Days 1-2 Mendoza
After a long yet comfortable plane journey, (seeing as I had persuaded my dad to upgrade with the incentive of a good rest before the expedition), we arrived in a very hot Mendoza, Argentina, feeling excited, tired and curious to meet our two other group members Matt and Mick, and guide Chris. During breakfast of the first morning we introduced ourselves, all slightly nervous that we would have to spend a solid 2 weeks together at least and if first impressions didn’t go to plan, well, it wouldn’t be very promising. However, we all seemed to bounce of each other from the get go and the conversation was easy and funny throughout the trip. Next on our agenda was converting our dollars to pesos and let’s just say you really did have to be a rocket scientist to figure this one out. Since it was Christmas eve, all the banks and currency exchange centres where closed, however we seemed to get a good enough deal from a sketchy man on the streets, and luckily for the team I speak Spanish, so language wasn’t a barrier. However, one of the team members managed to take roughly 3 hours to obtain enough pesos to buy his climbing permit, due to the cash machines only giving out 3000 pesos a time. So, our first adventure had taken place and we now had time to relax, eat dinner and get ready for our 4-hour coach trip to Penitentes, a winter resort near to the Vacas Valley entrance to Aconcagua National Park.
The hotel was good enough and we had a nice dinner to send us off, however the whole bathroom décor was to say the least – strange……a mix of light, medium and dark brown tiles, bizarre.
Today was Christmas day, yay… and it was also the first day of our hike to base camp. The average temperature was around 35 degrees. It was hot. The first day’s hike was approximately 14km and took us 4 hours which was good going, considering the suggested time was 6 hours. We arrived at Pampa de Lenas, our first camp and had a lovely barbecue consisting of about 20kg of steak and sausages prepared by the Gauchos who were extremely friendly. We also had a fun lesson on putting up tents, which we soon became experts at…
Our next hike was to Casa de Piedra which was just another long trek in the blazing sun. We reached that in about 5 hours which again wasn’t too bad. However, the next day was giving me nightmares, it was time for the ice cold, glacier water river crossing which lay ahead of us and was just waiting to numb our feet at 6am!
For the first time so far, we had woken up and It was bloody cold. However, the stars were incredible, and I will never forget looking up to what looked like the whole galaxy in one bit of sky. But let’s not sugar coat this low moment - we all knew what was coming – the glacial river! It was ridiculous. After crossing about 30 feet of fast flowing icy water, my feet where completely numb for 20 minutes and I thought they were going to literally drop off my legs, but I didn’t make a fuss about it because I knew it wouldn’t help. Although I didn’t realise I was with 4 babies – with the amount of screaming and wailing coming from the other group members! We arrived at base camp, Plaza Argentina, a few hours later at 4200m, welcomed by warm hugs from our cooks. We were all in a good mood.
Day 6 and 7
Day 6 was a rest day, followed by a load carry to camp 1, which consisted of carrying half our equipment and high altitude clothing up, dropping it off and coming back down to sleep again at base camp. This also serves as an acclimatisation method in which you climb high and sleep low. This carry was good, and I still felt strong. Unfortunately, one of our group members got the crap end of the stick when it came to the acclimatisation process and couldn’t carry on due to his hypoxic symptoms – headaches, trouble catching his breath and generally feeling unwell. The problem being that once you have these symptoms at base camp – it is very probable that they will worsen if you progress further up the mountain, hence he made the right, although difficult, call to return to Mendoza.
Day 8 and 9
Day 8 was our move up to camp 1 which meant sleeping at 5000m – higher than any point in the Alps. Day 9 was another rest day, mostly spent in the communal dome tent, sat on uncomfortable rocks, eating as much food as possible to gain energy for the next day and of course for our celebration of New Year’s Eve which ended up taking place at 9pm (Midnight UK time) with a cup of tea, a cheers and goodnight!
Day 10 -11
Day 10 consisted of a carry to camp 2 followed by another night at camp 1. The weather was still looking up however the summit weather seemed to be different everyday for our anticipated summit window. Day 11 was the move to camp 2 where we would stay until we were certain we would have a clear weather window for our summit bid.
