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.

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…….