Day 1 (December 28th, 1995) Arrived in Santiago, Chile. The flight was uneventful aside from the fact that my luggage did not make it... it came 4 hours later on the next flight with the clients (thank god). I found a driver, Guillermo, at the airport who would drive us all in a mini bus to Penetentes. All except for Jonathan who we found out would only be arriving the next morning as he missed his Miami-santiago connection. The drive was very interesting plowing through the smog that is trapped in the bowl-shaped valley where Santiago is located. A tunnel takes you right under the Andes through to the other side where you surmount a pass with 36 switchbacks to the Chilean Customs. Just amazing scenery. Here you must pass through Chilean customs and “Tip” the agent to speed up the process. You then continue along this high road and pass through the Argentine customs (not tip needed here). We pass through both borders fairly easily and meet up with out other members of the group L, M and T at the hotel in Penetentes. (8,000 ft. approximately). Trip takes about 3 hours not counting delays at the borders.
We all grab a snack of papas Fritas. It started to rain in the afternoon but D, B and I head out for an acclimitization hike of approximately 800ft. After about one hour we return to get ready for dinner BBQ chicken Argentine style. Excellent. Sleep comes on easily punctuated but only one nightmare.
Day 2 Group all gets up by 8:00 am and has a quick breakfast of toast and coffee before heading out on a day accimitization hike of about 4.5 hours gaining 2,800 ft. approximately. We then drop down to do a gear check and pack for the mules. Then its steak dinner!
Day 3 I get up and help the Mule provider weight the bags (30 kilos each , 2 bags per mule). Then after a toast an coffee breakfast (I get the cook to make me an omelet)!! We all pack into two small trucks provided by Aconcagua Express and it is off to the drop off point at the end of the Rio Vacas. The 4 5 hour walk into Pampa Lena is punctuated by an electrical storm and finally hail. Needless to say the gear was wet as we when we arrived to set up camp. Sleep was good.
Day 4 We all get up early as we have to repack our gear bags quickly so the mules can head out across the river before 9:00 am. As the day goes on the river rises and the safest time to cross is in the early morning. It sure wakes you up! Water is up to our groins. The group then walks from 5 to 7 hours (we are spread out according to speed) to Casa Piedra where we set up our next camp. We cross the river to a spring and enjoy some great water. I sleep out in the open under the stars and count the satelites and shooting stars before dropping off. Moon keeps me partially awake for some of the night.
Day 5 We get up early to send off the mules before 9:00 am once again. This is our final day of walking to base camp. The first 1.5 to 2hour is a steep climb on the mule trail up the side of the Rio lenchos valley. We have to cross the river at 3 points all of which you can jump with trekking polls as aids. The first one involved jumping over a dead mule carcass which was fresh the year before. It was still there providing incentive for not falling in. After reaching the high point we descend gradually down to the last river crossing which you must wade and then the final 3 hours along a mostly flat gradual incline to Base camp, Plaza Argentina. J, L, and I help everyone set up camp with rock walls etc. We show our permits to the rangers and eat and sleep.
Day 6 This is technically a rest day. But L, J and I climb up over the glacier to Camp 1 at 16,200 ft. We drop a load of communal gear (extra fuel and food) and dropped back down to base camp to filter water for the next day and supper that evening. Some of the client are grumbling that L is not as available as they hoped. I speak to L and the issue is resolved. I good night sleep.
Day 7 We all as a group carry our first load to camp one. We say good bye to M, T and Q who had only come to the trek to base camp. This proves to be along day. D is having trouble and has to leave his load partway up the route. We all drop down and sleep soundly after a hard carry.
Day 8 Today is move up day. We back up all our remaining gear that is to go up and head back up the route to camp 1. After stopping for lunch we see the weather is starting to change and a storm is moving in. Sure enough it hits us as we mount the last steep scree hill to camp 1. Da has to descend to Base camp as he is going too slow. Clients are exhausted are are no help to themselves or the rest of the group. they huddle by a rock wall as L, J and I set up the tents in a howling snow blizzard. I collapse into one of the tents after finished and chip the snow and ice from my beard. My tent mates look at me with a look of apprehension. I was at my limit for the day and it must have shown on my face. After soup and ramon noodles everyone gets back their energy and spirits resume. Jokes provide the rest of the medicine. The storm breaks at sunset and we all sleep. As it clears the cold moves in and it is freezing. Makes getting up three times in the night to pee all the more pleasant. Stars are the one compensation as they as spectacular at 16,200 ft.
Day 9 A rest day. Jonathan carries a small load to the top of Armeghino col and drops back down to us. he has the besides idea as keeping active seems to help in the acclimitization process. the rest of us spend time filtering water or reading and listening to music. Sleep is good though intermittent for some of the group.
Day 10 Today we carry a full load to camp 2 at 19,200 ft.. This can at time seem an endless journey. The trail winds gradually to the top of Armegheno col for about 1-2 hours. It is here where the altitude starts to kick in. Once we reach the col we are blasted by the wind. We stop behind some protection and grab some snacks and liquid. from her it is another 3-5 hours fro the rest of the group as we are all moving at different spead and some of ups very slowly. Our radios are of great help here. Jonathan and I make it to camp 2 (19,200ft.) and stash our loads and prepare tent platforms for the next day. L, B, Da and D stash their gear further down and descend to Camp 1. They will pick this up tomorow on their way back up. I don’t envy them. D has to return to base camp where he will stay with the rangers. There is an extra tent there for him. He has been feeling miserable and is not having fun. For the most part it is 6 hours up and 3/4 hr back down to Camp 1.
