Kernow Coasteering in the Andes

Kernow Coasteering's Matt has had a busy winter so far. In between preparations for Kernow Coasteering's adventures for 2015, Matt flew out to Argentina on a three week trip to attempt to climb one of the 7 summits - Aconcagua. At 6962 metres above sea level, it is recognised as the highest mountain in South America. It is also the highest mountain outside of the Greater Himalayan range. This was to be Matt's second of the 7 summits - the highest mountain on each of the World's continents - he climbed Elbrus in European Russia in 2011.

After more than 30 hours of travel from Penzance, Matt arrived in Mendoza, Argentina, the largest city near to Aconcagua. After meeting Emmanuel the guide, and his fellow team members, they embarked the following day to spend the night on the edge of the Aconcagua Provincial Park at Los Penitentes to make their finalKernow Coasteering looking at Aconcagua on the approach to Plaza Argentina. preparations and begin acclimatising. The altitude at Los Penitentes is about 2500m. The next day they set off up the Vacas valley on a three day march, gradually increasing in altitude, to the base camp at Plaza Argentina, at an altitude of 4200m. Temperatures at base camp fell to below zero at night, and the high mountains meant they persisted late in the morning until the sun finally rose above the Andean peaks and warmed the camp a little.

The next week or so saw a repeated process of 'siege tactics' against the mountain, or what is known amongst mountaineers as ‘cache and carry’. This play on words describes the process of carrying supplies and equipment to progressively higher camps, thereby exposing oneself to higher altitude, before returning to a lower altitude to rest. Then the permanent move to a higher camp is made, and the process begins again in order to move up to the next camp and so on, until a summit attempt can be made. This rather arduous process is necessary to make the gradual acclimatisation to the increasing altitude. It would simply be impossible for an unacclimatised person to trek straight to the summit of any high mountain. They would simply fall victim to some form of Acute Mountain Sickness and die if they did not descend rapidly enough.

The expedition was to use a further three camps above base camp: at 4900m, Camp 1 Polacos (Polish), which was first used by the Polish party that summited by the Polish Glacier in 1934. The second camp was confusingly known as Camp 3 ‘Guanacos’ (Guanacos are a relative of the llama, that inhabit these parts, but almost never stray onto Aconcagua itself, due to the total lack of vegetation. The fossilised remains of a Guanaco just below the summit provide strong evidence that the first summiteers were in fact the Inca, 500 years ago or more) which has an altitude of 5400m.

Coasteering rock climbing Cornwall goes to the AndesAbove about 5500m the average human can no longer adapt to the high altitude, so the final camp, Camp Colera at 5900m was to be a brief stop-over before the summit bid. Ironically, this camp required the heaviest loads. In addition to food and supplies, the lack of running water (streams, not taps!) meant that as much drinking water as possible had to be carried as well. So with ever-thinning air, the party carried their 20kg loads up to the final camp. The weather window had presented itself, and the next day, January 24th 2015, the team would make their summit bid.

It is usual for summit bids to start as early as 3am, and it is not uncommon to take twelve hours to reach the summit from the high camp. Our guide opted for a different tactic. Having confidence that we could maintain a good pace, Emmanuel opted for leaving at 6am. It’s not just about the lie-in, every hour before sunrise means walking in freezing temperatures, which can be as low as minus 30°C. The sheer unpleasantness of this, combined with the extra energy required to keep warm can be counter-productive. So it was in the pre-dawn that the team started slowly making their way out of Camp Colera and ever upward towards their goal. Only half an hour the warming sun was felt at Piedras Blancas (White Rocks). Progress was good up to the abandoned Independencia Hut at 6400m, where a rest was taken before beginning the traverse. The first part of the traverse is just that, a track snakes anti-clockwise around the mountain, without much altitude gain. But then it starts to steepen and make its way over torturous scree and talus in which every footstep sinks into the loose ground. This is no stranger for walkers in the UK hills, but at high altitude in simply becomes a nightmare.

Kernow coasteering and climbing Cornwall on top of the AndesThe traverse ends in a feature simply known as ‘the cave’. Aconcagua, which translates as the ‘Stone Sentinel’ saves the best for last – the Canaletta (a cruel name which ironically translates as raceway) is the final section of the mountain - a seemingly endless slope of steep scree. Remarkably bare of snow, there is no respite from the sinking gravel as you attempt these last few hundred metres of ascent. Progress was painfully slow. Matt could only progress by counting ten paces, followed by hunching over his walking poles and taking ten of the deepest breathes possible. It’s a very difficult feeling to describe, just the sheer difficulty of putting one foot in front of the other at such an altitude.

You can see the summit as you make your way up the Canaletta, but you can still be hours away from it. Slowly but surely the team made their way onwards, and finally successfully reached the summit at 1330. After a good rest (and I daresay a cheeky nap!), the obligatory summit photos the team began their descent. With every step the air becomes thicker, but after the exertion of the ascent, it was still a gruelling 4 hours to get back to Colera. Tired but elated, the team bedded down to prepare the exit from the mountain the next day. 

It’s still two full days to get off the mountain and back to the road. The team descended to the base camp at Plaza de Mulas the next day. They had traversed the entire mountain, and would exit via the Horcones Valley, which allowed for a quicker exit. One long twelve hour push the next day brought them back to civilisation. They were met be the expedition organisers at the exit to the Aconcagua Provincial Park and made the 3 hour drive back to Mendoza. Celebratory steaks (Argentinian steaks really are THAT good) and Malbek wine were taken in celebration, before enjoying the comfort of a proper bed for the first time in about two weeks. All that remained was the long trip back to the UK after success in the Andes!

 

Kernow Coasteering 7 summits