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13 January 2008

Polish traverse

Aconcagua is the highest peak in South Americas, and also outside of the Himalayas. Located in the Andes, close to the boarder of Chile. This is one of the 7 summits. Summited January 13th 2008 - this was my first serious high altitude mountain


Aconcagua has two main routes – the Normal route and the Vacas Valley route. Neither of them are technical, but they normally require crampon skills. The Normal route is shorter and more direct, while the Vacas Valley route is quieter, more esthetically pleasing, and offers a chance to traverse the mountain.


We flew to Santiago de Chile and from there headed to Fallerones, a ski resort at 2340 m altitude. We stayed there for a few days and climbed two peaks for acclimatizing. On the first day, we hiked up to Cerro Colorado at 3300 meters. We followed the “walk high, sleep low” principle of high-altitude acclimatization. On the second day, we did a longer and higher hike to Cerro la Parva at 4050 m. I felt fine on both days, but found one steep area with lots of loose sand a bit scary the second day. When I learned to trust my feet, it all went much better.

Next, we traveled to Mendoza, Argentina, to get our permits for the climb. We enjoyed an amazing New Year’s celebration in true Argentinian style before driving to Penitentes on New Year’s Day.

In Penitentes, we re-packed and decided what was going and what was staying behind at the hotel. Once our gear had been packed, we met a few people who had just returned from their climb. Nobody had been able to summit for a week due to bad weather. It was a bit hard to understand that people had been stuck in their tents for days due to the weather.

Starting our climb

Finally, we were ready to begin so we drove to the start at Punta de Vacas from here we trekked to the first camp, Pampa de Lenas, at 2800 m. It was a beautiful trek through the lush, green Vacas valley. The next day, we continued onwards to the second camp, Casa de Piedra, at 3200 m. From here it started to become rockier and less green. At this camp we had beautiful sunshine, however, I have to admit that it was the first and most likely last time in my life that I could not wait for the sun to set. It was too hot and there was nowhere to find shade. Inside our tents it was even worse than on the outside.

The next morning we got up early, before the sun rose. This was so that we could cross the river before the water flow became too big and strong from the melting water. A fresh start of the day, crossing a river with icy water up to your thighs! After the crossing the large river, we started the climb upwards to the Base Camp (BC) – Plaza Argentina at 4200 m. The trek to BC was a steady climb, with another few river crossings, only now the rivers were not so big.

Because we had acclimatized well beforehand, all of us felt fine. I felt strong, but it was cold in the shadows until the sun came. A group that followed us had not acclimatized well beforehand and one of them did not feel so well in the second camp. They should have stayed a night extra for that person to adjust to the altitude. Instead, they’d pushed on, and on the way up to BC, that person became sick. Our guides had to help them out. Most people do not understand the severity of pushing on and the importance of letting the body adjust properly to the altitude. Not doing so can be fatal.

Mules carried our gear as far as BC. They started out as soon as we were ready with our gear in the mornings and waited for us at the camps until we got there later. They are such strong animals. From BC we had to carry our gear ourselves.

Aconcagua Mule.jpg

Arriving in Base Camp 

Our first day in BC was a rest day which was welcome. We went for a short walk and settled into BC. The following day, we had a carry-day up to Camp 1 at 5000 m. I did not feel too good that morning; I’m not sure what it was, just a general feeling of unwellness. Looking at all the gear that had to be carried up, I would have preferred to not carry much but I knew that was not an option. I chose to carry a bit less than half of my weight that was going up and gambled that I would be better and stronger for the final carry up to Camp 1. 

It was interesting to trek up the moraine of the Relinchos glacier. This was my first encounter with a moraine. Moraines are either rocks and sand on top of a glacier, or rocks and sand that are left after a glacier has melted away. At times, it was like walking in a pile of sand and in other places there were large rocks on top of the glacier. The final hill up to Camp 1 was steep with lots of loose sand. It felt like I was taking two steps forward and sliding one back! We walked really slowly, both because of the weight in our backpacks and for our bodies to adjust to the ever-increasing altitude. 

Coming over the edge on the top of the hill, up to Camp 1, was unbelievable. I think we all felt like lying down for a minute and just resting. The idea of leaving everything but the backpack behind felt very good. It was literally a load off our shoulders. 

We set up two tents, put our gear into them and returned back down to BC. On the return, I felt a bit nauseous. It might have been because I had not drunk enough water, the weight of the load I’d carried, or that we just had been at the highest altitude I ever had been to. I drank a liter of water to see if it would help and together with a bit of rest in BC it did. Next morning it was all gone, and we enjoyed another rest day. 

After another rest day, we moved up to Camp 1 following the same procedures as our first rotation. This time I felt much better and arrived up at Camp 1 in good shape. 

Our first day in Camp 1 was another rest day, with a small hike to a higher altitude. My body still felt good. Then we had a “weather day”. It was really windy so we had to stay indoors in the tent the whole day. We lay safe and warm in our tents and listened to the wind whistling – first high up on the mountain, then coming lower and lower before our whole tent shook. With this kind of wind, it was safest to stay in our tents. The strong wind gusts came at varying intervals. We cooked our food in the tent lobby, so even that was warm and comfortable despite the howling winds outside. We even had popcorn and tea in the afternoon. It’s amazing what a thin piece of tent cloth can do! The only challenge was to “run” out for “toilet” visits. Meaning, “go outside as fast as you can and find a place a bit away from the tents in a terrain with no vegetation!” 

