Aconcagua – New Years Day 2015

So today is New Years Day 2015. I woke up wondering whether my headache from last night had abated, and was glad to find out that it had. The phrase “I woke up” should have been followed by “for the twentieth time” as the winds which buffeted our tent last night were as loud as they were relentless and unforgiving. In the only lulls that you ever get, you hear a rushing from the top of the valley, as the next set of blasts come at you like a freight train.

The tents (Eureka) are not very good in the wind it has to be said. They are very ‘flappy’ and therefore noisy, and also let a lot of spindrift into and around the inner tent, just what you don’t need on a day like the one we’ve just had.

The day had actually started promisingly. The sun shone (albeit briefly), and although there were some grey patches towards the summit, it didn’t look too foreboding. Peter told us that we’d be ready to move out of Camp by about 9, gave me the all clear from yesterday’s AMS, and all looked good. So after breakfast my tentmate Gary starts rolling up his sleeping bag, only for Peter to come back round and say “hold on guys, we are going to take a look at the weather, so hold fast for two hours”.

Storm clouds gathering up the mountain.....

Storm clouds gathering up the mountain…..

This was of course frustrating, as we’d been at Camp 1 for three days already and were itching to move up, but there was nothing we could do. Camp 2 is a different kettle of fish from Camp 1, being perched at 17,800 feet on an open slope of the high mountain. Whatever we thought, we didn’t want to be there if there was bad stuff coming in. It didn’t take two hours to find out. Peter came back about an hour later and said “stand down for today, we are taking a rest day”. There was snow coming in, and so we should neither move in it, nor be stuck at Camp 2 in it, if it could be avoided.

.......and with the clouds came the snow.

…….and with the clouds came the snow.

So that was that. We literally stayed in our tent the whole day. It was too cold to go outside for more than about a minute, the wind fierce and bitter, and so your pee bottle was your best friend on days like this. The snow came mid afternoon, the whole mountain blackening, and the storm whipped up a frenzy.

Not many forays were made outside the tent, but sometimes you just have to go outside......

Not many forays were made outside the tent, but sometimes you just have to go outside……

.....particularly when the lid of your pee bottle is frozen on!

…..particularly when the lid of your pee bottle is frozen on!

The guides brought us hot drinks and food from time to time, which was so gratefully received, and we didn’t see another soul, including the rest of our team members the whole day, as they were holed up too.

Having lain in my sleeping bag and dozed (but trying not to doze too much) the entire day, by 7.20pm that was it, the day was over and I zipped up my bag and tried to sleep for the night. Such are days on mountains like Aconcagua. Frustrating in the extreme, and even a bit boring really, but never dull. Too much conjecture, excitement and trepidation about what awaits over the remaining 10 days exists for that to be ever true.

Roll on the next day…..

Aconcagua – New Years Eve 2014

Today is New Year’s Eve, and just like Christmas Day, it would be spent in a tent on a very windy mountain. For those of you who wonder, yes I do question at times why I do this. I could for example be sat somewhere warm and pub-like with friends, music playing, a nice bottle or two of wine, and some end of year festivities. Instead it is -10 outside, snowing, there is a 60mph or so wind blowing, and I am holding onto a tent in case it blows 8,000 feet down below me down the mountainside. Oh, and I have a headache, not through any festive reasons, but because I have mild altitude sickness. Happy New Year!

So anyway, onto today’s events. We didn’t need to look out of the tent to know that the wind was still howling and it was snowing hard. I did however have a look at the sky towards the summit, which told me that we weren’t going out anywhere soon this morning. It was black and foreboding, with sheets of icy snow cascading down the very slopes we needed to be walking up. Peter our guide came around with breakfast to the tent (a nice touch always) and told us that as long as there were gaps in the clouds we’d still do our carry starting at 11am.

All wrapoped up and ready to go - even though the sun had come out this was one cold day!

All wrapped up and ready to go – even though the sun had come out this was one cold day!

We had about 1,800 feet only of ascent to do, but in these conditions (and bearing in mind we were starting out at 16,400 feet) it was going to be a tough day. This was particularly the case as some of the ascent was up a scree slope, and we’d be carrying about 20kg or so on our backs.

