Summit push: Your turnaround time is 3pm.


1st February 2016. (Grab a cuppa, this is a long post!)
I fell asleep quickly only waking up at 2am to use the wagbag. It was a very mild night with absolutely no wind. I felt a flutter of excitement that I was ‘just’ 1000m shy of the summit and here I was outside at 2am with just a light jacket on. Needless to say I was optimistic about getting up two hours later at 4am ready to start walking at 5am. I couldn’t get back to sleep so cosily dozed. Bruce and I had been organised the night before so when we woke up all we had to do was eat and avoid knocking ice crystals from the tent walls onto our sleeping bags.

Johnny came by with hot drinking water,  porridge oats and a snack bar around 4:45am. There had been a problem with the stove so the start was delayed. No matter, we both felt good. We felt ready. We started hiking at 5:30am and the temperature was amazingly warm and calm. It was -16C (3.2f) and the wind was around 10-15kph. We couldn’t have asked for better conditions. Tincho commented that he’d never seen such a warm and calm summit night in all his experience.

After 5 minutes walking I had to take off my down jacket to avoid overheating. It quickly became clear that I don’t do well eating then immediately exerting myself. The nausea I’d had the past few mornings was back but I didn’t want to let it ruin my day so spoke to Johnny who gave some sound advice and within an hour I was feeling better. Over the past few days I realised I wasn’t able to keep the same pace as the boys. It really bothered me that I kept falling behind, although I was comfortable with my non-stop pace. I guess I just wanted to make sure we completed the climb as a team. I had a word with myself and said ‘you might be a few steps behind but it doesn’t make you weak, or have less of a right to be here.’

Click to enlarge

It wasn’t long after we set off that the sun started to rise and the majestic views started to unfold all around us. I’ll try to avoid a superlative overdose but suffice it to say that I’d never seen views like it. The inky star-studded sky took on a new hue as the fiery sun crept up over the horizon, gilding the distant mountains. As we approached Piedras Blancas, our first rest stop, I turned around to see how far we’d come. The sun was casting a shadow of Aconcagua right in front of me. I had never been so excited. Seeing the shadow of this peak was almost as much a goal for the expedition as reaching the top for me. Tincho took a photo of me and although my mouth and nose was covered you can see the smile in my eyes.

After the break at Piedras Blancas it was apparent I would not be able to maintain Johnny, Bruce and Rick’s pace. It’s hard to put it in words how it feels hiking at high altitudes. My body felt strong, and apart from a little intermittent calf discomfort, I felt very fit. Despite this your body just doesn’t let you function how you think it should. Each step lifting my plastic-clad foot felt like someone had ripped out my lungs and was using them as punch bags. I found myself breathing heavily, with reprieves only coming when we were faced with steep snow slopes I could get into a rhythm with. The slow pace meant my hands and feet had started to go numb but Tincho saved the day with the ‘hands under the armpits’ trick and I was good to go again.

As  each step became increasingly challenging I slipped further behind the boys. It was only a gap of around maybe 10 minutes so I didn’t let it get to me. As we reached crampon point at the old refuge, Independencia, I was pretty exhausted. Johnny helped me tie my crampon, which I was having trouble knotting. The next section was the beautiful traverse along Portezuelo del Viento. After constantly looking at a steep hill it was nice to see the landscape unfold ahead again. As we approached La Cueva (6650m), a rocky outcrop at the base of the Canaleta, I could see the boys ahead getting ready to leave. I gave them a wave and they set off up the Canaleta.

Altitude swollen face selfie at La Cueva (6650m)

As we turned the corner a little snow started falling. Knowing a storm was forecast I suddenly became particularly conscious of the time; we had to make the summit by 3pm else we’d have to turn back empty-handed. Johnny and Tincho were communicating regularly on the radio and as we started tackling the Canaleta, we heard that the boys were taking a rest stop at the top. A quick note on the Canaleta. Everyone says this is the hardest part of the climb due to the steepness and the scree. We were fortunate to have had tons of snow underfoot and the Canaleta was actually one of my favourite parts of the summit push. A good steep snow slope means you can just plod up, one step at a time. We nestled closely into the rocks on the right, and Tincho let me lead the way up at my own pace. I had a burst of energy and felt strong.

We reached the top of the Canaleta at 12:45pm and I had at least two hours to go, based on my current pace. Tincho kept positive, saying I would definitely summit but deep down I was very worried. We got the awesome news over the radio that the boys had summited and were heading back our way. We crossed paths on the trail at 2:30pm and I congratulated them. Johnny and Tincho had a discussion, which I assume included whether I could continue or not. I told Bruce I didn’t think they would let me continue and asked him how long it was from there to the top. He estimated 45 mins and my heart sank. Johnny turned to me and said, “Lexi, you have 30 minutes… go get that summit”. I was elated.

