Aconcagua – the trek down and the final days

So the (very) last day on Aconcagua began with an earlier wake up call than anticipated. The tent (complete with bunk beds, no less!) that Mohammed and I were now sharing with four other US climbers, who were just commencing their climb up the mountain, saw them rise at about 6.30 to get ready. As we didn’t really have to be anywhere before 9am, then this was a bit of a waste of badly needed sleep. But no matter, we had packing to finish anyway and get our duffles ready for the mules who would take them down the remainder of the mountain for us. Our carrying days were done, it was just half a rucksack from here.

After a final breakfast at Base Camp we set off from our base at 14,200 feet to take us down to the trailhead via the ‘Normal Route’. Our journey had effectively taken us on a 360 degree tour of Aconcagua, starting from the south east going north, and now heading due south from the North Western corner. To get to the trailhead was a fairly simple trek out of just over 20 miles.

Leaving Base Camp was a bit of a nostalgic affair for me. Having tried not to make any snap decisions about the future, I didn’t know if I’d ever be back for another go. It’s a massive commitment in time and money to get this far and not summit, and so I had a lot of evaluating to do when I returned home. Did I belong at 7,000m? Questionably nobody does, but some people make it and some don’t, and I hadn’t, simple as that.

We didn't expect to be in down jackets for the trek out, but it made it easier really overall, as it was cool and windy, if a bit dusty.

We didn’t expect to be in down jackets for the trek out, but it made it easier really overall, as it was cool and windy, if a bit dusty.

The trek out was cool and windy, a sharp contrast to the two warm days before. We passed most of the time by playing word games, like where you name countries or cities and have to start with the last letter of the word used by the person in front of you. I think we ended up with Eduardo winning one and me one, by which time we had had enough. We had a brief break at Camp Confluenzia on the way down at about 12 miles, an overnight stop for those coming up the mountain by the Normal route.

Heading down towards Confluencia

Heading down towards Confluencia.

Approaching the river close to Camp Confluencia.

Approaching the river close to Camp Confluencia.

Just after we’d left Confluenzia, a fabulous chance meeting occurred. I saw Jo Tomlinson, with whom I’d climbed Elbrus in August, heading up the valley on the path next to us! Whilst I knew fine well that Jo was heading up the mountain at about this time, I had no idea what day, time or route she was taking (she with Jagged Globe, I with IMG). So the fact that we passed within 3 feet of each other and got to say hello and exchange a big hug was a fabulous moment for me. It quite made my day. I only regret that I didn’t get a photograph of the two of us, although one of her friends did, and if I get hold of it later I’ll put it up here for sure. I wish Jo all the luck in the world in her own summit attempt. At the time of writing this she is hopefully positioned somewhere around Camp 2 with a summit attempt in the next week. Fingers crossed ūüôā

Meeting Jo was one of the best moments I had on the trip - I love this photo :)

Meeting Jo was one of the best moments I had on the trip – I love this photo ūüôā

A river crossing towards the bottom of the trail.

A river crossing towards the bottom of the trail.

The mules finally catch us up......

The mules finally catch us up……

And that's it - we are done!

And that’s it – we are done!

We got to the trailhead at about 3.30pm, a six and a half hour trek, at a fair pace most of the way. From there we were met by a Grajales van who picked up us and our duffles from the mules. We were initially taken back to the Los Penitentes Hotel to collect the things that we had left there pre-Christmas, and from there it was a two hour drive back to Mendoza, where we arrived at about 8pm.

So that was that. It was over, after two and a half weeks, 14 of them on the mountain itself.

Both Gary and Mohammed got early flights out of Mendoza to get them home ahead of time. Because we had summited on the first available day of the schedule, we were effectively down three days early. I tried to get an early flight too, but the cost was prohibitive, around $1,000. I thus decided to hang around in Mendoza’s sunshine and take in the sights. Each of Pete, Fred and Eduardo did too, and we went on a couple of winery tours, ate steak until we couldn’t eat steak any more, and drank our share of what Mendoza is famous for – Malbec. They were a wonderful few days.

