False Polish Traverse, Aconcagua

|| Saturday, December 14, 2019 ||

Another adventure is just starting! It’s been a long time coming, but we are finally headed down to Argentina. Planning, preparation, sponsorships, all have led to this.

We loaded up our packs and our stomachs at my house and went straight to the airport. Easy and quick through TSA. . . dropped off the bags, got our boarding passes, and walked through security.

Once at the airport, travel itself was a breeze. We loaded onto a Boeing 767 on our way to Lima. I plugged into 2 movies, knocked out for a quick nap in the Lima airport, and slept most of the flight from Lima to Mendoza.

|| Sunday, December 15, 2019 ||

The day does not feel new. . . a sleepless doze on the plane ended as we flew into Mendoza, Argentina. The glow rose over the mountains, letting us know that we are finally here!

Dozing on the plane. . .

Customs was easy and simple, and on a quiet Sunday morning we hopped into a taxi on our way to INKA Expeditions in Mendoza. The town seemed dead; on 7 AM on Sunday morning, nothing was open, not even INKA (yet). We dropped off our bags and grabbed a quick bite to eat.

I always say that every adventure starts with a healthy dose of misadventure. We walked over to pay for our permits, to find a “CLOSED” sign, in Spanish, of course.

It did not stop there, though; we headed back to INKA, bought some white gas at a small store called ORVIZ, where they sold it out of old plastic bottles (classic!), and then we headed to the bus station for the next part of our journey. It’s funny, it always seems that planes, trains, and automobiles are the most difficult parts of these trips, not the objectives themselves.

As compared to Quito and Mexico City, Mendoza has a cleaner, more upscale feel to it. Granted, parts of it still feel very similar, in particular the bus station, but overall I am very impressed.

WOW! What a packed day! We made it out of Mendoza and to Los Penitentes a day early, thanks to some good luck and tactful planning. It was a bit of a wild goose chase trying to find “Transporte Buttini” in the bus terminal, walking up and down the terminal until finally I found it. It was hidden by a TINY piece of paper which said, “BUTTINI”. Not the easiest to read.

I walked over to a local restaurant and found a 1/4 chicken and a salad for $4. . gotta LOVE South America for the cheap food!

The wait in the bus terminal was slow, but finally, and on time I should note, we left the station and headed for Los Penitentes, a day early even! I napped on and off as the bus winded up mountain roads. The farther we made it into the Andes, the deeper the canyons got, carved by glaciers and rivers. The scenery was stunning, and for the last hour I gazed in amazement.

At Los Penitentes our host met us, and he and his wife were AMAZING! He donned a Miami Beach hat and chatted with us in English, and showed us our very own private apartment! After a long day of travel, I think we were mostly ecstatic to see beds!

Last item of business before bed: DINNER. We walked over to a place that the apartment owner had recommended, only for it to be closed, so we meandered back to the only other dinner option. As soon as I saw watermelon, I announced what I was getting! We all forked and spooned watermelon as the sun set below the mountains. Later, a MASSIVE steak arrived at my plate, and a large smile upon my face.

NOT the most flattering photo of me. . . sorry Mom.

We re-packed our packs and duffels downstairs and dove for bed. Over a brief nighttime discussion we figured that we may end up getting off the mountain early. My response, “We will see!” The mountains always dictate the day. . .

|| Monday, December 16, 2019 || 

A good night’s sleep! Waking up to the alarm was rough, but quickly enough I got up and right down to business. The trek begins today!

Shivam and Andrew joked about so much oatmeal, but I honestly enjoyed it, time and time again. . .

When I walked outside, the first thing I noticed was how clear the blue sky was and how high the sun already was in the sky. Desert. . . barren. . . and intense. The landscape here is windswept, dry, and cleary high desert which will give way to alpine very quickly.

After a quick breakfast we headed over to INKA to weight and re-pack our duffels for the mules. Mine weighed in at 27 kg, Andrew’s at 30 kg, and Shivam’s at 29 kg.

While we waited for the mule drivers to take us to Punta de Vacas, I played a quick game of ping pong with one of the workers. It’s nice to make a friend down here!

