December 12th, 2012 the PeakX team set off for the Andes Expedition in South America to climb both Cerro Aconcagua (elev. 22,841ft), the highest peak outside of the Himalaya, and Ojos del Salado (elev. 22,615ft), the highest Volcano in the world. This account of the expedition will be a brief synopsis, a testament to the best laid plans and the unpredictability of the highest mountains in the world. Our original goal was to attempt the summits of both mountains in a 25-day window, which was an ambitious but feasible goal as long as neither mountain threw too many delays.
The team landed in Mendoza, Argentina on December 13th, 2012. After a few days of logistics, organizing gear, and loading our mule at the Vacas Valley entrance to the national park of Cerro Aconcagua, the team began our 2-day trek to Base Camp (elev. 13,940ft). The expedition of Aconcagua took a total of 18 days and we summitted on the 16th day. Our first summit attempt was via the Polish Glacier but it was unsuccessful as we were blown off by high winds that reached 135mph on the summit. We experienced winds in excess of 70mph at Camp 2 before retreating to Base Camp to wait out the wind storm. Because of our retreat to Base Camp, the team was able to enjoy a lively Christmas Eve with the porters and local guides, which included many luxuries we had been without for a while. These luxuries consisted of delicious food, drinks, and people to talk to other than each other. We had stashed much of our gear at Camp 2 before our descent, so our ascent back to Camp 2 was made easier. While at Camp 1 (elev. 16,400ft) the decision was made to abandon the Polish Glacier route for another route called the Polish Traverse, which provoked lively tent debate, as did our previous decision to turn around on our first summit attempt. Ultimately, the decision was made because the Traverse was more easily down-climbable then the true Polish and we had two health concerns to consider. David had been suffering from Acute Mountain Sickness above 16,000ft, and Carter had mildly sprained his ankle. As climbers, it was a disappointment to leave a technical and rarely climbed route for the traverse up Aconcagua, but the decision came down to the safety of the entire team. We reached the summit of Cerro Aconcagua (elev. 22,841ft) on December 28th at 1:13pm (total ascent time of 8 hours and 43 mins). It was a beautiful day, being windless and sunny on top of the western hemisphere. On the descent, it quickly turned cloudy and began to snow steadily.
The multiple snow and wind storms that left us tent-bound for around 10 days were the main delays to our expedition, but through the many setbacks weather gave us the team stoke stayed high. The entire expedition went smoothly for us even with the delays because the team functioned well as a unit. An important part of that is being able to openly debate crucial decisions and handling tent life well. The only incident in the expedition came when we arrived back at Camp 2 after summiting when Alex (expeditionary leader and medic) responded to a medical emergency regarding a climber suffering from severe High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE). A team of three Americans had attempted the Polish Glacier Direct but got stuck high on the route at 21,000ft, suffering from HAPE and exposure. Only two of three made it back to high camp alive. That night one of the two climbers (who were twin brothers) passed away from HAPE despite the best efforts to preserve his life. It broke the team’s heart to watch a fellow climber pass away in the mountains, a place that is special to all of us. Options and supplies are limited at 20,000ft and terrain dictates how far and fast someone can be moved after they can no longer self-rescue. Fortunately, resources arrived in the form of Argentinean Park Rangers who were radioed in to evacuate the final climber, who was also suffering from a less severe case of HAPE. He was the only survivor of the three-man team. The rest of the descent went by quickly and without further incident.
Unfortunately, the expedition didn’t have enough time to attempt the summit of Oso del Salado, but we were able to complete our main objective, Cerro Aconcagua (elev. 22,841ft), the highest peak outside of the Himalaya. This expedition to Aconcagua challenged and tested our limits, but ultimately the mountain allowed us to touch its perilous summit.