I climbed Aconcagua in January, it is in the Andes, in Argentina and is the highest mountain in the world outside the Himalayas which has fully 26 higher peaks than this one. The summit of Aconcagua is a tad under 7000 m above sea level. Base camp is at 4200 m, so we only really had 2800 m to climb. It was a hard slog, not terrifying, not exciting, it was a psychological and physical challenge lasting three weeks. The route we took up Aconcagua is an easy stroll compared to any route on Everest, the summit is 1.8 km lower and the ascent requires no technical climbing, but it is a very big mountain and rising about a kilometre above its neighbours, it looks it.
Very big mountains seem to have minds of their own, this one is no exception. Aconcagua's moods are conveyed by the weather, which it makes largely itself. There are three factors to do with the weather which change seemingly at the mountain's whim: The temperature, the wind and the snow. Underlying these are the relatively predictable factors: the steepness, the surface and the altitude.
Also fundamental to climbing of mountains is the climber, and there are relevant factors here too: Resolve, familiarity and fitness. Although less changeable than the weather they can fluctuate wildly nonetheless.
I learnt or clarified several things on the trip: The term "climb a mountain" is more aptly put as "climbing on a mountain", it does not necessarily include getting to the summit, it means experiencing and meeting the challenges of a robust and wild environment. I learnt that it takes a lot of experience to realise how unfamiliar, and potentially dangerous the mountain environment is, and consequently how important are self discipline, self assessment and team support... and I learnt a little bit about Argentina and the Andes: Oh yes and I learnt why I climb mountains: "Because I am here": Adventures are to sought and savoured because life is short and unique.
On new years' day I flew out of Sydney on the new Ansett service to Auckland. It was one of those days that the tourism industry craves. The Harbour and the Hawkesbury shimmering blue, Kuringai Chase National park and the northern beaches slowly slipping behind as we headed out over the Tasman. I luxuriated in comfort and serenity, and perused the menu, it was like being in one of those airline commercials: as if been carted off to heaven, that thought grated a bit as it slipped past with most of the others.
Auckland was heralded by heavy green fields with grey above, feeling, as usual, more like east oz than a different country. A brief wait then onto the Argentinean airliner, older, more cramped, less friendly, the feeling probably heightened by the contrast with the unexpected luxury of the preceding flight... I was on the cheapest ticket I could get after all.
Although I had met most of the group during the flight we were now all together in Buenos Aires, we started to get to know each other on the trip to our hotel. This is a standard or "brochure" trip offered by World Expeditions, it is actually run by John and Brigitte Muir under their own company "Adventure Plus", we would meet them and Rudi the trainee mountain guide later in Mendoza: For now there were the punters: Brian from Darwin who is involved with distance education, Paul the proprietor of a martial arts store, another Paul "sparrow" a postal clerk, Ed who teaches horticulture, Richard a channel nine jurno, Janette a newly resigned nurse beginning a two month tour in South America, Andrew a plumber, Doug a valuer from Brisbane, Sandra and accountant and myself, Bill Taylor, computer nerd.
Buenos Aires, means "good air" and it was living up to its name, a little warm but a pleasant breeze that always keeps the city of ten million free of air pollution. Our hotel was right in the centre and very noisy, the main drag, all 18 lanes of it was just outside. A group of us got some rudimentary directions and an even more rudimentary map and went exploring, straight down the "Florida" pedestrian mall, checking out the shops and the girls, our female compatriots assured us that they found the men were worth careful study too. A diet of steak an chips and Spanish genes seem to have done wonders. The evening found us selecting one of a myriad of cafes which are half inside and half "Al fresco" on the wide footpaths, enjoying a "chopp" ( mug of beer) or two, watching the passing parade and passing the time with idle banter.
