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.
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.
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.
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!