Our team makes the final steps to the summit of North and South America’s highest peak. 22,800 feet.
Nothing like a little mountain modeling to get us started.
But do not forget this is a serious mountain with significant altitude and some serious challenges.
This is our team at 14 thousand foot Plaza de Mulas base camp. It was an interesting and diversely populated group. One thing they all had in common, Kilimanjaro. Tommy on the left is even wearing his Killi hat. We entertained a great many hours of Kilimanjaro discussion around the base camp meals. People tend to talk about what they have in common. The problem is, however this mountain has nothing to do with Kili. At all.
Yes, I am fully aware that it is one of the seven Summits having just completed my fifth one personally. Many were the days on this expedition that I longed for a personal toilet tent and Porter. How nice it would have been for someone to run ahead of us, say in camp 1, for instance, to prepare a fresh lunch with vegetables while fluffing our pillows on our sleeping bags.
But, Aconcagua is not Kilimanjaro. So why am I beating this dead mule, you’ll pardon the expression? Because I heard over and over about how this was not Kilimanjaro. No kidding? we actually had a girl on our team who could not believe there were no flush toilets and showers at camps. (Even though there were flush toilets at Confluencia and an occasional shower could be found at Plaza de Mulas)
Having been on a few high-altitude climbs in my life I’m no stranger to the anxious discussions that occasionally crop up around the base camp meal. Most will pay around $5,000 to climb Aconcagua. (Of course it is less for me because I know how to shop around). We had people on our team who paid a middleman to broker this deal for them. In exchange, they were rewarded with a price that was $1,200 more than ours. Another member of our team admitted that she did zero research on this mountain at all. Period. This was reflected in her sparse gear and insufficient mental preparedness.
(there are no River crossings like this on Kili)
There is a lot of this on Aconcagua. And it should not come as a surprise. This mountain is very well-documented, heavily climbed, and sufficiently mapped. There are multitudinous YouTube videos, summitpost entries and Instagram logs. Only those wishing to avoid knowledge of the mountain could do so. And somehow they all managed to end up on our team. I’m not saying every member of our team.
When you’ve got $50,000 riding on a summit, like Everest, for example, a wee bit of anxiety about reaching that high point is understandable. When this is the second mountain you’ve ever climbed and summiting dominates your conversation, your priorities are screwed. Its not been that long ago that I can remember my early forays into big mountains. And to this day I share the humility of being allowed to grace the lower flanks of these Giants. Anatoli Boukreev once proclaimed, “mountains are not stadiums where I go to practice my sport. They are cathedrals in which I go to exercise my religion.”
Every expedition for me is a test, a final examination of my preparedness for that particular peak. It is not a place where I would argue with a guide about the need for taking diamox. I eschew diamox. That is a personal decision. I would rather not mask my symptoms at high altitude. This is not to say that diamox is not a right decision for others. Just not for me. I’ve been fortunate in my ability to tolerate elevation, but that doesn’t mean I don’t suffer.
(we all shared a big diarrhea epidemic at camp 2, brought on likely by unfiltered water, I suspect)
The rate of summit success on this mountain is somewhere around 30%. And I attribute this directly to lack of research and experience on behalf of the participants. I tried to make sure Howard was in the proper shape both mentally and physically. Before we embarked we had spent many weekends backpacking and carrying heavy loads up steep hills in the Smokies. We spent many nights out in a tent in rain storms and otherwise.
Howard was fully prepared. However, we had people on our team who were not comfortable sleeping in a tent. I keep coming back to this because I have a hard time wrapping my head around the concept. What is the purpose of being outdoors in the wilderness if you are uncomfortable sleeping on the ground. You’re climbing the highest mountain outside of the Himalaya. Did you expect there to be a tea house?
(Howard doesn’t complain about having to sleep in a tent)
Our summit day was 12 hours long. That’s 8 hours up and 4 hours back. This is a big day on any summit. But I will also add it’s a pretty typical day for big summits. Remember that my Everest summit day was 24 hours long up and back. Many were not mentally prepared for this exercise in slogging. We also had a team member who underreported their physical condition. The result was that person had to receive a shot intra muscular of dexamethasone. Then our guide had to short rope him off the mountain. All because he lied to the guide two hours before the summit.
