The way down
Our adventures were far from over. The plan was to hike down to lower camps once back from the summit but it wasn’t to be. Roy and I headed down fast, practically in a straight line, while David headache and vertigo meant he had to walk slowly. Surprisingly, there was a group of 6 climbers still going up. These guys were on a snail pace, probably 2 hours away from the top. If these guys ever made it, it will be a miracle. Also, at dusk, with limited views before needing to rush back down in the dark. Loco! but good luck guys. Once I reached Refugio Independencia, practically only ½ hour away from camp, my knee pain was back. I let Roy run ahead and it was my turn to take my sweet little time. Finally I reached Colera camp site by ~18:00 and I told Roy that it’s enough for today, we’re staying put. Although exhausted, I went once again to gather snow to melt for drinking water and our super, which hopefully will be ready when David arrives. While Roy was busy in the “kitchen”, I went around searching for Gabriela but no luck finding her. David arrived at 18:30 and soon after we finally could quench our thirst and eat to our hunger. That evening, I went to bed still dreaming of the summit.
We woke up to a very cold weather. It was -12ºC in the tent (all frosty again) and -22ºC outside. We could see the clouds building up in the mountains below us (yep, below) and it was obvious it will snow this afternoon. While we were packing and getting ready to head down, around 20 climbers were heading up to Independencia. There was no wind, clear skies above but the cold and the cloud build-up meant these guys better hurry. By 9:30, as we started our hike down thick clouds (not fog) rose up from the valley and engulfed us, soon thereafter it was snowing. David and Roy lead the way down and soon build up a big gap between us. They could walk straight down while my bad knees meant I had to zigzag, i.e. take the same route as when climbing up. I met up with them in Nido de Condores then I headed West (left) to Plaza Canada while the chicos decided to keep heading straight down. Wrong choice this time as they hit a very steep scree slope.
I reached Plaza Canada and kept walking down to Plaza de Mulas while the chicos were far on my right, still sliding on loose gravel and trying to make their way west toward me. There was a small river they had to cross too. I waited for them just above Plaza de Mulas and we headed to base camp together. We arrived by 13:00, ate and rested for one hour then continued our route to Confluencia. The guardaparque told us it was a 4 hour hike while the map says 8-12hrs… but the map was always pessimistic so we didn’t think about it much and headed down.
An hour downhill we reached Rio de los Horcones. Now the track follow the river and we were walking in its wide bed made of rocks and stones. Depending on the rain and the amount of melted snow, the rio will change which path on the river bed it will take, complicating our way down. Sometime we had vast stretches of pebble to walk on, other times we struggled to find a dry passage.
The hours passed and Campo Confluencia was still nowhere to be seen. Above, dark clouds were moving fast completely surrounding and covering Cerro Aconcagua. Poor guys who were still on top. Us too we were very cold: I was wearing 3 layers + a jacket and this is at ~4,000 meters! On the way up at similar altitude we were in T-shirt. I can just imagine how the weather would be high up.
Roy was extremely tired; he was taking a break every few hundred meters which was OK as we all stopped joked and laughed a little. But when the night approached it became problematic! We had no idea how far we still had to go and we might lose our path in the dark, bypass Confluencia and head toward Horcones, a further away campsite. I went ahead as I was walking faster and rarely took breaks, with the hope of reaching the campsite and come back to help Roy.
An hour later the darkness fell upon me. It was ~20:00: I put on my headlight and walked even faster. The terrain became steeper, switching to hills and valleys. It was hard to see in front of me and even harder to walk down the valleys. Finally, in the distance, I could see a few lights and I knew it was Campo Confluencia. Great, I am there! …then I hit a big quebrada splitting my route. I remembered from the map that there was a bridge to cross down below but I could not see it. Once at the bottom, I walked up and down the river path until I literally stumbled upon the metal supports holding the small metal bridge. I crossed to the other side and followed a path to the right which seemed to be the “right” way. But 5 minutes later, the path abruptly started going up across loose gravel. It was actually the fast straight down way. I just did not want to backtrack so I pushed ahead. It was a tough 20 minute climb and my shoes were filled with sand and stones. I could see the normal road above me but I couldn’t reach it. I kept following my path, somewhat parallel to the road above until I reached the top of the quebrada. Exhausted, I kept pushing. I stumbled first on a mule stable but no campsite in sight. Still more walking to do :(. At least, the path was more visible and I followed it until I saw Confluencia’s light to my left. As I entered the campsite, a few guys asked me if I was OK and pointed me to the Guardaparque. There, I quickly told him the story but he didn’t offer to send help. He was more concerned on checking my park permit & passport! He then told me he will give me 1.5 hour, until 23:00 before he will send help.
I emptied my small day pack and ran back to find the chicos. It took me only 20min to reach the bridge were I found the guys taking a break. I took some load of Roy’s backpack (Tent, rope, pic,…) and we walked back to Confluencia. All we were talking about now was food and the Tabasco sauce :). We reached the campsite just before 23:00, checked in with the guardaparque, put up our tent, cooked 3 bags of pasta and went to sleep around midnight.
Day 11, Thursday 24-Feb @ 7:00 AM, ready to hit our final leg of our journey. We were in a hurry, aiming to reach Campo Horcones then Routa 7 and take the 11:30 bus to Mendoza. I badly needed to reach home: for a good hot shower and to rest my knees. Not to mention my feet as trekking in my double plastic climbing boots was a killer; I had blisters all over the sole of my foot and on my toes.
The bus seats never felt as comfortable as on that day. I shook Roy and David hands: Now we truly conquered Aconcagua and are safely on the way back. Tonight, we will feast on the best asado in the city, relish on ice-cream(s) and let the wine flow.
Article: Interview with Augusto – Diario Uno (Mendoza)
– Speed Flying: Francois Bon climbed Aconcagua and then jumped down the south face by parachute. Amazing footage.
– Ultimate moments of Federico Campanini: The dangers of Aconcagua ascent: Altitude & AMS, snow storms, fatigue, cold, … and sometimes the rescates! Shocking and disturbing video (warning):