A Condor, Effects of Altitude and Light Snow was the order of today ~ A Journey to the Top of Aconcagua

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Casa de Piedra to Plaza Argentina (Base Camp)

Hiking Time: 5 – 6 hours

Altitude: 3200m – 4200m

We awoke early to a bitterly cold morning! The fact that you know you need to get up to start packing again and get ready for breakfast and take down your tent doesn’t help in any way and certainly doesn’t motivate me to get up out of my snug and warm sleeping bag. I won’t even mention what thoughts cross my mind at the thought of washing with ice-cold wet wipes so early in the morning. But as life on the mountain goes it is something that becomes our morning ritual. We groan at the thought and then do a countdown to touch down of cold wet wipes on the skin. I think back to those delightfully warm buckets of water that our guides on Kilimanjaro used to bring us each morning and evening to wash with. I longed for warm water now as I reminisced.

Wet wipe washing done, dressed and bags repacked again, it was time to join the team for breakfast. Judi and I decided to add a protein shake to our biscuit and tea breakfast to try to add a little more substance and as I drank mine, I said a silent prayer our breakfast food would be waiting for us at Base Camp. I was starting to long for something of substance. My fingers were stinging with the cold as we sat in the shadow of the mountain eating our breakfast and enjoying a hot cup of tea. As we sat there sipping our morning tea, a commotion behind us brought the sight of the wild west! Over the mountain the muleteers were rounding up the mules, kicking up dust, after they had ventured out overnight. It was quite a spectacular sight to see.

The muleteers rounding up the mules after they had wandered off during the night. It was almost like we were in the wild west!

The muleteers rounding up the mules after they had wandered off during the night. It was almost like we were in the wild west!

Rounding up the mules after they had wandered off during the night.

Rounding up the mules after they had wandered off during the night.

Today is an exciting day; we are heading off to Base Camp and we’ll climb 1000 metres in altitude today. This is when things start to feel really real and tomorrow we have a rest day coming up, something I am really starting to look forward to. Today, our morning starts off with a mule ride across the river and then we would make our way up the steep Relicho slope, which takes us to Inferior Plaza Argentina.  We will trek for about 5 to 6 hours today .Today we will be able to see the last native vegetation before climbing towards the glaciers, where Plaza Argentina (Base Camp) is situated. As the icy cold grips me to the bone, I am thankful that we don’t have to take off our hiking boots and brave the icy cold water in order to get to the other side.

Our camp sight.

Our camp site.

The muleteers getting the mules ready for the days trip.

The muleteers getting the mules ready for the days trip.

With breakfast done, we head back to our tent to take it down and pack everything up ready for the last trip the mules would do with the bulk of our luggage. From Base Camp onwards we start carrying our own essential luggage up the mountain with us. The real work was going to start soon. This is what I had been training for.

Another team was departing ahead of us so we waited for them to cross before the mules came back to get us. Some members of our team were not too keen to ride the mules and it was funny to watch the big “deer eyes” as they climbed on. Suddenly, I was called to hop on but first I had to roll up my flag as the muleteer said it is likely to scare the mule and I had to agree, I didn’t feel like a bucking mule on this freezing cold morning! The ride was over quickly but safely on the other side and camp now in the distance, it was time to start our climb.

Daniel, Judi and Simon ready for their mule ride across the ice-cold river. As you can see it was a little chilly this morning!

Daniel, Judi and Simon ready for their mule ride across the ice-cold river. As you can see it was a little chilly this morning!

The mules ready to take us across the river.

The mules ready to take us across the river.

Our ride across the ice-cold river.

Our ride across the ice-cold river. We would then head out across the valley in the background and then we would head up to Base Camp.

I'm ready to ride! Before I could ride thought they advised that my South African flag be rolled up so as not to scare the mules. Pity, would have made an awesome pic!

I’m ready to ride! Before I could ride thought they advised that my South African flag be rolled up so as not to scare the mules. Pity, would have made an awesome pic!

