Megan Emmons, the 14 year-old recipient of a Mountain Fellowship Fund Grant, offers this enthralling and detailed trip report of her expedition to South America. Congrats to Megan, and read on for the whole story!
This might seem like a strange way to summarize a mountaineering trip, but for my trip to Aconcagua it seems appropriate. We were caught in a severe storm at 18,000-ft, a storm that ripped apart some tents and buried others beneath snow leaving only ours unharmed. This storm lasted three days. And I lived! We climbed a very steep field of giant penitentes hidden under loose snow and I lived! I discovered not every one should drink water from a mountain stream without filtering it and I lived! We walked to the summit of Aconcagua in the pre-dawn hours with my feet freezing despite being in plastic boots and I lived! I became separated from my father in near white-out conditions and I lived! I faced many new challenges on Aconcagua, difficult situations that really tested me physically and emotionally. I survived these experiences and am stronger because of them and I will never forget what they taught me.
“I lived,” means more than returning home with my heart still beating. It also means I had experiences that will effect the rest of my life. Aconcagua was an awesome experience. I learned a lot about myself and about mountaineering. I will try to tell some of my experiences to you in this report, but a boring report cannot possibly capture the emotions I experienced while in Argentina.
My adventures on Aconcagua were some of the best I have had. It seemed like almost everything was so emotionally intense. The intensity was not limited to the experiences on the mountain; it extended to “just sitting” around base camp. For example, during the first full day in Plaza de Mulas, I was at the food tent. A Spanish radio station was playing a U2 song in English about going to the mountains. Being a teenager, I knew the song and started singing. Very quickly, three Frenchman joined me. They were followed by four people from Denmark. I looked around and noticed a person from Japan was trying to boogey while several other people were swaying to the music or mouthing phrases. I don’t know their names and wasn’t able to talk with them because of language differences. Yet, for a few moments we were together, celebrating a common bond through a song. The moment was magical. Whenever I hear that song, I will once again see my nameless companions singing beside me in a barren camp.
We left for Argentina on January 16th, a month later than we had originally planned. Prior to leaving we were having difficulty with the government officials in Mendoza about my entering Aconcagua Providential Park. Their regulations prevented my entering the park as a 13-year old; we delayed our trip until I became 14 on January 15th. Even with the delay, there was considerable uncertainty as to whether we would be permitted to climb Aconcagua. We left the United States loaded with “documents”, including an endorsement by the American Alpine Club, our fingers crossed, and a back-up plan of other climbs.
The airplane journey was tiring but fortunately uneventful. We arrived in Mendoza mid-day and looked like a pair of zombies. We had made arrangements for a driver to meet us at the airport. He raced through the city, jogging in and out of traffic, swerving around other cars and pedestrians until we arrived at the Park Headquarters in Mendoza. We completed the permit application and ran into our first problem. The officials wanted cash – good old American dollars – and all we had were traveler’s checks. To us, it seemed like a simple matter. We would just go to a bank and cash our traveler’s checks. However, our driver didn’t speak English, and naturally we didn’t speak enough Spanish! And the banks in Mendoza, like virtually all the stores, observe the afternoon siesta, which was very confusing in itself. Through a series of hand gestures we were able to communicate our needs to the driver who proceed to race around town in search of a bank. We passed a lot of banks without our understanding why we didn’t stop. The reason became apparent later – we needed $1000 in US dollars, over 3,000 pesos. That is a huge sum of money and most of the banks couldn’t handle that much! Eventually our driver found a ‘cambio’ where, for a 2% fee, we exchanged our traveler’s checks for US dollars. During this time, I kept hearing my father utter “once we get to the mountains, we will be OK”!
With our permits in hand, we then began the 2 ½ hour race up the highway to our starting point. Somehow, despite the swerving and the bumps, the accelerating and braking, we managed to sleep. We arrived at Rudy Parra’s mule stables just before they closed. Since we wanted to begin the trek towards Plaza de Mulas in the morning, we had to get our equipment reorganized for the mules before they closed. My dad tore open our luggage and started throwing down coats, sleeping bags and Gore-Tex rain gear at me. I grabbed it and stuffed it into our packs. In ten minutes, we were ready. The packs for the two mules were weighed and marked. Our backpacks had the necessary gear for us to camp out one night during the hike to Plaza de Mulas. All seemed to be in order. It was time to finally relax.
