By Troy Henkels
As with most things in life, it is the journey, not the outcome that holds importance. It took me many years of climbing peaks in Alaska to understand this. Unexpectedly, this climb would be no different.
Despite news agency reports of rioting and killing in the streets of Argentina, I departed the darkness and brutal cold of an Alaskan winter, for a summer climb in South America. It was a well-planned expedition, with promise of success and reaching the summit. I was certain of this. Ford, my expedition partner from a successful climb on Denali several years earlier, would meet me deep in Argentina on the edge of the Andes, to make an attempt on a high peak named Aconcagua. This mountain towers over the scorched arid landscape scaling to 22,800 feet. We figured if we had success on North Americas highest peak, it would prove to be a good recipe on South Americas highest peak as well. Although this mountain is taller than Denali, it experiences much warmer temperatures and stronger winds due to its proximity to the equator.
Months of planning, emails, faxes, phone calls, organizing and packing finally found me ready to go. Our focus for weeks had shifted from the complexities and logistics of the climb, to the turmoil and violence that was unfolding within the country’s borders. There were 22 dead and 200 injuries. The president had resigned and in the end they would see four Presidents take office and resign without a solution to the unrest. It became a question of “will we go?” rather than, “when we go”. I was scared. I thought we were perfect targets. Seemingly wealthy Americans with flashy climbing gear looked like a good target to 18% of the country that is unemployed and hungry. It seems with any great adventure, there is a certain amount of risk, and this was just another dimension that we hadn’t anticipated, yet one that could thwart our plans and put us in danger.
After four layovers and 20 hours in the air, I landed in Argentina to a blazing sun and sweltering heat. Our jumping off point was to be the town of Mendoza. News reports said the rioting had not been as severe in this town, as in Buenos Aires. With relief I explored parks and boardwalks throughout the city and never once felt threatened. People were happy and friendly and you would never guess that there was a high unemployment rate or civil unrest. There had been four Presidents in as many days, and the Argentine Peso was being devalued against the American dollar. Overnight, prices went up 40% on everything, without any increase in wages. I couldn’t help but wonder what the environment would be like if this happened in the United States? Despite this, I soaked up the environment, as it was to be the last civilization I would be in for at least three weeks. We spent several wonderful days in Mendoza sorting gear, waiting on lost luggage, and securing the required climbing permits.
Finally, we departed to clear, sunny skies and drove deep into the Andes. I rode silently in awe of these great peaks. In all my travels I had never experienced mountains like these. Rocky peaks that towered to the sky. Every shade of orange, red, and brown in a myriad of symmetry riddled this endless landscape. The valleys were green and lush and full of life. As our bus climbed higher, I knew we were close to our departure point at 8,500 feet. A small place called Los Puquios, which translates to “warm spring”. It is here that we hire mules to haul the bulk of our gear to Camp II and the point where we really start climbing. We spend one last night in the low lands, out of the sun, gearing up mentally and physically. The next day, by sunrise, the gauchos were gone, driving the heavily loaded mules ever higher. These beasts of burden were amazing to me, traveling to altitude every other day with heavy loads slowing them down. It would be three more days and 4000 feet before we would see our gear again that traveled by mule. We carried everything we needed for the 20-mile trek into base camp.
We set out to clear, sunny skies, wind, and heat. It was difficult to decide if you were too cold or too hot. One minute you would be on the edge of heat exhaustion and the next, a blast of air from high up would hit you and send you searching for warmth behind Gore-Tex and fleece. We managed one glimpse of the mountain we had come to climb, reflecting in a small kettle pond and a meadow of wild flowers. Snow covered and towering 14,300 above us and far off in the distance. It was unimaginable to hike to the base of this peak, much less getting to the top, but that is what we had come here to do. We managed the hike up 2000 feet of breathtaking river valley with monstrous peaks all around, in about two hours. We felt good and were moving well. This camp is called Confluencia, because it sits in a pretty spot where two mud filled rivers meet and roar past the camp like continuous thunder. Confluencia was blessed with a spring and thus, fresh, clean cool water. A much needed commodity when going to altitude and in heat.
Temperatures soared into the 90Fs. In this environment and far above tree line, there is no place to hide from the sweltering sun. We had opted to send our only tent with the mules, so we would sleep under the stars and were subject to sunlight all day. We managed to find small bits of shade under an overhanging rock. We also had miscalculated the number of days we would spend at this camp. We had thought only one night, to acclimate, but the park rangers suggested two, and we agreed. However, we had only packed food for one night, thus we were on half rations the first day of the climb!!! We weren’t starving just yet, but awfully hungry. We sweated out the day and slept under frigid skies and the southern sky chock full of stars and no lights to fade them out. It was our good fortune to enjoy a spectacular sky in the shadow of spectacular peaks.
By this point we had met several other climbing parties coming down the mountain, unsuccessful in their bids to reach the summit. They told of horrible conditions higher up. There had been three feet of fresh snow on the summit and seven feet at base camp. It was unthinkable to climb through seven feet of snow, so we weren’t sure what to expect the higher we climbed.
