Aconcagua – Christmas Day 2014

Waking up under canvas for the first time this trip was somewhat strange for a host of reasons. For one it was unexpectedly cold – having been baking under a 30 C sun for all of the previous day it was clearly hat and gloves weather outside. Secondly it was almost surprising to be finally moving – this was after all six days after I’d left England, and this was only day two of the trek. Thirdly it was Christmas Day, and this was the first time in my life I could say that on Christmas morning I’d be waking up next to a bloke who I’d only just met a few days before too! Such is life on a mountain though 🙂

Merry Christmas - and brrr!

Merry Christmas – and brrr!

I hadn’t slept as well as I would have liked, as I could certainly feel the altitude (even though it was only about 9,500 feet), and also the aforementioned tentmate did snore a bit more than I would have liked, but again such is life on a mountain!

Today we’d trek about 9 miles further up the Guanacos valley. There wouldn’t be too much ascent, only about 400m or so, and this would be the last time we’d be at a ‘sensible’ altitude of 3,000m or so. Tomorrow Base Camp (Plaza Argentina as it is known) would take us above 4,000m for the first time.

It is amazing how quickly the temperature changes once the sun comes up. Within about 10 minutes of the above picture being taken the sun had warmed things up to the point that I was already in shorts.

it's getting hot already...

it’s getting hot already…

Breakfast outside was great, coffee, granola cereal and then bacon and eggs. By the time tents and the like were unpacked it was about 10am, and we set off very soon afterwards. I took my first Diamox of the trip here and vowed to stay on it from hereon in – am not sure if it is an effective antidote against snoring but it might help in other areas!

The trek on up the dry and dusty Guanacos Valley continues....

The trek on up the dry and dusty Guanacos Valley continues….

Still really hot as the valley opens up - even the mules are taking it easy..

Still really hot as the valley opens up – even the mules are taking it easy..

The mules overtake us of course and we end up about half an hour behind them into camp.

The mules overtake us of course and we end up about half an hour behind them into camp.

We spot some Guanacos near to camp - these were the only ones we saw all trip.

We spot some Guanacos near to camp – these were the only ones we saw all trip.

By the time we got a few hundred yards from camp, there was an opening in the valley to our left, and a view (our first) of Aconcagua herself. You could immediately see why she is called The Stone Sentinel – apart from how massive the mountain is, it looked dark and broody, a very inhospitable and cold place.

The first sighting of Aconcagua - a great Christmas present!

The first sighting of Aconcagua – a great Christmas present!

We pitched tents and got some downtime before dinner, the evening was calm but again got very cold very quickly, and it would be a very cold night with a hard frost.

Our second camp.

Our second camp.

 

Camp 2 - the stone hut was where the muleteers slept and cooked our amazing dinner in a fire pit outside.

Camp 2 – the stone hut was where the muleteers slept and cooked our amazing dinner in a fire pit outside.

Dinner was fabulous. The best chicken I think I have ever tasted – done over hot coals and crispy and wonderful. I don’t think I could have wanted for more. It was the perfect Christmas dinner in fact. It was also washed down with (of course) two bottles of Malbec! I hadn’t expected wine to still make an appearance this far up the valley, although (thankfully I suppose) this would be the last time – we were about to ascend a fair bit the next day, and it was time to get serious now.

Unfortunately the day nearly ended very badly. At the end of dinner we were told that we had to get to breakfast for 5.45 for a 6am start, so once the packing up was done, I went up the hill to the toilet (the green enclosure in the above photo). When I was done, I found that I couldn’t open the door and it had locked shut from the outside. There wasn’t so much as a handle let alone a key and so I was stuck. The only way out might have been down “Slumdog Millionaire” style, and that even went through my mind for a fleeting moment.

I actually had to shout for help in the end, and thankfully after a few valiant efforts from Pete and Gary to break the door down, one of the muleteers appeared with something to unlock it. I can only say that I have never been so relieved in my life. I was there for the longest 20 minutes of my life!

Back to the tent and I reflected on the fact that this was Christmas Day. Those who know me know that I have both been inspired and moved (and that’s a massive understatement I can tell you) for some long time now by a group of people who have given so much back to society, following a most tragic event in their lives. They are known as Pete’s Dragons, and although I won’t go into the whole story here, I would urge you to read about them, and if you can, to please find a way to make a donation to their principal two causes, which are Samaritans and the Cornwall Search and Rescue Team:  http://www.petesdragons.org.uk/Core/PetesDragons/Pages/Default.aspx

The point of the above illustration here is that for Christmas, a long way away back in the UK, I’d left letters and gifts of Pete’s Dragons Bears (amongst a few other things) for my son and daughter. They’re 23 and 21 now, but no-one (most certainly including me) is too old for a bear. My own bear came with me on this trip and reminded me of the gift of giving, and it made my Christmas Day a happy one for me.

