I met up with the group in Toronto airport. Being a last minute addition Blyth and Co has issued me a business class ticket. The others in the group are envious and wonder who I was. I wasn’t on the training trip in the Canadian Rockies. They all know each other and have bonded as a group so to speak. Who is this new guy. I could see it in their eyes.
The background to this is ...I climbed Aconcagua the spring before with Laurie Skreslet, Glen wells, Ron Diamond, Brendan Calder and the infamous Ed Evans.
After returning home it took about 2 months before I began to wish I was back on the mountain. It had some sort of magnetic pull. So when I mentioned off hand that should Laurie need any help on the next years trip I would love to go back. I was taken by surprise when he turned around and sure you can come as an extra guide to film the trip on video. I quickly leapt at the chance and started training in ernest for the next 2 months. I also had to get used to carrying a video camera with the cassettes and extra batteries. Keeping them charged and warm.
The members of the group are Ruth and Robert L,. Derek Y. Wolf S.,Dave and Bob S. Ruth and Robert are of Swiss heritage and tough as nails. Derek is a big guy who prides himself as being the only honest car dealer in Newfoundland. Wolf is a Doctor from Seattle. Susan W. and Bob H. from Toronto, Bob having invented the beadless whistle is financially independent. Susan is a Dentist. Laurie Skreslet, Robert Mitchel and Glen Wells the other guides are already in Mendoza making preparations.
Toronto-Rio-Buenos Aires is uneventful as is The change of airports in BA to get on the flight to Mendoza. It all passes like a blur overlapping each other punctuated only by the meals. I sleep for most of the flight. But go back to talk with each member to get acquainted.
We arrive 12:00 noon in Mendoza and are met at the airport by Laurie and Glen and head straight for the Nutibara Hotel where Laurie has arranged reservations. He has already obtained our permits in advance so all we need do is get ourselves ready for the trip to Puenta Del Inca the next day. We all eat together and crash early.
We depart the hotel on schedule by a large air conditioned bus and go straight to our destination of Puenta Del Inca stopping only once in Uspallata (SP). It is a 3.5 hour ride in total. We check in, grab a sandwich for lunch and then take short walk to check out the Inca Bridge. We spend the afternoon sorting gear that we will leave behind. Making sure that everyone's crampons fit before we pack them for the mules. I film and interview all those who wish for the before images and impressions.
Slept in till 7:00 am then we all had breakfast. Then we all ferry in the back of a pickup truck to the beginning of the trail head for the routa normal. After the usual picture taking with the cross and the old ski lift that the army has used as target practice (there is actually an outline of a person painted on it full of holes). We then continue along the easy for 3 hours following the easy trail taking in the views of the south face till we arrive at Confluensia. Derek drops his trekking pole in the river which I manage to retrieve after a mad dash down stream. It is only then I am reminded of the lack of Os even at this altitude.
Up at 7:30 and after a breakfast of oatmeal and tea we repack the mules and head for base camp. The south face for the first part of the morning before we drop down in the Horcones valley. The trail is very straight forward and we make good time for the first part of the day. After lunch Ruth and Susan are both feeling some sort of stomach ailment coming on. We flag down our mules and unpack one of the tents and stoves. Ruth, Robert, Susan and Rob Mitchel will camp below base camp at the old Plaza des Mules site. Then in the morning they hopefully will join us in base camp.
The rest of us make the final push to camp. This last part takes it toll on everyone as we have only been at altitude for two days and now we are at 13,000 ft . We select our tent sites on the left had side of camp. Glen is tired and wants to know why we have not camped on the level tent platforms already in place to the right. Laurie explains that there is a chance of rock fall to the right so even though it involves more work. The new sites we have to create will be safer.
After several minutes we make the sites level and begin setting up the tents. This seems to take an eternity as the group is not too familiar with them and Laurie is very particular on the way they must be set up. Patients is waring thin as everyone is a little tired. I film a little of this and catch some of the tired comments on video. Glen is grumbling more than most.
Suddenly everyone in camp is yelling as a huge bolder comes crashing down the slope towards base camp.. It must be 3 feet wide and come down with tremendous speed. It completely flattens a tent and passes through camp to the north. All is silent as the the tent is checked quickly but with apprehension. It was empty as it seems as the occupant was carrying loads that day. What a relief. Glen just smiles at Laurie and shakes his head in silent acknowledgement as the rest of base camp begins to pack up and move over to where we are safely encamped out of range of these missiles. base camp in the evening 1988 It snows for a short while and leaves us with a wonderful evening sky. I take lots of shots.
