Dates of Trip:
Solo ascent of Mt. Aconcagua (22,841 ft), the tallest peak outside the Himalayas
Dates: December 24th - January 4th (12 days) Participants: Bruna Moscol, MIT ‘15 Route: Normal Route (Horcones Valley) Status: Completed, no summit bid due to weather
Day 1 - Start from Horcones (9,185 ft.) to lower camp, Confluencia (10,825 ft) Day 2 - Rest day 1
Day 3 - Acclimatization hike to Plaza Francia (13,123 ft)
Day 4 - Hike and move to Base Camp, Plaza de Mulas (14,110 ft)
Day 5 - Rest Day 2
Day 6 - Carry #1 to higher camp 1, Camp Canada (16,075 ft.) Day 7 - Rest Day 3
Day 8 - Carry #2 and move to Camp Canada (16,075 ft.)
Day 9 - Carry and move to Nido de Condores (17,715 ft.)
Day 10 - Rest Day 4
Day 11 - Hike to higher camp 3, Camp Cholera (19,685 ft.), move back to Plaza de Mulas (14,110 ft.) Day 12 - Hike down to Horcones (9,185 ft.)
I don’t remember when the idea of soloing Aconcagua came to me, but I do know that it must have been at least 2 years in the making. When I graduated college (MIT ‘15!), I decided to take all my savings and go on a trip around South America for “3 months.” 3 months soon became 6, and then 9, and then 11; before I knew it, all in all, it took a full 2 years before I moved back to the States for good. During that time, I had learned to backpack unguided on high altitude terrain - completing two long circuits in the Andes well over 16,000 ft without guides or porters and even attempting a 20,000 ft (Huayna Potosi in Bolivia) guided glacial summit bid. Those trips built my confidence, and by the time I came back to the States in late 2016, I knew I wanted to try Aconcagua.
A bit more background: my father is Argentine, born and raised in the city of Mendoza, the same city where Aconcagua is located. I came up with a great idea: I was going to try my hand at the 7 Summits, starting with Aconcagua, which is generally ranked 4th in terms of difficulty (Kilimanjaro is ranked first as the easiest.) To me, it was symbolic: start with Acon because of the family connection and if I liked it, I’d continue with the 6 other summits as a lifetime project. And so it was decided.
A Quick Note on Training
Once I decided to solo Acon, training became the sole principle around which my life revolved. I was an un(fun?)employed recent grad and job hunting took a lot longer than expected. I moved across the country 3 times- first back to Miami from traveling abroad for so long, then back to Boston and finally to San Francisco. My training never stopped. Through different gyms, terrains, and cities, I made sure to continue. Training and planning for Aconcagua took the lion share of my free time for a solid 1.5 years before the actual trip took place.
What my training actually looked like varied throughout that year 1.5, but in general, I put in about 7 months of solid muscle build up, and then embarked on a programme designed after Training for the New Alpinism for the next 5 months. My workouts included 2 weekly 5-mile runs up the hill (1k elevation gain), along with 1-2 long hikes per week with 20-30 lbs of weight.
A Quick Note on Logistics
Aconcagua is located in the province of Mendoza, which sits in the lateral middle of Argentina. While very close to the border with Chile, it is very possible to arrive by flying either to Santiago, Chile, or Mendoza, Argentina. As I have family in Mendoza, it only made sense to start the trip from there. Once there, all climbers must get an official permit (a very expensive and difficult endeavor as it is cash only and several hundreds of dollars in cost. Since Argentinian ATMs are maxed out at 200 USD per day, this means that unless you have brought a lot of cash, you are stuck wasting several days to get enough cash out of the ATMs for the permit alone.) Aside from the permit, all climbers rent a mule (also a very
expensive endeavor) that carries your food and gear directly to base camp. This allows climbers to only have to carry 3-4 days of gear and food on their walk to base camp, whereupon they are then reunited with the rest of their stuff.
