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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.