The next day we battled the heat and altitude and climbed 2000 feet to a place called Plaza Francia. A spectacular valley that led us to outrageous views of the formidable South face of the mountain. Huge and convoluted rock walls scattered with equally appalling vertical ice and hanging glaciers. I was at a loss to even visually find a route up this side of the mountain, it all looked too dangerous. And I was dumbfounded knowing that numerous parties had scratched there way to the top via the South Face. We spent the day, in the sun and wind, acclimating before returning to Confluencia for more half rations and a night spent out in freezing temperatures.
By morning we were on the trail to base camp. Racing the sun and soaking up as much shade as we could catch before the sun torched the valley we were in. With this hike came river crossings. Fortunately it had been dry so the rivers were low. We hiked on, as heavily loaded mules could be seen coming up the valley in the distance, dust scattering to the wind. After five hours, the trail started to get much steeper. We traveled on as the relatively heavy loads, sun, and wind all took their toll. Two more hours and we were up against a very steep rock face. We trudged on knowing that we had to climb this hill as the altitude continued to wear us down. As we climbed, we passed loaded mules coming down the trail. It was unthinkable that mules could negotiate this steep trail, but there they were. Several mule corpses lay below the trail, testament to the severity of a fall. Before long, several climbers, straddling mules, passed us. They looked exhausted and sick. Without a doubt they were suffering from severe altitude sickness, which can kill if you do not descend in enough time. They were wrapped from head to toe to combat the sun and wind, but I couldn’t help but wonder how they handled the blistering heat. They did not speak. They would have an eight-hour mule ride to civilization. A very long day. Both Ford and I hoped out loud that we would not suffer a similar fate.
Always with mountaineering there are inherent risks. Good climbers learn to calculate that risk and pursue their dreams in as safe a fashion as possible. But when dealing with high altitude, sun, wind, snow, ice, and big peaks, there is always the unknown and risks that cannot be eliminated or even calculated. Certainly, these climbers were suffering the outfall of some miscalculation of human or nature error. And with most climbers, they believe something like THAT would NEVER happen to them. For me, it never has, but at times it has been close, very close. And as a result I’ve gained respect and wisdom when playing dangerous games. This was one of them.
After eight and a half hours of grueling effort we arrived at Plaza de Mulas/Camp II, and our base camp to begin our assault on the mountain. Ford and I were both exhausted from the heat and the altitude (13,890’). I was not prepared for what greeted me at base camp. There was a hotel off in the distance, complete with running water and a restaurant. Near our campsite there were large tents with signs advertising cold beer and coke, cheeseburgers, email, and phone service. An article I read before I left Alaska described Plaza de Mulas as a “Freak Show” and indeed it was. This benign environment attracted people from all over the world that came to be guided up the highest peak in the Americas. Many of these were not climbers or had ever set foot on a mountain. Indeed, I saw a group of older Asians, trekking in on mules, in dress clothes. Another man with dress slacks and a button down shirt, looked fresh from the office. And yet others, that lacked the gear, knowledge, and experience to attempt an assault on a peak of this magnitude. This explained the climbers leaving the mountain on mules. We learned to ignore the “freak show”, but it left me wondering what scaling the world’s highest peaks has become? Like Everest, Aconcagua had turned into a trendy place to climb, if you had the money and willpower to make it this far. Like Everest, people die, and that is the sad part of going to the mountains without proper experience and training.
Exhaustion had overcome me as we labored to set up camp on the rock scree field of glacial debris. It would be home for the next 15 days. By nightfall, the temperatures plunged and we were resting in the warmth of the tent. We spent two glorious days at Plaza de Mulas, acclimating to the elevation change. It was a necessity if we were to continue higher and make an attempt at the summit. Both days were warm, sunny, and windy. My time was spent sorting food and gear and figuring out what would be needed at certain locations on the mountain as we moved higher. An immense amount of time was spent cooking and filtering the glacier water that we used to cook and drink. And, as with all climbs on popular mountains, there was socializing. This camp had over 100 tents and at least twice as many people. Climbers came from all over the world and from all walks of life, all joined by the common goal of getting up this formidable peak. We became friends with two six foot six brothers from Holland, who kept us laughing hysterically with their good humor on the complexities and difficulties of being tall and a vast array of other topics. We also met a man from the East Coast who had walked the Appalachian Trail, solo, and was here to climb this peak solo. He peppered us with questions, as this was the first mountain he was to climb. And all of us looked skyward at the route we were to climb. It did not appear dangerous but a mammoth hillside of rock and scree that was very steep. It seemed endless and climbers near the top could not even be seen.
By day three at Plaza de Mulas we were anxious to move. We were feeling acclimated and decided to take a load up to a higher camp. In the world of high altitude mountaineering, the philosophy is to climb high and sleep low. This means during the day you haul equipment to a higher altitude and sleep at a lower camp, allowing ample time for your body to adjust to the gain in altitude. Typically, after that, one can move camp to that higher altitude and feel somewhat adjusted to the higher elevation. We planned to do just that.
