Bacon again?!


30th January 2016. I woke up in the night after a strange dream about being in Russia. I had just finished reading the excellent book Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident by Donnie Eicher, which is a true story about a disaster which occurred in the Ural Mountains in 1959 (highly recommended, but perhaps not while you’re climbing a mountain!), so it wasn’t much of a stretch to understand why I was dreaming about that.

I took a visit to the bathroom and when I returned I was chilled to the core. I shivered for another two hours in my cold sleeping bag which was soaked by condensation on the outside, before finally warming up and falling back to sleep.

A few hours later we woke up to a still, bright and sunny day so the decision to carry to camp III was made.

This meant the plan was back on track and after the carry today, tomorrow we would move in to camp III , then attempt the summit early the following morning. We had our breakfast, packed up and set off.

The terrain was fairly gentle but the deep snow which fell yesterday meant some tough slopes, again around knee deep at times.

We made good progress and arrived at camp III, 5900m, in 3hrs 45 mins. This marked the highest altitude I’d ever been to (highest before being Kilimanjaro, 5895m). Despite only being 5m higher, I felt like I had left my comfort zone and was now heading into unfamiliar territory. We were still 1000m lower than we were aiming for so I found it interesting to assess how my body was adjusting.

I stood there in Camp III taking it all in as I remembered how exhausted I’d felt in the past reaching the summit of Kilimanjaro yet here I was at almost the same altitude but carrying an 18kg backpack and I still had gas left in the tank. It was very interesting making the comparison and I considered whether a contributing difference was my role on the expedition; here I was a client, but on Kilimanjaro I am always the trip leader where my focus is on the wellbeing of my clients.

That said, I was freezing and my calf had been cramping up for the last hour, so I actually felt a bit miserable. We stashed our gear before descending fast to camp II by 4:30pm to chill out. The sun had been warming our tents most of the day so Bruce and I took it in turns to have a good baby wipe wash (4 whole wipes!). I stayed in the warmth of the tent and relaxed while Bruce took in the sun.

A few hours later another spectacular dinner was served. On the menu today we had a bowl of rice topped with a mountain of bacon and parmesan, washed down with a mug of hot mint tea.

Fun fact: When you’re carrying all your gear on a mountain, even grams matter when you’re packing. As a direct result of this you start doing crazy weight-saving things cutting your closed-cell sleeping mat in half, removing garment labels, shortening your toothbrush handle or even re-using teabags.

Advice: If you’re planning on saving a few grams by re-using herbal tea bags, don’t! If you fail to heed my advice know that one herbal teabag has a maximum of two uses, the third is tasteless.

After dinner it was bed time, at 8pm. Good night!

From the IMG blog: “News continues to be favorable from Jonathan Schrock and his Aconcagua team.  Calm winds and sunny for their carry today to high camp.  Plan is to move to high camp tomorrow and take a summit shot on Monday morning.  Weather forecast currently is favorable, at least through then.  When the fish are running, it’s time to go fishing.” https://www.mountainguides.com/wordpress/2016/01/30/aconcagua/mexicos-a-wrap-aconcagua-looking-good/

Sun is shining, weather is sweet but the wind is brutal


29th January 2016. What a great start to the morning with delicious bacon and cheese bagels. As forecast the sun was shining and the sky was blue, so we packed our gear and broke camp. My first mistake of the day was overdoing it at breakfast with 1.5 bagels as I got really nauseous breaking camp. There was no time to feel sorry for myself and off we went up the hill to camp II.

My second mistake of the day was starting the day wearing too many layers (duh, idiot; ‘Be bold, start cold’). I spent what felt like ages faffing around taking off my jacket but I was soon back on track. Despite the clear sky and sunshine the wind was consistently high with 30-something mph gusts at times. The previous day’s snow storm meant we were left breaking trail through the snow on the never-ending scree slopes. For each step in the snow it was a gamble as to whether you’d sink, slide back or power across it. The energy sapping wind, deep snow and with me still getting over the nausea from the morning, it was a mental battle. At one point a gust of wind knocked me to my knees. We stopped for a break and I realised I was exhausted. We still had a few hours to go so I downed as much water as I could and we kept on moving.

