Chelsey Berg is one of the original NEWaukeans who has lived in Santiago, Chile for the past few years. Just recently, she summited the 22,842 ft mountain of Aconcagua, which is the tallest mountain outside of the Himalayas. Check out the story of her journey at Finding North and follow her future adventures at @FindingtheNorth on Facebook.
Climbing Aconcagua, an expedition to the highest summit in the Western Hemisphere
6962 meters. 22,842 feet. The tallest mountain in the Western Hemisphere. One of the 7 summits. The tallest mountain in the world outside of the Himalayas. Where to begin?
Aconcagua was the experience of a lifetime. There’s so much to say about those 13 days when my body woke up and laid to rest on the floor of Mother Nature, when my eyes saw the sun rise and sun set above the clouds, when my ears were filled with the howling winds, when my breaths constantly appeared and disappeared into the ice-cold air, when my snuggest moments were curled up in my Marmot Never Summer mummy sleeping bag….
Aconcagua is one whose beauty does not disappoint, from the 22-mile valley you cross to just arrive at basecamp, to the glacier-covered and striking “Cuernos” mountain ridge the follows on your left as you ascend from basecamp, to the humbling view of being, literally, above every cloud and every peak up at the summit. It is everything you will have wanted… and more.
Horcones – Basecamp
2900 – 3400m / 9500 – 11150 ft
5km / 3miles
Gah!! The big moment is here!! We entered the park, checked in at the tourist office, presented our permits (valid for 21 days) and received two plastic bags with strict instructions: you must return these bags, one with trash and one with, well, there’s no way to say it prettily… poop, on your way out. Do so, or you will be heftily fined. Ok. 10-4. Got it.
As we crossed the parking lot, a family who had been lounging around the lagoon passed by and the little boy looked at me and my backpack and asked, “are you going to the top?!” to which I replied with a smile, “we sure are!” With the biggest grin and widest eyes he said, “GOOD LUCK!” It was awesome. My heart fluttered with excitement.
As we crossed under the big sign that said “Horcones” – start of the trail – my body tingled with excitement. The day was really here. I felt like pinching myself to be sure. I’d been dreaming about this for over a year, and it’d been in my head waaaay long before that. The day was grey and chilly. I always imagined we would bake under the glaring sun on our trek in but that wasn’t the case. I guess it was a sign of what was to come.
It was just a few hours to our first camp, Confluencia. Normally it takes 4ish hours, but we did it in 2.5. Can you say excited?! The valley to arrive is quite pretty. It’s a deep “V” between two massive mountain plates. I’m glad it wasn’t sunny because I was constantly staring upward at the jagged, light brown peaks on all sides. In the river below, we saw evidence of the glacier that had passed so many years before, leaving boulders the size of houses in its tracks.
We got into Confluencia just in time, the mountain started to close, the temperature to drop, and the snow to fall. Looking back, I think the mountain was trying to ease us into what was to come. We hurriedly set up camp and jumped in, making tea to warm up and cooking dinner before passing out.
To Plaza Francia and the Southern Face
18 km / 11miles
3400 – 4000m / 11150ft – 13100ft
As part of our acclimation and also because we wanted to get the most out of being in this gorgeous park, we took a day to trek to the Aconcagua’s South Face, about 18km / 11miles there and back. Boy, was I glad we did. On our way crossing the mountain, the route was dry and jagged, until we hit the part where the glacier had passed way back when, and our left side was just an ocean of “waves” of fine sediment piles. We couldn’t get to Plaza Francia and had to stop about an hour before because there had been many avalanches and landslides earlier that were complicating the last stretch. It didn’t matter, we were at the lookout point, and it was more than my eyes could have asked for.
The South Face is jaw-droppingly gorgeous. Literally mind-boggling. I could have sat there for days, drinking tea, eating protein bars, and just staring at the mountain.
In the night, we had to check in at the medical station, where they verified our oxygen saturation, heartbeat, pressure levels and listened to our lungs. We were cleared so, yippee! The next day was time to move on.