Our final evening when we were all together was on the Wednesday night. We were taken to a house (a friend of Tincho’s) on the edge of town, where we treated to an ‘Asado’, the Argentinian word for a long barbecue with friends. The food, of beef ribs, empanadas, cheese, vegetables and all manner of other dishes, was simply the best tasting food I have ever eaten. It was a wonderful and fitting trubute to the end of an epic and amazing adventure.

This is how you cook beef ribs :)

This is how you cook beef ribs ūüôā

The 'last supper', our celebration in Mendoza - probably the best meal I have ever eaten. No, definitely the best!

The ‘last supper’, our celebration in Mendoza – probably the best meal I have ever eaten. No, definitely the best!

It would be very remiss of me not to pay tribute here to our guides Peter, Johnny and Tincho, the former two from IMG and the latter from Grajales. Although this trip had been ‘expedition style’, whereby we’d carried our own loads and the group gear, pitched tents ourselves etc., that doesn’t take away at all from how much the guides do.

They fed us every day, they collected and treated water, they tended to our needs and also gripes and groans (of which I have to say they were very few indeed). They crucially got us up the mountain and into a position to make an attempt on the summit. Without Johnny and Tincho carrying a staggering 75kg between them the night before summit day, I believe that no-one from the group would have summitted at all. The high winds which came in the following two days would have put paid to probably even an attempt. But even more importantly than that they kept us safe. Mountaineering is a dangerous game, and Aconcagua is a dangerous mountain. People die up there and get badly sick on a regular basis. Their calm, controlled and strong leadership meant that we just had to concentrate on looking after ourselves, and keep on putting one foot in front of the other when told to. Oh if only it were so easy!

Goodbye Aconcagua, or maybe it is just ‘au-revoir’. You are my nemesis for now, and perhaps for always, but you have given me the biggest, longest and hardest adventure of my life. A journey of learning, of amazing experiences, of new friendships, of new sights and sounds. Something to be more than remembered for all time. Something that few people on the planet will ever experience. I am indeed a lucky man.

Aconcagua Day 17 – January 5th 2015.

Waking up for the first time at Base Camp on the ‘Normal Route’ side of the mountain was an eye opener. It was easy to forget that we were still at 14,500 feet. The air felt relatively fresh, and warm (even if it was actually only 1C or 33F), and it was breathable. If you walked uphill though, even back to your tent from the toilet, you still get out of breath reasonably quickly if you don’t take your time. 14,500 feet is still high altitude, and you have to still also drink more water than you normally would and look after yourself.

I was glad to be there. I had dwelt overnight as to the merits of my decision the day before to descend the mountain with my AMS. Could I/should I have persevered? The more I thought about it the answer was no, but you are always left with that nagging doubt.  I had after all made an entirely voluntary decision to come down Рno-one asked me to. But without being overly dramatic, people die up on top of high mountains like that. The refuge at Camp Cholera (Elena, after the climber of the same name who died there) bears testament to that. Also Tincho had told us of a client of his who had (recently) successfully summitted, than sat down at the very summit and died on the spot of heart failure. Nothing, to state the obvious, is worth that.

Base Camp life becomes the norm again...

Base Camp life becomes the norm again…

This one has quite different views to the Guanacos Valley side

This one has quite different views to the Guanacos Valley side – this view towards the west side of the mountain.

Plenty of 'penitentes' ice around too, reminding us that despite the sunshine, it is still a cold and inhospitable place overall.

Plenty of ‘penitentes’ ice around too, reminding us that despite the sunshine, it is still a cold and inhospitable place overall.

