Reaching Higher Peaks
A little more than year ago, on a clear morning of December, I was on a flight from Santiago de Chile to Buenos Aires. I was gazing through the window, slowly waking up and letting go of my dreams. Suddenly, I stood up straight in my seat: the earth seemed to get closer. No, we were not going down rather approaching the Andes. As we started crossing the cordillera, a gorgeous sight of snowy mountain peaks began to unravel. I was mesmerized by these majestic summits, pointing to the skies, standing high and proud. I quickly snapped a picture to keep as a souvenir. I needed to find out more about these mountains and planned to do so on my return trip, once I reach Mendoza.
25 days later I landed in Mendoza, city famous for its vineyards, wines and olive oil. But strolling throughout the city streets, you will also notice tons of advertising and posters of Cerro Aconcagua. Hiking and mountaineering equipment rental shops as well as guide agencies specializing in Aconcagua climb abound. Somewhere in my picture, one of those peaks was Cerro Aconcagua, I was sure about it. I bought a map, hooked up with Ian (a fellow traveler) and went to check out “Parque Provincial Aconcagua”.
There stood Cerro Aconcagua, 6,962m high. It’s the highest peak in the Americas and highest mountain outside Asia and its Himalaya chain. One thing was crossing my mind: “I want to reach the top”… “One day I WILL be on the top”.
Didn’t think I will get a chance to try and climb Cerro Aconcagua so soon. My motorcycle trip was all based on reaching Mendoza before mid-February, in time for the last days when I could start climbing Aconcagua prior to the southern winter season. It’s a 14-18 day journey during March, the “invierno altiplánico” will render this ascent extremely difficult & dangerous and by April, even experts will shy away. Climbing Aconcagua is an expensive expedition. Tours and guides start at a bare minimum of U$D3,000, park entrance fee is $467 and unless climbing is your hobby, you’ll have to rent all the equipment for a 20 day period (Tent, -37ºC sleeping bag, mattress, double plastic boots, thermal outer layers, crampons, picks,…). For me I was lucky since I met Roy in Arequipa, my guide and now friend, when climbing the Chachani Mountain. We agreed that with David, another Arequipenian guide, they will help me climb Cerro Aconcagua. Not only I will save money, Roy will also lend me all equipment needed, I will have trustworthy guides by my side and most importantly, I will dictate the rhythm. i.e. I am not bound by other climbers (for the good or the bad) as the case in a guided tour. It is also a win-win situation as it’s an opportunity for David and Roy to lead “la Primera Expedicion Arequipeña” to climb solo the Aconcagua, with yours truly as an honorary member :).
But things are never that easy. I had tons of problems transferring some money to Roy, which delayed his trip. But then, when I thought things were OK, it got even worse. I was already in Mendoza when I received a call from Roy on 11-Feb at 1:00 AM. The guys got attacked by 6 men in Jujuy (Argentina), beaten up and robbed. They lost part of their personal belonging and 1 equipment duffle bag. Immediately, I rushed to Mendoza’s bus station to try and buy them tickets to get here. But at 2:00 all was closed. The bus station was also dangerous with all the scum lurking around and eying me. I made sure I stuck to 2 police officers, following them on their watch round (to their great annoyance). When the morning came and the ticket booths started to open, I stood there frozen. Roy ran out of his last pesos and we lost phone contact. To transfer the bus tickets to Roy, I needed to pass him a numerical code so he could retrieve them in Jujuy. I just couldn’t buy the tickets! I had no choice but to get back to the hotel and wait. At 11:00, I finally received a phone call from Roy. Someone actually lent him a cell so he can call me. He was tired and exasperated all he wanted to do was to return to Peru. Just great! :(. … but we couldn’t talk much. I still rushed and transferred him U$D200 via Western Union prior to the 13:00 siesta closing time. Then I had to make another leap of faith: I called the cell owner and gave him the code needed to withdraw the money which he had to pass to Roy once he sees him. Wow… I just couldn’t believe what I was doing. I was hopping even praying that all would be OK and if things actually work out, that the boys will still come to Mendoza. And I lost contact again with them.