I arrived in Mendoza on the evening of December 22nd. It took 2 days to get all logistics ready- including the permit, renting of the mule, renting of the double plastic boots (the ones I borrow from MITOC turned out to be too small), and the buying of all the food and fuel I’d need. On December 24th, I took the 7 am bus out of Mendoza to Aconcagua Provincial park, a 3.5 hour ride away. The bus dropped me off at Horcones.
The Actual Trip
Days 1 to 3 - Start from Horcones (9,185 ft.) to lower camp, Confluencia (10,825 ft) and Acclimatization hike to Plaza Francia (13,123 ft)
The “Normal Route” towards Aconcagua starts in Horcones Valley, also called “Puente del Inca” for the nearby landmark bridge. In all, Horcones sits at 9,185 ft, a solid 7k ft higher than the city of Mendoza, where I had spent the previous 2 days.
The walk from Horcones to Confluencia (the single lower camp before base camp) takes 4-5 hours. Two years prior to this trip, I had taken a day trip to Confluencia so I was already familiar with the route. The first 2 hours went as planned. Right around the two hour mark, I begun to feel nausea- a sure symptom of altitude sickness. Since I was climbing solo, acclimatization was a top concern of mine- I carried a pulse oximeter with me that I checked religiously. Back home in the states, my pulse ox numbers read 99%. In Mendoza, at 2k ft, they read 98, and by the time I reached Horcones at 9k ft, they were 94. As I continued on the trail, my pulse ox numbers quickly dropped to the mid 80s and the result in my body was immediate. I felt so much nausea that it was extremely painful to continue walking- even without the weight of the backpack. Because I was alone and because I knew I was still halfway to Confluencia camp, I decided to pause and take a break, drink lots of water and some electrolyte pills I had brought, and wait for my body to acclimate. I did this a total of 3 times- each break lasting around 45 minutes. The bad news was that this slowly my progress down tremendously. The good news is that by the third break, I finally felt good enough to continue. I was still incredibly weak and I was terrified of checking my oxygen levels at that point- I was afraid that if I got a terrible reading the placebo effect would send my body spinning again- so instead, I just trudged on. After a grand total of 7 hours (instead of the estimated 4-5), I finally reached Confluencia.
Aconcagua is a commercialized mountain which comes with pros and cons. One of the pros is that there are medical staff placed in the two main camps- Confluencia and base camp. These doctors give you a basic evaluation and pretty much decide whether or not you got to continue on the trail. By the time I got to Confluencia, I was so weak, that the doctor on staff immediately told me to stay one extra day at the camp. Since I was on vacation from work, I immediately knew that an extra day in camp would mean a smaller chance of summiting later, but I also knew that continuing in my state would not only be painful but practically impossible. I heeded the doctor’s warning and stayed one extra day at Confluencia so that day 2 was a rest day on camp. I then completed a scheduled acclimatization hike to Plaza Francia on Day 3, and then finally moved to base camp on Day 4.
Day 4 - Hike and move to Base Camp, Plaza de Mulas (14,110 ft)
My time at Confluencia camp was so beautiful that I could spend this entire report talking exclusively about those first 3 days. Essentially, I became very good friends with the park ranger on staff - Jonathan “Chaca”, the doctor Marcos, and the high-altitude rescuer- Abel. Jonathan, Marcos and Abel took me in with such warmth- hanging out with me, showing me places that were off limits to tourists, inviting me to BBQs (a much welcomed break from the disgusting ramen I had brought for those first days), and eventually dancing with me endlessly in a party we threw on my last night there, that I can say with certainty that I will never forget them. They introduced me to the rest of the workers on the camp, and even though there were dozens of tourists on site- many that were climbing solo like me- it was only me that was invited to the BBQs, only me that was in the invited to their hut, only me that got a knock on my tent with a dessert they had made or a sandwich. All in all, they gave me such a warm welcome that by the time day 4 came around and I had to move to Plaza de Mulas (base camp), I almost felt like I had already summited from how much happiness I felt.
