[English version from our Aconcagua ascent. The whole trip through the Andes in winter 2016 for skitouring can be found in German here.]
We stayed in Las Cuevas – at the beginning of the Horcones valley in front of Aconcagua – for almost two weeks for skitouring in September 2016. I did not know much about Aconcagua: easy to climb although quite high and actually not skiable cause lack of snow any time – that was all.
I had the impression, without a professional expedition it would be impossible to climb this mountain. I talk regularly with my father about all mountains in the world and it happens again and again that we sit at the computer and are reading report for report of distant mountains. Ironically, the Aconcagua was part of this some time ago and we agreed that this mountain was not worth an effort. But as often in life, things have turned out differently than one would ever have dreamed of.
During our „acclimatization“ days in Las Cuevas (3150m), Flo and I always talk about the Aconcagua. We see it daily and we can refine our image of the game on the mountains there, day by day – especially wind. Florian also has map material from Las Cuevas including Aconcagua and so we measure several times how many kilometers the basecamp is from the street. We wanted to stay a maximum of 14 days in the area of Las Cuevas. After two thirds of our stay we have to get food again in Uspallata (85km further down the valley), we take the bus after two hours of unsuccessful hitchhiking. We also buy enough gas – if a weather window would result. -The mountain sports shop does not open until one hour and a half later than the sign on the door says, so we to stay one night in Uspallata.
Exactly at the end of our stay, a weather window for two days is forecasted in the model calculation. And with „weather window“ I do not mean clear skies, because there was always before – but between 5000m and 7000m only weak wind and temperatures above -20 °C on peak level respectively zero degree limit raising from 3500m to 4500m.
In winter, without mules, without satellite telephone, without altitude medication, without down layers the Aconcagua can be called a risk. However, if we only have to spend two or three days in the base camp „Plaza de Mulas“ on 4370m „senseless“ and have to go out of the way, it does not care.
The first winter ascent took place in the middle of September 1953. If that was possible at that time, then it should also be possible for us nowadays?
Since the national park, which starts at the entrance of the valley (Horcones valley), is closed in the winter and is monitored by rangers, we have to get in early. Thus, on the morning of the 16th of September, we are at the entrance of the 26km-long valley, and in the darkness of wind and sleet, we set off at 2800m along the road. Our 35l backpacks filled to the point of bursting and still equipped with bags to cover everything necessary. At home, at this time, nobody knows about our action – only the owner of our hostel knows about it and took us to the valley entrance in the morning by car. There is the campground station, occupied during the day, which supervises the actual winter restraint of the Aconcagua national park. Since there is a more or less closed snow cover in the area starting at 3100m at latest, we have our skis with us, too, and we hope to be able to ski at least some parts of the mountain. Aconcagua itself has never been skied completely. There never forms a skiable snow cover because of the wind. Only the Polish glacier on the backside allows a few hundred meters of skiing. The highest mountain of the American double continent stands out 2000 meters from the surrounding mountain landscape and is a good point of attack to the wind. Flo leaves his pair of skis after 8km, I reluctantly go after 24km. The entire valley is practically snowless. In every valley snow – just not here. This damn microclimate around this mountain! Only the stream bed is often filled with snow, but due to the surface structure it is absolutely not passable with skis.
At Plaza de Mulas we find a well anchored tent which is cleared up with clutter. Even more incredible: in the tent there are exactly two mattresses. We free our home from TV antennas, camping chairs and tables until we have exactly enough space that we can put the two mattresses next to each other on the floor – cook, sleep.
The next day, the sky is clear again but the wind continues to be a storm. We squat in the tent, look for half a day of clean snow, melt it, and cook the Knorr-instant meal. In addition, we are always staring at the photographed weather report on the screen of my mobile phone. Tomorrow, on September 18, the windspeed will slow down, the zero degree limit will rise to 4500m in the afternoon – tomorrow or never!
Ascending to one of the numerous bivouac boxes we consciously do not want: We are cut off from the outside world, in between 26 kilometer walk and we have no medication apart from the standard travel pharmacy. To risk a high-altitude disease through a night on one of the boxes above 5900m would be too dangerous. We prepare everything for the day ahead, so that we can only have breakfast in the morning and go. As a time limit for the summit arrival, we set at 3:30 pm – if we are not up until then, we turn around. I reckon that I need ten hours to reach the summit (five hours for the first 1600M+, five hours for the next 1000M+). But since we have no experience of the height, these are only rough estimates. Florian offers me again that I can go at my pace and take no consideration for him. Because his body still manages the height much worse than mine. At 03:45, after another stormy night, the Tirol Concerto sings quietly from Florian’s mobile phone. We both doubt whether the wind will subside today.
We are going to finish the piece of music of our homeland, eat and then we start at 4:00 am into the moon night. The wind is continually falling. From 5000m I go on at my pace. There is almost no more snow above 5300m – from here the wind comes full force all year long, and shortly afterwards on the Nido de Cóndores, I see Flo for the last time behind me. At the Refugio Berlin (a total of three tiny wooden boxes for two people each) at about 5960m I enter the sun for the first time, eat a few hands of my nuts and drink something. Starting at I must stop some time. Interestingly, the low air pressure is not noticed in the lungs or in the breathing itself but only in the immediate fall of the oxygen saturation in the body. Of course you can tell that we are only acclimatized to almost 3200m and not to 4400m to 5500m – as usual for this mountain. Slowly I reach the summit and the storm of the night has now weakened to a slight breeze. The snow on the trail is ideal for ascent with crampons. On the last few hundred meters of altitude in the so-called Canaleta, the stones become larger. After 8h 32′ and 2590M+ I finally reach the summit on 18 September at 13:22 and the wind completely falls asleep at the same time. It is not very cold, the weather report fits. I just changed my finger gloves on my mittens – I do not even need to put several pairs of gloves on top of each other.
I notice that I’m slower with thinking up here. The steep part of Gran Acarreo with a height difference of 1000 meters I can run down in a very short time and I am back at our tent after 11 hours and 28 minutes. Flo has turned around 6200m and meanwhile already has melted fresh snow for me. We are delighted to have been successful here and to climb up and down starting at the basecamp in one day without serious acclimatization.
Video while descending: