Prologue: Independencia ruin 21,000 feet Aconcagua
I have reached Independencia hut. It looks just like in all the photos I have seen. After over two years of anticipation I cannot believe I am here, up at 6400 meters - nearly 21,000 feet above sea level. The last time I was this high was back in 1987.
The hut is a ruin and little bigger than a tent. Most of the planks in the roof are missing. Even in the rosy light of soon after dawn, it doesn’t look an attractive place to stay the night. I find out later that just three nights earlier a party of people did just that – and one had died and the rest sustained severe frostbite. I saw the body of the one who died up here, being brought down to Cólera Camp yesterday, just after I arrived there – at that wind blasted boulder field, 19,500 feet up on the North side of Aconcagua. I didn’t know then that the Guardaparques had brought him down from here. I didn’t know the body was that of an Australian man, in his early 60’s. I thought the body was that of a Polish man, known to have gone missing during the recent storm – and still missing, so far as I know.
The weather is perfect for my summit attempt today. At the current time, around 9am, the sky is completely clear. As the sun rose two hours ago, the temperature was a frigid minus 25 centigrade. It is around minus 20 now – and I have to keep a constant watch on how my toes are. My new Asolo double boots are not as warm as the version of the same boot I had 24 years ago, on Broad Peak. This morning, before I left the tent, I slipped chemical heat pads between my sock layers in anticipation of the cold. But they don’t seem to do much – and my toes are burning and tingling in that way that precedes the onset of numbness… and the threat of frostbite. Like those poor souls suffered, who spent the night here.
Although conditions are good I am not confident of summiting, because of my cold feet. I try to keep wriggling my toes periodically. It was early frostbite which put paid to my attempt on Menthosa back in 1983, when we had to turn back at around 6100m, just about 300m below the top. I am as high as the summit of Menthosa now.
Still talking of chemical heat pads: I have done rather better with the ones designed for hands – and two of which I have in my camera bag, as well as inside my big Mountain Equipment gauntlets. My fingers are toasty warm and my camera is working just fine. It is a pity those types of pads were too big to fit inside my boots.
I swallow some energy gel ‘goo’ and some water – still unfrozen in my insulated water bottle. My throat is sore and parched in this freezing dry air – and if I were to try to speak, it would be in a painful croak. But there is no one to speak to. At the moment I am completely alone, having been the first to set out from Cólera this morning.
The journey to get to this point has been amazing – right back to the first step I took into the Aconcagua National Park at Punta de Vacas 14 days ago, 14,000 feet below my current elevation and approaching 40 miles away. Before that things weren’t so good – in the two days I had in Buenos Aires with my wife – before she headed off to Baraloche and a horse trek across into Chile - and I headed for Mendoza, on my way here.
We got ourselves mugged in La Boca – within hours of steeping off the plane from the UK. Here I shall digress a little…
Mugged in La Boca, Buenos Aires. Sunday 30th January.The attack came from behind and to the left. My wife and I had walked into an ambush. I hadn’t seen it coming. Leila had – and just had time to say urgently ‘I think we should get across the road…’ when the flurry of blows started to the back and left side of my head.
I had been distracted by a thin youth aged about 18 staggering towards us with a bizarre gait – as if he was suffering from some sort of neurological disease. Clearly I was meant to be distracted – so I didn’t see two or three others appear and start aiming punches at my head. Then, also as they intended: I was stunned and for a long few seconds frozen into immobility by the unexpected violence of their attack.
The blows to my head were noisy rather than painful. With an abrupt bang I was aware that both my cap and Aconcagua grade sunglasses were knocked off my head – with another blow rather than a snatch. I was dimly aware of Leila off to my right. I could hear her making sounds of distress, which sounded to be about my predicament, being attacked by these youths. She later said she thought they were killing me.
But then purposeful thought returned. I saw one of them had got Leila’s leather wallet – a colourful thing on a string, she habitually hung on a cord around her neck – and thought was safe hanging under her arm. That wallet contained all of her valuables: money, credit cards, mobile phone etc. Without it her two week horse trek probably wouldn’t happen. I still wasn’t feeling fear. But a terrible feeling of purpose came over me. I had to get that wallet back. No matter that the first commandment in the manual of how to be mugged said that you let your assailant(s) take whatever they took – and concentrated on getting away.
