Friday, December 31, 2010

December 31, 2010 - Aconcagua Expedition Updates - Team at Base Camp!

Crossing the Vacas river early in the morning
John called in at 3:30PM Pacific time (8:30 Aconcagua time). He said they had a beautiful day for the move to base camp today, sunny and windless. This morning started with an early crossing of the Vacas river to gain access to the Relinchos Valley.

Looking down the Relinchos Valley back towards Casa Piedra
The Relinchos is a much smaller valley than the Vacas and is particularly narrow for about the first half of the day's hike.

2nd Stream Crossing of the day
After hiking up a steep slope you gain the more open upper half of the valley and encounter the second stream crossing of the day. Today's two stream crossings are the reason everyone has to pack sandals along for the trip.
Half way up the Relinchos the valley opens up with Aconcagua ahead

The mules making their way to base camp with the team's gear.
Once they reach base camp the mules have taken the gear as far as they are going to and now the team is going to have to haul all of their gear up the mountain. Tomorrow's rest day will give the team the opportunity to resort all of the gear and prepare the 1st of the loads they will take up the mountain. Above base camp it will take 2 carries to get the gear to each successive camp. After the team carries their 1st load to the next camp they will return to the previous night's camp to sleep. They will then move to the new camp, either the next day or after a rest day, with the other half of the gear. These "double carries" both reduce the weight the team has to carry at any given time and aid in acclimatization following the adage "climb high, sleep low."
Base Camp!
Basecamp is a big place.
Base camp is a mini village on the mountain. You can find showers, sodas, pizza and much more if you are so inclined.
Our local outfitter
The team has a dining tent that is provided by our local outfitter - Grajales Expeditions. This is where they will eat their meals, and hang out while at base camp. The team will likely have 2 full rest days and and 4 nights at base camp before moving to camp 1 so there are likely to be lots of card games played in the dining tent.

Getting settled in for a few days
When John called he mentioned that the music was just getting going as the locals celebrated the new year. Our crew was going to stay up for a little bit before heading to bed - but it did not sound like anyone was planning to stick it out until mid-night.

More tomorrow...

Thursday, December 30, 2010

December 30, 2010 - Aconcagua Expedition Updates - Team at Casa de Piedra

Crossing the bridge just upstream of Pampa de Lenas
John called in this afternoon to report that the team had arrived at their 2nd camp - Casa de Piedra (3200m or 10,500'). The weather was better today with just the slightest bit of snow as they arrived into camp.
Looking up the Vacas Valley
The Vacas valley opens up today and Casa de Piedra is located at the junction of the Relinchos and Vacas valleys. Just before arriving at camp you get the first glimpse of Aconcagua once you can look up the Relinchos Valley.

The first view of Aconcagua - looking up the Relinchos Valley
The route that the team will climb is out of site around the right side of the mountain in the above photo.
One of the cowboys cooking up the delicious asado
One of the highlights of the trip is the amazing asado that the cowboys cooked up for the group at tonights camp. While simple fare - 7kg of beef, a few vegetables and bread - this is an incredible meal. The cowboys cook the meat over a simple fire and it is some of the best grass fed beef you will ever eat. John reported that the team managed to polish off the entire 7 kilograms (15.4 lbs)!
Last year's group enjoying the asado
The plan for tomorrow is to get up early and be walking by 7AM. This will allow the mules to make it to base camp, unload the gear, and turn around to head back out. The day will start by crossing the Vacas river (with sandals this time) before heading up the Relinchos Valley. News Year Eve will find the group in base camp at Plaza Argentina!

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

December 29, 2010 - Aconcagua Expedition Updates - Team Under Way

The start of the trail - Punta de Vacas
John called early this morning to say the team was headed to the trailhead and excited to get underway. Based on their Spot signal it appears that the team has arrived at camp at Pampa de Lenas at 2800 m. I am including some photos from last year's expedition to give a feel for the terrain the team is moving through. From this point on all photos will be from previous expeditions until John posts the final trip report once the team is back in Mendoza.
Headed up the Vacas Valley
Camp at Pampa de Lenas 2800m
Update at 3PM Pacific time: John called in this afternoon to report the team had reached their camp at Pampa de Lenas. Unlike the sunny photos in this blog entry John reported that the team experienced moderate to heavy rains during their walk in today. By the time he called the team was warm and dry & getting ready to eat dinner. Everyone is doing well and looking forward to another day of walking tomorrow.
The mules arriving at camp with the team's gear
The night's camp set up at Pampa de Lenas

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

December 28, 2010 - Aconcagua Expedition Updates - Pententes

We woke up semi-early, had a nice breakfast in Mendoza and then drove about 3 hours to the ski area at Penitentes. Once in Pentitentes we spent the day repacking all of our gear and packing it into loads for the 3-day trek to our base camp at Plaza Argentina, as well as separate loads that will go directly to base camp. This is always a bit stressful as you don't want to put something into the wrong load and find yourself without stoves, or fuel, or one of your mealson the way to basecamp.

Beautiful Mendoza on the morning of December 28, 2010
I am writing this a bit after 11pm local time and the air temp outside is 60 F, which seems really warm for this spot at this time of the evening. The forecast has called for afternoon thunderstorms, which makes sense given the heat. We will not be climbing up high for a good week, so while these storms are in the back of our minds, it is not a huge concern.