Setting out with three layers on my legs and four on top (including Goretex shell) the going was hard from the start, but well paced so as to keep us moving. By our first rest break we got a fantastic view of part of Aconcagua’s summit (it isn’t visible at all from Camp 1) and the severity of the mountain really hit us all. We were still two whole vertical kilometres from its upper reaches, and it looks nothing at all up close like it does on any picture I have ever seen of it.

Looking back down to Camp1 from about half way to Camp 2.

Looking back down to Camp1 from about half way to Camp 2.

And looking up towards Camp 2 - the top of the mountain is still 6,000 feet away!

And looking up towards Camp 2 – the top of the mountain is still 6,000 feet away!

A porter passes us on the way up - we didn't have them of course, and I didn't envy them at all!

A porter passes us on the way up – we didn’t have them of course, and I didn’t envy them at all!

I felt fairly thirsty on the way up, never a good sign, but otherwise physically fine. We reached the Col between Camp 1 and 2 at about 1.30, and from here there was a big traverse to take us round the north side of the mountain. We got a great close up view of the Polish Glacier, which is incredibly steep, at 70 degrees in places. It apparently hasn’t been climbed now by anyone for four years.

Looking towards the summit and the Polish Glacier at around 5,500m.

Looking towards the summit and the Polish Glacier at around 5,500m. The photograph  really doesn’t do the steepness justice at all.

The traverse in the background which goes over the shoulder to Camp 2.

The traverse in the background which goes over the shoulder to Camp 2.

Lunch break for the group just before the traverse.

Lunch break for the group just before the traverse.

After a lunch break below the glacier we began the final climb up to Camp 2. The wind was howling and my hands were cold even in ski gloves. This mountain is really unforgiving. Towards the top of the slope I began to get dizzy. I felt a bit like I had when I had the HACE episode on Elbrus this August, if not quite as bad. I stopped, waved everyone else by me, and was attended to by Johnny and Tincho. They were great, calmed me down, got me deep breathing, and took my Sats. My pulse ox was 74, which they said wasn’t too bad, and after a further examination they took probably 18 of the 20kg in my backpack off me, and said I was good to continue if I so wanted. I did, not at any cost, but I felt ok enough to carry on slowly.

I came into Camp 3 probably 20 minutes behind everyone else, feeling pretty down. I thought my trip was over right here. Having sat down and had a drink and a bite to eat I tried to survey my surroundings. Camp 2 is a very inhospitable place, very exposed, albeit with utterly incredible views over the Andes, something we hadn’t seen up until now. I was too weak to take my camera out of my bag, sadly, but if I get a picture from here from anyone else, or manage to ever get back, I’ll post one right here.

So here is a view from Camp 2 looking northwards over the Andes - the mountains facing us are just under 6,000m in height.

So here is a view from Camp 2 looking northwards over the Andes – the mountains facing us are just under 6,000m in height.

We headed down pretty sharpish, and I began to feel better with every step, the relatively oxygen rich air helping my hypoxia by the minute. The weather got worse though, and a big blizzard swirled around us – I was only glad that it wasn’t like this on the way up. Aconcagua was baring its teeth and reminding us who was boss around these parts.

We all got back into Camp 1 together at about 4, and I crashed out straight away. I wondered if I had gone as far as my body was going to take me on this mountain, or indeed ever, as far as altitude was concerned. I didn’t want to quit, but I think it is important to be philosophical about these things, particularly given my recent experience.

The weather continued to be shocking – the wind howling, and snow not falling, but beating on the tent in sideways and sometimes upwards swirls. Down jackets, long johns and woolly hats remained firmly on, even inside.

Peter brought us a pasta dinner at about 7pm, and took my Sats again. My pulse ox was up to 78, although I had a headache. I asked him straight if I could or even should continue. He said I’d be fine as long as my headache went away and I felt fine later in the evening. I felt a mixture of happiness and trepidation at the news – on the one hand I’ve come so far and am so close (although 1.5 vertical kilometres) to getting to the top, and on the other I don’t want to die trying, to put it bluntly. I decided to see how I felt in the morning and not dwell too much. The phrase “tomorrow is another day” had simply never, ever, been so apt, and in this case, tomorrow would literally be another year!

