Afternoon of December 28th: I finally arrived in Mendoza after spending the previous day-and-a-half in various airports and airplanes. It was great to finally finish the air travel, as I’d been sick for the last few days. Usually when I’m sick and I fly, bad things happen to my ears. They hurt, clog up, feel like they’re stuffed with cotton… once it took almost three weeks for me to get full hearing back. So despite the fact that I still felt like crap, it was nice to be down.
Strangely enough the first thing I saw was an Argentine guy holding up a sign that said “William Marler,” a name I recognized from SP. I briefly considered taking Bill’s ride, but luckily managed to get a ride into town with a girl I’d met on the plane instead. And her boyfriend, who was at the airport to pick her up. How awkward. They got me to a hostel near the center of the city anyway.
The rest of that day involved my scurrying around like a mouse on crack, trying to get all the errands done. I barely made the permit office before it closed, hit a supermarket with no peanut butter in evidence, bought white gas for an extravagant price, and even managed to complete the other 2,387 things before dark.
Next day: bus ride to Los Puquios, home of Rudy Parra, with whom I’d contracted to haul my extra food and gear in via mule. One problem with going solo – you don’t have anyone to split the filter, tent, stove, pans, etc. with! I made the necessary arrangements with him and then got a lift to the trailhead, a wide, obvious canyon along the same road. The Rio Vacas flows through this canyon – muddy, fast, high, and no doubt primarily fed by the tons of snow melting off the slopes on Aconcagua and the other Andean peaks in the area.
The hike up the canyon to first camp, Pampa de Lena, was pretty nice. I was there late enough in the afternoon that it wasn’t hot, and the scenery – peaks on and behind the canyon walls – kept getting nicer. The only downer was that the river was flowing high and had wiped out the trail in a couple of places, causing me to backtrack at times. Also, I chowed down a freeze-dried dinner that strangely enough had no oxygen absorber packet in it, when I knew damned well it should have had one. Ulp.
The hike into Casa de Piedra was even nicer. The day was sunny, bright, and almost too hot at times as I headed up the canyon. Snow was appearing in places now, and near Casa de Piedra itself I got the first view of Aconcagua, looming some 12,000 feet above me up the canyon of the Relinchos, a short, fast river that runs from the Aconcagua area into the Rio Vacas. Aconcagua looked ungodly big and the Polish Glacier – my intended route – stood out well on the side facing the valley. Since I was at Casa de Piedra so early I took some time off and headed further up the Vacas valley with a couple of other climbers I’d met – nice folks from L.A.
Looking NNW up the Vacas valley
The next day: up the canyon to base camp. None of these hikes were too long and it wouldn’t have been a problem to go quicker, but what the hey, I had some time on the trip so figured I’d enjoy the walk in. The Relinchos canyon still had some pretty good snow in it; you go up the river and then switchback onto the canyon walls – sweet views of Aconcagua and, next to it, Ameghino.
I pulled in to base camp that afternoon to find blood dripping slowly from my nose. How weird… I’ve been above 13K a hundred times and this hadn’t happened since ’88. Anyway, I felt fine and so made camp and spent most of the evening hanging out in the big Lopez tent with other climbers. This night was New Year’s, so there was a shindig there… lots of drinking, dancing… pretty good party for base camp!
Next day I headed up one of the peaks around base camp to get some altitude and check things out. It was Cerro Colorado (named for the dark reddish color of its slopes) and I’m pretty sure it’s just a little sub-peak of Cerro Rico, not a peak itself.
Still, the views of Aconcagua were incredible. So far, so good… neither my rebuilt knees nor the toe I’d busted a couple months before coming here was really bugging me that much, nor had my nose been objecting lately. Base was a bit chilly but when sunny it still wasn’t too bad. The next day I carried up to Camp 1 – kind of an interesting hike up the lower slopes of the mountain, through penitente fields and the like. Day after that, I moved myself and the rest of my gear to the same camp… this was an unseasonably warm day and folks at 1 were sitting around in their t-shirts – or, in the case of a large, loud Italian team, their bikini briefs. Goodness.