Still with that feeling of desperate purpose I went after the wallet. It didn’t occur to me that anyone might be doing anything to Leila now that they had her wallet. Blows were still raining down on my head – still rather ineffectually. But with a few quick strides I launched myself at the youth who was holding the wallet and grappled with him. I tried to trip him and throw him down onto the road – my arms pinioning his. But I couldn’t seem to trip him though and my best efforts merely shook him from side like a rat in the jaws of a terrier.
The blows were still raining on the back of my head as I grappled with the holder of the wallet. My recall of the next seconds is blurred. But I do remember that at some point his unprotected head swam into my field of vision. In the madness of it all I recognised I could head-butt him. Give him a Glasgow kiss as they say… But I have never head-butted anyone in my life. It seemed like using nuclear weapons – and I felt that there was a danger it could escalate the conflict to a new level – more deadly than grappling and heaving and the rather ineffectual punching. His head jerked out of range and the opportunity was gone. At some point I swung a punch at someone – the blow connected with something solid. But I was no better a fighter than they were – and I don’t know where or who the blow connected with.
But I got the wallet.
Abruptly, before I could do anything with it, it was snatched away again. I went after it again and the struggle went on – by now still probably only mere seconds after the conflict had begun. A distant part of me thought that all the action was all still just centred on me and the wallet – and that Leila wasn’t part of what was happening. But in the confusion of the post mortem afterwards, I remembered that I stopped hearing the sounds of her distress at seeing me being attacked…
Back to the wallet: I don’t know how, but I got it again. But there was still more than one of them attacking me and again they or someone got it back. It was like a ‘ruck’ at Rugby – fighting for possession of the ball. I was never any good at Rugby, anymore than I was at street fighting… but somehow, in my desperation, I won – and they lost possession of the wallet for the last time.
There it was, laying on the road – partially torn open – and Leila’s rather smashed up looking mobile phone was on the dusty surface beside it – as was a pair of sunglasses. I was no longer being hit about the head and I was aware of just one of them facing me on the other side – still potentially challenging me for possession…
But he backed off.
I swept up the three items and clasped them to my chest as I swept round, instinctively looking out for new threat. I saw a number of people all round – but had no idea who was an attacker and who was just a spectator. The only one of our assailant’s faces I had registered was that of the bizarre staggering youth, who had distracted me at the start of the nightmare. I didn’t see him now. I continued to swing round, now looking for Leila, expecting to see her standing shocked and bewildered – but out of harm’s way.
She was face down in the gutter – moving feebly – and one of them was on her back. For the first time I felt emotion. I felt all the horror and shock at the knowledge that she was hurt. I also felt guilt: whilst I had been fighting over a wallet; a mere possession; she was still being attacked. And now she was hurt.
I got to her in a few quick strides, dropping the wallet, phone and sunglasses into the dirt beside her. I grabbed the youth on her back and threw him out of the way. I spared him no further thought – not even anger. That came later. If he had had a knife he could have filleted me from behind at his leisure. But like the others he (presumably) melted away. We later became aware that by normal La Boca standards, these weren’t very good muggers.
Then I saw the blood. Masses of it – spattered all over the kerb, in the gutter and all over my wife’s shoulders. Still moving slightly, I could also hear her moaning softly. Now I felt terror and helplessness – but the Doctor in me urgently sought to track the source of the bleeding: to try to do something…
I helped her to her feet. She was confused and didn’t appear to know what had just happened. As I helped her up a part of me recognised she was holding a bloody and partly shredded plastic bag tightly against her stomach. It just contained a pair of shoes – and we would later work out that she must have been defending this pair of shoes from her assailant. Like me, she also hadn’t read the first commandment in the how to be mugged manual. We came to recognise that we were very lucky they we had such crap muggers.
The blood was pouring from a deep gash under her chin. My terror turned to blessed relief, which washed over me like a warm comforting shower. This was something I could deal with…
Leila was still confused – and she had no idea she was bleeding like a stuck pig. Somewhere I found a little pocket pack of paper tissues – and I pressed a wad against her wound. It was some moments before her confusion lifted – and she became aware of me trying to attend to her – and saw the blood. Abruptly she became frightened.
‘It’s OK’ I tried to reassure her ‘it is just your chin… coming from underneath. Bleeding a lot but… it is something I can deal with.’
I carried suture equipment in my first aid kit, back at the hotel. We had passed a hospital a mile or two back, but it had looked a grim sort of place – and I felt an overwhelming feeling of protectiveness towards my wife, that I wanted to take care of her myself.
