Herald JournalHerald Journal, April 5, 2004

Ehrke hits So. American peak, ‘Sentinel of Stone’

By Troy Feltmann

Garrett Ehrke of Winsted recently finished phase three of his goal to climb the seven highest summits on earth – this time in Argentina.

Ehrke traveled to Mendoza, Argentina in January to climb Mt. Aconcagua, known as the Sentinel of Stone for its rocky terrain. Aconcagua’s summit is at 22,840 feet, and borders Argentina and Chile.

Argentina was having summer when Ehrke arrived.

“I went from the cold of January to 100 degrees,” Ehrke said.

Mendoza is a desert city. It is very hot and dry, he said.

“When I got to Mendoza, we had an equipment check and later that evening, we had our welcome dinner,” Ehrke said.

Argentina is known for its steak.

“That night they didn’t cook my steak enough. I think it was still alive,” Ehrke said.

That evening, Ehrke got to know his climbing team. Team Tortuga consisted of 10 climbers. One was a woman.

After a day of travelling to get to the trail head, the group was ready to start the adventure.

The morning they started they had to get their barrels ready.

“They looked like 16-gallon kegs. They were hard and durable to survive the mule ride in,” Ehrke said.

“Some of our food, like eggs and beer, had to be bubble wrapped,” Ehrke said.

It was a three-day, 30-mile trek through the desert to get to base camp.

“We used the mules to get the gear, food, and equipment in. We could trek with nice light loads. All we had to carry was our water, lunch, extra clothing, and camera equipment,” Ehrke said.

The group did not see Mt. Aconcagua until the end of the second day.

Ehrke spent the next several days going up the mountain.

During the trek, Ehrke had to walk between penitentes, which are large icicles protruding from the ground.

“This is one of the few places in the world where these are. They look like popsicles sticking out of the ground,” Ehrke said.

Penitentes form due to temperature variations from night to day, and strong winds, he said.

At the second camp, at 17,500 feet, Ehrke met Ang Dorjee, the team’s upper camp manager.

Ang Dorjee is a Nepal Sherpa. They are a culture of people who live above 14,000 feet.

“Ang Dorjee was inhumane. He is such a strong climber. He would go ahead and start setting up our camps.” Ehrke said.

After going back to the first camp to get the rest of the supplies, they made it back to the second camp.

The next morning, Team Tortuga woke up to a severe snowstorm.

“We sat tight to about 2 p.m. The storm had stopped and the guides told us we had 15 minutes to get packed up,” Ehrke said.

“We headed up to camp three, but a half hour into the climb the weather got bad again. We went back to camp two,” Ehrke said.

The next day, the weather was beautiful and they made it to camp three.

One problem at there was there was no stream nearby, Ehrke said.

“Normally, we would get water from the stream and treat the water with iodine tablets,” Ehrke said.

“At this camp, we had to melt snow. This was a long process. It is a 10-to-one ratio for melting snow. I drank about a gallon and a half of water per day,” Ehrke said.

Another problem was the high winds, he said.

“We had to anchor the tents down with big rocks. It doesn’t sound like much work, but at high altitudes it is,” Ehrke said.

“You had to be careful to lay your sleeping bag down. A big gust of wind comes up and it’s gone,” Ehrke said.

“We ate a lot of pasta, rice, mashed potatoes, cheese, and crackers. The food on the mountain isn’t that great, but it is part of the experience,” Ehrke said.

There were times when Ehrke questioned why he was doing this.

“The weather wasn’t great, the mountain was steep, and we had to punch through knee-deep to mid-thigh snow. It was grueling,” Ehrke said.

“I had problems with headaches again. During your sleep, you can’t control your breathing. Headaches are nothing more than your brain starving of oxygen. By mid-morning, they would go away because I was good at pressure breathing,” Ehrke said.

After the move to camp four, Team Tortuga was ready for summit day.

“We hit the trail between 5:30 or 6 a.m. The wind was terrible. It took about eight hours to get up to the summit,” Ehrke said.

“Later on in the day, the wind calmed down and the sun warmed the air. It was absolutely beautiful,” Ehrke said.

“We got to a point and the guide told us that we are 40 minutes away. He lied to us. It was two hours away. He could tell we were exhausted. He was trying to motivate us,” Ehrke said.

“Our group got spread out. We waited for everyone to catch up so that we could summit together,” Ehrke said.

“It was beautiful. We spent 45 minutes on the summit to enjoy our accomplishment,” Ehrke said.

Ehrke and his team made it back down the mountain. They celebrated with some beer and wine at base camp.

“It was a refreshing sight to see a road, civilization,” Ehrke said.

The group took the three-hour bus ride back to Mendoza and first thing Ehrke did was take a shower for the first time in 18 days.

“I ended up going to get a shampoo, shave, and haircut for $10. It was the first time I was shaved with a straight edge,” Ehrke said.

One culture shock for Ehrke was the siesta.

“At 8 a.m, the city is humming. People are out shopping and eating. Around noon, the city shuts down and people spend time with family. About 5 p.m people start to stir again. Restaurants open at 8 p.m and the clubs open about midnight and stay open to sun up,” Ehrke said.

The next day Ehrke went for a massage and then went on a winery tour.

“Argentina is known for its wine-making. It is the number five wine producer in the world,” Ehrke said.

On his last day, Ehrke went on a rafting trip.

“The rafting was great and cheap. It was only $20,” Ehrke said.

Ehrke’s next trip is scheduled for June 10 of this year, when he will attempt to climb Mt. Denali in Alaska.

Then Ehrke plans to go to Seattle for a winter survival training course March 19.

Ehrke is having second thoughts about doing Everest, due to financial concerns.

“If I would have a sponsorship, I would do it in a heartbeat. You are looking at $75,000, closer to $85,000. They recommend going to Nepal and climbing a smaller peak first, Ehrke said.

“An international trip is overwhelming. It takes a lot out of you. On Everest, you need everything you got. They say Nepal is a real culture shock,” Ehrke said.

“If I do Everest and succeed, then I better do Mt. Vinson in Antarctica. That trip is $30,000. That’s over $100,000 for the last two trips. I’m thinking of building a house instead. I don’t know if I want to be 30 years old and broke,” Ehrke said.

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