Shivam taking a nap as we wait for the ride to Punta de Vacas.

Finally, after what felt like an eternity of waiting, we hopped in the van and headed to Punta de Vacas. We offloaded our bags, had our permits checked, and off we went! The trail was rocky, sandy, and most certainly a pack trail, which made for difficult underfoot conditions. But the scenery! I felt so free, meandering about without a worry on my mind. I snapped photos and videos as we walked, my favorite!

The pack was a bit heavier, and the trail a bit longer, than I had thought, but long before sunset we reached camp, set up our tent, and loaded food into our bellies. I was pleasantly surprised at how few people we saw both at camp and on the trail: NOBODY. I loved it, gave us more “ownership” over the mountain and more of a sense of exploration.

Chatting over dinner, we recapped the day, mostly remarking at the beauty of the approach. My Shepherd’s Pie tasted DE-LICIOUS! The day was long enough that we were all ready to dive for our tents soon after dinner; not much chit-chatting to be had. Shivam, Andrew, and I crowded into the tent, head-to-foot-to-head. It was quite cozy! I had plenty of room to feel comfortable; I will be interested to hear if they have the same reaction.

|| Tuesday, December 17, 2019 ||

I rustled out of the tent around 4:30 AM to pee, to be AMAZED by the stars. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to take some pictures, so I threw on my huge down jacket, plopped on my down booties, and headed out in the dark to see what I could do.

I very quickly realized that nighttime photography is not easy. I couldn’t quite get the frame or angle I wanted at first, struggling to work the tripod and the shutter. Finally, I found a perch a ways up from camp on a rock, and started shooting some low light photos. I couldn’t quite work the focus very well, so we will see how the pictures turn out.

Around 7:30 AM, Katie and I woke up Shivam and Andrew, and we got started on packing our bags for the mules. The mule driver said he needed them ready by 9 AM, so we packed up before digging into breakfast. Over breakfast, the group laughed at how I may be the ONLY one who really, genuinely enjoys the oatmeal we have packed.

Soon enough we hit the trail, and today it was much better underfoot than yesterday. It seemed as though the mules stayed to the other side of the river, which kept the trail in better shape for us. The day was HOT, but again beautiful with blue skies and barely a cloud in sight.

Towards the end of the day, as we sighted camp, THE MOUNTAIN APPEARED!

Peaking through the side canyon we will ascend tomorrow, it towered so majestically. Initially I was awestruck, dumbfounded by this “idea” that has been on my mind for so long. Quickly, though, this turned to excitement, and I nearly hopped my way into camp, energized by the sight.

There it is!

As I walked by the mountain, I dreamed about the sunrise and sunset photos I could take! When we got into camp, there were still hours of light left. We spent time filming and interviewing. The muleteer told us to be ready by 7 AM, bright and early! In consolation, he gave me a piece of grilled carne. It was delicious!

. . .

I woofed down another Shepherd’s Pie and raced to catch the fleeting light on Aconcagua. The scene was dramatic! So dramatic that I set my alarm for 3:45 AM the next morning. I made it back to camp for a quick cup of tea, after which we filed into our tents.

|| Wednesday, December 18, 2019 || 

An early rise, but as they say, the early bird gets the worm! I threw on my big red jacket, grabbed my tripod, and headed for the valley! The sky was perfectly clear, with constellations of stars overhead. I shot for nearly 2 hours, of Aconcagua and the stars. I’m starting to get the hang of it!

The morning was COLD. We started out before the sun hit us, crossing the Vacas Valley as we approached the canyon leading to Plaza Argentina. We came across a river crossing, which took our breaths away with how cold it was!

Up the canyon we went, slowly and step-by-step. There were switchbacks, and at times no switchbacks when there should have been switchbacks. The day was HOT, and I got a little behind on food, water, and sunscreen. Every step of the day, though, was gorgeous. We had amazing views of the mountain all the way up. It felt like every turn yielded another special view!

|| Thursday, December 19, 2019 || 

The rising sun over base camp was soft and tender; honestly, I am looking forward to the higher camps where the mountain feels more of our own. As the sun rose over the ridge I lit up the stove and began to heat up a pot of tea.