Buenos Aires comes alive at night, the lights are colourful and so is the clothing, the restaurants open late and the menu is limited, like a Monty Python script you can have steak, steak or steak... well there is chicken too, but no seafood much, despite the 250 km wide mouth of the River Plate defining one boundary of the city. We didn't get back to the Hotel till midnight, just as well, the traffic noise made sleeping hard. The Argentinean peso has been defined to equal one U.S. dollar, and in most cases the prices are numerically higher than in Australia too. Our high living was costing us dearly, just as well we were heading for a fiscally monastic time in the mountains.
A short flight but a long way west of Buenos Aires is Mendoza, amidst a major wine producing area and just short of the Andes. Here we were met by John, Brigitte and Rudi: our guides. Mendoza has wide streets all lined with overarching trees rooted near metre deep gutters between footpath and road. The trees were planted to delay the collapse of buildings in the event of an earthquake, giving people a chance to run into the wide streets. Apparently there was a catastrophic quake earlier in the century, but they don't occur very often. Nor does it seem that rain occurs often, well at least not pouring rain which flooded the city that afternoon, the deep gutters quickly overflowing to form a very temporary and shallow version of Venice. Mendoza has the same proportion of cafes and attractive girls as Buenos Aires, they also share the very civilised siesta, the shops close and the restaurants open between one and five.
Today to the hills: We loaded up the gear from the apartment that our guides had rented. They were spending about two months or more in Mendoza, running two trips to Aconcagua of which ours was the first. Once out of Mendoza we were in flat country sparsely vegetated with light loamy, infertile soil, The Mendoza river valley was wide with deep unstable banks the river a torrent casually and constantly carving a new course in the flat valley floor. The Hills loomed, mountains by our standard, loose piles of rock, a wonder that the road remained clear. This road is the major link to Chile, A seemingly intact but unused rail line shares the route with the road. There is evidence of landslides and protective works. The Andes are young and still changing, there is a lot of loose rock and a lot of steep slopes,similar to the Himalayas and most unlike the hard bare bones of mountains which constitute Australia's high country, once as high as these but eroded to their ancient roots by time and water.
Twenty Kilometres short of the Chilean border the bus put us out at "Puenta del Inca" (bridge of the Inca), a natural span over the river, with thermal springs a two star hotel and a bunkhouse attached to a rough restaurant... we got the bunkhouse. The altitude was around 3200 metres above sea level, high enough to be wary of altitude effects and to start the acclimatisation process. Fortunately acclimatisation is not hard to do, all you do is keep breathing and take it easy. Three of us decided to scamper 400 metres up the southern side of the valley, to a high point which we christened "mini Arapalis" because of its supposed similarity in appearance to this famous Victorian climbing venue. The walk was steep and the cover loose but it took only three hours for the round trip. From a little way up we could look North and see the impossibly vertical and rugged South Face of Aconcagua, it was clearly higher than anything around, and looked only a few kilometres distant although it was still between 30 and 40 kilometres away.
The trek into base camp started some 15 km back down the road where the "Vacus" river joined the main Mendoza river valley. A concrete and corrugated iron barracks for three army "muleteers" (mule herders) marked the starting point. A few of poplar trees in an irrigated patch further up were the last trees we would see and marked the start of the 70km walk into of the Eastern base camp, there is another on the western "Horconus" side. We had dropped the bulk of our equipment to a ski resort just up the road where the mules we had hired would be loaded. The mules carry about 60 kilos each and are shepparded by muleteers, dressed in gaucho style, riding horses and wielding Lassos.
It was a beautiful day, around 18 degrees with no wind and a blue sky. The track was stony but well travelled, our guides insisted on a slow pace and that we use our ski poles so that we would not over exert ourselves and get used to walking with the aid of the poles. Some of us found the pace too slow for comfort, but the group soon spread out nonetheless. The first day's walk followed the gentle V shaped valley, carved by the lower section of the river and ended at a dusty camp site inhabited by a lone ranger living in a stone hut, with a large radio antenna. The area is a national park, Aconcagua is a popular destination, so the government has established a permit system to keep tabs on usage and employs the rangers to police permits, rubbish disposal and help with the welfare of climbers and provide a means of communication between the various mule companies and their clients.