Another rest day… although it may sound nice, it’s actually quite boring. Typical rest days involve sitting around, drinking your daily 5 litres of fluid and trying to find ways to alleviate the boredom – often talking to other expeditions about their summit bid plans. However, we decided it would be a good idea to get up to scratch on our crampon skills on a large glacier next to the camp, a not so good idea for Matt, our team mate, as he spiked his crampon into his brand new La Sportiva Olympus Mons boots (ouch!) We called the Adventure Peaks group that night via the satellite phone to hear the great news that on the 6th of Jan the wind would drop to 50km/hr with a wind chill temp of -37 degrees which, although still absolutely freezing, was much better than any previous or later days. We decided that day 13 would be our move to camp Colera at 5950m. We managed to absolutely smash this in 4 hours – with the average time being between 5 and 6 hours. Chris, our guide, seemed very happy with this, and at this point we knew we all felt confident that we could do this, even in tough conditions.
We left the tents at 5:30am, full of porridge and granola and ready to reach the highest point in the world outside the Himalayas. It got light around 6:30am which made life easier. The sun warmed us up a little and woke us up. We reached the famous Independencia Hut at 6390m and stopped briefly for a photo, then marched onwards and upwards. By the time we reached the base of the famous Canaleta, the steepest part of the climb, we had overtaken 4 groups, which meant we were doing extremely well. The last 200m were just relentless. The gradient just seemed to increase with each step and we felt so close yet so far – and the weather was closing in. Finally, after 7 hours we reached the final summit rocks which led to the top – Aconcagua’s summit at 6962m. My emotion took over and the tears welled up and a huge feeling of relief and pride flooded my thoughts. We had made it! We spent 45 minutes on the summit taking photos, making the obligatory satellite phone call to my mum and simply taking in the scale of our achievement – against the odds (reaching the summit of Aconcagua is an absolute bonus and all thanks to the weather.) However, we needed to refocus our minds quickly as the clouds came in rapidly as we descended the first couple of rocks and quickly we found ourselves in a full-blown blizzard. The visibility reduced to less than 5m by the time we reached Independencia Hut, but we knew we couldn’t stop as it would probably just get worse as the day went on. The GPS had to make its appearance and saved the day a couple of times but we all made it down safely after 5 hours with a couple of embarrassing falls in the snow. We soon reached Camp Colera where our tents were literally buried in snow - which was an absolute nightmare to dig out after a 12-hour summit day. Nevertheless, it had to be done and also, we had to start melting snow on the stove to replenish our water supply – having consumed the rest of our water on the return from the summit. Once we managed to get into the tent - every time we went to open the door a blizzard of fresh snow would blow into the tent and cover everything! But whatever, we had done it and nothing else really mattered. I went out at 11pm that night to go to the toilet and saw the lights from head torches – other climbers still coming down the mountain! These climbers were only just reaching camp, an hour later - which meant they had been caught in the descent storm for over 10 hours.
The challenges of the next few days were overcome by the keeping idea of a warm tent and nice food at the forefront of our minds. We marched our way down to the Plaza de Mules base camp, from 5950m to 4367m in just a few hours. The start of the route exiting the high camp Colera was where we experienced the strongest winds on the mountain – with gusts up to 120km/hr – and therefore the top section of this descent has a fixed rope to either attach to or grip firmly. The welcome into the Plaza de Mules base camp was depressing (compared to our super friendly welcome into Plaza Argentina!) but all we really cared about was getting some food in and chilling in our military style camp beds. This was by far my worst sleep on the mountain…. The temperature dropped to -15 degrees that night, which would usually be okay in a tent, but these beds were raised so even our Everest sleeping bags were useless and I felt as if I was lying on a bed of ice. The next day was a special day, my 18th birthday! It was certainly an ‘interesting’ birthday considering my celebration consisted of a 28km trek out to reach the end of our journey. It was never ending and absolutely draining as we decided to absolutely ‘beast it’ and get off the mountain as quickly as possible. We did it in under 6 hours! We had made it - and I couldn’t have been happier to know that a hot shower was waiting for me at the hotel. (And hopefully a bottle of bubbly!)
As we had made the summit on our first “summit day” this meant we had 4 days to rest and relax in Mendoza and do a little touring. We managed to eat out every lunch and dinner and each time the food was incredible. We also had a wine tour which took us to 3 winery’s and an olive oil factory. The whole expedition was an experience I will never forget and Chris our guide said that this was excellent expedition experience for our next summit – Everest!