Of course, the story can’t quite end, since we are still at Colera and I have every intention of making it all the way down the mountain, out of the national park, back to civilization and home to my family. So we get up on the morning after summit day, pack our things and once again, I pick up my very heavy pack for the long descent to Plaza de Mulas. My body is very tired, and even just lifting up the 20 kg elicits a grimace and thoughts of how far down we have to go (1700m). But we start off, slowly at first, as we maneuver the via ferrata section and the hard pack trail that takes us most of the way back to Nido de Condores (by the way, despite the name of “Condor’s Nest” for camp 2, we did not see any condors during the expedition). We continue past Nido, down to Alaska (a seldom used camp site partway between Canada and Nido), where we take a break for tea and half a granola bar. We haven’t really eaten in 2 days, and finally my appetite begins to return. We have a quick chat about our welcome back lunch at base camp – Bernie promises me hamburgers and Coke. So with that incentive, I lift my heavy pack for the last time and we begin sliding down the scree. Shortly past camp 1, Bernie smiles at me and comments that I descend like a porter – usually it takes him 4 hours to get down from Colera with clients; we are on track to make it in 2. That gives me extra motivation to be a bit more daring (although I’m now focusing on ski vacation with my son next week and praying that I don’t damage my knees descending the steep slope with the weight on my back). We choose some of the porter trails which are steeper and faster than the typical client trails, and sure enough – at 12:01 we trudge into base camp. Many “felicitations” from everyone and 15 minutes later, we are chowing down in the dining tent: 2 hamburgers and a bottle of coke each. Gone in a few seconds! We then erect my tent for the final time, and I proceed to spend most of the afternoon reading, dozing, chatting with other climbers in camp, and organizing my gear for the trip down. It’s a quiet, relaxing afternoon and knowing that in just over 24 hours, I will be out of the dirt and dust and wind, and taking a long, hot shower makes everything a bit more bearable again.
After dinner, the crew piles into the dining tent and we open a bottle of champagne to celebrate the successful summit. I share my story with them, focusing on how climbing this mountain has been a dream for years, and thank them for helping me realize the dream. The porters are having a BBQ tonight and invite me to join, but it’s just too cold and I’m too tired to take them up on it; instead I crawl back into my warm sleeping bag (for the final time) and sleep through the night. Ahh, how much more restful life is at only 4300m!
In the morning we have a late breakfast, during which the sun comes out and warms up camp before I have to do my final packing and down the tent. It’s a beautiful day. I’m still tired and can’t say that I’m looking forward to the 26 km trek down to the park gate, but tonight I’ll be back in the hotel and it will all be worth it. At 10:00, we finish prepping the luggage for the mules and head on out. I realize today exactly how sick and out of it I was on the trek up to Base Camp; coming down from the Cuesta Brava (a steep part of the trail about 30 minutes outside of base camp), I stop in my tracks as I see the skull of a mule right next to the path. I survey the area and realize that there are skeletons of several mules scattered about. How did I not see this before? It’s the same trail!! Bernie mentions that yes, it’s normal – sometimes the mules stumble on the Cuesta Brava and it’s a problem because then they die, and the luggage has to be re-distributed to the other mules. As Gussfeldt wrote back in the late 1800s: the mules truly are the heroes of the Andes. Trotting down these same treacherous trails, carrying 60 kg on their backs, and I think rarely getting a proper thank you for the incredible work.
Bernie seems as eager to get back to Mendoza as I am, or he’s beginning his training to take on Killian Journet (one of my latest heroes, who recently set the time record on Aconcagua of 13:49 to run up to the summit and all the way back down again – the same trip I’m completing in 2 weeks). He’s setting a challenging pace and we half jog across the Playa Ancha, trying to get through this triste stretch of 10km in double time. We make a final stop in Confluencia for drinks and fruit, then a quick descent down the final 700m to the park entrance and a transfer to Inca to collect our bags from the mules. At 17:30 we are loaded up in the van and commencing the drive back to Mendoza.
Since we were so fast, I’m able to check in to the hotel already at 20:00, a full 1-2 hrs earlier than expected. The guy at reception asks “Do you mind, can I ask how far you made it?” and was shocked at the answer. I smile and start to feel the success – in the throes of the hardship, it’s easy to forget that this is actually a really big deal. I have been so focused on simply surviving and dealing with it all, that I haven’t really spent any energy on re-visiting the fact that it really is something to feel good about. So despite my aspirations to be humble, I can’t deny that it’s nice to allow myself to feel just a little bit proud. J
The shower is every bit as great as I expected: shampoo hair 4 times, soap and wash 3 times, razor put to good use, and then lotion from top to bottom with extra attention to massaging my aching feet. AHHHHH
Returning the rental gear to the shop the next day, the guy asks me how I did, and his eyes light up when I tell him that I summited. He pushes a marker into my hand and instructs me to sign the wall – a nice touch adding a bit of permanence to the experience. And then to end the trip in style, I cash in my spg points for 2 free nights at the 5 start Sheraton Mendoza, get upgraded to club level and enjoy all the perks of free breakfasts, snacks, wine, and the view from the 17th floor. Which is just high enough to see the very top of Aconcagua peeking over mountains surrounding the city.