Yes, I was crazy enough to climb Aconcagua again...
Updated: Apr 16
After returning from my first attempt at climbing Aconcagua last year, in January 2019, I was sure that I would not return again for quite some time. Life on Aconcagua can be tough, but, as my friend Max would say, "a climber's best feature is their bad memory" and I never thought that only a year later, I'd be on my way back over to try and tag the summit again.
How could I have been so foolish, you ask? Well, I had been chatting to Mike Hamill from Climbing the Seven Summits quite a bit over the years, and he and I had discussed my concerns from last year's climb. Mike is a veteran in the mountains, having literally written the book (or bible) on climbing the Seven Summits, and to be quite frank, is someone who is both very impressive and inspirational, and seems like a genuinely, just all out, really nice guy. Mike had run through his opinion on things, and I really felt like he was the guy who was going to get me to the top of Aconcagua. So, I chose to book with CTSS and give it another shot, quickly forgetting my experiences last year. I also managed to convince a friend of mine from Melbourne, Alison, whom I connected with via a Facebook group and who had also tried to climb Aconcagua the previous year but was also unsuccessful. We stayed in contact and had talked about going back, so when I booked with CTSS, I was happy to hear that she was keen to come along and also give it another go.
One of the things I really love about CTSS and their Aconcagua expedition, is that you get to climb via the Vacas Valley, which is coming from the opposite side of the mountain, and then traverse over and descend via the Normal Route, the most popular route, that I climbed last year. This was a fantastic option for both Alison and I, as it was going to feel like a completely new climb. The Vacas Valley is about 20% longer than the normal route, which means you will need an extra few days up your sleeve, however it is more gradual, and far more beautiful. Only about 30-35% of climbers use this route, which means it is much quieter, however the camps are far less equipped. One thing I am proud of on this trip, was how strong and fit I was feeling. I was really smashing my training goals this time around, and I had acquired a whole new kit of gear as well. I was readier than ever for Aconcagua 2.0! The bad news, however, was that a week prior to leaving for my trip, I had picked up the flu from someone who came into work sick. Please, people, KEEP YOUR GERMS AT HOME when you're sick!
So, the last week of January 2020 rolled around and I again packed up my duffel bags and headed back to Mendoza via Sydney and Santiago, arriving into Mendoza with about 5 days up my sleeve to relax and get on Argentinian time. Man, I love Argentinian time. Late dinners and siestas, how could you not?
Alison was doing some trekking in the Vallecitos and was due to arrive back into Mendoza on the 30th, and then we were to head over to the beautiful Park Hyatt on the 1st of February to meet up with the rest of the team - CTSS really put us up in the best spot to start the climb. I was so excited to find out who else would be joining us. Mike had let us know that he wouldn't be joining us on the climb, and had arranged for another guide he had worked with previously, Josh, to take us up in his absence. As Josh and a few of us had arrived into Mendoza early, we met up and had a delicious meal together, some gelato and a stroll through the park.
Slowly, one by one, our group began to grow bigger, until finally, we had all (bar one) arrived. It was time to do gear checks and our route orientation. It was quite funny to see how amusing we were to the other tourists staying in the hotel, who found us entertaining enough to take photos of our gear check process (or perhaps just the mess we made in the hotel courtyard).
I must add here, and I will probably mention this a few times throughout this blog, but I could not have asked for a better group of people to be stuck on the side of a mountain with. I was also feeling more confident about the fact that almost half of us were returning to Aconcagua for our second (or third) attempts at the summit. On top of this, I was also thrilled that there were four other Aussies in the group, and three of them were girls! We would later be named "the Aussie Quad". We also had a speed ascender joining us on the trip, who would be flying in by Helicopter and meeting us at Plaza Argentina (our basecamp) on the fourth morning.
After a few nights of beautiful dinners, wine, gelato stops and plenty of laughs, it was time for us all to jump aboard our mini bus and head out to Penitentes, where we would spend one night before starting our three day trek through the Vacas Valley to Plaza Argentina (basecamp). Our duffels would be split into two; our climbing gear that we would need for the higher camps would be sent on the mules directly to basecamp, and we would have another duffel that would be carried on a different group of mules that would meet us at camp each night on the approach, containing our sleeping and trekking gear. It felt all too familiar.
