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#EneroDeEnduro - The Final Countdown

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#EneroDeEnduro - The Final Countdown

January 2018 is coming to a close, and so is my time on Aconcagua.  Wait, no, before you stop reading - I'm not quite done yet.  I have a few days left, and I am fully planning on utilizing the time remaining on my climbing permit to its fullest.  

Current mountain forecast

I've been on Aconcagua for more than a month now, and I feel well-acclimatized and set-up to attempt a big run along the 360* route. The weather is looking decent, I have supplies in place along the route, and I've got ranger permission to run from the road straight to basecamp (rather than breaking up the 40km trail into the typical three day approach which is standard). With that, there's only one thing left to do: get a good night's rest and hit the trail in the morning!  

You can follow my progress (starting Thursday Feb 1 at ~8am Argentina time) via live GPS.  I'm hoping to be back out in the valley before Saturday morning.  Wish me luck... 

In related news - this just in, and what an amazing accomplishment it is: Dani Sandoval of Ecuador just broke the long women's speed record on the normal route (Horcones - Summit - Horcones) by over two hours.  She managed to run the ~60+ kilometer route in 20 hours and 17 minutes, compared to Fernanda Maciel's previous record of 22 hours and 50 minutes.  I'm curious to see Dani's GPS track to see if she also broke my basecamp-summit ascent record in the process of her kickass run! Massive congratulations Dani, you've managed to succeed in what many others had tried unsuccessfully.  

As as of now all the long distance records on Aconcagua are held by Ecuadorians: Dani for the women's normal route record, Karl Egloff for the men's normal route, and Nicolas Miranda for the men's 360 record.  But there isn't a women's 360 record... yet? 

MHW-7547.jpg

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Oh Aconcagua...

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Oh Aconcagua...

... why do keeping luring me back! It's been three years now since I first set foot on the mountain, and I'm heading back for my third season and my 5th, 6th and possibly 7th twenty-day climbing permit. To say that Aconcagua has been a formative mountain for me would be an understatement.  

Stoked at the summit in 2014, my first time.  I lost 16lbs in 16 days during that particular climb.

Stoked at the summit in 2014, my first time.  I lost 16lbs in 16 days during that particular climb.

But the story of "why Aconcagua" is for another time.  Right now I'm mainly just stoked to finish my 42 hour transit from Potrero Chico to Mendoza (which began at 1:30am on Christmas Day...), stop dragging around 190lbs of group and personal expedition gear - I'm traveling light this year - and say hello to the most excellent team that I'll be spending the next three weeks with: Bobby, Jennifer, and Kristin.  It's a co-ed team this year, though Bobby is outnumbered 4:1 by the girls if you include our last-minute addition and volunteer team medic Libby in the count. 

I'll once again be sharing stories and pictures from the team and the expedition as we're kicking things off in Mendoza and also from the trail, connectivity permitting.  As always you'll be able to find more frequent updates on Instagram and monitor our progress on the mountain via my trusty DeLorme GPS

In the meantime, if you're just tuning in and are curious about what we're up to... you may want to check out some of the more informative posts from last season: 

Yes, wind chill in the negative twenties is considered pretty prime on Aconcagua. 

And so it starts again.  Except for a storm rolling through when we plan to hit the trail on Friday/Saturday the weather is looking pretty excellent so far, the route is dry, I'm psyched to see what surprises this season holds for me, the team, and the ever-inspiring Libby (yes there'll be some ambitious speed scheming again after the team expedition is complete.).  Thanks for coming along for the journey, and if you'd like to get blog updates delivered to your inbox there's a subscribe option, too. 

Up up we go!!

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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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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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