Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Arrowhead Mountain Ski Tour - Trip Report

This past Monday Lew Miller and I decided to get out and ski up Arrowhead Mountain (6030') in preparation for our upcoming Chiwaukum Ski Traverse. Nick Pope joined us as he had the day free and we were both curious to see what the conditions were like following an AIARE Level 1 Avalanche Course we had run over the weekend. We knew the skiing would be decent above 4500', but wanted to see how widespread the surface hoar was at a location that should have recevied a bit more wind than Christmas Bowl, where we ran the avy course.

On the hike in we found breakable crust and all around pretty lousy skiing. By the time we had gained some elevation and reached the saddle between the two summits of arrowhead things had improved a bit and we were treated to amazing views of the Central Cascades. We were even able to see the summit of Mt. Rainier to the south.

Once on the summit of Arrowhead we spent almost an hour gazing at the Chiwaukum Range and the mountains on the Rock-Howard-Mastiff ski tour. We also noted widespread surface hoar growth even in spots as exposed as the summit ridge on the north side of Arrowhead.

Here is a shot looking over at the Rock-Howard-Mastiff complex. Nick pulled out his binoculars and we could see a skin track from a group that had recently completed the tour of the three peaks.

We also had great views of the Chiwaukums, where Lew and I hope to tour in a few days in an effort to make the first guided traverse of the Chiwaukums.

The skiing down was actually not all that bad. We waited a bot for things to warm up and the breakable crust that plagued some of the upper sections of Arrowhead had softened and produced decent skiing. By the times things got really bad we were close to the road and then able to ski out the logging road that runs up to the better skiing on Arrowhead.

We were back to the car a bit after 3 pm having enjoyed a nice day out in the mountains. Arrowhead Mountain is just one of the many great ski tours near Stevens. For more details on these trips visit our Stevens Pass Ski Tours page.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

2010 Aconcagua Trip Report - The Perfect Expedition

I recently returned from what may be the perfect expedition. Joel Kauffman and myself took a group of 5 climbers to Argentina to attempt Aconcagua and despite less than ideal weather we managed to put 100% of the group on top. Ace Yakey called us about a year ago and said that he had a group of guys from Indianapolis that wanted to do the climb. Ace brought Dave Carter and Mike Myers and we added Dustin Wunderlich and Ray Aderholdt to the team.

I have listed our complete itinerary at the end of this post for those that would like to see a schedule that worked very well. The trip started in Mendoza, Argentina. Provincial describes the feeling Mendoza exudes. Mendoza is a medium sized city with a pace of life quite different from the US. Folks wake early, work in the morning, and then take an extended "siesta" from around 1 pm to 4 pm. They then return to work, and eventually sit down for dinner sometime after 9 pm. On our first night in Mendoza we managed to stay out until 1 am enjoying a really great restaurant called El Palenque.

We then worked our way through the mildly complicated permit process before driving 3 hours to Penitentes, a small ski area near Aconcagua. Penitentes was where we would reorganize our gear into the 30 kg loads that would be carried by mule to basecamp during the three day approach to plaza Argentina.

We used the services of Grajales Expeditions for our Mules, radios, and basecamp. The company is run by Fernadito Grajales, who inherited it from Fernando Grajales, the man who managed the logisitics for the first Aconcagua trip I worked for Phil Ershler back in 1993.

After a night in Penitentes we started the very dry, dusty hike up the Vacas Valley to our basecamp at Plaaza Argentina. While not overly thrilling, the hike in provides time to acclimate as we move from around 8000 feet to 14,000 feet over the course of three days.

At the end of day 2 we reached Casa Piedra, which gave us our first glimpse of Aconcagua.

We had a minor logistical snafu that left us in need of a quick meal at Casa Piedra. Joel had hiked back out on day 1 to retrieve 4.7 kg of Argentine Beef, which our arrieros cooked over an open fire. Most folks seemed to agree that this simple, traditional meal was one of the best of the trip. Think juicy, inch thick slabs of beef cooked on a hot fire with lots of salt. Perfection!