I spent the day sorting out kit and waiting for the rest of the group to descend. Mo and I also had a walk around the Camp, took some pictures, and visited the ‘highest Art Gallery in the world’, which is basically a tent where a hippy guy lives and sells some freakishly expensive (and a little too way out for my tastes) paintings. We also had had the news overnight that each of Pete, Fred, Eduardo and Gary had all made the summit. I was delighted for them – they deserved it, and I knew (or thought) they’d make it too. They arrived back down at about 2.30pm to much high fiving. They were all pretty exhausted, partly due to the fact that this morning up at HIgh Camp the winds had been pretty ferocious and threatened to rip tents apart.

A celebratory beer at Base Camp!

A celebratory beer at Base Camp! Fred, Gary, yours truly, Pete and Mo.

Eduardo, Martin the German doctor, Fred and Gary.

Eduardo, Martin the German doctor, Fred and Gary.

The sun begins to set on the western flank of Aconcagua - maybe the last time I'd see the sun set here, who knows.

The sun begins to set on the western flank of Aconcagua – maybe the last time I’d see the sun set here, who knows.

 

And the final sunset over the mountains as we hot our tents. Stunning.

And the final sunset over the mountains as we hit our tents. Stunning.

Eventually once everyone had exchanged stories we all had a steak dinner in the tent courtesy of Grajales, and everyone retired to a well earned sleep fairly early. Tomorrow we’d need to trek out of camp, and it was upwards of 20 miles, which would tax everyone again, if not exactly technically.

So this was my last night on Aconcagua, and tomorrow late on we would be back in Mendoza. So much to reflect on, and so much to look forward to as well. That’s the thrill, uniqueness, and challenge of the mountains.

Aconcagua Day 16 – January 4th 2015 – to the summit or not???

If you’ve followed this post from the previous one, you’ll know that here I am at 6,000m, or 19,800ft, and am hopefully waking up for a 5am departure to the summit of Aconcagua. All I’ll tell you is that that it was by far the longest night of my life.

From settling down in my sleeping bag at 7pm the previous evening until the point in time that head guide Peter knocked at the tent to rouse us, I didn’t sleep one wink. I couldn’t. My headache was pretty bad. My breathing, which I thought I would struggle with, was absolutely fine, but my head felt like it was in a vice. I had AMS, and I knew it.

I told Peter as soon as he came to the tent at 4.30am, and after some discussion he suggested I take 250mg of Diamox, and try to get some rest. My attempt, and any thoughts even, of the summit, were over immediately. It was now about being safe and well from now on, and hope that AMS remained at just AMS.

The troop departed at about 6am, and I wished Gary my tentmate the best of luck. He’s as strong as they come, and I knew that if anyone would make it, he would. I hoped they all would of course too.

I wasn’t alone in not ascending that morning. Mo had woken up in the middle of the night with a hugely swollen eye. Peter had attended to him and said that he had a facial edema, so his ascent was over at that point too.

Tincho, the local guide, stayed behind to attend to us, and he came into my tent at about 8.30am. My headache wasn’t improving much at all. I knew I needed to ascend, and asked Tincho what the plan was. He said we should wait two hours and he would make a recommendation at that point, which wasn’t really the news I wanted, but had to accept. He then returned about 5 minutes later however, and said we’d go at 10am. The reason was that another climber with Grajales (the local guides that Tincho belonged to) had taken ill in the night too with AMS. He needed to go down too and would join us. We’d all go straight to a Doctor at the bottom.

Tincho asked if I could carry my gear, or otherwise we could book a porter to come up to help. The thoughts of putting 20kg+ on my back in the condition I was in was fairly horrible. I knew however that if I didn’t it would delay the 10am departure, so I said yes, and began the difficult job of packing when you can’t function properly and feel like complete crap.

We duly began our descent, the four of us, in freezing conditions, towards Plaza de Mulas, Base Camp on the ‘Normal Route’ of the mountain. I couldn’t feel my hands, despite two pairs of gloves, a merino wool pair covered by my warmest Goretex skiing gloves. The next two and half hours is a bit of a blur really, but helped by an incredible desire to ascend, the fact that the air was palpably getting thicker by the minute, and the knowledge that if I stayed up high any longer I was putting myself in harms way, I put all my concentration and strength that I had into it. I was weak, very weak, partly due to the fact that I hadn’t slept for 36 hours.

