Scree, Scree and More Scree – A Journey to the Top of Aconcagua

Monday, 13 January 2014

Plaza Argentina (Base Camp) – Load Carry to Camp 1 – Plaza Argentina

Hiking Time: 7 – 8 hours round trip

Altitude: 4200m – 5000m – 4200m

I woke early in the morning after my worst night on the mountain, drifting in an out of sleep, coughing continuously and having difficulty breathing due to a head that felt like it wanted to explore. I woke up feeling absolutely shattered and completely fragile.

It was certainly not ideal for this to happen today. It was going to be a hard day, I just didn’t realise yet just how hard it was going to be. Today we were doing a load carry (20kg’s each) up to Camp 1. We would drop the items there and return to Base Camp again for the night.

Judi holding up what we weighed our bags on to ensure we didn't carry heavier than 20kg's.

Judi holding up what we weighed our bags on to ensure we didn’t carry heavier than 20kg’s.

Around the breakfast table Ronnie took our oxygen levels, as he did every morning, and he chatted to us about the weather. The weather wasn’t looking good for this afternoon but by the time it was due to hit we should be heading back down again. Ronnie was also checking the weather for the next few days. Reports were coming in of gale force winds and bad weather close to our summit day. It was the start of concern for our summit. The bad weather was looking like it was going to last a few days. Ronnie would check again later tonight to confirm the reports. If the bad weather was due to hit, it would affect our summit schedule.

The team at breakfast on Day 4, although I'm sure altitude was affecting us now as we had certainly been on the mountain longer than 4 day!

The team at breakfast on Day 4, although I’m sure altitude was affecting us now as we had certainly been on the mountain longer than 4 days!

Today my backpack felt freakishly heavy unlike yesterday when I had tested it. I knew it was because of how I was feeling. There are two reasons for the load carry method. Firstly, to half the load we are carrying each day reducing the strain on our bodies. The second is for acclimatisation. There is a well-established theory known as ‘climb high sleep low’ which supports the idea that one should climb to a higher elevation and then descend to a lower height to sleep. It gives our body a chance to experience a higher elevation for a short while and then returns to a more comfortable elevation.

After breakfast we hurried to get all our things together ready for our trek. The sun was out and it was already hot. Today we all wore our snow boots in order for us to get used to walking in them. It’s different to walk in snow boots, your foot is unable to bend and lifting your feet feels heavy because of the boot. We set out in single file, trudging along the trail as we made our way up. We had 800 metres to climb today. Not much at all at sea level but at altitude and the steep slope ahead of us, it was going to take approximately 7 to 8 hours to do a round trip.

Not quite ready for the climb due to how I was feeling, but smiling all the same!

Not quite ready for the climb due to how I was feeling, but ready for the challenge!

I walked with my surgical mask over my face, trying hard to stop myself breathing in the dust, which would only make my already persistent cough worse. With my nose blocked and weight on my back making me breathe harder, my chest was heaving heavily already as I tried desperately to get air into my lungs as my airways felt on fire. Everything was an effort.

The landscape was dry and barren. Boulders lay everywhere, like a scrapyard for forgotten things. I spent a large part of the walk to Camp 1 in silence. Every step was a conscious effort to keep moving forward. The rest step, still feeling unnatural, kept my pace steady giving my body time to catch its breath before I took another step forward. But I knew it was the wise thing to do if I was going to reach my destination. Instead of counting to three during the pause, I silently recited what drives me to climb these mountains: Cure. Cystic. Fibrosis. Step. Cure. Cystic. Fibrosis. This mantra gave me a constant reminder of my priorities, and in some small way, it felt like my best friend Emma, who had succumbed to this disease at the age of 22, was walking there with me, cheering me on.

Looking back, the views behind were simply beautiful.

Looking back, the views behind were simply beautiful.

The team having a break.

The team having a break.

A great picture of me captured by Judi. This picture captures so much of what I was feeling as we climbed to Camp 1 ~ pure exhaustion as I struggled with flu like symptoms as we climbed to 5000m.  *Photo By Judi Kurgan*

A great picture of me captured by Judi. This picture captures so much of what I was feeling as we climbed to Camp 1 ~ pure exhaustion as I struggled with flu-like symptoms as we climbed to 5000m. *Photo By Judi Kurgan*

The team stopped often to rest and at times waited for the whole group to get together due to dangerous parts of the trail that are well-known for rock falls. Our guides explained that it’s important for us to keep together in these areas.

Soon the path up turned to short zig-zags to help with the steepness of the trail we were climbing. There was plenty of rocks and scree now littering the pathway, making it so much more difficult as with each step my feet would start to slide back a few steps. My backpack felt heavy and was weighing me down. I coughed continuously, a dry irritating cough from the dust. Everything hurt.

Another team up ahead about to start on the zig-zagging path that helps with the steepness.

