Mt. Aconcagua
January 11-27, 2005
Mike, Rob, Jeff, Bruce, Jonny, and Mark


With a single stroke of a pen, I crossed off the last item on my list - "Thesis". And with that, for the first time in as long as I can remember, my to-do list is empty.

For years, people have been asking me what I want to do with a Ph.D. from MIT. And for years, Iīve given the same response: Climb mountains. I wasted little time in my transition from student to full-time mountaineer. I made the last edits to my thesis from New Mexico on January 2, 2005. The following day, I boarded a plane for Argentina, bound for Mt. Aconcagua - The highest mountain outside of Asia, rising to a dizzying height of more than 22,800 feet.

In Denver, I met up with Jeff Weekley, a good friend from California who had decided to join me for my adventure. As soon as I arrived in Denver, I was greeted by his gratuitious page over the PA - "Dr. Robert Jagnow, please meet your party at gate 32." Doctor? That will take some getting used to.

After the typical series of "weather-related" delays that arenīt worth mentioning, Jeff and I found ourselves in Buenos Aires on the morning of January 4. We arrived several days earlier than the rest of the team, so we enjoyed our time familiarizing ourselves with the area. In this city that has never seen snow, the summer heat is inescapable, making our burgeoning bags of winter accessories look particularly ridiculous.

The taxi driver who took us from the airport to the Dos Congresos Hotel filled us in on the local culture. The locals are huge beef consumers, and the culture is punctuated by a vibrant nightlife - perfect for my vampiric tendencies. Unfortunately, poverty is also very apparent in this sprawling city, and entire families can be seen on the streets at night, sorting through garbage looking for items that can be reused, recycled, or resold.

Our visit was highlighted by a trip to La Recoleta Cemetery, a sprawling array of mausoleums in various states of disrepair. Feral cats wandered throughout the premises, appearing to embody the spirits of the deceased.

On January 7, Jeff and I flew to Mendoza, which had a much more bearable climate. The city is kept green by an elaborate series of aquaducts that run therough every park and along the sides of every street in town. These canals are flooded early each morning to water the grass and trees.

As with Buenos Aires, Mendoza has a vibrant nightlife, and itīs not at all unusual to find the many plazas filled with locals - including young children - until the wee morning hours.

The team: Jonny, Mark, Mike, Rob, Jeff & Bruce The team: Jonny, Mark, Mike, Rob, Jeff & Bruce
Steep roads on the route to Penitentes Steep roads on the route to Penitentes
The other four members of our six-man team arrived on January 8 and 9. Mark from California, Bruce from Rhode Island, Jonny from Massachusetts, and Mike from New Hampshire. Mike, the President of GayOutdoors.org, organized the expedition and arranged the vast majority of the local transportation and accomodations - all for a remarkably reasonable price.

On Monday, January 10, a private van picked us up a the Nutibara Hotel in Mendoza, and we visited the bank and ranger station to take care of our hiking permits. As we drove west, the landscape quickly changed from the flat wine-country surrounding Mendoza to the steep, rugged valleys of the Andes. The road toward the town of Penitentes - one of the only roads that crosses from Argentina into Chile - is an engineering marvel that took us through a long series of tunnels and bridges along the steep valley of the Mendoza River.

We spent the night at a hostel near the trailhead, an easy walk from a lonely church and a hot spring, where a collection of baths and private rooms have been built from stone into a cliff wall above the Mendoza river.

Convenience store in Penitentes Convenience store in Penitentes
Chapel near Penitentes Chapel near Penitentes
Hot springs near Penitentes Hot springs near Penitentes
Inside the mineral baths Inside the mineral baths
Memorial to an alpinist Memorial to an alpinist
On Tuesday, we met with our outfitter, Fernanado Grajales, where we cached nonessential items and sorted our gear into 30 kg bags so that they could be loaded onto the mules. To the great surprise of the two team members who had climbed Aconcagua in the past, the original owner passed away a few years ago, and his son, Fernando Jr., has since taken over the business.

Several thousand people attempt to climb Aconcagua every year. To avoid the crowds associated with the normal route, we opted to make our ascent via the more difficult, but less populated Plaza Argentina.

Shortly after noon, we were on the trail, kicking off the three-day hike into base camp. Thankfully, we were able to hike with light packs, as the mules carried most of our high-altitude gear. Our hike north through the Vacas Valley presented us with stunning views. Along both sides of the valley are enormous peaks, rising above 14,000 feet. These summits, which would rank among the tallest in the continental United States, are here dwarfed by the larger peaks and arenīt even worthy of distinct names.