20km / 12 miles
3400 – 4400m / 11150 – 14400ft
Uuuuuf. This was a long 8-hour day, though a never ending but colorful and beautiful valley. The first hour is a stark incline, getting you to 3600m / 11800ft, but then you’ve got a couple hours walking through “Playa Ancha” just to get to “Piedra Ibañez” at 3700m / 12140ft. Here, the wind runs as it’s very wide and open, between diverse peaks, both in color and structure. Some are shades of brown with their many layers reminding you of pancake stacks, and others with smooth faces in shades of red and oranges. Finally getting to “Piedra Ibañez”, a very big boulder, we stopped to refuel with some lentils and tea. While eating, we heard some very tragic news, that was a reminder about where we were heading. A Greek climber had died the day before, 300 meters from the summit, having a heart attack (from over-forcing in such high altitude) and freezing. This was a bit of a blow and something I thought about as I continued climbing, there is never under-estimating Mother Nature and it is always so important to pay attention to weather, our own bodies, and all variables. Things can happen to no fault of one’s own when in extreme conditions, and I do not know the details of this poor climber, but it is a harsh reminder that in a serious place, all decisions are critical. I said a little prayer for him and his family.
The next 4 hours were exhausting, filled with climbs and descents. The first part is called “Cuesta Brava” which basically means “the rugged/fierce slope”… and it lives up to its name. This is followed by another looooong, flat journey, but that at least presents the first peak at the black, glacier filled “Cuernos” mountain towering over basecamp. At the end of this valley is the final, steep, rocky climb to Basecamp. It’s longer than it looks but the reward of getting to basecamp is very exciting. Now, the real adventure is about to begin! Woo hoo!
Basecamp (Rest Day)
Basecamp is very cool. As you get over the last ledge, you can see a good hundred dotted tents of different colors, representing the different agencies. The agencies each have different kinds of large, industrial tents, for cooking, for storing luggage, for their climbers to eat and/or hangout nice and comfortably. They even have a shower tent! which is heated with big solar panels. There are also many other services, one guy who does massages and stretching. An artist, Miguel XXXXX, who has the Guinness World Record for the tallest Art Gallery in the World! We spent a few hours talking to Miguel about life and nature and many other things. He was a very cool guy with an intriguing story, who has spent 18 seasons on Aconcagua. He came as a normal climber (like me!) and fell in love, wanting to see how he could stay. So he put up a business, first installing and offering internet, and later setting up his art gallery. Very awesome. He very nicely shared his space with us and let us sit and chat, drinking mate (Argentinean tea) and snacking on cereals and cookies.
There’s also a restaurant on Basecamp! WOW! So cool. It’s another one of the big industrial tents, which does stay quite warm inside due to the wind protection. You can buy beer and pizza. Trust me, I noted that. If I summited, there would be no getting between me and a beer or a pizza!
Our first night at Basecamp was cold, the wind very strong and I woke up a few times from the flapping tent. At one point, I remembered that we had left our trekking poles outside and was paranoid that they would blow away. I waited for a couple seconds of calm in the wind and darted out of the tent, rescuing them from the wind. Brrrr, it was coooold! But the sky was clear and sparkling with stars.
Another cool thing about basecamp is you meet people from ALL OVER THE WORLD!!! All walks of life. Climbers that have summitted Everest and the 7 summits. People with awesome backgrounds. This aspect is so neat. So many things to learn from so many different people. And everyone sharing details about their plan of attack.
A common conversation starter “are you on your up or down?” “What’s your plan?” “Have you seen the forecast?” “Is the 22nd still the next window?”
To Cerro Bonete
10km / 6 miles
4400m – 5000m / 14400ft – 16400ft
This day, I woke up with a sore throat. It had swollen from breathing cold air all night, so I vowed to sleep with my bandana on from then on. It was quite painful. I drank some tea and took ibuprofen.
Part of our acclimatization and again, to really take in all the beauty of the park, we took a day to climb Cerro Bonete, which is accessed from Basecamp. It’s a 4-6 hour relaxing and beautiful day. The last hour is a bit of a false summit, you keep thinking it’s going to end, but it doesn’t haha. From the top, you get a marvelous view of Aconcagua!!! You can see a significant portion of the route, which is exciting. And the full panoramic has Chile behind and the “Cuernos” mountain on the other side. Truly, a beautiful summit.
High Camps (C1 – C3)
Camp 1 – Canada, 5000m / 16400ft
To help us manage the weight of our backpacks, and also to keep helping our acclimatization, we portered between camps. One day we carried about 21kgs / 46lbs from basecamp to Camp 1. This stretch is pretty steep, and our lungs and legs could start feeling the altitude, but the zig-zags make it manageable. The key to these parts is going at a pace that you can maintain, that doesn’t tire your legs or your body. This isn’t a journey, not a sprint! and you want to get to the end. So, pace yourself! The view Camp 1 Canada was gorgeous. We sat there and had lunch before burying our stuff in waterproof bags under rocks and heading back down to basecamp.