We walked across the highway, got a room at the Puente del Inca resort, and sought a meal. To our dismay, everything was closed! Eventually, we found a roadside “bar". Inside the bar, we found our driver. My dad had tipped the driver $20 for helping us. $20 can buy 60 liters of beer in Argentina and our driver was busy consuming as much of that as possible!
The next day, and not especially early, we had to check into Aconcagua Park. A park guard looked at our permits, explained rules to us in broken English (I am grateful that so many people tried to talk to us in English and feel guilty for not knowing Spanish!), and, after running out of things to say, said “OK”. My dad and I looked at each other and walked out of the guard’s tent. There were a dozen trails going in every which direction. We had no idea where to go so we picked a worn looking trail heading up the Horcones Valley and set off on our adventure.
Our plans called for us to stop at Confluencia Camp for the night. We reached the camp in 2 hours; we were moving well. So, we decided to continue to Plaza de Mules. The hiking was so boring! Once past Confluencia, there is only the reddish-brown of the rock, the unrelenting sun, and a dusty trail with no signs of life. The journey to Plaza de Mulas was not hard until the last mile where there is a steep hill to climb just before the guard station at Plaza de Mulas. At this point, I was tired and dehydrated; I quickly fell behind my father. When I arrived at the guard station, I found him chatting with a guard about climbing in the Tetons and Yosemite. It is a small world.
The guards kept insisting “Normal Route only”. They sited my lack of experience at elevation and their concern over their ability to rescue me. Our plan was to climb the Normal Route as a “warm up”. We would learn about the mountain, the conditions, and how we responded to the elevation. We would then, hopefully, explore the mountain for another route.
The next day we rested. Although we were at 14,000-ft, we have spent so much time at 14,000-ft that we were having no difficulties. Other people were coughing and moving very slowly. Our breathing was fine and we had the energy to run around the base camp. A lenticular cloud covered the summit of Aconcagua. It appeared to be shrinking, hopefully signaling good weather. We made the decision to carry all our gear to Nido de Condores (18,000-ft) the next day and camp there.
Trudging up the initial scree hill in plastic boots with my pack loaded was not terribly fun. Actually, it was rather miserable. It was a hot day and there was no wind. Dad was moving well and we soon became separated. I wasn’t worried; I knew he would move up to Nido and setup camp. When I arrived, I could rest. My view changed around 17,000-ft. The conditions quickly switched from being hot to cold, from being calm to being very windy. The Viento Blanco, or White Wind, had descended and I found myself in the mist of a white-out. Many worries entered my head, but I was able to logically keep them under control. I passed one decending man. He told me how he’d lost his partner in similar conditions, which was not encouraging. Luckily, he also told me that Nido was just over the hill, but once over the hill there was no sign of my father. It turned out he’d told me the wrong camp. I was carrying a Rino GPS unit. The Rino is a special walkie-talkie, not only could I talk to my father, but the Rino would also pinpoint his location for me! The Rino would give me directions on how to locate him. So, despite the deteriorating conditions, I was confident everything was “OK”.
That was, until I got the Rino unit from my pack and turned it on. The cold weather had weakened the batteries and the unit did not work! Still, I didn’t panic. I knew I had to warm up the Rino. The batteries were new. They were just cold. A group of French climbers, the same group that I had sang with the previous day, noticed me walking up the trail. Through hand gestures, they invited me into their tent to warm up. A few minutes later, the Rino unit started working. Dad was only about 500-ft above me! He had stopped in the storm and setup the tent behind a small rock spire. He had placed the tent in a position where I had to walk by it if I continued up the trail. Over the walkie-talkie, he explained how to continue, “Go uphill staying to the left of a large snowfield. Higher up, a rock band will force you to cross the snowfield. The tent is on the other side.” As I ascended, he descended until we met. Together, we went back up hill to the tent.