Hotel at Penitentes, Argentina
Everyone did a great job and in the end we came up with around 450 kg of gear for our group of 12 people. This is about 37.5 kg (82.5 lbs) per person and represents food and supplies to support us for 15 days if need be. Additionally we will each carry packs that weight around 9 kg (20 lbs.) each day as we hike to base camp. It would be possible to do it with smaller packs, but having some weight is a nice way to do some very light prep for the climbing higher on the mountain.

Northwest Mountain School Aconcagua group packing in Penitentes, Argentina
Some of the things we are taking with us include: 6 stoves, 4 gallons of benzine for cooking, 4 melons, 5 lbs. of Starbucks, 6 tents, 12 pairs of crampons, 12 ice axes, a solar panel and 2-50 watt batteries to store the solar power, 1 satellite phone, many iPods, 90 eggs, a case of soda, a case of beer, and a bunch of other items. Many of these things are luxuries, but they will pale in comparison to what can be purchased at base camp and will not go above Plaza Argentina with us.

View from the ski area at Penitentes
Tomorrow we will drive to Punta de Vaca and then hike for about 4 hours to camp at Pampas Las Lenas. We are only a few miles from Punta de Vaca and we drove past it on our way up from Mendoza. We will hike up the beautiful, but very dry, and at times very windy Vacas Valley. We stay on the North side of the Vacas River and will not cross to the other side until we leave camp on the morning of day 2. This first camp is where we check in with the officials from the Aconcagua Park and are entered into the log of climbers on the mountain.

Dinner at Pentitentes, really roughing it here.
The next day (December 30) we will cross to the South side of the Vacas River by a good bridge and then follow that all the way to the Casa Piedra a good 5 hours later. At Casa Piedra we will have the mule drivers cook us a traditional beef meal called Asado. This is cooked over an open fire and served with white bread, salad, and wine. We opted to have them include the wine, but are planning to give it to the mule drivers as we will be working to acclimate and staying away from alcohol.

Our 450 kg. of gear once all packed up for Aconcagua
On day 3 we start the day by crossing the Vacas again on foot and then heading up the steep and wild Relinchos Valley to base camp at Plaza Argentina, which is located just under 14,000. We are planning to arrive at base camp on New Years Eve, and hoping to camp far enough out to sleep through any party that ensues with the porters.

We are planning to spend New Years Eve resting at Plaza Argentina and will then carry to Camp 1 at around 16,200 on January 2. Of note, we were very lucky with everyone and all of their gear making it in. All of the other groups around us are either missing people or equipment from the ripple effect caused by the big snowstorms in Chicago, Atlanta, and New York.

The first waypoint of the journey - Penitentes
The above screen shot of our Spot beacon gives a good feel for where we currently are as well as for what lies ahead. The point marked by a 1 is the hotel at Penitentes. You will find Punta de Vacas (tomorrow's starting point) at the bottom right of the map. Aconcagua is towards the top left of the map. We will travel north up the Vacas valley until we intersect the Relinchos Valley which is unlabeled but is highest valley that intersects the Vacas from the left at the top of this map.

All of the photos were taken by Andy Beerman.

Monday, December 27, 2010

December 27, 2010 - Aconcagua Expedition Update - All in Mendoza

Our entire group made it down to Mendoza safely despite a few folks have flight delays due to various snowstorms. Better yet, everyone's luggage arrived. We managed to pick up our climbing permits this afternoon and have that out of the way, which will allow for a more relaxed departure tomorrow morning and will give us a bit more time to pack and fidget with our gear up at Penitentes.

2010-11 Northwest Mountain School Aconcagua Group
Andy, Joel, myself, and David spent most of the morning and early afternoon picking up the last of the food at the supermarket and then packing it up for the trip. We are eating mostly camping food, but we did find space and packing for melons, eggs, tortillas, cheese, onions, potatoes, carrots, apples, as well as some soda for basecamp.

This is going to be a short post as we are all headed for dinner a bit early as folks want to get to bed early after the overnight flight down from the US. Of interest, an early dinner in Mendoza means we are headed out to eat at 8 pm, rather than 10 pm.

For those reading this that are planning to come down this season, be warned that the permit fee for Aconcagua was just raised to 3000 pesos per person, which is close to $770 per climber, and a huge increase over last year. There really is no way around this, but it does sting a bit.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Aconcagua Update - Dec 26, 2010 - First group in Mendoza

Andy, myself, and David all arrived in Mendoza this afternoon around 3 pm.  When we got to the hotel, Joel was waiting for us after taking the all-night bus up from Bariloche.  The flight down was uneventful for us, but it sounds like some of those following us may be contending with some weather delays.  I ran into Marty Schmidt at the airport.   He is a guide and we had not seen each other since the Fall of 2001 on Cho Oyu.  We also ran into Stuart Robertson, who is working for Alpine Ascents and was on our schedule last season and will be again this year.  It is always fun to come back to mountains like this and run into folks you know.

The four of us, plus Karsten (friend from Fox Mountain Guides) all went out for dinner.  We had the usual delicious combination of huge steaks, and a bottle of red wine, followed up with ice cream.  This is all part of our vigorous training program.