My "Pete's Dragons' Bear, back the day before in the Los Penitentes Hotel.

My “Pete’s Dragons’ Bear, back the day before in the Los Penitentes Hotel.

To Dan and Becca on this Christmas Day, I love you very much indeed, and am so proud of you both.

To everyone else, most importantly to the folks at Pete’s Dragons, I wish you a wonderful and very happy Christmas 2014.

Aconcagua Day Five – Christmas Eve 2014

Day four was the real first day if you like. The day when we would finally start moving up the mountain.

We woke up in the Hotel Ayelena in Los Penitentes and assembled for an 8am breakfast. This would be our last day with a roof over our heads until we returned to Mendoza, so it was nice to have a final shower and the like before waving goodbye to creature comforts for a while. It was also Christmas Eve, although it certainly didn’t feel like it, as it was already hot by 9am, and most people donned shorts for the day ahead.

The gang ready and assembled - time to march!

The gang ready and assembled – time to march!

We’d finalise our readiness for the day by leaving anything that we didn’t need for the mountain at a locker in the hotel, and then got our rucksacks ready for the off. All of our high mountain gear was going by mule for the first three days of the trip, and so we didn’t have to carry too much on our backs.

By the time we set out (about 10.50) it was sweltering, and I was grateful for having bought a hat with a neck flap to keep the sun off the backs of my head and neck. The trail head started at about 2,400m, and after a quick group photograph, we were off, this was it! The going was fairly flat for the main part, as this was the trek in to the mountain itself, a journey of about 30 miles over three days.

At the trailhead on the Guanacos route to Aconcagua.

At the trailhead on the Guanacos route to Aconcagua.

We walked almost entirely along the edge of a river, which consisted of glacial meltwater from Aconcagua itself. The valley was sheltered from the wind, which made it hotter still, and after a while I felt the backs of my hands burning. Clearly factor 30 sun tan lotion doesn’t cut it round these parts, and so I nabbed a bit from Kuntal who had bought some factor 80, although he said he didn’t need it, has never used it, and therefore had to ask me how to put it on 🙂

The first break, much needed, in the Guanacos Valley.

The first break, much needed, in the Guanacos Valley.

We stopped for a drinks break after about an hour, and the valley was starting to open up by now.

Further up the valley we begin to climb a bit as it opens up, the temperature still very hot.

Further up the valley we begin to climb a bit as it opens up, the temperature still very hot.

We then trekked on looking for our mule train, which eventually overtook us about half an hour from camp.

We spot the mule train coming up the valley behind us, always best to let them pass :)

We spot the mule train coming up the valley behind us, always best to let them pass 🙂

The dry and dusty first day continues - Pete, Mo and Fred lead the way.

The dry and dusty first day continues – Pete, Mo and Fred lead the way.

We reached camp at about 4, after about 10 miles, and then had fun putting tents up. There is no way on the rock hard ground that you can bang tent pegs in, and so you need to find the largest rocks that you can to secure the tent against strong winds.

We finally reach camp just after the mules do.

We finally reach camp just after the mules do.

Tents can take some careful rigging when the ground is so dry....

Tents can take some careful rigging when the ground is so dry….

....and even if you think conditions are good, as much shelter from the wind is crucial.

….and even if you think conditions are good, as much shelter from the wind as you can get is crucial.

After discussions about AMS from Johnny and Peter it was straight into dinner. A bunch of the muleteers had cooked up an absolute feast over an open fire, and so we dined in fine style on steak and salad. Two bottles of Malbec mysteriously appeared, and it would have been rude (and way beyond my willpower) to say no, so I didn’t.

The sun goes down over the Guanacos Valley, Christmas Eve - even the mules are still.

The sun goes down over the Guanacos Valley, Christmas Eve – even the mules are still.

First dinner on the mountain - the temperature has dropped dramatically by now.

First dinner on the mountain – the temperature has dropped dramatically by now.

The temperature had dropped from probably 30 degrees to 0 degrees by the evening was done. Retiring into our two man tents it was strange to think that it would soon be Christmas Day. I thought of home and the presents I’d bought (of which more tomorrow), and thought how strange tomorrow would be.