Aconcagua Day 11 – 30th December 2014

So today we had planned on doing a carry to Camp 2, known as Helicopter Camp, at 17,500ft. Unfortunately when having breakfast and Peter asking how everyone was feeling, three of us (I was one) weren’t feeling 100%. As a result of this, Peter decided that it would do everyone good if we took the opportunity to have a rest day. There were four contingency days built into the programme (three meant for summit day), so we could afford the time. Everyone would be better and stronger for the climb with an extra day anyway, so that was that.

Guides will normally always ask at the start and end end of a day how people are doing. Generally they will ask if you slept, how your head is, and if everything else is ok. The questions are designed to make sure no-one has, or is likely to develop, AMS. No-one today was sick at all, just not 100% raring to go. The best ‘cure’ for potential AMS is prevention, and not going higher, so good calls are made in these circumstances.

The day was extremely windy, and so any time out of the tent had to be kept to a minimum. As such everyone just hung around and dozed or read. There were a couple of other groups around us who did go up for their carry during the day, and told us that the conditions were brutally windy at Camp 2. We’d had a forecast that told us that December 31st and 1st January would be the two worst days, and so we’d hit the bad conditions somewhere around Camp 2 as well.

Everyone was hunkered down for most of the day at Camp 1 - this one taken from the 'toilet' rock.

Everyone was hunkered down for most of the day at Camp 1 – this one taken from the ‘toilet’ rock.

At Camp 1 we no longer had amenities. Water had to be retrieved form the glacier and treated (thankfully the guides did the bulk of this), food had to be reconstituted/heated on a  camping stove for all of us and put into bowls that we had with us, and there were no longer toilet facilities. Human waste has to be ‘done’ in plastic sacks, and then tied up and left to be taken down the mountain later by porters – thankfully it would freeze, and the bags also had what amounted to cat litter inside to absorb everything. Not a pleasant subject I know, but ‘just saying’ in case you are curious. It is good that guide companies and the Aconcagua park take these things seriously – I remember my time on Kilimanjaro where I have never seen so much human waste in my life!

During the afternoon in the tent, I thought at times it was going to blow away, this despite what was probably 200kg or more of rocks holding it down, and us inside it. It can be quite an intimidating time, and not as restful as it should be. It is certainly also frustrating, as time drags, and you don’t want to sleep too much as otherwise you won’t sleep in the night, when you will spend a minimum of another 12 hours inside your sleeping bag.

The view up the mountain where we would have headed today ordinarily - maybe tomorrow.......

The view up the mountain where we would have headed today ordinarily – maybe tomorrow…….

The guides brought us dinner of burritos in our tents at about 6pm, which was great, and that was the end of the day really. The fact that I had staved off sleep during the day proved a bad choice, as the winds were so high in the night that a box of sleeping pills wouldn’t have got me to sleep. It reminded me of the infamous ‘flappy roof’ night on Elbrus where similar winds had the same result. Those if any reading who were there will know just what I mean!

The next day, regardless of conditions (unless really extreme) would see our carry up to Camp 2. We were ready, or so we thought……

Aconcagua Day 10 – 29th December 2014

Today our objective was to move to Camp 1, at just under 5,000m (16,500 feet), where we would then spend the night (and two in fact). We had stashed most of the group food, cooking equipment, and our high mountain stuff up there on a big and tiring carry the day before. Today we had to carry the rest of our equipment, including sleeping bags and all personal kit, plus the tents.

Breakfast at Base Camp was a bit of a sombre affair, due to the fact that John and Kuntal would be leaving us today (see yesterday’s post). We all gave them our best wishes, and their journey down would be by helicopter later that day. I envied them the helicopter ride due to the spectacularly rugged beauty of the surroundings, but of course not in the circumstances. This would also be the last time we saw Plaza Argentina after three days there, and it had been a great base (no pun intended). We had been fed in dining tents, had access to sanitised water, and had a (albeit hole in the ground with a metal box around it) toilet. We wouldn’t see these luxury items again until we were down from the mountain.

We set off under again cloudless skies finally at about 10.15am, after our remaining bags and duffles had been packed and weighed ready to be taken down by mule. We’d only see them again on the other side of the mountain too, in close to two weeks time. The big journey was about to really take shape.

Now just six in number, we set off on the same route as the day before, albeit with slightly lesser loads, probably 17 or 18kg this time. Luxury!

heading up through the ice pinnacles (penitents) on our way to Camp 1.

heading up through the ice pinnacles (penitents) on our way to Camp 1.

