(By Sarah Mccomas)
No Excess Baggage
It all started the day before we flew. 23kg is normally a perfectly acceptable luggage allowance, but when your empty backpack weighs 3kg, your sleeping bag 2kg and your high altitude boots 1.3kg each, that 23kg soon disappears. Two repacks later and the first challenge was completed.
The following day, eight people with one friend and one mountain in common met up at Heathrow and our journey began. Having set up camp in Santiago airport during our 6 hour layover, we had our trip briefing. Jo stressed the importance of “Walk slowly, take it gently” and “Bank the rest, bank the calories”, both phrases we’d hear a lot of the following 3 weeks. But most importantly of all “Just think about what’s right in front of you, the next 10 minutes”. This, I found the most useful tip of all. Walking up to Confluencia is not the time to be thinking about how you’ll cope higher up, will you make it to the summit? You just want to be thinking about the walk up to Confluencia!
We arrived in Mendoza to find the weather delightfully warm and sunny. That night we enjoyed our first Argentinian steaks – it’s all about the calories. The following day we met Nils and Gordo, our guides for the next 3 weeks. Paperwork, kit checks and bag packing were followed by swimming, relaxing and more good food, an enjoyable way to spend my birthday (next year’s got a lot to live up to).
It’s all about the calories!
Saturday morning dawned and off we set for real. The bags got dropped in Los Penitentes, ready for their trip by mule and we drove the last few miles to the park. We signed our permits with the mountain looming behind us. Packs on and we were off, walking behind Nils and his guitar at a nice slow pace. Such a slow pace that Nils later commented to Jo “Your group walks really slowly”. This wasn’t a complaint, but a compliment! 3 hours later we arrived in Confluencia camp. After some juice and snacks it was time to put up the tents. Once erected we assured ourselves that by the end of the trip we’d be doing it much more easily, and quickly. By this point, I had a stinking altitude headache. Although only at 3400m, we had ascended 2700m in the space of 9 hours, so water and rest were prescribed. The next 2 days were for acclimatisation; a gentle walk one day and a walk up to Plaza Francia to see the South Face the following day.
It’s not just weight in your pack you want to keep to a minimum when climbing a mountain like Aco. It’s worries too. It’s all too easy to get weighed down by negative thoughts or concerns. This was somewhere that I knew I might struggle, and I’d known all along that whilst I would be able to talk myself up the mountain, I would also be able to worry myself out of the top. Since you can’t carry that extra baggage up the mountain, I had a chat with Jo. “Leave the baggage at the bottom” and some other sensible advice had the desired effect and onwards we climbed, with Jo pulling me up any time my head went too far into itself.
Next stop was Base Camp. A nine hour walk up the Horocones Valley, following La Playa Ancha before a gentle, then steep ascent up to Plaza de Mulas. Snacks and juices greeted us in our mess tent before we tackled the tents again. Our first rest day followed, with a trip to the doctor followed by sitting and reading, games of shit-head and shopping around to find the best deals on internet, telephone and bottles of coke. A 5000m summit would normally be an impressive accomplishment (and it was) but Bonette Peak for us was an acclimatisation walk, a chance to try out our high altitude boots and our first practice at scree running. Another rest day followed, and then it was time to go and check out Camp 1. 4kg of food went into each of our packs, along with all that we’d need for a night away. Camp Canada provided views over mountains to the west of Aco, a whole new landscape where we witnessed a spectacular sunset whilst eating the best meal of the trip so far – cheeseburgers. We were all tucked up by the time it was dark, looking at the ice crystals forming in the dome of the tent – the temperature was certainly dropping. We carried on heading up another 500m to Camp 2, taking with us our bags of food to be hidden away and left waiting for our return in a few days. The altitude really started to make itself felt, and the group was more than happy to start the trip down. Thankfully, with our ever improving scree running skills we made it down considerably quicker than we’d gone up. Base camp and another day of rest beckoned.
Our final visit to the doctor was needed so that we could be declared “Fit to climb”. He caused possibly the biggest upset of the trip by banning almost everyone from salt (our blood pressures were up…) and indeed, by lunchtime the salt shaker had disappeared from the table! The afternoon involved fitting our crampons, making sure we knew how to fix them in place whilst standing up and another re-pack. Super cold clothing and helmets were put in and excess baggage came out.
A chip on my shoulder that I’ve been carrying for years got pretty much dislodged during those few days. Admitting a weakness doesn’t mean that you’re weak. Weak people can’t climb mountains. But it’s easier to climb mountains if you don’t have a chip on your shoulder!
Tuesday morning and it was time to haul anchor and push for the top. The first bit of the climb was completed 20 minutes faster than last time, a good bit of information for team morale. Back up to Camp Canada and a relaxing few hours sitting in the early evening sun, chatting with a Canadian group we’d come to know down in Mulas. Another awesome sunset with good food, and it was time for bed. The walk up to Nidos was easier second time around. Not easy, but easier. We even managed a solid 2 hours of walking before reaching camp – we were definitely acclimatising. Just as we arrived in camp, shouts went up of “Rock”. Looking above, but thankfully behind us, we watched as a boulder came bouncing down the mountain. Joining the chorus of yells, we followed its path until it disappeared from view: A reminder that you always need to be aware of your surroundings, or risk deadly consequences. By this point we were becoming much more proficient at putting up our tents, although the thinning air did make it a rather breathless activity. Thankfully, there were plenty of rocks to secure our guy ropes since we’d be warned that the wind was due to pick it. And pick up it certainly did! I was able to assure myself that night that the cumulative weight of Gemma and I, plus all our bags and the rocks surrounding our tent would be over 170kg and that was surely enough to keep our tents safe on the ground. We were treated to breakfast in bed the following day, since the wind would have blown the toast and cereal to goodness knows where. Fortunately it was time for another rest day, so rest we did. A visit from 360 legend Rolfe and guide Gianni brought a bit of excitement in the afternoon, and by evening the wind had blown itself out so we emerged from our tents to enjoy hot food and another great sunset.