After breakfast (tea and oatmeal) the whole group forms up (Ruth, Susan,Rob and Robert rejoin us) we make a short walk up partway to Camp Canada. This is just an acclimatization hike. Everyone is going slow but doing well. We spend the afternoon collecting water and telling stories.
We leave for our first carry at 8:30 after getting up at 7 am. This is a long day it take about 5-6 hours to get everyone up the Camp Canada. The group splits in two with some following the longer but gentler switchbacks and others taking the more direct route. We encountered some pententes that we must pass through. It is then a quick down climb to base camp. Dinner and bed.
Packed up for the move up to Camp Canada. This day is more like the previous one very slow. The loads are heavy as some people have still brought too much. We arrive at the camp after 6 hours to find that someone has moved of gear from yesterday off of our dug tent platforms and put their gear there. We remove the gear and set up camp.
When the offending group arrives they make a show of being upset and don’t seem to understand what they had done was poor form. The grudgingly move to other sites a little to the west. This is one of the issues at Camp Canada (16,000 ft.). It is a very small site and fills up easily. Finding a place for everyone to use as a latrine is another issue and the camp gets pretty soiled everywhere. In the late afternoon a storm moved in and blankets every thing with 6 inches of snow. All looks pristine again. When I go out to relieve myself during the storm I am reminded of the lightning danger with my jacket buzzing with electricity.
I awoke with a minor headache which is the norm at these altitude. Moving around and visiting everyone helps as as does larger quantities of water. To day is to be another acclimbitization hike for those who feel up to it. We leave at 10 and climb up to Nido des Condores at 18,000 feet. From hear we traverse over north to where we would go if we wanted to climb Cuerno. It clouds over again and we descend back to Camp Canada before it complete ly whites out again. It is easy to miss camp if you are not careful in one of these afternoon squalls. The evening presents us with another incredible sunset on the north face of Aconcagua and to the west as well.
Woke at 7 am and had breakfast. Prepared for the first carry to Berlin. Boiled lots of water. The day take about 5.5 - 7 hours to get everyone to Berlin. We descend back down in about an hour. This takes its toll on the group at we have to work hard on motivating them. Derek starts to wonder if his money would not have been better spent on a beach on Hawaii. He has a good sense of humor. We are treated to more colourful views.
Woke at 7 am and had breakfast. We move up to Berlin. Another long and tiring day. We all make it though an are now in position for the summit. It is a relief to know that we will not have to dig any more tent platforms and we will not be ferrying loads up any more.
Woke at 8 am and had breakfast. This is rest day for the group but Laurie, Glen and I all go up to scout the route. It all is ok and easy to find. The trail is like a highway. We go only to just below Independencia. Then we drop back down to Berlin. We are treated to the usual sunsets.
Woke at 2 am and prepare to leave for the summit. The group takes a lot of time getting ready as the altitude has its effect on everyone's energy level. There is a buzz of excitement and anticipation in the air. Slowly we wind our way up the switchback above Berlin to the small area below Independencia. Here Dereks headlight battery goes out. It is bitterly cold. He is having trouble with his hands fumbling with opening it up. We have stressed starting off with new batteries on this summit day but not all have listened or understood the consequences. I take over and he quickly warms his hand under his armpits. I have the same kind of trouble and my hands feel like they are on fire. I feel I am about to lose them if I don’t finish this task soon. Done I bury my hands under my armpits inside my parka to ease the pain. It goes away and my fingers slowly begin to regain their normal feel. When we reach Independencia it is still dark although the horizon is slowly getting brighter to the east. Most everyone is suffering from cold feet.