The day was a little cooler than the day before, with higher winds. We had been forecast that by December 31 the winds would be really strong, and so no-one was looking forward to that.

Still with fairly heavy loads, we head up the steep slopes to our destination just out of picture top right.

Still with fairly heavy loads, we head up the steep slopes to our destination just out of picture top right.

We made our move up the mountain in about 4 hours, a full hour quicker than the day before, aided by smaller loads and better acclimatisation. The scree slope near the top though was still really hard – a real slog for a good hour which has your heart pumping at its maximum.

When getting into Camp 1 the winds were pretty gusty, so we helped each other with putting up the tents – one person would hold it down to save it being blown 1,000m back down the mountain, whilst the others placed as large a set of rocks as they could under the guy ropes.

Putting up the tents at Camp 1.

Putting up the tents at Camp 1.

 

After we got settled in it was a case of sorting out our gear that we had left there the day before and doing some packing for tomorrow’s carry to Camp 2. Everyone was pretty tired and feeling the effects of the altitude.

The tents have to be weighted down as best you can and protected from the high winds by big rocks.

The tents have to be weighted down as best you can and protected from the high winds by big rocks.

With the tents secured, everyone could settle in and get ready for the next couple of days.

With the tents secured, everyone could settle in and get ready for the next couple of days.

At 6pm the guides cooked a rather unexpected and excellent dinner for us of cheeseburgers. They were huge too, and everyone got at least two each. Gary, my new tentmate, had three, and I don’t know how he found room, it would have been beyond me.

Within about an hour of finishing dinner, dressed in down jackets, hats and gloves, the sun disappeared behind the mountain, and the temperature dropped severely and almost instantly. It was time to get into the sleeping bags pronto, and I was at last grateful of my big down bag, it having been way too hot to even climb inside thus far.

I tried to stave off sleep as long as I could, and in the meantime watched the most spectacular storm well off in the distance. It had the highest intensity multiple forked lightning I have ever seen. And from what must have been 30 miles away it still lit our sky like a bonfire on November 5th. I had a bit of a headache and took some Alleve given to me by Gary as I didn’t want to leave my sleeping bag, and was asleep by not long after 9.

Tomorrow we would head up to Camp 2 at approximately 17,700 feet. Everything started looking like a long way off now, and the top of the mountain itself looked miles away, which it effectively was. But for now we were here, and I felt pretty good overall. We were only two camps away from a potential summit bid, but as with everything on a mountain, you really can’t think too far ahead – it is always one day, or sometimes only a few hours ahead, that you should really allow yourself to think about. And tomorrow would prove that very point very well.

Aconcagua Day 9 – 28th December 2014

Our second day at Plaza Argentina at 4,200m would see us ascend to almost 5,000m for the first time for our first proper ‘carry’ of the expedition. This would both move equipment ready for us to use even higher up the mountain, and also assist in the acclimatisation process – the tried and trusted adage of ‘climb high sleep low’ which helps your body to adjust to the ever thinning air at altitude. And 5km upwards is already high altitude – I’d only been northwards of this three times in my life, and so this is where it all gets very serious. We would thus basically go up to the next Camp and then return later the same day to where we were.

We were awoken at about 7am by the sound of a helicopter coming into camp, the first of about 4 that morning. They may have been dropping supplies, as opposed to picking up medical emergencies, I never found out.

This got everyone going though, and we began the process of finalising packing for the carry to Camp 1 at 5,000m. It became obvious very quickly that this was going to be the heaviest carry I have ever made. We also had to carry between us all of the cooking equipment, gas, and food for the next ten days. I have no idea how heavy my rucksack was, but it couldn’t have been less than 25kg. With it finally on, if I just rocked from side to side it almost made me fall over.

I couldn't have packed anything more into here if I tried.....

I couldn’t have packed anything more into here if I tried…..

 

Following a hearty breakfast of porridge, eggs, yoghurt, and toast, we we ready for the first seriously hard day of the expedition, although everyone knew that there would be harder, much harder to come if we were to get that far.

Kuntal, Pete and Fred are ready to go...

Kuntal, Pete and Fred are ready to go…

....and so am I. This is what you call a brave face when you have 25kg on your back.

