Aconcagua (6962m) is the highest mountain in the world outside of the Himalayan range and is the second highest of the seven summits next to Mount Everest (8848m). 148 climbers have died on the mountain since 1926 and 6 people died this season including 4 in mid February when Fin and his group of fellow climbers were acclimatising and preparing for their summit attempt. Aconcagua, “the stone sentinel” is close to the border with Chile, 200kms west of Mendoza and it stands over 1500 metres higher than any neighbouring peaks. It is prone to severe and unpredictable weather including violent high altitude winds and regular chill factor temperatures as low as –50C.
Fin is an experienced climber having summited Mount Elbrus (5650m) in Russia, Kilimanjaro (5895m) in Tanzania, several Alpine peaks including Mont Blanc (4808m) and Chuckung Ri (5400m) in Nepal. Arriving in Mendoza in early February, Fin joined a team of 13 climbers on a guided 3 week expedition with local company Aymara. The group included 9 Europeans and 4 Argentinians and they were all experienced high altitude mountaineers. The first two weeks of the trip would include a long 40km trek to base camp followed by acclimatisation on nearby peaks over 5000m. A 200km bus ride from the comfortable hotel in Mendoza to the tiny village of Puenta del Inca (2850m) near the Chilean border was the start of this acclimatisation process.
At base camp, the start of the assault on the summit was delayed by a day due to a severe storm and two climbers from other groups had in fact perished close to the summit. Australian, Bob Huggins suffered from a cerebral oedema, and died of hypothermia before he could be rescued and German climber Karl Heinz Bar died following a fall above Camp Berlin. News of the tragedy filtered down to base camp and Fin’s group gingerly set off when the weather had cleared.
A half day climb to Camp Canada (4900m) with an overnight in their 2 man tents was followed by a quick ascent to Camp Nido de Condores (5350m) next day. The weather was perfect for climbing with cloudless blue skies. The going was slow as they used crampons to trudge through the 40cms of fresh snow but the calm conditions allowed for an uneventful climb to the final Camp Berlin (5900m) the following day. Fin set off with the group for the summit at 5am in the darkness and they progressed up to the abandoned Independencia shelter at 6400m. The bodies of the two climbers were still at the shelter waiting to be brought down by a rescue team and as the group set off from this tragic scene, they noticed the infamous lens shaped cloud, EL Hongo, forming, a sign that another severe storm was imminent. Despite being only 5 hours from the summit, the guides decided to return to Camp Berlin, as two more climbers perished on the upper slopes. Poler Liezec Bomark went missing from his group in the whiteout and Czech climber Thomas Fedelec died from a pulmonary oedema in his tent next day. Bomark’s body was found on March 1.
The air temperature back at Berlin was –20C but the wind resulted in a chill factor of –40C and after waiting for several hours, it was decided to head back to the safety of base camp.
In an attempt to reduce the number of fatalities in recent years the Aconcagua National Park authorities have provided a fulltime helicopter to evacuate sick climbers, compulsory medical checks and entrance fees of $700 to provide for better emergency huts on the main climbing routes. The fulltime doctors at base camp measure saturated oxygen level in the blood, pulse rate and blood pressure. If any of these key measurements are outside certain limits, the climbers are instructed to return to the park entrance, a 36km eight minute ride to safety by helicopter.
Fin and the team left base camp next day as the storm raged overhead and after the long trek out, they returned to their hotel in Mendoza lucky to be safe and well. They were disappointed not to make the summit but realised the extent of the severe weather and the toll on fellow climbers lives over the previous week. The average success rate on Aconcagua for the 2011 season was an abnormally low 25%.