It is warm as expected in Mendoza.  It was somewhere in the low 90's this afternoon when we arrived.  The plan from here is to get in an early breakfast, hit the grocery for the remaining food items, and then meet with the group as they arrive throughout the day.  We will check everyone's gear to make sure it is all going to work, have a team meeting, perhaps a pisco sour, and then all head out for dinner.

We will either get the climbing permits tomorrow afternoon or Tuesday morning after we leave the hotel and begin the drive to Penitentes.  I have not posted our planned itinerary, so here it is.  Things typically run as scheduled, but we have some extra days built in to deal with weather if need be.

Aconcagua Expedition - 360 Traverse Itinerary:

Dec 26: Leave US and fly to Mendoza, Argentina.
Dec 27: Arrive in Mendoza in afternoon or early evening. (Night in Mendoza)
Dec 28: Drive to Penitentes (8200') pack mule loads, and spend night.
Dec 29: Drive to Vacas Valley (7,600'), hike to La Lena (8,850'). (7 miles/4-5 hrs.)
Dec 30: Hike to Casa Piedra (10,500') (8 miles/5-7 hours.)
Dec 31: Hike up Relinchos Valley to Plaza Argentina BC (13,800') (6 miles/6 hrs.)
Jan 1: Rest Day at base camp.
Jan 2: Carry to Camp 1 (16,200') (4-6 hours up) & return to base camp.
Jan 3: Rest Day at Base camp.
Jan 4: Move to Camp 1.
Jan 5: Carry to Camp 2 (18,200') & return to Camp 1. (5 hours RT)
Jan 6: Rest at Camp 1.
Jan 7: Move to Camp 2.
Jan 8: Move to Camp 3 (19,600')
Jan 9: Possible Summit Day
Jan 10: Possible Summit Day
Jan 11: Possible Summit Day
Jan 12: Descend to Plaza Mulas on Ruta Normal
Jan 13: Complete hike out and return to Mendoza.
Jan 14: Extra Day
Jan 15: Return flight to US
Jan 16: Arrive in US 

More to follow.  See our Guided Aconcagua Expedition Page for more details.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

December 25, 2010 Aconcagua Expedition Post

This feels very familiar.  I am at the airport in Seattle waiting for the first leg of my trip.  My flight down will go from Seattle to Dallas to Santiago, Chile, and finally to Mendoza tomorrow.  Checking in for expeditions is always interesting as the airlines are always a it dismayed when I show up with 4 duffel bags, each weighing exactly 50 lbs.  The 2 extra bags were $100 each, so we are paying $2 a lbs to ship things like cheddar cheese, tortillas, and pesto from the US.  While this seems expensive, we don't usually feel it was expensive when we are tucking into some good, familiar food after a hard day in the mountains.

Putting together a climbing expedition is always an experience of very meticulously trying to get everything absolutely dialed, leaping into the void, and knowing that there will be bumps along the way.  I have come to rely on the opportunity to eventually walk away from the house, walk away from the office, and realize that making that break is a step forward in life, and there will be a few plates in the air that may eventually spin off their axis and fall.  After 21 years of going through the drill of breaking free of the day to day grind, and then finally doing it, I have sort of come to rely on it as an opportunity to reset my priorities, and take a few weeks to live simpler.

We have a great group put together for this trip.  8 climbers and 4 guides.  I am going to make sure everyone wants to be mentioned on the blog when we have our team meeting in Mendoza, about 48 hours from now.  One of the climbers is flying down today, the rest come down tomorrow.   Andy Beerman (guide) is enroute to meet me in Dallas, Joel Kauffman (guide) should be on a bus headed to Buenos Aires, and then Mendoza, and Jared Bonea (guide) will fly down on the same day as the rest of the group tomorrow.

Once Andy, Joel and I are on the ground in Mendoza we will empty the 300 lbs. of gear I brought down, and then head to a couple of big grocery stores to buy the rest of the food for the trip.  We bring the usual collection of camping food (soups, rice, pasta) and then supplement it with as many eggs, veggies, and other fresh foods that we can pack onto the mules.  We are also very careful to have a guides meeting and sample the amazing food and life of Mendoza, Argentina.  Argentines have life figured out; up early and drinking strong coffee, hard work until noon or 1, lunch, napping, and leisure until 3 or 4, then back to work until 7 or 8.  Everyone finally eats dinner late, often as late as 10 or 11 pm, and then off to bed to do it all over again.

We have 6 tents packed.  Each sleeps 3 people and we will go 2 to a tent down low, and then cram 3 into each tent up high to save weight and to limit the number of tents we need to defend if we encounter high wind, which we usually do.  We have 6 MSR Whisperlite stoves, 4 pots, a big cooler for fragile items that need to stay cool such as eggs, and the usual assortment of gear.  I will have a total weight once we pack the mule loads in Penitentes on the 28th, but it usually ends up somewhere in the ballpark of 100 lbs. per person, or about 1200 lbs. for a group this size.

It is always a bit frightening to see how much food, fuel, and equipment it takes to sustain 12 people for 15 days on the mountain.  On the way in we will have the mule drivers cook us a meal over an open fire, typically big chunks of heavily salted beef, tomatoes, and slices of a heavy, white bread.  It sounds really simple, but not a group has ever concluded that it is not one of the best meals of the trip.

If you are following these posts, note that the comments are moderated to prevent people from spamming the site.  If you post a comment, it will next go by e-mail to Olivia and she will then approve it and it will show up on the site.