Rumor had it that the weather forecast for the following day was good so we were excited to pack up our camp and start our move to Camp 2 after the windy day. Everybody in the team felt good, so the extra rest day had done us well.

Moving up the mountain

On our move to Camp 2 our main guide stopped the group. He shared that he did not feel good. In fact, he had pneumonia and had to get down from there. Everybody looked at each other and wondered what was happening. We got it that he did not feel well, but that he had to turn around surprised us all. The rest of us were in good shape and ready and eager to move up the mountain. This had suddenly become a major issue as now we only had one guide and eight clients. Not a good ratio on a mountain like this. Most of us had limited high altitude experience. I think we all felt disappointed and afraid that the whole climb was jeopardized. We just sat there on the ground without speaking much. We were in a guided group because we were new to the game and now the guide could not continue. As the guides were standing there talking and trying to find out how to solve the issue, an Argentinian passed us on his way down. They asked him if he was a guide and he said yes. Truth was, we later found out, that he was not a guide he was a porter. He agreed to turn around and join our climb as one of our guides.

All of this took lot of time, so the two guides agreed that we should set up camp in the Middle camp between Camp 1 and Camp 2 – at 5350 m. They said that we did not have enough time to climb up all the way to Camp 2 before the sun set. When it sets it becomes very cold so it was better to camp there. In my mind I questioned this decision but did not say anything.

They told us that we would use too much energy to move up to Camp 2 the following day, and then go for the summit push from Camp 2. They said that instead we should have a rest day in the middle camp and do a summit push from that middle camp. Several of us were questioned it, but they said that many people had done a summit push from there. They also said that it was because we had some incoming weather, so we had to hurry and go for the summit while the good weather lasted.

They also changed around on when we should start our summit push, to a bit later than the original plan. None of us was very experienced with high altitude, so we went with the plan.

Aconcagua Mule.jpg

Summit push

We all felt in good shape and all eight, or should I say seven, of us were ready for the summit push. One person doubted if she could, or even wanted to, do it. Anyway, we all started out at about 4 am.  I’m shaking my head as I’m writing this. That is soo way too late that I cannot believe now that that was the plan…

I was a little stressed as we were getting ready, to be ready in time, and if I had the right clothes. I wanted to have enough but not too many clothes on. You want to stay warm, but not sweat when you climb – it is a fine balance. If you sweat, you’ll get very cold fast, something that can ruin the whole summit push. I was also worried that my feet would get too cold.

To top it all off, the two guides took a wrong route up to Camp 2, so it took us much longer than normal to get there.

It was still dark and cold as we stopped at the crampon point. When you are on a summit push and it is cold and dark, it’s almost like you are in some sort of cotton bubble. The sounds are muffled and you only sense what is nearby. Our head lamps only lit up a little in front of each of us, otherwise we were surrounded by darkness.

I took out my crampons at the crampon point. To be able to put them on my boots, I had to take off my gloves. I got the first one on okay, but I struggled a bit to get the other one on. My hand was so cold that I wanted to cry but I kept trying to fix it. The Argentinian guy came over to me, angry that I was taking so long. He grabbed my crampon and put it on my boot, both fast and tight. In that moment I did not care; I was just grateful I could put my glove on my hand again. Slowly, my fingers warmed up.

We were only just above Camp 2 at sunrise. One of our team members started to feel the altitude and had been nauseous the whole morning. She had several symptoms of altitude sickness and had to turn around. One guide had to follow her down. Within 15-20 minutes of that, all but me and one other person had turned around. There we were, just two out of the eight who’d started and we were still not even at Independencia. I told him: “Okay, now it is the two of us and we are going to the summit.”

Keep on towards the summit

The Argentinian decided I had to go in front with the other guy behind me. He himself walked 40-50 m ahead of us. Too far ahead to be any help. It is easier to follow someone’s back when you are starting to get tired, so he gave me the hardest position.

At the cave below the Canaleta, we had a break. We left our bags and started up the Canaleta. It’s notorious for its loose rocks and sand – you basically take two steps up and slide one back!

At last, we summited – to be standing on that summit was a true victory!

I was at 6969 m – almost 7000 m – and I had done a summit push of 1500 m. We were the only two of the original group who’d made it. I was honestly on cloud nine for making it to the summit and I enjoyed the moment standing there looking around and down towards the south summit. We had spent a total of eleven hours getting to the summit. I was allowed to be tired. However, on the summit you are only halfway.

The decent

On the decent, the energy started to come back and we picked up our backpacks. We did our best; both of us were tired, but we walked on. The Argentinian left us… so we were on our own back down. There was an episode on our way down that could have gone wrong, but luckily it did not. We arrived safely back in the Middle camp only four hours after we’d left the summit.

The following day, we started the decent, first to Camp 1 where we picked up the gear we had left behind and from there onwards to BC. My backpack was really heavy with all the gear we’d carried up in two rotations.

Finally, we arrived back in BC and it was unbelievably good to sit down for dinner. I have to say I slept well that night! The trek out from BC is 42 km and to keep a long story short, we arrived at the hotel in Penitentes the same evening.

This expedition is one of the expeditions I have learned the most from in terms of what not to do. It also became a bit of a talking point in the Norwegian adventure environment, like, “Oh, you were on that Aconcagua expedition!” because of some of the things that happened. I’ll share more of the stories in my book.

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