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I'm in Punta Arenas, preparing for my next fun trip.
Like the Vinson climb, the next trip wasn't exactly planned. When we left Arizona, I had no idea I would be climbing Antarctica's highest mountain. Or any mountain really. I didn't train for it, and I had no climbing gear.
This NFT (Aconcagua) will be extemporaneous also. Only after I descended from Vinson did the idea of my NFT occur to me. Fortunately for me, Jenny is now arranging the details by phone.
One item of noteworthy equipment that has been on all these fun trips in this series is the quilt. Jenny and I first used it for two weeks on the ice cap of Greenland. Then we used the same quilt for nearly two months while skiing to the South Pole. We used it while camping in Patriot Hills, until Jenny left Antarctica, then I continued using the same quilt at Patriot Base, until it was time for me to leave for Mt. Vinson. Then on Vinson I used the same quilt.
Always before, this quilt was packed in a sled. But on Vinson I had to cram it into my backpack. Now back in Punta, I am about to cram this quilt into my backpack again and leave for Aconcagua.
This particular quilt is a two-person model without a Spit-Zip. It works for two people sleeping together and sharing their warmth. But it also works for one person sleeping alone. In fact, on Vinson I had the lightest "sleeping bag" of all the climbers - my 2-person quilt. Not too shoddy for 12,000' in Antarctica.
This quilt was a prototype that Jenny sewed when we were developing our new Ray-Way Quilt Kit. Designed to be easy to sew, yet it has the Gorget and the Draft-Stopper. If we were using it for backpacking, it would also have the Split-Zip.
Aconcagua: Day 1 (2007-02-01)
I spent a few hours packing, then Jenny phoned with the news that the cost of shipping the sleds back to the states would be more than the sleds are worth. Back to the drawing board with that one. So I spent another few hours getting the sleds airline ready. I now have to take all my gear with me: four bags, a pair of skis, and two sleds both wrapped together.
At the Condor de Plata hotel in Punta Arenas, I'm wrapping the sleds to take with me on my next flights to Santiago, Chile; then on to Mendoza, Argentina.
I shuttled to the airport and dropped by it's restaurant for a bite to eat - and ended up ordering a full meal. That was meal number two since I returned to Punta a few days ago. On Vinson I had eaten nothing substantial for five days. I discovered that they had only dehydrated/freeze-dried "food," which my body can't process. So I went hungry for several days of climbing the mountain and going back down.
* * *
After the flight to Santiago, Chile, I shuttled to a hotel for the night, waiting for tomorrow's short flight to Mendoza, Argentina. It's summer here and quite hot. However, during the initial two days of the upcoming NFT, I should be hiking in shorts, and letting the mules carry most of my gear.
The hotel airport shuttle. Those are my sleds in the plastic wrap.
At the hotel, I asked the front desk if they had a storage room for keeping my sleds for the night. They did not, but they did have a regular guest room, on the ground floor, that was not being occupied; and they put my sleds in that room. That was amazing service!
Aconcagua: Day 2 (2007-02-02)
Today I flew to Mendoza, Argentina. On the way, we flew over the Andes. WOW!
I have quite a lot of luggage, because I'm carrying much of our South Pole gear as well. What to do with it, that is the question.
Thanks to Jenny's organization, a fellow, José, from a gear rental shop was there at the airport to pick me up - free of charge. I needed to rent a tent and ice axe, and of course this fellow hoped I would rent from his company rather than from their competitors. But according to Jenny, the prices were all comparable. So with a free ride from the airport, why not? After all, Mendoza is a surprisingly big city.
At the shop I met Laura and another fellow, Oscar. That's it, there was just three of them. They are super nice people. And José and Laura spoke good English.
First of all, they phoned my outfitter to make sure that I will be with the right group of hikers and mules tomorrow. Then they put my sleds and skis into storage for the duration of my proposed climb. That problem was solved. Then they emailed Jenny to let her know that I had arrived in Mendoza. (!) Then they phoned my hotel to confirm my reservation. (!)
I had previously lashed my ski poles securely to my skis. I was about to untie them (quite a job) but they insisted I simply use their 3-piece units, free of charge. And after I had made my purchases and rented my tent and ice axe, Jose drove me and the rest of my gear to my hotel.
I have a feeling I am going to like Argentina. As I did Chile.
The summer is full on, and the day was hot. So after taking a shower, I strolled the streets of the downtown area, lined with quaint multi story, brick and stucco buildings, past little shops galore, weaving through one sidewalk café after another, and finally stopping to listen to a trio of men playing traditional Andean music for the tourists. Surprisingly, with only very simple instruments, a flute (quena), a small guitar (charango), and wooden drum, they were making the best Inca-type music I have heard.
Noticing my interest, a gentleman said the name of the native tribe, and we struck up a conversation. The fellow spoke flawless English. He asked where I was from, and I asked where he was from. Obviously from the States somewhere, though I couldn't place quite where. "I'm a 12th generation Argentinean," he said. "I learned my English from listening to Ray Charles. He was my icon, and I got to meet him before he died."
I'm brain dead when it comes to handling money; that has always been Jenny's job. Today I had to face the music and actually walk into a bank. Just to the 24-hour money dispensing machine, mind you, but even that was a Herculean effort. I put my card in, selected "English," "Withdraw cash," and "750.00." A whole bunch of cash came out. Wow! That was easy! I was extremely proud of myself.
