cradiocrawl stage 3: the intermission

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cradiocrawl stage 3: the intermission

Boy oh boy.  It is 6:30am on a Thursday morning, and I am tossing and turning on the top bunk in our $20/night hostel room in Mendoza.  Libby and John are still asleep, and I should be too - I only just went to bed a couple hours ago - but there is too much on my mind.  We're supposed to fly home in two days, but Libby and I have unfinished business.  

While we both tagged the summit - and pretty fast, too! he :) - we did not complete our main objective: the 70km roundtrip run from the Horcones trailhead to the summit and back.  We knew from the start that I probably wasn't going to be in shape for the long one, seeing how my lungs were still acting up after the quickie ascent from basecamp to the summit; our plan was to stick together for as long as possible, and for Libby to continue on and get it done once I had to tap out.   

 100 yards down, 70km to go!

100 yards down, 70km to go!

We hit the trail at the park entrance right around 6pm, as the sun was starting to be low in the sky and the temperatures in the Lower Horcones valley were turning from scorching to tolerable. Everything went according to plan: we made it to Confluencia in just around 90 minutes, refueled on the go, and breezed through towards the long sandy slog from the confluence towards basecamp.  As day turned to night the wind picked up; we buttoned up and continued straight into the sandy blasts.  Shortly after nightfall and roughly 20km into the run, my energy ran out and I signaled to Libby that I wasn't going to be able to keep pace with her any longer.  I sat down by a rock and started munching on a PowerBar as Libby's headlamp trailed off into the moonless night. 

And that was the end of the story for me: I got myself to basecamp, checked Libby's position on GPS and fell into bed hoping for the best for Libby who now was facing a big, cold climb through the night - solo.  

Fast forward to a few hours later and Libby and I are both curled up in sleeping bags and trying to rest after the previous day's and night's effort; Libby up at 18,300ft and I at 14,400ft.  Going solo, the cold night and brisk pace had pushed Libby's caloric balance so far into the deficit zone that by the time she reached Nido she too tapped out. 

And now... here we are, back in Mendoza, thinking about what it would take to complete the mission and discussing options.  Aconcagua continues to call our name.  Can we build on the acclimatization of the last five weeks and head back out to the mountain for another try?  Or should we plan to come back next year?  With the time and money required for a project like this one, there's no easy answer.... just the climbing permits run $800 per person; then again, we've already put so much work and money into this goal that it seems foolish to walk away now.  

We've got just about forty hours until our flights are scheduled to depart - should we stay or should we go?? 

 So close, and yet so far... 

So close, and yet so far... 

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cardiocrawl stage 2: go time

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cardiocrawl stage 2: go time

Sunday's wind speeds may be higher than later in the week, but they're still REALLY good for Aconcagua standards.  The upcoming colder temps convinced us to go now rather than wait. 

This is it: the weather is looking decent, our legs are semi recovered from the hike out, supplies are in position on the mountain, and Libby's stoke for getting the in-a-push done is high.  In other words, it's GAME ON.  

We'll be starting from the Horcones trailhead around 6pm this evening (Sat Jan 28), and I'll be doing what I can to pace and support Libby as she's pushing onwards and upwards to 22,838ft. Libby is hoping to summit mid-day Sunday and be back down and out by early Monday morning. My assumption at this point is that I'll be able to keep her company for the 50km roundtrip to and from Plaza de Mulas, but then leave her to her own devices for the crux 20km on the upper mountain.    

 A few days ago at Nido (18,300ft) - Libby contemplating what's up ahead

A few days ago at Nido (18,300ft) - Libby contemplating what's up ahead

 Flying down the scree slop between Nido and Plaza de Mulas

Flying down the scree slop between Nido and Plaza de Mulas

 At basecamp - only 8,400ft of climbing from here to the top... 

At basecamp - only 8,400ft of climbing from here to the top... 

One way or the other - stoke is high, as is both our uncertainty about what the next 48 hours are going to bring.  The live GPS is set up to be showing close to real-time updates (in 10 minute intervals) on the big push and my favorite boyfriend and expedition manager Paul will be keeping my Instagram current while we're off, as it were.  Wish us luck, and send lots of strength and psych to Libby! 

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#cardiocrawl stage 1: mission accomplished!

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#cardiocrawl stage 1: mission accomplished!

Whew.  It's been just about eight days since Libby and I hiked back into Plaza de Mulas after our better half of Team Asquerosa left (hey Teresa, Kristina - we miss you!), and SO much has happened since then.  