I downed some energy gel Clif Bar Shot Bloks and we set off again. It felt like we had zoomed off but it was painfully slow. I remember Tincho stopping and making me rest and thinking to myself, ‘why are we stopping, we’re so close’. I said to him “I’m going to make it, I’m going to make it“. He gently reminded me, “WE’RE going to make it“. We set off once again and I just concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other. It felt like seconds later that Tincho pointed to a big lump of rock ahead and said “that’s it!“. Those last 20 meters felt like one of those dreams where you’re running but you can’t make progress. It was 2:59pm and I had to clamber up a few boulders to reach the very top. At exactly 3pm Argentina time, 1st February 2016, I stood on the summit of Aconcagua; a dream that I had trained, saved and planned for over the past 5 years.

The snow which had been falling eased and the sun illuminated the summit through the clouds. Although there were no views from the top, the light was ethereal and it was incredibly still, quiet and warm. A wind-free summit was another first for Tincho. It was just the two of us standing there on the highest peak outside of the Himalaya at that moment. Tincho took some photos for me as my camera was frozen and we briefly celebrated. It was soon time to descend.

The snow suddenly started falling fast and heavily. It was soon a total white out. Tincho asked if I wanted to get roped up and given the conditions I agreed this was the best course. I led us down the Canaleta and back to La Cueva without a single slip or fall. Upon arrival I was startled by a guy sat on the ground looking a bit helpless. I initially didn’t understand what was going on but you could tell by the sombre mood it seemed serious. He was with two guides and they all seemed to be debating something. Tincho and I had a break, removed the rope and continued down. It transpired that the guy in the cave had a knee injury and they were trying to figure out how to get him down. Apparently he was kicking up a fuss about not needing rescue. Although it was a pretty minor situation it really brought home the reality of this peak. People die here.

Tincho and I carried on down through the white out conditions and all I could think was that if Tincho wasn’t there I’d be a dead woman. From departing La Cueva I had literally no concept of where we were and put my complete trust in him to find the way. The snow was 12” or deeper in places and we both kept stumbling. At one point we gave up walking and glissaded down which was a lot of fun. I stopped for a pee break at Independencia and looking at the snow beneath me I was glad for all the pre-hydration the previous days. My urine was so dark; I was very dehydrated. I wondered how bad it would have been had I not started well hydrated. I chugged half a litre and we sped downhill once again.

As we reached Piedras Blancas, we took our final rest before the push into camp. A tiny gap emerged in the thick clouds above and a patch of pure blue peeked through, with the surrounding cloud lined with silver. In my exhausted and elated state it felt magical and was just the pick me up we needed. The last 30 minutes or so into camp felt long but we finally made it. The boys had only arrived about an hour ahead of us and it was amazing to reach camp and celebrate our success together. What a day! We relaxed for the rest of the evening and Bruce and I exchanged stories. Johnny came by with some ramen noodles covered with cheese which I couldn’t really stomach, but I forced myself to eat as much as I could. We fell asleep quickly after dinner. It had been exactly a 13 hour round-trip for Tincho and I. Not a bad day walking!

Knackered after a successful summit of Aconcagua!

From the IMG blog: “Just off the sat phone with Jonathan Schrock and team.  100% on the top.  Great conditions this morning but snowing with minimal visibility for the descent.  No matter, the entire team reached the summit and all are back safely now at high camp.  A big congratulations to Jonathan, Martin, Lexi, Bruce and Rick.  Nice job. https://www.mountainguides.com/wordpress/2016/02/01/aconcagua/summit-of-aconcagua

 

This post is dedicated to Bruce who, at the time of writing, is one day away from flying to Alaska to attempt Denali. Good luck Bruce!

The big night arrives; countdown to the top.


January 31st 2016. I didn’t manage to sleep until around 1:30/2am. I was wide awake and just couldn’t drift off. I woke up grumpy, not helped by the condensation in the tent making the outer fabric of my sleeping bag damp for the second night running.

One thing I’ve learnt over the years is that however you’re feeling, it never hurts to behave in a positive manner; you never know, you might fool yourself into thinking you’re more cheerful than you are. If all else fails, bacon is a good way to start the day. Imagine my delight when we were served bagels with bacon and cheese again for breakfast. Delicious as usual. I had one and a half which was probably half too much but you can’t really say no to extra food on the hill. One thing is for sure, I have not gone hungry on this trip.