The next day was another long day. We packed up camp and headed back up to Camp 1 with the rest of the stuff, about another 16kg / 35kg. It was a sunny day so we took our time, set up camp, at some food, and then packed our backpacks with the stuff we had carried the day before. All that stuff needed to make its way to Camp 2, Nido de Condores.
Camp 2 – Nido de Condores, 5500m / 18000ft
It wasn’t so long to Camp 2, but our legs were a little tired from all the weight the day before and again that morning. The first half was the worst and we opted for the longest zig-zags to do the least incline possible. About ½ hour into our climb to Camp 2, the mountain closed and within the hour, the snow had started to fall. The rest of the day was climbing in a blizzard. Wind, 20% visibility and snow. This was exhausting and cold. We started sinking into the snow as it started building up. But we trudged on, finally arriving to Camp 2. Oh, was I so happy. I watned to get that weight off my back. We stopped to talk to the rangers who have a little station there, and they let us go in the tent to unpack our stuff and put it all in the waterproof bags, which we could bury again under rocks for the next day. This snow storm came out of nowhere, and we learned that the rescue team was in route to recover the man who had passed away 5 days before and was still on the mountain. They would carry the body to the tent and the next day a helicopter would come. Uuuf, again, another little prayer, that’s hard news.
We buried our stuff and hurried down the mountain back to Camp 1 Canada, moving much faster with eagerness to get back to the tent but also feeling like deer without our heavy packs. One in the tent, we jumped in our sacks and boiled snow for tea, and made dinner, to replenish our exhausted bodies.
The next morning was gorgeous, everything covered in a fresh thick layer of snow. It definitely deserved a minute of reflection and appreciation. The calm after the storm. Oh boy, there’s something so serene and beautiful about that.
We packed up camp and headed back up to Camp 2 with the rest of our stuff, this time able to enjoy the scenery because we could, well, actually see. Later on, another white out blizzard came in, which was proceeded by a late night amazing sunset.
This night was very cold and we didn’t sleep so well. In the morning a few groups we knew gave in on the summit attempt due to snow and climate conditions. My partner didn’t wake up so well either, and we decided to take a rest day to see if he’d get better. The next morning, however, he wasn’t in better condition and decided to head down the mountain, while I decided to continue on, as both mentally and physically I was feeling very strong. I talked to other groups and found one that was also continuing that day, and they very kindly allowed me to walk along with them.
Camp 3 – Colera, 5930m / 19450ft
The route from Camp 2 to Camp 3 is just a few hours, but true to Aconcagua form, about an hour into starting, a white out blizzard rolled in that made it colder and harder. Later on, on the way down, I was able to appreciate the beautiful scenery that fills portion of the route… an amazing panoramic of the “Cuernos” mountain ridge.
The last part is short but steep, and they’ve installed think metal wires to help you grip with one hand for added stability and power. With the heavy backpack, steep snow, blowing wind and lower visibility, I was glad for this. We got into camp and quickly set up tent, to crawl in and start pumping fluids. We needed to be ready for the next day, the big day. The night was cold and the wind howled non-stop. We had planned to leave around 4/430am for the summit, but the winds were too strong, also making the windchill too cold, so we waited until almost 6am to crawl out and make the last hurrah. I was so anxious, so excited, so eager to get going.
Ooooh, the big day. So exciting! My heart was fluttering about as fast as the wind was howling. I was so excited but, ooooooh, it was cold. The air was dry cold, the bone chilling cold. I wanted but get out of my sleeping bag, but oh, I really didn’t want to. I had slept with a Vivac bag liner, my sleeping bag, an insulation bag liner, the inside liner part of my boots, 2 base layer pants, 3 base layer tops and my down jacket. And still, I didn’t wanna get out. There I was, curled in my sack, but telling myself, if you don’t get out, you’ll never get to the summit, and that’s a fact. So, voila, there I hopped up. Well, not so eagerly, but at least the movements happened. Haha.
A hot tea to warm the insides, and I started double checking the pack I had prepared the night before. I’d slept with the water in my sack so that it didn’t freeze, as well as with my batteries, camera, radio, satellite phone, etc.
We wanted to leave at 4:30am, but due to the high winds, we stayed in until around 5:45, as did the others from camp. The first hour for me is always one of the hardest, it is hard to get my body moving again, not to mention, moving in such extreme altitude. The snow was deep, the air was burning cold. Easily, -30C/-25F. Brr.