That's it for now!


Thursday, December 23, 2010

Aconcagua Packing Tips

The following are equipment suggestions for a guided Aconcagua climb.  I will be leading a group of 8 climbers and 4 guides on an ascent of what has become known as the 360 Traverse Route on Aconcagua, which involves approaching the mountain via the Vacas Valley to the Plaza Argentina Basecamp, climbing to the Col Ameghino at around 17,200', traversing to Camp 3 on the Guanacos Route, ascending to White Rocks, summiting via the Ruta Normal, and the descending to the Plaza Mulas Basecamp, and finally exiting via the Horcones Valley.

If you would like to follow along you can download the equipment list that we issue to our customers from our website here: Aconcagua Equipment List.  The list is a PDF file mid-way down the right side of the page.

Aconcagua Equipment List for guided program

I always work off an equipment list as it allows me to pack very quickly and efficiently and not stress too much about forgetting something.  I use two lists, one for personal gear, and one for group gear.  My group gear list is a generalized list for all the guiding that I do as it forces me to consider each item, if only briefly as I pack for a wide variety of trips.

Sleeping Gear for Aconcagua: This year I am taking a full length Thermarest Neo Air inflatable pad, a 1/2 length Ridgerest, and a Mountain Hardware -20F Wraith Down Sleeping Bag.  You could get away with a -10F down bag, but I chose the slightly heavier bag given the amount of time I will spend in it on the expedition.  It is very important to pack the sleeping bag in a compression sack.  For the Wraith I have chosen the 25L OR compression sack.  It is a touch on the big side, but this makes it faster and easier to pack each morning on the mountain.  I also put a trash compactor bag inside the compression sack and stuffed the bag into that as it ensures my bag will stay dry if one of the mules carry my duffel to basecamp were to fall in a river, which happens.

-20F sleeping bag, Neo Air, short Ridgerest, and compression sack

Footwear for Aconcagua: I can afford to go a bit heavy here because mules will be transporting all my gear to basecamp, and above there I will trim things down radically for the hike out.  For my main boot I use the Sportiva Spantik.  The Baruntse is a good alternative.  I do not use my Olympus Mons boots on Aconcagua as they will be destroyed by all the walking on rocks.  I have a super gaiter from Mountain Tools that fits over my Spantiks.  While it is possible to climb Aconcagua without super gaiters, I prefer the extra insurance as summit day on Aconcagua can be colder than Denali.  You can't use overboots on Aconcagua as these have material on the sole of the boot, which prevents you from walking in rocks, without crampons, which is common.  My crampon of choice is the Petzl
Vasak Flexlock, it has a rubber basket style attachment in the front and back, so it stays on and can be easily adjusted when I add my super gaiters up high. I bring 4 pairs of mountaineering socks.  One pair will live in my sleeping bag for the entire trip and then become my summits socks, the others will be rotated each day to allow one pair to dry while I climb with the other.  You could do it with 3 pairs, but 4 gives you a relatively clean pair of socks to wear each day.

For the approach I use the Sportiva Exum Guide, which is basically a running shoe.  I take a pair of OR Flextex Gaiters to use with these on the approach which is very dusty and dirty and it keeps small pebbles out of my shoes on the hike to and from the mountain.  I also take a pair of flip-flops, which I use for the flight down, moving about in Mendoza, and for the river crossing between the Vacas and Relinchos Valleys and for any river crossings in the Relinchos Valley.  There are no river crossings that are not bridged, below Casa Piedra in the Vacas, or on the exit via the Horcones, but there are a few on the morning of day 3 and you enter the Relinchos.  I also throw in 3 light pairs of socks for wearing off the mountain or in my running shoes.

Aconcagua Footwear

Transporting Crampons: I take my crampons, reduce them to their shortest length, place the spikes together, and then wrap the straps around the crampons.  If trying to save weight I don't take a crampon pouch, but I often use a small fabric pouch from Grivel that allows me to get these to and from South America without putting holes in everything in my duffel bag.  I do not take this pouch onto the mountain.  For the approach to basecamp I gather all of the groups crampons and ice axes into one bag, pad the inside of the bag with cardboard, and make things comfortable for the mules.

Crampons packed with spike together.

Crampon Case with crampons inside

Top Layers for Aconcagua: I generally carry about 7 top layers for something like Aconcagua.  It is a strange mountain.  Most of the trip up to the high camp feels almost like a trek, and then the summit day is generally very cold and windy.  At this point I have guided 19 Denali trips and summited 15 times, and I can say without a doubt that summit day on Aconcagua is every bit as cold, perhaps colder.  With this in mind my top layers need to work with extremes of both heat and cold and need to eventually all layer together to get you through the summit day. I bring a synthetic T-shirt, then a mid-weight capeline layer, then something like a Patagonia Nano Puff Pullover, followed by a Patagonia Micro Puff Jacket with a hood.  I also carry a very light, fully waterproof shell for climbing in wet snow or high wind.  On top of everything I have a slightly large Down Parka.  I really don't think you need a massive down parka if you have enough loosed fitting top layers, but you do need something pretty warm.  In most years I don;t wear my big parka until high camp.  I should also mention that I like the Patagonia R1 Hoody as the hood fits under or over a helmet.  I bring 2 nice shirts, a t-shirt, and a long sleeved shirt for the hot, sunny hike in and for Mendoza.

