portuguese woman summits aconcagua

Aconcagua, reaching the Summit and more

It’s February 15th, the day after Valentine’s day.

I remember yesterday that the Canuck Matt had a large selection of Toblerone chocolate bars, which I found ironic, since a) they are quite heavy to carry, each bar weighs 360g, and b) the logo is a mountain. Maybe that is why he had them. Anyhow, on Valentine’s Day morning, he went to Sequioa’s tent and said “Happy Valentine’s day” and gave her a large chocolate bar. That was nice I thought

Today we moved to Camp 2, Nido de Condores, which stands at 5560 metres. There are mountains all around us, yet it seems we are above them all.

Unfortunately we are down one team member – Sequoia, reported a bad headache on the way down yesterday after our carry to Nido, and once we reached Plaza Canada again to sleep low again, since her headache was not better, Carole, one of our guides, accompanied her back to basecamp.

But today, our porters once again set-up our tents, and my personal porter brought my stuff up. I thought I had been over my weight but I was not – all my stuff was less then 12 kilos. My allotment is 20kg. I was very proud of myself. I am learning weight management.

When we arrived at camp, with Vern guiding us alone at this point, there was a group coming down with a person on a stretcher. I did not take any pictures; it simply seemed bad taste. The person was clearly in distress and very sick. Shortly after the yellow park helicopter hovered over us, landed and took the individual away. He looked gravely ill.

We learned after that the person had fallen ill the day before at 7:00pm…. And was only rescued today…. About 3:00pm. He had to be brought up from higher than high camp. I guess attempting to Summit. My heart went out to him.

Feb 16th
Today we woke up to cold, frigid cold, until the sun hit the mountain. I regretted that I had not brought my other sleeping bag with me. The plan for today was to do a group carry to the 3rd and final camp, Camp Colera. It was high. We reached an altitude of 19,580 feet and we are planning to move there tomorrow.

I got really cold in the early hours of the morning. So I put my red Canada Goose jacket on. I also used the #coldavenger mask over my face to be able to be breathe more easily. The air is so dry here – feels like a desert, but a cold desert.

Feb 17th
We made the move to Camp Colera, or camp 3. It was a long way up. One of our teammates had diarrhoea and was really slow and tired.

Camp Colera was given the name by the guides because people vomit so much and ‘poop’ so much. An ugly fact, but true.

The camp is on an enclave of a huge rock, with a view of the Aconcagua Summit. Usually people just stay here no more than a couple of nights, but it seems we will spend 3 in total, as we will have a rest day tomorrow and then attempt the Summit on Tuesday the 19th.

Today I had a really hard time sleeping for the first time in the mountain. It’s very high to sleep here; we are at 5851 meters in altitude.

It was not just the cold. Around 1:45am I woke-up as I could not breathe. I was gasping for air. I peed in my pee bottle, drank some hot drink from my Thermos to try and sort myself out. I lay down again and I still could not breathe. My nose was stuffy and I could not catch my breath. I began pressure breathing, and it helped, but I still could not get enough breath. Then I put on my #coldavenger mask and I took another quarter of my Diamox pill. After a little bit, I was finally able to feel some relief.
It was the scariest experience I have had thus far. I did not understand what was going on. I really thought I might suffocate.

Later in the morning I was surprised to receive a text message from Emmanuel, that simply read: “How did you sleep?”. Tears filled my eyes as I responded. “Ok, but I woke up feeling like I couldn’t breathe. I mean really couldn’t breathe. I took more Diamox”.

Emmanuel reassured me when he said, “It’s normal. You are up high. It’s sleep apnea. Try sleeping more upright; put all your clothes’ under your sleeping pad to sleep more upright.”
“Ok.” I typed back. But I felt emotional and scared from remembering I had been gasping for air the night before. I felt so alone.

“It’s the altitude.” “You are doing great!” “And you will be ok,” he responded. He is a man of few words, but surprised me that he knew how I may be feeling – I guess having been there himself several times helped. Thank you Emmanuel; I needed to hear that!

Then, I also decided to lay in my parka inside my sleeping bag – huge difference in warmth!