(A major storm was brewing upon our return to camp 3. Raj and I nearly lost our tent, with us in it. So much for a post summit rest!)
(Raj was a great partner; here he rests with our very experienced and capable guide, Tinto)
So, in summary, I would like to say that I very much enjoyed our ascent of Aconcagua. It is a super dry mountain which brings on a different set of challenges. There’s a low amount of water on the mountain. The snowpack is virtually non-existent. We experienced a massive windstorm after-our summit. For 12 hours, my tent mate, Raj and I, had to physically hold our tent down to keep it and us from blowing off the mountain. As our guides screamed over the wind the following morning, “We need to evacuate this camp!” And so we did, dropping all the way down with, for me anyway, a fully loaded pack from 19k to 14k in a matter of hours.
just as I recommend Baraka trails for Kilimanjaro, I endorse Grajales for Aconcagua. Just plan on treating all your water. Augustine “Tinto” is an excellent mountain guide, alone with Julio and Augustine, another guy who has some serious big wall credibility.
Despite our minor “challenges” as a team. We managed to wrangle a good outcome. Here is a video from the summit, which was socked in despite sun most of the ascent.
If you are looking for a “next step” after you Kili conquest then turn your eyes towards Rainier. Go do a mountaineering course then a two day summit. If you are still interested in high altitude mountaineering then get dialed in on your crevasse rescue and mountaineering skill sets and take a shot at Elbrus. Then, after you have spent some time on a mountain, IN A TENT, you may, perhaps, possibly be ready for the highest mountain outside of the Himalaya. But not a minute before. And please, do your team, your guide and yourself a favor. Perform your due diligence prior to setting foot on the mountain and making yourself a liablility for others.
Here is a link to all my gopro videos on youtube.
We had a great climb today to 11,000 feet and the Confluencia camp. Our team is solid and the logistics are incredible. It took about 3.5 hours for us.
Tomorrow is in an acclimatization hike and we will be back here for a second night.
Everyone is healthy strong and motivated.
Merry Christmas to you and your families.
Howard and I enjoyed some street time in downtown Mendoza after my night in Santiago. And I must say that after being in Chile I really appreciate Argentina. Mendoza has a very relaxed and modern feel.
Today we met our guide and did a gear check. I managed to get some laps in at the swimming pool at our hotel, the Intercontinental. Today we’re preparing to switch to our other hotel and then begin the expedition tomorrow.
We are cruising the streets looking for Nazi refugees. Howard’s new trail name is Colonel Taylor, hero of the Falklands. For some reason our Argentinian friends may not appreciate that.
So all is well here in the middle of summer on the longest day of the year 2019.
I hope everyone is enjoying their Christmas time.
- Stay tuned.
A typical gear spread at my house prior to expeditions.
Depending upon your Spanish skills, Aconcagua can mean either of the titles above. The Stone Sentinel sounds better so I’m going to stick with that. I dropped Howard off early this morning at the airport and will be joining him on Saturday, after finishing up my last few days of work. We have been preparing for this expedition since concluding Kilimanjaro this summer, in July. Howard has been hitting the circuit training like a champ and I feel pretty good about my present level of fitness, given it is the holidays and I always have a few extra lbs this time of year.
I am hoping for an illness free sojourn for us both. Everything else can be managed in my head.
So, Merry Christmas to all. Please feel free to share, comment on our varying platforms and send good energy as we take on the highest mountain outside of Asia. At 22,800 feet, Aconcagua is definitely an exercise in altitude. That is why summit stats place successful ascents at around 35%. This mountain requires some serious load hauling at altitude, no Sherpas involved on this peak for me. I look forward to visiting Argentina and my stopover in Santiago, Chile.
Thanks for following and Happy New Year to everyone.