I started to pack up my bag for the shuttle to Camp 1, and it was BEEFY. The weight was significant, to say the least. We took off for Camp 1 step-by-step, slowly. And we gained confidence with every step. Shivam and Andrew CRUSHED IT! The climb up was longer than we expected, and the underfoot TERRIBLE for the last 800′ of the climb. Loose scree and a howling wind with gusts over 60 mph knocked me around a bit.

Putting in WORK with heavy loads!

Once we reached Camp 1 the wind was so intense that we rapidly tossed our duffel bags down and headed back down the mountain. And I had a BLAST down the mountain, running down the loose scree and feeling oxygen return to my body.

Dinner and sitting around camp added to the enjoyment of the day. I really feel like this trip is starting to come together. We are building towards something, I CAN FEEL IT!

|| Friday, December 20, 2019 || 

I got a great night’s sleep and felt ready for our move to Camp 1! I was ravenously hungry, which was a great sign that I am acclimatizing well. I feel that we are beginning to “click” as a team, moving and acting more efficiently. We were slow out of camp this morning but it didn’t matter. We got an updated weather forecast, which has us motivated for Monday. We said goodbye to Katie (she would be descending back down the valley) and headed off.

Our packs were a bit heavier than we would have hoped but we CRUSHED the climb today. I am very encouraged by what I am seeing from our team as we push on.

The weather at Camp 1 was delightful! Low wind, clear sky, and plenty of sun. We set up the tent and lounged around for a bit. I went down to collect water from the snow melt, to find it filled with silt and dirt. I somewhat uselessly tried to filter out the silt with a Sawyer filter I had accidentally left in my first aid kit, but it was painfully slow. I gave up after spending 30 minutes cleaning only 4 liters of water.

We hopped in the tent for early bed, trying to let our bodies adjust as much as possible to the altitude. For better or for worse, things only got crazier from there. . .

|| Saturday, December 21, 2019 || 

Today started with a SCARE! I woke up around 2 AM, my stomach and head in AGONY. I was worried; was I getting sick? What was wrong?

I think it was the dinner, for after passing some gas and eating some food I felt MUCH better. The battled continued though. . . the wind in the morning was BRUTAL. I nearly rubbed off the end of my thumb trying to light the stove.

We packed up and continued on up to Camp Guanacos (Camp 3). The climb was slow, especially with the altitude combined with the weight of our packs.

Early morning glow. . .

Camp Guanacos was actually somewhat crowded, as a large party seems to be aiming for the same weather window (Monday, December 23). I made some friends, with a funny Dutch guy named Robert, and we chatted for hours.

Sitting around camp made me anxious; it feels like a ticking clock with the intermediate minutes just possibilities for bad things to happen. Shivam and Andrew weren’t feeling their best, and Andrew even seemed a little anxious. Maybe he’s just got the jitters?

Before we went to bed, we huddled into the tent and had a good heart-to-heart about what lies ahead of us. I expressed my belief that if we all take care of each other, that our goal is possible. IT’S SO CLOSE! Andrew expressed his fears about the challenge ahead, and I was impressed by his honesty. We really are a TEAM.

|| Sunday, December 22, 2019 || 

Another rough night and morning. . .

This time I stashed sme food in the tent for easy access, but when I woke my head was THROBBING. I woofed down a bag of trail mix and some oatmeal, which did not immediately help, but. . .

not long after I had a bowel movement that did the trick. Soon enough I was back in the tent, resting. I got back out and I felt like a different person.

Walking around camp this morning, I could see the self-doubt and anxiety manifesting in Shivam and Andrew. As the guided groups packed up and left camp, their gazes shifted up, eyeing the climb we have ahead. In the interviews we conducted before starting the day, I tried to instill some confidence in them. . . we will see if it works. I believe in them. . .the question remains if they will believe in themselves.

Today I felt AMPED. I had so much energy hiking up to Camp Colera, even with nearly 50 lbs on my back.

Camp Colera was packed like sardines with climbers ready for for the weather window. I never have been the greatest fan of crowded base camps; it always seems like people “jockeying” for position, which I HATE. I managed to find a flattish spot away from the bulk of camp.

