ACONCAGUA I: The Trek In
Arriving in Mendoza, From -32degC to +38degC
Following my Vinson climb last week I had one night in Punta Arenas and was then straight up early Friday morning for my flight to Mendoza. I felt terrible. I didn’t get to bed until about 1 am and was barely asleep by 3 am when my roommate stumbled in drunk and collapsed on my bed instead of his own. After kicking him into his own bed he proceeded to snore for the rest of the night while I lay there waiting for my 6 am alarm to go off. At least I had the day sitting on planes to catch up on some sleep!
From Punta Arenas I transited in Santiago and then flew directly to Mendoza (Argentina). Stepping out of the airport in Mendoza the heat was intense. The thermometer in the cab reading the outside temperature read +38degC. It was a real shock from the subzero temperatures in Antarctica I had gradually become accustomed to. I wasn’t complaining though, it was great to be back in shorts, t-shirt and thongs… flip flops for the non Aussies!
I had no idea what to expect when arriving in Mendoza. I had done very little research and knew nothing about the city, apart from the fact that it was the main center close to Aconcagua. But I was pleasantly surprised.
The first thing that struck me about Mendoza was how green the city was. As I subsequently learned the entire area used to be brown and barren. Not wanting to live in a desert, when they built the city they established an elaborate irrigation system alongside all the roads. This irrigation system fed water to all the trees which now line every street. It is really quite nice.
The second thing that struck me about Mendoza was their steak and wine culture. I had heard that Mendoza was known for their steak and wine and to be honest, that is why I brought my flight forward to come straight here after Antarctica rather than spending time in Punta Arenas. I could say I did it to get ahead in my Project 7in4 schedule but I’d be lying, it was just for the steak and wine.
I arrived in Mendoza at about 19:00, checked into the hotel and went straight out for dinner. I don’t know where it was, but stumbled across this nice pedestrian street lined with restaurants and cafes with outside seating along the street. It had a real European feel to it. Sitting down at the first restaurant, you can guess what I ordered. The steak which arrived was ginormous, it was about an inch thick and covered half the plate, with a token bit of green leafy stuff and a few slices of tomato on the side. I only managed to eat about half of it but washed down with a nice drop of Malbec it was a great welcome to Mendoza.
Saturday was spent preparing for my Aconcagua climb. I am using a local company, Inka, for Base Camp logistics and will be climbing independently on the hill together with a friend. The main thing to sort out was our climbing permit. We first had to go to Inka’s office to pick up some paperwork and permit forms. We then had to walk back to the other side of town to the payment office to pay for the permit. We then had to walk back across town with our forms and payment receipt to the National Parks office to get the permit issued. It took a while but we got there.
The only other job for the day was grocery shopping for food on the hill. Possibly the unhealthiest shop I have ever done, all high-calorie snacks to see us through for the days we’ll be up high, plus a few obligatory bottles of Malbec for when we get back down.
With preparations done by mid-afternoon, I found a local gym and had some play time. The gym was old and backward. There was one level for women and the second level for men. After signing in, I was escorted up to the second level and told, in broken English, that the first level was out of bounds. Looking around, the gym was old and dusty, corrugated steel sheeting provided doors for the change rooms, air conditioning was provided by the open windows, half the machines were broken, there was a pile of free weights stacked randomly in one corner and the chin up bar was a bit of welded up pipe. It was fantastic. Vinson had been relatively easy and for the time down there I’d barely got my heart rate above resting. It felt wonderful to do some exercise and get the blood pumping again.
One of my main concerns about this entire 7 Summits challenge is trying to stay fit, strong and healthy throughout. When it’s all said and done, I still have to climb Everest in May. So I’ll be taking every opportunity I can to continue training between climbs.
Trekking To Base Camp
Sunday we packed our bags in the morning, enjoyed the hotel breakfast, checked out and drove about three hours to Penitentes.
The drive through to Penitentes was quite scenic. The mountainous countryside was dry and barren with only a hint of green provided by the low, scrubby vegetation. A muddy river ran along the valley floor eroding steep banks each side. A rickety old railway snaked its way alongside the river occasionally crossing questionable bridges to swap sides. It resembled scenes from old Western movies. You could almost picture the bandits galloping alongside an old steam train, bringing it to a rest and robbing all the passengers of their watches and jewelry.
Penitentes was nothing more than a roadside stop with a couple of shops and a hotel where we overnighted Sunday night.
Monday morning we drove the short distance to the park gates and started the trek into Plaza de Mulas (a.k.a. Aconcagua Base Camp). The trek took two days. The first day was just a short stroll, 7.5km to Camp Confluencia, which we covered in about 1hr 20min. The second day was a bit longer, approximately 17km, with a moderately steep section at the end climbing up to camp at 4350m and took 3hr 50min.
The trek in was spectacular. The route weaved along the valley floor beside the Horcones River (or at least I think that’s what it’s called, our Spanish map says “Rio Horcones”) before climbing steeper up to Plaza de Mulas. The valley floor was wide and gravelly, lined with steep, rugged mountains either side. Most impressive were the rock colours in the mountains, beautiful shades of red, orange, grey and brown.
Plaza de Mulas (a.k.a Base Camp)
Inka, the company we are using for logistics and base camp support, have a well-equipped camp in Plaza de Mulas. I’m sleeping in a small mountain tent but have a large mess tent to share. They provide meals in base camp which are superb. Most notable however are their soups. I don’t know how they do it, but it must take real skill to make such tasteless dishwater. It doesn’t matter how much salt, pepper or other seasoning I add to it, it is still the blandest soup I’ve ever tasted. But seriously, the other food they prepare is fantastic and they really must be commended for it.
At Camp Confluencia and at Plaza de Mulas, the local authorities make you do medical checks with a resident doctor. It’s supposedly to check how you’re acclimatising and to stop people rushing up the hill too fast (who they’ll later have to rescue). I seriously question the results though. At Camp Confluencia my stats were; oxygen saturation 93%, pulse rate 60 bpm, blood pressure 150 over 100. The doctor was alarmed at my high blood pressure and reluctantly let me proceed with caution. At Plaza de Mulas my stats were; oxygen saturation 90%, pulse rate 80 bpm, blood pressure 105 over 60. This time the doctor was alarmed at my low blood pressure. What are they doing, randomly picking a number out of a hat? How can my blood pressure fluctuate so much in one day?
Anyway, despite what the local doctors may say, I feel great and have no altitude sickness symptoms. Tomorrow we’ll head up to start acclimatising to the higher altitudes. Aconcagua is the second highest mountain out of the 7 Summits and we do need to take our time to acclimatise to the thinner air safely.