Being in the mountains really points out what is important: shelter, food, and water. Our tent was on a very small ridge, just wide enough to allow the majority of the tent to be level. I couldn’t see what lied to either side of the tent. I was not sure I wanted to know! The wind had increased in its ferocity. We were in the middle of a bad storm. None of this mattered once I crawled into my sleeping bag, though, because I was warm and safe. I had food and water. Despite the raging storm, I slept.
In the morning, conditions had improved. We decided to move our camp up a few hundred feet to a flat camping spot on the shoulder of Aconcagua called Nido. The rest of the day was spent eating, drinking, and exploring. On the following day we would attempt the summit.
During that night, the real storm hit us. The earlier storm was just foreshadowing what was about to unfold. Instead of going to the summit, we hid in our tent. I passed the time by reading and writing in my journal. Sadly, I also had some schoolwork with me. When we returned to Colorado, I had the regional spelling bee competition. I had to study for it which was really hard at 18,000 feet. My Dad also quizzed me on math problems. I thought I was doing OK, but now when I look at my journal and math work, I can see how poorly I was thinking, if I even was! The storm continued through the night. Our tent was slowly being buried in the snow. The vestibule was completely filled with snow. The fine snow had been blown between the fly and the main tent body. We had drank our water and eaten the last of our strawberry cookies! When the cookies were gone, I knew the situation was getting serious. The next morning, we decided to descend; we really didn’t have much of a choice. When I got out of the tent, I saw we were the only tent left unscathed. Several tents had been ripped apart by the storm. Others were buried. All were abandoned. Quickly, we packed our gear and descended. Within a thousand feet, we had moved out of the storm. Deep snow covered the mountainside. In places, my father disappeared while trying to wade through the deep snowdrifts. We were exhausted. Even though we were walking downhill, we had to pause and rest. At around 15,000-ft, guided groups moving up the mountain began passing us. The guides were animals, plowing uphill through the fresh snow with full packs! They came over to join our descent path, not knowing what a stupid path it was.
We continued our descent to Plaza de Mulas. The remainder of the day was spent resting and re-cooping. The next day, we again carried our full packs as we returned to Nido. The weather was better and we prepared for an early morning summit bid despite rumors of a ten day storm that would hit the next day, and in the end never even occurred. At 4 a.m. we left Nido. It was cold! When we stopped at a small rock outcropping to watch the Sun rise across the Andes, our feet were stiff from the cold. There was a steady wind, a wind that cut through our down jackets. To spend a night in the open in these conditions would be suicide. The Sun brought warmth and we continued up the snowfields towards the summit. At 21,000-ft, we took a break to melt some water (my Dad carried the stove). It had trouble working despite the apparent addition by Rudy of ether to the gasoline. The water it produced, however, easily justified our problems with the fickle piece of equipment.
From this point, the route was obvious. The only difficulties were mental and physical. It was mentally hard to keep moving upward. Our progress was so slow and it was so easy to stop. In Colorado, I am use to looking up at the summit and figuring I will be there in a short period of time. On Aconcagua, it didn’t seem like I was getting nearer to the summit despite my best efforts. Every step was exhausting. I was so eager I would rush upward, get out of breath, and have to rest. Dad told me to slow down and got in front. We then got into a rhythm of taking one step for each breath. This worked well and we made steady progress to the summit. At the summit, I was filled with adrenaline. I ran around, taking pictures and trying to remember everything!
A French woman had followed us to the summit. She was very curious about me but couldn’t ask any questions. She didn’t speak much English and we don’t speak French. At the summit, her camera stopped working. I loaned her my camera and promised to send the photos to her in France. Then, in broken English, she said she would send us photos. I am anxious to see what she sends. Her technique of climbing was different, yet she was very experienced.
We then descended to Nido via the first ascent route with the intent of continuing down to Mulas. However, we were so tired and dehydrated we stayed at Nido for the night. Early the next morning, we moved down to Mulas and rested.