Once in camp, the energy of the group PLUMMETED. Shivam and Andrew crashed hard, which was not a good sign. I’m not sure if it was the oxygen that left them, or the motivation? I am hoping to see a revival in them, for I want to summit with them!

Anticipation. . . hours now until I push towards the summit. It has been months in the making, and it’s really exciting to be this close. I am nervous about Shivam and Andrew, and really do hope that some rest will do them right.

|| Monday, December 23, 2019 ||

GO TIME!

Nothing like a 3:30 AM alarm to get you ready for a summit push. Andrew felt MUCH better and seemed to have his energy back. Shivam seemed marginal, but wanted to at least get ready and see how he felt. In the refuge of the tent we fueled up and prepared to head out. By about 4:40 AM we were all out of the tent.

Lights twinkled around camp, as most other groups prepared to set out around 5 AM as well. There must have been at least 50 climbers ready to head out; it felt like a MOB.

Just as we started out of camp, Shivam decided to stay at camp. He was not feeling up for it, and I was very impressed by his maturity to turn around. With radios and a communication plan, Andrew and I continued on up, and we quickly began passing groups. All of our paces were painfully slow, some just more so than others. Around Independencia we got first light, and WOW was it spectacular. I tried to snap photos here and there of the climbers ascending.

Once past Independencia, we strapped on our crampons and the work got really hard! 2 steps, rest, 2 steps, rest. . .

The altitude got to me, really for the first time. I took a LONG break at the cave just below the Canaletta to rest, and I needed every second of it. Almost halfway up the Canaletta, nature called and I HAD to answer, even if it was right in the middle of the trail for all to see.

About 800′ from the summit I partnered up with a Swedish girl named Hannah, and we struggled our way to the top, together. And it was a struggle! But I MADE IT! To the top of South America, after months and months of hard work. It was a grind, but the top was so rewarding. Andrew was up there not long after, and we shared a few moments on top, snapped a few photos, and began to head down.

Heading down was all about focus, on every step. Andrew was REALLY wiped, and just barely made it back down to camp, but I was there to help him along. Once he got back to camp he crashed, HARD. I wanted us to descend down to Camp Guanacos for the lower elevation (18,000′ vs 19,600′ at Camp Colera), but he didn’t have the energy in him.

|| Tuesday, December 24, 2019 ||

It still has not sunk in. . .THAT I SUMMITED! Well, there is good reason for that, because the last 36 hours have been crazy!

The night was ROUGH; I woke up with a splitting headache, as a result of my head being too low below my body (no pillow). I was in agony, and had to ask Andrew for some ibuprofen.

The wind HOWLED! The tent whipped around like a kite, flopping and getting battered around. When we finally got ourselves together and moving, we decided to immediately head down to Camp Guanacos to eat, and then plan from there.

The way down was. . . well it was full of oxygen. I still did not really realize that I summited yesterday, as I gazed up at the mountain on my way down. It has not sunk in yet; everything has been happening so fast.

At Camp Guanacos we came to the mutual decision to forgo the 360 traverse and descend back down the Vacas Valley. Shivam needed to get down desperately, and none of us would sacrifice safety for some “additional mileage.” We climbed the mountain; now we just needed to get back down safely.

We made it back down to Camp 1 and picked up the rest of our stuff. . . the hike down to Plaza Argentina would be fun. For the first steep, scree slope, I dragged/lowered my duffel above the ground. For the rest I front-loaded my duffel like a baby.

This was NOT easy.

I made it down to Plaza Argentina and set us up in the exact same camp spot as before. Got to end where you started! As of now, our plan is to hike out in 2 days and try to fly home on the 27th. We ate dinner once again in Plaza Argentina, as the sun set. For a second we forgot it was Christmas Eve. Andrew gifted Shivam and I with an apple, the taste of live, fresh produce SO wonderful!

|| Wednesday, December 25, 2019 ||

It’s Christmas, from Argentina! I’ve been fortunate to have spent the last 3 Christmases in some pretty incredible places: New Zealand, Ecuador, and now Argentina!

