Aconcagua: Summit of the Non-Asian World

Base Camp at Aconcagua

I guess you can say I am a mountaineer. I am reluctant to use that title. However, I have now summited all the major volcanoes in Washington State, the volcanoes of Mexico, Kalapattar in Nepal and two of the “Seven Summits” -the highest summit on each continent. The first of the seven summits I did in 2005 was Kilimanjaro, in Africa, and the most recent was Cerro de Aconcagua, in South America. At 22,840 feet, Aconcagua is the tallest mountain in North and South America. In fact, it is the tallest mountain in the world outside of the Himalayas.  Aconcagua turned out to be much more of an endeavor than all the others combined. I signed on to do the expedition with Alpine Ascents International of Seattle. They lead expeditions on all the major peaks in the world and I had favorable experiences with them before. In addition to myself, Dan Rothrock, CPA of Stemilt Growers, Inc and Albert Rookard, EVP of Armada, Inc. joined me locally. We have all climbed together for years and enjoy each other’s company.

After months of preparation and training, we all met in Mendoza, Argentina. Al and Dan got there a day earlier than I did. They spent the day with a private car and driver touring the Argentinean equivalent of the Sonoma Valley. Winery after winery with a five-course lunch thrown in the middle. Nothing like serious training for the mountain. I was sorry I missed this “training session”! They did come out with a new favorite wine- Malbec…


Waterfront property! It actually thawed out in the late afternoon- 17000 feet

Saturday night Jan 16, we met our group. We had two guides from the USA and seven additional climbers for a total of ten climbers. The other seven climbers included a Chief Operating officer for a hotel chain based in Boston, 2 fire fighters from LA City and a lobster fisherman from Maine. We also had a grocery store manager from Wyoming, and two Houstonites, a CPA who is CFO for an energy company owned by the former Secretary of the Treasury and a consulting engineer who works in the energy field. The ages ranged from 25- 61 years old. The two people from Houston were back for a second and third try at the mountain that had rebuked them before.

At a hotel near the mountain, we watched the NFL national league championship game between Baltimore and Pittsburg. Our guide informed us that our summit attempt day was to be Super Bowl Sunday- TWO WEEKS AWAY! That means two and a half weeks in a tent, climbing the mountain. That came as a bit of a shock. I had read the schedule more than once but to think we were two weeks away from even attempting the summit was a serious reality check. This was obviously going to take some real concentration to stay focused on the summit objective for that long!


Summit On Aconcagua!

I have climbed many mountains before but nothing of this duration or height. The reason for such a long expedition is that one needs to allow his/her body to acclimatize. This occurs as you climb. The recommended rate of ascent is generally 1000 feet per day. Since we were starting at 8000 feet and ascending to 22,840 feet, it naturally follows that this would take about 16 days to properly acclimatize. There are no generally accepted shortcuts in acclimatization so to reach a summit like Aconcagua safely you need to allow two weeks.

Shortly after leaving the road on the trail, we saw the last trees we would see for almost three weeks. Most of upper elevation Andes Mountains is rock and moraine. Moraine is the rubble left behind after a glacier has retreated. This was not going to be like hiking in the Enchantments.

It took us three days to reach the base camp; Plaza Argentina. This is a small community of about 150 climbers at 14,300 feet with some semi permanent huts that served meals and the occasional beer for returning climbers. At this point, we were too nervous to have a beer. With many grueling days ahead, we did not want anything to upset the delicate balance of our fitness.

Speaking of grueling days the tough ones really started after base camp. Up to this point, mules carried our heavy equipment, tents, etc. Above base camp, we were on our own. Packs of up to 75 pounds were now our own responsibility! Just in time for the terrain to get significantly steeper!

Another method used to assist acclimatization is to climb high and sleep low. This involves moving half your gear to a new camp about 2,000 feet higher up the mountain and then returning to the lower camp to sleep. The next day you load up the rest of your gear including tents and climb the 20,00 feet again to fully establish that camp. We used four camps above base camp so in essence we climbed the mountain twice! The highest camp, which was camp four, was at 20,900 feet. At that level, we experienced high (50-70 MPH) winds, snow and sleet. It was not an environment you wanted to spend any time in.