Until later when it finally dawned on me that I had withdrawn 750 pesos rather than 750 dollars in pesos. Duh.
(I had to have enough cash to pay for my climbing permit, which was quite expensive, and other expenses including the shuttle to the mountain and back, the hostels, the mule outfitter fee, and so forth.)
I still had enough that evening, after making another purchase, to wander the isles of a big grocery store. Nothing appealed to me but fruit. So that's what I bought. And to my amazement, the cashier merely nodded when I showed her my credit card. Wow! That WAS easy.
To top off a fun day full of discovery and wonder, and meeting such nice people, I enjoyed a splendid dinner in my room, wolfing down six bananas, 1/4 watermelon, a peach, and a liter of orange juice. All while writing this update and waiting for my friends, Dave and crew, to arrive at the hotel.
Aconcagua: Day 3 (2007-02-03)
The climbing season is late, and I had this nice room to myself.
Fun day today!
I'm writing this in a hostel at dinner time. How my three friends are hungry defies the imagination; we just ate a huge meal two hours ago. (I had my standard: Lomo a lo pobre - grilled steak covered in onions with two eggs on top, and a tall pile of French fries). Good for building up the reserves, I figure. (When I'm home I much prefer fruit).
We are in the middle of nowhere, up in the mountains. Beyond my window the hills rise steeply to both sides. If you were to climb the hill to our north, you would be climbing at least a week. This may seem odd, but we're at the base of the world's highest mountain outside of Asia, and the route starts near here. It remains to be seen whether we can climb this peak but we're here to have fun trying.
My three friends are Dave, Ian, and John; all British. All three were on Vinson at the same time as I was. "What are you doing next?" we asked each other after the climb. "Aconcagua," we all said. Maybe we will see you there.
I couldn't resist swinging by Argentina on my way home. Now we seemed to have joined forces, at least for the three-day approach to base camp.
For the first two days we would be hiking along the Río Vacas ("river where the cows graze"), and from what I've seen, looking around, the canyon is very scenic. But looking up, the view is gobsmacking. I'm not used to scenery on such a large scale. Follow your eyes, and the slopes keep going up and up ...and up!
The summer has seen many storms, they said, and the mountain is covered in snow. Whether that is good or not, we can't tell; but crampons and an ice axe will be required.
At any rate, I'm eager to get started.
Aconcagua: Day 4 (2007-02-04)
After eating breakfast, we left the Hosteria Puente Del Inca and got a ride with our outfitter to the trailhead. We are attempting the Vacas route, which starts quite a bit lower than the standard route, and it takes about a day longer to reach the higher elevations.
The trailhead sign at Punta de Vacas (2,406 m; 7,891 ft)
Quebrada ("ravine, gorge") del Rio Vacas
Pampa de Lenas (2,800 m; 9,184 ft) 5 hrs
Casa de Piedra (3,200 m; 10,496 ft) 11 hrs
Plaza Argentina (base camp 4,200 m; 13,776 ft) 18 hrs
The trail through Quebrada Vacas.
I enjoyed the day hiking in shorts and t-shirt, but I overdid it, and my white Antarctic skin became quite sunburned. After that, I learned to keep my arms and legs covered.
This wash must have happened this year. The debris at this point was twenty feet deep, and was apparently cut by a flash flood. These washes (arroyos) were common, and typically very large. We saw several along the way.
All day we followed a spectacular river gorge. The trail was very rough with scree, so our feet took a pounding. The day was hot, and we hiked in shorts, and I hiked in lightweight running shoes.
After so long in the frozen south, I was celebrating life and the simple things in nature, from the vibrantly green bushes, to a lizard sunning itself on a warm rock, to a hawk flying down canyon, to a crystal clear creek running off the mountain.
The distance to Pampa de Lenas, our first camp, didn't look that far on the map, but we were pretty tired by the time we reached it.
Dave at at Pampa de Lenas. After the muleteers finished taking off the loads, the mules dispersed, leaving the camp free of them.
I set my little rental tent up behind a stone wind block, and proceeded to the camp's pipe spring to fill my water bottles and cook pot. At the creek, below, I took a refreshing sponge bath, and washed my dirty feet. Then back in camp I laid in the tent and ate a large grapefruit while my corn on the cob was cooking.
Fresh corn pasta. (smile) Lots of energy.
It was a good and happy day, and I am looking forward to tomorrow.
Aconcagua: Day 5 (2007-02-05)
John and Ian pause to enjoy the grand scenery. It is said that one can sometimes see condors soaring the cliffs above, but we didn't see any today.
On the upper part of the Río Vacas part of this trek, the Vacas Valley spreads out and the hiking is easy and scenic, with steep mountains flanking both sides.
We had a beautiful and enjoyable day of hiking, although it has been very windy and dusty, which must be typical of this valley. And, like yesterday, the day was hot. Yesterday I had become sunburned after hiking in shorts and t-shirts, so today I wore long pants and a long sleeve shirt.
Our first view of Aconcagua.
From Casa de Piedra, we were treated to a spectacular view of Aconcagua, 22,840 feet (6962 m).
We arrived at our second camp, Casa de Piedra, this evening. As with our first camp, we had this one all to ourselves.
