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 Visit to the Mountain Doctor and a Day Off ~ A Journey to the Top of Aconcagua

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Plaza Argentina (Base Camp) – Rest Day

Hiking Time: 0 hours

Altitude: 4200m

This morning I was rudely awakened, along with everyone else in Base Camp, by the slicing through the air of rotor blades and the frenzied flapping of our tent. It sounded like the end of the world outside and it took me a few seconds to register where I was and what was happening. Judi was rousing next to me too and it dawned on us a helicopter was about to land, practically on top of us! We unzipped our tent flap and peeked outside. Just meters away from us a helicopter was getting ready to land. As we peaked out of our tent flap, that same feeling of dread rose up inside of me. Was this an early morning rescue, how are our two team-mate who weren’t well last night, the thoughts race through my mind. But the helicopter landed and the rotor blades slowed as the engine died. There didn’t seem to be an emergency, probably more dropping off or collecting loads. Maybe my 2nd duffel bag that hadn’t arrived on the mules yesterday was in amongst this load. The feeling of dread slipped away again. All appears well. We lay back on our half deflated mattresses and pulled our sleeping back up over ourselves. It feels good to be able to sleep in this morning. Today we have a rest day for acclimatization and to prepare for our load carry to Camp 1 tomorrow.

Coming in for landing.

Coming in for landing.

A rescue helicopter preparing to land at Base Camp and in the process waking us all up.

A rescue helicopter preparing to land at Base Camp and in the process waking us all up.

It practically sounded like it was going to land on top of us, what a way to wake up!

It practically sounded like it was going to land on top of us, what a way to wake up!

At 9am everyone met in the mess tent for breakfast. Our two team members were feeling stronger and joined us for breakfast and the spirit of the team in general was high. If felt so good to know that today was one at leisure except for our visit to the doctor. We were all eager to get the doctor’s visit out of the way so as soon as breakfast was done, we headed out to the doctor’s office. Another team had beaten us to it and we had a bit of a wait before it was our turn.

Despite feeling strong and fit, I was feeling a tiny bit nervous for this visit with the doctor. The doc would check all our vitals and ensure we were strong enough to continue climbing higher. My dream lay firmly in his hands now and I could only hope I’d get the stamp of approval to keep moving forward. As we waited some of us read, others chatted and some of us wrote in our journals.

Jake, Hans and Judi patiently waiting their turn with the doc.

Jake, Hans and Judi patiently waiting their turn with the doc.

Views from Base Camp.

Views from Base Camp.

As we waited outside the doc's room, Judi snapped this photo of me looking rather pensive. *Photo By Judi Kurgan*

As we waited outside the doc’s room, Judi snapped this photo of me looking rather pensive. *Photo By Judi Kurgan*

It took quite a while but eventually the team ahead of us were done and it was our turn. A few of my team members went first, with Angel going in with each team member in case translation was needed. As each team member exited the room, cheers erupted upon hearing they got the all clear. I was up next, my hands began to feel clammy and my heart started beating a little louder. It was ridiculous I felt so nervous but so much was riding on this. As I entered with Angel, I found a young Argentinian doctor who was full of smiles. The atmosphere was relaxed with jokes being made and soon I was feeling so much calmer. My pulse was checked, he listened to my lungs to make sure no fluid was building up on them and then he checked how much oxygen was still left in my blood. He wrote a few things down, and as he did so I widened my eyes to Angel sitting opposite me. Then with the stamp on my papers I had gotten the all clear to keep climbing.

Oh my, happiness is!

So nervous, hoping for the all clear with the doc!

So nervous, hoping for the all clear with the doc!

The doc testing my oxygen levels making sure I still have some reserves for the remainder of my climb.

The doc testing my oxygen levels making sure I still have some reserves for the remainder of my climb.

All clear to keep climbing. Happy Lara!

All clear to keep climbing. Happy Lara!

The rest of our day was at leisure except of course for some repacking once again. My absolute least favourite mountain task. Today we need to sort and pack our equipment carefully and to ensure we take up the bare minimum for our load carry up to Camp 1 tomorrow. From Base Camp we can see the trail we’ll take up. We’ll climb 800 metres tomorrow and it will take us approximately 7 – 8 hours to do the round trip, with the down taking much quicker than the up. I, along with most of my team mates will be carrying 20kg’s in our backpacks. Once our load carry is done we will return to Base Camp where we will spend the night before doing a move up to Camp 1 with another load of 20kg’s each.

After lunch food packs have been divided up in the mess tent for each of us to pack into our bags. Other items that will go are our extreme cold gear and all the items we will need for our climb to the summit. I pack my bag and then repack it again after I have found something I left out. My backpack doesn’t feel too bad and I’m ready to carry the load. I know it’s going to be hard carrying the weight at altitude but I’ve trained for this as best as I could. By training outdoors back home in South Africa it has kept me physically fit and it has also kept me mentally in shape. Living at sea level doesn’t help me with the altitude but I knew taking a slow and steady pace would continue to help my body acclimatise and so far I was feeling good. I repack my bag again trying to distribute the weight more evenly and I ensure that nothing is digging into my back. I am ready for the carry tomorrow.

Exhausted, I lay down for a short while as a thunder-storm began to rumble outside the tent. At altitude the slightest of tasks renders you out of breath and exhausted. But it is our day off and today I have the luxury of having an early afternoon nap and that is exactly what I did.

Looking past Base Camp, we would take the trail leading up between the two mountain peaks.

Looking past Base Camp, we would take the trail leading up between the two mountain peaks.

The trail we'd take to do our load carry up to Camp 1 tomorrow leading up between the two mountain peaks.

The trail we’d take to do our load carry up to Camp 1 tomorrow leading up between the two mountain peaks.

In the late afternoon we headed into the mess tent where a few of our team members were sitting around chatting. I loved the relaxed atmosphere of today and everyone was laughing and smiling. It felt good. As we sat chatting, sipping on tea, the monopoly card game came out and we lazed the rest of the afternoon away as played until dinner. As you can see I didn’t take many photos today, I was taking our day off quite literally!

The Inka team, who were looking after us at Base Camp, served up a feast once again for dinner. Portions were huge and always included soup for starters with meat or chicken and veggies for the main course. With my eyes bigger than my stomach, I once again couldn’t finish what was dished up to me. At dinner we did the highlight and lowlight of the day again and needless to say almost everyone’s highlight was our day off. One thing tonight was niggling me. As the evening went on, I noticed a tingle in my nose and it was beginning to feel more and more blocked. I can only hope it is an irritation from all the dust and I hope that it’s nothing that another good night’s sleep can’t cure.

After dinner we played some more monopoly before retiring for the night. The night air at Base Camp is cold and I have started wearing my down jacket around the dinner table to keep warm and cosy, which thankfully arrived safely in my missing 2nd duffel bag earlier today. I knew my down jacket was going to work wonders higher up the mountain.

Tomorrow is going to be a big day.

Tomorrow the hard work and the climb really starts.

I’ve trained really hard for this.

I’m ready.

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

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