Day two started with a crossing of the Vacus river, which I was assured was dangerous, although it proved very easy to wade and not too cold despite is glacial origins... sort of like the Snowy river on valium. The others got a lift across from the muleteers. A very slow pace made it a long walk up the increasingly flattening and widening river valley. There were no trees the plants were well separated by rocks of the light coloured Earth, there were no side creeks, a desert despite the river passing through it. Dust blown by the wind detracted from the otherwise wonderful weather. Eventually we came to a side valley, framed in its sharp V was Aconcagua, a breathtaking scene after the dreary sameness of the valley we had followed all day. We camped on the only grassy bank we had or would encounter with this wonderful view changing as the sun set.
The Vacus was shallow here, only ankle deep, and flowing severally in rivulets. Its temperature responded to the ambient air, it was early in the morning and cold, the river was consequently painfully cold and the crossing well remarked upon as a result. We were travelling with an American group who had overtaken us on the first day, their pace was decidedly faster than ours, our guides maintaining that we would acclimatise far better if we took it very easy, the Americans disappeared before us towards base camp. We climbed a steep path to a hanging valley, I had gone ahead feeling the need for exercise and getting more than I bargained for when I realised about half way up that I had left my camera on a rock at the last rest spot, so down I went to be remonstrated by John who had picked it up. Suitably mollified I reached the top of the hill in time to see our mules making their way up past the group. Mules are skittish at the best of times but the proximity of the humans proved the undoing of one mule's demeanour and the consequent undoing of its load. The ensuing mule jam lasted a good half hour, the rest of the group frozen where they stood, least they upset another of these particularly stupid animals.
The wind picked up a little as we walked along the valley, a lazy lunch was had in the sheltered bed of a creek, we passed two people descending, they had summited two days before and were racing for the road head and a cold beer. As we plodded on at "Brigitte pace" (dead slow) the wind picked up a little more and the mountain started to make heavy cloud which flowed down towards us. John had gone ahead to start sorting out the gear the mules had delivered to base camp. We had met the mules returning an hour or so after lunch so base camp could not be too far off, the track was good so I decided a bit more exercise was called for headed on alone. The weather quickly became worse, the wind very strong and wet snow began to fall, by the time I got to base camp it was cold very windy and heavily snowing. I found John and we had a brew in the lee of a large boulder before setting about erecting tents. About an hour later the rest of the group arrived having endured the worst of the afternoon storm, some of them were a bit worse for wear and were immediately ensconced in the tents we had erected. The weather cleared before nightfall so a comfortable dinner was had before an early night.
Base camp is at 4200 metres, we had ascended a fair distance the previous day so altitude effects were expected, some of our group and the faster Americans were suffering insomnia and the perpetual headache associated with increasing ones altitude, but none were suffering the pounding headache that is the first dangerous symptom of altitude sickness. Altitude sickness is edema or swelling in the brain or lungs, a rough explanation is that the pressure inside cells has not had time to equalise with the external pressure which decreases with altitude. The only cure is to descend, fortunately this is a quick and effective cure, but ignoring the symptoms can be just as quickly fatal.
It is necessary to acclimatise carefully, to avoid altitude sickness, a good strategy is to go high then sleep low, and this dovetails nicely with the fact that we had too much equipment and food to take up to higher camps in one go. Now that we were in a mule free zone, we had to carry everything ourselves. The plan was to establish camp 1 by carrying a load up, then come back and rest at base camp before taking a second load up to camp 1 and staying. After we were acclimatised at camp 1 and rested We would then establish camp two in a similar fashion, using camp 1 as a transit camp for the second load which we would have to get from base camp. Having established camp 1 and 2 would rest at base camp then go to camp 1 then 2 then then traverse to camp 3, not a lot higher than camp 2, but closer to the easiest route to the summit. We would stay at camp 3 for a few days and attempt the summit, still one vertical kilometre above if the weather and our health allowed. We would descend from camp 3 to base camp in one day. This plan would give us the maximum rest at the minimum altitude before the summit attempt, and the maximum flexibility in the event of adverse events.
