We took the Monday (15-Feb) morning bus to Punta de Vacas, the start of our expedition. I changed the plans a little: I decided and convinced the chicos to take the Polish Glacier Traverse route (or “Falso Polaco”) up to the summit instead of the Routa Normal. On this route, we will be approaching from the east, climb up to the Polaco Glacier @ 5,900 m.a.s.l., then on summit day, we will traverse westward to join the normal route and continue to the top. It’s a longer route and tougher climb but it’s by far more scenic, surrounded by other mountains and snowy peaks, with rios flowing down their flanks. Since this is a once in a lifetime experience, might as well do it the “good” way. During our trek, we will see Aconcagua East face and its glaciers, the North rocky face and the shorter (6,930 m.a.s.l.) but way more technical and challenging Aconcagua southern summit (ranked higher difficulty to climb than Everest). And of course, we would climb via the West face. To top it off, my plans were to come down through the Routa Normal, thus completing a full 360o of Aconcagua.
The starting point of our expedition, Punta de Vacas, lies at 2,325 m.a.s.l.. The route heads north to our first camp, Pampa de Leñas lying at 2,960 m.a.s.l. We were checked in by the park rangers, given the all clear to drink directly from the side streams feeding Rio Vacas and off we went. I was carrying 27Kg including 8 liters of benzina and 6 days of food. Roy and David were reaching 28Kg each. It was a hot and sunny day but no one seemed to mind. Besides, we all knew that soon enough we will be begging for warm weather. On our way, Americo caught up to us. He was guiding Sebastien (a French climber) to the Direct Polish Glacier route (i.e. they will climb the glacier) and we continued our hike together.
3 hours into the hike, my right knee started to hurt. The pain intensified extremely fast and in 15 minutes, my knee started to get inflamed. That wasn’t good. The terrain was not too steep and the path was clear. Where did this pain come from? And why? I mean I climbed other peaks and all was fine. But then again, I never carried 27Kg on a long journey. And guess what; the weight I am carrying will barely drop the first week as I had the way down food as well as the 3 extra days of food.
But I had to do something so I gave 5 liter of Benzina to Roy and David, dropping my backpack weight to around 24Kg (the guys were at 30Kg now). I knew it wouldn’t improve my knee (wishful thinking) I was rather hopping to stop it from deteriorating. Still, it was a struggle to reach Pampa de Leñas campsite, a ~16Km hike with ~600m in total denivelation. We reached the campsite in 5 hours and were met by Americo who was already settled and waiting for us with a hot cup of tea. Americo then checked my knee and gave me an anti-inflammatory cream. I also met Gabriela, an Argentinean Dr. who was climbing Aconcagua – by herself if you please – who gave me anti-inflammatory pills. But you know what was even more painful? Seeing Augusto and his group. Not only they had mules to carry their load, the arrieros (mule “drivers”) prepared them a complete asado (i.e. BBQ), with meat, chicken, grilled veggies with wine por favor. Roy cooked us pasta and a soup…
That night, we slept early to rest and be ready for the next day as it will be a longer hike. The following morning (16-Feb) we left late, around 11:00, heading toward Casa de Piedras lying @ 3245 m.a.s.l.. It will be a ~19Km hike with ~300m of total denivelation. I put a strap on my right knee to help with the road and used even more my sticks to push my weight and help with my balance. But things got worst.
After an hour, my left knee started acting up. Now, the interior ligaments of both knees were inflamed and were hurting every time I bent them to walk. All I could think about was what a crazy idea it was not renting mules. I could make it to Piedras, no worries, but did I just ruin my chance to go further? Will I be able to climb to the top? The guys too were also tired from hauling all this weight.
Soon thereafter, all the other groups (and their mules) started passing us, rendering the atmosphere even more somber. We kept walking, taking many mini-beaks to rest our legs and gather our energy. The road itself was very scenic, longing Rio De Las Vacas (in the valley with the same name), surrounded by steep hills where many streams of cold fresh water flowed to the river and quenched our thirst along the road. By 17:00, we could see the campsite. But what really lifted our spirit was looking to the west: We could see Aconcagua summit in the sunset. We reached the campsite only to find Augusto and his Grajales company opening a bottle of champagne to their client while serving another asado. Rub it in boys, rub it in.
