American Chad Kellogg's new route solo on Aconcagua's wild south face

Posted: Feb 12, 2010 03:16 am EST

Recovered from a shattered humerus he'd suffered in a back-country ski accident nine months before, Chad Kellogg aimed for Aconcagua as a training climb before heading to Everest this spring.

"The Medicine Buddha", a brand new line on Aconcagua's south face, took the American speed climber forty-two hours. The solo, alpine style climb covered over 2000m of new terrain.

Christmas in Argentina

I called my buddy Rory to see if he had any interest in joining, Chad told friend Tom Milne, from Remote Medical International. He said he had three weeks of vacation he needed to use by the end of the year - by the next day we had purchased our plane tickets!

We got to Mendoza on the December 10th, and entered the park on the 12th, Chadd said. Weather conditions on the mountain before our arrival had been poor, but upon arrival to Confluencia the weather went bluebird. We made a recon at the base of the South Face, then moved up to Plaza de Mulas.

The two spent a week acclimatizing with a summit climb on the Northwest Ridge but then a lung infection forced Rory back to Mendoza, leaving Chad on his own and with a decision to make.

Alone on the face

I was thinking - was I going to be satisfied with summiting the Regular Route? Or was I going to get after the goal, which was the South Face?, Kellogg recalled. On the recon I had seen a potential new route that was within my ability, but also looking dangerous. The whole line was capped with seracs, which had been letting ice chunks fall down the face almost hourly while I scouted the area.

Anyways, I prepared for the route and then got a forecast for a three-day weather window: That was the green light.

Chad set out from Plaza Francia (4100m) at 4:00am on December 22th. He carried a down jacket, synthetic insulated pants, a pair of mittens and gear including a 30m rope, 4 screws, 4 pins, and 4 cams. 20 bars, a 300-calorie freeze dried meal, and a stove with one canister.

Soloing, I was mindful of every movement"

In my initial assessment, I felt I could fire the route in 24 hours- assuming good snow conditions, Kellogg said.

He followed his steps from the previous days inspection to the base of the glacier, then ascended rock to access a series of irreversible rappels that placed him at the base of the line. As I was traversing in on tenuous mixed terrain a major serac fall swept the face, serving to confirm the gravity of the situation, Chad recalled.

1000m of 65-70 degree ice drew Chad to a central rock step, an unsolved piece of the recon and a crux of the route. From this closer vantage, my first thinking was to bypass this rock obstacle via a 65m 90 degree ice shield, he told Tom.

I headed toward it, then felt the massive release of a serac above. I looked up to see the avalanche debris billowing 400 overhead. At that point I sprinted for safety toward the rocks on the right hand edge. At the end of a 50 yard dash I dove in, preparing to be buried. Instead, I was blasted by a 50mph gust and was frosted by the release as it passed by.

At that point I decided to inspect the right side. I discovered a keyhole passage along what looked like WI4 that would get me into the upper basin. I also realized I likely had only one hour before the next avalanche.

Gaining the keyhole required negotiating a 75 degree mixed step climbing on a thin, 2mm veneer of ice, with moves to 5.8.

My thought was I could belay this section but I dont have enough time before the next release, Chad said. Soloing, I was mindful of every movement - I knew that every move had to be the best.

The water ice section was brittle but a bit more secure, providing passage to the upper basin. The entire upper basin was basically a catchers mitt for the seracs above. I traversed left out of the basin as fast as possible. Just as I reached the left-hand edge of the basin, I looked back and saw a serac release fire through the keyhole I had completed five minutes previous.

The final crux

At this point Chad was at 5700m, at roughly 1 pm, Tom Milne told ExplorersWeb. It took the next two hours to gain the final edge of the upper serac band which led to the next crux, a 10m overhanging ice step.

It took me two attempts- on my first shot I got really pumped, Chad said. I descended to regroup and put my leashes on. The 10m of ice petered out into insecure, snow covered rock. During this section I realized I was able to lock off on my injured arm for the first time in nine months.

Once I had passed that crux I climbed another 250m to access the upper glacier. I could breathe a sigh of relief that I was out of harms way for the first time in twelve hours. Chad picked a spot just below the bergschrund leading to the start of the Messner Route.

Open bivouaq on Messner route

He brewed up two liters and pressed on, anticipating finishing within his originally planned 24 hour window. Immediately upon crossing the bergschrund I began to encounter extremely insecure sugar snow, he told Tom.

My upward progress was reduced to 60m/hour. In twenty five years of climbing Ive never encountered such poor snow conditions.

At 11 pm, having gained only 300m in five hours, difficult routefinding and mixed conditions precluded upward progress. The best forced bivy option was below, on the gently sloping upper glaciers. Chad retraced his steps and found some shelter sitting on the leeward side of an ice block glued to the slope. He put on a down jacket, primaloft pants, sat on his rope and put his feet in his pack.

To counteract hypothermia and frostbite Chad did a continual brew session for seven hours. Heating his two water bottles, he used them to maintain warmth in his core and toes, drinking through the night as well to further inhibit frostbite.

Out of - everything

As dawn rose, he was out of fuel and low on water, but had made it through the night. Cold and tired but frostbite-free, he retraced his previous evenings steps, this time in the morning sun. On his left, he began to see evidence of the passage of previous parties on the Messner: sections of fixed rope, backpacks.

Chad roped up for the first and only time on the face for one short section of M5. By 2 pm, he exited out of the Messner into the upper Argentine variation, at 6500m.

As the sun went behind the ridge, I began to feel the desperation of the situation, Kellogg reckoned. I had been out of water since 10 am, two Gus left- I was feeling a little strung out because I was out of fuel, almost out of food, 36 hours of pushing at this point... I knew that if I was caught out on the face another night, my body would join the other six that are resting on the South Face.

Back from the summit ridge

I believed that I would make it and pressed on, finally reaching the summit ridge at 10 pm after 42 hours on the face. At the ridge I encountered 50-60 mph winds and discovered the beginnings of frostbite on my right thumb. I made radio contact with the Guarda Parque and notified them that I was safe and headed down to Nido (Ed. Note: Nido de Aguilas).

Chad made it to Nido at 1:30 am, on Christmas Eve December 24th and took refuge with the Park rangers. Behind him, a successful acclimatization, evidence that he had recovered from surgery 9 months before, and a completed new line.

Chad is currently back in Seattle working in construction and training for Everest.

A native of Washington State, Chad Kellogg is among the fastest climbers in North America, with speed climbing records set on Denali (2003) and Mt. Rainier (2005). Longer-range goals include attempts on K2 and broad Peak and alpine-style first ascents on China/Qionglai range, Tibet and US mountains. He has guided for several international outfitters and worked as a climbing ranger in Mt. Rainier National Park.

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Chad Kellogg on Aconcagua's upper slopes.
Image by Chad Kellogg courtesy Chad Kellogg, SOURCE
Avalanche sweeping down the "keyhole".
Image by Chad Kellogg courtesy Chad Kellogg, SOURCE
Another signature climb: Chad's 2010 Aconcagua solo new route.
Image by Chad Kellogg courtesy Chad Kellogg, SOURCE
Yet another avalanche falling right on Chad's route.
Image by Chad Kellogg courtesy Chad Kellogg, SOURCE
Chad Kellogg gazing down Medicine Buddha.
Image by Chad Kellogg courtesy Chad Kellogg, SOURCE