22nd January 2016.
For the past few days we had been travelling north along the Vacas Valley but today we were going to turn west and head towards the mountain through the Relinchos Valley up to base camp at Plaza Argentina.
To get to the valley we had to cross a wide multi-stream river with fast flowing water and soft sandy ground. It was without question that we would be taking the mule taxi service across the river. I was delighted by this. I love animals and riding a mule would be a great experience. Bruce was not so thrilled.
It was a chilly morning for the first time since arriving in Argentina, so it was nice to get cosy in a hat and warm jacket. I was the second last to cross and as we bounded across the river the gaucho suddenly stopped halfway, dismounted from his mule and started walking away. He popped up a second later holding my water bottle which had fallen out of my backpack thanks to the bumpy ride! I’m amazed (and grateful) that he heard or spotted it drop.
Once Tincho had joined us across the river, we started our walk through the Relinchos valley, a gentle amble along another stream. As the sun rose the blistering heat began again so I stripped off the layers and got sweating again. Who needs saunas and spa treatments when you can hike in Argentina.
Finally, we had a reprieve from the flat valley terrain to enjoy an hour-long ascent of a steep hill to gain some altitude. This was my favourite part of the day. I was feeling so strong, enjoying the pace, loving the scenery and taking it all in. At the top of the hill the walk continued on undulating terrain which, with the temperature around 32C the rest of the day, was pretty tough at times. The 7-hour day was broken up with a small river crossing higher up the Relinchos Valley. On a hot day there is little more therapeutic than walking through ice cold water.
The final push into base camp felt very long as we trudged along more flat, open plains but we made it in good time and great spirits. Plaza Argentina base camp is vast. I knew it would be a big place but I had absolutely no grasp of how big. It was a town of tents nestled into the side of the mountain. It reminded me of a smaller, tented version of Namche in Nepal.
Grajales, the logistics company who were supporting us, has huge permanent dome tents used for meals, socialising, meetings etc. at Plaza Argentina. Our first stop upon arrival was to our dome tent where drinks and snacks were waiting for our arrival. We had mango cordial, fruit, olives, cheese, popcorn, ham, savoury snacks and a drinks table full of various teas, coffee and hot chocolate with huge flasks of hot water. I couldn’t believe the quality of the service.
We pitched our tents (still using one each) and chilled. I had a quick wash and checked out how my blister from the previous day was doing. I had used a Compeed hydrocolloid dressing but the edges had stuck to my sock so as I tried to remove the sock I started to tear off the dressing. I figured the best thing to do would be to cut off the dressing entirely and start again. Fail.
As I cut into the dressing I caught the blister at the same time, making it worse by leaving a raw patch of skin open to the air. I cleaned it up and covered it lightly to dry it out. Tomorrow was a rest day and I knew I would be able to fix it up properly then.
At camp the toilet facilities were again really great. There were two pit toilets in the vicinity of our tents which were made of metal and even had a sliding door for privacy! Better still, there was toilet paper provided. This trip was turning out to be far more luxurious than I imagined.
Fast forward to dinner. We started with a meaty broth with croutons, followed by a delicious ham and leek carbonara covered in loads of cheese, and then a honey pudding. The food was restaurant quality flavour and there was plenty too. After our meal we played a few games of Hearts and chilled out. The boys must have been envious of my outfit as they seemed to find a talking point of my bright purple socks, royal blue calf supports, scarlet shirt, grey shorts, and jacket in canary yellow, bright red and ice blue. I think I rocked it.
Keeping hydrated at altitude is so important and with the Grajales team constantly refilling the jugs of fruit cordial and topping up the flasks of boiling water for tea and coffee, we spent a lot of our evening back and forth to the facilities. Had this not been the case we may have missed the incredible cloud inversion. In the Vacas Valley a massive lightning storm was developing and from Plaza Argentina we were looking down onto the top of the thunder cloud and see the lightning flashes within it. Above us at camp the sky was clear with the moon shining bright and the stars twinkling. I have never seen anything like it.
Shortly after the clouds came in, the temperature dropped and a light rain started falling. I went to bed and fell asleep to the sound of the rain on my tent. Unfortunately I didn’t sleep brilliantly as it was still too hot, even at 4200m. I was pleased though; I had spent a lot of time (and money) on warm sleeping gear for the higher mountain so it boded well.