We got down by the ‘Porters Route’ mainly scree, in about 2 and a quarter hours. It was exhausting, but rolling into Plaza de Mulas shortly after midday was a great feeling. I knew that even though I was still at 4,400m (14,900ft) I was in air that I could breathe and that I’d be ok. My headache was still there, but better, much better.

We were greeted by Grajales staff, and given juice, pizza and cake. It was wonderful. It was even warm – people were in T shirts, and what a contrast to the numbing cold that we had left behind.

Base Camp (Plaza de Mulas) comes finally into view.

Base Camp (Plaza de Mulas) comes finally into view.

We we assigned bunk beds in a tent alongside an elderly Canadian Team who had just arrived too heading in the opposite direction. I lay on my bed and slept like a baby for about three hours. It was bliss. My summit, Aconcagua, was over, but I didn’t care. I was safe, it was good, I would take stock when I got back, now just wasn’t the time.

Base Camp is a relief, even if I would rather be on the summit.

Base Camp is a relief, even if I would rather be on the summit.

The view the other side of Plaza de Mulas, looking up to where we had just come down from.

The view the other side of Plaza de Mulas, looking up to where we had just come down from. The summit is well off to the right of shot out of sight.

There's even a plastic palm tree at Plaza de Mulas!

There’s even a plastic palm tree at Plaza de Mulas!

At the end of the afternoon our Doctors appointments duly came. I was passed as fine, other than my AMS, and told to keep on taking Diamox until I reached Mendoza, which I duly did. Mo was fine too – his eye swelling had dramatically improved on the way down, and so the decent obviously made a huge difference to him. The pictures I saw subsequently of his swollen eye at Camp Cholera were horrendous – he looked like a bug-eyed chameleon who had then gone ten rounds with Mike Tyson – not a pretty sight at all. He said afterwards that he felt that his heart was actually beating in his eye, it must have been a scary experience.

The interesting thing about this day for me was the fact that the German climber (the doctor) had also got AMS. Here was a very experienced climber who had done Aconcagua before, Denali, Kartstenz Pyramid and all manner of other high and scary mountains, and he was prone with AMS also. He’d also looked as fit as a fiddle all of the way up the mountain. As he said at the time though, “I’m a human being just like you, it can happen to anyone”.

I have to thank Tincho most of all for this day. He was brilliant. He hadn’t ascended the mountain himself as he was also sick. He had a terrible sore throat and had been very much under the weather for days. Despite that he’d carried 38kg on his back the day before to give us the summit shot, and here he was tending to the sick and needy and haring down a mountain to get them all to safety. ‘Chapeau’ as they say in cycling.

So my day was over, and my thoughts and hopes of summiting Aconcagua too. There was no going back up. It would either be never, or a long wait for another day. Now wasn’t the time to dwell on that.

News came later of successful summits for each of Gary, Pete, Fred and Eduardo – ‘chapeau’ to them too. If any of them are reading this and would like to write up a piece for me to insert of your summit day and experience then please let me know, and I’ll put it up here too. I know from your stories afterwards of how much mental and physical energy it took, and my hearty congratulations again to you all.

Aconcagua Day 15 – January 3rd 2015

Things are moving now at such a pace it makes your head spin, and unfortunately also your head hurt, but more on that later.

This morning we woke up up to a beautiful cloudless sky at Camp 2, 5,500m (17,800ft). It was the highest elevation I had ever slept at, and I slept surprisingly well. There were probably 20 times that I woke up and tossed and turned, checked the temperature (-11 the lowest I saw, but that was inside the tent), and took a sip from my semi-frozen (despite insulated bottle holder) water, but I by and large got back to sleep right away. Good news :). It had also been a fairly calm night, although the tents were held down with boulders that would have stopped an elephant in its tracks.

Final morning at Camp 2....