Today we moved up to high camp at 5900m to be reunited with the kit we’d stashed the previous day. My pack felt heavier today than any other so far. Tincho estimated it was only around 15kg so I suspect my lack of sleep and overeating at breakfast contributed to feeling less energetic. It was another hard slog but, as always, getting into a steady non-stop rhythm is the best way to approach a challenging day. Despite slightly heavier packs than yesterday it only took us 15 minutes longer to get to camp. It certainly helped that the snow was more compact having melted and frozen last night.

We pitched the tents and tried to get settled. The game was on. We started to get our backpacks sorted ready for summit push first thing tomorrow morning. There was a climber camping near us who made conversation as we were arriving. He was very odd. He made a strange attempt at humour which came across offensive; disparaging his guide and making some reference to Johnny ‘getting it from behind’ because he was sharing a tent with Tincho.  I thought it could have been American humour I didn’t understand, but upon querying it, Bruce and Johnny assured me he was just a dick. First uncomfortable experience with another climber on the mountain.

Camp was a bleak place situated on a large plateau with rocky stacks tinged with yellow from what appeared to be sulphur. It was very busy with climbers on the way up to the top, and on the way down. There was a mixture of sick, injured, exhausted, excited, elated and weird people. The whole place smelled a little like stale urine. The toilet area was very well protected from the driving wind which battered the rest of the campsite therefore there was a mountain of human waste everywhere you looked. So much for the strict ‘Leave No Trace’ rules on the mountain. I duly used my wagbag.

It’s challenging to do anything quickly at high altitudes and even walking up the hill to get down to the toilet area was a lung buster. I had the pleasure of visiting the shit pit around 3 times that afternoon, thanks to my conscious efforts to stay hydrated. I was determined not to let a failure to self-manage fluids (or food) be my downfall on this trip. Having got our packs sorted it was just a case of eating dinner and continuing to drink.

You know, I once spent the best part of a year travelling around the world. Around 4 months into the trip I stopped in Toronto, Canada to stay with friends. The first question asked was “what would you like to eat?“. I answered, “anything as long as it comes with mashed potatoes“. After travelling through Asia for months all I craved was a bowl of mashed potato. My delightful hosts obliged with the biggest bowl of mash I’d ever seen. It’s my ultimate comfort food.

Back to Argentina. When Johnny arrived at the tent with a bowl of mashed potato, topped with bacon and mushroom gravy, I could barely believe my luck. It was another delicious meal and perhaps the perfect pre-summit treat. I was absolutely made up. After a nice mug of Sweet Dreams tea (not taking any chances getting kip tonight) it was 7:30pm and we were in bed ready to rest. The summit push started soon.

From the IMG blog: “Jonathan checked in today, reporting that the team and he had made their move to high camp.  Weather is good and winds were light.  All members made the move without issue.  That was all great news.  Plan is to prep summit gear, eat and drink, rest (as much is possible at that altitude) and get ready for a summit bid in the morning.  Forecast is favorable.  Now’s the time to see if all their patience and hard work will pay off.  They’ve done all they could to put themselves in a good position.  We wish them the best for tomorrow.https://www.mountainguides.com/wordpress/2016/01/31/aconcagua/aconcagua-team-in-position/

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.

Load carrying from Camp I to Camp II


27th January 2016. I’d fallen asleep around 8pm the night before and although it was a disturbed night I got plenty of hours in. Breakfast was delivered to our tent and it was an amazing way to start the day; shredded potato with bacon and scrambled eggs!

After breakfast we got ready and we departed at 10am for our load carry up to Camp II. It was very windy and cold and we started at a slow pace on a gentle incline. The first part of the day was pretty boring actually, and the cold weather combined with numb toes and intermittent cold hands made it an unenjoyable experience. It’s not all unicorns and rainbows on the hill you know. As we continued things started to irritate me. I struggled with my sunglasses fogging up, I had a hair in my mouth and was generally irked. I then got a headache.

After reaching the top of the boring uphill slog you arrive on a stunning plateau with views across the Andes as far as the eye can see. It made the hike worthwhile and was definitely rejuvenating. It was there we had our long rest break for the day and had a chance to soak it all in. The next section took us on a flat traverse around the slope of the hill until the last little uphill section into camp. There were knee-deep patches of snow which slowed me up further and added fatigue to my aching legs. It was a really tough day.


