian pulled me aside. “I am not taking Diamox,” he clarified. Brian looked good, very stable. I had been concerned about how he would do at this altitude, 20,100 feet, and did not expect he would last long. I was wrong. The work Brian had done since melting down on Kilimanjaro had borne fruit. He seemed clear and lively, jabbering on with too much detail about his body functions, as is his custom.
We woke to six inches of fresh snow the next morning. High camp desperately needed this. The day before we had been forced to hike a good bit uphill for snow to melt for water. Now we could scoop all we needed by reaching out the tent door. We left our tent an hour before dawn. Already there was a large team moving up the hill, their headlamps strung together like lights in a Christmas tree lot. We would leap frog each other through the course of the accent as each team stopped to rest, meeting one final time at the base of the Caneleta.
The clouds had caught up with all of us by this time, rising from below. Snow was falling and visibility was limited. Ty and I ducked into a small cave to gear up for the notoriously grueling final pitch reaching 600 vertical feet up the Caneleta. The other expedition was just leaving the cave. We all exchanged excited, nervous glances. There at 22,000 feet, the air was so thin I had to stop moving and breath for a moment before I could put together a clear thought. We moved with the slow deliberation of an interpretive dance depicting men on the moon.
A vague sense of dread came over me as we clawed our way upward. “There’s a body on the summit, Dude,” a descending climber had warned me several days prior. It is not possible to retrieve a body from such an altitude, so climbers typically lower it into a crevasse. But Aconcagua has no glaciers on its upper flanks. I wondered what the right thing to do would be. Leaving a body there to become a grim curiosity seemed less respectful than rolling it off the edge. But I was not sure I could do that either. My legs were burning for more oxygen and I found myself fading in and out of clarity. I realized I would have to shake these thoughts or risk a busy brain stealing O2 needed for more pressing needs. Turning all my attention to the fall of each foot, I slipped into a simple, slow rhythm; step, breath, breath, breath, step. Time passed. Then I heard Ty call out from thirty feet above me. He was standing a few steps from the summit. “Come on Mauro, let’s finish this thing together!”
Ty and I stepped up onto the flat shelf that defines the highest point outside Asia and walked together to a small steel cross adorned with prayer flags. We hugged and cheered, took photos of one another, and called home on the satellite phone. The other expedition was also on the summit celebrating, but there was no body. A recent summit team had, in all likelihood, dealt with it. I was grateful for this.
I was kneeling with the satellite phone cupped close to my chest to gain relief from the noise of a growing wind. Suddenly I hear Ty shout “Whoa!” I looked up and immediately noticed we were alone on top. Ty snatched the cap from his head and rubbed his hair. “What’s up, man?”, I asked. “My hair,” Ty said with a look of concern. “It’s crackling!” Then he shouted again and started backing around in circles, swatting at his hair. I stood to help him, but when my steel crampons contacted the ground I felt an electrical current pass through my legs. Then I remembered the thunder from the night before. “We gotta get the f@#& off this peak,” I shouted. Ty headed for the trail, pulling his pack on as he quick-stepped off the summit table. I heaved my pack off the summit in the direction of our decent and scrambled down.
Ty and my pack were waiting thirty feet below. I had lost a glove somewhere in the commotion and began pawing furiously through my gear for a backup. “Should we lose our ice axes,” I asked Ty, fretting the possibility we might become lightening rods. “No way, dude. We will need ‘em to get down,” he countered. Ty handed me his spare set of gloves and we commenced a speedy decent. The clouds were thick around us now. I could see the path clearly, but only for a few feet out. We were pumped full of adrenaline and moving faster than was safe. I slowed a bit and coached myself. “Easy. Careful foot placement. Don’t blow it.” Suddenly a person appeared from the mist right in front of me. I almost ran into him. It was one of the guides from the other expedition. He was moving slowly downhill, a client already short-roped to him. “Do you need any help here,” I asked. “No. We’re fine,” he answered, then motioning for us to pass.
We arrived at the cave mixed somewhere in the middle of the members of the other expedition. The snow was falling thick now, and everyone put on their heaviest gear. The expedition leader approached Ty and I before leaving. “Hey, if you guys wanna jump on our tail that’s cool,” he said. We thanked him and said we would.
Shortly after departing the cave a second client needed to be short-roped. He had gone almost entirely blind. This is a frequent experience in high altitude for climbers who have had laser vision correction. But few are aware of this phenomenon ahead of time. The snow was coming down so heavy that it filled in the tracks of the other team members, now a good distance ahead. I could hear the afflicted climber complaining that everything before him was featureless, lacking depth perception. His steps were understandably slow and cautious. I climbed up and around the guide and expedition member, dropping down in front where I could break fresh trail for him to see.
It was almost nightfall by the time we arrived back at high camp. Kevin, one of the guides with Brian’s team, handed us each a warm liter of gatorade and urged that we eat something before turning in. “You’ll bonk for sure tomorrow if you don’t,” he said. Too exhausted to do so, we drank the gatorade and collapsed to our sleeping bags.
Brian’s team left for the summit the next morning as we broke camp. But Kevin and one of the team members returned an hour later. They had both fallen ill to the altitude and were quite pale. We made sure they were comfortable, then left with our massive pack loads. Our plan had been to ascend one side of Aconcagua, and descend another. To avoid making multiple carries back down the other side of Aconcagua we had decided to take everything in one load and descend all the way to base camp, Plaza de Mulas, in a day.
Some interesting characters can be found climbing Aconcagua. We met a woman who intended to run up the mountain, dressed as though it were a 10K. There was also a father and son climbing team from Britain that planned to paraglide off the summit. They were loud and brash in a manner atypical of Brits, but fun and personable around camp. They abandoned their plan at high camp the morning Ty and I left. We had descended only 100 feet when a shout came from above. “Hey! You blokes down there!
Step aside a minute,” the father called out. We managed to do so just before he heaved his parachute pack off the edge. It took immediate damage upon impact, releasing a colorful tail that grew longer as the pack cart-wheeled down the mountain.
We staggered into Plaza de Mulas eleven hours later. I felt beaten up from the many times I had been pulled backward off my feet by my pack. One boot was damp with blood from the repeated jarring that had methodically removed several toenails. Thick snow clung to my pack and person. I set my burden down at the door of the Grajales Logistics tent and clomped inside. An Australian climber was speaking with the camp manager, trying to arrange a helicopter lift for an ill team member. I pulled up a plastic crate and sat down. The back half of the tent was a kitchen, and the smell of peppers being fried awakened my senses as the cooks eyed me suspiciously. In such confined spaces I was breaking the rules. One should only step into the tent when it is his turn, then leave immediately. But I was too exhausted to care. They, in turn, had seen my kind before and knew it would be a mistake to say anything. I felt snow slide off my hood as the warmth of the kitchen crept in around me. The watchful instinct that had kept me hyper-alert constantly for the last many days faded away. My head bobbed with sleep.
Three days later, in the comforts of Mendoza, I would finally learn what had become of Brian and his team. A dispatch was posted via satellite phone to the site tracking them; the four members who pressed on for the summit that day – Brian among them – had made it! They had summitted in excellent conditions and returned safely to high camp.
Next up: Antarctica’s Vinson Massif
Dave Mauro is a longtime Bellingham, WA. resident. By day he works as a financial advisor at UBS. By night he is an improv actor at the Upfront Theatre. Now and again, he travels the world with the goal of climbing the highest summit on each of the planet’s continents. Follow his quest at www.AdventuresNW.com
His blogs, photos and videos are also available at https://sites.google.com/site/davidjmauro/.