Few traditions are as solid in the Highlander fold as the annual Eagle Creek, Southernhighlander navy pilgrimage. (Not pictured here is Myers and the bail guys, who experienced an acute case of collective, last minute ombrophobia,) You may remember that the Highlanders are advocates of ombrophobia awareness and organized a hike to memorialize those acutely suffering from this malady. Here is a link to that event many years ago.
Howard navigates us up to the headwaters of one of the most beautiful places in the park.
Once again the fully loaded USS Steenhatchee set sail from Fontana Marina. There were so many memories from Eagle Creek such as this one.
- It appeared as if we were about to be overtaken by a Confederate Armada.
Fortunately it was just Richard.
We would soon realize how lucky we were to have him in camp.
That little blip in the top of the photo is indeed an eagle greeting our arrival at Eagle Creek. It actually flew out from the headwaters of the creek, came down to where we were and circled overhead a couple of times. We took that as a harbinger.
Paddling is cathartic. It is also a different way to experience the landscape and nature of the old Eagle Creek drainage. I was able to share gems with Howard such as the copper mine.
We’d just begun setting up camp when Curt comes ambling in from his auspicious start at 20 mile. In fact, he was so relieved that Curt could not help but to break out in song. His rendetion of “The Hills are Alive, with the Sound of Music” was entertaining. He rolled up and over the Shuckstack tower to make for a good full day. He was able to drop a cooler full of stuff off at my house for us to ferry over. Therefore, we tolerated the singing. (Benny Hill is doing camp duties in the background as he soon realizes it may be a long night)
Sithenge was as we left it, virtually undisturbed as if waiting for our return. Richard fans the fire with his improvised bellows device. He toted a fair amount of kit on his small, sit on top, kayak. One of those items included a shovel, take note of this for future reference.
Yeah that’s some show cooking there.,friends. And show cooking brings them out of the woods for show.
Who do I spy slipping along the edge of our periphery? None other than the infamous Randy Redwood. He can smell the peppers and onions and deer roast. This was a backcountry feast for the ages and Richard treated us like royalty. Randy’s timing was impeccable, if not suspect.
With our bellies full and our appetites sated, it was time for a little bit of rest since the rain had begun. In fact rain would be a nemesis for us the entire weekend. Are we prepared for that eventuality?
I’d say so. We retired early with the Advent of light rain, a mere taste of that to come.
(I later learned that this was to indicated 3.5 inches of rain)
The next morning we took off for some day hiking over towards Hazel Creek.
A light mist was no deterrent for Howard and I. We encountered a Viet cong holdout who surrendered without much resistance.
Up and down. That is the Lakeshore.
Howard and Redwood pause to appreciate the size of these Ents dwarfing us deep in the wilderness. We were forest bathing sans costume.
The evening saw torrential rains, the likes of which I cannot recall for some time. Bolts of lighting illuminated Sithenge and the mountain was reigning in all her glory.
Richard recounts the time he was bitten by a bear at Elkmont. Perhaps you may recall having heard of this experience a few years ago in the paper. https://www.knoxmercury.com/2016/06/15/bear-country-learning-big-inhabitants-smokies/
(thanks for the photo, Howard. Howard’s new trail name is Benny Hill(s), by the way, Ballerina Britches.)
Little did Richard realize he would have another story for the ages regarding his dramatic departure from campsite 90 on Sunday.
(First he had to improvise a rain fire for more show cooking)
It was a heavy storm. Eagle Creek swelled to flood stage as lightning crashed around our encampment. Our 12/24 foot tarp was draining dozens of gallons per minute as we took bailing duties on rotation. Since Howard is lord of the Admiralty, he was assigned this dubious task, along with Redwood. By 10 pm, all were run into our tents for a memorable evening of non stop storm that would cure anyone of the most extreme ombrophobia flare up,( Myers and Nick.)