At the end of day 3 we arrived at Plaza Argentina, which sits just under 14,000 feet. Over the years this has developed into a small city where you can make sat phone calls, log onto the internet, indulge in a hot shower, or order a pizza. NMS groups traditionally keep a pretty low key camp here, preferring to focus on the climb first and the comforts of home later.

At Plaza Argentina there are at least 4 separate Argentine companies competing for the business of those that pass through. In our experience Grajales is the best of them.

Near basecamp there is an amazing boulder that might have the greatest density of good, hard, boulder problems I have ever seen. Joel and I had brought our shoes so that we could spend some of each rest day keeping our arms in shape.

Upon our arrival at basecamp a weather pattern emerged that involved afternoon thunderstorms that would deposit several inches of graupple, a pellets of snow similar to hail that comes with thunderstorms in the mountains. While lightening never hit close to camp, we were not super excited to be at the higher camps while this persisted.

Most dinners were spent sitting under our cook tent listening to the thunder and enjoying the camp stools that we had purchased in Mendoza at Wal-Mart.

From Plaza Argentina we made a carry to Camp 1 at around 16,300. The trip up took just under 4 hours, and the trip down just over an hour. In years past there was a real problem at Camp 1 with human feces, which seems to have been greatly imporived now that the park requires everyone to pack out their was in bags.

We put in our camp here when we returned a few days later. The Thunderstorsm persisted, and each day we made sure to be well back to camp before these storms started.

From Camp 1 we hiked up to the col a few hours away and then tried something new. Rather than turn left and climb to the traditional Camp 2 at the base of the Polish Glacier, we continued over the col and walked another 90 minutes to camp 3 on the Guanacos Route. This camp sits at around 18,000 and allowed us a slower ascent to our high camp, giving us some time for the weather to improve and more time to acclimate. This was a very key to our high success rate. Had we gone any slower or any faster we would not have made the top as evidenced by the results of the groups ahead and behind us.

Some nice views down the Guanacos Route from the trip to our Camp 2, which is Guanacos Camp 3.

The group after the carry to Camp 2.

Of note, there is a really good water source at camp 1, as well as camp 2, a fact that allowed us to carry much less fuel than we would have needed if we had to melt snow for water.

One evening at camp 1 a climber form another group cut his thumb badly with a sharp knife, and Mike Myers, also a doctor, obligingly sutured for him. I was concerend about infection and advised the gentleman to go down, but to his credit he persisted and made it to the summit without any complications from the cut.

On the day we left camp 1 we again woke to a camp covered in new snow. At this point Olivia was sending us detailed weather reports using the text feature on our sat phone. We had already honed in on what day we planned to summit. Perhaps the single biggest key to our success was getting very detailed weather info from Olivia, who had access to the internet back in WA. She ultimately made the call that we should try on Sunday, and it turns out she was spot on.

This was the typical scene looking out the tent in the morning.

Once up at Camp 2, we had fallen in with a group of folks that were basically on our schedule.

Down low it remained unwindy enough for us to continue to use our cook tent, which is often not possible on Aconcagua.

The group at camp 2. Everyone managed to stay healthy and we were all acclimating nicely. We were also pretty religious about resting when we were not working and took our time acclimating early on. This paid off well up high.

Camp 2 is in a beautiful spot.

We placed our camp 3 at around 19,600 on a bench just above the main camp at a place called Cholera. At this point we were unable to locate any running water and we had to melt snow, so we wanted to be away from other folks as much as possible so that we could use clean snow sources.

We knew at the start of the summit day that it would be windy in the morning. The weather forecast called for 15 mph winds out of the NE, which was right on the edge of what we wanted to climb in. We also knew that if we could make it through the first few hours of the climb, things would likely ease off in the afternoon. We also knew that Monday was forecasted to be slightly nicer than Sunday, our summit day, so the plan was to give it a go, but pull the plug early and use Monday if Sunday was not working out. We did not want to climb too high if it was not going to work out as we would need our energy for a second attempt on Monday. The forecast beyond Monday did not look suitable for climbing.

These photos were taken at Black Rocks, a camp at 20,300 that I have used as a high camp on past trips. On this trip I hiked up to Black Rocks on the day we carried to Cholera and decided that it was too windy for us. It took a bit over an hour to get to Black Rocks from Cholera.