As we climbed I was grateful to still be climbing in the shadow of the mountain because I knew soon we would once again find ourselves in the blistering hot sun. Angel leading us up front, the team followed in single file, at times the mules barging past us with our luggage strapped on as we walked the narrow slopes as we crossed over to the Relicho slope to begin our climb to Base Camp. I felt my lungs inflate with the onrush of scenery – air, mountains, trees, people. I thought, “this is what it is to be happy”.

Here's the team with our Day 3 photograph. Maybe it was altitude but we didn't remember to do our daily pics every day!

Here’s the team with our Day 3 photograph. Maybe it was altitude but we didn’t remember to do our daily pics every day!

As we began to make our way up the Relicho slope, Angel stopped the group and told us about the rest step, a step that feels unnatural, and requires a conscious effort to take a step, shift your weight, and then pause for three seconds before taking another step. It would help us acclimatise better and help with our breathing as we climbed higher and steeper slopes. The pace was painfully slow, yet steady. We were about halfway up the Relicho slope when one of our team members spotted a condor flying up above. We all stopped to watch as it glided gracefully high up in the sky and the across to the slope across the valley. As if it knew we were watching, it swooped in across the valley and soared right above our heads, leaving us gaping at the sight with its final show. Step. Rest. Step. We continued our slow climb up. Today we were certainly in for a treat as next we spotted 3 lamas across the valley. It was amazing to watch as these animals negotiated their way up and down the steep mountain side without any effort. According to our guides it is rare to spot these animals and we were indeed very lucky to see them in action.

The rest step as we made our way up the Relicho slope.

The rest step as we made our way up the Relicho slope.

The team making their way up the very steep slope.

The team making their way up the steep slope. It might not look steep but looks can be very deceiving.

As we made our way up the Relicho slope we spotted a condor.

As we made our way up the Relicho slope we spotted a condor.

Looking back as we climbed higher, the views were jaw-dropping.

Looking back as we climbed higher, the views were jaw-dropping.

Picture book pretty, looking back over the valley as we climb.

Picture book pretty, looking back over the valley as we climb.

As we continued to climb the intense solitude of the mountain enveloped me. It is one of the big draws for me, because in the mountains, the constant chaos and distractions of life are totally stripped away. The silence at altitude is so profound it can seem almost deafening at times. It allows the soul to soar and for a profound peace to settle in. The quiet is broken only by the occasional gust of wind or the sound of rocks crashing. It’s a powerful way to reset the mind, but it can also push climbers to the switching point between sanity and insanity especially as we climb higher.

The muleteers making their way to Base Camp.

The muleteers making their way to Base Camp.

The muleteers making their way to Base Camp.

The muleteers making their way to Base Camp.

By now the sun was relentless and there was no more shade from the harsh, hot rays. We stopped for lunch in an open area where even the rocks weren’t providing any shade. The heat was sapping my energy but with this lunch stop, Base Camp wasn’t too far away. As we headed out again, Steve, one of our expedition leaders pointed out some bad weather was appearing on the slopes of Aconcagua. In the mountains the weather can change drastically and unexpectedly and in a matter of minutes. As we walked the team began to split with the fast walkers eager to reach Base Camp, they started pulling ahead. Judi and I always near the back, taking a slow and steady pace to help our bodies acclimatise, were in no hurry to make it into Base Camp. One of our teams mates was struggling today. His pace had slowed drastically and he confirmed he needed to take it easy into Base Camp. The three of us, along with Steve and Adrian, one of our guides, kept a nice steady pace as made our way to camp.

The weather was changing on Aconcagua. It was hot now but soon the jackets would be out and light snow would be falling.

The weather was changing on Aconcagua. It was hot now but soon the jackets would be out and light snow would be falling.

Without much warning the air cooled and the clouds rolled over and soon we were stopping to dig our jackets out of our backpacks. The afternoon wind was picking up and the sky was growing dark overhead.

That way to Base Camp. Excited to be close!