….and so am I. This is what you call a brave face when you have 25kg on your back.

Setting off was such hard going. I was out of breath within five minutes, and until I could find a rhythm I wondered how far I would get. The day was also hot, much more than expected at this altitude. Thankfully the pace set by Peter was manageable, and once into a tempo I found I could at least keep up, if just.

After a break at about an hour I found I had hotspots in my new boots (never a good time to try them out), so about four pieces of Compeed later and I was good to go again. For the next section we donned helmets as this as a section notorious for rockfall. Thankfully my new helmet is fairly light and didn’t cook my head too much.

The trail continues, this is hard work, very hard work.

The trail continues, this is hard work, very hard work.

The whole walk up to Camp 1 gains about 800m, but it feels more than that, as there are three very steep sections. The last section in particular, of about 200m ascent, is as hard a stretch of walking as I have ever done, especially with 25kg on my back. Not only was it extremely steep, but there were scree sections which saw you go one step forwards and sometimes two back. They key here is never to panic or try to go too quickly – it will take every breath out of your body, quite literally. Thankfully the sun shone for us throughout and the winds were low, which helped considerably, and I stayed in a base layer all day, other than for breaks when an extra layer was necessary.

Not yet half way, but Base Camp is already a long way back down there.

Not yet half way, but Base Camp is already a long way back down there.

At a break, the top of the mountain is in sight, and Camp 1 (not yet is in view) is just over the shoulder of the ridge at the top right.

At a break, the top of the mountain is in sight, and Camp 1 (not yet in view) is just over the shoulder of the ridge at the top right.

The ice pinnacles (penitents) come into view as Camp1 gets closer.

The ice pinnacles (penitentes) come into view as Camp1 gets closer.

At Camp 1, close to 5km high, it's been a tough day.

At Camp 1, close to 5km high, it’s been a tough day.

When we finally reached Camp 1 at about 2.40, we unpacked our kit and group gear, and placed it under rocks to stop it blowing away. Camp 1 is a notoriously windy spot, and Peter told us that last year they got stuck there for 6 six days with 120mph winds. I could only hope and pray that that didn’t happen to us. Six of the eight of us made it up at this time, but both John and Kuntal had found the going even tougher than the rest of us, and came in about half an hour later, fairly exhausted it has to be said.

When we were all ready to turn round again we scree-skied down the first section, and really motored down the rest. The journey which had taken 5 and a half hours up took little more than an hour and a half down.

Following a great chicken dinner, our final one at Base Camp, Peter and Johnny had a chat with both Kuntal and John. They advised them that it would be best to hire individual porters for the remainder of the trip as they were unlikely otherwise to keep up a sufficient pace. The mountain was only going to get higher and harder after all, and next day we’d be up there trying to sleep at 5,000m. After some prolonged discussion and thought, both took the view that they had come to do the mountain expedition style and didn’t want to take the option of porters, and so decided that their trip would end at this point.

It must have been a hard and emotional decision for both of them. Kuntal was really disappointed when he came back to the tent. He’d put a heck of a lot of time, effort, money and emotion into this trip (as everyone had), and this was not the way he’d expected it to end. But he’s young, and dedicated, and had been a great team member. He’ll be back I’m sure, older, wiser and ready for the challenge next time round. John had been a brilliant guy since the moment I met him in Mendoza. We’d shared stories of golf and tennis and the like, and he would love to come over to the UK to see either Wimbledon or the British Open one day. I hope if he ever does to be able to see him there, John is simply one of the nicest people you will ever meet.

Tomorrow then we’d move, and the mountain would get tougher, as if it wasn’t already tough enough. The hardest parts were starting to bite, and we all now knew, as if we didn’t already, that this was one bloody hard mountain.

Aconcagua Day Eight – 27th December 2014

The rest day at Base Camp (4,200m) was much needed for two main reasons. Firstly we had ascended 1,000m the day before, and everyone needed a chance to try to acclimatise. Secondly I had one of the worst nights sleep I think I have ever have had,. This was caused principally by the fact that Kuntal (my tent mate) was snoring so loud that it could have woken the dead. I learned later that Gary, whose tent was some ways away from ours, had to put earplugs in himself to get to sleep. So in my case without earplugs it wasn’t fun at all. I did wake him up about three times and ask him to roll over, but it made little difference. It also went on all night, and twelve hours is a long time to listen to that.