To sunny skies we set out, loaded with gear that would be needed higher on the mountain. It was to be cached 3000 feet higher at a camp called Nido de Condores. The hill we were ascending was formidable and heartbreaking at this altitude. It is quite possibly the most massive hillside I’ve been on. Although not technically difficult, the route switch backed ever upwards for miles. Despite the inherent difficulties of carrying loads at high altitude, I was feeling well, really well. I hit a pace that felt like I could go for days. Finally, we were on the mountain proper, climbing, and making progress toward our goal, the summit. In the heat and wind, Ford and I both slogged on, taking in the immense views as we gained altitude. For hours we would climb, take a break, talk, and climb on. Finally, above a very large boulder and near where we would cache our loads, I waited for Ford, who was 10 minutes behind me. He never showed up. I knew this was to be a defining moment of the climb. I quickly ran scenarios through my head of what could have occurred. My fear was that possibly he was sick or hurt. OR he could have passed me without my knowing. I decided to climb for 10 more minutes have a look around and cache my load at a place called Camp Alaska at 17,100’. Arriving there, Ford was still nowhere to be found. As for me I was exhausted. As night approached, I lay on the side of the mountain wondering if I would die right there. Unknowingly, I had over exerted myself on the climb up and had not fueled my body with enough liquids or food. Unable to walk, I had “hit the wall” and found myself in agony, curled up with my head in my hands feeling like it would explode. Having climbed to altitude before I should have known better. I mustered up some fortitude and common sense and began refueling my body with all the water and food I had. After 10 minutes, I felt fine and began a rapid descent back to base camp in search of my partner. I scoured the face of the mountain not finding anything. After an hour and a half I reached camp and found Ford relaxing in the tent in good spirits. Just below the rock I had been sitting on, Ford decided to descend. We were no more than 50 feet apart, unable to see or hear each other due to the wind, rock and the steepness of the slope. Ford was experiencing some internal struggles as he climbed and just wasn’t into it that day, so he came down.
Fortunately, I have the utmost respect for Ford and understand what goes on while climbing. Mountaineering is as much a physical battle as it is a mental one. With a lot of things working against you (altitude, lack of sleep, physical exertion, etc) it is easy to let the mental side of the game get the better of you. A good mountaineer knows when to say when, and turn back. Ford did just that. Many times in the mountains, not recognizing this, can lead to accidents or even death, especially on big peaks like Aconcagua.
As a result of Fords retreat, we still needed gear and food higher on the mountain. So we decided to make another haul the next day. This would help us acclimate anyway and we would still be on our planned schedule. We retired for the day. I was exhausted after almost 8 hours of climbing.
The next day was sunny and clear again. However, Ford decided he was not committed to the climb anymore and it was time to go home. I was disappointed but very much understood. I’d been there. In the mountains, when you turn that corner and decide you’d rather be somewhere else, there is no point in going higher. To continue climbing only intensifies the recipe for an accident. I was once again reminded, that not only is climbing a physical game, but very much a mental one.
However, some of my gear was still up high on the mountain. I set out at noon to a blazing sun and climbed the same route I’d been up the day before. After 3 hours I passed my cache and continued on to Camp III, Nido de Condores at 17,600’. It was a grueling long climb, but it offered views across the Andes that we were unable to see from down low. I snapped a few pictures of the route that followed, for future reference, and descended. I retrieved my gear and made it back to camp in good time.
The next day dawned sunny again. We packed up camp and headed down the trail before the sun found us. We faced a long day of hiking the Horcones valley back to civilization. To our amazement, the valley had changed. It had rained lower on the mountain and everything was very green and flowers were in full bloom. It was a welcome sight and nearly overloaded our altitude-drained senses. By nightfall, we were back in the town of Mendoza feasting on Argentina steak.
Later we found out that no one made the summit. All the friends we had made along the way tried to reach the top, but a few days after we left, the weather turned dismal and it got cold and snowy. It snowed 6 feet at Camp III. The weather remained bad for almost two weeks. Climbers managed to get to Camp III, where they waited for a good weather window. After an 8-day wait, most were so battered and exhausted, they retreated and went home. So, in retrospect, had we stayed, it is likely we would not have made it any further up the mountain than we did. Possibly Ford had some internal insight that neither of us expected or anticipated. In the end, our climb was a success as we had fun for the entire time we were in the Andes.
And once again I’m reminded, like most things in life, its not reaching the summit that counts, it’s the journey along the way that is the rewarding part. This I found to be true, at 17,000 feet on Aconcagua, deep in the Andes of South America.
Troy Henkels lives in Eagle River, Alaska, is a 1985 graduate of Wahlert High School, and a 1989 graduate of the University of Northern Iowa, and the son of Pete and Mary Henkels, of Dubuque. He writes about his adventures and experiences from around the world. Copyright 2002 Troy Henkels.
Originally published in the Telegraph Herald, Dubuque, IA. May 5th, 2002