By Jessica DiToro, LRE Project Engineer
In December my boyfriend (Stephan) and I set out to climb the highest peak in South America: Aconcagua. At 22,800 feet high, Aconcagua is the 2nd highest of the Seven Summits. Apart from the altitude, the standard climbing route is not very technical. We made the three-day, 17-mile trek to basecamp (14,500 feet) in two days. Although spirits were high, we were greeted with an ominous 10-day weather forecast that encompassed our anticipated summit window. A -50F wind-chill and 70 mph winds were forecasted above 20,000 feet. I heard that one girl had to put rocks in her backpack so she didn’t get blown off the mountain as she was approaching the summit! Unfortunately, unbeknownst to us, attempting this mountain (or any high-altitude South American mountain) during an El Niño year meant greater risk and challenge than we had anticipated.
We opted to spend two nights and one day at basecamp before we moved any higher. Although neither of us had (or would) get altitude sickness on this trip, we both acquired some sort of GI bug at basecamp, likely from the poor sanitary conditions. Luckily the worst of it only lasted about a day, but it was enough to make me truly appreciate the luxury of access to clean running water.
Following our “rest” day, we climbed to Camp 1 (17,000 feet), and buried a load of food and cold weather clothing under a pile of rocks before descending back to basecamp to sleep (“climb high, sleep low”). The following day, we packed up our tent and climbed the 2,500 feet to Camp 1 again, and set up at Camp 1. The next day, we hiked to Camp 2 (18,500 feet) for another acclimation day hike. We hiked a bit past Camp 2 and maxed out at an altitude of 19,000 feet before descending back to Camp 1 due to impending weather. We planned to hike and stay at Camp 2 the following day, but when we awoke, it was clear that Mother Nature had other plans. A large swirling black cloud had formed near the summit, and was slowly working its way down the cliffs towards the lower camps, bringing wind, snow, and lightning. We managed to pack up our gear and descend through the storm to basecamp. The snow fell so rapidly that Stephan left the tent in the middle of the night to shovel us out so we didn’t accidentally asphyxiate in our tent while we slept.
From this point, the trip went downhill, literally. The updated 10-day weather forecast still showed consistently bad weather. Also, the park rangers were stopping people from ascending above 19,500 feet (approximately Camp 3, the final camp before the summit). Due to the deteriorating conditions, the normal 40% summit success rate had dropped to less than 10%.
Though we could have reattempted the climb and waited for a possible weather window from our tent at one of the higher camps, we felt it was too risky. Every day above basecamp had the potential to make us weaker, combined with the bitter cold, the chance of developing an altitude-related illness would only increase. We left the frigid snow-covered basecamp and hiked out to civilization. We returned to our hotel in Mendoza that evening, and after a much-needed shower, we set out for dinner, happy to be in the wine and steak capital of South America.
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