As the night drew on and I fell into sleep, I was woken up at some point by the muleteers, who were clearly celebrating Christmas itself. The cries appeared to be “yeehaas” and the like, probably fuelled by whatever muleteers carry in their saddlebags during the day – they were clearly very happy. I was happy too – happy to be in the Andes, on my way finally to the mountain which I had not yet even seen, but which I knew lay close at hand and presented the challenge of a lifetime for me. Roll on Christmas Day, when I may finally see it at long last!

Aconcagua Day Four – 23rd December 2014.

So day four began with a little earlier wake up than I would have planned. Our schedule was to sign permits at 9am and head out at 10 for our journey by minibus to Penitentes, our final stop under a roof before we return to Mendoza in about 18 days time. There we’d do final gear checks and distribute all of the tents and food between us and the mule train. We’d then head out onto the mountain itself tomorrow.

I’d therefore figured on breakfast at about 8 or so, having packed everything into four bags yesterday (base camp duffle, trekking duffle, expedition rucksack, and ‘non-mountain’ bag. Unfortunately Kuntal, my roommate woke at about 6 or so, and was pacing the floor for about an hour in eager anticipation. I couldn’t blame him – this was his first proper expedition and was like an excitable puppy. I tried to doze but it didn’t really work.

After a final bit of faffing with the bags, and some breakfast, it was time to sign our lives away (hopefully not literally – see form below):

Disclaimer form signed - I still haven't read it!!

Disclaimer form signed – I still haven’t read it!!

We then got all the bags ready, and sat around for a seemingly interminable time until eventually (about 11.30, this is how time works in Argentina) we headed out in the bus:

Bags nearly ready for the off in the foyer of the hotel.

Bags nearly ready for the off in the foyer of the hotel.

The journey up and to the Andes was spectacular. A fairly short journey of about five hours (punctuated by a lunch stop at a place in the middle of nowhere at about 2,000m) we saw stunning snow-capped 6,000m peaks from early on.

The Andes come into view from the van

The Andes come into view from the van

Our van driver definitely didn’t hang about on the road. The road we were on was the main one through to Chile and was a well maintained highway, and the driver seemed intent on seeing if he could get two wheels off the ground on sharp corners, and also see if he could  scare the bejeezus out of moped drivers by sitting about three feet behind them. What a guy!

We arrived into the ski resort of Penitentes at about 4pm. It sits at about 2,700m, and is a bit (well a lot actually) on the tired side. There was a chair lift right opposite the hotel but as the temperature was about 25C and there wasn’t a bit of snow in sight, this was not exactly skiing season.

Welcome to the Hotel Ayelena!

Welcome to the Hotel Ayelena!

Rooms in the hotel...

Rooms in the hotel…

Plenty of room at the Hotel Ayelena.

Plenty of room at the Hotel Ayelena.

The ski lifts (no longer used) in front of the hotel. The top of these slopes must have been close on 4,000m, shame about the lack of snow.

The ski lifts (no longer used) in front of the hotel. The top of these slopes must have been close on 4,000m, shame about the lack of snow.

The hotel Ayelena would be our base for the night, and whilst it was every bit as tired as the rest of the resort, it was definitely functional.

Just after arriving, we loaded all of the expedition gear into a weighing room under the hotel, where it was separated into different sections for the mules. We’d likely not see our high altitude stuff until Base Camp three days away. Our trekking bags complete with sleeping bags and surplus clothes etc would go onto the mules each day too along with the food, cooking equipment, tents, tables etc. We would then carry everything else in our rucksacks, and separate the rest into a bag to stay here until we got back off the mountain. This included all street clothes and other travelling stuff. Looking at all of the kit, it began to hot mw just how much we’d need to carry on this expedition. I definitely wasn’t on Kilimanjaro anymore!

Assembling the kit in the weighing room underneath the hotel.

Assembling the kit in the weighing room underneath the hotel.

The rest of the evening was downtime until dinner at 9pm. We had a quick walk across the main road to see if there were any signs of life. Aside from a porters lodge (devoid of porters) and a minimart (locked, and devoid of pretty much everything) that was it. It seems the ski resort had been closed for four years now, due to lack of snow.

The anticipation now though was so palpable. We’d been waiting for three days, and the time it took us to travel, and hang around, to get going, was finally over. Everyone was like coiled springs. Tomorrow, finally, after what seemed like forever and a day, we’d stretch our legs and begin the trek to Base Camp. It couldn’t come soon enough – it was Aconcagua time at last, after three years (long story for those who know it!) of anticipation.

Aconcagua Day Two/Three – 22nd December 2014.

So last night (the first in Argentina) we ended up going for a steak meal with our guides. It would have been rude not to, even if the word ‘Malbec’ hadn’t appeared, which I am very glad to say it did. The steak was everything I’d hoped it to be and more, and the Malbec was stunningly good. I discovered that you can indeed cut Argentinian steak without a knife too – I have the feeling after just one taste that I’ll never eat a steak in my home country ever again.