Top Layer System

Bottom Layers for Aconcagua:  I take a pair of shorts for town and a pair of Khaki pants for the flight down and around town.  There are a bunch of nice restaurants in Mendoza and you will want something presentable when sampling the world famous Argentine beef and Malbec.  These will not go onto the mountain with me.  For the approach to basecamp and the climb I take a mid-weight long underwear bottom, a pair of Patagonia Simple Guide Pants, a light pair of shell pants with full-length zippers, and finally a pair of Patagonia Micro-Puff Pants.  It is important that these layers can all be worn together.  On the hike in is will be very hot and sunny and if you wear shorts you will get sunburned and super dusty.  Above basecamp I usually travel with the synthetic pants and long underwear and then add the shell pants and insulated pants as needed. Note that everything is something that won't show dirt as Aconcagua can be very, very dirty.  I also bring 3 pairs of cotton boxers.  I find cotton more comfortable and your boxers are not going to make the difference when it comes to hypothermia.  You can rinse these out as needed at basecamp and in the hotel.  Wear a belt down as your pants won't fit on the return flight!

Bottom Layer system

Handwear for Aconcagua: I take three pairs of gloves as when I am guiding I can't really wear mittens.  As my heaviest gloves are sometimes a bit light for summit day I bring 3 pairs of chemical hand warmers to give me some extra heat.  I take at least one pair of mostly leather gloves for working with the stoves that have good dexterity, a medium weight pair that I climb in most days, and a heavy pair that has removable liners as this allows them to dry faster if they get wet.  I require that my customers bring a pair of heavy shelled mittens for the summit day.  For this trip I am taking OR Extravert Gloves, Men's Motive Gloves, and Men's Remote Gloves.  For Mitts I recommend the OR Alti Mitt.

Typical guide handwear, you might consider mittens as well

Headwear for Aconcagua: I lumped everything that I wear on my head into this category.  Bring a warm hat (Patagonia Lightweight Ski Hat), a buff (neck gaiter), 2 pairs of dark glacier glasses (Julbo Cat 4, with good side portection), a lightweight baseball cap that will stay on in the wind (OR Sunrunner Hat), a pair of ski goggles, 3 oz. of 70 SPF sunscreen, 2 tubes of lipbalm with sunscreen, a small headlamp (Petzl Zipka Plus), 3 sets of new batteries for the headlamp, and most importantly an OR Gorilla Balaclava.  The Gorilla Balaclava is essential as it provides 100% coverage for your face on summit day and can be worn with ski goggles without fogging them up.  Many climbers do not take a helmet, but as this is a guided trip I require it and prefer something like the Petzl Elios.  With the ski goggles you can get away without them being super dark as you will want to wear them a bit in the dark and once the sun is out I usually do not wear them all day.

My usual headgear

Items for Eating and Drinking on Aconcagua: Bring 2 - 1 liter Waterbottles with a wide mouth, this will make it easier to fill when melting snow.  I bring 1 insulated water bottle jacket and wrap the other water bottle in my down parka when climbing.  OR makes a good insulated water bottle parka. Bring an insulated cup, a bowl, and 2 spoons.  Most importantly bring a Aqua Mira water treatment kit.  This will be used to treat all of your water and is a 2% Aqueous Solution of Chlorine Dioxide.  I do not use any form of Iodine tablets as I don't like the taste and have friends who have developed thyroid cancer after using iodine for years in the field.  One set of Aqua Mira usually lasts me for two trips as we do not need to treat water that is boiled.

Keep your eating and drinking gear simple

Solar Power System for Aconcagua: I will start by saying that this is not an essential item.  As a guide service, we feel it is our duty to bring a satellite phone for receiving weather forecasts from our office and I need some way to recharge the phone and have found that a solar system is best.  While leading a trip in India this year we ended up in the middle of a natural disaster (flooding) in which over 1000 people died.  What seemed like a luxury, a satellite phone to send trip reports to our blog, ended up being used extensively to rearrange logistics, hastily put together evacuations for people we encountered who were injured, and allow families to call their loved ones and tell them they were OK.  Once this ball got rolling we needed a decent amount of power.

I have started working with the Goal0 Sherpa 50 adventure Kit, which includes a 13.5 watt solar panel, and a 50 watt battery that can store the energy.  As you can see in the photos I have stacked 2 of the 50 watt batteries and used a cable they provide to chain them together.  It takes about 8 hours to fully power the battery, so I will never be able to charge both batteries in one day, but if I am vigilant I can keep them mostly charged for the entire trip.  They have attachments that allow you to connect a female DC output (one per battery) as well as a single USD port that can be used to charge any USB device.  With this in mind I bring a USB AA battery charger so that I can recharge AA batteries on the mountain for use in my GPS.

Goal Zero Sherpa 50 Charging system will support a group of 12 w/ 2 50 Watt batteries
 Once we have this much power capability I first use the system to power our Sat Phone and Radios and then open it up to the group to recharge their iPods.  While you do not need an iPod to climb a big mountain I find that people do better if they are not wildly bored, and it is amazing what people can bring in terms of music and audio books to get them through storm days or rest days, both which are very eventful at high altitude.