Partly because of the heat, we all have sore feet. Dave and John are wearing heavy boots, because they are used to them. Ian is wearing stiff trail shoes. And I am wearing my old, worn-out running shoes.
The only discouraging factor these first two days has been the mules. The mules are carrying the bulk of our gear to base camp at Plaza Argentina. It is nice not to have to carry it ourselves; but unfortunately the mules have polluted the spring water. I hope to avoid any problems from drinking the water, and I am very careful where I collect it. At our Casa de Piedra camp this evening, I climbed a steep slope to collect spring water, above where the mules had been. I thought. But even then I was disgusted to find small worms in the water, about three-eighths to a quarter inch long. I am not carrying a water filter, but sure will next time.
During the day we don't hike with the mules, but we meet mules, and the mule drivers, at the camps. And then at night the mules are allowed to roam and graze freely.
However, despite the mules and sore feet, we are in fine spirits. Tired, but doing really well and looking forward to tomorrow, which will be our last day with the mules. Beyond base camp at Plaza Argentina, we will start the ascent of the mountain in earnest.
Blending in, for protection.
I have been talking to Jenny every couple of days on the satellite phone. She returned home over two weeks ago, and is back to work making Ray-Way Kits and shipping them out.
Aconcagua: Day 6 (2007-02-06)
We have forded the Rio Vacas and left the main Vacas Valley, and in this photo are looking back towards our last night's camp (tiny white dot).
I'm standing on the trail in Arroyo Relinchos and looking ahead to the same trail down by the creek, and zig-zagging up the next hill.
The tiny dots are people hiking down the trail and crossing the creek.
On my way up the trail, I met a few people on their way down. Some had summited, and all looked pretty worn out. One guy had dried blood on his sweater, and said that he had taken a bad fall high on the mountain. No one appeared to be having fun. Rather, they all appeared to be in survival mode.
Gobsmacking view of the mountain.
First glimpse of the Plaza Argentina base camp
We have reached Plaza de Argentina base camp. The day was strenuous, but very rewarding.
There was ice in camp when I packed up this morning, and the river crossing was icy-cold as well. The water came to above my knees, and it was about 40 feet across to the other side. I was actually the last one to leave camp and make the crossing, out of about a dozen other climbers. I waded the river in my running shoes, but no socks, and didn't put the socks back on the rest of the day.
After crossing the river, the rather make-shift trail climbed up an incredibly scenic canyon. Sheer, steep walls reached way overhead, with jagged rocks overhanging. The trail climbed very steeply up through this rugged and beautiful canyon.
Halfway through the day, the trail finally climbed out of the canyon, but it kept going, up and up. Although the hiking wasn't that difficult, the climbing was relentless. It was a long day - seven hours - with a serious amount of altitude gain. Base camp is at 13,780 feet. The air temperature dropped as the trail climbed, so we have finally left the heat of the lower elevations behind. In fact, today was cold and windy, but I was used to that.
I was the first person to arrive at Plaza de Argentina base camp that day. I was perfectly happy to hike alone all day, but had seen the dozen or so other climbers along the way, as I passed each one on the way to base camp. The cold and wind didn't bother me, after spending nearly three months in Antarctica. I hiked in lightweight clothes, and the staff at base camp were amazed that I wasn't cold. Most of the other climbers arrived bundled in jackets. At base camp there was a bit of light snowfall and the ever-present wind.
Plaza de Argentina is a fascinating place, a small climbing community. It reminded me of a gold-rush mining town. I am feeling strong, healthy, and happy. Happy that today was the last day with the mules. Healthy, with no sign of parasite infection. I am enjoying each day to the max.
Here at base camp I offered Dave all the money I had with me, to help cover his guiding costs. At the get go, Dave had invited me to join his group, without charge. That was extremely generous; but I temporized, because at least for the first few days I felt like just winging it. However, now on the mountain proper, I could see the many benefits of joining the group, officially. So I gave Dave the money, about $350 USD, but kept $100 USD and a few small bills. (In a few days, John would purloin my remaining $100.)
I laid in my tent with the door open and my head sticking out, and spent a long time admiring the night sky, even though the temperature was below freezing. The sky was clear and the stars were incredibly bright. I have never seen the stars so bright. It had been several decades since I had gazed at the Southern Cross and the Magellanic clouds. It was an unforgettable night sky. And then the full moon came up, huge and bright.
Aconcagua: Day 7 (2007-02-07)
This morning I awoke to find ice in my water bottle. Our small group spent a few hours organizing gear, so we had a late start. My teammates decided to wear their double boots, and walk with their trekking poles, but I stuck with my running shoes and no poles - at least for today. And by the end of the day I was glad to have not worn the double boots. We walked on bare ground all day, although there was plenty of snow all around us.
Climbing out of base camp with Dave Pritt and the others.
It was a super nice day, a bit cold and windy, but clear and sunny. The trail climbed up through unstable scree slopes, and on several occasions wound precariously along exposed ridges with steep drop-offs on both sides.
View of the Polish glacier, many thousands of feet above. This scree field was loose and had some really precarious sections that dropped steeply away.
The next mile or so was easy hiking.
Penitentes are common on high-altitude glaciers, such as those in the Andes where the air is dry and the sun shines long. They are caused, not by wind, but by solar radiation which sublimates the ice.