Feb 18th
We did have the day as a rest day. It is cold. Early this morning we heard another group get up for their summit bid. They were a little noisy. A couple of hours later, I heard a guide bring back one of their clients. I guess she had turned around. I could only imagine her disappointment.

Feb 19th
We start our Summit bid at 6:00am. It is freezing. But we are ready. Lynn, one of our teammates whom is 70 – which is a perfect example that age is only relative of how you feel, is ready and we start our summit bid, when all I hear is something about sunglasses and then he is no longer going up with us. I was confused but just kept moving.

We go up slowly, and it takes us about 9 and a half hours to reach the Summit. The last 30 minutes are hard. Every step I take it seams harder to breathe.
I am puffing my cheeks out (like a chipmunk, live Vern had taught us) and exhaling. I am also straightening my body in combination with my rest step, to allow more air to fill my lungs. But I still struggle.

Vern climbs in front of me and says: “You can do this Ema. We are almost there”. I simply reply. “These rocks are hard; there are so many rocks”. To which Vern says in a very Vern like tone of voice: “No shit, you are climbing a mountain!” It made me laugh.

I had read that to reach the Summit, we had to go through the ‘La Canaleta’ which is a scramble up some rocks. I think that would be more true if we could truly scramble up rock, but since there was enough snow to wear crampons on certain sections, I am not sure if this qualifies as a scramble.

To the base of the so-called “La Canaleta”, there is a rocky, concave-base wall somewhat in the shape of a cave, “La Cueva”. Here we are at 6650m.

We Summited at 3:40pm local time.
It is windy up at the summit, and in my first couple of pictures, my flag is upside down. Then I correct it, but the wind makes it hard. Vern offers to hold the flag on one of the corners. It works – kinda.

Then it is time to come down – just like that. All that effort and strain and it’s over in a few minutes. But I did it. I did it.

It was a long way down. It took us maybe close to 5 hours. I was so tired, that I kept slipping and falling on my behind. There is a ridge right after Independencia Refuge… which is the world’s tallest refuge. One must make it across this ridge to make it to the La Canaleta section and then back.

The wind is generally very high here, since it’s exposed. A slip here could mean you fall thousands of meters down the face of the mountain. It is here that many expeditions turn around on the way to the Summit and do not proceed to the summit when the weather is bad. We were told it is usually very windy and on previous days Carole had even showed us how we should climb and brace ourselves when we came to this point on Summit day. However, we had great weather. Hardly any wind in this section. Unusual. I know Jesus had me.

About an hour left in our descent I started seeing what I thought was a fly, or a flying spider on the right hand side of my eye. Because I was wearing my goggles, I thought there were bugs outside, since the sun was also starting to set. But the site of this ‘bug’ was actually something I was only seeing on my right eye. I continued to see the ‘bug’ until the day after we left the mountain. I know now according to my daughter Nicole, an RN, that they are “floaters”, and I am fortunate that they have since disappeared.

Feb 20th
We make our descent from camp 3 all the way to basecamp. It was a long day.
When we reached basecamp we are treated to hamburgers. I had a veggie burger. The team shared a bottle of champagne, courtesy of Alpine Ascents, and our generous guides Vern, Carole and Diego. It was a much needed celebration!

A couple of our teammates, including our Canuck friend has a few beers. I no longer have of an interest in drinking at high altitude and it still amazes me how some can. But I am me and everyone is different.

Feb 21st
We take the long journey trek from basecamp, to exit the park.
This in itself was a wonderful experience – because how often can one say they trekked on a riverbed?

After we exit the Park, we pick up our stuff we had left in storage, and then proceed to continue by bus to Mendoza.

That evening I took my “first” shower in 3 weeks. I had never been so dirty in my 51 years of my life! Kudos to the Hyatt staff that checked me in and never showed in their expression how dirty my face was – which shocked me when I looked at myself in the mirror in the bathroom. No, I had not looked at my face in the mirror while in the mountain! ☺

Back to hygiene. Back to cleanliness. I’m going home!
Only two (well 3) more to go… 7 (8) Summits for Mental Health.