The campsites were remarkably well-equipped with improvements coming from the rise in the permit price to $300 USD over the last few years. The first camp, Las Leņas, was complete with a brand new flush toilet and an outdoor shower, both of which came as a pleasant surprise.

Ranger station at the trailhead Ranger station at the trailhead
One of the many guanaco carcasses encountered along the way One of the many guanaco carcasses encountered along the way
The mule train The mule train
One of our handsome muleteers One of our handsome muleteers
The muleteers, taking a break at Casa de Piedra The muleteers, taking a break at Casa de Piedra
It wasnīt until late in the second day of hiking, just before we reached our camp at Casa de Piedra, that we saw the first glimpse of Mt. Aconcagua. Looking west down the Relinchos Valley that takes us into base camp, we could see the summit rising high into the clouds, accented by the steep Polish Glacier on the east face.

We started our third day of hiking with the assistance of the mules, who carried us to the west side of the Vacas River. We then ascended more than 2000 feet to our base camp - Plaza Argentina - at 13,300 feet. This is as far as the mules could take us, so for the remainder of the trip, we would have to carry every pound of food, fuel, clothing, and technical gear on our own backs. To do this, we visited each successive camp twice - carrying food, fuel, and technical gear on the first trip, and moving the rest of our camp on the second trip. This results in a lighter load and also helps with acclimitization.

Sunset at Las Leņas Sunset at Las Leņas
Sunrise at Las Leņas Sunrise at Las Leņas
Mike, Bruce & Jeff Mike, Bruce & Jeff
Our first view of Mt. Aconcagua Our first view of Mt. Aconcagua
Wild ducks at Casa de Piedra Wild ducks at Casa de Piedra
The dominant alpine groundcover, life stage 1 The dominant alpine groundcover, life stage 1
Life stage 2 Life stage 2
Life stage 3 Life stage 3
Life stage 4 Life stage 4
On day four, we rested, taking only small hikes in the area surrounding base camp to keep our strength and prepare for the strenuous carry to camp one. The first carry proved to be one of the most difficult days of the expedition, as we ported large volumes of food and fuel up nearly 2600 feet of steep scree slopes. This was also the only leg of the trip where we needed to navigate the penitentes - tall, closely packed fins of snow and ice that are unique to areas with intense sun above altitudes of 15,000 feet. The penitentes can grow to over six feet tall, but were much smaller than usual as a result of atypical weather prior to our arrival.

The glacier that we traversed on our way to camp one is highly unusual, and in many places, doesn't appear to be a glacier at all. The ice field is covered by a thick layer of scree, which tends to fill in crevasses as the ice moves down the mountain. Because of its unusual form, the glacier can be safely traversed without roping up. With the daily freeze and thaw cycles, the mountains in the area are very dynamic, and the sound of rockfall can be heard several times throughout the day.

Jeff crossing the Vacas River Jeff crossing the Vacas River
Mud cliffs along the sides of the Relinchos Valley Mud cliffs along the sides of the Relinchos Valley
Clouds over Mt. Aconcagua Clouds over Mt. Aconcagua
Moonset seen from base camp Moonset seen from base camp
Mike and Mark at base camp Mike and Mark at base camp
Mark at the foot of the glacier Mark in foot of the glacier
Rob inside a glacial cave Rob inside a glacial cave
A crevasse in the lower glacier A crevasse in the lower glacier
I was the first to arrive at camp one, so I cached my gear, and then descended about 1000 feet to assist Jonny, who was having some trouble acclimatizing. I took half of his gear and the two of us climbed up the scree slope together. Everyone arrived back at camp late at night, so we purchased dinner from one of the local outfitters rather than cooking for ourselves.

On day six, we rested again, followed on day seven by our move to camp one. We packed our tents, pads, sleeping bags, stoves, and remaining items for the painful trip back to camp one. Jeff didnīt get many calories in the morning, and had a tough day as a result. At 5pm, snow was starting to fall and Jeff was having diffculty staying warm. Rather than pushing up the steep slope to camp one, the two of us decided to camp in a sheltered area lower on the mountain and finish the move to camp one the following day. I made hot tea and tried to get some calories in Jeff.

The next morning, we woke to several new inches of snow. Thankfully, this made the move to camp one a little easier by securing the scree. As Jeff and I arrived at the 16,000-foot camp around noon, the other four members of the group had just decided to cancel their carry to camp two to avoid the snow and high winds that had swept in from the west.