The first day to camp one was very slow, a deliberate "Brigitte" pace to offset the effects of mainly the altitude, but also the heavy load we were each now carrying. The route to camp 1 skirts to the South of the English glacier, on scree and rock generated by rugged vertical cliffs on our left, it then crosses onto the glacier itself, although, except for the occasional glimpse of ice, it is entirely covered by rock and gravel. The track rises and falls, twists and turns amongst the larger rocks and hills of gravel. The ground is so malleable that an obvious track is easily and quickly formed by the passage of people, but everyone seems to have followed this same one more or less. Lunch was had near some flowing water emerging from under some "neve penatentes" (snow knives), which are soft ice pinnacles up to a metre high arrayed in hundreds, the last vestige of glacial ice which has been exposed on a flat section and has slowly melted away. Lunch was always cheese, salami, tomatoes (until they ran out), crackers, assorted savouries from tins and a reminder to drink lots of water. Soon after lunch one of our group was having trouble, unable to find energy reserves and possibly in danger from altitude effects, Doug had to return to base camp with Rudi, our apprentice guide.
15 minutes after lunch we came to the base of the "big up" to camp one, maybe 300 metres vertical, the first section was up a spur to the base of a cliff the rocks were smaller and the rise steeper than we had experienced on the glacier. The second part, skirted to the right of the cliff, it was a much steeper soft gravelly scree. Brigitte decide on an alternative zig zag traverse over thin snow and ice cover further to the right. The slow pace, the ease with which one broke through the thin ice into a rivulet or slipped on the harder ice made this trying, but eventually we reached the larger looser rocks at the top of the section and traversed across a small snow field to camp one, all feeling a little worse for wear and breathing hard. There were several tents set up already, either occupied or pending the return of parties from higher up or from base camp. We dumped our gear on a tent sized platform smoothed of rocks, with a rock wall to help alleviate the effects of wind. Many of these had been constructed here, each takes a few hours to build, so we were hoping that there would be more free sites when we returned. The descent from camp one was fast! A run down the scree slope, the gravel was small and very loose, each wild step pushed a small wave of it in front, the only problem was the few sections where there was only a veneer over the glacial ice: bend ze knees, keep the weight forward, just like skiing... the rest of the descent through the relentless rock chicane of the glacier towards base camp which seemed to take longer to get closer than it reasonably should have, was less edifying.
I don't recall the weather that night, but when it was fine the stars blazed with an intensity that only being above half the Earth's atmosphere can bring, in a word awesome, especially underlayed with the white of the summit and the black bastions of the rugged cliffs closer to us. Being in the Southern Hemisphere, the sky was very familiar, the milky way being much better seen from this latitude than from the northern hemisphere, the scene was far more spectacular than I recall from the Himalayas.
A rest day at base camp, luxuriating in the mess tent, being plied with food and hot drinks at regular intervals, thanks to Rudi and John, a late night card game by candlelight then off to sleep, much easier now that we were well acclimatised to base camp. The second trip to camp one was a slightly faster pace, nevertheless I joined a group of Americans who were going a bit faster, discussing environmental concerns in Alaska and the internet of course! I waited at the "regular" lunch spot for the others. Doug was having similar problems, he did not have altitude sickness, he had just simply failed to acclimatise, an unpredictable and uncommon malaise, his ascent was over, he would have to wait at base camp or return to Mendoza, for now he chose the former. After lunch I went ahead again, this time ascending the scree slope, puffing hard but going fast I felt great and already had cleared snow from our gear and put up a tent when the first of the others arrived. We cleared some rough sites set up the other tents, collected water, cooked dinner on the shellite burning stoves and watched a spectacular sunset. The wind was strong that night and I paid for my fast assent with a strong headache all that night.
