Extreme Heat, A Mountain Chill and Sights to Delight ~ A Journey to the Top of Aconcagua

Friday, 10 January 2014

Pampas de Lenas to Casa de Piedra

Hiking Time: 6 – 7 hours

Altitude: 2700m – 3200m

There is something truly magical about sleeping out in the open, under the stars. Each time I woke up, my view from earth had changed, the night sky offering a new display of millions of stars and the Milky Way splashed across the ‘Sky TV’ screen. As morning broke, the sky above was already bright blue but the sun was still hidden behind the mountains that surrounded us. Breathing in the fresh, crisp mountain air it was going to be another hot and gorgeous day as we walked in the valley between the mountains.

Breakfast was not quite what we expected today and consisted mainly of biscuits, a banana bread of sorts with tea and coffee. We were to find out later that our food had been delayed and would hopefully catch up to us at the Base Camp. Not really ideal for me as breakfast is what kick-starts me with energy for the day. With no tents to take down and pack up, once breakfast was done all we had to do was fill up our water bottles and we were on our way again. I was beginning to realise fast just how cold this mountain water is early in the morning and that it might actually be a better idea for me to start filling up my water bottles at night so I don’t have to warm my fingers up again after they get freeze burn from the ice-cold water in the morning!

Today, we move towards an intermediate camp, passing through the Quebrada de Vacas and we’ll be hiking for 6 to 7 hours. This is where we will be able to see the first sight of the Western Face of the Aconcagua.

As we headed out, the sky a brilliant blue, contrasting strikingly against the earth tones of the mountain and the green shrubbery that we still walked through. Today we had some river crossings, surprisingly sturdy bridges that took us across the chocolate rivers bubbling beneath. With everything so dry, the dust kicked up by team members walking in front of me already had me breathing in the dry, dust of the mountain. It won’t be long before my incessant mountain cough would start.

It was Day 2 on the mountain and we were heading out for our next camp!

It was Day 2 on the mountain and we were heading out for our next camp!

Another gorgeous but hot day in Argentina.

Another gorgeous but hot day in Argentina.

Our first river crossing, this sign letting us know only one at a time!

Our first river crossing, this sign letting us know only one at a time!

The hills are becoming more frequent now and with each new hill to climb you could notice the slight altitude we were gaining and how our breathing becomes heavier. The sun was hot on my skin as we walked in the canyon between the mountains. Eventually, having gained some ground, looking back was an absolute feast for the eyes – views for miles looking back at the valley we had climbed and the sight of the winding trail and how it cut between the mountains.

Looking back across the valley.

Looking back across the valley.

Looking back across the valley.

Looking back across the valley.

As we walked in the hot midday sun up the valley the sound of the chopper blades began to echo through the pass. We stopped and turned back to watch as the rescue helicopter was flying low, zig-zagging along the valley we had just walked, probably on its way to base camp. Hearing the helicopter is something we would get used to very quickly. At first it is a bit gut-wrenching wondering if it’s a rescue for a fellow hiker. Is someone suffering from the dreaded mountain-sickness or has someone fallen? On the other side of the coin they could just be carrying in supplies to Base Camp or on their way to fetch the human waste bins that are full. I knew it wouldn’t be long before the sound of the chopper blades would become the norm and soon we wouldn’t give it too much thought. But for me, whenever I heard the chopper blades I would always send out a little prayer just in case it was for a fellow hiker in trouble. The mountain has a wonderful way of putting life into perspective. Things can happen and change so quickly and in a strange way it made me feel more alive than ever.

The rescue helicopter heading towards Base Camp.

The rescue helicopter heading towards Base Camp.

Today the silence as we walked was beautiful. It is awesome when we chat but sometimes too when the silence fills the air and only the crunching of our hiking boots on the soil below can be heard, you become alone with your thoughts and for me the reason why I’m here and the magic of my surroundings begin to fill my every sense. With each breathe, I breathed in life. My soul absolutely overflowing with gratitude as we walked, gratitude for my wonderful team mates, gratitude for where I am, gratitude for living my dreams.