Christmas cheer

We packed up camp and began to get ready to leave for good. I said my goodbyes to the base camp staff and headed down the mountain. It felt weird hiking with the mountain now at my back. I wanted to turn around and just stare! It still has not sunk in that just days ago I was on top of it, achieving my goal and reaching the roof of South America.

The day was LOOOOOONG. We started with good momentum down the canyon towards Casa de Piedra, but soon had to start crossing the creek, OVER AND OVER AGAIN. I was getting very efficient at taking my boots off and wading across the stream.

We broke for lunch around 3 PM in the valley near Casa de Piedra, with a view of the mountain. I took my last glance and we continued onward.

Final goodbyes.

The trail for the next 11 miles was HORRID, worse than I remembered. The pack trail was full of loose rocks; I must have kicked at least 10,000! Around 8 PM, exhausted and hungry we finally made it to Pampa de Lenas. There were arrieros (mule drivers) sitting by a fire roasting meat, and as a Christmas gift they treated us to several helpings of roasted beef and chicken. HOW AMAZING! It could not have tasted better. I was stuffed by the end. Their generosity and peaceful nature was amazing; they did not seem to have a worry in the world.

I dove into the tent and fell FAST asleep. One of my favorite parts about the trips I do is the exhaustion and exertion. Together, they make for epic memories, and great tasting food!

|| Thursday, December 26, 2019 || 

THE LAST DAY!

Today we plan to hike out to Punta de Vacas, the end of our journey. And what an amazing adventure it has been. At the start I feared I maybe had “over-hyped” the trip with all the build-up; now, at the end, I COMPLETELY disagree.

What has made this trip amazing is not just the mountain, but also the people. Katie, Shivam, Andrew, and all the friends and locals we have met along the way. This country, its landscape and natural beauty, and its relaxed vibe are incredible.

It’s hilarious when I look at our originally planned itinerary and I see that our planned “summit day” was supposed to be TOMORROW. Friday the 27th, when we are now planned to fly home. I know I prefer quick, time-condensed trips, where I am always doing something. And that is how this one ended up. Not completely intentionally, though. I would have taken more rest days if the weather window had aligned. But I saw an opportunity and I LEAPED for it!

I’m sad that Shivam could not make the summit; who knows if more rest would have made the difference? I wanted to see all 3 of us up there, all rejoicing in success. But, as I know well from experience, the mountains are NOT like that. They DEMAND patience and reject egos. They do not “reward”; they only allow certain to “pass.” And that is what makes them so exciting, their uncertainty. It is NOT just the skill or strength of the climber, but also their decision making, and whether I like to admit it or not, LUCK. For all the analysis and critical thinking and engineering process we can apply to adventure, at the end of the day there is an element of pure chance that cannot be calculated for, cannot be pre-planned.

THAT is what I have learned the most in recent trips: that being flexible and adaptive rewards more often than any other trait. Sometimes it means that your “initial” plan goes to crap. WHO CARES?! I’ve said it before and I will say it again: “Planning is only as good as the process of planning itself. It allows you to understand what is physically possible within a period of time. After that, it is up to YOU, the planner, to execute.”

Naturally, now that the trip is closing, my mind starts to think about the NEXT. And I’m really excited about what is possible on the horizon. This trip was the break I needed after 4 years of non-stop school. In the last few months I have felt idle and seen many of my peers begin to catch up to me on certain adventures. I’m competitive by nature, and this has KILLED me. But now I’m ignited again and ready for a HUGE push. I’m excited to get back to the grind of training.

The final push. . . with motivation of watermelon and steak on my mind, I nearly ran the 9 miles out to Punta de Vacas. I tried my hardest to avoid looking at my watch, knowing that the minutes would not tick by fast enough. Finally, at around 1:20 PM, DONE! I reached the park entrance, checked out with the rangers, and waited for Shivam and Andrew.

We were then shuttled off to the restaurant we had been dreaming of, only for them not to have watermelon. WHAT?!

The rest of the day, condensed into bullets:

  • Tried to take a shower. . . only for there NOT to be hot water.
  • Ate SOOO much steak that I almost felt sick, but it was so good!

It’s been an amazing journey!

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