Suddenly I found my rhythm, or maybe the terrain got easier, and I felt stronger. Stopping for another short break we rehydrated and continued up towards the col. The wind by this point was like walking up a downward escalator; you’re definitely moving but you’re not making any progress. It was a constant battle for us all to be stronger than the wind with our heavy packs.

As we reached the saddle we were briefly protected from the wind but our new challenge was thigh-deep snow. We plodded on, one slow step at a time, and arrived at camp. Tincho ‘the Invincible’ had gone ahead to pitch two of the tents which was a major help. We arrived into camp, all helped to pitch the final tent and moved in a few minutes later.

I was very dehydrated so made a concerted effort to drink 2 litres over the next couple of hours. This was all well and good except the ‘bathroom’ was behind a boulder located down the hill, across the frozen stream and up the other hill covered with 8” deep snow. After my second visit I realised I had a problem to solve.
The problem: long, arduous, cold walk to bathroom and no pee bottle (seriously, without a funnel – and who wants to carry that – do women really use pee bottles?).
Inspired solution: A 1-litre ziplok bag in tent vestibule. Win. It is moments like this for the female mountaineer that you really are grateful for an understanding and trusted climbing partner. Thank you Bruce!

We literally chilled in our freezing cold tent until dinner time, which was another treat of more awesome burritos. With our water bottles refilled and bladders emptied again, it was time for tomorrow’s briefing. The weather forecast looked bad again with heavy snow and strong winds expected. The suggestion Tincho and Johnny made was that they would do a load carry to camp III without the three of us (clients), so we could save our strength for summit. If weather was too bad for the guys to carry, we would all rest and either do a heavy full load move up to camp III the following day when the wind was expected to die down, or possibly hire a porter to help with this. We’d then aim to summit the following morning. (OMG! This is getting REAL!)

As always on Aconcagua, it all depended on the weather. According to Tincho, this was the worst season he’d seen on Aconcagua for at least 10 years. Certainly at that point no other IMG Aconcagua teams that season had successfully summited, and very few other teams had made it since the season started in late November. It felt quite hopeless.

We said goodnight and agreed to see what would happen in the morning.

From the IMG blog: “On Aconcagua, Jonathan and team pushed hard in spite of wind and new snow and got into C2.  What a weather year on Aconcagua!  This was a big move for the team as there’s a lull in the winds forecasted for early next week and the team’s trying to get into position to take advantage, if it occurs.  Everyone’s doing well and the chess game continues.http://www.mountainguides.com/wordpress/2016/01/29/aconcagua/orizaba-attempt-and-big-move-in-aconcagua/

“This morning I had to wear goggles to take a shit”


28th January 2016. I had a very disturbed sleep, topped off by a horrendous snow storm this morning. Bruce and I knew it wasn’t looking good for the move up to Camp II which was the plan. We’d been up around an hour when Johnny came by to let us know the forecast and plan for the day. In his words “I always have to step outside the tent to make a decision for the day, and this morning I had to wear goggles to take a shit so my expectations were confirmed. Rest day”.

This came as disappointing news to us both as moving up to Camp II was a big step closer to the summit push and with the delays at Plaza Argentina our summit window was shrinking. That said, with a pounding headache developing, a chance to rest and rehydrate was a silver lining. Johnny came back a while later with breakfast. What a champ. Pancakes with bacon and loads of hot water for morning tea. I had taken a supply of dulce de leche from Plaza Argentina so that was added to the pancakes. It was absolutely delicious. After breakfast a visit to the ‘bathroom’ behind a rock in the snow storm was made interesting; trying to hold open a plastic bag to take a dump into, in gusting winds, is a challenge. (Overshare? Reality).