The sunrise was really spectacular. This is the ever steady Ace Yakey contemplating the fact that he spent good money only to find himself freezing his tail off.

This is looking from Black Rocks up towards the Independencia Hut. FYI we left camp around 6 am to sidestep as much of the cold as possible.

Ray Aderholdt. At this point in the climb every step was a new altitude record for Ray and he did a great job on summit day.

The wind gusts were likely into the 30's and moving the little new snow that was on the ground around.

Our second break was at the Independencia Hut.

Above the Independencia Hut there is a long traverse to the base of the Canelleta. This spot is always windy. We use OR Gorilla Balaclavas to protect our face from frostbite on this windy section. We used a short section of rope, others did not. I suspect it is optional, but we just did not want to take the chance of having someone slip down as it is a good 6000' to the bottom of the slope.

There is usually a nice spot to rest at the base of the Canelleta.

On the climb up the Canelleta, we were protected from the wind. This year you really wanted crampons and a short ice axe for the trip. I use a short aluminum axe from Petzl that weighs almost nothing and provides good security.

We all arrived on teh summit between 1:15pm and 1:45 pm, which gave us between 7 hours and 15 mins and 7 hours and 45 mins to the summit. This is a good time in my experience.

We descended back to high camp. The next morning we dropped down the Ruta Normal as it provided the fastest exit. We would comfortably walk from high camp to Plaza Mulas in just over 3 hours. In order to accomplish the traverse, we needed to make special arrangements for our gear at Plaza Argentina to go out while we were summmiting and then have another bag sent in to Plaza Mulas for the exit. This plan worked flawlesly.

This is the view looking down to the camp called Nido de Condores on the Ruta Normal. There were a lot more folks on this side of the mountain.

The 5000' just above the Plaza Mulas is an unimaginable scree slope. There were hundreds of people headed up and we were all wildly impressed that so many folks would subject themselves to this route.

The view of Plaza Mulas from a few thousand feet above camp. This basecamp is at least three times as large as Plaza Argentina.

We were warmly welcomed by Grajale's staff here and we proceeded to drink a goodly amount of beer and even had pizza in the afternoon. We also stayed for a nice dinner of meat and potatoes.

On the last day we hiked the length of the Horcones Valley. The trip was 16 miles and took almost 7 hours.

Early in the hike we came upon a spot where at least 4 mules had fallen with their loads and were decomposing in the dry environment.

We drove back to Mendoza after the hike, had a late dinner, and then went for lunch on the last day at this great place called Familia Zucardi. The meal takes about 2.5 hours nad each course is paired with a different wine produced by Zucardi. I have ended my last threee trips this way and highly recommend it.

Many thanks to our great group for this trip. I simply could not have been in the mountains with a nicer group of folks and appreciate the confidence that they had in Joel and I as the guides. I sincerely think that their support of our decisions is what led to such a successful trip. Some of the group will be joining me for a climb of Denali next summer and we are always looking for the right people for these types of trips.

Our Aconcagua Itinerary:

Jan 16: Group depart US and flys to Mendoza, Argentina (MDZ)
Jan 17: Group arrives in MDZ
Jan 18: Drive to Penitentes
Jan 19: Hike to Pampa Las Lenas
Jan 20: Hike to Casa Piedra
Jan 21: Hike to Plaza Argentina
Jan 22: Rest at Plaza Argentina
Jan 23: Carry to Camp 1 (16,300')
Jan 24: Rest at Plaza Argentina
Jan 25: Move to Camp 1
Jan 26: Carry to Guanacos Camp 3, our camp 2 at 18,000'
Jan 27: Rest at Camp 1
Jan 28: Move to Guanacos Camp 3
Jan 29: Carry to Cholera (19,600)
Jan 30: Move to Camp Cholera
Jan 31: Summit from Cholera
Feb 1: Descend to Plaza Mulas
Feb 2: Hike out Horcones Valley to Penitentes and drive to Mendoza
Feb 3: Extra Day in Mendoza
Feb 4: Extra Day in Mendoza
Feb 5: Fly home to US
Feb 6: Arrive home in US.

Here are details on future Guided Aconcagua Expeditions led by the Northwest Mountain School.