‘Let’s get back to the hotel’ I said.
Getting her to hold the bloody wad of tissues to her chin I crouched in the gutter and picked up the wallet, shattered mobile and pair of sunglasses – and I pushed them into what was left of her tattered plastic bag, along with her shoes. Then holding this under one arm and supporting Leila with the other I turned us back out of the side street towards the main boulevard we had just left, before we walked into the ambush.
Abruptly I became aware that the same strange youth who had distracted me earlier, was there in front. He raised his arms and took a couple of steps towards us. The adrenaline was still flowing. I braced myself for another attack..
Just as abruptly he turned – and was gone.
I don’t know if he intended to come at us again. I didn’t see any of his fellow muggers, but then I wouldn’t have recognised any of them anyway. A number of young people in the street stood by watching us impassively. Nobody moved to help – but more importantly, nobody moved to attack us again either. Much later, I realised that the pair of sunglasses I had scooped off the road were not ours – but must have belonged to one of our assailants. Maybe the youth was going to try and re-claim them.
Now that we were no longer being threatened I suddenly felt my mind being overcome by a sort of blankness. I was supporting a still bleeding Leila. But it was a struggle to think now – and it seemed too much to try to work out what to do. Yet we had to – we were two miles from our hotel in a dangerous part of town – and my wife was injured.
Between us we worked out that we needed to get a taxi – and we staggered unsteadily towards the main road, looking into the heavy traffic for the black and yellow cars, which we knew were taxis. We saw several – but nobody would stop. I ran towards one out into the road in my frustration – but then felt anxious at leaving Leila unguarded – and ran back.
Unable to stop a taxi, we ended up stopping at the hospital we had passed. Medical staff were taken up with a terrible accident involving a small child and we were told they couldn’t help us. But they did allow Leila to get cleaned up and gave us a gauze swab soaked in iodine, to apply to the gaping laceration on her chin.
Back at our hotel, an hour or so later, I used 4 tiny sutures to close her wound. The whole area was badly bruised – and continued to ooze blood, until I applied a pressure bandage. She complained of a splitting headache – and I worried about concussion. Clearly she had been knocked out briefly when she had fallen, striking the tip of her chin on the hard kerbside. I gave her as much pain relief as I dared.
‘I think I want to go home’ she said to me later. Understandably, she had lost enthusiasm for her horse trek.
‘Wait until the morning before deciding anything like that’ I replied. I know my wife. She bounces back and is no shrinking violet. I hadn’t the slightest doubt that she would change her mind.
In the morning she felt much better. There was no more talk of returning home. By then I had spoken to the leader of her trip over the phone. As luck would have it there was a nurse in the party who would be able to take her sutures out five days later.
We visited a safer bit of Buenos Aires. It was my wife’s 56th birthday – and we celebrated by having lunch Argentinean style, at a ‘Parilla’. She managed to look glamorous, despite the blood-stained dressing applied to her chin. After that we did the tourist thing and went to the Zoo.
The following morning we bade each other tearful farewell – and caught our respective flights. And two days later I am taking my first step into the Aconcagua National Park, by the Guardaparques office, at the start of the Vacas Valley…
Punta de Vacas to Pampas Lenas – 3rd February.I feel elation as I step into the park. It has been such a long journey to get here – and I can’t believe I am finally here. My permit has been signed and stamped in the Guardaparques portacabin close to the road. I snap a quick self portrait of myself standing by the park entrance sign – standing proud in my Hepatitis C Trust t-shirt. Then I am off – striding into the valley towards a distant tiny spinney of poplar trees, which are about the only bits of green in the otherwise arid wilderness.
The winds are howling out of the valley, blowing clouds of dust, which I don’t want to inhale. So I have pulled up my buff into a face mask, which filters the gritty stuff. With my new pair of Aconcagua grade sunglasses I must look like some kind of alien.
I reach the trees and for a little while, I am walking between grassy meadows, with even a few cows on the other side of the raging brownish waters of the river. But this doesn’t last for long. I pass the last tree and around me the terrain becomes progressively more arid.
Despite the still howling winds, it is very hot under a furnace of a sun. Shade is scarce – but occasionally I find a large enough boulder to shelter behind, to pause and lighten my load of water. I have seen numerous lizards sunning themselves – and one pauses on a rock close to me. I snap a quick photo.