Rest days are pretty dull. Sit, wait, drink, play cards, drink, eat, drink, pee, read, pee, eat.
Add white-out snow storms and insane winds and it’s an awful way to spend the day. Perched up at 4900m in a valley we were camping in something resembling a funnel. In fact Tincho told us the next day that tents are regularly destroyed at this particular campsite due to the wind.

Being inside your tent in an environment like this is unearthly. If you listen carefully you can hear the wind gently whistling at the top of the valley like the breath of a faun on a spring day. Moments later a growling bear version of the wind creeps towards you before your ears start to deceive you and you think you’re actually listening to the sound of a jet plane going overhead. Then it hits you like going five rounds with Mike Tyson. The force of the wind distorts the tent, the poles warp, guylines become as taught as violin strings and it feels like the ground is shaking beneath you. Then silence. The mountain breathes. As Tyson himself once said “It’s ludicrous these mortals even attempt to enter my realm.

Sit, wait, drink, play cards, drink, eat, drink, pee, read, pee, eat.

Dinner time finally came around and we were treated to a yummy pasta dish with more bacon. Let’s just pause here. They say an army marches on its stomach and International Mountain Guides (IMG) who were overseeing the running of the trip (with the support of Grajales Expeditions on the ground in Argentina) know this. I think it would take a lot of persuasion for me to work with another company for big mountain objectives because of the unparalleled emphasis on bacon consumption by IMG.

I tucked into another one of my cinnamon oat bars for dessert and finished my mug of camomile tea. Another great part of expeditions, apart from the bacon consumption, is the simplicity of it. Things like doing the dishes – simple. Take one square of precious toilet paper and wipe down the inside of your Fozzils bowl (the only bowl for the mountains in my opinion – review coming later). For stubborn food residue you can add a drop of hot tea to another piece of toilet paper and it works like a charm. Dishes done, and so to bed! Tincho said that the weather was forecast to be calmer in the morning but the wind seemed to be getting worse all day.

Here’s a quote from my journal that day: “As I write, double the amount of ice has built up on the tent in the last hour. It’s freezing. I hadn’t quite appreciated how extreme the conditions could be. As I lie here, 21:26, the tent is shaking and it feels as if the ground is moving. I don’t know the wind speed but while the tent shakes, pieces of ice are falling onto my face which is only uncovered enough to breathe at 4900m. My foot keeps going dead from the cold inner boots I am wearing in an attempt to dry them out. THIS is mountaineering.

Dulce de leche, Hearts and rest


25th January 2016. I woke up at 7:20 and had a cosy snooze until 8am. I got up and went to breakfast. Today there was a fresh stock of dulce de leche to go with the pancakes so I smothered each one with thick layers of this sweet, caramel heaven. After breakfast I called home and managed to speak to my Mum briefly on the satellite phone which was really nice. I also took a bit of time to enjoy the scenery and watched one of my favourite types of cloud, the lenticular cloud, bobbing along on its journey across the sky. It may sound pretty dull but in our hectic, non-stop, stressful and overwhelming lives, how often do we have the time to watch the clouds.

The rest of the morning was spent listening to music and reading my book, Dead Mountain by Donnie Eichar. The book was recommended by Bruce when we were in Mendoza so I bought and downloaded it to my phone at the hotel before we left. It started off brilliantly and I was hooked. Thanks for the recommendation Bruce! We were gathered together in the group tent and Bruce remember he’d brought some playing cards with him. He and Johnny taught the rest of us how to play Hearts and we had a couple of rounds while we waited for lunch.

A curried ratatouille style dish with rice and cheese was served for lunch, followed by fruit salad and yet more dulce de leche. Another fantastic meal.

After lunch we continued playing Hearts, with the rule the first to 150 points loses. I still didn’t completely grasp how to play the game so wasn’t doing brilliantly. Bruce and Johnny were card game masters and kept winning. Tincho also held his own. Someone had to be the loser and I was comfortable with that.

