12/5 - 12/8
My mother is a badass. For the last 4 days she followed me around the Cordon del Plata (the Silver Mountain Range) in the Argentinean Andes as I climbed peaks to acclimatize for my expedition on Aconcagua.
At 6,900 meters, Aconcagua is the highest mountain in the Western Hemisphere. This coming week Ryan Fisher, the owner of Exit Glacier Guides, and I will attempt to ski from the summit.
My mother and I spend our first day hiking from the refugio (9,800ft) up a nearby ridge to a false summit at 12,000ft. As we climbed a heavy fog enveloped us and we struggled to find our way from cairn to cairn due to the dwindling visibility. On the way back down, visibility was worse, and I resorted to using the GPS function on my watch (for the first time) to keep us from wandering off the ridge in the wrong spot. My mother never complained about the foul weather or thin air, though we did disagree constantly on the route. We spent our first night in the extremely crowded refugio. There were maybe 35 people in a house that you would expect to accomodate an American family of four.
Before leaving the refuge to spend three days climbing I read up on routes in the local climbing guide. It was a crude translation, apparently from Spanish to English using google translator. The heights of mountains changed as you read a summary and then the full description of the route. I decided instead to trust my cheap topo map with routes drawn on, which also turned out to be highly inaccurate.
The morning of our second day we hiked up the main valley for 3 hours and made camp on a moraine. There were tons of other climbers in the valley, the most I have ever seen in one place. At each of the five designated campsites there were upwards of 20 tents! That afternoon I had energy to go for the summit of one of the smaller peaks. I chose San Bernardo, which at 4200 meters only had snow on the highest parts. Hiking hard felt great and it only took three hours to make the trip to summit and back. I passed some really exhausted hikers on my way down. They carried ice axes in one hand, and wore goggles and massive puffies. I passed them in a t-shirt, using my trekking poles for balance as i hopped from rock to rock.
The next day mother and I got an alpine start, 9AM, to try for the top of Cerro Franke. At 5100 meters, Franke towered above our camp, the top 2000ft having a healthy coat of snow. We worked our way up a steep, rocky ridge line that rose 4,200 feet from the valley to the summit. It was slow going, the altitude and lack of trail were a solid challenge for my mother. The day had started with blue skies but as we ascended thick dark clouds developed around us. I worried about getting lost again in the fog, or the possibility of afternoon thunderstorms. At around 2000ft below the summit, at the start of the snow, I asked my mother if she would be comfortable waiting while I made a run for the peak. She's far too kind, and so she let me go. I pushed hard for an hour and twenty minutes and made the summit, passing roughly 30 climbers along my way. A thousand feet below the summit I broke out of the clouds and the intense sun reflected off the snow, burning the underside of my chin and nose. The climbers I passed were all clad in down clothing and double boots, while I plodded through the snow in my increasingly soggy cotton pants and t-shirt, wishing I could be wearing less because of the burning sun.
I returned to my dear mother in less than two hours and we climbed again together up to 14,300ft, where a steep snow chute provided an exit from the ridge that was easy on the knees. We returned to camp happy and spent, and celebrated with brandy and dark chocolate.
The next morning I dashed to the top of Cerro Alfonso, a 2200ft climb from our camp, and returned in time for breakfast with mom. We broke camp and retreated down valley to the refuge. We met up with Ryan, who had spent three days at one of the higher camps. We told stories about our trip on the ride back to the Mendoza. We went out that night to an all you can eat asado bbq. Ryan and I ate until it hurt, then ate some more.
In three days we will begin our trek to Aconcagua base camp. Between camping gear, ski gear, climbing gear and 20 days of fuel we decided we had to hire a mule. We are worried our shit might break its back. If everything goes according to plan we will be skiing off of the summit of the highest mountain in the Western Hemisphere on Christmas Day. Wish us luck!
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