We are all assembled now, and there are eight clients altogether. There were to be nine, but one dropped out with sickness just before the trip. Everyone had long trips in, although some folks have been here for two days already due to flight schedules etc. There is Peter and Fred (father and son), Kuntal (also my roommate), and John and Gary, all from the U.S, Mohammed from Australia, and Eduardo and me from the UK. Eduardo originally hails from Mozambique.

At last night’s meal we all got to chat, and meet guides Peter (lead guide) and Jonathan from IMG, and Martin (or ‘Tincho as he is known) from Grajales the local guide company who IMG use. Everyone is great and very relaxed. I took my lead from Peter, and ordered ‘bife de chorizo’, which is ‘top loin’ or sirloin strip. It was extremely pink, incredibly tender, and probably as memorable a meal as I have ever had in my life. Sat outside, with local Malbec, the meat the only thing on the plate (no accompaniments could have done it justice, and weren’t missed at all). Fabulous.

Day two then began with a kit inspection for me and Kuntal, and I passed mine thankfully without need to buy anything further. Kuntal wasn’t so lucky, and had to go to the local gear shop in town and part with a wedge of cash to get boots, duffle bags, gaiters and sunglasses for a variety of reasons. It was a great shop though, so he was able to get all he needed in one go. I got a good mooch around too – always good to look around equipment shops as far as I am concerned.

Kit inspection in the hotel - I passed!

Kit inspection in the hotel – I passed!

 

A map on the wall of the climbing shop showed the route to Aconcagua - it didn't mean much as yet...

A map on the wall of the climbing shop showed the route to Aconcagua – it didn’t mean much as yet…

On the wall of the climbing shop was a map of the mountain. We’d be taking the Guanacos Valley/False Polish Glacier Route up, and the Normal Route down. This way is  referred to locally as the ‘360’, as you effectively circumnavigate the whole mountain. The Guanacos Valley is on the right hand (easterly) side of the mountain, and the Normal route is on the west. The ‘false’ Polish Glacier route refers to the fact that you go to the approach of the Polish Glacier (the North Eastern face of the mountain) but then do not actually take the glacier, veering off instead to skirt alongside it, from the highest camp on the mountain, Colera, at 6,000m.

We also had to go through a convoluted process of getting our permits for the mountain. The pass costs 8,088 pesos, which is anywhere between 700 and 1,000 US dollars depending upon where you got your currency from. Thankfully we were tipped off about the currency just in time to get the better rate. There are in fact two rates of exchange in Argentina (for US dollars only I believe). One is the rate the banks give you, which is 8 to the USD. The other is 12 to the USD, which you can get from hotels, shops and the like, or anyone basically in the black market.

Lining up at a kiosk in downtown Mendoza for our Aconcagua passes - bizarre!

Lining up at a kiosk in downtown Mendoza for our Aconcagua passes – bizarre!

And it is just that. Don’t expect to get a receipt, or the money counted out or anything – you just hand over say $1,000 in cash (only) like I did, and someone hands you a bundle of notes with a rubber band round it, and walks off. It takes a bit of a leap of faith, but for a whopping 50% difference in exchange rate, it has to be worth the gamble, and worked perfectly for all of us. This meant that my permit, which has to be paid in cash like seemingly everything in Argentina, worked out at $700. If I’d done things ‘properly’, it would have been over $1,000. Wow.

With permits bought and back at the hotel early afternoon, we could all just rest and begin to sort out kit for the following day. We were required to sort everything into four bags:

1. A duffle for the trek to Base Camp, with sleeping bag, clothes we’d need, snacks and medical/personal stuff etc.
2. A duffle for Base Camp, with everything we didn’t need until the higher mountain, like climbing boots, harness, crampons, ice axe, down jacket, etc.
3. Rucksack, with waterproofs, water bottles, hats, gloves and the like.
4. Anything else we didn’t need on the mountain – Normal clothes etc and other surplus stuff.

Bags 1 and 2 would go by mule, but we wouldn’t see bag 2 until Base Camp itself. We’d carry 3 all the time, and bag 4 will stay in tomorrow night’s destination, a hotel in Penitentes. All this sorting out took some considerable time, and meantime the guides were sorting out food, tents and other provisions that we would also go by mule, but that we would also be required to carry up the mountain ourselves in caches post Base Camp.

part of the food and kit we'd need to take up to the mountain with us.

Part of the food and kit we’d need to take up to the mountain with us.