After a slow start and some difficulty acclimatizing in the first weeks of January Libby tagged her first Aconcagua summit this past Saturday; she was moving at an excellent clip for it, too: the trek from Nido (18,300) to the summit took Libby 7h45, where most regular climbers take around 12 hours.

 On radio duty at Nido, monitoring Libby's climb

On radio duty at Nido, monitoring Libby's climb

 Libby at the summit - fittingly on Saturday Jan 21, the date of the Women's March

Libby at the summit - fittingly on Saturday Jan 21, the date of the Women's March

I accompanied Libby to Nido in advance of her summit push but decided to wait and acclimatize for a while longer since I was flirting with the thought of trying for the women's speed record from basecamp to the summit. The existing speed record was set by the local guide and strong woman Chabela Farias in March 2016, who summited in a blazing 9h16 from basecamp and managed the subsequent descent in a mere 3h24 for the roundtrip record of 12h40.  

My and Libby’s main focus has always been on the “long” speed ascent from the Horcones Valley trailhead to the summit and back, but when I saw how fast I was climbing during the early weeks in January - and despite a lingering respiratory infection that I was dealing with at the time - I started to hatch plans for a “quickie” from basecamp to the summit. 

Monday Jan 23 was my go day: I left Plaza de Mulas at 5:05am under perfectly calm and starry skies with mild temperatures and started the 8,400ft climb towards the top of the Americas, feeling strong. I only had a rough idea of the splits I’d need to hit in order to have a chance at Chabela’s 9h16 record, but when I reached Nido (18,300ft) just 2 hours and 44 minutes after leaving basecamp and then hit Camp Cholera another hour later I was starting to feel optimistic.  I kept climbing briskly - interspersed by a few short breaks to refuel and transition to crampons - and stood on the summit 8 hours and 47 minutes after leaving Plaza de Mulas.  

 Summit!  I tagged the cross at 1:52pm and lingered a bit for photos & refueling before starting the long way down.    

Summit!  I tagged the cross at 1:52pm and lingered a bit for photos & refueling before starting the long way down.    

Even while taking summit photos and initiating radio contact with basecamp to confirm my ascent, I had already decided that I wasn’t going to try to break Chabela’s roundtrip record since I wanted to save my legs for Libby and my big trailhead - summit - trailhead speed attempt later in the week.  That said, as soon as I started descending it became very clear that I couldn’t have matched Chabela’s descent time even if I had wanted to: while I felt strong on the way up, on the way down my lungs decided to acutely remind me that I wasn’t fully healed from my chest infection yet.  Thankfully I had plenty of daylight left, as well as support along the way - first John Evans greeted me with coffee and a much appreciated hot meal at Nido, and later in the evening Libby trekked up to Conway Rocks to escort me back to basecamp at the end of a long day. 

 Tired after a big day and stoked to be back within spitting distance of basecamp

Tired after a big day and stoked to be back within spitting distance of basecamp

At this point, Libby and I are back down in Penitentes (just outside the park) and resting up for the long attempt. While I feel a lot better now than I did right after my summit push, chances are I won’t be in shape to go high on the mountain again in the next few days - so now the two key questions are: what is the best weather window for Libby to launch the big one, and how far will I be able to run with her for support and company? 

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#cardiocrawl - the beginning

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#cardiocrawl - the beginning

It's official - Libby and I are back on the mountain. It's a bit of a different setup this time; rather than enjoying Inka Expediciones' comfortable (and quick!) all-in logistics support, we are now on a budget trying to cobble together this expedition at the lowest cost possible.  

 goodbye Mendoza - man it was nice to feel clean for 2.5 days :) 

goodbye Mendoza - man it was nice to feel clean for 2.5 days :) 

We caught the bus from Mendoza to Penitentes, dropped our 65kg of mule freight in Penitentes, and spent the night at a small hostel before heading into the park for the long hike from Horcones to Plaza de Mulas.  Ultra runner and photographer John Evans was a day and a half ahead of us to acclimatize in Confluencia, and the three of us finally all converged upon basecamp on Tuesday evening. 

The weather forecast is looking promising for a good summit window at the end of the week - looks like we will be going for our first summit push on or near Friday.  It’ll be too early for John to go high on the mountain, but Libby and I should be well acclimatized thanks to the adventures of Team Asquerosa over the last several weeks.  But first it’ll be interesting to see how good (or bad!) the ascent back up to Camp Nido feels tomorrow, which will be a valuable indication of how well our bodies are dealing with the altitude.  FIngers crossed.... 

