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.

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:

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………

It’s beginning to look a lot like…….Aconcagua Time!

It’s well overdue that I posted here, so am doing so to update on preparations for Aconcagua, which are happening at a pace that I almost cannot even keep up with.

Aconcagua in all her glory.

Aconcagua in all her glory.

My trip is a matter of days away now, and I can honestly tell you that I just don’t know if I am ready or not. There are several reasons for this.

One is a bit of a state of anxiety over potential altitude sickness. Having been to around (or close to) 6,000m on three occasions now (Kilimanjaro, Island Peak/Everest Base Camp, and Elbrus), I have had let’s say mixed results with AMS. On Kili I had mild symptoms at around 4,000m. In Nepal I was feeling a bit groggy from 4,000m onwards. In Russia I was fine until the descent, when I began to show symptoms of HACE. The latter was the scariest experience of my life.

Secondly, Aconcagua is a different kettle of fish from the mountains I have done so far. At close to 7,000m and 23,000 feet, it is a quantum leap above the others in many ways. The altitude itself will be hard enough, but add to this the fact that I have to carry more weight than ever before (upwards of 20kg) then this will be an incredible effort. I find 20kg in a suitcase is hard to pick up, let alone carry on my back at altitude. Having read also so many guide companies’ websites and various blogs on the subject, I haven’t heard anyone say anything other than “if you think because you’ve been up Kili you can climb Aconcagua, then think again”, or words to that effect. Final camp in fact is above 20,000 feet, so I have the words “good luck trying to sleep there before summit night” ringing in my ears too.

Finally my training hasn’t probably been all it could be. There is some good, and some not so good here. On the one (good) hand, I’ve been out walking every single weekend since Russia, so that’s nearly four months of doing between 10 and 20 miles each time of usually pretty undulating terrain. And I was as fit as I’ve ever been then, so I don’t think I’ve lost anything. I’ve even been and done the Brecon Beacons twice in that time too. On the other (not so good) hand I’ve really done precious little else. There has been the odd 30/40 mile bike ride, but that’s it. No gym, no squats, no planking, no nothing. I generally believe that there is no experience for anything like doing that particular activity, so we will see.

The only thing I think I am definitely prepared for is with my kit. With one week to go, it is bought, and laid out ready to pack. My kit list, for anyone who is interested, is per the below (so Katherine Thomson if you are reading this, this one is for you, albeit three months late!).

The list is copied from the IMG website, and is exactly as is, because being a conformist, I have already ticked off everything on the list 🙂

[  ] LARGE size internal frame pack: 80 cu liters plus
[  ] ice ax (60-70 cm length is the most useful, light is right)
[  ] collapsible ski poles for the approach
[  ] crampons (aluminum is OK for this trip)
[  ] climbing harness (light weight)
[  ] climbing hard hat is also required
[  ] 1 locking and 2 regular carabiners
[  ] sleeping bag (down, it’s lighter and more compressible) Should be rated to approx. 0 to minus 10°F.
[  ] full length foam and/or Thermarest pad or Neo Air
[  ] double climbing boots
[  ] regular gaiters, add insulated Supergaiters for extra warmth and/or the Intuition foam liners, which fit most double boots, if you’re looking for a more warmth.
[  ] light hiking shoes for the approach
[  ] socks for the hike, normally 3 pair
[  ] sandals for river wading
[  ] three sets of wool socks for the climb
[  ] light hiking shirt. Nylon dries fast
[  ] hiking shorts and/or pants. Again, nylon is a great choice. Convertible hiking pants work well.
[  ] climbing pants, like a Schoeller fabric pant or a soft shell pant
[  ] Gore-tex wind/rain pants with full-length leg zippers
[  ] Insulated pant with full zippers, like the OR Neoplume or MH Compressor
[  ] Gore-tex wind and snow shell-type parka
[  ] medium weight insulated parka with hood (down is light and compressible)
[  ] polypropylene underwear — 2 zip-neck turtleneck tops and 1 bottom
[  ] soft shell, fleece, etc.
[  ] wool or fleece stocking hat with ear flaps
[  ] neck gaiter or balaclava. Buff’s are great.
[  ] warm ski gloves
[  ] lighter weight fleece glove
[  ] warm, expedition mittens
[  ] bandana
[  ] baseball cap
[  ] sunglasses AND ski goggles
[  ] suntan lotion (at least #30 protection factor) and lip salve on a neck string
[  ] 2 wide mouth plastic water bottles with insulated covers
[  ] bowl, cup and spoon
[  ] good headlamp with 2 sets of batteries (flashlight is not sufficient)
[  ] camera, batteries, consider a small flash drive to help share photos
[  ] personal first aid kit to include at least the following:

  • Ciprofloxacin (required)
  • Imodium (required)
  • aspirin
  • antacids
  • moleskin
  • band-aids
  • light weight toilet articles and personal medications
  • iodine crystals or tablets for water purification (these are available at mountaineering stores as a product called ‘Polar Pure’ or ‘Potable Agua’.)
[  ] small towel
[  ] a bottle of Purell hand disinfectant. Make sure you bring this.
[  ] toilet paper – 2 rolls
[  ] ear plugs
[  ] 5 very large plastic garbage bags such as the Hefty Steel Sacks.
[  ] pocket knife
[  ] alarm wrist watch (Splurge and get an altimeter watch from Suunto.)


I did get a bit confused with some of the Americanisms on here though (it is a US company that I am going with). ‘Moleskin’ got me very confused, as did ‘ciprofloxacin’, and ‘climbing hard hat’ just made me smile. I’m there in the end however, and Google was my friend as always.

I have a few items of new kit for this one. New double boots (North Face Verto Extreme), new insulated trousers (Montane Skimo, I believe), some insulated bottle holders that won’t freeze this time :), a collapsible pee bottle (I don’t want to get out of my tent in the middle of the night at 20,000 feet unless I absolutely have to), and some new approach shoes. My old approach shoes (North Face Hedgehogs) have lasted me nearly five years and they have been fantastic – I bet I’ve walked 2,000 miles in them at least. I therefore bought another pair of the same. Oh and the new rucksack – a Lowe Alpine Alpameyo 90L – it is massive! Here is most of it laid out ready to pack:
Most of my stuff laid out ready to pack..

Most of my stuff laid out ready to pack..

I have had a dry run of getting everything into the rucksack, and it fits, just, at a pinch. How I am going to squeeze extra kit in here as well though is beyond me, so I’m basically in the same clothes for 23 days as far as I can see it. Yes 23 days, and I will be taking deodorant and wet wipes too before you ask, but that’ll be about it.

Oh there is one other thing that I am taking. Diamox. Upon the advice of Adele Pennington (no less) further to my Elbrus experience, she suggested that I take it prophylactically this time, so I am equipped, via an online pharmacy, with a month’s supply. As I said earlier, I’m a conformist 🙂
So the only thing that will tell whether I am ready or not from hereon in is time. By Christmas Day I hope to be approaching Base Camp, and by New Year’s Day close to High Camp. If all goes to plan, I am very lucky with the weather, I don’t get AMS, and I am fit enough, then on the 4th January or thereabouts I may have a chance of summiting the highest mountain in the southern hemisphere. Between now and the trek out, I fly via Brazil and Chile to Mendoza in Argentina, for my biggest and boldest expedition of my life by a long way.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all, and see you (I hope, gulp!) on the other side…….

More mountains are a coming :)

In my last post I mentioned that I was looking to try to get a few more trips booked into my calendar, and as I’ve done just that, I thought I should say so right here, so here I am :).

In May I have the Welsh Three Peaks already arranged. This consists of Pen Y Fan, Cadair Idris, and Snowdon – the former two being done on the Saturday, and Snowdon on the Sunday morning, bright and early, or 5.30am for those of you like me will not be very bright by that time of the morning. I haven’t actually been up Pen Y Fan or Cadair Idris before, so it will be nice to tick off two of Wales’ most iconic climbs, even if neither of them are exactly giant peaks. The whole challenge does however involve some 19,000 feet of ascent and descent, and about 20 miles of distance covered, so it should be a really good challenge.

But the news now, is that I have booked THREE more very exciting adventures, all firsts in their own right…..

