Aconcagua – A Beginner’s Guide

(by Conor Murray, from IMC Newsletter Spring 2000)
Why would someone travel to Argentina and drag themselves up a 22,480 ft mountain? Well, I know what the great travel writers would have you believe, using phrases like ‘epic journey’ and ‘into the void’. But I found that the smaller, mundane, everyday events became more important.

And so follows a list of the valuable lessons which I learnt – the hard way. Please take special note of Lesson 8 – a turning point of our holiday.

  1. Never partake in a weight loss programme before you leave. Altitude does strange things to (a) your appetite, (b) your taste buds and (c) your cooking skills.
  2. Always pack your food, then remove half of it.
  3. Never bring the good luck charms that people give you. You’ll just spend lots off time worried that you’ve lost them.
  4. Always insist when load-sharing that your pack is heavier. It always is!
  5. Never bring more than one pot and one spoon. Then you’ll only have to clean one pot and one spoon.
  6. Always clean your cooking gear before you turn in for the night – although the remains of your rice and beans may add flavour to your porridge.
  7. Never take pasta to high altitude. It won’t cook! Of course, nobody will tell you this until you return and will have already spent two weeks chewing on this tasteless rubbish.
  8. Always bring a backup stove and, more importantly, take the thing with you. It is absolutely no use to you at base camp.
  9. Always bring a spare camera and follow Guideline No 8.
  10. Never carry fancy cappuccino sachets. The romantic encounters you hope for will never happen. You never impress anyone and your heart rate will increase to 120 bpm after drinking them.
  11. Always carry a pocket Bible for those moral debates. You are assured victory after quoting it.
  12. And, finally, never, never eat yellow snow!!

But it’s not all about mountains. It’s about the people you meet and then spend the rest of the trip trying to avoid. Our first people encounters were not great. Exhausted and bedraggled teams made their way out of the valleys as we walked in. We passed a mule train, taking a man quickly down the mountain. We were informed that he had suffered a stroke at 16,000 ft! There were many tales of storms, lost tents and failed summit attempts. But we walked on towards base camp, turning down our last chance to leave and go in search of a good beach. The gathering at base camp seemed to be having just as rough a time. There had been storms on and off for the previous month and, with no sign of change,people were leaving.

We were also greeted with a little 48-hour storm, which kept us tent-bound, during which time we inherited a new friend – an American, who thrived on giving us the bleakest outlook, as often as possible. We would hear him approaching our tent, raise our eyes to Heaven and pray that, if we were quiet enough, he would feck off. No such luck! He would shout again in the wonderful New York twang: HEY YOU GUYS – I’M COMING IN! Then we would listen to his grim weather predictions and fears of not getting out alive. I remember asking him how he was coping with the altitude and he said that he was “doin’ just fine”, but I knew by the bloodshot eyes, the furrowed brow and rapid breathing, just how tough he was finding it. I understood more later on, after visiting his tent. It was a complete shambles, being held together by a short length of rope. But he was a brave man and battled on regardless.

The Welsh duo, who were primarily rock climbers, found the walking tough and the altitude was affecting them severely, or so they claimed. When I tried to point out to them that the couple of joints they smoked every night might actually be the problem, they looked slightly confused and then discarded my advice. What can you do? They never topped out but apparently found some good gear in Mendosa and a trip well worth the journey, I imagine.

The Benegas brothers, renowned big wall climbers and mountaineers who were guiding and also training for their second Everest summit, jogged out from base camp in 2 hours 45 minutes – a walk that took us 8 hours 30 minutes. Unlike myself, the two lads seemed to spend most of their spare time fending off the attentions of beautiful women!

It was interesting to follow the ongoing saga of a well-known guiding company, whose guides had clearly implied that none of their clients had a chance. By day 6, five of the eight had dropped out, complaining of the cold and tough terrain – they were clearly not prepared. At least when you are on your own you are in control and busy – unlike the paying clients, who seemed to sit around all day, waiting for orders. The guides had very little time for their whinging and walked around with an air of superiority. The chance of success was slim for the remaining three. Of course the American clients seemed to be trophy-snatching – paying dollars for summits – fitting another exciting dimension to a tour of South America.

And while I watched these groups of people drag themselves up the mountain, a question needed to be answered. Why was I there? A twinge of guilt was felt as I thought of my motives. Was I using the mountain to feed my ego? I suddenly felt humbled, honoured to be where I was – I remember kneeling on the ground and touching my face against the stones. I was no longer fighting against the mountain, but asking the mountain for permission.

Of course, I opened my eyes, attached a 25 kg rucksack to my back and was brought back to reality in about 2 seconds, continuing my lessons at altitude. Still dreaming of a soft bed and good food, I had now added beer, women and nightclubs to the list.

After 12 days of a really tough climb, we travelled to Mendoza to fulfil all we had dreamed about – and as the tourist brochures say, “sit in the street cafes and admire the beautiful women” (and street vendors)! We were in Paradise!