In this game I had racked up a lot of points very fast but had managed to see off the two others. I was close to defeat and it was a head to head – Johnny vs me. The overall champ vs. the overall loser.  It was tense. The tent went quiet. Johnny, who had been blasé about his Hearts playing skills, made his move. Oohhh, it was the wrong move. Bam, 150 points. First to 150 loses.
I still wasn’t sure how the game worked, so innocently asked “so Johnny, does that make you the loser?”. The whole tent erupted with laughter at Johnny’s look of defeat (you had to be there).

With my card game victory I retreated to the warmth of my sleeping bag to read my book until dinner. The weather was really coming in now. It was freezing and extremely windy. Food time soon came around so I snuggled up into my down jacket and walked across to the tent. Dinner was a delicious hot broth followed by chicken breast with mashed potatoes, then a really light, delicate orange iced cake. There was an excellent baker at Plaza Argentina!
After dinner we got the great news that we we’re moving up to camp 1 tomorrow. Exciting! Bed time for a good rest ahead of another heavy carry day tomorrow.

 

 

From IMG’s blog:
“It was a carry day yesterday to C1 for Jonathan Schrock and team on Aconcagua. Rest day at base camp today and hopefully moving up to C1 tomorrow.” See here: http://www.mountainguides.com/wordpress/2016/01/25/aconcagua/aconcagua-mexico-team-covering-some-ground/

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.

Ahhh, rest day. Plaza Argentina.


23rd January 2016. Today was a rest and acclimatisation day at Plaza Argentina. After a disturbed night’s sleep because of the warm temperatures I woke up at 7:30 to the noise of helicopter blades right above my tent. I was feeling pretty tired so tried to fall back to sleep. No chance. The helicopter noisily hovered above me and landed just behind my tent.

I got out of my sleeping bag, pulled on some layers and dragged myself out of my tent for breakfast, which was at a leisurely 8:30. I am not a morning person and the sound of helicopters landing was now on the list of ways I do not like to be woken up.

One thing I do like is food. Breakfast was strawberry yogurt, scrambled eggs and really delicious pancakes which I covered in dulce de leche (my new favourite topping for everything). It was the perfect start to the day. For some reason the coffee tasted like vegetables this morning. Johnny had mentioned at the hotel in Mendoza that he dislikes the flavour of Argentine coffee but I couldn’t fault it down there. Now I understood. Onto the herbal tea for me.

We had no plans for the day apart from a visit to the camp doctor to check how we were doing, so I figured I’d take advantage of the sunshine to wash and dry some of my clothes (there was a basin with running water at camp), sew up the hole in my trekking pants (caused by dismounting the mule the previous morning) and sort my gear. The following day we were scheduled to do a gear carry so today was the day to split our kit into the things which will continue to the upper mountain, the things that the mules would take round to Plaza de Mulas for our descent, and the things I’d need for the next couple of nights at Plaza Argentina.

All of a sudden my tent became a bombsite! There was stuff everywhere; laundry drying, kit in piles, and generally a lot of chaos. I said farewell to my hiking boots, my small daypack and lightweight hiking pants. Shit was about to get real. Keeping hydrated was absolutely my priority for this trip so I ensured I drank a litre every couple of hours. As someone who cannot abide the taste of plain water, drinking plenty of water was made far easier with the incredible Bolero drink mixes. Highly, highly recommended (let them know I sent you).

11am came around, our team’s appointment with the camp doctor for our health checks. The doctor was a climber himself and was super friendly. It didn’t stop me being nervous. I’ve never been a fan of visiting the doctor and the results from this appointment could be the difference between me continuing or not. We had a good chat about my previous altitude experience, how I was feeling and then he checked my BP, O2 saturation and pulse. My numbers were good enough (95bpm, O2 82%, BP 130/75), I felt brilliant and the doctor was happy. My go-ahead to proceed to the high mountain was given, along with everyone else in the team. I was already in a great mood and this was the cherry on top.

