Taking It To The Summit
Climbing South America's Mt. Aconcagua
Few of the lofty peaks in South America's Andes Range are household names, and Aconcagua isn't one of them. Thought the 23,028-foot-high summit falls just shy of quadrupling Mt. Washington's height, nothing else in this hemisphere rises about it. Three thousand feet higher than Alaska's Mount McKinley, Aconcagua lies in Argentina, close to the border with Chile, east of Santiago.
Here in a land where January marks the middle of summer. John Bouchard and Rick Wilcox of North Conway led a 10-man expedition on an adventure which was as physically exhaustive as it was rewarding. On average, each member of the team lost 20 pounds during the three-week trip, and while there are less difficult ways to shed excess weight, no one was disappointed.
Bouchard (the director and owner of Mount Washington Valley guides) and Wilcox (the owner of International Mountain Equipment) chose Aconcagua for a number of reasons. For one, it was a mountain they knew. "John took a client there in January 1981 on an exploratory trip," Wilcox said, "and he suggested that we could take a larger party this year." Moreover, although the mountain represented a challenge, the climb was well within Wilcox's and Bouchard's abilities. Between them, they had scaled peaks ranging from Yosemite's Half Dome, Mount Logan, and Mount St. Elias to the North Face of the Eiger, the Matterhorn, and Mount Blanc, and both men had already climbed extensively in the Andes.
In addition, as Wilcox explained, they selected Aconcagua since it has a certain amount of "sex appeal." "Obviously, Mount Washington attracts more hikers than Mount Osceola," he said, "When people go home and tell their friends, 'I climbed Mount Washington,' it has a more impressive ring than if they say, 'I climbed Mount Isolation'." Finally, since their chosen route to the top of Aconcagua followed a well-graded path, expedition members didn't need to have extensive technical climbing skills in the use of ropes, carabiners, crampons and the other gear used in scaling sheer rock walls.
"Climbing to Aconcagua is very similar to hiking above treeline on Mount Washington," Wilcox added. "It's a bit steeper, but you don't need to use a rope on a single pitch of the whole trip."
As it tuned out, the selection of Aconcagua did attract a number of interested clients, so many, in fact, that Wilcox and Bouchard recruited a third guide for the expedition. "We want the guide-to-client ratio be kept as low as possible," Wilcox continued, "to give each client the best possible opportunity to make the summit. With seven clients, we felt that we should have three guides." To fill this position, they recruited 24-year-old Mark Richie, an architecture student who had climbed extensively in the Alps and the Rockies. Richie's fluency in Spanish, however, was an unexpected benefit which proved valuable in making connections once they landed in Santiago on January 11th.
From Santiago, the team traveled by bus on the Trans Andean Highway to a tiny hot springs called Puente del Inca - a remote spa 9,000 feet above sea level complete with one hotel and one restaurant. Two days later, after securing the necessary government "permissions," the group moved out across the Horcones Valley on a 30-mile hike to their base camp at Plaza de Mulas ("Place of the Mules").
This stretch of their trip was both a preparation for the more difficult climb ahead and a test in itself. Loosely translated, the name means "Valley of the Forks," a moniker which fits well since several glacier-fed streams flow into the Valley's main river. However, while water abounds, thin soils and the high elevation combine to keep vegetation to a minimum. "The trail to Plaza de Mules was nothing more than a gravel rut across a desert," Wilcox said. "The area was extremely arid with almost no plant life."
The hike was no picnic. Because each man carried 100 pounds of gear, the party had to retrace every step they took. Backpacking 50 pounds, they hiked for a day, set up a camp, then returned the next day to bring up the remainder of their equipment. Aside from fatigue, the only danger on the approach to Aconcagua came when crossing the rivers.
"Since we were double carrying, we had six crossings, "Wilcox explained, "and we had to be very careful at each one." If the crossing came early in the day before the sun had heated the glaciers, the waters remained low. Afternoon crossings were far more treacherous. "At one spot we could hop from boulder to boulder in the morning, but when we returned, the rocks were under water," Wilcox recalled. For safety, each man was belayed on a rope when going across the river - a wise precaution considering that three men did take a cold and unexpected dip in the course of the repeated crossings.
After five days, the climbers pulled into Plaza de Mulas where they rested and acclimatized at 13,600 feet. (Argentina soldiers, patrolling the border on horseback, use the Plaza de Mulas - a building the size of Howard Johnson's - as a barracks when making their rounds.) "We could have rented mules and had our gear delivered to the Plaza," Wilcox said, "but it made more sense to carry our own equipment." By spending several days ferrying gear up to their base camp, the party had the necessary time to adjust to the rigors of oxygen-poor air. Moreover, by relying on man-power, they saved a bundle.
"In Peru, you can rent a mule for a dollar and a quarter a day," Wilcox added "In Argentina, the daily rate ranges between $40 and $50. It made economic and physical sense to carry our own."
Following another day of rest, the group pushed ahead again, establishing camps first at 15,500 feet, next at 17,000 feet and finally at 20,600 feet at a place called "Berlin." Unlike its New Hampshire namesake, the Berlin camp was nothing more than a tiny flat clearing carved on the side of Aconcagua's northern ridge with two tiny tin "dog houses" for emergency shelter, Here the climbers set up their tents in preparation for the final assault.