We started our first day walking from the gate/park entrance to our first camp, Pampa de Lenas, at about 3000m. It was a fairly easy day with about 4-5 hours of trekking and very beautiful scenery. On arrival to camp, we put our tents up and ate a beautiful BBQ dinner cooked by the Guachos. Josh had done well to arrange plenty of vegetarian options for myself and the few other vegetarians in the group.
The next day we moved onward to Casa de Piedra at 3600m, another day of about 5-6 hours of trekking, and at times, it was incredibly windy and dusty. Again, on arrival to camp, we put our tents up (on a partially dried up river bed) and ate another delicious BBQ dinner. What I loved about this route already, was that we had only just arrived into 3600m on our second night, whereas via the Normal Route, you would arrive into Confluencia on your first night at 3400m, after only about 3-3.5 hours of trekking, and that is quite a height to start off your trek. The downside however, was that the bathroom situation was terrifying (to say the least).
In the morning, we would start early as we had a long walk to Plaza Argentina ahead of us, which sits at about 4200m. We put on our water booties and crocs, and made our way through the river crossing not far from our tent sites, wading through freezing water up to our (well, my) thighs. It was 6:00am, and boy it was cold. I actually think my toes turned blue, and I certainly lost all feeling in them for a brief few moments there.
After drying our feet off and putting our socks and trekking boots back on, we started the long, dusty ascent up the valley. The beginning of this day was pretty steep, however there are some amazing views at the top where we stopped for a quick lunch break.
Along the way, we got a great look at the Polish Glacier and found some Guanacos!
We arrived in to Plaza Argentina at about 3pm, found some tent spots, raked them out and put our tents up. We would be having a rest day the following day at basecamp, and I was stoked that Wi-Fi was accessible so I could contact my partner and family. It was also a great feeling to finally be able to wash our hands properly with soap and running water!
At 5:00am the following morning, we heard the alarm bells of a helicopter dropping off our new teammate; our speed ascender! A few of us also used this day to wear in our double/triple boots, taking a small hike up the way towards camp 1.
It was an unusually dry year on Aconcagua this year, which had both positives and negatives to it. The good was that we probably wouldn't need to put our heavier boots on until camp 2 which makes for a nicer climb, however the bad was that there was a real lack of water above camp 1, as without snow or ice to melt, it meant water had to be carried up. Another downfall, was that because our group was working as self sufficiently as possible, we did not hire any expedition porters, which can be tough as it means the group needs to carry everything, from tents, to food, personal gear, water and even bags of poop and trash! As Alison and I had already done the hard yards last year, we decided to hire porters to help with the loads. Make no mistake, this doesn't mean our bags were empty whatsoever. On any given day, our bags still weighed between 13-15kgs, it just meant we didn't have to carry between 25-30kg, and could give our porters the bulkier items like food and tents (remember, if those 2kg boots aren't on our feet, they're on our backs!). Although this was a handy option, it was also an expensive one, costing around $2000USD for assistance between camps on the Vacas Valley side. Worth. Every. Penny.
After rest day, it was time to do our first load carry to camp 1. The reason we would split our moves between camps into two days (load carry and move day) would be not only to lighten our daily loads and save our backs, but for acclimatization purposes (carry high, sleep low). Josh had warned us that the carry to camp 1 was pretty brutal, and our dear Canadian team mate, had also been mentally preparing me for this day. The first portion of the day was fairly manageable, however the climb ends with a tough slog of loose rock and scree. I was glad to not have to climb up that section of the mountain again after our move up to camp 1.
After one night at camp 1, we started our load carry to camp 2. I must say, I didn't find the first half of the climb to camp 2 any better or worse than the tough slog to camp 1. The day begins with a steep ascent with switchbacks up and over a mountainside, before an open plateau, which then leads onto a traverse that heads around the mountain and through some icy penitentes. After dropping off our loads and resting for a short time, we headed back down to camp 1, to do it all again the following day for our move to camp 2. Then, the following day, we would be getting a rest day.