In any case, day 4 eventually arrived and with it, my move to base camp. Mulas was a 10 mile and an estimated 8-10 hour walk away. It took me the full 10 hours. On the way, I got caught in my first Aconcagua white out- the hail falling right at the angle where it could hit my face and fall down my neck. It was exhausting. The walk to base camp is widely regarded as the second hardest day of the normal route, second only to summit day itself. This day definitely lived up to its expectation- even though it’s only 10 miles, you ascent 3.5k ft and progress is slow. By the time I reached base camp I felt something I had never felt before- I felt like I knew I was sleeping even though my eyes were wide open. I also felt like I was going to faint. Both of these physical sensations were entirely new to me. On my way to base camp, I met a Mexican kid- Gonzalo- who was climbing solo as well and who told me he fainted 30 meters from the summit. After my arrival to base camp, I completely believed him. I only got those physical sensations within the very last 20 minutes of that 10 hour day, but I think if the route had been longer, I probably would have fainted.
I arrived to base camp 10 hours after starting off, contacted my mule service, set up my tent, and went to bed. The next day, I rested.
Days 6-8 - Carry #1 and move to higher camp 1, Camp Canada (16,075 ft.)
We had some weather is an understatement.
The move from base camp to the first of the higher camps- Camp Canada at 16k ft - took a total of 3 days. The first day was a carry, where I packed up about 20 lbs worth of gear and food and stashed it in the camp, the second day was a rest day where I rested from the exertion of the carry, and the third day was where I carried the rest of my gear and food and moved to the camp.
I took the picture above on Dec 31st. I welcomed the new year in a raging blizzard with 50 km/hr winds: I found myself walking upwards, alone- covering an incredibly steep 1.6K ft altitude gain in 0.9 miles with a pack of 35 lbs on my back and hail falling diagonally right onto my face. And I found myself happy. That day, a fellow climber walked beside me- he was bigger and stronger but carried more weight so we had the same pace. Mostly we walked in a peaceful silence but sometimes we'd stopped to catch our breath and exchange a few words. His name was Gonzalo and when he learned I was from Peru, his eyes lit up- Had I been to Huaraz?- he wanted to know. I had (which mountaineer hasn't?) and he told me about all the mountains he had climbed in the Cordillera Blanca...
As the wind picked up and the weather deteriorated, I found myself in a deeper peace. I turned around to look below us: we were 16,000 ft above sea level and I felt a profound sense of deep joy: I loved this sport. I was here because I loved this. I had found who I was.
Nearly four hours later, when we got to the campsite (it took 4 hours to cover 0.9 miles in those conditions), I ran into my tent. As I zipped up, I poked out my head and spotted Gonzalo again. Our faces met. Not our eyes- we both had our goggles covering our gazes and our balaclavas our faces- but he gave me a thumbs up and I returned it. It was unspoken but I knew what we were both saying: This was hard. This was heavy. This was cold. This one was hell. This one was beautiful.
After I moved into my tent on Dec 31st, I spent the next several hours listening to near-gale winds outside my tent. The fact that my tent did not budge an inch can only be a testament to the quality of the North Face. In any case, it was several hours before I fell asleep but due to the altitude, I woke up several times, mostly to pee- I had learned to keep a pee bottle (I’d brought a funnel with me) and to fill that up during the night. Strangely, as a woman this was the first time I had done this and it was oddly liberating. The next day I woke up to a still terrible weather morning and a bottle of frozen solid pee.
Days 9-10 - Carry and move to Nido de Condores (17,715 ft.)
On January 1st, Day 9 of my expedition, I moved to Camp 2, Nido de Condores, at 17.7k ft. There was a small weather window: January 3rd was predicted to have winds of only 35 km/hr. While most guides rather the winds be as low as 20 km/hr, at the end of the day you’re on a mountain and you have to make do with what you have. I had met and connected with a wonderful guide back in base camp- Julvert, wherever you are, I owe you so much- and he had been extraordinarily kind and helpful to my cause- did I need any gear? And were my clothes ok? And could he come into my tent and check and weight all my equipment? Julvert was Peruvian, like me, and been the only 2 Peruvians on the mountain, and me been a young, very new mountaineer, and on a solo ascent, Julvert felt the need to coach me as much as he could before he had to get off the mountain.
“Ideally you’d want 20-25, but 35 is doable”, he explained about the wind.
