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!

Camp beds and a dirty spa

IMG_2267 (Large)Bright and early the next morning, fuelled by a breakfast of strong coffee, cake, cheese, meat, pastries, stew, buckwheat, porridge and a few more slices of cake, we loaded up the minibus with our astonishing amount of baggage to start the drive from Pyatigorsk to base camp. It was pouring with rain and the plan was to leave early so we would reach the river before the water level rose and the vehicle couldn’t cross it…

The first stop was the gear rental shop. Fortunately the proprietor had agreed to open at 7am on a day he is normally closed so a few team members could change their hired boots to something more appropriate. It turned out only one of four who intended to swap their boots actually did so; the rest kept their original rental boots after all.

The next stop was at a hotel just outside Pyatigorsk where we picked up a guide and her client (we’ll call her Elena and him John). They were getting a ride with us to base camp in exchange for Elena’s company bringing our remaining team member to join us at camp when his flight landed (visa issues had him a day behind).

As we waited in the bus while Elena helped John sort out difficulties getting his papers and passport back from the hotel, it became clear there was no chance of getting to the river in time to cross it – we’d have to hike in. When we finally departed it transpired that John was a very interesting, intelligent, highly experienced mountaineer with a deep respect for the mountains and it was a pleasure to hear him share his experiences during the journey.

IMG_2287 (Large)As the rain eased up the temperature dropped, the cloudy sky cleared and we got our first views of the mountain. What a beauty. We stopped at a view point where the guides told us the snowline was lower than they’d ever seen it before at that time in the summer, and waited for a 4×4 from base camp to arrive which would transport our baggage while we walked the rest of the way.

We set off on the 2 hour walk and almost immediately as we turned the corner we were faced with an enormous boulder which had just fallen from the cliff face into the middle of the road making it totally impassable for vehicles; we’d never have got to base camp by bus even if we’d been on time departing.

Continuing on the road which passed through what looked like a refugee camp, we reached the IMG_2282 (Large)famous open-air spa where people come from all over Russia to bathe, to heal and to enjoy the mountain air. It smelt like sulphur and rusty brown mineral deposits from the earth made it appear as if people were bathing in muddy puddles of a disused quarry. The wooden shed that was being utilised as a changing room was rudimentary at best and the hiking trail ran through the middle of the spa. I am confident that the word spa in Russian has a different meaning than in English.

IMG_2309 (Large)The remaining 30 minutes of the hike felt slightly less voyeuristic with the double peaks, “is like woman breasts, no?“, dominating the horizon. Before long we were greeted by a very comfortable base camp: for the next couple of nights we would be staying in huge platform tents with camp beds! At camp there were also three clean long drop toilets (toilet paper provided and on a holder!), an outdoor sink with running mineral water and antibacterial soap, and a warm, inviting dining hut where we would enjoy delicious meals, unlimited hot water, WiFi (at a fee), crap Russian music TV and where snacks/drinks/booze were available for purchase. The tiny lazy mountain cat, Yeva, who lived at base camp was my personal highlight. It was far better than we’d expected.

IMG_2307 (Large)Arriving so late put paid to our acclimatization walk so with a hearty meal consumed, a briefing by the guides done, time getting to know the team better, and a first night under canvas in pretty luxurious surroundings things were looking up. Or were they?

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