We stopped for lunch in an area with no shade from the fierce midday sun. Refuelling the body as we had a few more hours to go to our next camp. As we lunched, the mules came past kicking up all the dust they could possibly hope to find on the mountain! I was so happy for the simple medical masks that I had brought with me as they worked wonders in letting me breathe easily while stopping me from breathing in the constant dust that was kicked up.

Lunch!

Lunch!

The mules coming past with their loads, kicking up dust as they pass.

The mules coming past with their loads, kicking up dust as they pass.

After spending the morning hill climbing, naturally we headed back down into the valley and walked along the river bed, winding our way along its banks, often hugging closely to the mountain side as we walked. It wasn’t too much longer when I caught sight of the yellow tents of our next camp. We were close! But before we arrived at our camp, Casa de Piedra, there was a nice little surprise waiting for us…

Making our way to camp. The greenery had given way to dry, barren land.

Making our way to camp. The greenery had given way to dry, barren land.

Walking along the rivers edge, our first sighting of our next camp.

Walking along the rivers edge, our first sighting of our next camp.

As we continued to walk along the banks of the river, suddenly Angel, our lead guide stopped and pointed left across the river. There in all her glory, was the summit of Aconcagua. Once again, as it had on the day we started, she took my breath away. Yes, I was going to climb that.

That's where we headed. All the way up there.

That’s where we headed. All the way up there.

Aconcagua, in all her glory. I couldn't wait to set foot on her!

Aconcagua, in all her glory. I couldn’t wait to set foot on her!

As we looked across the valleys leading to her slopes, Angel pointed out our path we would take the next day. We would head straight across the river and into the valley heading straight for the slopes of Aconcagua with Base Camp nestled on the foot hills of her magnificent slopes. Angel pointed out roughly where Camp 1 was and explained how we would climb up to Camp 2. As I stood there watching, catching my breath, a thousand realisations hit me again and again. Here I am, living my dream.

Finally, with one last look, the team started moving forward again towards camp. The afternoon sun was glorious as we arrived but the afternoon wind was already picking up. Straight away we dumped our bags and got ready to pitch our tents as tonight the temperature was going to drop! Angel gave us some tent pitching instruction and tent packing instructions for the morning too and before we knew it the teams tents were pitched and we could settle in to our home for the night. Our camp site at Casa de Piedra was dry and barren. The greenery we still got to see earlier today had all but vanished. In its place, tones of earthy brown, a wind that rattled through the valley we were in and the river running past.

As we made our way to camp, this huge rock had this sign just behind it. I guess in the past this rock had become a popular toilet stop! Lol

As we made our way to camp, this huge rock had this sign just behind it. I guess in the past this rock had become a popular toilet stop! Lol

Camp Casa de Piedra at 3200m!

Camp Casa de Piedra at 3200m! Feeling good!

Tent pitching instructions from Angel.

Tent pitching instructions from Angel.

We spent the afternoon sitting around the make shift table drinking tea and snacking while talking with the team, getting to know each other some more. Two of our team members weren’t feeling well and were resting in their tents. Again, another stark reminder of life on the mountain and how quickly things could change.

This afternoon as the sun dipped behind the mountain, a cold shadow and wind gripped the camp site. Wrapped up warm some of us retreated to the shelter of our tents. Later, when the supper was called we braved the cold night to re-join the team to eat. There was no shelter tonight, the wind gusted through the camp site finding all the gaps in your clothing, hitting your skin and reminding you where you are. After dinner I didn’t hang around too long, it was just too cold and the comfort of my tent and warm sleeping bag beckoned to me. Tomorrow we are heading to Base Camp, it’s exciting just thinking about it as from there things start getting real. After tomorrow we’ll also have a rest day which will give us a chance to acclimatise, get checked out by the Base Camp doctor to ensure we are still fit and healthy enough to go higher, and to just rest. I’m envisioning reading and writing and doing a whole lot of nothing but I bet somewhere I’ll be repacking again too!

Sleep came easily tonight, my sleeping bag keeping me warm and snug. This mountain life might be simple and far from comfort, but there’s something enchanting about sleeping out in the wilderness.

My soul is free.

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~ All Photos By Me, Except of Course Those of Me ~

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