On our load carry day up to Camp 3 (aka the infamous "Camp Colera"), we woke to some very strong winds and were unsure if the day would be going ahead as planned. This left a lot of us unsure about our summit plan, as Josh had mentally prepared us the day before for some bad wind and weather heading in around our planned summit day, which would leave us a very short weather window to actually head for the summit. There were a few options that were being discussed, including doing a night time summit to enable us to beat the bad weather.
The wind the morning of our load carry day was shaking our tents, and when the guides brought us some tea at 10am, we could barely hear them yelling out over the howling of the wind. Josh told us to hold off on getting dressed and wait for further instruction. About an hour later, he came back and told us to start getting ready as we would be leaving for our load carry to Colera within the hour. It was time to dust off the double and triple boots because we were heading up. And. It. Was. Cold!
The wind never seemed to let up on the walk up, and by the time we got to our break stop, we were all starting to feel it. We were all huddling in a ditch trying to keep warm and out of the wind. Collo, one of our guides was sharing his warm tea with me, which was helping me keep the feeling in my fingers. By the time one of our fellow climbers had arrived to the lunch spot, her hands were freezing and she couldn't get warm, and a few of us had wondered if perhaps these were some early warning signs of AMS. Earlier on in the trek, there had been a group discussion regarding the use of Diamox. There are a lot of mixed views regarding the use of Diamox, especially in the Andes. Last year, Max had advised us not to use it, as it can cause problems due to the Andes being so dry. I had never personally used Diamox, but following multiple conversations we had as a group and given one of our team mates was a Cardiologist, I opted to follow his and Josh's advice and use Diamox this time around. A few of the group however, chose not to.
After a break, we continued up the mountain onward to Colera. The walk is not overly hard, but the path is a little slippery, and because of the altitude, it seemed that every step was more and more difficult. Colera sits at a whopping 5960m (approx.) and it feels like the switchbacks leading up to camp never end. When we eventually all arrived at Colera, the wind was still strong, and thankfully there was an empty AMG dome tent that we could sit in while we had a break and attempted to catch our breath. Arriving to camp, we had split into two groups, so on the way down, Josh had said that those that had arrived later could hang back a bit longer. Although I had arrived with the earlier group, I decided to hang back at Colera a little longer to acclimatize, as this was the height I turned back last year. On the way down, Josh let me take the lead to bring the group down the mountain, until we arrived at a sketchy section just before hitting camp. The following day, we packed up camp, and moved up to Colera/Camp 3. Luckily, the wind was nowhere near as strong this day, which made for a fairly relaxed ascent.
There really is no better feeling than hearing everyone cheering for you as you're struggling to dig deep and push on through those final meters into camp. We had such a strong support system in our group, and it really gave me the warm and fuzzies. It honestly felt like an instant family. Tom, the youngest member in our group, who was also one of the strongest, and would walk back down those last few meters to accompany you and help you where needed, even if just for mental support. When everyone had made it up to camp, we all cheered, hugged and celebrated together. The hard work was done, and now we just had our summit push. Unfortunately, this is where things did seem to fall apart for us...
Before I go into the details of our summit push, I need to preface this with the fact that I don't blame Mike or CTSS whatsoever for what ensued. I felt there was a lack of leadership, preparation and organisation on the day, and perhaps also, just a series of very unfortunate events. It took me a long time to process everything that happened and I have kept a lot of the details private, for fear of hurting CTSS in any way, which is the last thing I would want or what they deserve. I do feel that the details need to be discussed to understand the whole picture of what happened with my summit attempt though. And with that, here it goes..
After arriving into camp 3, we had a group meeting to plan for the summit push. Now, over the course of the few weeks we had been trekking and climbing, it was clear there were a lot of different levels of speed and strength among us. Most of us had assumed that our guides had started coming up with a plan to split and stagger the group for summit morning. In total, there were 11 of us in the group with four guides, which is a pretty great ratio in my opinion. In the group we had what we referred to as "the fast five" (and included our lead guide, Josh), a few who were slightly slower, and then those of us in the middle. I guess I had assumed that the guides would have staggered our starting times so that we all had a fair shot at getting to the summit at a reasonable time (on Aconcagua, it is best not to be reaching the summit any later than 3.30/4pm to ensure you have enough time to safely descend before the sun sets).