First in June, I will be doing the Three Peaks (not to be confused with the Welsh Three Peaks). The Three Peaks involves the highest mountains in each of Scotland, England and Wales, done traditionally in that order, being Ben Nevis, Scafell Plike, and Snowdon. There is this time over 20,000 feet of ascent and descent, and 27 miles of distance to cover, and all within 24 hours. Add to this somewhat exhausting schedule the fact that there is about 600 miles of distance to drive between the mountains (about 13 hours on the road, these are not motorways in the main), and you have a brutal schedule ahead of you. Oh and just to add to all that, you need to do Scafell Pike in the dark :O. Should be a fantastic adventure, of which I will tell more as the time draws near….

Then comes even more excitement in July, with, wait for it, Mont Blanc! Mont Blanc is the highest mountain in western Europe, at 15,781 feet, and is a brute.


Here is just one of the ridges that I get to face:

The Bosses ridge on Mont Blanc.

The Bosses ridge on Mont Blanc.

I’ve never been up Mont Blanc, and never had the chance to even try it, so this is massive for me. It is not to be taken lightly at all, and has a high fatality rate. In fact around 100 people a year sadly lose their lives trying each year. Alan Arnette has a great FAQ on Mont Blanc which I will post below:

There is so much more to say here, but again I will leave that for another time, as it deserves a good few posts of its own. I’m more excited about this than I am Elbrus actually, as it is just one of the most talked about mountains in the world. One of the amazing things about Mont Blanc is that is has a massive prominence from the surrounding valleys – something like 4,000m in fact. To put that into perspective, Mount Everest has a prominence of 3,500m from Base Camp! I have also seen it many times, from many angles, but the main angle I wish to see it from is potentially there in July………:)

So whilst I had a busy week in booking up these two lovely trips, I thought to myself – why stop there? I therefore contacted International Mountain Guides and booked up for Aconcagua! Now as you may know I have had Aconcagua booked for each of the last two years, but had to cancel it on both occasions. So without tempting fate, I am hoping for third time lucky :). I was originally going to wait to see if I made it up Elbrus (booked for August) before attempting Aconcagua, but then I decided that if I can’t make it up Elbrus then I shouldn’t be doing this whole thing, plus I really need something to aim for at the end of the year.

This is my year of the mountains – the one to really test myself and see if I am up for maybe 6 of the Seven Summits…….if I do what I have just booked for then that’ll be three out of the way by the end of the year, or almost – Aconcagua will start in December and end in January. More, much more, on that to follow too. Nearly 7,000m more, in fact……..better get training, and hard.

Aconcagua - so far away still......but getting nearer.

Aconcagua – so far away still……but getting nearer.

I’m back :)

Having spent a long time not blogging (simply, I’m afraid, because there was nothing exciting to blog about), I’m now back to tell you that I have something to say.

It’s this: Aconcagua!

Having spent the last few months out of gainful employment due to redundancy, and also having had the disappointment of last December’s planned Aconcagua climb cancelled due to my two broken heels, it hasn’t been a jolly time on the planned expedition front. Having now however found myself a new job (which I actually started properly just today) then I just couldn’t ignore the mountains.

Why so hasty, you might ask? Well, I’d defend my hastiness in several ways. Firstly, I decided some time ago that I worked (and hard, mostly) because it afforded me the opportunity to do things that I wanted to do. And secondly I’ve been thinking all year about mountains, almost any mountain in fact. I wanted for example to be able to try and go and do Mont Blanc in the summer, but various things (like not knowing when I was going to be working again) have stopped me from being able to commit to it. Thirdly, my Dad is not in the best of health right now. He has a bad (chronic in fact) back condition that has left him incapacitated in bed, and has carers looking after him three times a day. Life is too short for us not to be able to at least try to realise our dreams and ambitions, and this is one my main goals right now, simple as that.

I’ve also been through a lot of soul searching, and also a lot of due diligence as to which company I want to go with to take me there. But I’ve now chosen them (it was ultimately a really easy decision), and my forms and acceptance papers have just (like five minutes ago) been sent off. More on that in a subsequent post. I go this coming December.

Aconcagua is a ridiculously tough undertaking. This is 7,000m. 23,000 feet. The tallest mountain in the world outside of the Himalayas. It has a 30% success rate of summiting. I’m a million miles away from being ready for it, and have a very very tough six months ahead of me. That journey starts here today. No illusions, but lots of drive and ambition. “Excited” doesn’t even come close to how I feel right now.