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Climbing Aconcagua in Argentina

Climbing Aconcagua in Argentina

(Part 1 of 2 – Part 2)

After the Air Canada fiasco, and those of you that follow me on Instagram know about the ordeal and the inconvenience caused by Air Canada when they only decided to turn around a flight after 3 and a half hours into the flight, all the way back to Toronto – when we were already over the Bahamas. REALLY?!? Getting myself to Penitentes , Argentina, after more than 24 hours delay was not easy, especially when you have a 10 hour flight and then a connecting flight which I had missed. The next connecting flight would have delayed me yet another day. Such a frustrating start. On February 5th I was finally able to get to Argentina, after driving from Santiago, Chile and crossing the border by car. I felt somewhat flustered, as I had missed gear check scheduled the day before in Mendonza, and of course, I had missed valuable information on the expected climb, schedules, etc.

The Alyen hotel in Penitentes, had a room which was pretty dismal, but maybe it was intentional to get us used to the tent and dirt in Aconcagua. It worked! The green carpet in the room was worn and underneath the radiator, it was down to its last fibres. The bed was only a mattress against the wall on a cheap metal frame. Thin sheets.  In short, it was one of the worst hotels I have ever stayed in.

Penitentes is an old ski resort town, that now is only open for the short season that the Aconcagua National Park is open, and welcomes climbers, or the occasional person that is passing through and needs a room. It doesn’t even have WIFI and from the reviews on Expedia, it has not had WIFI for a long time – even though every guest is simply told that the antenna is broken, as if it just happened.

But the next day, thankfully, on Wednesday, Feb 6th, we make our way to the entrance of the Aconcagua National Park, to climb the normal route of the mountain. We stop at the park ranger’s office and our guides pick up our park permits that cost each of us $610.00US. Was that $61.00US? No, it was $610.00US. Whoa! Then we are required to show our passports as ID, before gaining entrance.

The trek from the beginning of the trail to the Confluência Camp was about 3 hours. Our group gear was being carried by mules, who on this particular day were very slow. I know. I know. Mules are supposed to be slow. But these ones were sedated slow. We only got our duffle bags around 9 pm!

While we waited, we had dinner. Some of us went for a short walk to the top of the hill to see the whole camp, from “above”, and Vern and Carole our guides, taught us how to build a tent “Aconcagua” style. So that our tents would have the best chance to resist the high winds and not blow away. This training would come in very handy!

CONFLÊNCIA CAMP- is at 3,421 metres

The camp has a medical office, staffed with a doctor employed by the park and whom we all have to go see the following day on Thursday, Feb 7th, to get the ‘green light’ to move up the mountain to basecamp the following day, Friday, February 8th. This would be one of two visits with the park’s doctor. The park authorities want to ensure climbers are not experiencing altitude related illness, which cuts down on emergency rescues.

Our tents for this expedition are a 3 person tent, but really only 2 people fit, and in very close quarters. My tent mate is Jenny, a young lady from Chicago in her mid 20’s.

There are only 3 women on the team, and I had been asked the previous day before we left for the trail, whom I preferred to share a tent with. Two male teammates were given to me as my choices; I said no to both. I was utterly surprised this was an option – pair teammates with teammates of the opposite sex!? When I expressed my displeasure, I was assured they would find a solution. They did. Yesterday during our tent building lesson, the guides asked one of the other females if she would mind sharing a tent with one of the other males. She said no. And so the situation was resolved. I still find this presumption uncomfortable and somewhat surprising.

Thursday the 7th, we went for a 7 hour acclimatization hike towards Camp Francia, for a view of the south face of the mountain. The colours of all the rock faces on our way there were spectacular!

First it was hot, and then got very windy and much colder when we reach about 14,000 feet, which is about 4,000 metres.

Friday, Feb 8th, we made our way to Plaza de Las Mulas, Basecamp for the Normal Route. It took us “8 hours plus 1”, as Vern said. For a long period of time we hiked on flat terrain and then slowly we gained altitude. The mules carried our group gear. Slowly …

What can I say about Plaza de Las Mulas? It’s a tent city on a plateau of the mountains. We had to select our campsite and build our tent and that’s ALL that was interesting. 