Camp 1 is situated at 5,000 meters (16,405 feet). I was the first to arrive. We all felt very tired but extremely pleased with our day, happy to be doing so well. The Camp is in a beautiful cirque surrounded by magnificent, huge, towering rock cliffs and slopes.
We had climbed for seven hours, slowly because of the altitude; the slow pace allowed me to enjoy the magnificent scenery all the more.
We plan to take a rest day tomorrow, in order to acclimatize a little better. I could definitely feel the altitude while climbing today. The mountain looming above is still over 10,000 feet in elevation gain from base camp, where we were last night, to the summit. That might give an idea of its size. Aconcagua is a big mountain!
Aconcagua: Day 8 (2007-02-08)
Our tents at Camp 1.
Climbing above Camp 1 on a rest day. At 17,500 feet on Aconcagua, just below Windy Col.
Today we are resting at Camp 1. The weather is beautiful: the sky is blue, the sun is warm, but the wind is a bit cold. We are feeling good, as long as we are inert. But when walking around camp, the altitude makes itself known immediately.
Last night the wind picked up, but the skies remained clear. So I had a good time stargazing. Truthfully, I have never seen a sky as clear and beautiful as this. But this may be, in part, because of living nearly three months without the nighttime sky.
In the morning I rose at 7:00 am, bundled up, and set off alone up the mountain a ways for some acclimating-type exercise. As I climbed higher, Camp 1 fell away, and I felt happy to be alone on this great and beautiful mountain. At my high point I could see the summit rising above another 6,000' plastered with snow and ice. Below, base camp was hidden, but below that, I could see the whole of day three's approach trek which began with the crossing of the Rio Vacas.
Returning to camp, I collected water through a small hole in the creek ice, and made my breakfast by boiling 1/2 liter of water and adding powdered milk and a cup of dry cereal.
While sitting in the sun, I enjoyed a long chat with Dave about climbing big mountains such as this, and bigger. Dave is very experienced, and I learned a lot from him. He's also very upbeat and fun to be around. He's the owner of a small but growing guiding company based in the UK, and obviously enjoys his work.
This afternoon I went up the mountain again for more acclimating-type exercise. This time I felt much better, not quite as slow and long between breaths. I went up to about 17,500' with no marked altitude effects. It was very cold up there, especially with an afternoon storm brewing. But it was a very fun afternoon!
Looking down from my high point of today.
As with the South Pole trip and my Vinson climb, I feel like I'm in my element here. This climb is not a given, by any means, mainly because of the weather - being close to the end of the season and all that. But I'm having the time of my life. Meanwhile, Jenny is busy planning the logistics of my NFT.
Aconcagua: Day 9 (2007-02-09)
Last night the weather was building, with winds, and dramatic clouds about to engulf us. But the morning dawned bright and clear.
So we set off from Camp 1 at 9:30 am. The day was cold and windy, and our packs were heavy, so we made slow progress up to my previous high point of yesterday.
The scenery was spectacular! Our peak towering above, glaciated and crevassed, and more peaks across the way. The other tents at Camp 1 were mere dots, and below them, the landscape fell away to forever.
It's a beautiful day. Climbing from Camp 1 to Windy Col, en route to Camp 2.
Above Windy Col, the scenery is expanding with more peaks to the north.
I made it up to the Col fifteen minutes behind Dave, and a good forty five minutes ahead of John and Ian, who were suffering the effects of altitude. So was I, only not quite as badly. As always up here, I had to take each step slowly.
Windy Col lies about halfway from Camp 1 to Camp 2. And above that, the terrain is steep scree. So we had our work cut out for us.
Above the Col I started feeling the altitude big time. So for the rest of the day I joined John and Ian in a seriously slow effort to reach Camp 2.
Camp 2 is at 19,160' (5840 m), and is not much but a snow-swept staging area of fairly level rocks and scree. Most tent sites were snowed in, but Dave knew of a good place further up and left - on the brink, as it turned out - like a condor's aerie. From our tents, we could look far, far down at the col.
Pulling up on the Camp 2 plateau.
We reach Camp 2 at 19,100 feet. Looking up at the Polish Glacier.
Our dizzying view from Camp 2, looking down at windy Col.
It had been a long day - seven and a half hours of laborious climbing.
We melted water from snow, and then in the dark, I cooked my pasta while the others made their freeze-dried dinners.
It is extremely cold and somewhat windy here, and of course the air is thin. But with all my clothes on I slept well.
Aconcagua: Day 11 (2007-02-11)
Two hours before daylight on our summit attempt, Dave made the wake-up call, for us to get ready. Here I made a big mistake. My timing was off, and I had no time to make drinking water by melting snow. I had nothing to drink after awaking from the night's sleep, and nothing to drink all day.
We left camp in the dark, and began our ascent of the slope in front of us by headlamps. It was a bit frightening to be climbing on such steep terrain and not being able to see very well. The morning was extremely cold and quite windy, and we had to be super careful with each step. John dropped out after only a few minutes, and returned to camp.
The terrain was snow and ice the entire way, so we wore crampons. But there were no crevasses so we did not have to rope up. Ian was climbing faster than me, and pulled ahead. Dave hung back to make sure I was OK, then zoomed away, and soon caught up with Ian.
