Attempt on Aconcagua-1996

“Let’s have dinner at the Navel Observatory” my teammates suggested. I readily agreed, not realizing that they were referring to one of the many plazas where the lovely, young scantily-clad Argentinean beauties of Mendoza strolled in the evenings.


As usual, I was the only female in the group who gathered in Argentina from all over the US to climb Aconcagua, one of the seven summits. At 22,841’ it is the highest mountain in the Western hemisphere. But the group seemed friendly, fit and fun. And I was eagerly anticipating our three week adventure on the mountain.


The next morning we had a gear sorting session, practiced our pressure breathing, mountaineering stepping and departed for the trailhead. We were taking the Rio De Las Vacas Route- the longer, but less traveled route up the mountain. The main portion of our gear was carried by mules at this stage, leaving us free to enjoy the several day stroll along the river to our Base Camp, Plaza Argentina at 13,800’.


This is where the real portion of the climb began. The muleteers left us and we hoisted our own loads up to the remaining camps on the mountain. I had some trepidation about carrying the 50-pund pack at altitude and keeping up with the group.


Eight years earlier I had climbed Mt Rainer with Rainer Mountaineering, Inc. and had difficulty keeping pace with the guide, Craig Van Hoy. I later read that he held the record for the fastest assent of Rainer!  Before this trip, I had several conversations with our guide Peter Whitaker about my concerns of holding the group back. He assured me that they had ways of slowing the faster members of the group down by “adjusting” the loads team members carried.


I had practiced before the trip by hiking up and down a one-mile, 1000 foot hill behind my house in Boise three times every morning for about six weeks with a 50-pound pack. I knew my muscles and endurance were strong. I even had some experience at altitude, having climbed to 20,000’ in Bolivia two years earlier, but I wasn’t carrying such a heavy pack on that climb. I was concerned about the speed and altitude. 


After a rest day at Base Camp, we set our packs out for the guides to load with communal gear to carry to Camp One at 16,280’. I was pleasantly surprised to see that my pack didn’t weigh the 50 pounds that I had been training with. I’m sure Peter was trying to help me with my concerns about holding the group back.


The trail was snowy, difficult and steep but we climbed the 3000 feet with little difficulty. I was very pleased that I was able to keep pace with the rest of the group with no problem.


Although traveling with well known guides like Peter and his associates, Mark Tucker (Everest summiteer) and Jeff Martin, (another Rainier guide) is not the most economical way to climb, it was invaluable for me. I have learned lessons from these world-class climbers that I continue to utilize in my climbing today.


I can still hear Peter’s voice in my head when I climb 14’ers in Colorado. Take a break. Take off your pack, put on your jacket, drink, eat, and if there is time, take a photo, in that order. I asked lots of questions about the decisions the guides are making-not to challenge them but to understand their basis so I can apply them to my own situations. I teased Peter that I am trying to get his trade secrets for when I open my competing guide service. He is very patient. I have been trained by the best and received life-saving lessons.


We dumped our loads at Camp One and returned to base to “sleep low”. The next day we repeated the process to move the rest of our camp. Most of the parties struggled into the camps, dropped their loads and collapsed onto their packs. Not us. Peter had us take a break just outside of sight of the camp so that we could march into camp full of energy. We dropped our loads and immediately began clearing tent platforms in the rocks, setting up our tents and building our latrine.


I think Peter has a reputation to maintain on the mountain. And his clients are part of that. I tease him about it and he takes it with a lot of grace. The dynamics of the other climbers are very interesting. While we having dinner, another guide comes to our group to question Peter about the route. Apparently he has never even been on the mountain and he is charging someone to guide him! Again I appreciate my choice of guides.


After a very cold and windy dinner and night (with cutie Jeff as my tentmate), we prepared for a carry to Camp Two at 19,130’. This trek was much more of a climb, over steep scree which soon gave way to the steep glacier wall. Our Camp Two is a magnificent location, a tiny perch at the base of the famed Polish Glacier. A quick gear drop and a gliassde back to Camp One for a much deserved rest day.


