Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Aconcagua Trek Report

Aconcagua is the highest mountain outside of the Himalayas, the highest in the Americas and indeed Western Hemisphere. It's a relatively straightforward climb, but we are approaching it out of season, and so the base camps are all shutting down for winter. It sits in the Andes, roughly half way between Santiago and Mendoza, and reaches 6,962m above sea level.

Day 1: Confluencia
We take a cab to the bus station. Cabs in Mendoza are very easy if you get a hostel to call for them, otherwise forget it. Hailing does not work in this city. Our bus is an "Express Uspallata" one. Uspallata is a town on the way to where we're going. There's someone sitting in one of our seats already. Someone is then sitting in his seat. So we accommodate, only to regret it later as every time the bus stops, we have to move again because we're now in someone else's seat. Never let people take your reserved seat in a country where they're really anal about having the seat assigned to you, it's just not worth it for the small karma you may pick up.

I put considerable thought to the challenge ahead

I have a snooze on the bus, something I'm quite good at, it is later pointed out to me! Anyway, as we hit Uspallata, I ask Jina whether she knows where the trailhead is, cos I certainly don't. Err, no. Right. Do we have a map? Yes, it's in the hold of the bus. So we're taking a bus to Puente del Inca because I just had a vague impression a few days ago that this was the right place to go? Yes. We panic, but it turns out I was right, the trek does start from Puente del Inca [GPS: 32.81917S, 69.98068W], which is an interesting natural sulphurus rock bridge over the Rio Mendoza, that for some reason the Argentines have built what looks like a concrete multistory car park into. Heritage in action.

The Puente del Inca

We troop off along the busy freight road looking for access to the park, and get talking to a group heading the same way. Israelis. Of course! Despite Yoel I groan inside! At the border control station, we take a different route to them, which turns out to be right and much faster, but does involve us climbing up a grassy bank right in front of about 4 large buses of people, which is a bit embarrassing. Also so strange that one can just wander past the border unchallenged. Still, we get away with it and in no time are at the park entrance office where we "check in" to the park, and are issued with our numbered plastic rubbish bags. If you lose your bag, or don't use it, you are fined $US100 when leaving. No messing about here!

I should mention, the park entry fee that we paid in town (you can only pay in town - why?) is priced according to season. It's low season now as winter is starting, and so costs 100 pesos for 3 days or 150 for 7 days trekking (more for climbing). You're also restricted on routes - the 3 day thing only allows you to go to one base camp - Francia. We wanted to go to both camps, but planned to spend 3.5 days. So the 7 day permit then. However, in the small print for the 7 day one, it mentions that you have to pay one of the expedition or "service" companies to use their toilets at Plaza del Mulas camp, as the guardaparques don't provide one. Excuse me? They charge 150 pesos - £25, and all they do is provide a single toilet at the first camp site? I am somewhat incredulous, but what can I do?

First view of Aconcagua

Later it becomes very apparent where all this money is going - part of the fee is to cover "medical evacuation by helicopter", but what this in fact means is that the guardaparques have a big toy parked up at the main conaf office, and boy do they use this toy. I've never seen a helicopter used so much outside of tourist attractions.

Seventh medical emergency of the morning apparently

At least a dozen times a day the thing whizzes up and down the valleys. No way are these medical evacuations. I got the impression they were carrying rubbish out from Mulas. By helicopter. I am tempted to ask what portion of the entry fee goes on the helicopter as I am leaving, but of course I meekly potter out without saying anything. Mutter mutter.

If only this were the top, we could go home now

Rocks everywhere

We trek up a pretty valley, along trails laid for day-trippers, before crossing a bridge and heading up a steeper slope towards Confluencia, our first camp site at [GPS: 32.74609S, 69.97165W]. Setting up my tent here, I find that my ultra-light pegs are no good in the hard rock and sand ground here, and we end up breaking two of them. Next we find that a tent rated for 1.5 people is too small for two people, which makes everything difficult. Normally once the tent's up, I spread my stuff about in the spare space, and get on with things. With two people, you need to be totally disciplined as to what goes where. We cook dinner, then try to sleep. It doesn't work very well. We are head to toe, but still it's awkward. Also my sleeping mat seems to have a puncture, so is flat after 20 minutes of being on it. Not good. It's fairly cold as I fall asleep.