That way to Base Camp. Excited to be close!

Steve pointed out towards the mountains in front of us where an avalanche had just occurred. We watched as the air was filled with dust and snow that was kicked up in its destructive path. It was another stark reminder of where we were.

As we continued to walk, it started to snow lightly. The cooler weather I had longed for was finally here. Soon we came up to a sign that announced Plaza Argentina was near. It was an exciting moment. Soon I could take off my hiking boots and just relax. Steve pointed out where we were going. Around that corner and we’ll walk up into Base Camp. It was as if we had all found renewed energy and the pace picked up.

Steve, Jake, Judi and I close to Base Camp.

Steve, Jake, Judi and I close to Base Camp.

The final stretch. Round that corner at the end and Base Camp would be in sight.

The final stretch. Round that corner at the end and Base Camp would be in sight.

We rounded the corner and there up on the hill was Base Camp, home for the next few days! It felt good to finally arrive.

4200m ~ Base Camp baby! I was happy to have arrived and this would now be home for the next few days.

4200m ~ Base Camp baby! I was happy to have arrived and this would now be home for the next few days.

As we approached our camp, Ronnie was there to welcome is in. Snacks were laid out on the table in our mess tent and it looked warm and inviting. But first, before we could sit down and relax we had the task of setting up our tents. Not many spaces were left and Judi and I set up tent right on the outskirts of Base Camp but conveniently near our mess tent.

Pitching a tent with Angel in the falling snow. I was loving it!

Pitching a tent with Angel in the falling snow. I was loving it!

Base camp was simple yet luxurious as far as mountain camps go. We had a huge mess tent where our team could enjoy meals together and just relax, we had internet tents where we could get in touch with loved ones back home, decent toilets as far as mountain toilets go and best of all, we had showers with hot water!! I for one couldn’t wait to get clean.

One of the pleasures (yes) of Base Camp. A decent toilet, toilet paper and even toilet spray. Talk about been spoilt!

One of the pleasures (yes) of Base Camp. A decent toilet, toilet paper and even toilet spray. Talk about been spoilt!

Tomorrow would be a rest day and I think our entire team was looking forward to that. We’d have a check up with the doctor and then the day at leisure. I couldn’t wait!!

At dinner time, the team gathered in the mess tent around the table. The meal as always was plentiful and already I noticed my appetite disappearing, which is common at altitude. I knew that while I could still eat, I had to get as much food in as I could to fuel my body. It was around the dinner table tonight that Ronnie introduced “highlights and lowlights.” We went around the table and each team member shares their highlight and lowlight of the day. The highlights made me smile and the lowlights once again remind me of where we are. This was the real deal!

Two of our team members had retired to their tents early tonight. Both struggling with the effects of altitude. At 4200m the effects were being felt. Everything is beginning to take effort and everything you do makes you exhausted quickly. Our one team member was really not doing well and what happened next around the dinner table amazed me.

As we chatted about the days happenings and the team member who was not well and causing concern, another team member announced he would give up his tent for the night and go and spent the night in his tent with him to check on him and watch him throughout the night. The selflessness of the gesture touched me deeply and is one of the reasons I love climbing mountains so much. I’ve been lucky so far to share my mountain journeys with team mates who genuinely care for the others on their team and who always look out for others. The comradery shared on a mountain is something that no words can describe and tonight was no different, it was an action that left many of us sitting around the table speechless.

We were a team, and when one part of our team hurt, we all hurt and when one person celebrated a victory all of us did. This is life on the mountain. This is not about great people; it’s about ordinary folk like you and me.

We all retired to our tents early tonight. Judi and I chatted a bit and soon we were both snuggled up in our sleeping bags, sleep calling. Light snow still falling outside, I was more than looking forward to a day off tomorrow and a nice long sleep in as we had all agreed to a late breakfast at 9am.

Exhausted bodies from the last few hot and long days gaining altitude, sleep came easily tonight.

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~ All Photos By Me ~

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