The walk to camp 3 was short but sharp. Berlin Camp is a quieter and more sheltered option than the White Rocks, and at nearly 6000m is higher than the summit of Kili. But we’d acclimatised well and the group was good. The summit day briefing accompanied supper. Even now, less than 12 hours before we started our summit bid, we weren’t to think about the summit. The day is too big to take as one chunk. You have to get to Indepencia Hut at 6400m, then to the Caves at 6700m, and only then can you think about the summit.
Summit Day, 4am – it didn’t get off to a good start – I was sick as soon as I climbed out of the tent! Immediately, fears of a repeat of my Kili summit came creeping in, but a few stern words to myself and an “Ok, that’s fine” from Jo kept them in check. Thankfully, it was just nerves and off we set with the stars and our head torches lighting the way. We reached the top of a steep scrambly climb as day started to break, and as we plodded along one of many zig zags, Nils stopped us to look down on the shadow that Aconcagua was casting over the mountains below in the early morning sun. By the time we reached Indepencia Hut for a rest, the group had settled in to a good rhythm which carried on as we continued our ascent. Up through a small snow field, out on to Windy Ridge and the start of the Traverse. It started off fairly firm under foot and relatively “flat” in mountain terms, but once past “The Finger”, the terrain became looser, the incline steeper and the pace slower. Two steps forward, one step back. Everyone in their zones, focused on reaching the Caves that we could see up above us in the distance. I had one ear plugged in to music (Christmas songs thanks to iPod shuffle) and the other tuned to the occasional conversation around me. I kept looking to the caves and thinking “They’re getting closer, I can get there”. Think it enough and it becomes so – thankfully. After my fears of the morning, I now felt positive. It’s amazing how much confidence you can gain from other people’s belief in you. I got this from my family, my friends and my leaders. I repeated the vow that Gemma and I had made the night before – We wouldn’t stop until we reached the top, or until we were told to.
Shadow of Aconcagua at sunrise
Having donned our helmets and crampons it was on with the toughest bit of the climb, The Canaleta. We had hoped for snow, but for once the good weather was working against us. Very little snow meant that we still had another 300m of scree. Even with the crampons no step was sure. It was now 3 steps up, 2 steps down and with the ever decreasing oxygen progress was slower than snail’s pace. The group spread out, for some they called “their summit” and started to make their way down. I could clearly see the rest of the group in front of me: in terms of distance they weren’t that far, in terms of time I estimated they were a good 15 minutes ahead of me. Gordo re-joined me, and with his go ahead we continued the final push. Words of encouragement from descending climbers and the top getting ever nearer. I stepped up on to the summit and the smile not only filled my face but swept through my body. Five of our group of eight had made it to the summit with Nils and Gordo, and there were hugs all round to greet me, and a comment from Paul that I was “the most stubborn so & so” he’d ever met. I took it as a compliment. Lots of photos and a chance to marvel, reflect and remember. Then it was time to go down, using different muscles, but tired muscles none the less. It was a relief to get back down to the caves for a brief rest and a vital refuel. As we walked down the Traverse, I did think to myself “How the heck did we climb this?” It took 3 hours to descend what had taken 11 hours to climb, but as the light began to fade we walked back into camp to be greeted by the rest of the group. I don’t think I’ve ever been so tired, or so fulfilled. Cath made us our instant noodles since we had quite literally come to a standstill! Despite the exhaustion, it took me a long time to go to sleep that night – I think I was struggling to digest the day.
Sunday morning and it was time to pack up camp and start walking down. We had a rather mismatched breakfast, including nuts and olives. The more we ate, the less we carried. 1700m of descent via Camps 2 & 1 to pick up our rubbish and we’d soon be back down in Mulas. My legs of jelly took a tumble just above Camp 1. Trying to stand up, on a steep loose slope, with an 18kg pack on is not easy, but in true Damsel style I had landed (almost) at the feet of a Knight in Shining Armour. Or at least, a Brazilian out for an acclimatisation walk! He helped me to my feet and offered to carry my bag down to Canada. I wasn’t about to turn down an offer like that, so off we went with him practicing his scree running. I think the rest of the group were somewhat surprised when I caught up with them, minus my pack but plus Albert. In true Knight style he then offered to carry my bag back down to Mulas, “to help with his acclimatisation training” – Legend!
We came in to camp to be greeted by fresh grapes and nectarines, followed by pizza and beer. Our tents were still up thanks to Rolfe’s group using them whilst we were gone. We’d somehow missed them on their way up to Canada as we were coming down. It was a tired but elated group that celebrated that night with a box of wine and a few games of shit-head. The following morning our sleeping bags were packed up for the final time, good byes were said to the camp staff and we once again walked out of Plaza de Mulas, but this time heading down. It was only as we walked that I realised just how inside my head I must have been during the walk up. I’d missed so much of the scenery that there were long stretches I didn’t recognise. It made me wonder how much else we miss, walking through life. I loved the walk out, the scenery was awesome, the pace easy, the company enjoyable and the oxygen ever increasing.
We had 4 days to enjoy Mendoza, which bought its own trials and adventures, but it was the mountain where I relaxed the most. I had achieved dreams and battled demons. Where before I had worried “It’s really high”, “It’s a thousand metres higher than Kili” and “It can be really dangerous”, I now think “We might have been the highest people on Earth”, “We slept at the same height as Kili” and “I never felt anything but safe”.
We carried all our rubbish off the mountain, but I did leave behind quite a bit of baggage.