We stop and remove most everyone boots and massage their feet to get the circulation going. Ruth is felling very cold and Laurie asks me to escort her and Robert who will not leave her down to camp. This is agreed upon and I started to descend. Ruth turns back and says she has changed her mind and wished to continue. Laurie talks to her briefly and agrees. He asks Ruth if she wants her feet massaged as the others. She says no and we all move along toward the top of the ridge that leads to the base of the canaleta. Rob Mitchel, one of our most experienced guide now is shaking with cold. He has had to stand and wait for all the group to form up and get their feet massaged and now is paying the price. I agree to sit with him while the group starts up with Laurie and we huddle together while he places his hands under my armpits inside my jacket. This seems to do the trick. We move one quickly to catch the rest of the group. Some of the clients seem to not understand what has happened with Rob and we receive some angry looks that we are not keeping close enough with the group. It is too cold to stop and explain and as we are all together again it does not matter. Laurie, Glen and I lead the first part of the group up the canatela while Rob sticks with Ruth and Robert who have slowed once again. The wind is bitter but eases somewhat as we get behind a large buttress at the base of the false summit. we take turns making steps with our ice axes and kicking steps. This is no easy thing at this altitude. Two hours goes by and we reach the summit ridge and into the warmth of the sun. The summit is now in sight, 100 feet or so above us. As we move up slowly the last 50 feet Laurie looks back and sees Ruth, Robert and Rob Mitchel far behind in the middle of the canaleta. He pauses for a moment and then give Rob the down sign. You can see Ruth and Roberts disappointment but they are moving too slow. I am glad it is Laurie’s decision to make as it is a difficult one to turn such determined people around.
The rest of the group all get the summit in the next 20 minutes. There is much celebration and hugging. I do lots of filming but also take a break to enjoy the view. Laurie takes my photo as i do him and the rest of the group. In all we spend close to 45 minutes on top before we start down.
We return to camp about 3:00 pm. Rob Mitchel greets us with a concerned expression. After he got Ruth and Robert down and into their tent he retired to his. All seemed well until Ruth removed first her gloves then her boots. Frostbite on two fingers and most of her toes on both feet.
We now are faces with a major issue. We have to get her down with out her using her feet as much as possible. Should she break the blisters that have formed this will increase the chances of her losing some or all of the effected areas We are all exhausted form the days work and settle down to think and rehydrate. The decision is made to stay the night and carry Ruth down the next day. We all get some well earned sleep.
Woke at 7 am and had a quick breakfast. Rod had cut holes in his pack the evening before and is posed to test carrying Ruth down the mountain on his back. We break camp and divide up all of Ruth's and Robs gear between us. This makes fro huge packs. Laurie's is one of the larger followed by Derek who seems to be able to carry the whole camp. He is a real trooper. we start down and make quite good time. Rob has to stop quite often though and need help in getting Ruth to the ground. It takes about 4 hours of torturious descent. I get to base camp first and alert the army that we need help.
Since we had rescued of their soldiers the year before, we are know to them and they are only too willing to come to our aid this time. They send up two men who help ease the load and get Ruth down to Plaza des Mules without taking a step. We all set up camp for the night and sleep well with the increased oxygen.
We had breakfast. Then Laurie arranged for Mule transportation for Ruth and Robert to Puenta del Inca. Rob Mitchel and I volunteer to go back up to Camp Canada and retrieve any gear that had been stashed behind on the trip up. The rest of the group will walk out with Glen and Laurie.
Rob an I climb back up quickly to Camp Canada, something that days before had seemed a chore now went by quickly as we are better acclimatized. We gathered up all the various items that had been left behind and returned back to base camp.
We then packed our duffle bags for the mules which had not arrived as yet and set off after the main group on the walk out. We caught up with them in the afternoon and were safely out in the hosteria by 18:00 hours.
Rob and I then arranged for the mules to pick up our gear in base camp and return it to Mendoza where we would be the next day. To do this we had to sit in a stone shelter where the mule provider lived. He insisted that we share in some of his wine as we negociated. I don’t know about Rob but I had not eaten in almost a day. So when I left the building in the dark I was feeling the effects of the wine. Rob walked straight into a stack of railway ties completely unseen in the dark. I could not help laughing even as I saw the pain he was in. We made our way by hitch hiking to the Hosteria and had dinner at midnight. I will never forget the looks I was getting at the entrance to the dinning room when Rob and I arrived. The people there had looks of horror in there eyes. When I got a look at myself in the mirror I understood. I was was almost black with dirt and my skin was cracked and bleeding from the sun and elements. My clothes were filthy and torn. I looked a mess. I had about three showers before I felt clean enough to join everyone at the table.
We had breakfast. Then hopped on the bus back to Mendoza. Ruth had to wear her plastic boots the rest of the trip to protect her toes. Even on the flight home to Toronto. I had to beg the airline to move her up front so she could keep her legs straight for the flight. They graciously agreed.
We all got back alright. Ruth lost 3 toes and the tips of two fingers. She and her husband Robert returned to do another Aconcagua trip with Rob Mitchel 2 years later.
"As an adolescent I aspired to lasting fame, I craved factual certainty, and I thirsted for a meaningful vision of human life - so I became a scientist. This is like becoming an archbishop so you can meet girls."