After a ridiculously good breakfast of porridge, pancakes and eggs, everyone set about doing what the day was for – i.e. resting. We then had a scheduled appointment with the camp doctor at 11am to check on whether we were healthy and acclimatised enough to climb the mountain. This in my view is a very good thing. The tests would measure pulse, blood oxygen saturation, blood pressure, and then listening to heart and lungs. It is compulsory for everyone who climbs Aconcagua, and if you do not ‘pass’ the tests you are not allowed to continue.

Down time in the dining tent - we don't look too happy do we!

Down time in the dining tent – we don’t look too happy do we!

Unfortunately just before 11 as we were waiting we were told that the doctor wouldn’t be ready, as he was dealing with an emergency evacuation. Within about 30 minutes of this a helicopter arrived and some poor soul was taken somewhere to hospital, ailments (although presumably serious AMS) unknown. Such are the perils in the high mountains, and it is a good thing that this Base Camp is so well equipped to deal with them. The fact that there is a resident doctor also shows how high the incidence is of such happenings, and it wasn’t the first time we saw the helicopter that day.

The rescue helicopter on one of a number of visits to camp.

The rescue helicopter on one of a number of visits to camp.

Our appointments were rescheduled for 6pm, and so the afternoon was spent generally faffing with kit. We now basically had to do he reverse of what we had done so far, as the really serious stuff was ahead of us. Tomorrow the mules would take down our duffle bags, and we would begin the process of carrying everything up the mountain. We had to therefore pack all of our mountain equipment, and anything in fact that we might need between now and the 9th January, into our rucksacks. I had a short walk to just above the camp, and was exhausted in the thin air even without a heavy pack on – I could only imagine how hard it was going to be the following day with full pack on.

A look down on Base Camp from just above......

A look down on Base Camp from just above……

....and a look up at the slope we'd face early tomorrow on the first of our proper carries.

….and a look up at the slope we’d face early tomorrow on the first of our proper carries.

The packing over, and my 90 litre sack bulging at the seams (and this before being given a further 8kg of group gear the next day), we could finally see the doctor.

The examination was thorough, and lots of questions were asked. I disclosed my HACE from Elbrus, and this was duly recorded, but it didn’t phase the doctor. My stats, for the record, were pulse ox of 88 and 120 (pulse the latter, obviously), and my blood pressure 145/85. Everything else in terms of heart and lungs were normal.

The doctor told me that my blood pressure was a little high, if nothing to worry about unduly, and that I should lay off any salt for a few days. He also said that my resting pulse of 120 was a sign that I was dehydrated, and to drink more. I was already drinking a good four litres of water a day, but now that we were higher I knew I needed more, particularly as the Diamox makes you pee a lot more than normal. Everyone else passed too, but with a couple having to return the next day for further blood pressure tests.

So with that we had dinner, surprisingly of pasta not steak, and an early night at about 9pm. Tomorrow morning we would have to carry about 25kg, the biggest load of my life, up to Camp 1 at 5,000m. I can only say that I was a little apprehensive……

Aconcagua Day Seven – 26th December 2014.

Day six began with a very early and very frosty start at 5.30am. We’d be climbing about 1,000m today to Plaza Argentina, which is Base Camp on the Guanacos side of the mountain. The plan was to set off at 7am before it got too hot so we could get up the valley just after lunch, by which time at 14,000 feet (4,200m) the temperature should be very bearable, and so it was to prove.

A cold start to the day before setting off up the valley.....

A cold start to the day before setting off up the valley…..

The outside of the tents and the river bed between us and the valley were frozen as we set out. Our first objective was the river itself. We’d been told to bring sandals for the river crossing so we could wade across. The river however wasn’t wide at all, as the conditions were unusually dry, and so the guides had originally asked the muleteers if they’d carry us across on mules. They’d apparently said that there wasn’t enough in it for them, which I assume meant money, and so we figured we’d just do it under our own steam.

Crossing the river bit by bit, it wasn't deep, but it was mightily cold!

Crossing the river bit by bit, it wasn’t deep, but it was mightily cold!