The day dawned fine with a stiff breeze, we could see well up the valley but not as far as camp two, hidden above a steep slope to the left. We started very .. very .. slowly to ascend, this time I was more aware that others in the group were finding the going tough, it took a long time to zig zag up to a pass, as we approached the wind got stronger. We met a chap coming down the hill who was descending from camp three due to altitude sickness, apparently there was a "Gamow bag" with his party: a sealable plastic "body bag" which can be pumped up to increase the air pressure inside. I have never seen one of these but a few parties carry them, at any rate the drop of a few hundred metres saw him in good health disappointed that his trip was over and looking forward to a beer in Mendoza. I'm sure I was not the only one a little envious of the prospect of the latter.
Very near the pass Janette had had enough, she had no more energy and had begun to shiver, this was a sign that her body core temperature had dropped, further exertion would be dangerous. She decided to descend to base camp after lunch which we had a few minutes later, in a quickly strengthening wind. Brian also started shivering, his hands very cold his fingers suffering frost nip, John advised him that he should descend too, so both of them returned to camp with John to await our return. Unfortunately we had gone too slowly to reach camp two and ascended to a nearby second pass which we christened "camp one and two thirds" where we dumped ice axes, crampons and food. There were two tents set up nearby, their occupants had also gone high enough for the day and had decided to stay. The run down the scree and snow from "camp one and two thirds" to camp one was fun and exhilarating, however Andrew was exhausted and took it slowly, he had also decided that he'd had enough and would stay at base camp. After a short rest at camp one we ran down the scree and negotiated the interminable terminal moraine of the glacier to get "home" to the relative comfort of base camp.
A rest day, now well acclimatised, the air actually felt thick at base camp. The weather was not too good but we had our mess tent, books cards and plenty of warm clothing. Doug had decided that he was not even acclimatised at base camp, he felt he was wasting and losing strength. Brigitte used the resident ranger's radio to hire a mule to come and take him out, it would take two days to come and would cost him $350 US!, hopefully this would be classed as a medical evacuation by his insurance company. We had a visit from two guides from another group, friends of John and Brigitte, there were a lot of people on the mountain, and depending on the weather and the proximity of tents it was quite a social occasion. These two had also been to Everest, one had summited and the other not, reinforcement of the need to accept the bitter pill of coming all this way to climb only almost to the top of the mountain.
A fine day for the start of our shot at the top, only to camp one today, much faster than the previous two times the difficulties of the previous trip concentrated our attention and helped make it seem very familiar now. Camp one was busy, maybe forty people encamped as best they could to avoid the wind. We ate heartily in expectation of the next day and watched a spectacular sunset with some Americans. On to camp two today, a much quicker assent got us to our stash at camp "one and two thirds" in under three hours. A quandary now, whether to add the stash to our gear or make a second trip back down from camp two to get it. We were fit and unsure how long it would take to get to camp two, so we committed to the former. Now heavily laden we trudged up a steep and steepening slope, increasingly snow covered, puffing to a halt frequently for a rest. A lot of people were heading up today, maybe twenty, it seemed like peak hour on the peak no one had more than enough air to gasp a platitude as we passed each other.
Camp two is amidst rock pinnacles at the base of the Polish Glacier which extends to the summit of the mountain, still more than a vertical kilometre above. The traffic of the day had vanished, hidden in the interstices of the rock to avoid the wind. We continued out onto a large relatively flat step, camping out of cover. Local knowledge reported that there would be less wind here, the pinnacles being the play thing of the air, careering around the rock like reckless children of the gods playing chasings. Fortunately the kids were tired that night and we had beautiful fine weather but very, very cold. Dinner was fast and cooled between bowl and mouth. John and I watched some people on the skyline descending from the summit, we also thought we saw someone moving down towards us stop dead in the snow and not move again. I suggested that we go up and check it out, but John said it was a lot further than it looked and it would take us five hours to get to the spot, long after darkness had fallen.