Day 11 Jonathan and I move up to camp 2 and the others B and D struggle and get their gear to camp but decide to stay with L at Camp 1. D is suffering upon his arrival and it is a good decision for him to descend. I pass one of the most sleepless nights I have ever had. Wind howls and batters the tent. I get up twice to check the guys and tent structure.
Day 12 All is quite at camp 2. Jonathan and I are the only ones here. During the morning the weather the weather is clear and calm. As the afternoon approaches the clouds move in to shroud the peak. Jonathan has gone on a hike to the spot where the traverse meets up with the normal route. This is his first time to Aconcagua and he wants to be familiar with the route when we go for the summit. I have been here many time now so I opt for a hike to the edge of the east face. It is quite windy so I crawl on my belly to the lip of the drop off and stare down 5 thousand feet to the depths below. This is all I do today as I am tired after a sleepless night. In the tent it is either really hot or cold depending on whether there is a passing cloud. The rest of the group is expected today. I monitor the radio but there is no communication. I get bored with reading and walk to the edge of our camp and and look for sighs of our group. I see nothing. This seems unusual as there should be groups moving up each day. But it is still a little early in the season. Jonathan returns in the afternoon tired explaining the the snow near the end of the traverse became very deep and he had quite the workout. We pass the evening telling stories. Soup and Ramon noodle are my fare. Kraft dinner and bacon bits from 1954 are Jonathan’s.We receive no radio contact from Camp 1. I pass another sleepless night. The wind picks up as the previous night and so batters the tent I feel I must go and check the tent anchors twice more this night. They are ok as usual but I am concerned with the weather. I wake up at some point during the night and couch up crap out of my lungs. It appears dark in the moonlight so I switch on my headlamp. There is some blood in my kleenex. This doesn’t help my sleep as now I begin to worry about my health.
Day 13 This day starts as the previous except the wind does not die down. I tell Jonathan about my night sleep just so some one will keep a close eye on me. I feel alright but am getting concerned on the lack of news from below. I wonder whether they are coming up at all or if someone has gotten sick and they have all needed to descend to Base Camp. I decide that I will wait till 1;00 p.m to see them coming up or hear from them or I will descend to camp one and find out what is happening. Jonathan and I drink a lot of water and keep the stove going to melt snow. At 1:00 p.m. I pack up my gear including my sleeping bag just in case I cannot return the same day. I descend towards the col. Jonathan feels comfortable staying behind to wait and see. He will descend tomorrow if I don’t return with the rest of the group. After 15 minutes I see three dots heading up towards me. As I descend to the dots I cough up more crap including blood. I am not happy. We meet up just above the col. Da has stayed in Camp one. He is not feeling well but does not have AMS. B, D and L are continuing up to Camp 2. They are just a frustrated as I. The radios did not work at their end. They could talk to base camp but not to me. I find that I am tired and do not feel that I can turn around and retrace my steps back to Camp 2. That and the blood in my spit convinces me that I should descend to camp 1 until I know what is happening to me. I fell fine but I don”t like the crap in my lungs.
There is an enormous guilt on descend in at this point. Even thought there will be two guides with two clients I feel bad at having to descend. this is not why I am here. I should just suck it up and move back up. I start to go back up but after about twenty paces I realize I am making a mistake. If I spend all my energy going back up and have another sleepless night like the two previous ones, what else could develop. I decide to descend and spend the night with Da. We can the watch over each other. This also means that I can take the extra tent form L, B and D as they will only need one more at Camp 2. I descend and have the best night sleep in a while. Da while suffering from some strange aliment is in good spirits and make for good conversation.
Day 14 I feel a little better. Da does not. He decides to go down to base camp as he is not recovering from whatever he has at 16,200 ft. We pack up and say our farewells and I start to move on upwards. Suddenly the radio springs into life. It works!!! L call and says they they all slept a miserable night and all seen to be suffering (except Jonathan) from some strange lung infection. The two clients no longer want to continue and have decided to descend. I am to wait at Camp 1 and help with evening the loads when they descend. About 2 hours later they appear on the horizon and stroll into camp with the clumsy heavy loads. We divide up all the gear and all descend to Base Camp. We pack up all our gear and arrange for mules the next day. the rangers are of great help. At this time more and more groups are pouring into Plaza Argentina. the heavy season has begun.
Day 15. Most of the group all descend to Casa Piedra. I stay behind to make surer that our gear is all picked up and then hurry off to catch up. We sleep in Casa Piedra. I sleep under the stars.. I really sleep. The next day We all make it out to the highway where we are met by Ricardo who ferries up back to our hotel. we eat our first good meal in two weeks. It is hard to eat though as our stomachs have shrunk. It sure tastes better than ramon. The showers and clean sheets are the best part.
Day 16. We return to Mendoza for a couple of days of recuperation. Except for Da he has some nasty infection and chooses to return home for treatment there. He end up saying for a couple of days in hospital in Canada before making a full recovery.
I return home a few days later. I don’t return to Argentina till spring of 1999