Today was a great day! And unexpectedly so, as I for some reason woke up at 2:43am and could not go back to sleep. So I started the day tired and a bit worried, as today was the first time we carried heavy packs. It also was the first day that we actually ascended part of Aconcagua herself (so far, it’s all been about getting up the valley and climbing various surrounding mountains as part of the acclimatization process). And so now actually being on “the” mountain herself was exciting – but also a hard reminder of what lies ahead. The route up to camp 1 is incredibly steep and even at a step-breathe-step-breathe pace, it was hard to hold out until the next rest stop.
And of course, we were load-carrying. The goal of the day – in addition to the omnipresent objective to speed acclimatization – was to carry some of the stuff we’ll need for our summit push up to camp 1 and stash it there. This included food for 2 days, crampons, helmet, and my “summit pack” of clean socks, underwear and a super-soft merino wool base layer that I’m saving for summit day. And then just to get as much up there as possible today, I threw in the base layers that I’ll need between camp 1 and camp 3. When we start the summit push (in 2 days, weather permitting), my pack will be plenty heavy with water for the day, all my other gear (sleeping bag and 2 thermarest pads), 3 sets of gloves/mittens, hats, down pants and jacket, etc, etc.
There was an icy cold wind this morning as we started off, which did not make things easier. Have you ever trekked up a steep slope with a heavy pack, and then had gale force winds try to sweep you off the mountain? For the first hour, it was a continual battle to keep my balance and I let my thoughts drift to how much more I could have eaten over the holidays to provide more “staying on the mountain” weight. Luckily after the first hour, it let up and we had relatively light winds with occasional strong gusts – all good. With a bit of pressure breathing, quite some suffering and constant vigil about employing rest steps, I made it. In case you’re wondering, pressure breathing is a technique that’s supposed to create negative pressure in your lungs, resulting in your body naturally taking in more air (and hence more oxygen, which is hard to come by up here). It’s simply the process of taking several breaths where you expel your breath strongly and quickly through pursed lips – as if you’re trying to blow out a bunch of candles all in one go. I think it works extremely well when I start to feel a bit light-headed, winded, or see a steep section coming up right ahead of me as it preps my body with the needed oxygen before I hit a big deficit. And the rest step technique is that as you step forward and up, you quickly completely straighten your standing leg and rest your entire weight on it, stepping the next leg forward and putting it in position for the next step, but not applying any weight to it. The effect is that your skeletal structure takes the burden of the load instead of your muscular system, so that each step provides a millisecond (or a second, depending what speed you’re moving) of relief – or rest. Hence the name!
We were not moving at a very noticeable speed. At one point between steps, I watched an ant scurry across the path in front of me. And realized that it was the first wildlife I’ve seen since arriving at base camp. Confluencia had lots of little birds around, but even they seem to prefer the lower altitudes as I haven’t seen them up here. So one ant, moving faster than me – guess he has a better acclimatization.
The last stretch into camp 1 was probably a 30 degree incline and REALLY hard. I was beginning to question myself when suddenly Bernie came to a stop a few steps ahead and called out “welcome to camp 1!” Oh thank goodness! I shocked him a bit when my response was “Holy fuck that was hard!” He was still laughing about it when we got back to base camp.
We had a nice lunch at camp one, stashed our gear in the waiting duffel bag and then headed back down – which was great fun. I love the descent on these mountains, as much of it is through lose dirt and rocks. The key is to head down with as much confidence as possible, take big steps that slide into the ground below you, work up a rhythm and it’s a bit like skiing. I occasionally have the urge to call out “yeeee haaawwww!” My ever-wonderful teammate hates the descent, so Bernie sends me on ahead and I can run down the mountain at my speed and enjoy the ride. Which also helps with the dust issue – with no one in front of my, as long as the wind is blowing the right way, I can kick up dust and not worry about my eyes. So I landed back in camp full of smiles and feeling great – we accomplished what we had planned, and it didn’t kill me. To celebrate, I handed out chocolates to the camp staff and they brought me fresh watermelon.
The only downside is that since yesterday, I’m having some trouble in the ligaments of my right foot/ankle. For the descent, it’s no problem. Unfortunately on the ascent, they hurt quite a lot and today more than yesterday. So I’ll put some anti-inflammatory cream on it, self-massage tonight and tomorrow and then make sure to bring enough pain killers up the mountain when we go. Right now I’m looking forward to a chilled afternoon with my book and a nice rest day tomorrow to catch up on sleep. We’ll go back to the doc tomorrow, too – at the last check my levels were still good (92% oxygen saturation, 120/80 blood pressure and 81 pulse), we’ll see how it looks after our forays into the 5000m realm. I’m also wondering how much I might have to pay the doctor off, to get him to tell dear Fabio that it would be a bad idea to continue up. (I know, I’m a jerk.)
I’m looking forward to the climb, come what may. And I’m also looking forward to getting back to civilization. Everything here is dirty; the wind blows, the dust flies and coats clothes, hair, body, tent. I wake up in the morning to see the little accumulations of dirt piles on the floor of the tent, and when I go to bed at night I smell the dust coating my sleeping bag. Not a good environment to someone allergic to dust – and probably not so pleasant for anyone else, either. My hair is in such a state (despite my expensive shower a few days ago), that I begin considering dreadlocks. SIGH.
Weather permitting, plan is to begin our summit push on 2 February, reach the summit on the 5th, make it back to base camp on the 6th and then all the way out and back to Mendoza late on the 7th. Cross your fingers for me!