We are a group now. Americo, Sebastien, Roy, David, Gabriela and moi. We were having a great time, joking & laughing so hard, teasing each other and just having plain old “immature” fun (if you get my drift). Americo and Roy were our lead jokers: Americo in his way of always telling stories & jokes and Roy with how he pick –on someone, hammering him with jokes and teasing him (casi always the victim was David, a.k.a. “Gordo”). It was as if they were a couple, with Roy a.k.a. “Nano” a.k.a. “Papi” leading the charges.
Back to our expedition, it was now obvious we had a real struggle in front of us. Nano put a spin on it, telling David and I that what we are doing has a lot of merit and will be a story to remember for life… true, but all I could think of was: “if we make it!”. Otherwise, it will be another type of story and not a funny one… AnywayZ, analyzing our route to the top, 3 days represented major hikes and a tough challenge. The summit day of course and also: from Piedras to Plaza Argentina base camp and from Polaco Camp I to Polaco Camp II. Both of these hike had ~1000 meters of total denivelation. The difference between them is: for the higher altitude hikes, from Plaza Argentina base camp to Polaco Campo I then from Polaco Campo I to Polaco Campo II, we will do 2 trips, i.e. first we will carry our extra equipment, benzina and food to the upper camp before heading back down to the first camp for the night. The next day we will carry our stuff (sleeping bag, cloth, tent,…) to the upper camp where we will camp for the night. It’s also a very good way to acclimatize and let our body adapt to the higher altitude and lack of oxygen.
As for tomorrow’s hike, from Piedras to Plaza Argentina base camp, we decided to still do it in 1 shot since it was at lower altitude. It will be a very long hike, ~20Km with ~950m of denivelation. For me, if I can get through to Plaza Argentina, I know I can make it up to Polaco Campo II with a lighter backpack weight (the summit is a different story). So tomorrow we will find out what we are made of: Are we men or are we mules? We were aiming to be the later ;)…. and hoping we don’t end up like this.
We were last to leave that day (Wed 17-Feb), around 10:30, with only Americo and Sebast with us. Immediately, we were faced with our first challenge of the day: we had to cross Rio de las Vacas and its frigid waters. David carried my backpack across as the current was strong and he was afraid my knees will buckle. But honestly, as I told David, it was because I had the salami stick in my backpack, and he was afraid I’ll lose my bag. Right Gordo? ;).
The road was tough, cutting a narrow path next to Rio Relincho which was carving its way in between steep hills. I was walking over loose rocks and stones, just what the Dr. ordered for my knees :(. The only thing which brought a smile to my face was the beautiful sight I could see each time I raised my head: straight ahead stood majestically Cerro Aconcagua. It was enough to keep me going. A few hours on this path and we reached a clearing. No, don’t rejoice yet: we were faced with another river to cross, this time Rio Relincho.
After similar crossing procedures, it was obvious our situation was dire. We still had more then 2/3 of the way to go, yet I was in pain and the guys tired. I proposed that David – who was in best shape – goes ahead solo, with a mission to reach Plaza Argentina and put the tent up ready for us… and if we don’t make it by 20:00, return with the rescates. We all agreed on the plan (although the rescate part was funny) and David took off while Roy and I were drying our feet after the river crossing and munching on power bars & chocolate de mani. At this rate, the rescates will surly need to be dispatched :).
Half an hour later, Roy and I continued the trek. Now, the path was wide but still composed of loose rocks. The small spiny vegetation and trees that littered the initial part of the road were becoming rarer and rarer: We were getting higher and the weather getting colder. The climb itself was actually nice and steady, reducing the effort needed and consequently the pain on my knees. But every few hundred meters I was given a shock to the system: the path was carved by quebradas (small valleys) made by flowing streams feeding into Rio Relincho. These quebradas were very steep and crossing them resurrected my knee pain. To top it off, 2 things made the situation even more painful: 1) the sun was coming down, the winds were picking up and it was getting darker & colder and 2) David could still be seen ahead! I was hoping he would be far away and fade into the horizon, yet the ½ hour difference between him & us never grew. The boys were struggling too. A few hours passed by and now both Roy and I had the head down, advancing very slowly. All I could see was David’s shoe tracks and I just followed them. I was not tired, not even breathing fast, I was just “empty” and in pain.