It’s a bit nerve wrecking to think about a big push as early as three days from now, but it’s also exciting - time to quit talking and start walking!

 2/3rds the way up to Nido; if you look closely, you can see Polish endurance crusher Anna Figura (right most figure) who tried for a speed ascent on Jan 12 but had to abort due to dehydration

2/3rds the way up to Nido; if you look closely, you can see Polish endurance crusher Anna Figura (right most figure) who tried for a speed ascent on Jan 12 but had to abort due to dehydration

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Goodbye Team Asquerosa, hello #cardiocrawl!

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Goodbye Team Asquerosa, hello #cardiocrawl!

As of a few hours ago, Libby and I said goodbye to the better half of our team (Teresa, Kristina, we miss you already!!) and started the extensive unpack - pack - repack rhythm that will get us ready to return to the mountain in short order. 

 The team in full force at Camp Canada (16,500ft) 

The team in full force at Camp Canada (16,500ft) 

 Final dinner with Team Asquerosa & friends

Final dinner with Team Asquerosa & friends

Armed with two lightweight daypacks and roughly 130lbs in mule duffels, our plan is to head back to Penitentes on the morning bus in order to spend the night just outside the park and then start the 18 mile (and 4500ft ascent!) hike into basecamp on Tuesday morning.  Along the way we'll meet up with photographer extraordinaire John Evans, who is joining us on this next go around to document the beauty of the mountain as well as some of Libby and my cardiocrawl endeavors. 

Not having summitted this previous time, we are keen on pushing high quite quickly and seeing what our bodies can do after two weeks of acclimatization at up to 18,300ft.  We have a lot of work ahead of us, and the next two and a half weeks promise to be full of excitement, effort and uncertainty.  I personally am equally stoked and anxious to see what I can accomplish - the wild dream right now is to make it from Nido to the summit in 5-6 hours, which is roughly half the time that most "regular" climbers take for the same three mile distance (yes, at that altitude it really *does * take 10-12 hours to cover three miles, and it's hard enough for lots of well-trained people to turn around).  It'll be an adventure, and while I am in no way sure of the outcome I am excited to try and give it my best. 

 Libby and Teresa a couple thousand feet above basecamp

Libby and Teresa a couple thousand feet above basecamp

As on the last climb, I'll post intermittent updates on the blog while we're at basecamp; I'll also try for the occasional photo upload though what comes through is highly dependent on bandwidth in Plaza de Mulas.  A more reliable way to follow along and/or stay in touch is the live GPS which will be fully operational for two-way messaging just as it was for the team climb; in addition, Paul will continue to post regular (where possible, daily) updates on my Instagram so you can hear what we're up to.  

I can't wait to get going and see how the mountain will receive us this time around. Vamos!! 

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Returning to normalcy

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Returning to normalcy

It’s been 15 days since we first entered the park and we are just back down at Plaza de Mulas - with the prospect of hiking 18 miles and returning to Mendoza (and hot showers!) tomorrow.  It’s been amazing to watch Team Asquerosa come together over the last two weeks - none of us four may have tagged the summit on this go around, but we laughed and learned so much together.  The team has been excellent, the mountains bold and beautiful; it’s been an incredible adventure. Take away the three cases of flu and bronchitis that kept us from going above 20,000ft and you’d pretty much be looking at a perfect big mountain trip. 

 3am summit day preparations at Nido; Libby and Kristina set out together with Gavin Attwood's team from Colorado, but both turned around shortly out of camp. 

3am summit day preparations at Nido; Libby and Kristina set out together with Gavin Attwood's team from Colorado, but both turned around shortly out of camp. 

At this very moment Kristina, Libby and Sunny are at basecamp and enjoying the warmth of the sun after a couple very cold days and nights at 18,000ft.  Teresa is already back in Mendoza, due to a persistent case of bronchitis that earned her a free helicopter ride down to the road yesterday.  We are all looking forward to being back together as a full team in town tomorrow evening, and will be sharing a few more notes from the climb as well as photos over the next few days.  

 Teresa in prime shape at Camp Canada a week ago; it was downhill from there. 

Teresa in prime shape at Camp Canada a week ago; it was downhill from there. 

Thanks for all the well wishes and support from y’all along the way, and stay tuned for pictures. Much love from Team Asquerosa! 

