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.

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