The ideal time to start the ascent is around 6:00 and we set the alarm just before that. But when we woke up, the tent was once again all frosty and our thermometer reading -10ºC. Without actually saying it, we all just huddled in the sleeping bag and “slept” a little more. 7 o’clock passed before we actually jumped out to eat and get ready. David decided to start the climb and see how it goes… with the help of more asperinas. He just couldn’t stay behind and allow Roy to head up alone representing Arequipa. By 8:30 we were ready to start our ascent. We could see about 8 other climbers on the slopes above us, probably having started the ascent an hour or so earlier.
An hour into our climb, we caught up to the others at Refugio Independencia, lying at 6,210 m.a.s.l.. We were already at similar heights as all surrounding mountains including Cerro Ameghino which seemed so close to us. We all huddled around the “refuge” to rest. The actual “refuge” was a tiny wooden hut, in ruins, missing some panels and barely fitting 1 person. But wait, it had a VHF radio. Yep, I feel more secure already.
At this stage, we all put on our crampons to continue our ascent. There were: a German couple, Marciano (a Swiss German), us 3 and behind us Tuck & his wife, a Japanese couple (the husband kept on screaming (add Japanese accent here :)) “To the top!”, plus another quiet couple. A quick note on Marciano: he started his trip on 4-Feb. The first time he reached Campo Berlin he was very exhausted. He tried to rest & recoup his energy (in Berlin) but in vain and he was forced to head back down to Plaza de Mulas. There, he rested for 3 days, hiked back up and now he’s at his 2nd attempt to reach the top. You’ve got to admire his perseverance.
We all started the ascent and 50 meter higher we reached a col that emerges onto the Gran Accareo. The Gran Accareo is a huge open scree slope which runs from the foot of la Canaleta all the way down to Campamento Nido de Condores. A la queue-leu-leu, we started our traverse of the Cresta del Viento icy path. Here, the winds were battering us hard, pushing us onto the mountain side and making me feel colder, especially my fingertips.
It took us a good hour to arrive to the foot of the Canaleta, a 400 meter chute which will be our next and toughest challenge. We all rested for 10 minutes, munching on power bars. I looked back toward the Gran Accareo I couldn’t see anyone else: the rest of the group – all 3 couples: Tuck’s, Japanese and the quiet one – actually turned back.
Now, it was us 6 and a couple of French guys who were also resting at the Canaleta base. They were exhausted, looking as if they were high. Their story? 7 of them started the ascent at 3:00AM (locos!) and these 2 were the lagging ones.
Tired and trembling from cold, they were incoherent and unintelligible. I tried to help the best I can: conversed a little with them, gave them some of my water which they gulped down (their water froze and now me too was in a bad situation, they drank all my water as my other bottles also froze :(, tried to encourage them,… They were adamant on heading up so all I could do was propose to them to follow our pace and climb with us which they gladly accepted.
It was time to continue our ascent. The Canaleta is an extremely tough and steep climb and we were resting every few minutes. The French guys couldn’t make it past 5 minutes and they stopped. As for Roy, David and I were climbing baby steps so as to not exhort ourselves and keep our breathing rhythm. Sometime I stopped to force-hyperventilate a few breaths to clear my lungs and get much needed oxygen into my blood. The atmospheric pressure here is just 40% of the sea level pressure. To give you an idea how rare the oxygen is at this altitude, even just swallowing will put you out of breath forcing you to stop and gasp for air again.
One hour into the Canaleta, I felt drained. I was not tired per se, nor affected by altitude, rather I did not have any energy to lift my legs. Weird feeling, I felt like a car out of gas struggling to still keep running on fumes. Roy stopped us and opened cans of tuna to eat alongside our regular powerbars. But guess what? The tuna was frozen solid! … and it tasted awful. I knew I had to eat it anywayZ as the powerbars and chocolate were just not cutting it for me. I could only manage to swallow ½ of the can forcing myself not throw up. I then stuffed another piece of Mani Chocolate in my mouth (that stuff is energy rich), drank some of the guys water and hit the Canaleta again. Aconcagua summit was now in clear site… ~250m above us, i.e. a good couple of hours climb. One thing was clear in my mind. I was going to make it to the top; there will be no turning back. The 5 French guys passed us on their way down (I warned them about their friends which they shrugged off: “t’en fais pas, ils se débrouillent”… (nice friends, eh!), followed by 3 Scandinavian guys. One of these guys was wearing a sort of an oxygen mask and he was rude, impatient, mumbling stuff and shoving people around. Marciano got the toughest end of it: he was trying to climb a rock when he encountered this Scandinavian guy who just jumped, pushed Marciano on the side and kept tumbling down the path. Go figure.