Final morning at Camp 2….not a bad sky!

Time to untie these boulders from the tent then.

Time to untie these boulders from the tent then.

Today was move day for the second time in a row, following yesterday’s news that we’d try to summit tomorrow (4th Jan). This meant we had to get another 2,000 feet up the mountain in order to be at the final camp to have any chance of making it. We¬†began therefore¬†to unpack tents and carry everything that we’d brought with us, probably upwards of 20kg. The guides however had decided to carry everything else, including tents and group gear, to help us out. Otherwise, we simply couldn’t have got up the mountain in one shift.¬†Peter’s backpack apparently weighed 75lbs (29kg), and I learned afterwards that Tincho and Johnny both carried 38kg (84lbs) – quite astonishing at this altitude.

Following our packing, Johnny and Tincho went ahead to set up tents for us at High Camp, and we began with Peter our own journey up the mountain. We’d head up to around 6,000m (19,800 feet), and this would therefore be our last (and hardest) carry. The climb out of Camp 2 is also almost unmercilessly steep, steep enough in parts where if you fell you’d be hurting yourself. With the added weight on your back, combined with the lack of oxygen, it made it a massive effort. I thought back to the 20% hill back in Woburn that I used so many times to train on, and thought how ridiculously easy it seemed now. I imagined myself running up there and laughing maniacally when I got home.

We took about three stops on the way up, the gradient lessening, but still very hard work the whole way. The weather was cold enough by now for two pairs of gloves, long johns, Goretex top and bottom etc. At the final stop, Peter took the time to explain to us a few things that we’d need to take, and not take, for summit day, and what else to expect. The summit push was probably less than 24 hours away now. It brought everything home, and I began to believe properly that I might just be standing on the top of Aconcagua the very next day. It was a very emotional moment, but I tried not to lose focus.

We rolled into High Camp at about 2.30pm, around 5 hours after leaving Camp 2. Perched at the foot of the final ascent (a mere 980m!) to the summit itself, Camp Cholera is as you would expect the bleakest of places. Brutally cold, incredibly windswept, and just a rocky platform enabling a few crazy people to pitch a tent to enable them to hopefully realise their goal of getting up to one of the Seven Summits. Otherwise I cannot imagine anyone, ever, wanting to, or having been here.

 

Camp Cholera, 6,000m (19,800 feet) - the summit feels like you can touch it from here....

Camp Cholera, 6,000m (19,800 feet) – the summit is five hours and 2,000 vertical feet closer and yet somehow continues to look further away!

We did as suggested by the guides and buried ourselves in our tents right away. It would have been too cold to do anything than get inside your sleeping bag anyway. It took a bit of a while to get water to us, as the only way of getting it was to boil snow, and as anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of chemistry will tell you, boiling takes much longer at altitude. I think it took two hours to get sufficient water to supply everyone, and by then I unfortunately had a headache. I’m not blaming the former on the latter, they are just facts that’s all.

I wolfed down as much as I could before dinner (about 5.30pm), and began to think about getting things I needed for the following morning, which would start at about 5am. We’d carry very little – crampons, ice axe, enough food for 10 breaks, water (two litres), and that’s about it. We’d be wearing everything else – four layers on the legs (long johns, climbing trousers, Goretex, and then salopettes), and five on top (thermal base layer, fleece, light Pertex or down jacket, Goretex shell, and then big down jacket). The forecast for the day was still good, clear skies, 25kph winds, and -32C. An almost perfect scenario I was told.

My headache started however to get worse, and sadly my dinner of mashed potatoes was unpalatable to say the least. I did eat probably half, but it made me feel a bit nauseous. I began to worry if I was going to get AMS, but tried to put all thoughts out of my mind. These things are ‘normal’ after all at this sort of altitude.¬†I was also so close now, so tantalisingly close. If I’m brutally honest with myself part of me thought I wouldn’t get this far, to be sleeping at 19,800 feet with one slog to go. I had to simply banish all these thoughts and get through the night, sleep, look after myself and be strong. Easy to say of course, and so much (almost cryingly) harder in the here and now.

