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.