I woke up to the sun shining in my window at 7:00am, the brilliant blue sky welcoming me to the true start of the expedition. Following a rather uneventful morning of breakfast (not nearly as good as lunch and dinner yesterday – rather runny scrambled eggs and non-drinkable brown water that had a sign reading “coffee” on the thermos), a last minute shower to take advantage of running water while we have it, and loading our backpacks for the day, we were off. The drive to the National Park entrance and the beginning of our trek only took about 20 minutes; we made a stop at Puente del Inca on the way, as my teammate does not have a sun cap and needed to buy one. I was happy to make the stop, as viewing the Inca bridge was in my interest. It is a beautiful site! A natural rock structure spans the river, which gushes between the canyon walls. The ruins of a former hotel that had taken advantage of the thermal waters until leveled by an avalanche sits on the side, and the multi-hued rock of the bridge, the canyon walls and the towering mountains around glows in the sun: red, orange, and yellow. Just taking in this site made me grin in pleasure, knowing that many explorers used this as a camp (including the Fitzgerald expedition, which included Zurbriggen, who holds the first successful ascent of Aconcagua, reaching the summit in 1897).
Once at the national park, the check in procedure was quite quick, and then we were at the trailhead, shouldering our packs and beginning the slow trek. The weather is working with us today – sunshine, very warm and not too much wind. It is hot, and I’m glad I decided to go with shorts and a t-shirt for this part of the trek (plus loads of sunscreen, which is absolutely critical under these powerful rays). And the highlight of the day – Aconcagua came out from behind her shroud of clouds to say good morning – only for a few moments, but it was enough to re-motivate me. And to fill me with a certain amount of respect and dread. It is majestic, towering almost 2000m above the surrounding peaks and covered in snow; granting us a glimpse just to prove that she is truly the reigning power in this region. It’s no wonder that hundreds of years ago, the natives were frightened of Aconcagua and did not even like to speak of the mountain, let alone go searching for it.
It was a slow, easy trek in, the biggest obstacle being the dust. The ground is so soft and dusty, it resembles walking through sand with the difference that every step unleashes a cloud of dirt to swirl through the air, coating my body and searching for an entrance around the sides of my sunglasses to land in my eyes. The scenery is rugged, the multi-colored hills, outcroppings of rock, and the brown river flowing down below the path. There’s not a lot of vegetation, there is a lot of brown. It’s a hard environment. Along the trail, we crossed the bridge that was built for the filming of “7 Years in Tibet” (with Brad Pitt) – which was not filmed in Tibet. It was filmed here.
We’re now at Confluencia and I’m pleased to find avery comfortable camp, with a semi-permanent dining tent, an outhouse complete with flushable toilet and installed toilet paper, and the news that our guide will sleep with the camp staff (in their semi-permanent living tent), meaning that I can have my OWN sleeping tent for at least a couple of days. Which is good, as I’ve already discovered the imperativeness of staying downwind of my teammate. I’m a bit concerned with his abilities, as well – he is not graceful on his feet, rather scuffing through the dirt and stumbling over the rocks. And he does not seem to be outfitted for the expedition, despite the emergency last-minute visit to the rental shop (which delayed our departure). He is also utterly clueless about the expedition, having no idea what the program is, how much we walk and when, what altitude the various segments bring us to, that we sleep in two-man tents, or how the summit push will work. Really, who signs up for something like this without knowing ANYTHING about it?
But – I am happy. Treating it like a solo expedition with some background people, and enjoying being here and having the experience. So far no altitude effects (we are only at 3500m, but it can start by this elevation); a little trouble with my right knee that I slightly injured a couple weeks ago, already finished 4 L of water for the day and now mixing it all with Tang to avoid the dangers of dilution. Ready for our lesson in building the tents and then having a bit of a siesta.