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March 2022

Aconcagua Summit: Jan 2-17, 2022 with Tyson and Shannon Head - Part 1

Recently Tyson and Shannon conquered one of their many goals - to Summit Aconcagua together. Follow along as they recount their experience and share the ups and downs of this challenge. To read about the events leading up to the expedition, click HERE.

Written by: Tyson & Shannon Head (@restlesscrusade on IG)

Day 1:

We checked into the glamourous Diplomatic Hotel on January 2, and quickly headed poolside to enjoy the sunshine. Local guiding outfit, Grajales Expeditions, had our afternoon planned where we met with our guides and soon to be mountain friends. We discussed what the following days were going to look like and sorted out any loose ends and questions we had. They went over all of our gear individually and had arranged a Covid antigen test to confirm we could continue to the mountain. Then we were free for the evening to explore the street and local restaurants.

Day 2:

After our complimentary breakfast downstairs, a couple of us along with our guide continued to a gear rental shop to finalize some equipment that was required. Just after lunch all 11 team members and 3 guides loaded into the 15-passenger van and were on our way heading west to the small town of Uspallata to stay the night at the foot of the Andes and a gradual increase on elevation. We were treated to an amazing chicken and rice dinner followed by dessert after swimming a few lengths and laying on the pool deck. The spacious hotel also had a games room and social area where pool tables and ping pong would keep us entertained.

Day 3:

After a warm shower and hot breakfast, we loaded our Rab duffles back into the van and enjoyed a scenic drive from Uspallata to Penitentes and to the Grajales’ warehouse. Here our luggage was separated into four separate directions. The first bag was our street clothes and gear that was to stay off the mountain in their warehouse. The second bag was a large duffle that was to be loaded on the mules to be taken to the Plaza de Mules base camp. The third bag was our second large duffle that was to be on a separate set of mules and carried to Confluencia camp where we were to meet up with it later in the day. The fourth and final bag was our day pack loaded with the essentials that we needed for the day trek. After a quick 15-minute drive, we were now at the ranger station at the gates to the park. With our climbing permits stamped we were now on foot starting at 2950m above sea level. The landscape here is already dry and erred with low growing plants and most of the colours coming from the minerals and elements in the surrounding mountains. We followed the chocolate brown glacial river up the Horcones Valley for 7kms admiring the dramatic scenery. After 3 hours of hiking, we arrived at Confluencia Camp at 3390m for the night. We were then served a snack of fruit and crackers before locating our tents where we would be spending the next two nights. With three course meals, Wifi and flush toilets this camp was anything but rough. With full bellies and casual conversation with our new companions we all settled into bed for the night just after dark.

Day 4:

With the guides pushing us to drink as much water as we could to aid in the acclimatization process you can imagine just how many trips out of the tent for the washroom were throughout the night. But as always, when we are in the backcountry, it makes for an amazing opportunity to enjoy the stars and the peaceful night sky. I even had a fox sighting as it wandered its way through the tents in search of any scraps laying around. By 9:00 am we had enjoyed our porridge with toast breakfast and ready to make tracks on our first acclimatization hike. Our 11-member team, with three guides, trekked right at the fork in the trail towards Plaza Francia and the south face of Aconcagua gaining in both distance and elevation over the next 4 hours. At 4000m we relaxed for lunch and admired the daunting hanging glaciers and icefalls as we listened to stories of past adventures from our guides. After a couple hours of downhill, we returned at camp with another 16kms under our belt. After that we had a mandatory meet up with the park doctor to check our blood pressure, heart rate and oxygen levels to make sure our bodies were acclimatizing well, then it was a big dinner feast of lasagna and a restful nights sleep in our tent.

Day 5:

The guides claim this to be the second hardest day of the expedition with expectations of relocating from Confluencia to Plaza de Mules base camp. We had our alarms set for 5:30 am for and early start on our day. With scrambled eggs and toast waiting for us we quickly packed our mule duffles, loaded our lunches and laced up our boots for the day. By 6:45 am we were in motion. We started with a left-hand turn at the Plaza Francia fork now and dipped down to a metal bridge crossing and onto the west side of the river. From here we moved further up the Horcones Valley and what little vegetation there was left quickly got extinguished as we climbed.

Often described as dull and boring, we basically wandered our way through the wide open and exposed river bottom. Being half a kilometer wide in spots the dry earth and rocks kicks up dust with every step. The main bit of excitement was when the mule trains would catch up and pass us as they sped on by. You can however gaze high to the mountain side and take in all the colors and layering of this aggressive mountain scape. After 4 hours of casual hiking, we started to gain the majority of the days altitude and had to focus more on foot placement. 7.5 hours and 19kms later we had reached our resting place for the next 5 nights, Plaza de Mules at 4300m elevation. This place was full of life. There are literally hundreds of tents from giant domes to tiny 2-person shelters on site. The area is also equipped with a park ranger, on site doctor, police, search and rescue, heli-pad, restaurant, store and even home to the highest art gallery in the world.