Where is the hotel?

Day 2: Plaza de Mulas
Next morning, with Jina not feeling great after not much sleep, we have our obligatory check with the on-site doctor, which unusually for Conaf, is a quite good system. The point is to pick up on people with altitude sickness. The recommended route now is to head up to Francia (4200m) as a daytrip, returning and staying here, before going up to Mulas (4400m) to stay the next night, to acclimatise. Because we're both "well 'ard", we're doing it the other way around. We both check out with the Doc, then head off, doing the usual Crawley thing of getting lost 30 seconds out of camp. We needed to cross a river and I just couldn't work out how to do it. There was a way of course, we had to go backwards for 10 minutes, something we were both loathe to do.

Dry. Very dry

Up and on, into the valley we will follow round to Mulas. The plan for the day, according to the map, was a long flat trek along the valley, with a nasty steep rise right at the end into camp. What the map fails to show you is the terrain. This lovely flat valley was in fact coarse rock and boulders all the way along. For six hours. Not. Fun. Also not encouraging when you've already had enough, ask someone going the other way how much longer we have to go till camp. Only about 6 hours, he replies. Much obliged! We are effectively circling around Aconcagua today, as we've started on one side, and will camp tonight on the far side. Hence why there's a fair bit of walking involved.

Eat dust. Yum!

The source of all the dust

The solution. Towel-heads!

Jina's suffering because of lack of sleep, so we take it slow. The unexpected consequence of this is that we arrive at Plaza del Mulas [GPS: 32.65632S, 70.05196W] after the sun has gone behind the surrounding mountains, i.e. it has gone from b***rd cold to abso-bloody-lutely b*****rd cold, with a biting wind blowing off the glaciers in front of us. I've got a bit of a headache, perhaps from the altitude, which is strange, but there.

Getting nippy

Arriving at Mulas

So we set the tent up on close to solid rock, in biting cold gusting wind, with no sunshine. I am cold. Very cold. Jina thinks I'm a wimp, but she has just come from the South Pole, and has the temperament and gear to enjoy this weather. I have a light rain jacket from the UK and no thermals. I haven't even bought my morino wool thermal underwear!

Dinner for two

Into tent as it starts snowing, we eat, but tonight the plan is that I will stay in one of the managed tents here. This I do, hitting the tent at about 10:30pm. Everyone else is sleeping already. I creep into my top bunk bed after removing everyone else's gear from it, and crawl into my tent. It's cold. So damn cold. For your reference, I am wearing thick socks, trousers, a base-layer t-shirts, rohan jumper, fleecy jumper, gortex rain-jacket coat, and gloves, inside a silk liner then my Rab sleeping bag. I am shivering, and if I could sleep in the cold, then the noise of the wind shaking the tent would keep me awake. Or the bed which is leaning to the right enough to make me feel like I'm rolling off. Not much sleep. Also I am cruelly disturbed by everyone else in the tent unzipping their super "rated to -40C" sleeping bags because they're too hot. Grrrr.

Day 3: Confluencia

Sunrise over the "back" of Aconcagua

The next morning, I am up early (of course). I chat to some Germans as they all brew lots of hot drinks. I can't do this because I can't find the stove in my tent, Jina's organised everything and I don't want to wake her yet. Dammit. The Germans have just come off the summit, but say that last night here was exceptionally cold - they think at least -10C. I can't wash anything up because the river where one can wash is frozen over. The water butts are also frozen, but someone punches a hole through the ice so we can scoop up some water.

I pack my things in the beautiful "warm" sun

Rivers of spiky ice

We wait until the sun comes up before heading off. It makes a bit difference. Before heading off, we cross the sanctuary to visit a large refugio / hotel on the other side, crossing an interesting spiky ice river to get there.