Another team up ahead about to start on the zig-zagging path to ease the steepness.

The team gathering together at a place where rockfalls were common. Here we had to walk with extra care.

The team gathering together at a place where rockfalls were common. Here we had to walk with extra care.

The team making the steep climb up to Camp 1.

The team making the steep climb up to Camp 1.

The pace was slow and as we neared the top things became incredibly frustrating. Walking on scree (loose sand and stones) now with each step our feet would slide back down again. It was feeling impossible to haul yourself up any higher with 20kg’s on your back without sliding right back down again. With each step all you wanted was for your foot to stay in place, but inevitably it slid back down again. I was tired. I was sore and with everything blocked up I was struggling to take in enough oxygen to power me up. All I wanted was to get to Camp 1.

Finally, after what seemed like hours, we took the last step on the scree and were finally standing on the top leading to Camp 1. I couldn’t have been happier. A short walk over to Camp 1, we found Bruno and Adrian, two of our guides who had gone ahead, had already put up two tents for us to drop our luggage and food.

A sign that brought tears to my eyes. We had finally made it!

A sign that brought tears to my eyes. We had finally made it!

Peculiar 'spikey' snow that has been formed by the wind greeted us as we walked into Camp 1.

 ‘Spikey’ snow that has been formed by the wind greeted us as we walked into Camp 1.

The team walking into Camp 1.

The team walking into Camp 1.

Angel and Bruno, two of our guides, relaxing at Camp 1.

Angel and Bruno, two of our guides, relaxing at Camp 1.

The team enjoying some time-out at Camp 1 before heading back down.

The team enjoying some time-out at Camp 1 before heading back down.

The weather was already turning, a cold wind was blowing and the sky above us was turning dark as the thunderous clouds rolled in. It felt good to sit down without the heavy load on my back. I didn’t feel particularly hungry but forced myself to eat what I could to refuel my body as I knew now, more than ever, it needed that extra boost. After a good rest we were once gain putting on our backpacks, only this time they were empty, to head back down to Base Camp.

An empty Camp 1.

An empty looking Camp 1, Aconcagua.

Views from Camp 1.

Views from Camp 1, Aconcagua.

Completely untouched photo, the views from Camp 1 were just jaw-dropping!

Completely untouched photo, the views from Camp 1 were just jaw-dropping!

The journey down to Base Camp was so much quicker and so much easier. We ski’d down all the scree parts with swift easy movements helping us gain ground quickly and effortlessly as the stormy weather rolled in above us. We passed a few people going up and I found myself so grateful we were on our way down.

Heading back down to Base Camp, which can be seen in the far distance at the bottom.

Heading back down to Base Camp from Camp 1, which can be seen in the far distance at the bottom.

Once back down in Base Camp all I wanted to do was sleep but before I headed to my tent to do just that, I booked my slot for a nice hot shower later this afternoon, which was to become one of my highlights of the day. After a good nap, Angel prepared the hot water in the two showers for Judi and myself. It was rather glorious to be able to wash my hair, scrub the dust off my body and to feel clean and fresh again. It’s just a pity thought I didn’t have much in the way of wardrobe options!

Angel getting our hot water ready for a nice hot shower.

Angel getting our hot water ready for a nice hot shower.

Hot shower anyone? This is how the water is boiled to enable us to have a hot shower. Life on a mountain really is simple!

Hot shower anyone? This is how the water is boiled to enable us to have a hot shower. Life on a mountain really is simple!

Around the dinner table tonight, Ronnie confirmed bad weather was heading for us and that we may have to adjust our planned summit day to get in before the bad weather hits. He would keep monitoring the weather and keep us posted. As usual around the dinner table we went around the table listening to each team member’s highlights and lowlights of the day. As my turn came around, the emotions unexpectedly welled up inside of me. It had been a very emotional day for me behind my reflective sunglasses as I walked in silence. My lowlight was how sick I was feeling but my highlight was part of two things, of course my hot shower but more so it was the realisation that continued to sweep over me as if it were waves crashing over me at the ocean. As I climbed, my body taking extra strain because of how sick I was feeling, and as my lungs gasped for air, it reminded me why I was doing this climb. It reminded me of what my friend Emma had to endure on the really bad days of having Cystic Fibrosis. It gave me a glimpse of what so many living with this disease have to endure every single day of their lives. In those moments, as hard as it was for me to catch my breath and to simply breathe it was such a blessing reminding me of the purpose of my climb. For us on a normal day it is easy to simply take in a lung full of air but for those living with Cystic Fibrosis, they fight on a daily basis for the most basis thing; to breathe!

Hard doesn’t even begin to explain what today was for me.

I am grateful for the challenge.

I am grateful for the reminders.

For I am drawing on my purpose that fuels my passion.

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 ~ All Photos By Me, Except for the One of Me, Thanks Judi Kurgan! ~

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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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