Aconcagua without summit

A tale of my first high altitude expedition

This article was first published on UK Hillwalking.


6962 metres. It’s high, very high. We don’t have mountains that high in Italy, or even in Europe for that matter. And to be fair, I never thought I’d ever climb anything that tall in my life. But then an opportunity came along and I couldn’t say no. That opportunity was called Aconcagua.

Walking towards basecamp

About Aconcagua

Aconcagua is the highest summit in the whole of the American continent, and the highest mountain outside of Asia (away from the Himalayas and the likes). Strictly speaking, it’s not a technical mountain. Other than the fact that it’s almost 7000 metres high (not to be underestimated!), Aconcagua is quite accessible, and for that reason it’s quite popular.

The Plaza de Mulas basecamp is placed at the base of the mountain, at a hight of 4300 metres, and it’s literally a small city. You can find everything there, from showers to small private tents with double beds, and even an art gallery (the highest in the world!).

During the climbing season the basecamp is populated by mountaineers from all over the world, some trying to climb the mountain alone and some with the help of one of the many commercial companies operating on the mountain, offering everything from guiding to hospitality and portering services.

The team at the entrance of Parque Provincial Aconcagua

The project

But let’s come to the reason why I got to that basecamp. I was part of an all female expedition which included members from different countries around the world. There were women from Italy, Argentina, Chile, Bolivia and Nepal, and we were all mountain professionals and mountaineers.

The idea behind climbing Aconcagua was to bring a group of women/mountain professionals together and climb to the summit, to show that together we can break any barriers and achieve whatever we want. It was an ambitious but achievable goal, to prove that mountains have a lot to give to whoever decides to face them with knowledge, respect and humility. We also wanted to set an example for other women, and to see our role as mountain professionals and enthusiasts fully recognised. It was fourteen of us, and when we met in Mendoza at the start of February it was the first time that we met in person.

Getting everything ready

To the basecamp

After a few days spent getting to know each other and organising some of the logistics (equipment and food), we drove to the start of the trek.

Aconcagua lies within the boundaries of a Provincial Park, a protected area that requires a permit to enter. So, before we could start walking, we stopped by the rangers’ office to register, pick up our permits and two very special plastic bags: one for rubbish and one for our own human waste. Yes, that’s right. The mountain is so busy that all human waste needs to be brought down, both to preserve the environment and keep the mountain clean. Each bag has a number linked to the permit, and if you don’t bring it back full you may have to pay a fine!

The first step in the approach to basecamp is a hike from the park entrance, at 2900 metres, through the Horcones valley to the Confluencia camp, at 3400 metes. Here we got a taste of what Plaza de Mulas would be like, but on a much smaller scale. I don’t think any of us was quite prepared for the level of comfort we experienced both here and at basecamp. Three course meals, proper mattresses for our tents, toilets and HOT SHOWERS! All comforts that we accepted but, from my point of view, it was all a bit too much. It’s what happens when a mountain becomes way too commercial. Its true identity is stolen in exchange for too much comfort, and a place that should stay naturally wild becomes an extension of our everyday life, of what we leave behind in the city. And the search for that simplicity and return to the origins and nature that we look for when we go to the mountains becomes vane.

Starting the trek towards Confluencia

Luxurious nights at altitude apart, we spent two nights at Confluencia. From here we hiked to the famous Plaza Francia viewpoint at 4100 metres, from where we could see the majestic south face of Aconcagua. Climbing high and sleeping low helps with the acclimatisation process, and that’s exactly what we did.

The hike to Plaza de Mulas was long. From Confluencia we continued along the Horcones valley, walking through empty and very dry landscapes all the way to 4300 metres. Basecamp would become our home for the following week, and we soon got accustomed to the fact that simply walking to the toilet would leave us short breathed. And that we had to drink at least four litres of water a day to make that better.

The days at basecamp were marked by short moments of rest and the endless task of organising our bags for the higher camps. Packing, unpacking and repacking were a constant item on the everyday agenda. We had to separate what went up and what stayed down, prepare the food and fuel for the higher camps, sort out group and personal equipment. Let’s just say that the many “rest days” we took were not rest days at all.

After a quick jaunt up Cerro Bonete, a 5000 metres summit easily accessible from basecamp, and a first rotation to Camp Canadá, we were ready to leave the comforts of basecamp and embrace the hardest part of the expedition.