We were all excited to lighten the load and get off our feet by now. Just as traditional Grajales style, we were quickly presented by the camp manager for a briefing along with food and drinks. After gathering all our duffle bags we claimed our tents and unpacked our belongings. Shannon was feeling a bit rough from the day and quickly settled in for a brief nap. The altitude was very noticeable at this elevation. We had been taking 125mg of Diamox every 12 hours to help us along. Diamox is used for high altitude climbers to stimulate the growth of red blood cells. Some of the side affects however are tingling feelings throughout your body as well as dehydration. We were both dealing with this, so by now we were drinking well over 4L of water each per day. This is not including any secondary drinks like tea and juices we were taking in with meals. After some soup and chicken for dinner with chocolate brownie as dessert we were quick to brush our teeth and settle in for the night.

Day 6:

The agenda today was to rest and relax, and that is exactly what we did. Our groups dome tent was constantly stocked with cold and hot water with tea and juice. Three meals for the day were determined beforehand with multiple snacks appearing in between. We spent our day casually exploring around base camp, taking naps, relaxing in the sun and sitting down for a game of cards with our new friends. One of our walks had us perched at the north end of the camp up on top of the scree-covered glacier. From here we got some amazing views of the surrounding glaciers, blue lakes and the sprawl of base camp. You can’t help but gaze up the mountain side at the final goal that lies in your near future. The summit was still standing over 2500 vertical meters higher than where we were now it was hard not to feel tiny. The weather in the shade was hovering around 10°C but when the sun was out it felt like we were in the high 20’s. The UV in this thin atmosphere however is an entirely different story. Within minutes it seemed like you could easily be burnt if you were not covered up. The cool dry air also took its toll on our throats as it gradually became more and more raw which led into a daunting cough that would only be cured by descending. Standing up quickly or taking a stride with a bit more of a spring in our step would leave us breathless. These things alone prove that humans are just not made for life at these altitudes. The water at base camp was actually piped in from a far-off stream, and just like Confluencia Camp it was run through a filtration system to remove the bacteria and high mineral content and left the water perfect for consumption. By mid afternoon we had our eyes set on the LPG heated shower, and what a perfect way to relax in the mountains. After some more games of cards, stories with the others and a quick run through on the schedule for the next couple days we found ourselves tucked warm in our sleeping bags before the cold of the night really set in.

Day 7:

Today we trekked up Cerro Bonete (5050 m) for our second acclimatization hike. This took a total of 7 hours round trip, and again Shannon wasn’t feeling very well. She was struggling to eat enough calories to keep her body moving - loss of appetite can be a side affect with altitude. We were both taking Diamox to help with this, but once reaching these heights everything seems to become a struggle. The first part of the hike was west towards an old hotel located one kilometer from Basecamp. It has been boarded up for around 10 years now as it sits on the moraine which is forever shifting and moving the hotel. The maintenance and upkeep was just too much.

From here it was up, up and more up. We crossed a narrow river took many switchbacks until we arrived at some snow towers. Here we took a quick rest to enjoy the views then continued on with the switchbacks. Eventually we reached a more technical area where a more hands-on approach of the rocks was required. A short distance more we popped up on the summit of Bonete. The top was amazing and the views of Aconcagua to the east and Chile to the west were absolutely beautiful. Our weather was perfect, sunny, no wind, and quite warm. Couldn’t have asked for a better hiking day really. Shannon was able to eat a bit of lunch at the top, felling a bit better now we made our way down. This was quick as the scree slope allowed for some boot skiing down the steeping sections. Once returning to camp we were spoiled with snacks and a hot meal as usual.

Day 8:

Another acclimatization day was in for us again, but this time with a purpose. Traditional base camp morning was in store for us with scrambled eggs, sausages, toast and porridge. By mid morning our packs were loaded with all the gear we needed for the higher camps and our summit push. This was actually the day that we made our first steps onto Cerro Aconcagua. The route was like most others, switch backing up the mountain side. Our guides kept an amazing pace with ample rest breaks.

After 3 hours we had reached our Camp 1 destination (Camp Canada) resting at 5050m. Shannon had no issues at all with the elevation and was overall feeling great; back in the game! The weather was amazing for us this day so relaxing in the sun while we gazed at our surroundings. The porters had set up two tents for us to drop our gear off before making the 45-minute decent back down to Plaza de Mulas. We also needed to have another check up with the park doctor. This is mandatory for all groups going past basecamp and onto the summit. Again, the doctor checks, heart rate, blood pressure, oxygen saturations, as well as listened to our lungs. Both of us got the all clear but as usual, they wanted us drinking more water, like 6L!

Day 9:

Rest day today. Much needed after the past few acclimatization hikes. Again, we got to have another hot shower and relax. These showers were just flown in 3 days prior to us arriving so they were still working out the kinks with temperature control. There were no showers prior to 11 am as the water lines would still be frozen from the night prior. Words can barely describe how amazing it was to clean your self up after this many days in the mountains. After lunch we wandered through camp, walked up the moraine and took in the surrounding glaciers. We shared stories with the rest of the group, played some cards and of course more water. The weather was starting to get colder by the evening and the wind was picking up. Shortly after dinner we all shifted into our sleep tents for a night of rest.

Stay Tuned for Part 2 next week!