Looking at all of the stuff here made you realise just how much planning and preparation goes into these trips.

The extra day was very much worthwhile. It was frustrating in a way not to be on the mountain and on the move, but the rest was needed after the 30 hours of travelling the day before. Time will tell how I’ll feel when underway, but right now I’m very grateful for it.

In the evening we assembled again as a group, minus guides this time, and went out for more steak and Malbec. It would have been rude not to really. Jonathan, one of the guides, told me that he stays down in Mendoza to climb for a month or so post expedition, and eats nothing but steak the whole time. When he goes back to the U.S. he doesn’t eat meat at all, and doesn’t feel the need to. He just waits until he comes back down here again. I’m sure I’ll feel the same way about beef when I get home, but for now I’m just going to enjoy it while I can. The mountain food that we are going to have for the next three weeks will I am sure make us yearn so badly for anything at all that is even normal, let alone exceptional.

Tomorrow, at 9am, the waiting will be over. We’ll be out of here and on our way to Aconcagua. Showtime!

Aconcagua Day One – 20th December 2014

And So it Began……

Saturday afternoon of 20th December came around way too quickly. A complete whirlwind in fact. The last month or so at work has been so hectic that I have hardly had time to draw breath, and so there was barely time to think properly about the trip, let alone get excited. Excited however I should be :- this is the longest trip I’ve been on; to a totally new country for me (Argentina); to the highest mountain in the Southern Hemisphere; to hopefully the highest I have ever been (and may practically ever go), just shy of 7,000m; and to one of the World’s Seven Summits; and my third of these. Oh and I’ll be up the mountain at both Christmas and New Year too. How much more excitement can you get?

Having packed everything into two 100l duffles (yes two), I was ready and away to Heathrow. Both duffles contained everything I would need for the 23 days ahead of me, including my new 90l rucksack. Upon getting to Mendoza, one duffle would stay at the hotel there (we’d stay for one night each end of the trip there to sort stuff out) with anything that wasn’t needed on he mountain. The second duffle would be packed with all of the high mountain gear, and go by mule to Base Camp. Everything else would be on my back in the rucksack for the duration of the trek.

With a fair wind, or should I say not too much wind at all, and a lot of luck, the itinerary will get us to a possible summit bid on the 4th January, exactly two weeks from today.

Meantime it was travel, travel, travel. Just as well I like travelling, as this was the most brutal journey I’ve ever undertaken. From leaving the house at 3pm local time, to getting to Mendoza at a scheduled 6pm local time the next day, this was a 30 hour journey. I’m sure you can probably get to the moon as quickly these days, but so be it. It’s all part of the adventure, and allowed me to (albeit briefly) to touch down in both Brazil and Chile en route. In fact I write this particular piece on a flight from Sao Paolo in Brazil to Santiago in Chile. If I tell you that his was the shortest journey I could get, then you’ll get the picture of how far Mendoza is from Milton Keynes!

One thing I’d say to anyone reading this who might be making this journey in the future (and there are a few of you :)) then I’d say make sure you get yourself a window seat on the plane if you fly into Mendoza via Santiago. The views out of each side appeared breathtaking as the plane flew over the spine of the Andes. I was sadly stuck in the middle of the plane and was frustrated as people had their noses pinned looking out over cloudless skies to the massif below. Lessons learned and all that……

Santiago airport was about a three hour layover following the flight from Brazil, and then it was a hop and a skip (albeit a very bumpy skip, we had a lot of turbulence, and I was told by the German lady sat beside me that it is always like that) back over the Andes to Mendoza. The flight took probably 35 minutes, and again if you are doing this trip get a seat on the left hand side of the plane as you’d see Aconcagua from that side. I didn’t know, and so saw not much of it at all.

When finally at Mendoza airport, I was mightily relieved to see my duffle bags had made it, and I jumped in a cab to the Nutibara Hotel in downtown Mendoza, just about 5 miles away. The door to door journey was 30 hours, and with very little sleep on the plane I was fit to drop when I got in at about 6pm on Sunday evening. I met quickly my roommate, Kuntal, who hadn’t been so lucky with his luggage, and then took a quick walk into town to keep myself awake.

The Hotel Nutibara, Avenue de Mitres, Mendoza

The Hotel Nutibara, Avenue des Mitres, Mendoza

In the evening we met our guides, Peter and Johnathan from IMG, and talked about what to expect over the next few days. I tried to pay attention to the guides but I have to say it was hard as I was so beat.

Tomorrow would be kit sorting day, permit day, and getting ready to trek out. I’d need to sleep very well, and I was ready for just that………