From there on I found myself slightly on the higher end of 2 on Johnny’s 4-point scale (1 being top of the world, 4 being done in) and for the final push up and around the corner towards the camp and I was firmly at a 3, with trouble getting my breathing rhythm right and falling behind the rest of the team.  I arrived into camp just a few minutes after everyone else where we claimed the pitches and stashed our gear.

The way back down took around 45 minutes and was far easier. Offloading the extra gear and having flat and then gentle downhill terrain was just the rest I needed. We went back to our tents and Tincho delivered us some hot water. Drinking our herbal tea we tried to keep warm and Bruce and I chatted about the day. A few moments later there was a knock on the tent and food was served. This evening we were treated to two enormous burritos filled with rice, chicken, cheese and red peppers. Absolutely delicious. With full bellies and well hydrated we got into our sleeping bags and tried to drift off amidst the snow storm outside that was really picking up.

Movin’ on up (to Camp 1)


26th January 2016. I slept badly. When I did finally drift off I had a horrible dream about someone I knew dying, which was disconcerting. All night I felt like I couldn’t catch my breath or get comfortable. I woke up out of sorts and disorganised, not the best start to our move up to Camp 1. I rushed breakfast so I could finish packing and break camp without delaying everyone else. I was shattered. I just wanted to sleep.

We shared out and packed the rest of the group gear and despite carrying packs almost as heavy as our load carry two days prior, the hike took us 70 minutes less. Acclimatisation really does work! That said, it wasn’t an easy walk and I did feel challenged at times.

It’s strange the things you take for granted. After days of walking through the low level valleys having the trails to ourselves, it was an adjustment arriving at Base Camp where there were lots of people. Of course the three course meals, heated base camp tent, lovely loos and lots of chill-out time made up for that. Now I felt strangely disappointed that we were sharing the trail with another team on the higher mountain. Despite taking the lesser-trodden route to the summit Aconcagua is still a vastly popular peak, not least because it is one of the Seven Summits. Reality check time.

When we arrived into camp there was a bit of a fiasco as we discovered another team had stolen the pitches where we’d stashed our gear a couple of days prior. Our kit was still buried under the wind-break stones surrounding each pitch but the other team had gone ahead and pitched their tents anyway. Tincho made sure they knew they weren’t being very respectful. We found alternative pitches, moved all our cached gear across the campsite and started pitching the tents in our new spot. Bruce and I were going to share a tent going forward in order to keep the group gear weight to a minimum.

After helping each other pitch the three tents, making sure to stake them down well knowing the windy conditions at this camp, we moved in and set up our beds. Johnny had collected our empty water bottles and returned shortly after with them refilled. A little later he brought round a pot of hot water for our flasks. At Plaza Argentina base camp we were provided with the choice of herbal teabags, soup powder and cocoa to take with us for the upper mountain section. I’d gone for a mixture of various herbal teas plus a few packs of soup to keep things interesting.

I hadn’t drunk enough water during the day so figured soup would be the sensible choice that evening for the electrolytes, extra calories and also to work well as an appetizer for our meal later on (yes, I know how that sounds – I was already used to being spoilt at mealtimes!). Bruce and I relaxed in the tent and debriefed on the day as we waited until dinner time. You may be noticing a theme here… food, walk, camp, rest, food, sleep. What a wonderful way to spend a day.

So we hear a knock at the tent and Johnny is there ready to serve our dinner and top up our hot water flasks. What service! So, you know when I mentioned about the amazing meals at base camp, and how spoilt we were? Well dinner was… cheese burgers! THREE each, served in a toasted sesame seeded bun with mayo, mustard and barbecue sauce. Three, full-size cheese burgers. Yes! There are no words for the pure joy I felt at that moment. I nailed two and a half before I was absolutely stuffed.

Happy, happy. Post burger feast smile.

After dinner it was time to get into sleeping bags and keep warm. It was just 7:20pm but outside a snow storm was coming in and it was getting extremely windy. I had a slight headache due to dehydration and tiredness (or cheeseburger overdose) but I knew drinking plenty of water and having a good night’s rest would sort it out. Fed, watered and cosy in our little tent, it was time for a little bit of light reading (‘Dead Mountain’, my e-book about a fatal Russian mountain disaster) and lights out.

From IMG’s blog:
On Aconcagua, Jonathan Schrock and team have moved in to C1 (16,200’).  Plan is to make a carry tomorrow to C2.  Calming conditions forecasted for the weekend and team hopes to put themselves into position to take advantage of any good climbing conditions.” See here: http://www.mountainguides.com/wordpress/2016/01/26/aconcagua/updates-from-mexico-argentina/

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.

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!

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