In 2016 I made my 1st climb of one of the larger international mountains, Aconcagua in Argentina. Aconcagua stands at 22,841 feet and is the highest mountain outside the Himalayas. I climbed with a local guiding company known as “Inka Expeditions”. Their logistics and guides were by far the best on the mountain, which left me with an amazing experience. I learned quickly for this experience that anytime I climb internationally from now on I will use local guide companies.
The months of training and preparation left me confident in my climbing ability as soon as I stepped on the mountain. Prior to the expedition I had spent six months training hard. It was my first time training for a mountain of this size. My training regiment included lots of cardio. Stairs, running, long hikes, and lots of core and strength training to get me into mountain shape.
The second challenge was acquiring all the right gear for a climb over 6000 meters. It took months and months of research and looking for the best deals to acquire all the gear I needed for the climb. I did not cut corners or go for cheaper options when it came to essential gear. I purchased the best boots, sleeping bag, gloves, and warm clothing. I knew that it would make the difference in summiting or not.
I flew into Mendoza Argentina, a small city in the heart of wine country and at the foot of the Andes mountains. After a day in the city acquiring last minute provisions our team of roughly 12 climbers from around the world boarded a small bus that took us to the town of Penitentes. We spent one night there in a ski hotel acclimatizing before setting off the following day on our hike. From there we hiked to the first base camp Confluencia and spent two days there. While there we took a small acclimatization hike to view the magnificent glaciated south face of Aconcagua. From Confluencia we hiked the long full days journey to the Plaza De Mulas Base camp through an amazing valley surrounded by mountains. Mules lead by Gauchos carrying supplies and gear would pass us all day long on their way to base camp. Being that it was late in the climbing season there were not many groups at Plaza De Mulas. Many of the camps we saw were being taken down and the ones that were still up you’d hear the celebrations in their mess tents of climber that summited and made it back down to camp. At camp the food and service were beyond anything I had expected on any mountain. We Had 3 course meals, all the hot drinks you could ever want, and even wine with dinner! We spent roughly a week at Plaza De Mulas acclimatizing at the elevation of roughly 14,300 feet. One day we took an acclimatization hike to an adjacent peak. Another day we carried gear to camp one. Temperatures in camp could reach upward of 90 degrees during the day and freezing temperatures at night. We all slept in one big tent at base camp with bunk beds in them, rest days I would walk about twenty minutes down to a glacier lake where I would bathe and wash in the cold water to get me familiar with the cold.
When it was time for our summit push we spent one night at camp one, Camp Canada (16,570 ft.), then pushed up to camp two, Nido de Condores (18,270 ft.) where we spent a rest day and two nights. Camp 3, Camp Colera (19,690 ft.) was cold and more exposed to the elements. It was a bit uncomfortable for me at camp 3 since I had been suffering from digestive issues since camp one. Fortunately a couple in our group who were doctors had a prescription strength Imodium which helped but did not fully resolve the issue. Our group had grown smaller with three climbers having to descend due to altitude sickness, and jean Pierre, the 83 yr old French man who chose to only ascend to camp one with us and then enjoy the rest of the expedition enjoying the experience drinking wine with the kitchen staff and just being in the mountains.
Summit day began around 3 AM. Along with our group of climbers came a few Inka members of the kitchen staff and Carlos, the first gaucho (Mule man). It was -30F when we started out of camp. The climb was slow but pleasant. Nearing the summit we took one final break before our final push where I had to use the “bathroom” once more which was quite an experience in negative temperatures so high up. On the last push climbing was slow but consistent. Our guide Andy was experienced and popular on the mountain. He was know for keeping a slow pace which meant less breaks but consistent progress. For every 4-6 steps we would stop and take 3 breaths. Eventually on the summit the view was spectacular. It was clear skies and no winds. Andy, Carlos the Gaucho, one of the kitchen staff boys, a fellow client Roman, and I made it to the summit and celebrates with pictures, hugs, and embracing the epic views. We spent 20- 30 minutes up there before beginning our way down. On the way down we passed a female climber the group most doubted would make it because of the lack of climbing experience. I was proud to see her make it in the face of such adversity. Further down we passed my Tent partner with one of the guides. He was at the point of crawling and only within 1000 ft from the summit. You could see he had nothing left. His guide told him it was time to turn around and go down. You could see the pain of that fate in his eyes. But he accepted the fact he couldn’t make it and did as he was told. That is even harder most time than pushing on to the summit.
Heading back down was slow with the group and Andy knew I was antsy to take off and make it back down to camp. When Camp 3 was in view he looked at me and said, “okay Mark, go ahead.” At that point I took off down the switchbacks to camp at times even running I had so much energy left. My months of training had paid off. We spent that night at camp and in the morning headed all the way back down to base camp. That night in the dining tent we celebrated with a great meal, cake and champagne. The following day we packed up the rest of our belongings and began the long days journey out of the park. Most of the hike out I listened to my music and reminisced of the entire expedition. I was at peace and truly enjoyed my entire surrounding on the hike out without anxiety and thoughts racing through my mind about if I was going to have a chance to summit or not.
Aconcagua was my first big mountain and first time using a guide group. I loved the experience so much that I knew that I was hooked on bigger mountains. The dream I’ve had since high school of climbing Mt. Everest at this point began transforming into a reality for me. After finding myself capable of climbing to an elevation of 22,841’ on Aconcagua I found how well I functioned at extreme altitude. But before going straight to Everest I knew I needed more experience and want to prove to myself that I was 110% capable of being worthy of being there. Next up was Denali.