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!) ūüôā

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‚Äôs 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.

 

Onward to Los Penitentes


19th – 20th January 2016

The following morning we loaded up our gear and food into the van and started our 185km journey from Mendoza to Los Penitentes. For such a small team (5 of us including guides) it was astonishing how much we were taking and the thought of us having to carry it all up the mountain was daunting.

We stopped for lunch en-route at a local restaurant for another steak (when in Argentina…!) before arriving in the very dry, very windy town of Los Penitentes. During the winter it is a popular ski resort and in the summer it is used for climbers and hikers visiting the area. I found it a bizarre, uninspiring and pretty desolate place. We got checked into Ayelen Hotel de Montana then Bruce and I went out to explore.

We walked down to the street to the ‘Mini Market’ which was simply a corrugated metal container containing a freezer. A lad was trying to communicate with the elderly lady in charge but she didn’t speak English and he didn’t speak Spanish. I tried my best to translate and it turned out that the Mini Market didn’t have any food or drink available. It didn’t look hopeful that Bruce would be able to find a memory card for his camera (which he had just discovered he didn’t have in his camera).

Bruce and I headed across the street to Refugio Cruz de Cana where we grabbed a Coke and caught up after quite a hectic few days travelling. It was a really cool place covered in flags, photos and mountain memorabilia. Johnny and Tincho were at the Grajales HQ sorting out the supplies we’d brought from Mendoza and separating them and our gear into loads for the mules the next day. It was an incredible thing to watch.

The following morning we had an amazing breakfast, chilled out and got our kit loaded up in the van ready to hit the trail.

 

Photo by J. Shrock

From the IMG blog:
“Another expedition has started on Aconcagua.¬† Jonathan Schrock, Martin Lucero and team are heading to Penitentes today.¬† Final packing occurs there and the approach starts tomorrow morning.¬† Here‚Äôs hoping for favorable weather.¬† The mountain has not made things easy so far this season.” http://www.mountainguides.com/wordpress/2016/01/19/aconcagua/news-from-the-south/

Photo by J. Shrock

“On Aconcagua, Jonathan Schrock sent this photo before Martin, the team and he began their approach march.¬† Three days of enjoyable walking to get to base camp, Plaza Argentina.¬† They‚Äôre ready to rock and roll.”¬† http://www.mountainguides.com/wordpress/2016/01/20/aconcagua/and-theyre-off-9/

 

Buenos dias Mendoza


16th – 18th January 2016
After flying for the best part of a day across continents it’s an absolute pleasure disembarking the aircraft and finding your baggage in one piece on the carousel.¬† I’d met Rick, one of my team mates, in Santiago airport as we were on the same flight across to Mendoza so upon arrival we grabbed a cab at the airport and took the short drive across to the hotel.

Gear checkJonathan Shrock, our guide, was there at the hotel sorting gear when we arrived. It was wonderful to see him again after a year and a half since my Rainier climb. Rick and I checked into our rooms and unpacked our gear ready for a gear check. Bruce arrived a few hours later.

We met in the lobby that evening ahead of going out for dinner and learnt that one of our team members had dropped out the day before because of a flight mix up. He arrived into the wrong Argentine city and instead of taking the journey across to Mendoza he just flew home back to the USA again! We also discovered that another member, who was there at the hotel that day but none of us had yet met, was unfortunately in the middle of an unexpected family emergency and he’d have to fly home urgently. So there we were, just three clients and two guides.

That evening we had an incredible meal at a local restaurant and started to get to know one another. Rick was a very intelligent, softly spoken, and experienced mountaineer. Tincho, our Argentine guide, had been climbing Aconcagua and surrounding Andean peaks since he was a teenager. Then there was Johnny the IMG guide (who had guided Bruce and I on Mt Rainier in August 2014), Bruce and myself.

The following day we bought extra snacks for the mountain, explored Mendoza, bought and hired any last minute gear (yes, there were a few impulse purchases), and generally relaxed ahead of our long transfer across to Penitentes the following day. It was lovely to sit outside at the hotel pool, relaxing in the 35C sunshine listening to music. I don’t think I could have felt more chilled if I tried. What a wonderful way to begin an trip I had been dreaming about, and preparing for, for over 5 years.

A brief history: My great friend and climbing buddy, Bruce, and I over the years.


KilimanjaroIn Spring 2012 I was leading a voluntary service trip in Tanzania. A group of students from an American girls’ school, and their parents, had come to Tanzania to build a new kitchen in a primary school in Moshi. I had the honour to work for and get to know some fascinating people. Among those people were Bruce, his incredible wife and wonderful daughter. I connected with the family instantly.

The team and I spent a week in Moshi under the watchful gaze of Kilimanjaro, the clouds shrouding and revealing her as we worked hard and succeeded to build the kitchen, install the water, fix a broken fence, paint a number of buildings and more. Bruce and I got chatting about my previous visits to Tanzania and Kilimanjaro; one day he turned to me and asked that if a space ever opened up on a trip to Kilimanjaro to let him know.

The following year, 2013, I was scheduled to return to Kilimanjaro twice, once at the end of May and again at the start of October. My October trip looked bleak –¬† last minute cancellations threatened whether the trip could run. I had intermittently kept in touch with Bruce and his wife since the service trip, so a couple of months before the trip was due to depart I emailed him and asked ‘Do you want to join me on Kilimanjaro?’. As luck would have it he was in the middle of a work sabbatical so took the chance and said yes.

Kili summitDuring our successful climb of Kilimanjaro (100% summit for the team – awesome), Bruce and I chatted about what was next on the list. Just before the trek I’d read something on Twitter about Mt Rainier so imagine my surprise when Bruce said he was considering it. His daughter was at college in Seattle so it made perfect sense for him. Upon agreeing that it would be an incredible peak to climb the plan was born.

10 months later, August 2014, I was on a flight to Seattle. Bruce and I had booked places on the International Mountain Guides (IMG) Mt. Rainier Glacier Skills Seminar. 6.5 days of learning all about glacier camping, safe glacier travel (and crevasse rescue), ice climbing, belaying and rappelling and loads more, while ascending up the mountain putting our new knowledge to the test. Our guides Dallas Glass, Jonathan Shrock and Betsy Dain-Owens (who joined us for the summit push) were phenomenal. Our fellow climbers were the best and we all got on so well. It was the best mountain experience I’d ever had, and that still stands two years later. I still get goosebumps thinking about how awesome it was.

Mt RainierDuring this trip Bruce and I had the conversation again, “what’s next?”. We both agreed we wanted to climb Aconcagua but felt we needed to take our time, get some more exposure to altitude and build up our mountain experience before tackling it so we decided on Mt Elbrus (which you can read about here). The theory was that the Mt Elbrus north route would put our glacier skills and roped travel knowledge to use, while adding in the extra challenge of higher altitude as Mt Rainier is ‘just’ 4392m /14,411ft.

Two months later, October 2014, we had signed up for Elbrus and intensive training had commenced but still the dream of Aconcagua was there. We talked about it a lot. Around February 2015 IMG announced their 2016 Aconcagua departure dates and guide names.¬† Our Mt Rainier guide Johnny Shrock was guiding on our preferred departure date – it was a no brainer. In April 2015, just four months before jetting off for Mt Elbrus, Bruce and I submitted our¬†Aconcagua applications to IMG to climb in January 2016…

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