We were all struggling to continue but nothing will stop us now. It was just a matter of when we get there rather than if. At this point we were taking a break every few meters of ascent. Finally, we reached a narrow ridge which joins the South summit (6,930m.a.s.l.) with the higher Northern summit. This summit ridge reaches the top of the huge South face which we could see all along our trip . The largest glacier, the Ventisquero Horcones Inferior, is about 10 km long which descends from the south face to about 3600m altitude near the Confluencia camp. Peering over the ridge, I was looking straight down a ~2,700 meters drop, a sight good enough to numb my legs. I guess better keep looking up.
All that remained between us and the summit was a 20 minutes snow and rock ascent. Sure enough, David was first up (to film us 🙂 and then it was my turn to take the final few steps and… voila!
WE MADE IT!
We reached the summit!! 6,962 m.a.s.l.! Yeaaaah!!
I was standing on top of Aconcagua mountain, a 6,962 meter high flat terrace with its famous aluminum cross in the middle. I hugged David then Roy too climbed his final step and joined us. It was a very emotional moment… tears were rolling down our eyes. We did it! After the entire struggle, the pain and suffering, here we are (casi) on top of the world.
We looked at our German friends and we saw the guy on one knee proposing to his girlfriend. We all rushed to congratulate the newly engaged and the fiesta continued even louder. We were shouting triumphant screams (and then quickly becoming out of breathe 😉 and the cameras popped out & everyone was snapping pictures. We spent a good 10 minutes just posing for the cameras and celebrating.
Then Marciano and the newly engaged headed back down as they were drowsy and suffering from the altitude. We were left all alone to enjoy the views. We walked the whole platform, looking around us and down the mountain sides. The Southern facade was stunning, a ~2,700 meter straight rock cliff. We went to the east and screamed “Americo! Sebastien!”: the guys were expected to climb up Polaco glacier today, but no response and we couldn’t see anyone. We unfurled our flags and started taking more pics, some of them completely crazy. We were just euphoric like kids on a X-mas eve.
Unbelievable! I sat down at the highest point on the platform, admiring the views and absorbing the moment. I felt like a king resting on his thrown, high above his kingdom. I let go another victory scream. Here I am, I realized another dream. And with the chicos help, we did it the hard but also the true way, like the first Andenistas.
The jubilation continued. I took out the bottle of Brut Chandon Champagne I was carrying all along and passed it to Roy for the honours… Video is worth a thousand words, check it out:
We then calmed downed and each went on his way reflecting on our accomplishment, bathing in the euphoria of feelings and emotions that were erupting inside us. It was a unique, incredibly powerful yet indescribable state. What an exhilarating moment! It was even more intoxicating than the lack of oxygen. This exploit and its ecstasy will mark me for life…. and makes me write this 😉
An hour passed by before we decided to head down. It was already 15:00 and we knew we had a ~3 hours hike down to our camp. I gave a final look around as if saying goodbye to an old friend. I made sure I was the last one to come down from the summit: Since climbers won’t start reaching 7,000 or 8,000 meters in Asia (and Himalayas) until May or June, it is safe to assume that on 23-Feb-2010, I was standing taller than any other human in the world!
To reach the summit, physical might is not enough. The real power lies in the mental strength to never give up or give in, the perseverance to keep pushing ahead and the desire to conquer and succeed. This is how I made it all the way to the top and I inherited these traits from my Mom. On Aconcagua, I pushed my limits farther than I could have ever imagined.
I dedicate this ascent to you Mom. Thank you.
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