Around midnight I moved my left hand off my air mattress and felt it go SPLAT on the floor of the tent. Coming slowly out of a weird dream about being in the movie "Conan," I turned on my headlamp to see that the tent was filled with water. In places there were puddles, and pretty much everything that’d been on the floor was wet – which was just about everything I had at the time, excepting the top of my air mattress. I managed to sop a lot of it up with clothes, and a lot of the water had already turned to ice, but it was still a disaster. The rest of the night wasn’t fun either, as it was difficult to try to sleep while keeping myself and my bag perched atop the air mattress, away from the wet tent floor. Think I slept about 38 minutes. Total.
Luckily, the next day was sunny, so I spent most of it drying my gear out, moving to a new site, and taking short hikes around. I also dug an irrigation system worthy of the Hohokam Indians, in order to channel water away from my tent. It was successful, but a bunch of other folks were not so fortunate that night, including the people who’d moved into my old spot despite dire warnings from the neighbors. Ah well.
Next day I decided to head up Ameghino.
Ameghino from the approach to base camp
I felt strong (although exceedingly stinky), and plus, I’d had a good look at this peak from the col between it and Aconcagua. Ameghino’s summit looked kind of neat… pointy and with a bunch of cliffs nearby. The rest of the climb hadn’t looked like it'd be fun, and it wasn’t. For the most part the bottom 80% of this climb involved kicking up scree in plastic boots at high altitude… always a terribly enjoyable activity. The last part was a little more interesting – some class 3 and a few routefinding choices. Luckily I picked correctly here and soon found myself scrambling to the top, which dropped off nicely to the west. Views of Aconcagua were also good; the Polish Glacier looked to be in great shape. I had a bit of a headache but it was a beautiful, sunny day with almost no wind. Loitered for quite some time on top and then headed down.
Since I’d felt okay on Ameghino, I decided to hump all my gear up to Camp 2 in one trip. The load was a little big but tolerable most of the way; however by the end it felt like I had a piano on my back. I limped into Camp 2, saw some friends, and tried to take a seat among them with as much dignity as possible. Unfortunately I ruined it by tipping over backward while simultaneously uttering a pitiful groan which sounded like it was made by the grandfather on The Simpsons. Anyway, 2’s a little lower than Ameghino; a flat plateau at the base of the Polish, with a lot of sites and a lot of pools as well. Most of the good spots were taken, so I ended up mostly building my own, complete with a huge wall (which did little to keep the wind out). All the exertion gave me yet another headache; I hit the sack and tried to sleep but was kept awake by some grim stomach problems that I won’t elaborate upon here. Let’s just say none of the food stayed down for long. And that it went on most of the night.
The high winds started that night and blew all day the next day. It had been very cold outside without the wind, and with it, things were damned near intolerable. I mostly just chilled, wrote, tried to read, and got the occasional snatches of conversation in with my neighbors – most of who were doing the same thing as me. I also tried to eat but was only able to force down a few granola bars and a Clif bar. Didn’t sleep too well that night either, as the wind was constantly screeching outside and trying to shred my poor tent. Kudos to the tent - it did an admirable job holding up, although I could constantly see it deforming under gusts that were measured at 50-70 mph by the base camp folks (as we were told later). Anyway, to put it briefly, that night sucked. A lot.
Ameghino from Camp 2
I got up around five and started getting geared up for my shot at the summit. I wasn’t feeling particularly tough but didn’t feel like sitting in the tent for another day of reading “Zen mind,” trying to remember every state I’d ever been to, playing Space Invaders with my toes, and listening to the wind shriek. My idea had been to head up the Polish Direct, but with the wind going as it was, my hands got numb within 20 minutes. So I took the False Polish – or Polish Traverse – instead. This route slants above Camp 2, runs west of the Polish Glacier, goes through a few snowfields/glaciers, heads above Independencia, and eventually joins the Normal Route to go to the summit. I was moving all right until I topped out above Independencia (where there’s the smallest “hut” you can imagine, without a door or roof). Here the wind was whipping full in my face and to go forward was pretty damned difficult. I basically just had to lean into it and push ahead as though I was moving up a steep slope. This might not have been a problem at sea level, but here it was very strenuous. And cold to boot. Below, I saw a line of people who’d come up the normal route turning back. Behind me, the folks who’d followed me up the False Polish were also turning around.
