Load carrying to camp 1 through the penitentes


24th January 2016.

It was a very windy and noisy night. I’d only been asleep an hour before I awoke wondering if the tent would fly away. After a futile few hours tossing and turning, I figured I’d try relaxing to music for a while. It worked. I found my eyes getting heavy and my mind quieting. I put in my earplugs and went to sleep solidly for four hours. The next morning we had another great breakfast of yogurt, pancakes and eggs before packing the group loads of food, fuel, pots and pans and so on, to carry up to Camp 1. I was anxious about the day and how I’d cope with my first heavy load carry, particularly after a rough night’s sleep.

We set off and the day started great with us all maintaining a strong steady pace. It was very cold so we kept our warm layers on. I was quietly glad of the cool temperatures to keep us comfortable despite the additional exertion of our load carry. After about an hour we stopped for a water and snack break and I adjusted my backpack which made life a little easier.

The next section of the climb was the part of the mountain I was most excited and curious about, los penitentes. Penitentes are icy blade-like formations which are found in clusters, generally facing the sun. They are caused by a scientific process called sublimation in which solids turn to gas without first becoming liquid. These otherworldly pinnacles tend to be found at high altitude in areas with dry air and sunshine, particularly between Argentina and Chile in the High Andes. The literal translation of ‘los penitentes‘ is ‘the penitents‘, named as such because they resemble the tall, pointed hoods worn by the Catholic penitents during Holy Week processions. It is also said that they look like crowds of people kneeling in penance, looking toward God.

There are few words to describe the beauty and mystery of the penitentes. These cold, faceless figures surround you like a dense winter jungle. They seek to trick you, enticing you with the illusion of easy passage through an icy maze. They drain your energy as you tentatively progress over their unstable and angular surfaces like the steps of a first dance.

I see the penitentes as a representation of the humility required in the mountains. Individually some penitentes are large, some are small but together they form something bigger than yourself. They are a vast obstacle and a formidable challenge. To progress through the penitentes you must weave your way through their path, you cannot forge directly ahead. At times it feels like a standoff, man versus nature, but fail to stay humble and respect your environment and their sharp edges will catch you and remind you into whose territory you are straying.

The wind was picking up speed and it was getting colder. Despite the challenging terrain of the penitentes I had settled into a comfortable breathing rhythm and I felt strong and was moving well. After another two hours and another two rest breaks the bitter wind roaring down the valley towards us picked up some more. I suddenly felt myself weaken. As the penitentes grew sparse we approached a field of loose rock and scree. One step forward, a quarter step back. You’ve just got to keep going. Another hour passed and it was time for a  break. I forced myself to eat and drink as much as I could. I needed my body to find those reserves. I was tired.

The final push into camp was briefly through more penitentes which made the going easier but it was short-lived as we soon progressed up a steep scree slope with multiple switchbacks. I paused, took a deep breath and switched mental gears. I needed to get back into the comfortable non-stop rhythm I’d enjoyed earlier in the day. I let the guys get a few steps ahead of me, put my head down and walked. One step at a time, not stopping. Johnny stayed behind with me for the final section, “dig deep, just 20ft to go Lexi”. I arrived into camp just 2-3 minutes behind the others having managed my pace and preserved my energy.

We unpacked and cached our loads but not before weighing our packs. I was amazed that we were carrying only 19kg each. I calculated later that I’d carried 35% of my body weight from 4200m to 4900m that day. Tincho carried double; 38kg.

Now it was time for the descent. My right calf was screaming and I was feeling pretty drained. We were keen to move down the scree and penitentes quickly but in doing so Rick stumbled and snapped his trek pole arresting his slip. Fortunately he was unscathed. At 6:50pm we arrived back into camp after a very long day. At 7:30pm we tucked into a dinner of hot soup, vegetable stew and a tiramisu style cake with fruit. Our energy levels were so low we were all freezing. Only Tincho and Johnny finished their meal.

As we sat at the table I saw Bruce turning pale and he said he felt faint. We got him laying down on the ground, legs elevated, to recover. Our group tent had a gas heater so there was some semblance of warmth so we got Bruce huddled up next to it as he hydrated and recovered. Nobody said it, but we all knew how Bruce felt. We felt it too.

After dinner we had a chat about the day, debriefed on how we’d progressed and discussed the onward plan. It was then we learnt that the thunderstorm we had been admiring from above when we arrived at Plaza Argentina had caused 20 landslides (18 minor, 2 major) on the main highway between Argentina and Chile blocking the progress of 36,000 vehicles between the countries. As a direct result of this crisis all the emergency helicopters in Argentina had been dispatched to help with recovery. Consequently Aconcagua National Park rangers had to close ascents to the upper mountain from Base Camp because helicopter support in the event of an emergency wouldn’t have been possible so it was not worth them (and us) taking the risk.

Our plan to move up to Camp 1 the next day was put on hold. A mandatory rest day at Plaza Argentina was in order. At 9pm it was time for bed and to get cosy and warm in my sleeping bag.

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