The sky remained clear throughout the morning, although the wind continued to blow. But by mid-day clouds began moiling around us. The wind picked up force and we were in and out of clouds the rest of the day, until we descended back to Camp 2.
After three hours on the Polish Traverse, most of it in the dark, I reached the junction with the Normal Route and found a level place where I could rest. This place is called Plaza Cólera (19,520') and some guides use it as a high camp. The view is to the north.
View to the east, looking down at the Polish Traverse, and Camp 2.
Climbers resting near the defunct Refugio Independencia at nearly 21,000 feet.
Approaching the Canaleta above the Gran Acarreo.
Looking down from my high-point at La Cueva, 22,025 feet.
My high-point, 250 meters below the summit.
On the way down. My high-point, La Cueva, is at the base of the buttress shown at right. Was I disappointed? A little. Was I still having fun? You bet!
Self-portrait on the way down.
We are descending the Polish Traverse, and are almost to Camp 2.
I had suspected that I would need more time to acclimatize, and this proved the case. At the base of the Canaleta, 250 meters from the summit, I ran out of steam. I waited in a small cave (La Cueva) for Dave and Ian returning from the summit, then the three of us descended together.
On the way down to Camp 2, Dave shot ahead, while I held back to take care of Ian. He was pretty shot, and one of his crampons kept falling off. Several times I put the crampon back on his boot. We finally arrived at Camp 2, very tired but otherwise OK.
Back at camp, the first order of the evening was to fill a bag with snow and melt some drinking water. My failure to get up early enough to do that, this morning, probably cost me the summit. These high elevations with their dry air are quite dehydrating. And I had not had a drink in 24 hours.
But before using my cook pot, I had to repair it. Good 'ol John had tried to melt water with my stove set at full blast, with only a block of snow in my pot. This scorched the inside bottom of the pot horribly. I had to spend 15 minutes scouring, and even then the water tasted burnt. This was the pot Jenny and I had used in Antarctica. It was an expensive titanium, and I'm sad to see it ruined.
My schedule is quite flexible, and I plan to make a second attempt, after resting for a few days. I will leave some gear and food at Camp 2 then descend to base camp, rest for two or three days, then, weather permitting, return and try again. My enthusiasm was not dampened by my first attempt. I am excited just to have reached 22,000 feet. I feel confident that with rest and more acclimatizing I would be in better shape.
Aconcagua: Day 12 (2007-02-12)
Dave generously offered me the continued use of one of his company's tents, the one I had been sharing with John. So I will leave it here. I went to take it down, to prevent the wind from demolishing it; but Dave said just to leave it set up. So I made sure it would not blow away by adding more rocks to the guy-lines.
As we were packing, a powerful gust of wind - close to 100 mph - bulleted through camp and sent gear bags and hats and anything else lying about loose whizzing down the mountainside. My friends lost some gear. We all looked for it on the way down, but couldn't find any sign of it.
We were all quite tired from our summit day yesterday and spending two nights at Camp 2 at nearly 19,000 feet. We were definitely feeling the effects of the altitude.
Even though it is nearly the end of the climbing season in the Andes, there are still several parties attempting to summit. I hiked down with some of the Polish team. They said that only two of the twelve-person Polish team were able to summit yesterday.
On the way down to Camp 1, I met this friendly Polish climber.
Descending to Camp 1, we took the direct path straight down the fall line.
Nearly to base camp. At season's end, there are not many tents left.
After a long day descending from Camp 2, we arrived back at base camp, (13,780 feet) which to me felt like sea level.
At this point, my plan is to rest and re-fuel at base camp for the next three days. Then I want to climb back to Camp 1, where I left a small cache of fuel, food, my double boots, stove and pot. Then the next day I would like to push on to Camp 2 where I left the tent, crampons, more fuel and food. Then the following day to the summit; but if necessary I will take a rest day at Camp 2.
Right now I am feeling great, and am looking forward to my three day rest at base camp, and my return to Camp 2 and beyond.
Aconcagua: Day 13 (2007-02-13)
I spent the day resting, cooking meals and eating, and washing.
Base camp is located by a small river, actually the runoff of glaciers high above. But it is very silt and till laden. I collected 10 gallons and carried to camp, and after letting the silt settle as much as possible, I used it for washing.
For drinking water, I hiked a long ways across the expansive moraine and found a good spring. The hike back was tiring with all that weight, but the water was excellent.
I am finding base camp a very nice place. It is incredibly scenic - you can see the summit of Aconcagua, 10,000 feet overhead.
I am enjoying the relatively easy life at base camp. I cooked a big skillet full of potatoes and eggs, then added a can of tuna fish to it. I heated some of the washing water and took a much-needed sponge bath, along with hair and beard washing.
I certainly missed having Jenny here; it would have been an enjoyable place to spend time together. Even though there are still other people at base camp, I have this one area to myself.
Inside the guides' tent.
I moved my small tent to a more sheltered area; the wind seems to never quit.
I am taking advantage of the rest days, recuperating from the high altitudes, eating much to build my reserves again, and drinking huge quantities of water to rehydrate the body. I am feeling good, although just a bit weak. This is the result of climbing to 22,000 feet in several exhausting days. All returning climbers feel much the same, but no one can believe that I am going back up.
While the summit is important to me, much more important is just being up at altitude, learning what I can, and enjoying the absolutely beautiful scenery. The climbing is hard work, and also a bit dangerous, but well worth the slight risk.