Goal Zero 50 Watt Battery
Communications Equipment on Aconcagua: On Aconcagua I rent a VHF radio from my outfitter.  This costs around $80 USD and allows me to speak with both basecamps, to receive weather updates, and to talk with the Park officials if I have a problem and need help from below.  I then bring an Iridium 9505A Satellite Phone with a DC charger so that I can charge it off the solar panel.  Finally I bring some very simple Motorola Talkabouts so that I can communicate with the guides in the group if someone needs to turn around or stays behind at camp on a carry day.  As I have the USB AA battery chargers, I could in a pinch, recharge batteries for use in the Talkabouts.  I bring 2 sets of batteries per radio.  We use the SPOT device not to communicate with anyone, but so that our office can follow our progress on the climb on Google Earth.  Again, this is a luxury item, but the folks back home appreciate seeing exactly where we are and the device is relatively inexpensive ($150 plus an annual subscription fee).

Communications system for a group with 8 clients and 4 guides on Aconcagua
Miscellaneous Climbing Gear: I take a single collapsible trekking pole (3 piece, made by Black Diamond).  This fits nicely in my duffel bag.  I also take a lightweight climbing harness and a short (60 cm) Ice Axe.  I use the Petzl Snow Walker for this trip. I bring a single locking and a single non-locking carabiner for attaching myself to the climbing rope, if we use it.  I also throw a 20 foot piece of cordelette in which I have available in the event that we need to haul someone who is injured.  It also doubles as piece of cord that can be used to back up tent anchors, etc.

My climbing gear minus crampons

Backpack: I use a Cilogear 75 Liter Work Sack.  I love this pack and own some of the smaller ones as well.  You really do not need a huge pack for Aconcagua until it is time to come down from highcamp, at which point you need significant capacity.  Most of my customers show up with packs that weigh in excess or 7 or 8 lbs. empty, whereas my Cilogear pack weighs about 3 lbs.  That saved 4 lbs. equals two full water bottles, which can mean a lot at high altitude.

The Cilogear 75 Liter WorkSack is perfect for Aconcagua

Duffel bags:  I take everything to South America in 2 Patagonia Black Hole Duffels.  If I pack well, I can get all my personal gear into one bag weighing less than 50 lbs.  I take a small pack as my carry-on and leave this at Penitentes with my outfitter at the start of the trip.   I do take the second bag as we need the excess capacity for the mule loads into basecamp.  Whatever you take will get beat up pretty bad my the mules and will be very dirty when you bring it home, so bring something durable and expect it to look used at the end.  Take a dozen zip ties if you are worried about security and ziptie the zippers when you check your luggage in the US.  I wait to do this at the airport in case my bad is a bit over 50lbs. and I need to pull something out and put it in my day pack to get it on the flight without paying for excess luggage.

Patagonia Balck Hole Duffel

Miscellaneous Items: My toiletry kit includes a razor, small tube of shaving cream, a roll of TP, a package of wet ones, some Purell, a stick of deodorant, a tooth brush and tooth paste.  On the mountain I only carry the toothbrush, TP, wet ones, and a small tube of tooth paste.  If you bring a small bar of soap you can wash at basecamp.  These days you can even pay to take a shower at one of the outfits operating out of either basecamp.  For navigation I carry a small GPS, and a compass.  These are not required for my clients and I only carry them to allow me to give very accurate time estimates each day when we are underway.  If on a private trip I would not carry them.  I bring a iPod, and the adaptors I need to charge it by USB, and finally a pulse oximeter, which I can use to check people O2 saturation and see how well people are acclimating.

GPS, Pulse Oximeter, iPod, compass and various adaptors for Aconcagua

Lunchfood: Given the cost of flying excess luggage to Argentina these days I buy most of my lunchfood in Mendoza at local grocery stores.  These days there are very big grocery stores in Mendoza and you can buy most of what you need there.  It is impossible to find hard cheese, tortillas, bagels, and high-tech foods like Gu, so if you need this sort of thing bring it down from the US and buy everything else there.  We hit the mountain with 15 days worth of food and always seem to have plenty to get the climb done.  I estimate that I want about a pound of lunchfood per day.  Older folks eat 20-25% less, and younger climbers need 20-25% more.

Consider selling your gear at the end of the expedition: There is a crew of very strong porters on Aconcagua who are paid between $150 and $350 per 22kg depending on which camp they are carrying to.  It is very difficult for them to get good gear from the US or Europe and they are usually interested in buying anything you want to sell.  I often unload as much of my gear as possible before leaving basecamp as it cuts down on the mule loads, saving you some money, and I have found that they are willing to pay good money for used gear.  In particular tents get hammered by UV and the local outfitters are always looking to buy tents in good condition.  It is not uncommon to pay less to take extra bags down than home on the airlines, so this is a good opportunity to save more money at the airport and the porters make good use of whatever you give them.

2010 Northwest Mountain School Group on Summit of Aconcagua

My climbing background.  I have been an IMFGA guide since 2006, and I started guiding in 1989.  Over the years I have guided 5 Aconcagua Expeditions, 19 Denali Expeditions, and have also worked in Antarctica, on South Georgia Island, Kilimajaro, Alpamayo, Elbrus, Cho Oyu (3 times), Shishapangma (1 time), Everest (twice), as well as various peaks in Alaska.  I have always enjoyed expedition guiding and have made every mistake in the book when planning for these types of trips.  If this is your first big expedition it can seem challenging to do all the pre-trip planning and packing, but it is worth taking the extra effort to plan for the worst while always keeping an eye on keeping the weight down.  From my experience the trips that do best, focus on going slowly, have some extra time built into the schedule, and don't try to make things more complicated that needed.  Good Luck!

