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 ~

A Birthday Celebration, First Steps and Free Sky TV ~ A Journey to the Top of Aconcagua

Thursday, 9 January 2014

Punta de Vacas to Pampa de Lenas

Hiking Time: 4 -5 hours            

Altitude: 2700m – 2950m

I woke early this morning knowing the day I had prepared so long for had finally arrived. Today we start hiking the 2nd of the Seven Summits I hope to climb. Breathing in the thought that I truly am living my dreams, I climbed out of bed so more than ready for all lay ahead of myself and the team. Our room was filled with a buzz of excitement, last long-lingering showers, putting on clean clothes and packing in the last of our stuff. The breakfast hall was filled with other teams excitedly chatting, some who had just returned from the mountain, and others like our team, getting ready to go. This morning we are also celebrating Simon’s birthday!

Awake early in the morning, this is the sight that greeted me outside on our little balcony.

Awake early in the morning, this is the sight that greeted me outside on our little balcony.

Judi (my Kili team mate and since friend) and I, clean for the last time and ready to trek!

Judi (my Kili team-mate and friend) and I, clean for the last time and ready to trek!

With the rest of the food, equipment and our Base Camp duffel bags separated for the journey on the mules, it was just me, my backpack and my one duffel bag. I can only hope I have packed everything I need for the walk into Base Camp, if not, well it was just too late now!

Jake, Simon, Judi, Bruno and Daniel excitedly getting ready to depart.

Jake, Simon, Judi, Bruno and Daniel excitedly getting ready to depart.

With breakfast eaten it was time to depart. All our luggage already packed into the trailer, the team piled into the shuttle bus that would take us to the start. But first, it was a stop at a place called Puente del Inca, which in Spanish means ‘The Inca’s Bridge.’ It is a natural arch that forms a bridge over the Vacas River. Scientists have speculated that the interaction of extreme elements like ice and hot springs were involved in the formation of the bridge. In the early 20th century there was a large thermal resort and spa that used the hot springs to cure certain illnesses and there was a railway station, which is still there, that tourists used to travel to the resort.

A little market out in the middle of nowhere at  Puente del Inca.

A little market out in the middle of nowhere at Puente del Inca.

Old abandoned railway tracks at  Puente del Inca.

Old abandoned railway tracks at Puente del Inca.

The amazing natural arch that forms a bridge over the Vacas River. A place where the sick came to be healed.

The amazing natural arch that forms a bridge over the Vacas River. A place where the sick came to be healed.

A little church across the river.

An old abandoned church across the river.

After a quick look around and taking some pics we hopped back in the shuttle, ready to ride. Except we discovered, two team members were missing. Simon and Daniel had wandered off to find a post office to post some post cards, which would you believe, they actually managed to find. (Considering we were practically in the middle of nowhere in the mountains this was a good find!)

Bruno, one of our guides, telling us they have a little surprise for us...

Bruno, one of our guides, telling us they have a little surprise for us…

Postcards posted, the boys appeared and we were back on the road again and our Inca guides had a little surprise in store for us. A short way down the road, we pulled over and once again we all piled out of the van. There before us in the distance was a sight that made my heart pound loudly. There in all her glory, she stood tall and strong, Aconcagua – all 6962m of mountain that soon we would be climbing.

This spot, with Aconcagua in the background, made the perfect spot for our “Day 1” photograph. As we do on our mountain trips, each day for a photograph we hold up fingers to show what day we are on. The team was game and our “Day 1” photo was snapped!

Aconcagua, snow capped, teasing us with what's to come.

Our first sighting of Aconcagua, snow-capped, teasing us with what’s to come.

Our teams "Day 1" photogrpph with Aconcagua watching over us in the background.

Our teams “Day 1” photograph with Aconcagua watching over us in the background.

After many photos were taken we were back on the road again, this time heading back in the opposite direction, heading towards Punta de Vacas, the entrance to Aconcagua Park and the start of our 360˚ route that would lead us up to the summit on one side of the mountain and we’d return again down the other side of the mountain, hence the 360˚ name.

It wasn’t before long we were turning off the road onto a dirt road and then I saw it, the sign that announced this was the entrance to the park. It’s hard to describe the excitement and the feelings that well up inside. After more than a year of training, saving, planning and talking about it, it was all finally unfolding right before my very eyes. I thought of Emma as I climbed out the van and silently asked her if she was ready for the next adventure? I knew it was a silly question, of course she was!

The sign that showed me we had arrived.

The sign that showed me we had arrived.

I was ready!

I was so ready to get going!

As our guides saw to whatever needed seeing to, we stood around taking photos of each other and putting our backpacks on. I stood looking in the direction we would walk. It was flat and the path would take us into the valley between the mountains rising on either side.

It was beautiful beyond words.

The start of the trail that would lead us up all the way to the summit.

The start of the trail that would lead us up all the way to the summit.

This was the way in, this was where we got to leave civilization behind.

This was the way in, this was where we got to leave civilisation behind.

Ready and waiting!

Ready and waiting!