The next few days were spent recovering and exploring. We climbed along the entire west face looking for a potential route. The “rock” quality was very poor and we abandoned any thought of attempting a climb on this face of yellow mud. We then started day hiking down the Horcones Valley. Our goal was to explore the Quebrada Sargento Mas and the approach to Cerro Piramidal (the Pyramid), an obvious, and very appropriate, name for a subpeak on Aconcagua’s southwest ridge.
On the second day hike to the Quebrada Sargento Mas, we climbed into the basin (15,000-ft) below Cerro Piramidal (19,700 ft) and looked at our options. Snow and rock bands guarded the right side of Cerro Piramidal. Even from our vantage point several thousand feet below the snow and rock, we could tell the conditions were not good. The snow was mostly penitentes, amply covered with fallen rock from the cliffs above. Instead of attempting the right side, we decided the left side looked more practical – and safer. Our route would involve about 1000 ft of scree, followed by about 1000 ft of steep snow/ice. This would allow us to gain a notch in the ridgeline. From the notch, perhaps 5 pitches of rock climbing would lead to the left skyline of Cerro Piramidal. Only the first two pitches looked to be difficult. The remaining three would be slab climbing. We had pitons, nuts and hexes. Our plan was to summit Cerro Piramidal and descend back to our high camp in a one-day effort to help minimize the bulk and size of our packs. After deciding this was our route, we returned to Plaza de Mulas to get our gear.
The next day, we carried our climbing gear into the basin and “hid” it under rocks. We were not really concerned about thief but rather the damage to the ropes and slings by the intense sunlight. We then returned to Plaza de Mulas and readied our camping gear. Leaving before the guards awoke (they kept reminding us “Normal Route only”), we moved to the basin at the top of Quebrada Sargento Mas. Not discovering an even moderately level site for our tent, my father literally carved a campsite out of a scree slope.
While he was doing this, I thought about the Ancient Andeans. 500 years earlier, they had sacrificed a 10-year old boy on Cerro Piramidal. On the left skyline of Cerro Piramidal, I could see two flat areas. Was one of these the site of the sacrifice? Did the Andeans also carve out a platform from the scree? In the three trips we had made up the scree of the lower Quebrada Sargento Mas, we had created a trail. Had the Andeans done the same? Did the boy hike up the trail or was he carried? On a particularly rotten section of rock, we had walked along a flat section that looked like a trail cut into the rock. Was it a trail and, if so, was it made by the Andeans to ease the journey to the sacrificial platform? I couldn’t keep these thoughts out of my head that night. I didn’t know how I would feel if we came across the sacrificial platform during our climb.
We rose early, collapsed the tent, and started towards the notch. Several fields of penitentes were crossed before we began the struggle up the scree slope. The scree was very unstable, causing us to repeatedly slide back down the slope. For what we were doing, leather boots would have been an excellent choice but we only had our plastic boots. Since there was no choice, we slowly and awkwardly carved a trail up the soft, loose scree. When we entered the 60-degree snow/ice field, we discovered it was a penitente field covered in a loose, powdery snow. The snow hid the penitentes, making the next 1000 ft of climbing very difficult. Our ice tools were worthless, so we proceeded by wedging our ski poles between penitentes and hoping we could stand on the ridges between the spikes of ice. Our movement translated into a lot of falling with the packs, followed by turtle-like efforts to regain our feet. I still have bruises. Eventually, after many exhausting hours, we arrived at the notch and the beginning of our anticipated rock climb.
There were three things wrong with our plan. First, the rock turned out to be little more than mud. My Dad pulled off several handfuls of the better looking rock to drive home the point that we were not going to climb it. Free souvenirs!! Second, there were gullies to each side of the mud pile that gave fairly easy access to the upper part of Cerro Piramidal. There was no need to climb the mud rock. Finally, at the base of the rock face there was a pile of garbage. We were not the first to be there!
