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seven summits

#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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