26 December 2018
Robby Kojetin describes what it's like to climb Aconcagua, South America's highest mountain.
We were definitely biting off more than we could chew. At 24 years old, I and my climbing partner John Black had successfully climbed Kilimanjaro. We then set our sights firmly on the next step in our journey to the Seven Summits. (This is when you climb the highest mountain on each continent.) But it was more like a giant leap.
Third time lucky
Most people attempting the ‘Big Seven’ start at Kilimanjaro and then move on to Mt Elbrus in Russia before trying Aconcagua. Not us.
In December 2001, John was invited to join a team to climb Aconcagua (‘Ack' for short). But their trip was ended by a four day storm that left four people dead and several more severely frostbitten. John escaped bruised and battered. A year later he and I would try again, only to be beaten by sickness, having reached Camp Canada at 5050m.
As usual, we began planning our return on the flight home. In December 2003, we started the journey back to the highest mountain in South America. At 6962m high, Aconcagua is is the tallest mountain in both the Southern and Western hemispheres and is also the tallest mountain outside of the Himalayas.
John Black, Dirk Uys and I made our way to Plaza Del Inca, a one horse town from where we would begin the trip. Base camp, Plaza Del Mulas (4370m) is about 40km from the road head and is split over two days. This is followed by a rest / acclimatisation day in camp.
A different strategy for the summit
The three of us discussed our strategy to take the summit. It was slightly different from the usual way of doing things. Where most teams would move half their equipment in two trips, our plan involved carrying everything in one day and taking a rest day to recover, before moving higher again.
From base camp we loaded up our K-Way Aconcagua backpacks. These were actually designed by John, who was an equipment specialist at Cape Union Mart. We began the snail-like march to the next camp.
With over 32kg on our backs, the three of us were passed by other teams…and a one-legged tortoise too. But we arrived in camp with 36 hours to recover before forging the path to the next camp: Nido de Condores (Place of the condors).
The difference between climbing Aconcagua and climbing Kilimanjaro
The main differences between an Aconcagua and a Kilimanjaro expedition are as follows:
- Donkeys ferry your loads of gear, food, fuel and tents to base camp and then you’re on your own. Porters are available to carry loads but charge a hefty sum…and in US Dollars. So, you're carrying everything yourself after base camp.
- The camps are a lot closer together, around 3-4 hours of walking, but carrying heavy loads and the high altitude makes for very slow going.
- Aconcagua requires double boots due to the low temperatures and occasional deep snow.
- You cook all your own food, melt your own ice and pitch your own tents. Most of the camps require you to build walls around your tent using nearby rocks. These walls stop the tents from taking off in heavy wind and sending you to Chile.
From Nido to Berlin
On our next move we got to ‘Nido’ (5750m) around lunch time and Dirk was showing signs of cerebral oedema. He was dizzy, lethargic and had a monster headache. We dosed him up on dexamethasone, and left him to sleep it off, waking him occasionally to make him drink. By morning he was already feeling much better and we spent the rest day playing cards and melting snow to make the 12 litres of water we needed each day.
From Nido, the path heads up to Berlin Camp. This is where we planned to summit from. After another damn heavy day we arrived in camp to begin the list of necessary chores before settling in to start the ice-melting marathon. Water for drinking, cooking, and to fill our bottles on the summit bid.
An hour into the melt, I noticed small bits floating in the melted snow. Upon closer inspection it turned out to be toilet paper. So, we had to throw out everything and go fetch new, unpolluted snow. Unfortunately, the higher the camps, the less effort people put into maintaining a clean and safe living area. Cold and fatigue discourage people from establishing or re-using existing toilet spots away from the camp.
Summit Day on Aconcagua
Summit day, or should I say morning, was a 3am start. We began the process of getting dressed, boiling tea and eating something before heading out. The process was slow and awkward as the three of us were squashed into one tent to save on weight.
From Berlin Camp we found the path and followed the ice and scree to Independence. This is an alternate camp that isn’t as popular in recent years.
The cold and exhaustion prevents me from taking a lot of photos. In fact, thinking back, my memory of the day has a few small gaps.
I remember walking ‘the traverse’ wearing my goggles up on my head because it was dark. With the extreme cold, the goggles iced (not fogged) up. I walked following the sound of John's footsteps and the blur in front of me in the turquoise down jacket. At the start of the Canaletta, a steep scree slope that curls up the mountain side to the summit, we took a break to eat and drink.
If you learn only one thing from this post, it is this. There is nothing that can ever prepare you for the Canaletta.
The last section to the summit is the hardest. One step forward, two steps back as the scree slides under your feet. In frozen conditions with lots of snow, it is tough. When there is no snow to keep everything in place, it is a soul destroying grind.
But endure we did, and on Christmas Eve of 2003, myself and my two team mates stood by the aluminium cross marking the summit of the Stone Sentinal. Viva el Cumbre! (Hooray for the Summit!)
What to pack for climbing Aconcagua
If I were to go back again, here are a few of the things I would make sure are in my bag:
- K-Way Summit 85 litre Hiking Pack. For the BIG load carries, the padded shoulder straps and hip belt make this bag ideal.
- The K-Way K2 down jacket. ‘Viente blanca’ means white wind. Temperatures of -30˚C are not uncommon. Stay super warm.
- LA SPORTIVA Spantik boots. In 2003 we climbed in plastic shell double boots. The Spantiks are way more comfortable and nearly 300g lighter than the dinosaurs we used.
- K-Way TheremaSkins. Hard work = sweat. Sweat + cold = misery. The ThermaSkins base layer wicks moisture away from your body, helping you stay dry and warmer.
- K-Way Barnacle Hooded down jacket. Lightweight, compact and super comfy. A light down jacket is ideal for in the tent and on warmer days. The hood keeps the wind off your ears.
- K-Way Extreme 900 sleeping bag with a fleece liner will make sure you get a good night’s rest.
If you are considering a trip to Aconcagua, it is an incredible expedition with as many challenges as there are opportunities to have a good time. And the night life in Mendoza, with giant steaks and amazing red wine will make for a memorable celebration afterwards.
For more information, photographs, blog posts on climbing high, and keynote speaker bookings you can visit www.robby.co.za