The first part, to “Piedras Blancas”, we moved slowly up and up. Just concentrating on putting on foot in front of the other. Slow and steady. The sun was rising over the clouds, and there was an amazing reflection of Aconcagua in the sky. So majestic. A true injection of energy, spirit, and excitement.
The thing with climbing the tallest mountain in this hemisphere, is that there’s no other mountains to protect it from the wind. After passing “Independencia” you cross the mountain and are at an angle that is extremely vulnerable to the wind. You are walking against frigid gusts that are blowing snow in your face, sometimes causing you to double over for balance and also just pure self-protection. Luckily, this portion is just 20-30 minutes, and towards the end you can take a little shelter behind a big rock called the “Dedo/Finger”.
The relief is short, because what follows is the shoot (la canaleta), which is a truly eternal steep climb of hard snow/ice, one where the top seems to never get closer, no matter if it’s 1000 steps later. The end is still invisible. Here, I stopped looking up. I just focused on one breath, another breath. One step. Another step. Repeat. Ten million times. One. Two.
Here, I thought a lot about my Great Uncle Pete, who climbed this mountain in 1974. The cave above, my next milestone, was where he turned his expedition around due to Mountain Sickness. I channeled that energy, thinking about how much worse he must have felt at that time, how my equipment today is also lighter and ultra-technology pumped to make my job as easy as possible.
I wanted to make the summit, so he could finally summit too. I carried a little note and picture of him in my pocket. That surely added a little pep to my step. Well, not so peppy, but you get the idea! I trudged on. Haha.
Getting to the cave was a sigh of relief, I felt like it meant I was basically there. For about 20 minutes, we refueled our bodies with juice, oreos and snickers. One highlight of the mountain, is you can eat all the cookies and chocolates you want, yippee!! My fruit pouch was frozen so I put it in a pocket closer to my body for later. We took out all the non-essentials from our backpack and left them here, to go as light as possible for the last stretch.
From the cave, there’s a snowy, icy climb for about an hour, until you reach the “Filo de guanaco” for another hour. Here, I knew the end was in sight, and I felt my steps lighter and my tummy fluttering with butterflies. It was all about to be true!!! True to Aconcagua form, the clouds were starting to form, so I knew it was just a matter of time before the mountain closed and the storm set in. I hurried, I wanted to beat the cloud. I wanted to see that view. I wanted to see the south ridge. And of course, I wanted to take a damn picture! Haha.
The last 20 meters, tears flowed from my eyes, until I reached the top and my heaving chest was overflowing with emotion. My glistening eyes darted from one side to the other, what does the world look like at 6962m / 22,842m?! I felt so blessed, so grateful. To see this world from that perspective is one that I appreciate with every ounce of my being. I was above the clouds, with the black, snow covered mountains below, the magnificent and admirable south face behind me… I may have been on top of the Americas… but I felt on top of this world.
For as proud as I felt that my legs, my body, my mind could push me to the top, upon arrival, the mountains reminded me what they always do. Indeed, we as a human race are truly amazing, but we are little pieces in this world.
Standing on top of the tallest mountain in the Western Hemisphere, I was a simple dot in the vastness of Mother Nature. It’s a beautifully humbling experience that puts me, and this world, in our respective places.
This world is perfect, nature is perfect, and I will continue to play my role in leaving a positive footprint. It gives me the drive to keep achieving, keep exploring, and keep adventuring.
A reminder that nature is bigger than us was the clouds creeping up. We took our pictures and I left a piece of my Uncle Pete in the little box on the top, letting him finally summit the mountain that was his dream. We boogied on down and the mountain closed during our climb down. We got back into camp, ate some food and I slept, so happy, until the next day.
A long goodbye
From Colera, we woke up the next morning and more leisurely took down camp so we could head back to basecamp, where we received hugs and inquiries about our summit from those who were eagerly looking up at the mountain and dreaming just like I was a week before. In the night, my friend Luciano, an amazing Aconcagua guide, gifted me a bottle of wine and we of course, we had pizza at the restaurant and chatted for hours before calling it a night. Ooooh, what a reward of the reward!!
From Basecamp, it’s a long 22 miles / 25 km back out of the valley. The last 2 hours, my toes started hurting, my legs stiffening up, and when we finally saw the car, it was almost as good as when I first saw the summit. Oh, thank the heavens.
Aconcagua, all I can say, is THANK YOU, for letting me see your summit!!!