Adding an Aconcagua extension after your expedition to Ojos del Salado is a fantastic way to climb South America’s highest peak. It removes the need to do any acclimatisation hikes or additional load carries on the mountain. It’s a bit of a whistle stop tour but without the feeling of being rushed, if that makes any sense.
We arrive in Mendoza from Copiapo (via Santiago), everything runs smoothly, we even manage to regain one of the bags that had been lost for the whole of the Ojos Climb, so Nu has fresh clothes whilst the rest of us turn our hotel room into a laundry. The hotel in Mendoza is really nice and we have space to spread our kit out and select what is needed, the rest is left at the hotel. One huge benefit of climbing Ojos first is that everyone knows what kit (layers) worked for them on Ojos, they can then use that exact same kit for Aconcagua.
After the usual, hurry up and wait routine of getting permits anywhere, we get the shopping and head for Penitentes, a drive of about 4 hours. It’s actually New Year’s Eve (Hogmanay for us Scots), the group are torn between getting an early night and staying up to see in the New Year. We have been used to early nights on the expedition so far and midnight for me is a real effort!
Next day we have a very leisurely morning and then head to the ranger station at Punta de Vacas and trek to Pampa de Lenas, our first camp. It is an easy walk, which is just as well, as our heads are tilted up trying to take in the amazing scenery, with two geologists on the trip it’s hard not to bombard them with questions, on how all the different rock formations were created. We don’t spot any guanacos, but lots of geckos. At camp our dinner is the legendary Muleteer’s barbecue, we finish just as the sun goes down and it’s straight into the tent, hiding everything away from the sneaky foxes that are brave enough to come to the porch of your tent to steal any food they can get at.
Our daily routine of packing our kit bags, dropping our tents, then having breakfast comes very easily to us now, we are a very slick team. After breakfast we cross the river by the small bridge then follow the river as the valley opens out until we reach Casa de Piedra. Today we see guanacos, and as we approach camp we get our first views of Aconcagua framed in the stunning Relincos Valley.
We wimp out of the early morning river crossing and hitch a lift with one of the muleteers (the best dollar you can spend). The walk up to Plaza Argentinas (base camp) is at a nice easy pace, we don’t want to rush as we want to save our strength for the following days. Food at Base camp is great and it’s hard not to want to stay for more days just for the food. We don’t have too much faffing to do, we just organise what food we want for higher on the mountain.
With our rucksacks full we move up to camp 1 it’s the the first day with the heavier pack and once the team get used to this, and adjust their pace accordingly we split the walk into 3 parts; up the steep section out of camp, through the penetenties, then the final scree slope up to camp. The weather turns a bit for the worse as we arrive and makes the putting up of the tents a bit more exciting and it’s nice to get into the shelter of the dome, mess tent to cook dinner.
We check the weather and move up to Camp 3 Gunacos with the view that we will rest there the following day, that way we are in position for the move up when the weather looks best for summit night. Again the pace is slow and steady, saving our strength for summit night. The views are stunning when you reach the col.
Another check of the weather and we decide it’s best to hold off a day, the itinerary is flexible and we have time to wait. Sometimes sitting about is hard especially when teams are close to the summit, it was literally right above us! We spent the day eating and hydrating, you never want to neglect looking after yourself, let alone so close to summit day. Our afternoon is spent practising our ice axe and crampon techniques.
All packed up and ready to go we wait for Mathias our porter to come up from base camp (he is super strong) and move up to Camp Colera where we quickly gather ice and begin the task of boiling water and filling all of our containers. This way tonight when we get ready to leave for the summit it is only a matter of reboiling the water. It’s an early dinner and then into our sleeping bags.
We wake at 4:30am and leave at 5:30am, as always the first bit out of camp seems the toughest as you try to explain to your body that everything is temporary, that it can keep this pace up, it will get light soon, it will warm up, after all you are on your holidays! Eventually you begin to tick off the climb, past Independencia Hut, and the small climb behind it, past the finger rock and eventually up to the cave at the foot of the Canaletta. Then we only have that final push up the Canaletta to the summit, finally within our grasp. The weather turns quickly and we go from a perfectly nice day to full on Scottish Winter conditions, goggles on and hoods up to protect you from the horizontal hailstones and spindrift. You know the kind of day I mean! Safely back down at camp everyone is too tired to celebrate, we will save that for base camp tomorrow.
We pack up and head over the other side of the mountain, it’s a long descent much of it on scree and it doesn’t take long for each of the team to comment on how glad they were that they had come up via the Vacas Valley route. Looking down on the Plaza de Mulas base camp it seems much busier and more condensed than the Plaza Argentinas side, at least it is only for one night. The good thing about using the Horcones Valley to come out is that it’s only one day out from base camp to Penitentes. Then it’s back to Mendoza for steak, wine and ice cream, and a shower every time you go in the room, just because you can!