There was nothing more to do but relax with my new favourite albums (Justin Bieber – Purpose and The Weeknd – Beauty Behind the Madness). I drank another litre of water. The ominous sound of thunder started rolling around camp and I heard a few spots of rain on my tent. There was something comforting about my cosy little tent cocoon.

It wasn’t long until lunchtime so I wandered over to the group tent and was astonished at what I saw on the table – three huge pizzas!! One with peppers, tomato with olives, one with onions and olives, and the other with ham and artichoke. Pizza at 4200m! Obviously every single slice was devoured in minutes. It was this lunchtime that the lads noticed I seemed I had the biggest appetite in the team.

Over lunch we discussed the upper mountain day to follow and the guides offered some advice on packing for this. I returned to the tent and tweaked my packing accordingly. As I was stretching my legs around camp I bumped into the camp doctor who invited me to go bouldering with him. As tempted as I was I thought better of playing around on rocks before a load carrying day so I retired again to my tent with Justin Bieber. The thunder had moved much closer and was almost above camp. Given my levels of hydration and frequent visits to the bathroom, I had visions of lightning striking the metal-encased toilet, being electrocuted, and falling down the hole. Fortunately I got out unscathed.

According to both our guides, they have never seen rain at Plaza Argentina before. I didn’t ask if this was promising or not. Best to stay ignorant and remain positive at this stage, I thought. Everyone knew that the weather on Aconcagua was a harsh mistress.

Let’s move onto the most important part of the day. Dinner time. Rib eye steak with egg salad followed by a caramelised apple pie. There was seconds of steak but everyone else was full. I didn’t want to see good meat go to waste. I had seconds and thirds. Happy, happy girl. Bed time!

Settling in at Plaza Argentina base camp


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.

Aconcagua… or is it?


21st January 2016 We set off from camp for a gentle 6-hour walk through the valley, excited by the prospect of catching our first glimpse of the summit of Aconcagua closer to camp. It was blistering hot again but more manageable thanks to choosing long trousers and long sleeves instead of shorts. I’d made a conscious decision to cover up as much as possible because the amount of dust I was covered in the previous day was such a waste of my 0.5 per day baby wipe allowance and I wasn’t sure how many more camps would have running water.

We followed the stream most the day including crossing a very precarious rickety old bridge. I’m not a big fan of bridges over water and the sign ‘Pasar de a una. One at a time‘ did little to comfort me.

The terrain today was flat and dry again, up until a point where we had to negotiate a sticky bog which added a little excitement to an otherwise pleasant but uneventful day. As we squished through the muddy mess I spotted a little paw print that had been left by some kind of local mammal (I still don’t know what it was).

This one IS Aconcagua (I think!) 🙂

As we extracted ourselves from the mud and came lower down into the valley along the river bank I heard Tincho call out my name. “Lexi…Aconcagua!” he said, pointing across the valley towards a snow-capped peak in the distance. I was so excited! I grabbed my camera and started snapping away before I noticed Tincho chuckling to himself. “Okay, maybe it’s not Aconcagua” he said. It turns out Tincho was just winding me up (as he does all his gullible clients) and I was looking at the no-less-beautiful Ameghino, Aconcagua’s little sister. You can imagine that I was dubious when we walked a little further and the call went up again, but this time Johnny got his camera out too and offered to take photos of us in front of another beautiful snow-capped peak – this time our objective! What a beauty.

We arrived at camp to find we had the place to ourselves again. We pitched our tents and got sorted. Amazingly there was running water at camp again and the guys were cooling our drinks for dinner in the icy water! Bathroom facilities were again excellent, a pit toilet which appeared to be freshly dug. Happily my previous days’ tummy problems were resolved.

