Roadside attractions at Penitentes.
Teaming up with Glen Poulsen from Tahoe and Kim Havell from Telluride, our quest to climb and ski Aconcagua began with a short stop over in Penitentes, a small, yet interesting looking ski area north of Mendoza. A few nice peaks with snowy ramps were visible behind burnt out faces near the next to the road and a more serious looking monster jutted up in the distance above the ridges. It is here where our baggage for the mules got weighted. 40 kilos per mule was the going weight and I think we used a total of three…and thank god I didn’t have to tend to them.
The beginning of the hike…with Aconcagua in (and out) of the clouds in the background.
The next morning we were off under clear, but not surprisingly windy skies on our way to Confluencia, the first camping spot on the way to Plaza de Mulas, the most popular basecamp for climbing Aconcagua. The summit of Aconcagua popped out occasionally on the hike it, but it was mostly obscured by a wind cloud during the hike in. We crossed a suspension bridge over a yet to be raging creek and followed steep trails as we gained elevation to 11k at Confluencia. On the way…little colorful and happy birdies begged for our treats when we stopped to refuel. Pretty little birdies! 🙂
Confluencia. Yup…thems’ the shitters to the right of the camp.
We arrived at Confluencia and about 2 hours. Quicker then we thought it would take us and we were rather surprised when we saw the colorful tents of the expedition companies poke out after gaining a particularly steep, and loose, section of trail. With daylight left to burn, we set up our tents and walked around a bit, stumbling upon (not literally) some Inca ruins not too far from the camp. It was little hard to imagine these being Inca ruins since then looked like plain old bivy site…but who am I to question the archeologist. Some funky pocketed rock made up the cliffs that rose above camp and we ate some nice, fresh chicken stir fry for dinner. We were really roughing it now! We fell asleep soon after the first of many amazing sunsets.
Sunset at Confluencia.
The next morning we were awoken and told that the mules had arrived to grab our one bag we shuttled to Confluencia which would join the others on the remaining 20 miles or so to Plaza de Mulas. But before leaving we had to be cleared by the medic with a check of our breathing and pulse oxygen levels. We were rolling in the nineties and were easily cleared to continue on. We had our own pulse oxygen reader and monitored ourselves higher up. It would often become a challenge to get the highest read-out, sometimes purposely hyperventilating, trying to reach the elusive 97 at basecamp. Fun…IS!
Kim hikes towards the long, flat river-bed section on the way
to “death rock” below the last peak on the right on the horizon.
Anyway, we rolled out Confluencia around 10 and dropped steeply down, over another bridge, and then climbed back up to a grassy, hilly section that required some creek crossings before dropping down to the long semi-trail section along the river bottom. Even though it was a greybird day, newly grown grass with some yellow accents popped amongst the drab and dry, brown landscape…the last real vegetation we would see for the rest of the trip.
I thought this was a cool view.
We battled a consistent 25 mph headwind and loose cobble as we made a nonstop push to the “death rock” area, and probably spent twice as much energy than needed due to the wind. Not complaining…just saying. A dead mule skull welcomed us to some refueling by the rock. It is called ‘death rock” because most of the elevation gain on the way up to Plaza de Mulas comes after this point and many people suffer…and even die coming up from sea level, and from cities…like Buenos Aires.
Kim hikes in front of La Cuerno, on the way to Plaza de Mulas.
We could see some glaciers in the distance, and we kept our pace through some loose rockfall areas, side-hilling our way upward into the south fork of the Horcones Valley and the north side of Aconcongua. Reaching a flat section, Glen and I stopped to check out the Columbia Hut that has long since been wiped out by avalanches and the ever pounding winds of the valley. Glen commented on how he wondered how they got the bricks to build the thing out there. Good question man…mules?!
Mules on “the stoning” section before reaching Plaza de Mulas
and the lower flanks of Aconcagua rise steeply above.
Soon we caught up to a group of mules struggling up an icy section less than mile from Plaza de Mulas. Blood dripped from the side of the lead mule from where the gaucho kicked the animal with his spurs, as his dismounted. Re-rigging the ropes and turning things into a “every mule for himself” situation, the gaucho then threw rocks to prod the mules up the slick trail. Granted it was early season…but man! Easy on the mules…eh?
Plaza de Mulas…and La Cuerno.
As we neared basecamp, seracs, glaciers and snow covered headwalls began to fill the landscape as the summit of Aconcagau continued to be engulfed in clouds. I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was glad to see basecamp (and our gearbags) and little tired from the walk, battling the wind and most likely dehydrated. I fought diarrhea and stomach cramps the rest of the night. With a little medication, I dried myself out and felt good in the morning. The crew of Fernado Grajales kept us fed and hydrated throughout our days at basecamp and I ate hardy for the first of multiple days of fun, steep, possible first descents while acclimatizing for our attempt at Aconcagua.