The day dawned promising and our storm had passed on through. Richard prepared a delicious breakfast of eggs and sausage for everyone., Howard was cracking the whip in his post of lord Admiralty of the Highlander Navy, citing his British heritage and direct lineage to Lord Nelson of Trafalgar fame. We would need the calories for our return in what was expected to be heavy winds. The rain had abated but a cold front was expected to brings gusts up to 45 mph. We didn’t want to experience that chop across the Fontana channel, or chunnel, as Lord Howard refers to it.
We hated to leave Richard because he planned to shoot the Eagle Creek rapids in his vessel, loaded down with all the cooking ecoutrements we had collectively enjoyed. Curt and Randy remained so we set sail back toward the marina.
In case you were wondering, it is 3.5 miles paddling over to the marina from Eagle Creek. I know I had always wondered and, thanks to the miracle of Stava, now we know for certain. And good time we made under the leadership of Lord Howard. In short order we had made the crossing uneventfully and were loading the Steenhatchie atop the Slowzuki. By the time we had pulled anchor, stowed our gear and crossed the dam, Curt was rounding the Lakeshore Trail to meet us on cue for a ride back around to 20 Mile. Everything was going according to plan. For us, anyway.
Little did we realize that our friend and benefactor, Richard was in a potential life or death struggle on the rapids of upper Eagle Creek. You see, on Saturday, Richard had drug his kayak up to Sithenge in anticipation of shooting the small rapids upon his departure Sunday. Little did he realize the extreme amount of rain we would experience. What happened was he took a serious spill and lost fair amount of gear to include his video camera, coffee pot and, most importantly, paddle.
But, showing true outdoor improvisation, he employed the shovel for his 3.5 mile sojourn back across Fontana. Now that is one for the ages. He was okay, although wet. It could have been a hypothermic condition but I presume the paddling created enough warmth to offset that potential. So hat’s off to Richard. Very thankful it didn’t turn worse.
And that is the rest of the story!
I had to tap out on a backpack this beautiful weekend. It was an end to a 10 week run. Just like the old days. In the late 90s, Ed Lee and I did a consecutive 34 weekends in the Smokies/Slickrock. I doubt I will ever be able to match that performance but my consolation was ejoying a wonderful 5 mile jaunt with Howard to House mountain.
It was the perfect afternoon, on a perfect day in a perfect weekend. Our training has been tailored to tackle Aconcagua in Argentina over Christmas. At 22,800 feet see this stone sentinel is no slouch.
That ascent will require a lot of load hauling and high altitude acclimatization. It also requires a lot of money. I just paid more for an airline ticket than I’ve ever forked out in my life. It’s Christmas and everybody wants to head home to Latin America, apparently.
We have our usual plan for Thanksgiving if anyone is interested and would like to join us. I wish everybody a wonderful weekend and happy holiday.
Let’s start with the most important news. I got to hang out with yo-yo AKA Frank. Now Frank moves a lot is an upwardly Mobile Urban professional. this means that he has a career that takes him on a path that seems to always follow the Appalachian trail. His newest posting is in Virginia. His last posting was in the Tri-Cities. And that just happens to coincide with miles he needs.
Like me, Frank really appreciates good old campsite 17. As a matter of fac,t I’ve decided that there is no campsite in the park in which I have spent more nights on the ground kicking a fire more than campsite 17. Good old little bottoms.
A very peaceful place we had almost to ourselves with the exception of one girl who is apparently a YouTube phenomena and another couple that all seemed to retire right at dusk. Hiker midnight we used to call it.
A true Highlander knows that their work is just beginning when the sun falls behind the holler. And I needed to get Frank on it as soon as possible. It promised to be a cold one and the weather delivered.
Highlanders like to thrive as opposed to merely survive and that’s precisely what we did. Frank and I have spent many a night around a campfire and done several big mile legs on the Appalachian trail together. Frank also sits on the board of Southern Forest Watch. Everyone is familiar with the epic of how Frank and I met on the way up to Mount LeConte several years ago.
Frank is with backpacking like I am with climbing. He watches everything on the internet about it. That’s how he knew who I was when he ran into me on the trail about 58 million years ago. So it’s a little surprise to me that he would recognize the chick who is in camp next to us from her YouTube channel.