When Josh told us the plan; that he would be setting the two slower members of the group off at 5am, and then the rest of us would leave at 6am, I started to get quite concerned, as to me, 6am seemed to be cutting it quite fine. They say it is about 3-4 hours to Independencia (6400m), then about 2 hours along the traverse, and another 1.5-2 hours up the Canaleta. To me, I couldn't see how this would leave us enough time for breaks, and was starting to become concerned about what pace we would need to make that turn around. Pace was something that worried me, as last year I felt my ascent was rushed, and perhaps didn't give myself enough time to acclimatize well enough. I was also aware that being above 6000m was going to be tough, and I was worried about being left behind or turned around prematurely. Alison also had concerns, as she was turned around at Indepdencia last year (however, now knowing how strong Alison really is, I do feel this decision was questionable - that's another story, though). I decided to ask Josh if I could leave with the earlier group, however he felt the pace would not be fast enough for me and I would become too cold, so he felt it was best that I went up with the main group. I trusted Josh's decision on this.
The following morning we woke up at 5am and began getting ready. The earlier two had already left with two of our guides, Capi and Collo. This was a bit concerning to a few of us, as it had now left only 2 guides to 9 clients, which is far less than ideal, and I believe, the first of a few bad calls that were made. Unfortunately, while we were at breakfast, a few of us noticed one of our team members struggling to get her booties on. I was starting to feel very concerned for her at this point, as in my opinion, she did not seem well enough to go up any further. Someone had mentioned the day before that she had started taking Diamox late, and wasn't drinking nearly enough water. Unfortunately, by the time we were ready to go, we were already so far behind; it was 6:50am and the sun was starting to rise, which meant the wind was starting to pick up. Within about 15minutes, our team mate who was struggling had to go back down as she was too unwell, and I believe this was the right decision, but it meant a lot of waiting around for the rest of us, and the loss of another guide. Suddenly, we were down to one guide for 8 people. We started moving again and I felt under pressure at this point, as the group's pace seemed to be all over the place, it was fast, then it was slow. I felt so out of rhythm and it started to panic me. I made the decision to stop trying to stick with them, and to go back to my own flow. When I'm climbing or trekking, I like to be in my own head, I need my rhythm; it keeps me sane but it also helps me breathe and acclimatize, and given my experience last year, I was extremely worried about getting sick - "one breath, one step". Soon enough, I noticed I was falling behind the group. Any other time, this wouldn't worry me (arriving to camp 20 minutes later doesn't really matter), however it's a different story on summit day and given we had started late, along with the stopping and starting, it felt as though we were racing against the clock. I started panicking again. And then, Collo came charging up behind me.
I felt safe knowing Collo was with me and I was no longer alone, however, I also felt cranky with Josh, as I had a gut feeling that I knew this was going to happen. When we met up with the rest of the group about 10-15 minutes later, I could not help but express my frustration with Josh about the fact I had told him I wanted a head start the day before. He responded by pointing to the earlier group, who were maybe 20 minutes ahead of us, and said "and that's where you'd be if you'd have left with them". I told myself, he did have a point. Josh made the decision that I would ditch my pack at this spot and give Tom my water bottles. Luckily it was so dry on the mountain this year, that we didn't need our ice-axes or crampons. My jacket had enough pockets to keep enough of my personal snacks and items in as well. I was feeling a bit frustrated at this point; I know that Josh was only trying to help me, but I did not want Tom to carry my water bottles, or to have my bag ditched, what I wanted was a reasonable pace to ensure a safe and successful ascent. I had worked so hard and spent so much money to get back here - there was so much riding on this for me.