The third problem was probably the most defeating one. We wanted a first ascent. Finding the garbage drained us of our energy, and our eagerness, in retrospect, had probably kept us from thinking clearly. The line was rather obvious and while there was no mention of a route on that side of Cerro Piramidal in Secor’s “Aconcagua: A Climbing Guide”, it was foolish to think nobody had climbed there before. Indeed, what we realized was this was probably the route taken 500 years ago by the Andeans. Except for the penitentes, there was no real difficulty in our climb. In different season, the penitentes might not even be there. A team of Andeans could have easily hacked out a trail up the slope. They could then have moved away from the face of Cerro Piramidal and up one of the gullies. Why they stopped before summitting is a mystery. We looked at our watches and realized we were not going to make it to the summit and back to camp in the daylight. So, we took a few photos and descended.
A few days later, we left Aconcagua Park for Mendoza, from mountain to city.
At first, I was very nervous about being in a large foreign city. But the openness of the Argentineans quickly dispersed any anxiety I had. Central Mendoza is clean. The people were friendly and eager to help a couple of stupid Americans (Somehow they knew where we were from just by our appearance. When we walked down the sidewalk, children would run up behind us and call out “English”.). I enjoyed Mendoza and was sad when we left.
When we checked into our hotel, we discovered a reporter from the Los Andeas paper wanted to talk to us. We were not sure why. Later that first night, I did an interview. The reporter didn’t speak English, so we used a picture dictionary of Spanish/English words to communicate. It was really fun. Two photographers came to our hotel to take my picture (apparently the first set didn’t work out). We were not sure of why we were receiving such attention. The next day, my picture was on the front page of the newspaper. Then a TV crew wanted an interview. During this interview, it slowly sank into my head that the Mendoza government had said I was the youngest person to climb Cerro Aconcagua. This interview was aired across South America several times. When we returned to Colorado, we had e-mail from CNN-Latin America. They wanted to do a live interview. And a writer from Buenos Aires called wanting to explore the possibility of doing articles for magazines. I have included some of their stories with this report.
The publicity I received from climbing Aconcagua is more humorous than anything else. Well, I guess there was a benefit. People bought be dinner and I got some free gifts. Seriously, I didn’t go to Aconcagua for publicity. I wanted to experience climbing taller mountains than I have around my home in Colorado. I wanted to meet people from other countries. I wanted to attempt a new route, but mostly I just wanted to have fun. These are the things that mattered most to me. And they are what I did.
From my experiences on Aconcagua, I learned more about my strengths and weaknesses. I discovered, for example, that I adjusted quickly to the higher elevations. Moving at 23,000-ft was difficult, but not impossible! I didn’t suffer any side effects from the exposure to those elevations. I believe I can go higher! I also discovered how difficult it is for me to carry a loaded pack up a mountain. This was very apparent on our climbing to the notch on Cerro Piramidal. Dad was having difficulty moving through the hidden penitente field. For me, it was nearly impossible and I was following his trail. I couldn’t keep my balance and I lacked the strength to correct minor errors in my balance. It was not a pretty sight as I stumbled, tripped, and fell my way up the hill. I am glad nobody was there to laugh at me except myself. I learned what a storm high on a mountain could be like. I have been in lots of storms on mountains in Colorado. The storm on Aconcagua was worse. It was definitely scarier! It taught me to relax, not panic, and not to be too afraid. This was a valuable experience. Finally, I learned that sometimes to climb a mountain, it is best to go down.
From my journal:
“Looking back on the city of Mendoza, Aconcagua, the friends I made and all the other experiences, I realize how fortunate I am. I am proud, not for summitting, but for enduring. Tonight, a friend called, asking how our trip went. All of a sudden, everything began bubbling out as if I was reliving the whole trip once more! I just hope I can continue to experience the mountains and what they offer.”
A few days after returning to Colorado, we went climbing in the southwest corner of Utah. While camping in a Joshua tree forest, we started making plans to return to the mountains. In May, we will head to the Sierras and North Cascades. I would like very much to climb Denali, but it will have to be as part of a larger group. There is now way I could rescue my father from a crevasse.
Thank you for your support of my adventure. The experience was awesome and made me more eager to continue mountaineering. Now, when I see a story about climbers struggling to survive in the mountains, I can relate to them. I have been there. I know what it is like. And I lived!