Unfortunately I didn’t really enjoy the rest day that much as I was coming down with the “crud” that was afflicting others on the mountain-a terrible, hacking cough and sore throat. It didn’t hurt that much at that stage but I was concerned at what it portended. It is virtually impossible to heal at these altitudes.


The next day, we woke early and broke most of our camp, leaving one tent there as a base with some gear. We struggled for five hours in increasingly deteriorating weather conditions-snow, very high winds- up to our Camp Two. At Camp Two our luxurious two people to a two person tent conditions changed to three in a two-person tent.  I ended up squeezed between two of the guys on our team.


The winds that night were over 40 mph and the temperature 8 degrees below 0 INSIDE our tent. Needless to say, getting up to pee was not a pleasant chore. And I had faithfully heeded the command to hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. Between my trips outside the tent and my increasing coughing, I doubt that my poor tentmates got any sleep.


The good news was that the weather was so bad that the summit attempt was aborted for the day and we got another rest day. We had a dress rehearsal for the summit climb and got a chance to wand the route for our 3:00 am departure. We dressed in all of our warmest gear, roped up and headed up to about 20,000’ which was completely exhausting for me. I could barely breathe through my swollen throat. I realized then that with my worsening cough, I would not be able to summit.


Another very cold night with the winds roaring to 70 mph. The guides were so concerned about our tents blowing off of the precarious niche that they got up during the night and stacked rocks around the edges of our tents to hold them on the mountain. No chance we would attempt to summit in those winds.


As the sun came up and the winds subsided, we crawled out of the tents for “hots” and food. I told Peter that I was conceding that I could not attempt the summit and that, if possible, I would like to go down to Camp One where I thought I had a better chance of breathing and getting well. I didn’t feel that bad and was confident I could make it down on my own as we had made the trip twice before shuttling loads. We had left a tent and stove at Camp One and I was sure I could make myself at home there. At that point I was disappointed not to summit, but feeling so bad, I really didn’t care.


But Peter, being the responsible guide that he, is insisted that not only would a guide accompany me but that a guide would have to stay with me. That left only two guides with the summit party which severely decreased their chances of a successful summit. If someone had to turn back on the summit attempt, they turned back with a guide. If another person had to turn back later, that would leave no guides left to lead the rest to the summit.


He assured me that if there was no summit attempt the next morning, we would have to go down without reaching the summit as we were running out of time and food. I decided that I could endure for one more day and night.


That night was another cold and windy one. When we hadn’t been roused by 4:00 am, everyone assumed it was “no go”. But at 4:30 Peter came by and said they were on for the climb. It was 20 degrees below 0. I was just as glad I wasn’t fumbling around, gearing up for the climb. I tried to curl up in as small a ball as possible to give the other two guys in my tent room to get dressed and suited up.


I was only too happy to snuggle back into my bag and stretch out in the extra room after they left. It seemed like only a few minutes later and one of my tentmates was back. It just wasn’t his day to summit according to him which surprised me because he had been one of the very strong ones.


But he was completely toast! I helped him load his pack. Guide Mark had come down with him and another teammate. I have to admit that I was glad to be descending with Mark who had become my favorites of the guides, compassionate, capable and handsome as well! The four of us slogged down to Camp One, where we took a rest break, got come food and tehn headed down to Base Camp. We had a feast at Base Camp-spam burgers.


Via the radio we learned that half of our team had summitted but that the weather conditions were brutal and they were exhausted by the time they returned to high camp on the Polish Glacier. The next day Mark made another run upto Camp One to dismantle it and the other teammates and I waited in Base Camp for the summiteers to arrive from Camp Two. I was continually awed at the double duty that the guides performed.


It turned out that a couple other of our teammates had retreated prior to reaching the summit, but not in time to come down to Base Camp. So my decision to stay at Camp Two had allowed half of our party to summit. Made my additional day of suffering worthwhile!