Aconcagua is so tall and so cold that the weather reports don’t even mention temperature- just wind. It is understood that the stronger the winds, the colder the wind chill. At 20k ft in altitude, on summit day, on summer like we were, you were looking at an average temperature of -30 F. Depending on the wind strength, the “feels like” temperature would decrease to anywhere between -20 and -40F. While I was on Acon, everyday above 20k ft was on the negative 20s F.
In any case, the window had been set: January 3rd, 35 km/hr winds. Since on January 1st I woke up in High Camp 1, this meant that I had to combine 2 days worth of carries into 1: I didn’ t have enough days to do 2 carries to High Camp 2- that’d leave me at Nido on January 3 instead of Cholera (High Camp 3) where most people start their summit bid. As a result, I started the new year by combining 2 days worth of carries into 1 single carry and hike. When I turned back and saw my tent and saw that it had taken me half an hour to cover a distance that should’ve taken me 10 minutes I knew I had made a terrible mistake. But what were my other options? I had to make the weather window. Besides, the weather was deteriorating by the minute- I had to keep going, not turning back.
That day, many people passed me. The pack was too heavy- no way around it- and I was going at a turtle pace. Very luckily for me, I at least did not get any type of altitude sickness symptoms. But I was slow, and then a white out rolled in- the worst one I saw during my entire expedition- and I didn’t know the way. Sure, I had a map, compass and GPS, but it was still scary. That day, while I remained calm throughout, was the one day I considered using my emergency device- an inReach- if things got bad
enough. Falling was not a danger- this particular part of the trail had very little exposure- the danger, was exhaustion, or AMS, and not been able to move, and thus hypothermia.
I’ve forgotten a very important detail that I have so far forgotten to mention. A couple of days prior to this, back in base camp, I had been invited by the Mountain Police to come have a BBQ with them. I befriended them and during the BBQ they told me a small group of them were planning an ascent of January 3rd- for that was the weather window everyone was shooting for- and they invited me to come along. Going solo, I of course, accepted.
That day, I walked so slow with my too-heavy-pack on my back that my Mountain Police friends caught up with me on the way to Nido even though I had started from Canada and they had started from Base Camp. They found me on the trail, saw my condition, and immediately switched backpacks with me. From there, they walked with me to Nido, where I got there exhausted.
On Nido, I slept in their tiny one-room hut (thank you) as the plan had been all along since they invited me to come with them in their ascent. We stayed there 2 days- the next day was a rest day.
Day 11 - Hike to higher camp 3, Camp Cholera (19,685 ft.)
January 3rd came and I watched in horror as the promised 35 km/hr winds (already a bit of a stretch for a rookie going solo, as Julvert had explained to me) turned into 45. And then 55. And then 65. By the time, I woke up the morning of- praying the 65 had somehow miraculously come down a bit- the winds had increased to 75 km/hr. I wasn’t going.
Here’s the obvious elephant-in-the-room question: was it really necessary to give up on a summit bid right there and then? Or could I have tried?
The reality is this: at 75 km/hr, would you die? Would you be blown off the mountain? Could you freeze to death? Most likely, no to all three. However, I was going above 20,000 ft (for the summit), something my body had never done before. I was also doing it alone (after our walk to Nido it was decided I was too slow to hike with the Mountain Police- they were, after all, the Mountain Police.) Morever, the wind chill at those wind speeds was predicted to be at around -40 F. And finally, all the solo climbers I met, when they heard news of that report, turned back. Even most guided expeditions turned back or postponed their summit day for another day.
In my case, my summit day was followed by a 4-day storm: 75 km/hr winds turned into 85 for the next day and a terrifying 95 the day after. And my flight was in 4 days. I had to turn back.
Did it suck having to turn back after wanting and training for something for so long? Yes. Yes it did. I didn’t get to fly my little MITOC flight I had made or my CHAOS one (when moving to California I joined UC Berkeley’s Outing Group). But on retrospect, I think I made the right choice. On what would have been my summit day, I was almost thrown to the floor by near-gale winds at 12k ft (I had already descended 7k ft at that point) and a giant lenticular “mushroom” cloud sat on the peak of the mountain all day- the one warning I had been told to heed at all costs.