As we freshened up three climbers on their descent arrived into camp. Only one of them had managed to summit after horrendous conditions including high winds and seriously cold temperatures. They didn’t have a guide and hadn’t managed to secure any mules for their gear for the walk in or out, they were shattered. We met Scottish Alan who was living in Cambridge and two ladies from the USA. It was great to get their perspective on the climb ahead and meet some other climbers after having the trails to ourselves for two days. We said our farewells and they wished us a safe climb.

Instant dirt tan

I fixed a blister I’d developed that day, washed my clothes, hung them out to dry, then chilled out and re-hydrated before dinner listening to music (yes, it was Justin Bieber) in the warmth of the afternoon. Asado again with barbecued chicken, salad and herby Parmesan potatoes with another nice bottle of Malbec. Another restful day, another amazing meal, another evening of feeling amazingly happy. Loving it!

Into the valley | Steak asado


20th January 2016

We loaded up the gear and drove to the trailhead. 7 people in one 6-seater meant a tight squish. We pulled over to the side of the road, put on our hiking packs and started walking. The expedition had begun.

Unlike the majority of commercial groups we were not taking the ‘normal’ route to the summit. We were taking the Guanacos Variation of the False Polish. This route takes you first through the Vacas and Relinchos Valleys, up to a False Polish camp, around to the Guanacos high camps and up the False Polish route to the summit. On the way down you traverse the mountain and descend on the normal route via Plaza de Mulas, and out of the Horcones Valley in a single-day push. For full details visit: http://www.mountainguides.com/aconcagua.shtml

It was late morning by the time we set off, and wow, it was hot. After 20 minutes I checked the temperature on my watch and it was reading 37C. The landscape was beautiful. The trail was totally flat, there was a trickling stream on our right, desert plants and flowers all around and rugged, rocky and dry cliffs towering above. It reminded me a lot of the Atlas mountains.

After about 90 minutes we stopped at a stream to enjoy a break for some fresh watermelon and cool ourselves down. I was so glad for the Cobber body cooling neck wrap I had brought with me. Unlike the other group members living in San Diego, Kansas, Oregon and Mendoza, I was not quite as well equipped for the climate being from England.

After another 90 minutes we stopped for another snack break, sandwiches and fresh oranges, in a shaded spot under an overhanging rock. After hearing stories of people saying how ugly and boring Aconcagua is, I was blown away by the beauty of the landscape.

We arrived into camp dusty, sweaty and smelly so were amazed to find a flushing toilet, running water and camp to ourselves. We pitched our tents, one each, and relaxed, rehydrated and washed at camp, taking it all in.

It wasn’t long before I became very grateful for the flushing toilet as I discovered I had the first case of diarrhoea. I quickly dosed myself up with Imodium, downed another litre of water and felt much better. 5 months earlier I’d learnt an important lesson on Mt Elbrus about stomach complaints; ‘letting it take its course’ is a recipe for dehydration and weakness. I wasn’t going to make that mistake again!

I felt positive, at peace, and unbelievably happy to be there. Nothing would stop me from giving this mountain my all. To top off my enthusiasm and round off a great first day, the dinner call went out and we were greeted with a real treat.

 

 

Cheers! Malbec in a Nalgene

It was steak asado (BBQ) and salad with wine for dinner. I could not believe the quality of the food. We heartily tucked in and no food went to waste.  We went to bed feeling full, happy and excited about the day to come.

 

My guide to Mexico


Los Estados Unidos Mexicanos (The United Mexican States) commonly known as Mexico, is a huge country wedged between the USA, Guatemala and Belize. Despite the official national language being Spanish, Mexico is actually part of the North American continent.

Mexico is a friendly and laid back country, with strong traditional family values and welcoming to visitors. It has suffered with a bad reputation for being unsafe but the vast majority of visits are nothing but enjoyable.

For the full article click here: http://www.gapyear.com/articles/90429/lexi-quintons-guide-to-mexico (info correct at time of writing)

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