“Try to sleep, try to sleep, your headache isn’t getting worse, your headache isn’t getting worse, you can do it, try to sleep………..”

Aconcagua Day 14 – 2nd January 2015

Today we woke up at about 6.30 to a snowy and cold world at Camp 1, our third or fourth morning here, I can no longer remember. Looking out of the tent however gave no suggestion that we were going anywhere soon. The wind was still howling down the valley, and there was at least two inches of snow and ice outside. On the upside, the sky was blue – bluer than we’d seen it so far in fact. That also made it colder though – the temperature outside was about -10C.

We were visited by Peter at about 8am, to say that the move was on. We didn’t need to be told twice and began packing immediately. By around 10am everyone was fully laden with group gear, food, tents and our own kit, and we were moving slowly up the mountain. This was the same section where I’d had my ‘turn’ two days before, so I was not a little apprehensive. But I had to put those thoughts behind me – I’d been passed fit, and I was here to give this pig of a mountain my best shot.

We moved at a pretty slow pace, which suited me just fine. The strategy was three breaks for water, but no other stops at all. The sun continued to shine, and sadly I have no photographs to show for it. My camera battery died in the cold this morning, my iPhone is dead and has been for days, and I have no spare camera batteries with me. Lessons learned and all that.

The whole group stayed together and worked well. There were also at least two other groups headed up alongside us, one from RMI and the other I believe from Alpine Ascents. Everyone had been stuck at Camp 1 for at least four days, so this was moving day for everyone (due to the forecast), cold or no cold. At times the wind gusted brutally, and we had Goretex layers on top of down, plus long johns etc. I wondered just how colder this mountain could get.

I passed the point where I had previously ‘wobbled’ without incident, and we all got into Camp 2 (5,550m, or 17,900 ft) at about 2.30pm. By the time we had erected tents, using boulders this time instead of rocks, it was about 3.45pm. Camp 2 is wonderfully perched with spectacular views over the Andes, and I just wish I could take a picture. It was also due to be an altitude record for me in terms of sleeping, the previous highest being Gorak Shep in the Himalayas, so I just hoped I could sleep at all. Just being still in my sleeping bag, my resting heartbeat was over 100, and if you moved or sat up too quickly you were out of breath very quickly.

The tents pitched at Camp 2 - there are prettier places to camp.......

The tents pitched at Camp 2 – there are prettier places to camp…….

....but the views over the Andes are utterly spectacular.

….but the views over the Andes are utterly spectacular.

Having settled in, we figured that the plan from here should get us to a summit attempt around the 6th January (this is the 2nd as I write this). We’d move some stuff tomorrow, then come back here tomorrow night. Then weather permitting we’d move tents and Camp to High Camp at 19,800 feet or so on the 4th. A rest day on the 5th should give us a summit attempt early on the 6th January all being well.

But just after a dinner of pasta, pesto and sun dried tomatoes, Peter came to our tent to give us an update on the weather forecast. It seemed that bad weather (high winds of 50mph plus) was coming in on the 6th, and the 5th didn’t look much better either. There was however a full moon on the 4th, with potential winds of just 25kph, almost unheard of on this mountain. There was therefore a change of plan…….

We’d now move camp again tomorrow morning to High Camp as long as everyone felt up for it after our night here, and then after a brief sleep we’d go straight for the summit on the morning of the 4th. That’s about 36 hours from now! As explained to us, it was basically a one shot attempt, as if we didn’t make the weather window, we were going down.

I think we all knew at this point in time (or maybe it was just me, who knows) that to get 5,000 feet higher than we were now inside less than two days, having just come up 1,800 feet today, on the World’s tallest mountain outside of the Himalayas, that not all of us would make it. But it was on, and we’d get a shot, hopefully, and that was what we were all here for. It doesn’t, and couldn’t, get any more exciting than that.

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.