John had to be flown out of base camp by helicopter. I volunteered to clean up his incredibly messy tent.
Dave and Ian pulled out, on foot, very pleased by their success at reaching Aconcagua's summit.
I moved my small tent to a more sheltered area; the wind seems to never quit.
Tomorrow I will wash my clothes. With the warm sun and strong wind, the clothes should dry quickly. Meanwhile, I talk with Jenny via the satellite phone twice a day, working out the logistics of my NFT (trekking and climbing in Nepal), due to begin in just three weeks after I return home.
Aconcagua: Day 15 (2007-02-15)
I haven't been able to do much battery charging because of the cloud cover, so my satellite phone conversations with Jenny are quite short.
When you have clouds at 13,000 feet, here at base camp, it usually means any precipitation is going to be in the form of snow. And that was exactly what we had today, all day. The snow didn't accumulate, but the wind was so strong that it blew an outhouse over.
I am rested and ready to climb back up to Camp 1 tomorrow morning - as long as the weather cooperates. I'm taking a gamble, because the end of the season is so near at hand.
Aconcagua: Day 17 (2007-02-17)
It snowed for thirty-six hours here at base camp, but this morning is sunny and most of the snow has gone (blown away or sublimated). Today continues to be very windy, however, so I am laying low for at least another day.
Yesterday, during the storm, my lightweight rental tent failed. It's a single wall with vents, and the vents can't be closed entirely, as it turns out. So at the height of the storm the tent began filling with spindrift.
Dave had offered me the use of his Adventure Peaks 25' x 15' guide tent and all it's food leftover from the season. I went to check it out, and found the wind had ripped the door off, leaving the shelter wide open.
I spent two hours repairing the door so that it would at least close, then pitched my small tent inside the guide's tent. Between the two I was comfortable again.
Then I spent two hours devising a way to close the vents of the small tent. I will have to use this tent at Camp 1, so I will need good weather.
I found out later that the same storm destroyed three heavy duty tents at Camp 1, and the guides have issued evacuation orders. I haven't heard what it was like at Camp 2, perish the thought. But today several people came off the mountain with no plans to return.
Speaking of which, in January the success rate on this mountain was 4%. This month it can't be much higher.
Today while everyone was running around in down parkas, I found a sunny spot out of the wind, and enjoyed a warm and pleasant few hours. Then mid-afternoon the clouds formed again and brought more snow, so I ducked back into the guides' tent for a late lunch.
Throughout the afternoon the conditions worsened, although I went for an hour's walk away from camp, just to stretch the legs. Tomorrow's weather is forecast for the same, but after that it should be better, for awhile.
I'm eager to try to climb the mountain again, and then to return home to Jenny for a few weeks. My NFT to Nepal will be two months in duration, if all goes well. So in the meantime I'm looking forward to a nice rest, starting in a week or so. Oh, to get these expedition clothes off! I have been wearing them for nearly four months. I hope Jenny will make me new ones.
Aconcagua: Day 19 (2007-02-18)
I have decided to abandon my plans, and not attempt the summit again this season. Even though I feel strong, the storms have been coming, one right after the next. The end of the season is here, and no other climbers are attempting the summit now, at least on this side of the mountain. In the two weeks I have lived on this side of the mountain, I have seen only five people summit, out of nearly one hundred.
My task now is to recover the gear I left at the high camps. So today I hiked through the snow up to Camp 1 and back, and was able to recover my double boots along with the other gear I had left there.
Back up to Camp 1.
Very high winds on the mountain today.
Aconcagua: Day 20 (2007-02-19)
An early start today.
Climbing towards Camp 1.
About to reach Windy Col, two climbers follow me. They were not attempting to summit, but like me, were only headed to Camp 2 to retrieve gear they had cached there.
Clear skies but very cold and windy.
The white line is the trail traversing to the Guanacos camp.
Climbing to Camp 2.
My tent at Camp 2. One pole was missing; after searching around I found it caught in the rocks, stuffed in a crack and bent every which way. I cleaned the site of all debris, and left no gear or debris behind.
Today I climbed all the way from base camp to Camp 2, and back.
I set off just before daylight, about 6 am. There was about a quarter inch of ice coating everything at base camp; I found ice even inside my tent. As usual the wind was strong. I started off in running shoes, but carried my double boots, water and snacks in a small backpack - the same old pack I had used on the Appalachian Trail in 1993 - the first prototype of the Ray-Way Backpack.
I was tired from yesterday, so had to hike slowly. The early morning alpenglow on Aconcagua and the surrounding mountains was beautiful, and I enjoyed my solo trek. "My best day ever." Of course it was cold and windy, and became even more so the higher I climbed.
I reached Camp 1 in just two hours and forty-five minutes. The first time it had taken me six hours, twelve days ago. As I was resting at my old campsite, I watched a mouse nearby. Overhead a large bird, the size of an eagle, watched the scene. I have seen this type of bird a lot up here, but am not sure what it is; it doesn't have a hooked raptor-like beak.
Three other fellows joined me at Camp 1. They were headed to Camp 2 to get their gear, also. The wind had been increasing - it blew about 70 mph for three-and-a-half hours. It was extremely cold as we climbed up toward Camp 2 in this strong wind, but the physical exertion kept me barely warm. Only my hands were cold.