We continued on and finally caught up with the earlier group, and at this point, the guides started having a pow-wow to discuss what would happen with our team mate who had descended (Collo had left her with another guide at camp 3). It was decided that one of the guides who had left with the earlier group, Seba, would head down, and take her all the way down to Plaza de Mulas (basecamp on the normal route/our descent route) to get her to a safe altitude. We were now back to having 3 guides for 10 clients. We continued as a group, up the switch backs, getting pounded constantly by the wind. As we arrived into Independencia (6400m), I felt a little tired, but I did feel relatively good and strong considering. I'd had a rough start, but I felt like I was back in a good head-space. At Independencia, Tash made the decision to call an end to her summit push - she'd had enough and with the wind pounding her she was happy with the decision to go back down. There was some further discussion and what seemed like a bit of arguing among the guides. Josh then announced to the group that Collo would be taking Tash down, and that anyone who thought they could not continue up another 6 hours to the summit, and 3 hours to descend safely, they would need to consider also calling it, as he could not risk losing another guide. This had many of us questioning ourselves, even those of us that were feeling strong. Because of this, one of the guys, Blaine, had managed to strike up a deal with Josh that Collo and Tash would wait until we got to the top of the switch backs leading up to the traverse to make sure we were feeling strong enough to continue. The last thing we wanted was to be anyone's reason not to successfully summit because we had to pull the pin two hours down the track, not leaving enough guides for the rest of the team to safely continue.
By the time we made it to the top of the switch backs, we had split into two groups again. Josh was with the faster group, who were already starting along the traverse, about 10-15 minutes ahead of us. Capi, Blaine, Alison, Kevin and I were at the top of the switchbacks, when Kevin asked Capi a question (I can't for the life of me remember what it was). It was then that Capi turned around and started shouting at us. I was absolutely gobsmacked - we all were. Kevin was almost speechless but managed to get out "are you really yelling at me right now?".
It seemed that Capi was concerned about the pace and was worried that we would not make the summit by 3pm. I felt so sure that we would, we all would. At the time, it was only 11am, and in my head I was thinking, "okay, 2 hours to the end of the traverse, and 2 hours up the Canaleta - we've totally got this". Now, after Capi yelling at us, I wasn't so sure. In the distance, along the traverse, I could see the other group stopping and starting, and I could see one of the girls, Juels, had turned around and was coming back toward us. Capi had been shouting at us about having to turn us back at the end of the traverse, and with all of the drama, it became too much for me. I shouted back "well why would I bust my ass for another two hours just to have you turn me back?!" Looking back, this was such a poor and shameful attitude to have, but I was tired, cold, mentally fatigued and I was still processing how the man who had been our support for the last two weeks, had come to the point where he was now turning on us and shouting at us with such frustration and anger. In hindsight, maybe he was just trying to speed a few of us up, but didn't know how to approach it. As Juels came past, she said she had had enough, and was calling it. She said she couldn't feel her face or fingers. I looked at each of us, and realized that with everything going on, no one had put their goggles or balaclavas on. The traverse is the coldest section of the climb, and Alan Arnett has even written in his blog about climbers ending up with frost bitten noses as they haven't worn proper protection. It came to the point where we all felt like the only option was to go down with Collo and Tash. Alison made the (very smart) decision to continue on regardless. She later told me that she thought "fuck it, I'm not letting them turn me back again, I was going to keep going and see how far I could get regardless". I wish I had done the same. I wish I had been as mentally strong in the heat of the moment instead of letting someone else's frustration get to me. It's easy to say that now looking back though.
And just like that, even though we felt like we were strong enough, at 6500m we were going down the mountain. I turned around and I looked at Blaine. Both of us were here on our second attempt; I hugged him and we both started crying. We walked down to Kevin who also started crying and the three of us hugged emotionally. I wanted it so bad, but it was not happening for us that day. We walked back down to Collo and Tash, and we sat defeated and cried, and cried, and cried... We then began the very emotional descent back down to Colera.
When we arrived to Colera, we had some noodle soup, and sat in our tents, still feeling very overwhelmed, emotional and teary. Juels and I overheard Collo on the radio - it sounded like they were organizing a rescue. We started to worry that it was someone from our group, but Collo told us that someone from the Russian group had been injured and they were making a tourniquet. We later found out that, very sadly, a lady from the Russian group and tripped over some rocks along the traverse and had broken her leg, causing a compound fracture. The guides put her on a stretcher and carried her down to camp 2 (Nido) where the Helicopter would attempt a rescue, however sadly she passed away on the way down.