Plaza de Mulas

The higher camps

From 5000 metres upwards nothing was easy. Up there everything comes down to the simplest and most basic needs: eat, drink, sleep and go to the toilet. Basically survive. The air is thinner, every little task requires a much higher level of effort, and the altitude takes its toll. On top of that, add freezing cold temperatures and very strong winds, and there you have it. For much that you love doing this, and regardless of the amazing scenery around you, camping in these conditions is going to be uncomfortable.

The first night at Camp Canadá went pretty smoothly, but the next two at Nido de Condores were a different story. The wind was so strong that it almost took our tent down overnight and, needless to say, there wasn’t much sleeping going on. Here, at a hight of 5500 metres above sea level, we also had to say goodbye to Sol, one of our team mates and official photographer of the expedition. She started to feel very poorly on the way up and it was clear that her body was not getting used to the altitude as it should have, so there was no other option for her than to go down. And let me tell you, altitude sickness is scary!

Sunset from Camp Canadá

We waited at Nido de Condores for a window of good weather, and after checking the forecast we agreed that the 18th of February was going to be our day. So on the morning on the 17th we climbed the 400 metres that divided Nido from Cólera, the last one of the high camps.

Camp Cólera was cold! And even though the distance from Nido didn’t really seem that much, we got there absolutely devastated. I had to sit down with a cup of hot tea and a sandwich before I could even think about doing anything else. After that we pitched our tents, got into our sleeping bags and didn’t come out till the next morning. The saddest thing is that we didn’t even had the strength (or the courage) to pop our heads out of the tent to see the sunset. Once we were all tucked in and “cosy” in our tents, the never ending snow melting process started.

It’s very important to stay hydrated at altitude. The respiration rate goes up, and so the loss of water increases compared to sea level. Hydration is crucial for acclimatisation, but it’s not easy to stay hydrated when there’s no water around. The one and only task for the whole time we spent at Cólera was to melt snow and have enough drinking water for everybody. So while we were in the tent eating, resting and preparing for the summit attempt, there was always someone on snow melting duties.

The night we spent at Cólera was strangely the best sleep I had on the mountain, but it was short lived. The next day was an early start, with the alarm set for 2am.

Camp Canadá

To the summit (or so I thought)

That morning we did what needed to be done quickly and almost automatically: melted some more water, reluctantly ate some breakfast, packed our bags, put on all of our layers, boots and crampons, and started walking up the hill, our path lit by the dim light of a head torch.

That morning, putting one foot in front of the other felt like the hardest thing I had ever done. I was struggling to breathe, my stomach felt tight, and all I wanted to do was stop there and turn around. It took a while from simply realising that this was what was going on in my head to actually acting on it. For an hour I battled with the idea of going back, trying to ignore the signals that my body was sending me, trying to be mentally stronger and convince myself that I could continue, but it was all for nothing. My head gave up, and it was a relief at the time, but I already knew it would be really hard to come to terms with that decision later. I decided to turn around and then realised that my friend Alessandra, the other Italian on the expedition, had gone through exactly the same thought process, so we went down together.

View from Cólera

Back at camp Cólera we sat down and analysed what had just happened. But we were so destroyed that we fell asleep, and only later realised that other two of the girls had turned around shortly after us. So we joined forces and decided that going down all the way to basecamp was the right thing to do. We wouldn’t have been able to rest there at 6000 metres, and there was absolutely no point in staying there longer than necessary.

So we retreated, but it was a happy retreat. We took our time to analyse what happened, had a good and much needed cry together, and this inevitably brought us closer. We laughed about our bags that were way too heavy, appreciated the snow that started falling about halfway through our descent, and got to basecamp tired but relieved.

While we were on our way down, the rest of the team made it to the summit. We got the news via radio, and were so proud of the girls who made it. Inevitably, though, there was a part of us which was also a little jealous, because they had achieved what we could have not. But this feeling we had was not enough to ruin the day, and when they came back to basecamp the next day it was time to celebrate. A few friends we had met on the way came to our dining tent, and it was easy to forget about all of the worries of the previous days, as we all got together around a guitar and a glass of wine.

Team retreat on the way back to basecamp

The end?

That moment was the end and the beginning. Our expedition would have come to its end the following day, with the descent down from basecamp and back to the city. But it was also the moment when we realised that what we had done together had created a very strong connection. We were only starting to know each other, but already we were planning new adventures.

It’s going to take a while to process what happened up there, to realise what I should have done differently, what I really achieved. As for the summit, well, I didn’t get to it and it sucked. But I accepted it, I can even say that I’m now happy with it. Because it made me richer in so many ways. I might not have got to the top of Aconcagua, but this trip was certainly a success.

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