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  Aconcagua 2004 Dispatch Nine

Dispatch Nine:  18 January 2004: I actually woke up at 11:58pm, desperately needing to urinate.  But I had already given Matt my only water bottle, so I tried to rest for the next hour, eyes closed, bladder clenched, until my watch alarm sounded from the ceiling of the tent.

It was 1:00am at Nido de Condores, 17552 feet (5350 meters).  We had dressed almost completely the night before, and I only needed to pull on my boot shells and my parka to step outside and take care of the first order of business.  I returned and fired up the XGK stove in the vestibule.  It was my job for the next two hours to pass hot drinks and instant oatmeal back to Andy and Matt, while they rested as much as possible.

During our rest day on the 17th at Condores, we had discussed the pros and cons of moving our camp to a high point at Camp Berlin.  But Berlin was only at 18963 feet (5780 meters), and the effort of breaking down, packing up, moving, and reestablishing camp seemed greater than the benefit of only a 1300 foot gain.  Our conversations with guides who had more experience on Aconcagua had given us a bold idea.  Since we were moving strong, feeling good with the altitude, we decided to make a summit bid directly from Condores.  To help Matt out, who has less experience at altitude, Andy and I decided to split his food, water, and clothes between us, so that he didn't need a pack.

So there I was, watching the pot boil at 1:10am.  Rounds of hot water for coffee, hot chocolate, and instant oatmeal go round and round.  I know that coffee contributes to dehydration.  I also know I am an addict.  I drank coffee.  By 2:30am, Matt and Andy have had enough, and started to get dressed.  I "bonb-proof" the vestibule kitchen area to keep things from blowing away, check in with Matt and Andy, and leave the tent.

It was completely clear out, with a light breeze touching my cheeks.  The storm that had dropped 20 centimeters of snow in the last 36 hours is gone, just like the forecasts had predicted.  I started to kick steps across the Nido, towards the spot I know the Ruta Normal begins towards Camp Berlin.  Alone in my own space, I listened to my breath as I step forward, careful to pace myself.  I wanted Matt and Andy to catch up with me, but I also wanted to move fast enough to keep warm.  Soon I saw two more headlamps, moving faster than my deliberate pace.  They reached my "spot" before I do, and soon I was no longer breaking trail, just improving the steps in front of me for those behind me.  This also forced me to move a little faster, since now I was working less.  Looking up, those two headlamps continued to move farther ahead.  Looking back, I saw two large groups of lights behind me, with Matt and Andy gaining.

When they caught up with me after my first hour, we realized a big mistake.  When I had left, we  forgot to put some of Matt's gear in my pack.  Andy was carrying close to 50 pounds!  We quickly moved a bundle of heavy gloves, water, food, and parka into my pack.  Since Andy was carrying a video camera, I tried to make sure I was carrying a little more of Matt's things.

We moved up through the switchbacks to Berlin, where it became light enough that we could turn off our headlights at 5:15am.  After a good break to eat and drink, we moved on.  Just above White Rock at 20,505 feet (6250 meters), Andy started feeling lethargic, saying that he just wanted to sleep.  I had fought my own battle with sleeping about a thousand feet earlier.  So we took a long break and decided to cache Andy's pack there.  In my pack we put a combined layer of clothes so that we all had enough for the summit, plus a little extra if one of us were cold.

One of the most challenging moments was just above the remains of the Refugio Independencia, where a Grand Traverse starts at 20,997 feet (6400 meters), to the base of the Canaleta at 21,541 feet (6562 meters).  This traverse was long.  Matt began to tire, and I worked hard to kicked good steps into the trail.  I started to tire too.  I grew frustrated as I watched a Swedish team slip and slide over the trail in front of me.  Why could't they put out the effort to kick steps?  Matt started to demand for a break.  But there really wasn't anywhere suitable on the 50 degree slope to stop.  He finally just sat down in the snow, feet in the trail.  He was obviously getting worked.  I walked back and said we had gone so far in nine hours, I only needed three more hours of work from him.  I didn't want explanations or excuses, just three more hours.  I kept kicking in steps.  My left foot, the uphill leg, took the brunt of the work and I could feel two of my toes bleeding from the effort as I hit ice and rocks over and over.

We took a long break at the base of the Canaleta.  While Andy spoke to Matt about turning around, I took a moment to talk with another RMI Guide, Mike Hamill.  Mike was leading a team for Adventuras Patagonicas, and had just come down from the summit.  Then Andy gave me the high sign - we were going for it!

But the excitement didn't last for long.  After saying goodbye to Mike and his team, we moved up through the Canaleta.  It was in better condition than normal, as the new snow froze together the infamously loose scree, and a kicked in path lead to the summit ridge.  But it wasn't working.  Matt called for a break, sat down, and made the call.  He said he was absolutely spent, and was nervous about descending.  The head cold that bothered him all week seemed to keep him down.

I have to say I argued.  I begged.  We were so damn close!  But Matt had enough, and I could tell.  But he wanted Andy and I to summit, while he waited in the sun at the base of the Canaleta.  Andy decided instead to descend as well, so that he and Matt could start descending immediately.  They would pick up Andy's pack.

A lot of my energy left with Matt and Andy.  It took an immensurable amount of time to climb up to the top of the Canaleta.  I cached my pack, dressed warm for the cold wind blowing over the South Face, grabbed a few things, and headed for the summit.  It was 4:45pm when I stood by myself at the small metal cross at 22,841 feet (6962 meters).  I had climbed 800 feet in an hour and a half since saying goodbye to my team.  An Italian woman had reached the summit some time before me, and we traded photographs of each other.  Then, I convinced her to take an extra one of me holding a flag.  It was Matt's flag, made in the kitchen the day we left Cincinnati, for his autistic son, Blake.  I'll let Matt explain why he climbs and what these flags mean.  All I knew is that I was holding that flag by myself instead of with Matt and Andy to hug and slap backs and celebrate with.

The descent was seemed longer than I ever expected.  The new snow made it easier than it should have been.  The threatening thunderclouds nearby convinced me to move as fast as I could, but I simply couln't move too fast without having to stop and catch my breath.  I was able to plunge-step down the Canaleta, then continue down the Directo, a 4000+ foot descent leading to Nido de Condores.  The snow was too shallow to glissade, but perfect for plunge stepping.  At 7:30pm, I walked up to our tent, with the familiar sound of the stove growling. Chris Simmons

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