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Messner, thought by some climbers to be superhuman, has led the way in Alpine tactics. His 1975 ascent with compatriot Peter Habeler of 26,470-foot Hidden Peak in Kashmir's Karakoram is considered the four-minute mile of Alpine climbing. In 1978 the same twosome reached the summit of Everest without using oxygen, signaling that it is simply a matter of time until an Alpine attempt on Everest will be made. Three months later Messner climbed 26,660-foot Nanga Parbat in the Himalayas alone, a feat that staggered the mountaineering world. He is the only man in the world to have made a solo ascent of an 8,000-meter mountain. Connor was awed by Messner's mountaineering achievements and was particularly inspired by his Hidden Peak ascent. It was that climb that started Connor thinking about an Alpine climb of Aconcagua.
Last fall, discovering he could afford to take a few weeks off over the Christmas holidays, Connor decided to try Aconcagua. He called Andrews, a bachelor unbound by any serious commitments, who jumped at the propositon, especially since Connor would be financing the expedition, except for the other climbers' plane fares. In the interest of safety Connor and Andrews decided they needed a third partner, but finding a qualified climber with the time and money to go on the expedition on such short notice was difficult. Bludworth wasn't an ideal choice—for one thing, neither Connor nor Andrews had ever climbed with him—but they considered him qualified and he was available. Connor and Andrews felt that they could carry Bludworth through any crisis, should it come to that. Thus, the team was formed.
By Thanksgiving the plans were completed, and after two months of running and lifting weights to get in shape, on Dec. 15 the climbers took a Braniff flight from Los Angeles to Santiago, Chile. Their mood on reaching South America was optimistic and exuberant; "sky high," according to Connor.
"We really felt we were taking on a significant first; there was a real sense of adventure," he says. "We felt pretty special. There was a lot of camaraderie. It showed. At the airports. At dinner together. We were a pretty close group."
Connor wrote in his diary on the climbers' first day in South America:
12/15, Hotel Gran Palace. It's now 7:00 pm & sun is high in the sky. Won't get dark until 10:00 pm.... What a great climate. Cab driver told me there are 5 cities in Chile (pop. 12 million) that speak nothing but German. I can see why the Germans settled here in such great numbers....
A couple of days later he wrote:
xI'd forgotten what it was like to be young and impatient. Chuck & Guy are just two forces of light energy bursting at the seams. Focusing intense bursts on the nearest female shape, their rock and roll cassette tapes, each other & their aged leader. It's most difficult at times to get a moment of peace & Mozart around their energy belts.
Early on the morning of Dec. 16, a Sunday, Connor, Andrews and Bludworth took a bus 200 miles eastward to Mendoza, Argentina, their 600 pounds of equipment and provisions stacked on the roof of the small bus, much to the dismay of the other passengers and the driver, who kept shouting and cursing at the three gringos locos. With the assistance of the Argentine Association of Mountaineering, the Americans passed smoothly through the bureaucratic procedures for acquiring climbing permits and the like in Mendoza, and on Tuesday they took another bus 100 miles to a ski club at the end of the road. There they rented mules and trekked to the base of Aconcagua. It was on this hike that the South Face first came into view. From Connor's diary:
The Andes have the majestic allure of the Himalayas without the tropical climate at lower elevations. This tends to make the trekking much more pleasant. The Horcones Valley has a stark beauty & grandeur I was unprepared for. Huge tilted strata of ancient sandstone stacked row upon row for your viewing pleasure. Because I now get away only once a year or so, I think each experience is more enriching to me.