Morning was very cold but clear, the dot in the snow we had thought was a person was still there, we would be traversing today, much lower than the dot but closer to it than we were camped. We never got close enough to identify it positively, I'm still not sure that dot was a rock. Today I felt drained of energy and I could not explain it, the trudge to camp three was through calf deep snow, not hard in itself and almost flat, we would only rise a net 100 metres today, but it was to be very hard for me. "Sparrow" found it harder, he was staggering only an hour out from camp two. John assessed his condition and decided that he should go down, Sparrow agreed. I felt particularly disappointed for him, he had become ill at camp three on Mera Peak in Nepal too, he would be turned back by health again this time. With Sparrow gone and John taking him down to base camp, we had extra gear to carry and a team of seven.
I was very tired when I finally arrived at camp three, all of us seemed to be except for Ed. Sandy was sitting in the sun, well covered but shivering, a sign that she may be becoming Hypothermic. Ed and I erected a tent and got her into her sleeping bag as quickly as we could, although I was rather dismayed to find how slow "as quickly as we could" was. Brigitte decided that we would have a rest day tomorrow, although I was keen to take the first opportunity to try for the top I was happy to have the opportunity to shake off my lethargy and lack of energy, alas it was to stay with me until we reached base camp and I finally figured out what was wrong. That afternoon an American group we had more or less being following staggered down from their successful summit bid, they had had a perfect day for it, but they reeled and staggered down the final few hundred metres, collapsing at their tents. After checking they were okay we let them be till the next day.
A day of waiting, the Americans rose late told tales of their ascent and slowly packed up and departed down the other side of the mountain, I was envious of their success and that they would be back in the heat of Mendoza in three days and devastated by the thought of the beer they would be quaffing. It was here also that I exchanged email addresses with Jim from Motorola, the internet is everywhere!
I spent the dark hours braced against the windward side of the tent in an attempt to stop it bending so low that it pressed on my face. A fine spindrift filled the air inside the tent and snow pilled high in one of the tent's vestibules a less than pleasant night. I thanked Brigitte in her absence for insisting we bring a pee bottle: getting out of the tent was not an option that night.
We were camped on a small flat clay basin lightly covered by snow when we arrived but moreso now after a blustery night. Just west of us over the edge of our clay pan was "Berlin", camp 3 for those coming up from the Horconus side of the mountain. There were many tents at Berlin, maybe twenty or more people and the highest hut in the world, now a roofless ruin but there nonetheless. We spent the day collecting snow to melt into water, preparing meals, stealing ourselves to bare bits of us for essential bodily functions and finding little nooks in the sun and out of the wind.
The plan was for Rudi and Brigitte to start making water at one a.m. and for each tent to collect and distribute it on the hour until five a.m. The purpose was to hydrate us, although it seemed like a version of Chinese water torture considering the temperature outside. At 5:55, with the first glow of morning we were due to leave. The gear was hard to get on in the confines of the tent, it was bitterly cold and we were waiting for two of our party. It was like the keystone cops Brigitte roaring at the "dorks" to get their act together as we were all freezing just standing around, an the two tardy trekkers dancing and spasaming as if at a rave party in their attempt to equip themselves.
My feet were cold and I was rigging my toes furiously trying to maintain circulation. My hands were very cold, despite two layers of gloves. I was eager to start trudging up the hill, at least that would heat the feet. An hour up the hill we had joined the main route coming up from camp "Berlin", we were in dangerous territory, hard snow and not wearing crampons, we were looking for a protected spot to fit them. Several events occurred in quick succession. First from around a rock in front of us a group of French climbers appeared heading down very quickly "plus tres froid", they had ascended earlier than us, it was too cold, they were suffering badly. We later heard that they packed up camp and descended from the mountain that same day. The second thing that happened is the sun light found us, the rays were turning selected ridges of rock gold, there was a sea of cloud below us at about 5800 metres, only a few peaks poked past it. Thirdly we found a place to fit our crampons, fourthly two other climbers caught up with us and fifthly the wind started, not bad at first but inexorably increasing.