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Life at 18,000ft

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Life at 18,000ft

Why hello there world! We’re back at basecamp for a day or two, waiting out high winds and resting up to get ready for a summit attempt on the 11th or 12.  We’ve left all of our gear and tents up at Nido de Condores, which is the ultimate insurance to guarantee that we won’t just succumb to the luxuries of properly oxygenated air and hike out to Mendoza early to trade summit chances for a day of wine tasting.  

 settling in for the night at Camp Canada 

settling in for the night at Camp Canada 

There have been varying degrees of suffering among the team: Libby is going strong all around and Kristina is finally on the mend, but Teresa and Sunny are now both dealing with congestion and nasty coughs.  The plan now is for Kristina and Libby to head back up to Nido tomorrow, take a rest day and then be in position for a summit bid on Jan 11. Teresa and Sunny are going to spend an extra night at basecamp, then join the team in Nido on Jan 10 and - depending on recovery and overall energy levels - potentially try for the summit on Jan 11 or Jan 12.  We’ve been making smart and conservative decisions all along and will continue to do so.  

 Rest day living ain't so bad. (though this was "only" at 16,500ft)

Rest day living ain't so bad. (though this was "only" at 16,500ft)

In the meantime if you’re curious about what it feels like to camp at Nido (~18,200ft)… here’s how Kristina described it the other day:  

Plug your nose, wrap a pillow around your face, put on 3-4 layers of clothing, strap a fan, no 2-3 fans to your head so they blow directly in your face and then take a plastic bag and go shit by a rock in your yard.  

Seems like a pretty accurate assessment to me :) lotsa new experiences and type II fun for everyone, but we continue to have a blast together as a team. Wish us luck and send big energy for the next few days!  

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Onwards and upwards

Today is the day that we leave the luxuries of basecamp behind and move higher on the mountain. We already carried the first round of loads up to Camp Canada at 17,550ft and will be making camp there for the next 2-3 days. 

Its been windy for a few days now and is expected to stay like that, with the exception of Jan 6 where conditions look promising for a summit attempt - not for us though, as we won't be in position yet. We're hoping that there'll be another day of stable good weather and low wind speeds somewhere in the Jan 9-11 window.  

Kristina is still fighting the flu; we are hoping she'll be able to join the team at Camp Canada with a day or two delay, but will play it by ear.

This will be the last blog post for a while, as we are not expecting to have any connectivity (besides the DeLorme GPS) once we're above basecamp. Wish us luck and keep your fingers crossed for good weather starting on Jan 9! And in the meantime you can always check our progress via the GPS tracker or on Instagram, which Paul will keep current as much as possible. Up up we go! 

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2017

Happy New Year from basecamp!  It’s day 4 on the mountain and the first day of 2017.  We made it to Plaza de Mulas yesterday afternoon, as preparations for a big New Years celebration were already in full swing: we walked into camp at 4,300m to the smell of ribs cooking on a big impromptu BBQ and music playing everywhere.  Later in the evening we were treated to a champagne toast and cake and bonfire - ultimate luxury on the mountain, but not too terribly surprising given that Plaza de Mulas is considered the second largest basecamp in the world right after Everest.  

 NYE prep at Plaza de Mulas

NYE prep at Plaza de Mulas

We joined the festivities and stayed up a bit later than our regular schedule, but didn’t quite make it until midnight.  

Today is mostly a rest day though we are keeping busy organizing gear and planning our upcoming carries. Spirits are high and the team is generally feeling good; Kristina is still fighting the flu but has been resting up and will hopefully be back to 100% soon.  Wifi is woefully slow at basecamp, so non-GPS updates will be limited.  The team has been loving all the incoming messages via DeLorme - keep 'em coming :) 

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GO time! Live GPS is active

 See the message button in the left menu?  Say hi! 

See the message button in the left menu?  Say hi! 

The last couple days have flown by, and we are finally officially on our way.  Stoke is high!! There is some connectivity at basecamp and potentially up to Camp Canada or even Nido (all the relevant topos and our timeline on the mountain can be found here), so I hope to be able to share a few shorter blog updates with you from along the way.  At the same time, you can now check our progress on the map via live GPS.