This did nothing to build my confidence.
Still, it wasn’t that late and I’d been making decent time… plus the weather, while cold and windy as hell, was holding up. On I plodded. I reached the end of the moderate part of the trail and stomped into the Canaleta, the final 900 feet or so below the summit. It’s basically a small ravine or large gully filled with scree – in some places there’s a trail to follow, in most places not. The angle’s not too steep; I’d say mostly 25 – 40 degrees. But at that altitude it’s definitely a grunt.
It didn’t take too long for the combination of the slippage, no food, no sleep, and altitude to wear my sorry butt down. Still, all this would’ve been bearable if the wind hadn’t been buffeting me around like a puppet with its strings cut. I slogged up, up, up… and the summit seemed to be getting no closer. An hour passed by, then most of another. After the seventeenth time the wind knocked me down, I kept climbing with hands and feet, even on the low angle. Luckily there wasn’t far to go.
Topped out just before two and rested a bit in a tiny section of summit that was mysteriously free from the wind. The views of the Andes were absolutely incredible; while it had clouded up a bit the clouds were still high and the peaks unbelievably clear. No one else was up there, but I could see some of the camps below, the tents tiny dots of color. Could also check out nearby Ameghino, La Mano, and the Relinchos Canyon… great look around.
Still, I was feeling tired and kind of funky to boot, so I didn’t stay on the summit overlong. Going down was a lot easier; I could scree-run most of the way and kicked it back into camp something like three hours later. Got the first decent sleep in many days, that night.
There’s not too much to tell about the way down. The wind was still horrendous, and carrying my load (two packs and a lot of gear) down from Camp 2 to base camp, I felt at times as though I was a small boat with a seventy-pound sail on it. Fortunately the wind dropped off the lower I got, so the thrashing I was taking had abated quite a bit by base, where I had a huge pizza and a bunch of beers to celebrate. Note to self: if you can drink ten beers happily at sea level, don’t even try to drink six at 14K.
I hiked to Casa de Piedra without incident, taking my time and enjoying the scenery on the way out. Then down to Pampa de Lena. I was chilling out there and talking with a friend who’d gotten a bad case of AMS when we overheard some folks saying that one of Parra’s arrieros (mule drivers) had tried to cross the river and lost a mule, which had been swept away – along with its load – and drowned. They’d apparently recovered only one of the four bags it had been carrying, and this one was now sitting in by the guaraparque (ranger) building. Since both of us were using Parra, we ambled on over to see the bag, a nice cold feeling of foreboding coming over me.
It WAS one of my backpacks, drenched from the river – meaning that the other one was lost. Along with fleece mitts, overmitts, water filter, fleece pants, polypro clothes, and who knows how much other gear. The backpack that had fallen in the river and been recovered, luckily enough, contained my plastic boots. But also all the books that I’d brought, which were now utterly ruined. What rotten luck.
Except it wasn’t really luck. I found out later that the arriero and his crew had been slacking off at base camp and hadn’t left there until something like noon – which meant that they were trying to cross the Vacas river after seven in the evening. And by this time, EVERY night, the river is running at peak height and speed from all the day’s snowmelt. All the climbers on the mountain knew it was eaisiest to cross the rivers earlier in the day. So someone who’s worked in that area for as long as those arrieros have should’ve known a hell of a lot better than to waste time and then try it so late at night. Parra’s a good guy and didn’t charge me for the trip out (damned straight!) – I found him courteous and professional. However, IMO he should think about hiring more competent folks.
Anyway, other than the hike out the next day, that was about it for the trip. I hiked out, lay in the sun at the trailhead for a while, and finally got a bus back to Mendoza - a little lighter and a little poorer than I’d been beforehand, but what the hell, I got to climb a couple of great mountains, met some fun people, and saw some incredible sights. All in all, it could’ve been a lot worse… and couldn't have been a hell of a lot better.
Hey, glad you liked it, man... and good to meet you folks too. Other than those few days in camp 2 it was a pretty nice time I felt (despite setbacks). I'm thinking we'll probably grab those beers on some other mountain some day....