By this time, the altitude had begun to extract a toll on the party. "Above 17,000 feet, your body can not replace the protein in its muscles," Wilcox explained. "You're in a state of deterioration. This doesn't mean that a person wasted away into nothing within two days, but it does mean that you won't increase your strength by resting." In this elevation appetite for food and water slacks off, and the body grows progressively weaker.
"It's almost as if you undergo a mental change at the same time," he continued. "At one level you tell yourself, 'If I eat more food and drink more water, I'll be OK at 20,000 feet.' Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way."
At Berlin, plans had to be altered. To that point, the climb's timetable had been followed to the letter, but now the situation dictated a change. According to the schedule, the party should have established one final camp at Independencia (21,600) before attempting to reach the summit. In light of the physical condition of the group. this seemed unwise.
"Several members of the party were fatiguing," Wilcox said, "and their appetites weren't what they should have been. Some were beginning to cough and some had more problems each time we climbed higher." Rather that losing the momentum they had gained, those who were still able decided to make a summit attempt early the next morning. "People can't stay at the altitude and improve their strength," Wilcox added. "The question was how much time we had before we had to go back down."
At daybreak the next morning, Wilcox and Richie left camp with five of the clients, leaving Bouchard and two other party members at Berlin; they had reached their physical limits. While they had to climb only 2,200 feet - roughly the same distance between Tuckerman Ravine and Mt. Washington - every step was a struggle. "In the morning we could walk for two or three minutes before stopping to catch our breath," Wilcox recalled, but by the afternoon we were resting after every five or six steps." Even though they were climbing without packs, the altitude sapped their energy.
The group moved slowly, passing Independencia Camp and turning southward toward a col below the summit ridge. Beyond this camp, they encountered an ice-crusted snowfield - 300 feet across - which slowed their progress to a snail's pace, "We had to cut steps, one at a time, to cross this snow field," Wilcox explained, "It was too hard to kick into, as there was no other way."
Despite these difficulties, the seven men managed to reach the summit ridge around noon; now only 1,000 feet separated them from their goal. Unfortunately, this leg of the climb -rising upward at a slightly steeper pitch than the Mt. Washington cone - crosses open scree slopes composed entirely of small, loose rocks. As Wilcox noted, this final stretch proved to be "an absolute wipe-out." "With every step you took, it felt as it you were slipping back two," he said, "From here, a lot of our climbing was done on all fours."
While everyone continued upward, the party split into two groups with Wilcox and two clients taking the lead. Four grueling hours later the Wilcox group struggled to the top, 23,028 feel above sea level. Having spent more than 10 hours climbing, however, they had little time to enjoy their triumph. A localized snow storm - the only precipitation which fell during the entire trip - obscured their vision, and no one wanted to spend a night far from the food and shelter of the Berlin camp.
"Time was up" Wilcox said. "We had planned to turn back by 4:30 - regardless where we were - so we'd have enough time to return to camp. A bivouac on the mountain would have been very dangerous. People were completely exhausted, and they hadn't eaten enough food during the day to get their bodies to generate heat. When someone has all their clothes on and they're still not warm, that tells you that the furnace isn't working too well."
The three men in the Wilcox group retraced their steps and linked up with the Richie party a mere 500 feet below the summit. Close as the summit was, no one in the Richie party - aside from Richie himself had the strength to climb a step higher. "Everyone realized that even with another three weeks, they weren't going to make it any higher," Wilcox said. "It''s like driving down the expressway: When your car runs out of gas, your'e not going to make the next exit. You can sit in your car for weeks, but your'e still not going anywhere. Nothing will change."
Leaving Richie to climb to the summit, Wilcox took charge of the five clients and descended to camp at Berlin. Before reaching Berlin, Richie rejoined the group having made it to the summit on his own. The next day, all 10 men broke camp and headed back down the mountain, arriving at Plaza de Mulas as the sun was setting. Here they lightened their loads by exchanging the remainder of their freeze-dried food for cheese and crackers - trading with a Spanish expedition headed up the mountain. After another night's rest, the party moved out again and arrived at Puente del Inca that evening. As Wilcox pointed out, the thoughts of warm beds, hot showers, whole food, and cold beer quickened everyone's pace on the hike homeward.
More importantly, the clients were happy "No one was injured and everyone was pleased," Wilcox reported, "and these people have told us they're recommending us to their friends." Since Wilcox will be leading a trip to Peru this June, and since Wilcox and Bouchard hope to return to Aconcagua next year, their growing reputation for leading safe, professional and successful expeditions bodes well for the future.
The reaction of one of their clients - a 44-year-old Long Island man - provided the best kind of endorsement. Having climbed with guides on the Matterhorn and Kilimanjaro, he was well aware of the rigors that awaited him on Aconcagua. "He knew exactly what he was doing," Wilcox said. "He trained hard, ate the correct foods, and paced himself throughout the climb." In spite of all this effort, this man ran out of steam 500 feet below the summit.
"I came down to him and said, 'Well I guess you're not going to make it to the top.' He said: 'Don't blame yourself, I just can't do it.' You know, he has already sent us a deposit for next year's trip."