It is a medical fact that nothing grows above 17,000 feet and in fact our bodies above that level are in a constant state of deterioration. Another reason to summit and get off the mountain.

We followed a schedule that allowed 3 days climbing and one rest day. Generally, the weather was not very good so much of the rest time was spent in the tent. Time in the tent was spent listening to my iPod or reading. Once we got above 16,000 feet it was difficult to concentrate to read so the IPod was the entertainment of choice. The rest days were long days…

The two weeks did pass and our appointed summit day arrived. It was clear but the wind was blowing very hard. The ambient temperature was probably 10 degrees F but the wind chill dropped to 40 below according to our guides. They made the decision to attempt the summit but we would turn around at the first sign of frostbite. It was imperative that we keep all exposed skin covered and be aware of cold extremities, fingers, toes, etc.

The nice thing about going from camp four is that you only have about 3,000 feet to the summit. In miles, it is probably three miles on the trail. The bad thing is that everything you do is above 21,000 feet so every step requires a full cleansing breath in order to recover for the next step. In addition, it seemed the route was vertical. It was much like climbing steep stairs, very slowly.

One of our group members who was attempting to climb Aconcagua for the third time unfortunately ran out of energy about three hours into the summit day. He was sent back to camp four with a guide to accompany him. The other nine climbers in our group all made the summit at varying speeds. The wind was so high that we only spent about ten minutes at the top then started back down.

It took three days to cover the return trip to the road.

So why do I climb mountains? I think it is similar to why I have chosen to be in business. It is not the easy path by any means but it is the challenging path. In addition, I, like most business people, am very goal oriented. There is no clearer goal than reaching the summit of a mountain. It generally takes every ounce of concentration and physical energy you have to stick with the goal. The satisfaction is short on reaching the top but rather you start thinking of the next goal right away. Most business people I talk to find business the same way. There is little time or energy for celebrating the goals but rather the energy goes into setting the next goal.

I wrote a book that was released 18 months ago that compares mountain climbing to running a business: Parallel Peaks: Business Insights While Climbing the Worlds Highest Mountains, HRD Press, Amherst, MA. The parallels seem as apropos today as then. The most important parallel to me is the summit. In mountain climbing, everyone involved knows the objective- the summit. In business, we rarely are as clear as to what the summit’s. We need to clearly define our summit in business as well.

9 Responses to 'Aconcagua: Summit of the Non-Asian World'

February 23, 2009, 4:37 pm

Congratulations John. What a grueling adventure. As Ernest Shackleton said “By endurance we conquer”.

Lauren Johnson
February 23, 2009, 4:44 pm

Way to go, John. This is a great accomplishment. Better try going to Antarctica next. Alpine Ascents has some great bargains for that one.

February 23, 2009, 5:21 pm

Hoo rah, John! You captured another one!

Cathy Gibson
February 23, 2009, 7:20 pm

Way to go, John. Please pass my congratulations to Dan Rothrock, too.
Did you hear about/encounter any climbers ascending the Polish Glacier route??

Bryan Campbell
February 23, 2009, 7:21 pm

Congratulations John and thank you for the great commentary! That’s an incredible accomplishment by an equally incredible person. Enjoy the Malbec!

Earl Tilly
February 23, 2009, 8:13 pm

John we are very proud of you, Al, and Dan. Keeping focused and in shape are certainly appropriate prerrequisites. You have come a long way from Mt. Adams.

milt herman
February 23, 2009, 9:22 pm

Hey John, What a weak excuse… you were supposed to read in church 2 weeks ago! Glad you’re down safe. Be well, Jan & milt

February 23, 2009, 11:26 pm

Hi John, Congratulations On a great climb. We are very proud of you. Love Mom and Dad

Shannon Kollmeyer
February 23, 2009, 11:33 pm

Great accomplishment John. It looks like that same kind of preparation, endurance, focus,and determination will be needed to climb up through this next business cycle. We look forward to your return home. Shannon

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