After hours of waiting in anticipation, we heard the news that our remaining five team members, Josh and Capi and had summited and were only a few moments away from returning to camp. We waited for them, and cheered and clapped as they approached, all looking very weathered and exhausted. Something that one of the guys, Richard, said to me later on the trip that really stayed with me, was that he felt it must have taken a lot of courage for us, having turned around to still be there, waiting for them and celebrating their success, knowing that we hadn't been able to summit ourselves. It brought tears to his eyes, telling me how it felt seeing us waiting and cheering for them, regardless of our disappointment and hurt. I could not have been more proud of my friends and their achievement on that day. Each of them deserved it.
The following day, we packed up our camp and descended own the mountain via the normal route, and again, it was all so familiar. As we were coming down from Colera, I bumped into a friend of mine who is a guide for Inka, Julian, and gave him a big hug. As we chatted for a little while, I fell behind the rest of the group, and soon Collo had joined me.
Tash and Kevin were also not too far behind us. The four of us took our time heading down the mountain all the way to basecamp. We bypassed Nims' tent at Camp Canada, and Tash and I couldn't miss the opportunity to get a photo!
We arrived into basecamp, enjoyed dinner together, and the five of us girls all piled into the little room our friend had scored after descending the day before, while the guys made the decision to camp in the dining tent, rather than us all setting up tents for just one night at Plaza de Mulas.
In the morning, we woke to a beautiful dusting of snow, and began the extremely long and tiring walk out of Plaza de Mulas, through the Horocones Valley, all the way to the gate (with quick stop at Confluencia on the way through for a water break). The last day and walk out is always exhausting - you're tired, very dirty, you have a 30km walk out through a hot, dusty and windy valley, you then have to pick up your bags up from the mules, and finally, you then have a 3.5 hour bus ride back to Mendoza. It's a long day, and all you want is a shower, a hot meal and a bed, but both times I didn't arrive into Mendoza until way after midnight.
I was happy to spend the remaining few days in Mendoza enjoying good meals with my new dear friends and reflecting back on the trip. One by one, we each slowly departed, until I was the last CTSS climber remaining in Mendoza.
On my final night, Richard and I met up with Pasang Sherpa, who assisted him on his climb to the summit of Everest last year - I felt like I was in the presence of greatness, two very kind and humble men, yet both so impressive. I loved listening to their climbing stories. Pasang had been working for Grajales fixing the ropes for an ascent on the Polish Glacier.
It took me a while to process and talk about what happened on our summit day, and to accept Aconcagua's defeat for a second time. I try to remind myself that it's not just about summit day, and that every day on the mountain is an achievement. Through both of my experiences I have learnt so much about myself and about my strength, and I have met some pretty incredible people on my Aconcagua journeys. Although I did not have the most positive experience with CTSS on this particular occasion, I do want to reiterate that I don't blame Mike, Josh, or even Capi for the situation - who am I to judge on what kind of pressure it must be to have someone's safety in your hands, while already being in such a highly stressful and complex situation. Everyone I have spoken with who have climbed with Mike or CTSS previously, have had nothing but wonderful things to say about their experiences. Mike was very open to hearing my feedback regarding my personal experience on Aconcagua, and he has gone above and beyond to try and make it right with me, and I very much appreciate this. He could easily have taken my money and not cared about my two cents, but he was genuinely disappointed and willing to listen to my concerns. That shows to me how much his clients really do matter to him.
I will certainly be climbing with CTSS again - We had some big things planned for this year, but with COVID-19 and the world going into lockdown, I'm not entirely sure what this means for 2020 in terms of climbing anymore. I was just about to book my next two trips, before they closed the Australian borders. So with that, I will need to say "watch this space". I will certainly be climbing Aconcagua again one day - but I definitely need to take a break from that mountain. There are so many mountains to climb, and Aconcagua will always be there!
To watch the video of this climb, click below!