I was making baby steps and I kept thinking every step was bringing me closer to Base Camp. I had to keep walking, no other choice really. Walk…. Walk… Walk… keep walking (A la Johnny Walkers and damn I would have loved a shot (or a few) just about now). I was like a robot, advancing without thinking, no energy left even to raise my head. Couldn’t feel my knees anymore, all I was doing was lift the right leg, then left, right, left,… I barely stopped for a break, to the opposite of Roy who was taking a rest then catching up to me before taking another brake and so on: His back was hurting him. For me, stopping was more painful: I struggled to get up after sitting and my knee pain was exacerbated when my muscle cooled down! So I kept on walking…
Two hours passed by and now a strong and chilly headwind coming down the glaciers joined the party. But by now I couldn’t care less. I put on more cloth layers, my tuque and my gloves and hit the road again. Finally, by 19:30, we saw a sign pointing right: “Plaza Argentina”. We were 30 min away. Freezing, we crawled to base camp, only to find David, who arrived just a short while ago, trying to unfurl our tent and set it up with Americo’s help. We ate our ration of pasta, snuggled into our sleeping bag and passed out.
The next morning, I could see how big Plaza Argentina base camp was. Laying at 4,180 m.a.s.l. it was the last guarded camp. Most trekking companies had huge domes acting as kitchen, dormitory and communal areas. And each had their own bathrooms, which you need to pay for if you want to use it! Some agencies had satellite phone and internet. One had a tent specifically for partying and drinking… at exorbitant prices. Since it was the end of the season, this was just a small version of the real Plaza Argentina: the majority of outfitters already folded their tent downs ahead of winter. What lies around were the few who still had one last tour active before they too will shut down.
For me, it was a day to chill at the foot of Aconcagua. We could admire Aconcagua east and part of the south face with its 2,700m high straight rock façade and glacier. The chicos on the other hand were growing restless and by early afternoon they decided to carry the food and benzina to Polaco Campo I. So too did Americo, Sebast and Gabriela.
It was a ~8Km hike with ~700m of denivelation up to 4,850 m.a.s.l.. I opted out, I was not in a rush and one day of rest was greatly needed. The boys took off and I stayed in the camp, mingling with other climbers. To my great astonishment, Roy returned in 4 hours. Gordo on the other hand was feeling the effect of over-exhaustion and showed up 2 hours later. But he still helped a flow climber and carried this guy’s backpack all the way down from Campo 1!
We had to pass a medical check-up. I actually fared up the best of all, with an O2 saturation of 90 while the normal at 4,200 m.a.sl. is ~85. David however, was in the high 70’s and the Dr. was worried and suggested another day of rest. Nano and Gordo are tour guides in Arequipa and twice a week climb to 6,100 or 6,425 m.a.s.l. peaks, all year long.
High altitude is their “home”. But this added weight we are carrying just played havoc with our system and this is one of the repercussions. It was a perfect occasion to keep teasing Gordo: the Dr. was really cute so we were sure he was acting up just to see her :).
That night, everyone was in a good mood and we hosted a dinner and party in our tent. Present were: Americo, Nano, Gordo, Gabriela and myself. We had such a fun time, joking & laughing so hard, we didn’t even realize that we passed 1:00 in the morning.
Day 6, Friday 19-Feb-2010, and I just wanted to head out and reach higher camp. However, the weather forecast called for bad weather on Sunday with 90Km/h winds. That scared everyone, with our worst fears being the tent ripping apart. At such wind speed, small stones the size of AAA batteries can be carried by the wind and if a sharp one hit our tent, a small hole can open up. From there on we’re doomed: it’s a domino effect and the wind will just shred our tent to pieces.
I understand the risks, but at the same time, are we going to wait for a 10 day clear weather window? Not to mention we all know “The Weather Network” prediction back home 😉 why should it be any different here? I made my point and strongly suggested to stay only today in Plaza Argentina, but tomorrow we head to Polaco Campo I, making Tuesday our summit day. Not all were convinced, but as I told everyone: sleep on it and tomorrow morning we will decide.
Today, the helicopter landed twice to evacuate some of the climbers. One of the Italian “tio” David helped was extremely sick of exhaustion while another climber had his face severely swollen and there were fear it might lead to deadly Cerebral Edema. In the afternoon, a 3rd climbers whose blood oxygen saturation was very low, had fluids accumulating in his lungs. All had to be emergency evacuated. The Dr. told us less than 30% of climbers actually reach the summit…
During the day, we helped Daniel Lopez, a local tour operator, to dismantle some of his domes. It was fun being all-together and Daniel was a great guy. Patricia, his wife, prepared us a hot dinner – with meat if you please – followed by a desert. It was just the icing on the cake, a perfect ending for a perfect day. Americo and Sebastien also gave us a crash course in making knots used by climbers, explaining the how and when to use each. At night, it was Gabriela turn to host our get-together in her tent, with free maté on the house.
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