Again I climbed by myself. One of the three other guys stayed about 100 yards ahead, and the other two stayed far behind. When I reached Windy Col, halfway between Camp 1 and Camp 2, I had to slow down a bit more. It was then a slow grind all afternoon; very steep - and a long, long way.
Approaching Camp 2, I looked eagerly ahead for my tent, but "uh oh, where has it gone?" I found where I had left it pitched, the circle of rocks I had placed around it to hold it down, but the tent itself was demolished. Broken poles lay strewn about and mostly buried under ice and snow. The fabric had been ripped in several places. I wondered what would a person do, exposed to a storm like that?
I searched and dug for half an hour, and finally spotted the shaft of my ice axe buried under the ice and snow. With that, I found my bag of gear. Fortunately it was intact. Dark storm clouds were brewing so I quickly headed down. Even though it had been a very long, cold, and tiring climb, and I still had a long way to descend to base camp, I was enjoying myself completely. I was free of other companions; my thoughts were my own, and my soul was just soaring. It was pure heaven. The snow and wind and cold could not dampen my spirit. Visibility was limited at times, but I knew where to go. I practically had the route memorized by now.
Windy Col, and the storm is about the descend in earnest.
Along the way I met one of the porters coming down also. He said he has been working here for five years, and had been here for three months so far this season. I had spoken with him before, and had learned that he could make the climb from base camp to Camp 2 in two-and-a-quarter hours! The porter said he loved it up here, and I agreed that I did too. As we parted, it wasn't "good bye" or "good luck" or "be careful." Instead it was "Enjoy the mountains!"
Later I got in touch with Dave Pritt of Adventure Peaks and told him about the destroyed tent. I offered to pay for the tent, but he brushed it off, saying "Those things just happen. Just a part of doing business." I had a wonderful time climbing with Dave, and he did so much for me. I hope other people will visit his website, and perhaps sign up for one of his trips! If you do, be sure to tell him I sent you.
Aconcagua: Day 20 (2007-02-20)
The morning I departed base camp, the winds on the mountain were extremely high. The mountain looked a volcano.
The plume was bigger than the mountain! I could only imagine the ferocity of the winds at Camp 2, where a violent storm had demolished the tent, a few days ago. On a day like this, a climbing party could not safely sit tight and wait for the weather conditions to improve. Night or day, they would have to descend - before the winds became this strong. In contrast, the morning down here was quite pleasant. But in a few weeks that will surely change, as the season creeps into deep winter. It's clearly time for me to be moving on.
Today I left base camp and hiked for ten hours, crossing the Rio Vacas twice on my way to my initial camp at Pampa de Lenas. Again the hiking was awesome, with towering canyon walls and a trail that zig-zagged down through the canyon. Despite a bit of fatigue from yesterday's long haul to the high elevations, I reveled in the beauty of these lower areas.
The trail winding down Quebrada de los Relinchos. Quebrada = Arroyo, ravine. Relinchos = neigh, the cry of a horse or mule. It's not hard to imagine how the trail through this canyon got its name.
The trail through Los Relinchos has a few dicey sections. The trail on the other side of the creek is used for the mules, which can better ford the creek.
The Rio Vacas must be forded here.
Aconcagua: Day 21 (2007-02-21)
I awoke to the sound of birds looking for some scraps of hiker's food. So of course they got a generous handout of the four-month old cookie bars that I still had left over. I was more than happy to part with it.
I set off at 7 am, and arrived at the trailhead about noon. I enjoyed this last bit of hiking.
At the trailhead I had to wait for the mules to arrive. Finally the mule driver showed up, but there were no mules. Finally they came, and I helped the mule driver find and gather them up, unload the bags from their backs, and load the bags onto a truck. The mules were turned free, and allowed to make their own way back to the ranch, still ten km away. Apparently they know the way. Even mules know where the good food is: back at the ranch.
Mules with bags over their heads to prevent them from running away.
I got a ride in the truck down to the bus station, where I would catch the bus back to Mendoza. There were a few other climbers and trekkers waiting for the bus, and there were several tourist/souvenir shops. So the wait was enjoyable. I spent some time re-packing my gear. By throwing out (and feeding to the jays) what remained of my expedition food, leftover from the Antarctica trip, I was able to get three bags packed down to two. The only disconcerting thing was that, try as I did, I was not able to purchase a bus ticket. There was a clerk at the small kiosk, where one was supposed to buy a ticket. And the clerk confirmed that yes, the bus would be here in a few hours. But no, he would not sell me a ticket. And then the fellow would explain in rapid-fire Spanish the reason why. Then with a smile he would say "it's ok."
Another problem was I had very little money. Good ol' John had purloined the $100 that I was carrying in reserve. So all I had now was pocket change, less than $10. This meant that I was unable to buy food. The hamburgers that the other people were eating sure looked good.
When the bus arrived, I started to load my bags - but the driver said no. This was strange, because the bus was practically empty. Finally someone pointed over to the ticket kiosk. Ah - now is when you buy the ticket. It was all rather confusing at the time, but it worked out ok. Apparently they don't sell tickets until they know how many empty seats there are. And for fifteen Argentinian pesos (about $5.00 USD) I got a seat on a luxury coach for the four-hour ride to Mendoza. Of course the bus stopped at every little village and side road, or wherever a person flagged it down.
