Aconcagua was my first
experience climbing a high mountain. I learned as I went. My
friend, Pete Squires was experienced at this; he had
climbed Denali in 1992 (among other adventures). He took me to the
gear store and said… "You need this, and this, and this….".
$2000 later I was geared up and ready. This was January 1996.
Today I use all the same gear (I guess I’ve added, traded out,
and upgraded some things). If you are curious to know what that
might be, go to Packing Lists – Expedition.
Pete and I were the only two to go (more about Pete in Tribute
to Pete Squires) so we chose the standard route – one without
To get to the base, first we flew to Santiago, Chile, and from
there to Mendoza, Argentina. In Mendoza you can get white gas
(called bencina blanca) and maybe other items you need. After
Mendoza there seems to be a lot of buying and selling at bus stops
and on the mountain…. After our climb, Pete sold his crampons
right on the mountain slope (still at snow level) for $100 cash
(to one of the many who are unprepared!) Others approached us
after the climb to sell them anything for just about any price
because their gear didn’t arrive. (I learned from Pete to wear
my plastic boots on the plane!)
From Mendoza we bussed to Puente del Inca at 9000 ft. Right off
the bus we were approached by Christina. She, with her husband ran
mules to and from the Hotel Refugio near the Plaza de Mulas (base
It is a two day walk to base camp, and your heavy high mountain
gear can be there waiting for you when you get there. Waiting
instead of arranging for mules in advance turned out to save us
$150. It was $150 for a mule to take our stuff up and then back
again when we were ready to come back. Others paid $150 for one
Our stuff was waiting at the hotel (the good-news-bad-news
hotel) Good because we met people there that made the trip so much
better. Good because the food was exceptional. Good because our
gear was safe. Bad because it was so cold we actually camped
outside the hotel. Bad because every time we climbed any distance
up the mountain we first had to traverse an extra ˝ mile of up
and down at 14,300 ft. (The good outweighed the bad by far.)
So, we walked the first day about 9.5 miles to a spot about a
mile above Confluencia – a desolately beautiful walk to about
12,000 ft. Second day was more of the same – 11.5 miles, more
beautiful desolation up a long valley which gains elevation slowly
until the last (when you are most exhausted) 1.5 miles which gains
1500 ft. Our second day turned into an epic walk.
Almost right away it began to snow and soon became a relentless
blizzard. We walked into a cold wind and snow for 12 hours. I
could see the lights of the hotel as we approached it from a mile
away – a beacon of hope for rest and hot tea. But just as we
crested the final hill (exhausted) the lights went out! That took
the last bit of perseverance right out of me. By the time we got
into the totally dark and very cold building, I sat and cried (a
true mountaineer!). Well, like I mentioned before, aside from
being cold, the hotel experience was a good one.
Looking up the Horcones Valley from a mile above Confluencia - our
next day's hike to get to base camp.
Looking up the same valley the next morning.
Mules making their way up the valley with gear - possibly
Our tent outside the Hotel Refugio at 14,337'.
Pete and Karen outside the hotel.
Here we met Daniel – from Switzerland. Daniel could make
friends with everyone! He knew 5 different languages. I wasn’t
sure what language he thought in. His parents spoke German, his
siblings spoke French. He would speak to Manuel, the hotel
manager, in Spanish, turn to his left, speak French, turn to his
right and speak English to us – all within a minute. (Very
useful skill to have traveling internationally!) Daniel joined us
for the climb.
We stayed 5 nights at the hotel (outside in a tent), and each
day we’d hike up the mountain 1000-3000 ft. We could slog up
the trail for 5 hours and turn around and be down in one! Very
strange. We finally carried a cache of gear we would use higher up
and left it at 17,500 ft.
Then for the final push – First we climbed to Nido de
Condores at about 18,000 ft. From about 15,000 ft. up it was a
snow climb. Nido de Condores is a large flat area which offers
spectacular views of the valley and of the summit.
Next day we went to White Rocks above Camp Berlin at 19,600 ft.
It’s hard to sleep here. It’s hard to do anything here. I had
a headache most of the time, and it was hard to stomach any food.
I’d be curious to know how I’d feel if I had known about
Altitude Adjustment at the time.
View of the south face of Aconcagua from the hotel.
KP at about 15,500' where the snow line began.
Looking back at Plaza De Mulas from about 15,000'.
The hotel would be across the plateau just off the left end
of the picture.
High camp above Camp Berlin at about 19,600'.
Next day was the summit push. The summit is 22,841 ft. (6962
meters). It was 0 degrees in the tent in the morning. We tried to
heat water and eat before we left, but we should have heated the
water the night before and kept it in our thermos’ and not spent
the time in the morning. We started out too cold. Almost right
away Pete had to stop and pull his feet out of his boots to
The three of us moved at about the same rate for awhile. We
passed the Refugio Independencia and up over the Cresta del Viento
(Windy Crest) and started the long traverse to the Canaleta (a
steep rocky chute which I never got to). The weather was
intermittently snowing and clear. Pete was picking up speed – a
special turbo feature he had as he approached the top of a
mountain when most people were slowing down. I was feeling dizzy
and exhausted and decided to stop and turn back. My altimeter
watch read 21,600 ft. It seemed like the right decision at the
time – I look back now and wonder. I wish I had gone to the top.
At this point Pete and Daniel made an agreement "In one
we’ll talk; if the weather is like this, we’ll turn
around." Sounds good, but there was no such conversation.
Pete’s turbo got him to the summit in 2 hours. Daniel was there
in three. Pete was the highest point in the Western Hemisphere for
1 hour on Jan. 19, 1996.
They came down and we stayed again at the high camp. The next
day we went all the way down to the base with very heavy packs
through a foot or two of fresh snow. And then… enjoyed another
wonderful meal prepared by Manuel at the hotel.
Climber at about 20,300'. Notice the Refugio
Independencia on right side of picture.
Daniel climbing not far beyond KP's turn around
point. (KP is one of the 2 specs in the center of the
picture - heading back.)
Looking toward the south summit. The top of the
Canaleta is shown at the bottom right of this picture.
Pete at the top (wondering where those crackling sounds
are coming from!).
Daniel doing the celebration dance after he came down to
relatively safe weather.
We sent most of our gear down with the mules and rested a day
– savoring the beauty and high altitude and for Pete, the well
deserved summit success.
The next day we walked all 21 miles out to Puente del Inca.
That is where Pete got top price for his totally stinky long
underwear, and I sold my ice axe and crampons.
Climbing a mountain like Aconcagua is hard work and a test of
perseverance, especially when the weather is bad. But it becomes a
part of you and you must have more. At least that’s the way it
was for me. When I climbed Elbrus 3 ˝ years later I thought that
would be my last high mountain. By the time I reached the base I
was dreaming of what might be next. So, I’ve learned to ignore those
silly ideas that I might be done climbing high mountains!
KP and Daniel back at the hotel.
The sunny view down the valley - our 21 mile hike for the
next day out.