More Questions: Feel free to call us at the Northwest Mountain School at 509-548-5823 or drop us an e-mail and we will be happy to discuss gear with you.  We run an expedition each season and often run multiple trips.  Full details are on our websites Aconcagua Climb page.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Follow our 2010-11 Aconcagua Summit Expedition

The guides are just over a week from departure for our Guided Aconcagua Expedition.  John Race will be leading the trip, and will be assisted by Joel Kauffman, Jared Bonea, and Andy Beerman.  We will be joined in South America by 9 customers.  I still need to get everyone's permission to be listed on the blog, so I will wait to add the customers names to the list.  We generally would not take a group this large, but this trip started from a group of friends and it ended up being bigger than originally planned.

In the time leading up to our expedition, one of our team members, Michelle Yu, was tragically killed in a fall while hiking on Mt. Baldy in preparation for the expedition.  This was a very sad event in what has been a year of several sad events as various friends have perished in the mountains.  As guides we like to think that we run a tight ship, and the safety of our customers is paramount, but accidents do happen in the mountains, and when they do we always find ourselves forced to reflect on the risks that are involved in a life spent outdoors.  Michelle, as well as our dear friend Joe Puryear, will be missed very much, and we intend to carry out the trip in her honor, and as carefully as possible.  While it runs the risk of sounding almost too "expected" these two people would expect that we would move forward, which involves some risk, but risks that must be taken to experience what the mountains have to offer.

This will be the main source of information for people that would like to follow the progress of the expedition on the mountain.  This entire system hinges on the the proper functioning of our Iridium 9505 satellite phone.  On the mountain we are well covered by the radio system that the outfitters, guides, and park service all share.  We use the sat phone to send out posts, obtain weather forecasts from our office in the US, and communicate with our outfitter.

If you are following the blog, remember that "no news is good news."  What we mean by this is that you should not panic if a day goes by without the post being updated.  If a situation develops on the mountain and you have a climber on the trip, you are not going to be updated by our blog.  In emergencies this information would come through our office, and it would be done as soon as we are alerted to there being a problem.  The beauty of the internet is that you can get an almost daily updates about where our climbing team is, the downside is that sitting at home watching an expedition on your computer can be relatively dull as our movement is generally slow.

What are we doing right now?  At this point in the expedition the team members have either completed selecting all of their equipment for the trip, or are picking up those last few items.  All of the plane tickets have been bought, flight reservations have been made, and I (John) am starting to actually pack things like tents, stoves, some of the group food, and my personal gear into duffel bags for the expedition.  I used to take more of the food down from the US, but the cost of transporting that 3rd or 4th bag has become so excessive that I bring as little as possible down from the US.

Mendoza, Argentina now has several large grocery stores such as Wal-Mart and a place called Carrefour that have much of the food that you could buy in the US and use on an expedition.  Some items such as tortillas, hard cheese, and the more unusual items such as dried coconut milk, peanut sauce, etc. are not available in Argentina, so I bring a supply of these items down.  As we use mules to approach base camp it is possible to bring coolers with items like fresh veggies, eggs, meat, yogurt, etc.  With this in mind we bring a bit over a weeks worth of traditional high altitude climbing food (rice meals, pasta, cereal, dried fruit) for the upper mountain, and then we try to eat more fresh items lower on the mountain.  Getting the food I bring from the US to interface with the food that is available locally in Argentina and packable by mule is where I will expend the most energy in the next 10 days.

If you want to comment on posts on the blog you can, but know that they are moderated.  This means that once submitted your post will go by e-mail to our office and they will then approve it and it immediately goes onto the comments section.  We do this as when we have left the blog unmoderated we tend to attract a ton of people trying to use the comments section to sell things to people reading the post.  Feel free to call Olivia at 509-548-5823 with any questions.

Here is our planned schedule:  This is usually changed as we encounter weather, or shift the schedule to accommodate situations that arise on any expedition.

Aconcagua Expedition - 360 Traverse Itinerary - December 26, 2010 - January 16, 2011:

Dec 26: Leave US and fly to Mendoza, Argentina.
Dec 27: Arrive in Mendoza in afternoon or early evening. (Night in Mendoza)
Dec 28: Drive to Penitentes (8200') pack mule loads, and spend night.
Dec 29: Drive to Vacas Valley (7,600'), hike to La Lena (8,850'). (7 miles/4-5 hrs.)
Dec 30: Hike to Casa Piedra (10,500') (8 miles/5-7 hours.)
Dec 31: Hike up Relinchos Valley to Plaza Argentina BC (13,800') (6 miles/6 hrs.)
Jan 1: Rest Day at base camp.
Jan 2: Carry to Camp 1 (16,200') (4-6 hours up) & return to base camp.
Jan 3: Rest Day at Base camp.
Jan 4: Move to Camp 1.
Jan 5: Carry to Camp 2 (18,200') & return to Camp 1. (5 hours RT)
Jan 6: Rest at Camp 1.
Jan 7: Move to Camp 2.
Jan 8: Move to Camp 3 (19,600')
Jan 9: Possible Summit Day
Jan 10: Possible Summit Day
Jan 11: Possible Summit Day
Jan 12: Descend to Plaza Mulas on Ruta Normal
Jan 13: Complete hike out and return to Mendoza.
Jan 14: Extra Day
Jan 15: Return flight to US
Jan 16: Arrive in US 