After a cold night of sleep, Jeff was still having trouble finding the energy to continue to camp two. In a difficult, emotional decision, Jeff and I decided together that it was not safe for him to continue up the mountain. I helped him to pack a light bag for his return trip to base camp and Jeff started the painful trip back down, agreeing to meet us in a week.

Jeff wasnīt the only one who was having trouble acclimatizing. Mark started his carry to camp two on the same morning, but only made it about a quarter of the distance before he had to return to camp one due to diziness, nausea and vomiting. The other four team members managed to successfully cache our gear at camp two, the 17,600-foot col between Amaghino and Aconcagua mountains.

The following day, Mark packed a burgeoning pack, attempting to carry all of his gear to camp two in a single push. At the same point along the route, he was hit by dizziness and nausea, forcing him back down the mountain. Unable to continue, he also opted to return to base camp while Mike, Bruce, Jonny and I pushed on to camp two.

View from camp 1... View from camp 1...
Gear cache at camp 1 Gear cache at camp 1
Fresh snow below camp 1 Fresh snow below camp 1
Same cache, two days later Same cache, two days later
Same view, two days later Same view, two days later
Morning view from camp 1 Morning view from camp 1
Quantum at camp 1 Quantum at camp 1
Looking west from camp 1 Looking west from camp 1
Penitentes above camp 1 Penitentes above camp 1
View from camp 2 View from camp 2
Looking toward the summit from camp 2 Looking toward the summit from camp 2
The Amaghino col isnīt commonly used as a camp, so the stone wall that serves as a wind barrier can only fit about three tents effectively. By the time that we arrived, a guided group had occupied all of the available spaces. Thankfully, we had Bruce, who demonstrated his exceptional skills with an ice axe by carving a fine shelter out of the snow drifts.

On the morning of our eleventh day, we carried our first load of gear up to Polish Camp, our final camp at the base of the Polish Glacier, sitting at 19,600 feet. The following day, we packed the remainder of our equipment and made the move to camp three.

Bruce and I felt very well acclimatized, but we opted to spend the next day around camp as a rest day to allow Mike and Jonny a little more time to become accustomed to the elevation. During our rest day, we made a short hike to "The End of the World," the steep, 2000-foot cliff where the Polish glacier shears off into a deep, narrow abyss. As we stood on the edge, we could hear the loose rock cascading down the cliff beneath us - a common sound on this highly dynamic mountain.

To the north side of the glacier, we discovered three shallow graves, as well as a handful of small memorial to climbers who had died on the mountain. On one placard were the words, "In memory of a forgotten alpinist. May you now rest in peace." The grave, with small bits of clothing poking through the rocks, apparently housed an unclaimed body, found at the base of the glacier.

Looking toward Mt. Amaghino from camp 3 Looking toward Mt. Amaghino from camp 3
Water source at camp 3 Water source at camp 3
Shallow grave at the base of the Polish Glacier Shallow grave at the base of the Polish Glacier
End of the World "End of the World"
View of camp 3 from the 'End of the World' View of camp 3 from the "End of the World"
Zoom of previous image Zoom of previous image
At the end of our second week on the mountain, the four remaining climbers made our push to the summit. Jonny and Mike rose at 4am and left camp around 5:30, just before sunrise. Knowing that we would be a little faster, Bruce and I rose at 5 and started the hike around 7.

The climb starts with a long traverse along the north side of the mountain, allowing us to bypass the treacherous Polish Glacier and instead ascend via normal route. At about 11am, we met Jonny and Mike as we passed Independencia, a small A-frame that stands about six feet high and six feet wide. At more than 20,900 feet, it is the highest perment refuge in the world.

We took a short break to replenish our calories and then continued along the well-established traverse to the base of the canaleta, the final, steep, 1000-foot ascent to the summit. Mike was quickly losing steam as Jonny stayed with him, battling the cold winds. When Mike arrived at the base of the canaleta, he could see summit, but simply couldn't summon the energy to finish the trip. At best, it was still a brutal two-hour climb. In Mike's condition, the climb could take much longer, possibly requiring a late-night descent back to camp. It was a painful, emotional decision to stay behind, particularly considering that this was Mike's second attempt at the summit. Jonny stayed with Mike for a few minutes to take a breather as Bruce and I pushed ahead.

The climb up the canaleta was painfully slow. The trail passes through a maze of talus, scree, and steep ice. For every foot we moved forward, we slid six inches back, and we both needed frequent breaks to catch our breath.