All I can do now was hope for the best and wait… until the following morning; Jujuy is an 18 hour bus ride to Mendoza. I probably passed the limit of trustworthiness with Roy + David, but someone had to help them. As for our agreement, I could only hope they’ll snap out of it and still head here. But you know me, I couldn’t stand still. So I went inquiring about climbing Aconcagua at a few guide agencies. Hey, I was going to make it to the top one way or the other and I needed a backup plan. Ironically, talking with the agencies actually made me feel worse. The first questions they asked me were about my physical condition. Have I trained for the past 4 to 6 months? “Yeah, I did train 1 month in Quito back in November to rehabilitate my knee”. And you could see the guides frown. What have I been doing since then? “Riding my motorcycle for the past 2 ½ month”. And the frown gets bigger; the guides were really not amused. But as you might have guessed it, the smiles soon adorned their faces and they replied : “No problem, it’s OK, you look very fit. Just put U$D3,000 deposit and you can join the tour leaving in 2 days… You are lucky, only 1 spot left”. And they continued: “Wow, together we are going to climb Aconcagua and reach the top! Oh, the views from the top are marvelous”. O–Key… very re-assuring, thanks guys, where do I sign and pay? The other downcast was meeting many climbers who didn’t make it to the top. I spent some time at the Aconcagua guides and registration office to talk to the guides, review Aconcagua books and gather info. In there I met an Italian group which reached the upper camp but they were so exhausted they elected to return without even trying to reach the top. Another American guy suffered from AMS and had to be rushed back to lower altitude via helicopter; he told us in the base camp clinic was a German in serious conditions with water accumulating in his lungs which needed to be flown to the emergency. A couple of Argentinean guys couldn’t withstand the cold and turned around,… scary stories! All this effort, all the preparation, time, money, the actual climb,… yet these guys were stopped in their tracks; they just could not make it. It was extremely hard for me to understand why and how. I mean, couldn’t they dig deep inside, give 1 more day of effort and reach the top? No. Couldn’t they get some rest at high altitude camp? Again, NO.
Next morning I went to the bus station and waited. After 5 or so buses pulled over, asking each driver where is he coming from, finally Jujuy bus arrived @ 11:30, half an hour late. And sure enough, I see Roy and David coming down the bus. Trust me when I tell you I was ecstatic to see them. David was hit the most during the robbery, bruised but he was OK. As for the equipment, that was a sad story: 2 sleeping bags, 2 boots, 3 mattresses, 3 technical picks, 60m climbing rope, harnesses, clips… all gone. Around U$D800+ of equipment. Ouch!
But the chicos spirit was high and didn’t even require rest. I checked them in at my Triskel Hostel and in the afternoon, we all went touring the city for equipment rental shops. We also searched for and met a few of Roy`s and David friends who are also guides to help us get our trip back on track. We had an advantage; most of Aconcagua guides are actually Peruvian and are friends with Roy. We met Augusto, who holds the record for most time climbing Aconcagua (see article in appendix at the end) and will be leading a group soon for his 55th expedition (leaving similar dates as us). Holmes and Julver, who hold the top 2 fastest records of climbing Aconcagua (Julver was fastest @ 20:hr38min), Americo a teacher-guide from Cuzco (he was actually Roy’s teacher) and will also be climbing in the coming days, Mitchel ex-manager of the Casa de Guias de Montaña in Arequipa and many more….
We were also short on money as there’s a withdrawal limit in bank machines (and barely anyone accept Credit Cards). But lady luck was on our side now. One rental shop, Pire, and his owner Rodrigo threw in huge discounts to help us. Our trip was taking shape and concretizing. But after all equipment rental and buying the park entrance permits we were back to our $$ problem. Mule rental was costly and at U$D400 for a 60Kg carry to base camp and back, it will delay us 2 days to collect the money. The chicos convinced me that we could divide and carry the weight, that they are used to heavy & long hikes and we should just go. And so it shall be.
By Sunday night we were ready: We had 18 days of food with us, 10 liters of benzina and all equipment. We just needed to go for our “last meal” and what else then a typical asado tenedor libre? Our expedition was a GO.
or click on “page 2” below.