And what's particularly awesome about the GPS: not only can you see where we are, you can also send us messages! Just go to the menu bar on the left of the map, and hit the 'message' button; we've got an unlimited message subscription from DeLorme and there is no cost to you - feel free to say hi or send encouragement any time :)

Another way to get more regular updates is via my Instagram - our expedition manager aka my wonderful boyfriend Paul will post photos as well as notes on team progress there while we are in GPS-only zones on the mountain. 

Notes about GPS communication: be aware that we can only download new messages or send location updates while our inReach GPS is powered and has a clear view of the sky, so don't worry (hi mom, I'm looking at you!) if there are gaps in communication or if you don't see us moving on the map.  I'm planning to carry the GPS whenever we are out hiking, but will keep it powered off while at camp.  

It's always fun to see a bunch of new inbound messages when you hit the 'on' button in the morning - don't let the time lag between sending and receiving messages stop you from writing to us!

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Team Arrival

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Team Arrival

Here we go!  As of yesterday, the team is all together in Mendoza.  Everybody (and all our bags) made it Mendoza safe and sound, and we've been busy with last minute preparations cramming to get ready to hike in tomorrow.  We've picked up permits, inventoried and distributed group gear, packed 120kgs worth of mule duffels - what a relief that we don't have to carry everything up to basecamp - and are all anxious to get moving.  

 The team at the Mendoza office of El Parque Prov. Aconcagua to get permits (L-R: Kristina, myself, Libby, Teresa)

The team at the Mendoza office of El Parque Prov. Aconcagua to get permits (L-R: Kristina, myself, Libby, Teresa)

 Dinner choices

Dinner choices

 PowerBar distribution

PowerBar distribution

 So much solar power! 

So much solar power! 

We're just under 10 hours out from hitting the road tomorrow morning 8am; all that stands between us and the park entrance now are some last minute gear adjustments, one final night in a real bed, our last showers for the next fifteen days, breakfast, and a 3.5 hour drive from Mendoza into the heart of the Andes.

Stay tuned, and keep us company on the mountain by sending love and encouragement via the live GPS!

 We're official. Vengan Las Chicas!

We're official. Vengan Las Chicas!

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Think you've got what it takes? Training for Aconcagua

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Think you've got what it takes? Training for Aconcagua

Aconcagua is the second highest of the Seven Summits, and at 22,838ft it is a formidable peak: even if you choose the easiest way up the mountain, you are looking at a one way trip of ~35km / 22 miles with 4000 meters (13,120ft) of ascent. The typical climber takes about two weeks to get to the summit, allowing time to both acclimatize and wait for the somewhat elusive weather window.  

OK - if you do the math it doesn't actually sound that bad, does it? Fourteen days for 22 miles and 13,000 feet elevation gain should translate to an average of just a little under 2 miles and 1,000ft of ascent each day.  Of course it's not that easy: there are acclimatization days, load carries, rest days.  And most of the action happens above 14,000ft ASL where the air is thin and every step is a battle.  

 Where every step is a battle...

Where every step is a battle...

So how do you prepare for a climb like this?  Here's what I told the team as they signed on to the mission: 

The better your cardio base is, the better your chances of acclimatizing and making it all the way to the summit.  A huge part of the battle is mental, but you have to be working off a super strong cardio base to even be in position to fight that mental battle. What I mean by that: being in marathon shape is a great benchmark; short of actually running a marathon, you ought to be able to knock out a twenty mile run/walk over the course of 5-7 hours without feeling like you’re going to collapse at the end of it.

In addition to an excellent cardio base, the ability to suffer is key.  Climbing at altitude and in the extreme cold that characterizes Aconcagua means that there will be plenty of suffering, even under the most favorable conditions; the outcome of the climb depends majorly on the question of how badly you want it (while respecting physical limits and objective hazards, of course). 

 Did I mention there'll be suffering?  I was definitely suffering here... sick from bad water at Camp II in 2014

Did I mention there'll be suffering?  I was definitely suffering here... sick from bad water at Camp II in 2014

 My Suunto's take on summit day... almost 9000 calories, mmh

My Suunto's take on summit day... almost 9000 calories, mmh

If you're not already an ultra endurance athlete with a first-hand idea of what this suffering talk is all about, I'm a big fan of overnight training sessions: start at dusk and hike all night until the sun comes up again; ideally up a local hill or mountain and carrying weight.  When a 12 hours overnight hike like that doesn't faze you anymore, chances are you'd handle the physical demands of Aconcagua just fine. 

