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.

Aconcagua – Christmas Day 2014

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

Merry Christmas - and brrr!

Merry Christmas – and brrr!

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

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

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

it's getting hot already...

it’s getting hot already…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The first sighting of Aconcagua - a great Christmas present!

The first sighting of Aconcagua – a great Christmas present!

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

Our second camp.

Our second camp.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aconcagua Day Five – Christmas Eve 2014

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

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

The gang ready and assembled - time to march!

The gang ready and assembled – time to march!

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

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

At the trailhead on the Guanacos route to Aconcagua.

At the trailhead on the Guanacos route to Aconcagua.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We finally reach camp just after the mules do.

We finally reach camp just after the mules do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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