After nearly three weeks in the mountains, where one has fresh air and freedom to move about as one pleases, the bus ride had me squirming in my seat by the time they finally hauled in to Mendoza. Getting off at the the bus station, I gathered my bags, then had to search around for a taxi. When I finally found one, I asked the driver if he knew where such-and-such hotel was. I had a reservation there, thanks to Jenny's phone call. The driver replied "Yes, yes, of course." Then the driver turned to his friend and asked him where that hotel was.
Mendoza is a fun and interesting city. The people are very nice, even to American tourists; the city is pretty and clean; and it is interesting to walk the streets with the sidewalk cafés full of life and music that goes on into the wee hours of the night.
Well worn shoes.
I checked into the hotel, then set off to stretch my legs and get some dinner. I was ravished. I picked a sidewalk café where there were some native musicians playing their distinctive music. The group is called Inkataki. I bought a CD with their music so I could share that part of Mendoza and Argentina with Jenny when I get home. I ordered a Chorizo a lo Pobre, a plate of that delicious Argentinian beef which came on a huge plate with a steak two inches thick grilled over an open fire.
Chorizo a lo Pobre.
Aconcagua: Day 22 (2007-02-22)
On the short hop from Mendoza to Santiago, we passed by the mighty Aconcagua. The weather looks good again.
After nearly four months at large (Nov 1, 2006 to Feb 23, 2007) I'm returning home, and am writing this on the flight from Santiago to Los Angeles.
It's been a fun trip. A very, very fun trip!
It was full of adventure, full of pristine beauty and elbow room. Full of discovery of Jenny's and my inner strengths during our 58 days skiing to the South Pole; on my ascent of the highest peak in Antarctica; and my climbing to 22,000' on Aconcagua.
I have lived free from society's more deleterious influences for weeks on end. No billboards, no traffic, no litter, no evident disregard for the land and for nature. I consider this good for clearing the mind, on occasion.
I learned a great deal on all three trip segments. Something about how to ski and camp in Antarctica and survive its bitter cold and strong winds, and how to hold ones' mind tight together in the process. Something about how to climb relatively high, windy, and cold mountains. If these elements are to be learned, they must be learned by experience; there doesn't seem to be alternative methods. What good are these elements? They expand ones capabilities. And with greater capabilities, the mind expands into new levels - and even dimensions - of possibilities.
But most of all, I've enjoyed just about every minute of this trip - even the recent bus ride back from the mountain to Mendoza when I had to sit still for four hours but my legs wanted to keep trucking.
Outside the plane's window, the moon is a waning crescent, like a big slice of cantaloupe. As it sinks toward the ocean horizon, it is taking on a molten golden color that looks too vivid to be real. The moon will soon be a new moon, and I hope to start a new fun trip soon thereafter.
Inside the aircraft, dinner is being served, and although I've talked with several people on this flight, the person sitting next to me hasn't said "boo," let alone "hello." I wonder what is going through his mind, but it's none of my business and I don't place expectations on anyone.
This afternoon, when at the airline counter checking in an exceptionally large package wrapped in plastic, along with a few large bags of equipment - my baggage - the gentleman next in line asked me what was in the plastic. "Two sleds and a pair of skis. My wife and I have skied to the South Pole." From there he asked dozens of questions, basically about my chosen lifestyle, which he found curious. I only answer these type of questions when I have a feeling I am about to learn something; and such proved the case today. We were two hours early and we talked the whole time. Not just chit-chat, but meaningful conversation. The fellow, (we didn't ask for each other's names) was from New Zealand but has been working in South America for six years. He shared some of his insights into the people, their culture, and their way of thinking. This was significant to me because I'm thinking of going back to Argentina next year with Jenny, and possibly staying a bit longer. I really like it there.
"Someone asked me how it was that I keep on getting stronger when people of my age are tending to slow down. My attitude is different than theirs. With greater experience comes greater capability. Might as well use it."
Someone a few weeks back asked me how it was that I keep on getting stronger when people of my age are tending to slow down, big time. My attitude is different than theirs. With greater experience comes greater capability. Might as well use it.
Speaking of which, my climb of Aconcagua fell short by 250 meters. That was the first try; I did not get another try because the weather conspired to destroy my gear. My small rental tent failed at base camp, and my borrowed four-season, expedition tent was demolished by extremely high winds at Camp 2. I could not test my own mountain gear because basically I had brought none; this trip to Argentina was extemporaneous and unplanned.
Yet I feel very satisfied to have accomplished my overall goals, which were to enjoy the mountains, to learn and gain experience climbing in higher than normal places, and to get into better shape. On my final day on Aconcagua I climbed from base camp to Camp 2, then descended back to base camp - in a single day. I could not have done that a week earlier, or a month, or a year. That was a personal best, by a long shot. And from experience, I learned what gear I need at altitude.
In retrospect, our year and a half of rigorous training for the South Pole trip paid off - even though the neighbors thought it strange that we were dragging tires along the streets. And of course our regular climbs of Pic'ho had unexpected benefits. They provided a new mindset that launched me in a whole new direction.
Jenny welcomes me home, after four months of adventuring at large.
The airlines had broken my skis. This was not much of a loss because they had become pretty worn-out.
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