The two independent climbers turned back, we fitted our crampons, unfortunately I had lost a bolt from one of mine, but I was able to tie it up most satisfactorily with a shoelace. Others had trouble too, one of Ed's crampons could not be adjusted sufficiently so he was forced to wear just one. We continued upwards, rugged cliffs above us, there was nothing to judge the perspective, but we knew they were huge. An American group hurtled past us managing 400 metres per hour to our 300... hoons! We crossed a snow slope then zig zagged up a steepish rock bed to "Independencia" with its "deconstructed" wood shelter, about the size of a large kennel but with a large portion of the roof missing. We rested here along with the Americans, they roped together and headed up a steep snowbank to the Southern face, we followed a little later. the weather was becoming worse, clouds descending, the wind increasing. We reached the top of the snow bank and saw heavy cloud descending towards us, the American group were pinned by the wind midway on the traverse to the "Canaleta" the final chute to the top. Brigitte made the decision to turn back. We don't know what the Americans did, it was the last we saw of them.
Bridgitte's experience and the fact that she was responsible for the group and that she had summited several times on this peak must have helped her keep to the side of safety. I cursed and thanked her at the same time. We would not make the top. Had I been as fit as I had been on the way to camp two I would have felt robbed, but the fact is that I was significantly less able than that day. She made a hard but correct decision. Although she said we would try again tomorrow, I think we all knew that we would not.
We turned and found that the weather had not been changing as much as we thought, it was we who were ascending into worse and worse weather. The descent was assisted by various bouts of sliding down snow banks, it was nevertheless exhausting, I learnt for the second time that the most dangerous part of a climb is the descent, so tired, it is easy to loose concentration. We staggered to the tents where I and the others collapsed, home at last.
During the the descent we met two rangers they were looking for two people who had not returned to their camp the previous night. I wondered if the "rock" we had seen was one of them, I still wonder. Apparently the pair were later found but would loose their feet due to frostbite. Two members of an Argentinean army team had slipped in the Canaleta the day before, they slid a kilometre down the slope, they had survived but had been badly injured. There was a solo climber who needed help too, a little disorientated probably due to hypothermia, he was snow blind and had the dry skin shredding from his face, but then again so did we all, he had to be bedded down and sent down the hill the next day without being able to establish if he was actually solo or had been with some group.
I spent the rest of the day in my tent, all my fingers felt tingly, I had done some damage during the cold of the morning. I had frost nip, not frost bite, but it could easily lead to permanent damage if I was not careful. Most of the others were exhausted and in pain too. Ed's fingers had dried to the extent that they were painfully cracked, nearly everyone's lips consisted of shredding blocks separated by cracks and had dried dead skin on their faces: it is a very dry environment. The night was not good, a strong wind made sleep difficult, and the disappointment of the day filled the dark hours of consciousness. The morning dawned overcast with a strong wind evident by streaming clouds on the summit, there would be no chance of going up, I was almost relieved, but very disappointed nonetheless. John arrived having come up all the way from base camp, he was surprised we had not made the summit, I wonder if he would have made the decision to turn back as had Brigitte. It was a time of mixed emotions for me, I was still lacking in energy, as were some of the others, a consensus for descent was forming, at any rate we had run out of time unless we were to forgo our recuperation day at base camp. We decided to descend all the way to base camp the next day, as planned.
Due to lack of energy and a strong breeze, it took a while to dismantle camp. The tents were trying to blow away and had to be carefully handled in order not to loose them. We took a high traverse back towards camp two, the snow was deep and the slope steep, so crampons were essential. Half an hour out we came across a man obviously exhausted and disorientated, attached by a rope to another man, who we gather wanted to know if we were in contact with camp Berlin, the alternate camp 3, he was headed the wrong way. Brigitte pointed him back where we had come, Berlin was that way. There were two other people about 100 metres further down the slope, we could not ascertain if they were with the two near us but they too seemed unsure of where they were. We later found from John, who we had left finalising a stash of gear at camp three, that the four of them were headed for camp "Berlin".