It's the place where the big expeditions base themselves, and Jina loves the buzz. Lots of flags and posters from past expeditions up. We have coffee, then hot chocolate, and write postcards. Because my phone has packed up, I have no addresses, so it's only home and Pippi who get cards!

Back down there

I suspected Jina was beginning to get cold feet

We head off and enjoy (!) the long hike back, arriving back to Confluencia after sunset again! Grrr!

Socks for gloves

So another freezing tent erection, dinner, then cold bed. I had strategy for dealing with the cold today - wine and cayenne pepper. The litre wine box I had brought was too cold to drink, so I had to whack it on the stove until it was starting to bubble! How far from the gorgeous vineyards and world-class wines of Mendoza am I?! Plus I liberally sprinkled the cayenne pepper on my pasta soup, and ended up having a fairly warm night in my service company tent, alone, as the season has now ended and everything is closing down. I sleep well.

Day 4: Francia and out

An early start, as we have a long day today. It's our last day, we plan to day trip up to Camp Francia, then back down again and out of the park, hitting our 9pm bus that we've pre-booked. Walking up the valley, it seems to get colder and colder. The sun hasn't hit us yet, and my Camelbak tube freezes up. I had to keep taking off my gloves to warm the pipe slightly, to let me drink and avoid dehydration and therefore altitude sickness, but of course my hands don't appreciate this.

Checking for any dental irregularities

Patterns from the snow

I can't. I won't!

We approach Aconcagua, with an large enormous face rising above us, and reach a mirador with a great view [GPS: 32.68197S, 69.96676W].

The magnificient face of Cerro Aconcagua

Surveying the terrain, we decide that it's not worth going any further - I guess Francia is another half an hour, but I don't think the view will change much, and it's an unmanned site anyway, so probably not of interest. We stop, cook the last of our food, then turn round and head down.

As Jina says, everything tastes good when you're trekking

Glacial fresh water for washing

Descent is surprisingly fast, and suddenly the 7something pm bus becomes a possibility.

Unimpeded by the spiky things

As it takes about 4 hours to get back to Mendoza, we are regretting the 9pm bus booking anyway, so decide to go for it. Down down down, it always seems further on the way down. We follow the disused railway line into the village.

Move it!

We make it out on schedule, get to the bus "office", a small tourist tat seller, and ask if we can change our tickets if there are seats. We're lucky. As the 7:15pm service is not advertised anywhere, it's no problem to get on it. Amusingly, the guy takes our printed ticket, grabs a biro, scribbles out 9pm and hand-writes 7:15pm, before handing the ticket back. That's it? Yes.

I find it difficult to snooze on this bus, as if I put any of my weight on the backrest, the seat collapses into the poor girl behind me. Not fun, but we eventually get into town and walk over to Alamo, our old hostel, collect our junk and then cab it to new hostel, Itaka, which is slightly further out. Walking through the town is mad, it's thronging with people - after all it's Friday night at 11pm, and this is Fiesta weekend! So good to be back in the warm too! We hit some of the parade floats passing along the streets, complete with prospective carnival queens handing out bunches of grapes, escorted by gauchos on horses. I think this weekend will be fun.

Our new hostel is mad, it's like a big party house, with a large gravel area with seats in front, a swimming pool and party going out at the back, and the inside full of people having a good time. Anathaema to us oldies, but realising that we're not going to be able to sleep now, however tired, we head out to look for something to eat! The street the hostel is on, Arístides Villanueva, is the "bar street", and the incredible thing is that it's 2am or so, and there's not a seat or table to be had in dozens of places. We eventually get a table in a Mexican place in the large back garden, which is also full of people. Amazing. Next to us is a table with a big family, including old people and children! Something we don't notice is that tonight is the night of the gay vendimia (harvest festival), the theme of which this year is "man, his weaknesses and redemption through the harvest".

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