Alpine Ascents local contractors are Aconcagua Mountain Guides, which is actually a subsidiary of Alpine Ascents. Inca, another outfitter at the camp, is clearly the prominent provider here. Their tents and facilities are at the entrance of the camp. I couldn’t help but notice they are shinier and seem new.

Our campsite was on the opposite end of basecamp, and it had its benefits.  It was closer to the trail to go up the mountain, and after all, that was the goal – to go up the mountain. Plus it was quieter.

It was a long day.  I don’t get cell service even though many people seem to – but I was able to buy WIFI for the days we are here, so I can talk to my husband Steve, my daughters Nicole and Patricia and of course, my grandchildren Ethan and Julia. My family. My lifeline.

Feb 9th, we tried our crampons on, and went for a short exercise wearing them on some dirty snow. Afterwards, we went for a short 90 minute hike, over lots of rock, to ice sticking out of the mountain like icicles, which are called penitents.  It was pretty cool.  But also, I never realized that so much dirt can be on top of an actual glacier – the primary reason why it’s so dusty and a little disgusting here.

This outing was followed by a group meeting, to discuss the game plan for the next few days.  Acclimatization is an important part of climbing, especially at this height, to have the best chance of success. The following day it was decided we would do a carry up to Camp Canada, and the next day it  would be the repeat of the same.

A ‘carry’ is done to carry a small amount of supplies to a higher camp, and leave them there to be used once we move up to that camp. This exercise serves to acclimatize and also to lessen the weight of carrying the supplies we need, in our backpacks. 

Porters are now available on the mountain and I have taken advantage of them. So I will not do a ‘carry’ of group gear or supplies, but only take my daypack and simply enjoy the acclimatization climb. The porters will carry my portion of the group gear and my own personal supplies, on ‘move’ day. The plan is to do the same the next day and then move up the following day. The theory is to climb high, sleep low.

On the second carry day the winds are extremely high and we get hit with a snowstorm.  The snow is small round ice pellets, not beautiful snowflakes. This is jarring and difficult.

We were offered a free shower because the mules had been late when we came into Confluencia, the previous camp and we all take advantage of it here at basecamp. But the word ‘shower’ is used loosely. The water only served to rinse the dust off and it was cold! Unfortunately no one shared a vital piece of information – I only had to move the lever a very short space to get warm water!

Camp Canada is at 4947 metres but surprisingly, my Sunto watch showed 5001 metres as a measurement. Feb 12th was a rest day. We did nothing, just ate and stayed in our tents actually. Pretty boring. One of the other female teammates went for a swim in one of the lakes nearby, apparently skinny dipping. I passed.

Feb 13th, we moved up to Camp Canada. The camp sits on a hill, and if you take a wrong step, you might just fall off, but the view is amazing. “Ahhhhhh” had two meanings!

The porter assigned to me moved everything, I just kept my emergency gear in my back pack and also a bottle of water and my personal documents like passport, insurance and money. That was very nice.

At camp Canada the group had all opted to use the services of the porters to set-up our tents. It was so much easier to reach camp and have a place to get comfortable in, sheltered from the cold and wind.

Once again, my tent mate and I, have a tent that has something wrong with it. Ugh.

The tents are NorthFace and spacious, but they are beaten up or they just don’t hold up. This time we are stuck with a vestibule zipper that is broken, so we literally crawl in and out of our tent.

Feb 14th, we do a carry to what will be our second camp, Nido de Condores. It was a 3 hour hike up and then we left some personal gear there.  It is a huge camp and the 360 degree views are just amazing! Mountainous peaks and vast sky as far as the eye can see. Spectacular. There is also a rangers’ station here and a helipad.

Coming down it took us only an hour.

One of our teammates, Sequoia reported a headache and Diego, one of the guides raced down the mountain with her. The rest of us followed.  My feet were sweating with the socks I had chosen and I got two blisters. Not much to complain about in the grand scheme.

When we got back to camp Canada, there was hardly walking space between tents. There are tents everywhere around us. Seems everyone at basecamp is moving up. There are climbers galore.

Sequoia is not feeling well. She is the 3rd female of our team. She is still reporting headaches and Carole accompanies her down to Basecamp to see the doctor.

Tomorrow we move up.

(Read Part 2)

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