Viento Blanco

Check out the diary of this trip too

"Because it's there". George Mallory's famous response to the question "why climb mountains?" is remembered because it is glib, brave and enigmatic. Unfortunately Mallory and his companion Irvine disappeared whilst attempting the summit of Everest in 1924 and Mallory has not yet returned to explain his answer. No one knows if Mallory or Irvine got to the top, all subsequent expeditions failed to summit until 29 years later. On 28 may 1953 Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay Sherpa stood on the top of the world and returned to tell their tale.

The mountain I climbed in January was first climbed in 1897 by Mattias Zubriggen, its name is Aconcagua, known colloquially as "viento bianco" : white wind, popularly depicted with an alpinist walking up a sleeping white tiger's spine, the weather can turn from calm to deadly in minutes. The sun burns and blisters exposed skin, the wind chill snap freezes everything and whips away body heat and sanity, the clouds can white out the way to safety.

Aconcagua is the highest mountain in the world outside the Himalayas, its summit is over three Kosciuskos* high and under one third of sea level air pressure. The South face of Aconcagua was rated as the hardest climb in the world, many have died attempting its vast vertical walls. K2 in Pakistan now holds that title, but unlike K2, Aconcagua has easy ways up too and we took one of these along with American, Irish, French, Russian, Spanish, Chilean and Argentinean expeditions: truly peak hour.

It is easy to get to this mountain, there are two bus stops on the Mendoza, San Diego highway at the entrance to the Horconus and Vacus valleys which lead around the mountain to two well patronised base camps. We walked up the Vacus valley for two days through sparsely vegetated desert till a side valley framed viento blanco in its V. Another day, rising up this valley, was base camp. Mules had been carrying the bulk of our gear to this point, from now on we would have to carry everything ourselves.

Base camp is at 4200 metres on the terminal moraine of the "English Glacier" a scree of stone, no plant life, indeed no life at all except for crazy homo sapiens, awesome kilometre high cliffs and the peak on view much higher than these. This would be the home we would cleave to for the next three weeks. The weather was bad and good, Aconcagua would dispense the pale remnants of its white winds down the valleys blasting us with snow and flattening our tents on our faces as we slept. We did however have a mess tent, heavily weighed down, seating for all of us, an eating and social centre to huddle and warm in.

From base camp we would go up and down doing "carries" to camps one and two which would help us acclimatise. With each carry most of us could feel our fitness increasing, unfortunately some reached their personal limits and had to return and remain at base camp. Acclimatisation is essential, altitude has inexorable effects due to the reducing air pressure, the signs are vivid dreams and constant headache, should the headache become a pounding one you will quickly die of cerebral edema unless you descend immediately. Fortunately acclimatisation is straightforward for most, just take it easy and keep breathing. Water is another problem, even at base camp there was only a small tricle from melting ice, higher up water had to be melted from snow, a slow and inefficient process exacerbated by the heavy demand due to zero humidity, fast breathing and exertion. Our pressurised shellite stoves were going nearly all the time we were in camp.

Two weeks after arriving at base camp seven of the thirteen starters staggered into camp three, a flat clay pan, six and a bit kilometres above the sea and subject to the rough handling of viento blanco's whims. It got cold up there, minus thirty five with a sixty kilometre per hour breeze equates to minus ninety seven according to the U.S meteorological bureau wind chill formula I found on the internet. Those were the conditions under which we started our summit attempt, one day, one vertical kilometre up then one back. The names we knew now, "indpendencia" a way point with a destroyed wooden shelter the size of a kennel, the "canaleta", the final chute to the top, where two Argentineans had slipped and slid a kilometre two days before.

My hands were cold when we started, despite two layers of gloves, they did not warm up for five hours, I got frost nip which made everything tingle for three months, lucky for me. Two Spaniards, lost overnight, were rescued only to be told that they would have to walk to base camp before they could be ferried out by mule to have their frost bitten feet amputated. It turned dangerous this day too, our first indication was the French team descending past us "plus tres froid", they had suffered dangerous cold injuries and were on their way off the mountain as quickly as they could. Two solo climbers turned back with the French. An American group and ourselves pushed on, as the sun hit, the world changed, rocks lit like gold, clouds defining a false fluffy base to our world at 5000 metres, with a few peaks poking past, it looked like we were going to have a good summit day.

At Independencia things began to change quickly, the wind increased, the cloud came down, the tiger was stirring, another hundred metres up and the tiger awoke, viento blanco ripped into us, it was difficult and dangerous to stand even with crampons and ice axe firmly planted. The Americans a little further on were pinned behind a large boulder, we could see the canaleta quickly being consumed by cloud, our guide decided it was best to retreat with lives, hands and feet intact. Hours latter we staggered like drunkards into our tents all the energy blown and frozen out of us. We had failed to reach the top, turned back four hundred metres short, without sufficient energy to make another attempt and quickly wasting due to the effects of exertion at altitude. We had a temporary addition to our group as well, a lost sole very much worse for wear, sunburnt, snowblind and cold effected, he descended the easier Horconus side of the mountain with some rangers the next day.

After a rest day we headed for base camp, an hour down from camp three, we came accross four lost and exhausted climbers headed the wrong way we directed them towards the Horconus descent route and wished them well. A long day later we arrived at base camp, met by our compatriots who had satisfied their personal limits earlier. Relatively thick air, copious quantities of food and the mess tent: base camp felt luxurious. Four days later, in Mendoza, I had my first shower in a month and the first beer. I felt that I had left reality in the wilderness and returned to the artifice of civilisation.

So why do I climb mountains. Well "because I'm here", life without challenge is like death with taxes. John and Brigitte Muir were our guides on this trip, they have made a business out of what they love doing and the business is a means to doing what they love, there's a lesson for me in there somewhere.

*Australia's highest mountain is not Kosciusko (2228 metres), it is an active Volcano on Herd Island, near Antarctica called "Big Ben" or "Mawson's Peak", about 2745 metres high, straight out of the sea and the weather is absolutely atrocious... maybe next year!

There is also a diary of this trip available elsewhere

Post Script

In May 1996 eight climbers died in a blizzard on Mount Everest, it came on them suddenly, out of a calm blue sky during their descent from the summit. This event brought two quotes to my mind, the first is a poem that attempts to encapsulate the challenge, and the second words from Scott of the Antarctic, found with his body.

To suffer wowes which hope thinks infinite.
To forgive wrongs darker than death or night.
To defy power which seems omnipotent.
Neither to change nor falter nor repent.
This is to be good, great and joyous, beautiful and free.
This is a lone life joy, empire and victory.

It is the superscription to Vaughn Williams Antarctic Symphony which arose from his score for the film "Scott of the Antarctic", and Scotts last words...

I do not regret this journey,
we took risks,
we new we took them,
things have turned out against us
therefore we have no cause for complaint.

Author Bill Taylor
Document last modified 11 June 1996