The slog to camp two was arduous. Part way along the tent I was carrying popped out of my pack an rolled and rolled and rolled. Brigitte dropped her pack for John to pick up and went after the tent, I was not allowed to. She eventually got to it and started towards camp two, fortunately the tent had stopped at roughly the same level as camp two. I felt like such a fool and very angry with myself. We saw a group attempting a high traverse above us split and half retreat, the other half, about five people, continued on, we later found that one of them made the summit. Two figures were bravely attempting the Polish glacier route, they were specks against the lower reaches of this huge slope. The snow there was very deep, and they did not get very far before detouring towards the high traverse root to independencia.
Camp two was very difficult for me, my reserves seemed to be fading, but it was also the beginning of the long steep slope down. The continuous descent was much less taxing, the snow actually helping maintain a steady rate down towards camp one. I was beginning to feel better mainly because of the thought of good food and thicker air at base camp. We picked up the remainder of our gear at camp one and after a short rest headed down the scree slope for the last time. The trip back down the glacial moraine seemed to take for ever, I was telling myself not to stop, that I was nearly there, then all of a sudden I was.
Brian had made some thick Lancashire broth, it was a lifesaver, after one warming bowl I realised that the major part of what had been wrong with me was a lack of nutrition, three rounds of various hearty fare and I was feeling back to normal. The air at base camp felt luxuriously thick, I put on the fibre jacket I should have taken with me up the hill and remonstrated myself for not feeding myself properly.
While we were away Doug had gone out by mule, Janette and Andrew had also teamed up with an Irish chap and gone back to Mendoza. Brian and sparrow were holding the fort, they had explored the valley and minor peak around base camp whilst waiting for us. The following day was a rest day we spent it siting around, attempting to wash, having the most painful shave of my life, as the whiskers and a layer of dead skin came off together. We also listened to the tales of other groups as they came back to base camp, viewing a new group as they came in, with the eye of experience as we must have been perused when we arrived. We spent the evening convincing a Russian mountaineer that Mt Kosciusko* was an afternoon stroll, and that we realised he wanted to climb it but that walk it was a better choice of words, adding that his grandmother might like the exercise.
Packing up involved collapsing the mess tent so that it would not be blown away before John and Bridgitte's next trip in two weeks time, ensuring we had not left any mess placing the gear for the mules we had organised, and heading off. We made it an easy stroll down the valley, often turning to the now very familiar view of Aconcagua, it looked like a good summit day. We arrived a the camp site to a very strong wind, the mules were expected soon but they didn't arrive till nearly dark. We found what shelter we could. I had a marvelously slothful afternoon in the shelter of a large boulder.
The next two days to the road were uneventful, Richard and Paul went ahead so that Richard could organise a story on BHP's interests in Argentina, the remaining six of us took our time, but the last morning I turned on the turbocharger to get to the road head as fast as I could. At the road head, I struck up a conversation with three Argentinean army chaps who were members of a special artillery regiment, their job was to look after the mules used to transport parts of guns into the mountains. They were waiting for a bus too, they had been stuck in this dusty windy hole for three weeks and were due for a month's leave. Our bus arrived but as usual we had to wait hours for the mules, finally on the road I was sad to be leaving the Andes, I felt like heading back up to try for the top again.
I didn't realise how dirty we were until we got into the foyer of the hotel, to be met by the others. All save Doug were there, he had brought forward his flights and returned to Australia. Suffice to say that the first beer was the best! I was then pleasantly surprised by a barman's interpretation of a gin and tonic: a tall tumbler of tonic and an equal tumbler of gin. The final group dinner was a celebration of friends, we knew each other well, we had been family for three weeks. Some of the group were headed to different locations or on different flights, we said goodbye to John, Brigitte and Rudi and returned to Buenos Aires. A late night at the cafes of Buenos Aires next morning, I headed for home.