Now this is all preparation for a "typical" climb.  You may know that I (together with Libby) am planning to head back up on the mountain for a one-day speed ascent in January, after the team expedition is complete.  Here's where the need for specialized training kicks in.

I was lucky to be able to use Globetrotter's hypoxic chamber at their Munich, Germany, store for several weeks of altitude training; the altitude chamber helped me further build my mountain running base after I had already spent time training in the Himalayas and on Kilimanjaro in October and November. 

And even though I have plenty of experience running big mountain trails, I will be the first to profess that my training tends to be largely unstructured and from the hip; for this project, tailored coaching from an elite triathlete and experienced ultra runner brought discipline into my approach and was just what I needed to optimize my time in the Globetrotter altitude chamber - thank you Stefani for sharing your expertise with me and holding me accountable! 

Interval sessions and tempo runs, core and quad exercises as well as lots of cross training; some of it at a simulated 17,000ft, and other parts near sea level. I'm excited to have seen major improvements over the course of my training and feel better prepared than ever to push hard.  But first I can't wait to get out there with the team and climb the mountain in proper style, and in the company of not one but three badass ladies. Wish us luck!!


PS - If you want more concrete tips on how to train for the kind of non-technical endurofest that Aconcagua is just holler at me. I've got the original team welcome & training emails saved and am always happy to share :) I'm also available for coaching and guiding. 

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Hello Argentina

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Hello Argentina

It's getting real! Operation Las Chicas en Aconcagua is only a couple days away now, and I just touched down in Mendoza a few hours ago to get all set for the team's impending arrival.  I started my own trip down south yesterday, leaving Calgary mid-morning; at least traveling on Christmas paid off: low fares, no security lines and zero travel delays. Three flights and four countries later (the US and Chile were transit stops) I am finally back in Argentina, stoked for the rest of the girls to get here on Tuesday.

 Grainy iPhone snap from the approach to Santiago de Chile: Aconcagua with her very own crown of clouds

Grainy iPhone snap from the approach to Santiago de Chile: Aconcagua with her very own crown of clouds

It's been an interesting journey trying to manage expedition logistics from afar.  By far the biggest challenge was figuring out how to get group gear and support from our (largely US-based) sponsors down to Argentina, given that I've been traveling internationally for the last five months with no break to return to the US until after Aconcagua. Shipping to Argentina is generally not considered an option because of import issues, so I needed to find a way to collect all the gear and transport it in person.  In the end I did manage to get every last piece of expedition equipment to Argentina with only ~$150 in excess luggage fees - mostly thanks to the unceasing support of my boyfriend a.k.a. basecamp manager extraordinaire, Paul.  

To give you an idea of the magnitude of the task, here's a sample of what Paul and I were looking at:

  • ~25lbs of freeze dried meals from Backpackers Pantry
  • ~40lbs of PowerBar gels and bars
  • ~20lbs of hand- and toewarmers from Grabber Warmers
  • five double sleeping pad & chair kit sets from Therm-a-Rest - thankfully these are ultra light & small, but imagine the combined volume
  • two tents, three stoves (and all the relevant team cookware from Sea-to-Summit)
  • all my personal gear including heavy double boots and a -30* sleeping bag...
  • ... and of course camera equipment and all the usual electronics.
 Paul and the kit in Canada; thankfully some of it went back to Colorado with him instead of coming to Argentina with me

Paul and the kit in Canada; thankfully some of it went back to Colorado with him instead of coming to Argentina with me

 tired but finally approaching Mendoza after 24 hours of travel

tired but finally approaching Mendoza after 24 hours of travel

This is the first time that I'm traveling with and organizing logistics for a team bigger than two; it's been an adventure already, and I can't wait to see how things play out on the mountain. Here's hoping for good weather, strong legs and lungs, and easy acclimatization!

T minus two days until the team gets together to kick things off. 

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An Introduction to the Normal Route

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An Introduction to the Normal Route

Aconcagua is the perfect high altitude mountain for all sorts of shenanigans, because it has something for everyone: the South Face is among the biggest walls in the world, with some 9000ft of highly technical climbing; the Polish Glacier on the east side of the mountain offers a moderate technical option.  And then there's the Normal Route leading up the northwest ridge. 

The Normal Route is mostly a walkup; there are no glaciers or major cliff bands that could pose serious objective hazards. It is also the most popular way up the mountain; Plaza de Mulas at its foot is rumored to be the second largest basecamp in the world, and from there a well-worn track leads most of the way to the summit.  Now... that's not to say that getting up the mountain via the Normal Route is easy.  No matter how non-technical it may be, the route still gains almost 4000 meters / 13,000ft from the park entrance to the summit. It is long, it is steep, and the conditions above basecamp are often brutal.   