Our web page with full details on this Guided Aconcagua Expedition

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Washington State Avalanche Courses - Winter 2010-11

We are once again offering AIARE Level 1 Avalanche Courses at the Northwest Mountain School.  These courses are 2.5 days long with the classroom sessions taking place at the Sleeping Lady Mountain Resort and the backcountry sections taking place in the backcountry around Stevens Pass Ski area.  Courses are open to skiers and snowboarders and are open to people with no previous avalanche education or those who want to refresh their skills. 

We started teaching the AIARE curriculum about 6 years ago because it offers a standardized course and is governed by guidelines that ensure that courses taught by different providers in different areas offer a similar level of training.  Since becoming involved with AIARE we have also appreciated having regular access to the avalanche education community at large as well as regular updates on major events in the US and the lessons learned from each winter season's accident reports.

This year we have also introduced AIARE Level 1 refresher courses because we realized that people's skills were getting rusty between courses, but people who have already completed their level 1 really do not need to go through the entire course to be brought up to speed each season.  The Level 1 Refresher takes one day, costs less, and is an intensive review of new information combined with a rescue drill and review of the latest, greatest beacons and search practices.

In February we will be offering an AIARE Level 2 course to those who have completed the AIARE level 1.  In the level 2 we start to talk more about forecasting while reviewing the basic thought process that seems to consistently lead to either good or bad outcomes in the field.

After 22 years of guiding it is safe to say that we feel more and more exposed when out in the mountains and have come to the realization that you can't over train for backcountry travel, and your skills do get rusty.  With this in mind our courses focus on having an environment where people can feel comfortable focusing on what they don't have wired, rather than feeling pressure to demonstrate the things they are good at.

Signups have been very strong this winter, we believe because the group of people traveling out of bounds in the winter is growing and thus avalanche awareness education is growing alongside it.  Our December course is full, but we can refer you to other programs that run solid avalanche programs in Washington State and are always happy to talk to you about local conditions.  Give a call at 509-548-5823 if you have any interest.  Happy skiing!

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Central Cascades Ski Conditions ~ December 4, 2010 ~ Arrowhead Peak

Olivia and I got out yesterday to poke around in the mountains and see what the snow conditions were like and to get a feel for how much more snow was needed before the ski touring along US Highway 2 would become "good" as opposed to "possible."

We parked at 2900 next to the railroad tunnel ventilation shaft just East of where US highway 2 comes back together after splitting East of Stevens Pass.  We picked this particular tour because is has many of the elements needed for early season, low elevation back country ski touring: A trail or closed road approach that allows you to move through vegetation with low-snow cover, an end elevation well above 4000' (Arrowhead tops out at just over 6000'), and a summit view that makes up for what we expected to be simply "OK" skiing.

December 4, 2010, the clearcut at the end of the USFS road still has too little snow for good skiing.

We skied up the road a bit over an hour to reach the clearcut at the end of the road that provides access on this tour to the upper reaches of Arrowhead Peak (6030') and is generally the start of the good skiing.  We noted snow depths about every 1000' and found there to be around 50 cm (20 inches) at 3000', 60 cm (24 inches) at 4000', and 70 cm (28 inches) at 5000'.  This is a good amount of snow for this time of year, but last year was better, and we need a good 18-24 inches minimum before tours like this start to provide consistently good skiing.

The slopes that provide the best skiing on the West Flank of Arrowhead are still too shallowly covered to provide much good skiing.  This is the earliest we have been up here and it was interesting to see how big the boulders are on this slope.

What surprised us as we hiked in was how light and dry the snow was, even at lower elevations.  The entire area faces North, but we would have guessed that it would have gotten a bit more heat than it has since the last snowfall.

December 4, 2010, Olivia on the summit of Arrowhead Peak with Glacier Peak and Rock Mountain in the background.
 The upper sections of the West-facing slopes that lead to the summit of Arrowhead Peak were still crust free, but they had developed a bit a wind-crust and there was plenty of slab structure present.  As this slope is not yet filled in, the boulders on the slope were anchoring things well,a nd breaking up any potentially larger slabs, which are the usual hazard here mid-winter.

Looking Southeast to the Chiwaukums from the summit of Arrowhead Peak.
We made it to the summit in about 3.5 hours, which is average, and it took about a hour to get back to the car.
Skiing the boulder field directly below the Arrowhead feature on Arrowhead Peak in the Central Cascades.
 I would keep an eye on the telemetry at Stevens Pass and once we receive another couple feet of snow things will start to make more sense for ski touring on Arrowhead.  This is a nice objective for a ski mountaineering type outing, even if the skiing is not great as it reaches a summit and has great views of the surrounding terrain..

The Northwest Mountain School offers a guided ski tour on Arrowhead Peak, which is located just East of Stevens Pass Ski Area.  Feel free to give us a call anytime at 509-548-5823 if looking for current conditions to skiing in the Central Cascades.