We experienced a wonderful evening catching up on life. It had been almost two years since we shared the trail together on this trip. Howard was unable to join us this weekend. Apparently the shingles vaccination didn’t sit so well with him. We also were deprived of the company of Myers and ballerina britches.
But it was nice that Frank and I were reunited. We both got beaten up in the fee fight but emerged with some measure of victory.
As we circled the campfire, however, a small glow appeared on the ridge up over the hill from us. It was obviously some type of headlamp but it never moved. It was not a star but some kind of lights that were on the hill not far in the forest . So puzzling it was we actually headed off in its direction sometime around 10:30 or 11 p.m.. It retreated back into the wilderness as curiously as it appeared with our approach.
We finally retired as a temperature dropped down into the lower 30s. A very restful night was had by all. I had to rise early to get on the trail and be back in Knoxville for the second stage of the triathlon.
I made it out with such time to spare I was able to actually catch Church before embarking on this phase.
Yes that is my brother Todd and anytime you see the canoe on top of the Aerio, you know an adventure beckons.
This beautiful Sunday afternoon was to find us driving out to West Knoxville and paddling to an undisclosed location. We were met by my friend Frank Harvey, notable local climber and activist. A very interesting side note about Frank, for those of you Smokies enthusiasts is that his grandfather is the infamous Carlos Campbell. You may have read the book he authored about the Birth of the Smokies. As a matter of fact we quoted him in our lawsuit against the fee, as Myers later reminds.
Now there’s three full grown adults in my 17 foot Grumman canoe, paddling on an absolutely beautiful Sunday afternoon with temperatures promising to meet 60 degree mark. We worked for 40 minutes to reach this undisclosed location.
Obviously some good old Tennessee limestone.
the southern Forest watch has partnered with the East Tennessee climbers coalition. Our cabal has been working in secret for the past several months to create an initiative that will benefit outdoor enthusiasst all over Tennessee. Without going into too much detail it was important that we went and documented footage at one of these new areas.
Our vision is to create a connected climbing community much like the urban wilderness and mountain biking model that exists in Knoxville presently.
This project has the backing of may important people and groups. Myers and I are excited about helping participate in move it along, in conjunction with the East Tennessee Climbers Coalition.
The view from this particular area is incredible. Frank and his crew have been developing routes over here for the last couple of years. although climbers have known about this place for decades it is only recently been developed and maintained and cleaned, I might add by members of the e t c c.
Todd adjusts the drone for footage were going to shoot from this beautiful piece of Rock. Despite some technical glitches we were able to capture what was needed. And we had time to paddle back across and get out before dark.
Thus concluding the outdoor triathlon for the weekend.
Howard met Dan as they accompanied each other to Everest Basecamp last spring. When Dan mentioned he would be headed south with friends to hit the best rock in America, little coaxing was required.
Howard analyzes the beautiful Corbin sandstone.
I call it hand therapy.
I’m climbing here on The Land before Time wall. Muir valley has immeasurable routes of all levels and skill sets. But I particularly enjoyed hanging out with Dan and Tim and Ed and Chris and Eric. And of course, Howard.
It also provided a great opportunity for me to test out the new Gregory external frame pack given to me by my friend Adam Law. He noticed that my old JanSport frame pack was showing signs of considerable wear. This one handles days of sport climbing rack. Thanks Adam!
We ended up camping at Miguel’s pizza and landed smack dab in the middle of a reggae festival. Reminded me of the old days, going to bed and waking up sorrounded by stoners. Needless to say, we were ready to bed down at 10 a.m. and they were just getting cranked up. Despite the ackl of sleep we rise again on Sunday to head back to another wall in Muir valley and do a few more laps over there.
Dan and Howard, reunited.
I’m very thankful for the opportunity to climb with these guys. They are very competent and aggressive rock jocks.