In the end we did it with a combination of jumping, throwing and passing backpacks, and wading, depending upon your inclination. Either way we all crossed safely and successfully and began the climb up the valley.

The path starts to climb fairly steeply in places, and it is still very cold out of the sun.

The path starts to climb fairly steeply in places, and it is still very cold out of the sun.

The path up is a bit precarious in places, requiring the judicious use of hands clinging onto rocks at times, and not looking down. A slip down would have meant about a 100 foot fall at times, so this isn’t a trek for the faint hearted.

A fleeting view of the top of the snowy peak of Aconagua in the far distance.

A fleeting view of the top of the snowy peak of Aconagua in the far distance.

Eventually after about an hour and a half’s climbing, steep in places, we got our first sight of ‘the’ mountain. A perfect day, cloudless, the top of the mountain clearly in view above the Polish Glacier, a now unused (due to rockfall and crevasses) and dangerous route. Even from what was probably 15 miles away, Aconcagua looked gigantic. A monstrous and foreboding edifice of sheer rock and ice. It practically looks (to me at least) unclimbable from this side, which I believe it actually is. Our eventual route would take us around the North side of the mountain over a Col, to traverse past the Polish Glacier. But that was a long way off yet, probably 9 or 10 days still.

And more of the mountain comes into view - Aconcagua is on the left.

And more of the mountain comes into view – Aconcagua is on the left.

We carried on up the valley as it opened out into a vast expanse of rocks and scrubland, glacial moraine from probably centuries ago. Lunch was taken in full view of the mountain, which continued to look even more daunting (and higher) the closer we got. It was easy to forget sometimes that from even where we were, at 13,000 feet, the summit was still 10,000 feet above us. And at other times it looked like it went up forever.

And it opens up more - the day getting really hot now, despite the elevation we were at (about 13,000 g=feet here).

And it opens up more – the day getting really hot now, despite the elevation we were at (about 13,000 feet here).

The path then continued or more obvious moraine until eventually Plaza Argentina, or Base Camp, came into view. We arrived at about 2pm, and were greeted with apple juice, nuts, biscuits, cheese, salami and crackers, all served inside our own dining tent! It was fabulous luxury, and couldn’t have been more well received by all of us.

Plaza Argentina is finally here - home for the next few days.

Plaza Argentina is finally here – home for the next few days.

Plaza Argentina is huge, with probably ten or more expedition companies having semi-permanent tents set up there. This would be our home for the next three nights. The remainder of this day we would set up tents, eat and get established. Tomorrow would be a rest day by and large, with a medical examination thrown in, and also sorting out which kit went up the mountain and which went back down. The day after we would go up to camp one, stash equipment, and come back to sleep at Base Camp. All of this was part of our acclimatisation schedule. Going up 1,000m as we had today is tough on the body, and it needs time to get used to the rarefied air.

The tents of Base camp finally come into view. We'd still pitch our own of course.

The tents of Base camp finally come into view. We’d still pitch our own of course.

My tent pitched at Plaza Arentina looking up the valley, where we'd head in a days' time.

My tent pitched at Plaza Arentina looking up the valley, where we’d head in a days’ time.

By the time evening came everyone was settled in, and dinner of steak (what else?) and mashed potatoes was served. I was enormously relieved to see that Malbec did not make an appearance for the first time on the trek. Odd though that is for me to say, we were now in mountaineering mode, at altitude, and it was time to get very serious indeed, as if anyone needed reminding. The other difference was the cold – it was now getting seriously cold at night, even inside the tent, so the clothes we’d worn up until now would need to be replaced with something much more substantial. The mules had brought our duffles up this far, but they would now head down the mountain as this was as high as they could go – we’d carry everything ourselves from now on.

We didn’t need to appear much before 9 the next morning, the emphasis being on the need to rest for the time being. Unfortunately sleep came neither soon or easily, due to two factors – one the first night at high altitude is always tricky. Secondly my tentmate Kuntal was snoring like a tractor. Now I snore too, now and again – I know that through having been told enough times in my life :O But this was snoring big time, and I wasn’t doing it, I was listening to it.

Nonetheless we were here, at Plaza Argentina, and it was great. It was time to really get down to the business end of affairs now, and the next few days would sort out the men from the boys – I prayed I was strong enough to be in the former camp.