Despite the fact that I made the decision to not summit in 75 km/hr, I still had 1 day left. I had two options: either go down the mountain right there and then and spend one more day in Mendoza, where I have family, or use that day to go up to Camp Cholera, the last camp before the summit. I chose the latter.
If walking up Aconcagua with weight on your back and against the cold and with little Oxygen is difficult, walking upwards knowing full well you’re not getting a summit bid is that much harder. Why keep on going? Why bother? This is so uncomfortable.
But I had to. I had to go as far as I possibly could. I had to be able to say I did it. I had to give it my all. So I did.
Days 11-12 - Hike back down to Plaza de Mulas (14,110 ft.) and Horcones (9,185 ft.)
The day that I made Cholera (19.7k ft), I also descended all the way back to Base Camp (14.5K.) This meant that I arrived at Base Camp at midnight, and that I scared quite a good number of people, fact of which I was totally unaware until I arrived at Base Camp to a group that had stayed up awaiting my return.
On my way down, I had to stop twice: first at Nido (17.7k) to pick my one carry, and then at Canada (16K) to pick up another. This meant that my backpack got progressively heavier. Night and complete darkness caught me somewhere after Camp Canada and although I lost the trail (the way from Canada to Base camp is characterized by loads of switchbacks) I was proud of myself from remaining profoundly calm. I kept on walking while look around- I figured that at some point I’d fight one good switchback again- until I did. From there, it was smooth sailing all the way to Base Camp.
On my last night at the park, my friends at the company I had rented the mule from, gave me a bed in one of the tents for the guides. It saved me from having to set up a tent after a day of 7k ft descent. I was very grateful for this.
Leaving Base Camp the next day felt like a piece of my heart was been torn from me. I suppose I make connections easily but Argentina, in particular, holds a special place in my heart. My father is from there, from Mendoza no less, and when I’m there it feels like home. I hear my dad’s accent everywhere and his mannerisms and it just feels like family. The next morning I said my goodbyes to everyone, thanked them for everything, and started my descent back to the park entrance, Horcones, 4k ft below.
After leaving Base Camp (14.5K), I walked towards Horcones (9.2K ft). The near-gales were strong, almost knocking me off my feet a few times. I walked at relatively fast pace- I was trying to make the last bus back into the city of Mendoza 3.5 hours away- but still enjoyed my last day in the park. Eventually, I got to Confluencia, and I stopped to say hi to the people that had made me so happy there- my 3 friends at the Ranger Station- but they weren't there. Instead, I spoke with the people in charge of the station and left them my regards.
Eventually I made Horcones 30 minutes too late to catch the last bus. I had a hostel as a plan B, but when I asked about it, was told the hostel closed and instead was invited to the little cabin where all the
guides stay at- as usual, for free. After covering a long 16 miles and 4,000 ft elevation loss that day, it was nice to be in a cabin, and a kitchen, and have food, and a bed. I even preferred missing the bus- I stayed up joking and laughing with all the guides and Aconcagua said good bye to me with one last lovely night at its base.
I made Mendoza the next morning. I even made a friend in the bus who offered me a sandwhich and I took it and we started talking from there. Afterwards, I got to see my father, and my sisters, and my niece and nephew and uncles and aunts. I only had 2 days before my flight back home but I made sure to see everyone I had come to see.
On the airport waiting for the plane that’d take me to Chile (and from there Miami, and from there Arizona, and from there finally California), the terminal was full of climbers. Some had summitted, some had had to turn back. But in any case, I remember sitting in that airport and refusing adamantly to go back. Why was I already hearing American English here? Why now? Couldn’t I just stay here, in Argentina with all its simplicity and humble people, just a little longer? I don’t want to go home.
The first couple of weeks were very difficult. I missed Base Camp. I missed Acon. Despite the cold, despite the discomfort, I missed my life at the mountain. By now, the time of this report, it’s already been a month and I suppose I’ve already re-adjusted to my normal life. But I didn’t summit. So I know I will be back.