Even though it was still early morning, the sun was hot and not a piece of skin was left uncovered by factor 50 sunblock. I am not a fan of hiking in extreme heat for obvious reasons, but I knew that within a matter of days the weather would be a completely different story so I made a mental note to enjoy the warmth of the sunshine on my skin while I could.

Then we were off, leaving behind the road and civilisation as we knew it.

Taking it all in, we started walking.

The team heading in...! There was no going back now.

The team heading in…! There was no going back now.

Winding our way into the mountains, walking alongside the river, soon we were engulfed by mountains rising up tall on either side of us. There was little in the way of shade and with every rest stop we had we would all clamber to sit in a tiny piece of shade offered by the large bolder we stopped at. By lunch time the sun was brutally hot and even the small trees we sat under offered little to no shade. So when we stopped, we stopped long enough to rest a bit, rehydrate, eat something, and then it was time to move on again.

The team making our way to our first camp for the night.

The team making our way to our first camp for the night.

Lisa enjoying a lunch break in the shade of a rock.

Lisa enjoying a lunch break in the shade of a rock.

The team, and Perky our mascot, some trying to find shade against a rock, enjoying a lunch break.

The team, and Perky our mascot, some trying to find shade against a rock, enjoying a lunch break.

Adrian and Bruno, two of our amazing guides on one of our breaks.

Adrian and Bruno, two of our amazing guides on one of our breaks.

The day was long and hot as we walked along the river’s edge. Soon the mules, carrying equipment and food came past for the first time kicking up the dust as they made their way past us.

The mules, carrying their loads, making their way to camp.

The mules, carrying their loads, making their way to camp.

The muleteers.

The muleteers.

The afternoon was soon filled with a few small hills to climb. With each up there was another down making way for yet another up again. In the heat of the day I wasn’t enjoying the ups so much. Finally as we climbed up over the next little hill, there in the distance our first camp in the mountain came into sight, Pampas de Lenas at 2950m. A mini city of tents stretched before us, home for the afternoon and night was in sight.

Off in the distance, a welcome sight, our first camp for the night ~ Pampa de Lenas

Off in the distance, a welcome sight, our first camp for the night ~ Pampa de Lenas

Simon, Judi and I (Kili team mates reunited on the mountain slopes again, hot but happy to have arrived at camp at last.

Simon, Judi and I (Kili team mates reunited on the mountain slopes again) hot but happy to have arrived at camp at last.

As the weather was so balmy the team was given the option of pitching tents or sleeping under the stars. I knew instantly there was nothing for me to decide, under the stars it would be! A few years ago when I hiked the Fish River Canyon in Namibia we got to sleep on a sandy bed under the stars, we aptly named our nightly ritual of lying on our backs watching the stars in the night sky, SKY TV. Not Sky TV you see on your television set, but out in nature, with a million stars burning brightly in the dark night sky.

Judi, Lisa and I shared a spot for the night under the stars. Here the girls are preparing their beds for the night.

Judi, Lisa and I shared a spot for the night under the stars. Here the girls are preparing their beds for the night.

After finding suitable sleeping spots, we laid out our beds consisting of our small inflatable mattresses and our sleeping bags and sorted through our stuff to get everything ready for after dark, then we headed to the communal area where we passed the time chatting as we waited for supper, which the muleteers were preparing on an open fire.

The muleteers in the "kitchen" preparing our dinner.

The muleteers in the “kitchen” preparing our dinner.

It wasn’t before long, the monopoly cards were on the table and Simon, Daniel, Judi and myself settled in to play. As the sun began to sink behind the mountains, a wind came up that chilled the air. As we played on, we had to scout around for some rocks so that we could place then on top of our cards on the table in order to stop them from blowing away because as those who have followed my blog for some time now know, nothing would stop us from getting our daily dose of monopoly in and little did we know then, but soon we would even begin to convert our team ‘bridge’ players too!

Playing Monopoly Cards, the most addictive game out there!

Playing Monopoly Cards, the most addictive game out there! Judi and Simon eyeing out Daniel to see what his next move is.

Playing Monopoly Cards as we waited for supper.

Playing Monopoly Cards, making my next move as we waited for supper.

After our dinner of huge proportions of meat and vegetables, we all headed back to our spots on the earth under the night sky.

Tonight, I fall asleep with my eyes open. I lie on my back drinking in SKY TV above me, wishing on countless shooting stars, pinching myself every now and again to remind myself that I was in Argentina and climbing Aconcagua.

As I fall asleep with my eyes wide open, I feel like the luckiest girl alive!

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~ All Photos By Me, Except of Course Those of Me. Thanks to team-mate, Simon Bates, for allowing me to use his video’s in this blog series. ~

*For those new to my blog, Emma was my childhood and lifelong best friend, the best friend I could ever hope to have had. Sadly she lost her fight against Cystic Fibrosis on the 18th May 1998 at the young age of 22. Emma is the inspiration behind my Seven Summit journey and the reason I’m Walking4Air; raising funds and awareness for Cystic Fibrosis so that we can help find a cure for this incurable illness and support those courageously facing this daily battle.*

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