Aerial view of the Horcones Valley Route

How long and steep, you ask?  Great question - it’s not that simple.  Interviews with Fernanda Maciel, the current women's speed record holder, suggest that the entire route is somewhere between 40 and 45 kilometers in length one way.  Kilian Jornet, who briefly held the men's  speed record in 2014, recorded a distance of 59.85km for the roundtrip or just under 30km one way.  My own GPS data from a 2014 climb comes in at right around 34kms one way.  

So much for the distance question. But how steep? This one is easier to answer: at first not very steep at all; then, very steep. The approach to basecamp follows the Horcones Valley which ascends so gradually that it is almost imperceptible for a good portion of the hike.  But the story changes drastically after Plaza de Mulas: the final 10 kilometers from basecamp to the summit cover almost 2,700m of elevation gain, translating into an average gradient of 26-27%.  

Normal Route Elevation Profile

There are five camps in between the park entrance and the summit.  The first two, Confluencia and Plaza de Mulas, offer relative luxury thanks to local logistics providers: Inka Expediciones and a few others maintain semi-permanent tents to provide meals and bunk beds for their clients.  In addition, there is ample mule traffic all the way up to Plaza de Mulas which makes it easy to move loads up to basecamp. Once past Plaza de Mulas everything gets harder: the air is thinner, the temperatures colder, the comfortable logistics support a distant memory (unless you’re hiring expensive porters to help carry gear as high as Nido de Condores).   Put all those factors together with the increased steepness, and you’ll easily see why the 25km to Plaza de Mulas is typically done in only three days, while it’s then another ~ ten days to cover the remaining 10 kilometers from Plaza de Mulas to the summit.  

A map of the upper mountain, via www.aconcaguaexpeditions.com 

Aconcagua via the Normal Route is not much of a technical challenge, but (or maybe "because of that") it makes for an excellent introduction to high altitude mountaineering; the Normal Route also lends itself to comparatively safe solo missions.  Hopefully these maps are useful for you as you’re following along friends on the mountain or if you are researching your own Aconcagua climb. 

On that same note here is one last resource: the tentative mountain itinerary for our women’s team climb that starts right after Christmas. The actual schedule is of course dependent on weather and team condition, but this strawman is a pretty good blueprint of how to tackle a 7000 meter peak with solid acclimatization. 

Lots of time for acclimatization and flexibility from 4000 meters on upwards

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T - 2 Weeks: NOT Dreaming of a White Christmas

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T - 2 Weeks: NOT Dreaming of a White Christmas

It's the middle of December and I'll be arriving in Mendoza exactly two weeks from today - a couple days ahead of the rest of the team so that I have time to put the finishing touches on our logistics. 

Thanks to regular updates from our Argentinian logistics provider Inka Expediciones we already have a good picture of what the mountain looks like this year, and it ain't all that pretty... okay, well - it's pretty to look at, but promises to be challenging as far as the climbing conditions go.  Take a look for yourself.  

To put these photos into context here's what basecamp looked like when I was there two seasons ago, which is much more typical for this side of the mountain. 

 Plaza de Mulas in December 2014 - almost the exact same vantage point as photo #1 above

Plaza de Mulas in December 2014 - almost the exact same vantage point as photo #1 above

The current snow conditions should make for an interesting climb; where two years ago I could have tagged the summit entirely without crampons or ice axe (though I did carry them, as is required by the park administration) there won't be much of a question about gear requirements this time around.  And the ramifications extend below basecamp, too: the 25km approach to Plaza de Mulas follows the Horcones Valley which has a river flowing along it - in low snow years it is possible to crisscross back and forth without having to get your feet wet; in a season like the current one we are certain to have multiple river crossings that'll get us soaked.  

At least we won't have to worry about procuring drinking water above basecamp; there's plenty of snow to melt everywhere! 

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Aconcagua via the Normal Route (Gallery)

Aconcagua via the Normal Route (Gallery)

While preparations for the 2016/2017 women's expedition are in full swing, take a look around the mountain and get to know the route through photos from my 2014 climb. 

Stay Tuned

As our departure date for Argentina draws closer, you'll find updates from both the expedition as well as the speed attempt here.  Follow along on the adventure!

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