And the Red never disappoints.
it’s one thing to start out on the trail when you know it’s going to rain, it’s quite another to get on there when it already is. Throw in the fact you got that big crossing at the beginning of rabbit Creek and we were off to a great adventure.
you may recall the same shot from a couple of weeks ago and Howard was crossing in the dry.
(Incidentally, Nick informed us that Myers had lost his battle with the 9 iron this weekend. He would not be joining us at Rabbit Creek). Nick wanted to redo this trail to improve his time. He got in the camp before the rain started in earnest.
We did not. As a result I will be purchasing a new pair of rain breeches.
Full packs in pouring rain. That is the essence of mountaineering training. On that level, I would say we all killed it.
But since Nick forgot his pants, that earned him a real trail name.
Ballerina britches was dry.
So we spent the evening underneath the tarp with Mark and ballerina britches. Believe it or not we had a blast swapping stories. Eventually the rain relented and ballerina britches made us a delightful fire.
If there’s one thing old bb can do well its start a fire. He didn’t Roach it one little bit.
All were awakened early that morning, post rain, by a loud thunderous crashing sound. At first we thought it was a tree falling but soon realized it was only Ralph driving his Buick in the camp. Ralph’s knocked ballerina britches out of his perch with the Buick.
But Nick recovered nicely.
All is well that ends well and our hike promised some glorious fall views.
Pine mountain is a great place to see some of these nice reds and yellows.
This is magic time in the southern Appalachians. There’s nowhere else I’d rather be. Did you get out? This is the window. It will close soon. Let’s end with some music. As you know, Myers and I pick a little. We love the classic bluegrass sound. I mean no disrespect to the Father of bluegrass music, but I couldn’t find a live version of my favorite tune. However, Del was a member of the Bluegrass Boys so I don’t feel sacrilege in posting his rendetion.
We barely caught the sunset this year. Our Friday departure schedule doesn’t allow much time for negotiating the dragon and infamous and traditional Lead trail.
I was delighted to make it in record time. Did I mention we shouldered 65 lbs each?
Yeah. We figured the Hang was dry so we toted gallons. Gallons. After all, we are in training.
No fire bans here. And the warmth was appreciated. I would also like to note that the Lead trail has been recently maintained and is in better shape than I’ve ever seen it. Ever. It is volunteer trail maintenance that keeps these areas so pristine. Many thanks to the local trail volunteers who so diligently attend to this classic ascent.
Now, as we unpacked, and well before this photo the following morning, a realization took hold.
It sunk in as Jon Chambers unpacked his 65. It seems as if he omitted one critical piece of gear. That would be the item collectively known as a sleeping system. They’re usually helpful for warmth and comfort in the backcountry. A major component of which is the sleeping bag itself.
We fashioned a work around system with hot hands, a backpack, several down jackets and a sleeping pad. Howard and I retired about 10:30 and Chambers stayed up kicking the fire for several more hours, anticipating the misery of shivery.
Fortunately it didn’t turn as cold as expected and Jon said he was quite comfortable in his tent with our improvised system. But not so much that he was persuaded to take on the second night.
It was Howard’s first time to the Rock and he was impressed. How can you not be, after all it’s Hangover. His time to the top was equally impressive.
We had to depart a day early due to the sleeping bag issue and the pending weather. although John was able to stay warm on a dry evening that was not going to be the case for Saturday night.
And rain it did. As I sit here in the drier comfort of home and Knoxville, I’m receiving texts from my friend Carl on Gregory’s bald.
Wind and rain seems to be their issue for the evening.
As you can see in the photographs, Hangover did not disappoint again this year. It’s always good to return to the Rock during the annual fall pilgrimage regardless of the amount of time spent there.
We had the place to ourselves and I got my Fall dose of Heaven. I’ve missed only one year of October Hangovers since the 80s and that was because my brother got married on the traditional weekend. It was interesting to view our campsite from just a few days prior (see the post below this one) in the distance along the Fodderstack. No colors were seen but a few chilly nights saw the basswoods and sourwoods doing their thing. It was amazing.