“Deep questions are best pondered under miserable circumstances.”
OK, maybe that title is a bit misleading. While any Aconcagua climb comes with aspects that belong squarely into the Type II Fun category (Type II = “fun in retrospect”), it feels like team Las Princessas de la Montaña got to experience a fantastic mix of actual fun interspersed with the inevitable moments of self-selected misery. But what a whirlwind - literally and figuratively!
The 2019 AWExAconcagua expedition concluded just about 24 hours ago; at the time of writing, most of the princessas are somewhere above the clouds en route to their respective homes.
Our trip was one for the ages: from sunburns and river-ice-bath provoking temperatures in the lower valley to frostbite inducing blizzards with 80 mile per hour winds right above basecamp, we had it all.
Kristen, Karin, Tara and I (Sunny) assembled in Mendoza on the first weekend in February to tackle Aconcagua’s 360 route, which is both an ascent as well as a circumnavigation of the mountain. The 360 is special in that it is longer, less traveled, and a bit spicier than Aconcagua’s normal route: not only does it involve mandatory river crossings, but every team member also has to at the very least reach Camp III at 19,600ft which is the eye of the needle that enables a successful circumnavigation of the mountain.
We all started the trip strong and healthy - at least aside from the occasional light bout of travelers diarrhea - and made quick work of the 25 mile approach that leads to Plaza Argentina. “Quick work” in mountain-speak, of course, means three days: acclimatization cannot be rushed.
Once at basecamp we quickly made friends with the wonderful staff of our local logistics support Inka Expediciones, to whom we also owe this year’s team name: Las Princessas de la Montaña. We may not have felt like princesses after several hot and dusty days without showers, but we certainly were treated like royalty. Thank you Colo & team.
After a few days of rest and preparation at basecamp, Aconcagua welcomed us with all her glorious fierceness: we moved to Camp I in what was predicted to be semi-windy and dry weather, only to find ourselves setting up camp in a gale force blizzard that dumped about a foot of snow on us and shredded several tents - not ours thankfully, they all belonged to other teams.
We spent 36 hours waiting out the storm, and from there on out our climb resumed at a more standard pace, and precisely a week after leaving basecamp we were in position at Camp III to launch our summit bid.
Summit morning was brutally cold under starry skies. The wind, while nowhere near as strong as it had been lower down on the mountain, was still at times formidable (the forecast predicted wind speeds up to 50 kilometers for our chosen summit day) and cold exposure was a serious concern through the early hours of the climb. At one point, Kristin’s feet had gotten so cold and numb that we stopped for over an hour just after sunrise to rewarm her toes to not risk a recurrence of the frostbite that she had suffered on a prior trip in Nepal.
Thankfully conditions improved over the course of the day, and at 3:30pm on February 18 Kristin stood on the summit of the highest mountain in the world outside the Himalayas! Tara, ever the high-altitude speedster, had already successfully made her way to the summit some four hours earlier; Karin and I pushed halfway up the Canaletta (the crux of the ascent at 22,000ft) and into spitting distance of the summit before deciding to not force the top on account of Karin’s nausea and dizziness that was increasing with altitude. We all returned to high camp safely before 6:30pm where Tara was already waiting with a hot brew, and quickly settled back into our tents to sleep the sleep of exhaustion.
Congratulations on your hard work and excellent climbs Kristin & Karin & Tara!!