The trail follows an undulating course, up and down over alluvial fans or round interlocking spurs dropping from scree covered mountainside. The hours pass with the aid of the crystal notes flowing out of my iPod – which just manages to compete with the roar of the wind, albeit probably to the detriment of my hearing.
Periodically I encounter little groups of people. Some going up, but a few striding briskly down – adventure nearly over and presumably in a hurry to get out to showers and slap up meals – to celebrate a safe return. The returning people have intent expressions on their faces and don’t seem to want to do more than nod a greeting. I wonder what stories they would have to tell. I wonder if I will look the same as them, three weeks from now, when I am leaving the park. And will I be elated, having reached the summit? Or will I be a bit deflated – having failed to summit on this my fourth stab at a big mountain?
A little later I have my first encounter with a Mule convoy. I have always thought of Mules as slow plodding beasts – and it has been a surprise to me to learn that they are supposed to cover the ground so much faster than trekkers. To the accompaniment of thundering hooves and billowing clouds of dust I soon discover why…
The mules are moving at a near gallop. Hastily I duck behind a bush – the only bit of cover within range. Hooves crash down inches away from my face as one brute seemingly ignores my bush and runs through it, trampling one of my walking poles in the process. I feel I have somehow landed in the middle of a cavalry charge and cower timidly, hoping it will soon be over. I consider jumping in the river…
With a last billowing of dust they are gone – and I carefully extricate myself from behind the rather battered looking bush. I inspect my walking pole – carbon fibre and equal to the task of resisting a plunging hoof – so no damage. But I make a mental note: don’t mess with Los Mulas.
This particular convoy was heading down. A little while later, I encounter another one going up – and warily get out of their path. These ones are moving more slowly and I have time to notice the Muleteer, riding one of them at the back. Then I notice the next Mule: he is carrying my two large kit-bags – one blue and the other yellow. From a safe distance I watch them pass and trot out of sight around a spur.
I am feeling tired and a little lethargic. I recognise that it is more than just approaching 5 hours of walking, battered by winds and broiled by the sun. I have ascended from 2400 to 2800m – 9,200ft, and I’m also slightly affected by altitude.
My MSR stove rapidly produces boiling water for soup, a brew and a freeze dried mountain house meal. By 8.45 pm the sun is setting and I am ready to get into the brand new state of the art Mountain Equipment sleeping bag – loaned me by a neighbour, who just so happens to be Mountain Equipments sale manager – and who climbed Aconcagua a decade ago. I am using a silk liner and just as I am ready to crawl inside I notice the state of my feet. They are black. Fine dust has penetrated through my trail shoes and socks – and has adhered tenaciously to my skin. Further investigation reveals the same dust has penetrated scree gaiters and leggings – and I am black up as far as my knees. I can’t go to bed with all that. It takes quarter of an hour of vigorous scrubbing with wet wipes to get into more presentable state.
I wonder how Leila is getting on. This was also the first day of her horse trek – en route from Argentina, across the Andes into Chile. I managed to speak to her on the phone from the hotel at Penitentes after an hour of trying, yesterday evening. She sounded jubilant, loving the ranch where she was staying – and having had a great day getting to know people and horses. She said her chin was sore, but tolerable – and yes, she said, she was keeping some tape over it. We both nagged each other about being careful… but the line was poor and Leila in the middle of a barbeque so we soon had to say our goodbyes.
Pampas Lenas to Casa Piedre - Friday 4th February.
I had intended to go easy with the pace today but the iPod puts paid to that. Spurred on by rousing music I am soon striding along – and I overtake a few groups who set off ahead of me.
The scenery is increasingly arid – what little plant life getting progressively thinner. But I still find it beautiful – the deep blue of the sky, contrasting with reds, browns, orange and even occasional yellow of the rocky hillsides. I am having a ball here – and the valley sides swim steadily past.
At last, some four hours out from Pampas Lenas I reach a widening in the valley – and there is a side valley off to the left, which I guess is the Relinquos Gorge. Eagerly I stride another few hundred meters – and there it is: my first view of Aconcagua. The music had just got to a dramatic climax and I stand there totally overwhelmed for a moment. She is so beautiful and I am so glad I made my approach from this side.
Despite long moments staring up at my future goal, I am first into Casa Piedra camp, half a kilometre further up the trail. It is at yet another windy spot in the valley – and I feel slightly guilty as I nab about the only sheltered camping spot. I check in with the Guardaparques – and there is another stamp on my climbing permit. Moments later my li