At 2pm, Bruce and I scrambled up the last few feet to the summit, a flat plateau the size of a soccer field at 22,834 feet - more than four vertical miles. Despite the clouds that were drifting in from the west, we were presented with stunning views in all directions. The light breeze and temperatures in the teens made for some of the best summit conditions we could hope for. Bruce had successfully climbed the mountain several years before, but his camera had failed on the summit. This time, we took no chances and took lots of photos with both of our cameras. Chilled by the breezes, we began our decent 15 minutes after we arrived at the summit.

Blowing snow on summit day Blowing snow on summit day
Independencia Independencia
Looking from the canaleta toward Plaza de Mulas Looking from the canaleta toward Plaza de Mulas
Zoom of previous image Zoom of previous image
Rob & Bruce on the summit Rob & Bruce on the summit
Quantum on the summit Quantum on the summit
Rob on the summit with the south peak in the background Rob on the summit with the south peak in the background
Rob & Jonny on the summit Rob & Jonny on the summit
At 200 feet below the summit, I came across Jonny, who was moving at a good pace. I indicated that there was noone else on the summit, and he responded that he was hesitant to ascend alone. Knowing how important this was, I agreed to ascend the final 200 feet again to accompany Jonny to the top. Bruce continued back down toward Mike while Jonny and I fought our way back up the scree.

I topped out the second time shortly after 4pm, and we spent another 15 minutes taking photos and admiring the view. Chilled and exhausted, we started our descent.

By the time that Jonny and I arrived at the base of the canaleta, Mike and Bruce were already on their way back down. We backtracked along our ascent route, finally arriving at base camp shortly after 8pm. Bruce and I arrived first and Bruce boiled up a pot of water for the stragglers. Mike had a tough time with the descent, but managed to get some warm calories as soon as he returned to camp.

On day 15, after sleeping in through the morning, we packed up the tents and started the long haul back to base camp. In contrast with the trip up, we were now forced to carry all of our gear down, so we were heavily laden with burgeoning packs. At 2pm, we made a rendezvous with Jeff and Mark, who had agreed during our routine radio communications to help carry our substantial gear cache from camp one back to base camp.

The trip through the penitentes, just below camp one, was particularly challenging with the awkward packs. My aching hips and shoulders were happy to drop the load back at camp, where my pack weighed in at 78 pounds.

The final two days back to civilization were greatly eased by having a mule train to carry the vast majority of our gear. On the way back, we bypassed Casa De Piedra and continued instead to Las Leņas, making for a long day of hiking with very little food. Finally, on the seventeenth day since we started the trip, we made our way back to the road, where we were greeted by our transportation arranged via radio with Fernando Grajales.

Back at the town of Penitentes, we treated ourselves to the most luxurious of luxuries - warm tap water, clean clothes, Coke and Fritos.

Sunset and moonrise from camp 3 Sunset and moonrise from camp 3
Jonny, Mike & Bruce, descending with heavy packs Jonny, Mike & Bruce, descending with heavy packs
Mike & Jonny's tent at base camp Mike & Jonny's tent at base camp
Our last view of Aconcagua Our last view of Aconcagua
Back at Penitentes Back at Penitentes
Climbing Under the Rainbow Flag

Long before I had ever heard of GayOutdoors, I've been very interested in climbing Mt. Aconcagua. But what ultimately drew me to this particular expedition was the opportunity to hike under the rainbow flag - the highest mountain every climbed by an openly gay expedition.

Even for some of the expedition members, this idea was difficult to reconcile. As Bruce often said, "I represent the American flag, not the rainbow flag." The perspective is understandable - The popular media has painted a very narrow picture of what it means to be gay, and when it comes down to it, noone on our expedition fits that stereotype. Even in the gay community, we appear as outsiders.

There are two solutions to the problem. The first is represented in Bruce's perspective: Choose not to identify with the gay community. The second is to change what it means to be gay. Part of the purpose of this expedition is to expand what the rainbow flag represents. After all, the colors of the flag are intended to denote diversity. How ironic, then, that society has such a narrow understanding of what it means to be a gay male.

As I often tell others, if I'd had the opportunity to meet someone like me when I was growing up, it could have saved me from years of anguish and confusion. As is common with gay athletes, it can be overwhelming to reconcile the image of the athlete with the stereotype of the gay man. If news of our expedition is able to save just one person from the emotional torment that I endured, then it's all worthwhile.



© Copyright 2005 by Rob Jagnow.