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This is the story of Andy’s 2006 solo return to Aconcagua, followed by the subsequent attempt on the volcano Llullaillaco with Ray Tenant. I need to look up some place names and check the locations of some of the photos. But you should get the general idea! The following pages are taken directly from the trip diary.

Note to anyone reading this

This is the text of my diary almost verbatim apart from the odd explanatory addition. Much of it was written at altitude. All of it was written by a lazy bugger! None of it is intended to cause any offence. If you feel something should be changed, deleted or corrected then please let me know. - Andy
’I know that you believe that you understood what you think I said, but I am not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant’ - Robert McCloskey, US State Department Spokesman.
For a list of GPS waypoints for Aconcagua and Llullaillaco click here.
09 January 2006

So, this is it - the start of potentially the biggest mountain epic in the saga so far - a ’solo’ attempt on Aconcagua, highest mountain outside of the Himalayas. 6951m of not so solid sedimentary rock. Fifth attempt in five years, a lot of money under the bridge and a lot of fun had so far. Beats a Caribbean cruise or a couple of weeks on a beach by a long way.

The first year without Dean, although he’ll be along later with his own group. First year without corned beef and mashed potatoes. First year on my own. OK - you’re never totally alone on Aconcagua, it’s just too popular and populated. But climbing alone to just under 7000m is not a task to be taken lightly. Altitude sickness becomes a serious risk if you have no one to take care of you. Cerebral oedema would probably be fatal; pulmonary you might be able to get away with, if the weather was kind. On the plus side, I have done most of this before, I have a good timetable that doesn’t involve rushing. But carrying all the gear [without porters] is going to be a challenge. Everything I have here, apart from a few T-shirts, will have to be moved up the mountain to around 6000m. Hard enough moving it between train platforms!

Where is here? Terminal 2 at London Heathrow. 15:30 in the afternoon, waiting to check in for the 18:50 flight to Madrid and onwards to Mendoza in Argentina. At least soloing this part of the trip is nothing new. Did this last year after meeting Dean and Jon.

Terminal 2 is not the most fun place to be though, at least not down here in Departures, but at least it is fairly quiet. Most of the departures must be evening ones since the place is almost deserted. Hope it stays that way, I should be able to check my bags in at 15:45 apparently… mountains here I come!

17:15 - checked in for the flight to Madrid. Took some persuading to get the bags checked through all the way to Mendoza. At least they are labelled all the way but I have to check with LAN Chile in Madrid to see if it’s allowed. Since I only have 40 minutes in Santiago I think there’s no chance to make the connection if I have to clear customs with the bags. Anyway, what will be will be, it’s largely out of my hands for the time being. As long as I get the bags and contents at some point it’ll be OK. Think only positive thoughts Moriarte.

Had a pint and a chicken burger in the bar - well I am on holiday and need all the calories I can get for the next few weeks.

Bummer that I didn’t get the extra legroom seats on any flights - despite what people say they must allocate them early, possibly online, since I must have been one of the first to check in physically for these flights. Prepare for a sleepless night, hopefully will be able to cope with whatever tomorrow throws at me. One good thing about working offshore is it teaches you how to function for long periods on no sleep, despite the regulations.

Off to wander around Terminal 2 some more. More like Terminal 1.5 - it’s a bit on the small side compared to Terminal 3… Well, that didn’t take too long, so I did it twice just to be sure that I didn’t miss anything. Now waiting for the gate to be announced - a watched departure board never changes - or so they say? As usual my writing is appalling at the start of a trip. Not much better at the end but at least then my fingers actually push the pen where I want it to go instead of having a mind of their own.

I see Hamleys [toy shop] has a particularly fine display of flying pigs this year. I wonder how you are supposed to get the full sized Shetland pony on to the flight though?

Hope the gate comes up soon, can’t stay awake much longer. My eyes are stinging, I’m downwind of the smokers’ cage it seems. Shoot the bastards! Tried ignoring the departure board for a while but that didn’t generate any changes, just have to keep on waiting. Yes! There it is!

23:15 - Another airport, another gate. Waiting for the flight to Santiago. Managed to get in contact with Daniel - he’s booked everything so it looks like we’re in business. Have to phone him from the Nutibara tomorrow to arrange a meeting. According to the Iberia transfer desk my bags will got to Mendoza but I need a new boarding card when I get to Santiago. Hope it goes OK. Worked fine last time we had a short connection in Santiago.

The flight from London was bumpy but otherwise OK. There’s a whole Saga holiday group on the way to Chile on the same flights as me. They don’t move very fast and there are some huge arses in the group - I kid you not, you wouldn’t want to be behind one of those in an emergency :-)

Amazingly I had an extra legroom seat even though the guy who checked me in in London said there weren’t any. Misinformation, misunderstanding or lucky coincidence? Two strokes of luck so far today - first the train in reverse order so less distance to walk [with the heavy bags] and now this. Omens are good so far.

People are queuing for the flight - experienced travellers or anxious Saga people? If in doubt join the queue! See you later!

10 January 2006

Another day, another gate number on the departure board of life. The LAN flight from Madrid was uneventful. Alas, I didn’t get a seat with extra legroom so it was horribly cramped but survivable. Too close to the toilets too and the central TV screen didn’t work either. Well, the luck had to run thin at some point. However, some of it is still with me - the arrival time I was given for the flight was one hour later than reality so I had 1 hour 40 minutes to connect for Mendoza, not 40 minutes. Certainly took the stress off. Getting a boarding card and transferring the bags was almost too smooth. So far, so good.

Did actually manage to get some sleep last night, even with the weak bladders and DVT paranoia rampant amongst the Saganeers. Seemed like there was also a [similar] French group doing the same thing - is Saga international?

Even my mobile phone works here although you have to manually select a network otherwise it comes up with ’no service’. Telefonica didn’t work so maybe Argentina is still out but Entel PCS did. Worth knowing. Maybe should have brought the UK SIMM card along too.

Chile airport hasn’t changed in the last two years - even most of the shops are still the same, probably selling the same stock too. Couldn’t find a cambio here in the international section though. Never mind, I can get pesos in Mendoza or maybe even not bother - I have just over 100 plus loads of dollars. At least until I see Daniel this afternoon.

Could see some big mountains on the way down (didn’t get a window seat unfortunately) but nothing I recognised as the Big A. It was very hazy at lower levels but the tops were clear. Looked like a reasonable covering of snow. Would be good for the cache recovery if there’s been more snow than normal this year, not to mention getting water on the mountain.

Wow! The LAN stewardesses are good looking, bored but good looking. I guess we will be boarding soon. Bugger, I’ve got an aisle seat again but the flight doesn’t look too full. Getting hungry again now!

Looking out the window of the Lan Chile flight as it leaves Santiago, gaining altitude before heading east over the Andes.
Distant mountains rising above the permanent haze over Santiago.
Over the Andes, Aoncagua is probably the mountains partially obscured by the fin at the end of the wing.

Managed to get a window seat since I had a row to myself. Plenty of snow covered mountains but again nothing I could really say was the Big A. At least there was snow. Bumpy approach on landing but otherwise OK. Only about 25 degC, not as hot as I was expecting, a pleasant surprise really. Took ages to get through immigration [in Mendoza], I wonder what they do if the plane is full? At least I’d seen my bags being loaded in Santiago and it was good to know that they were on the plane. Main concern was someone mistaking the red North Face bag for their own while I was stuck in the immigration queue. An unfounded worry as usual. Straight out and into a taxi. The usual drive into Mendoza, same mix of industrial, retail and residential areas, mostly poor people on the edge of town. Several children begging or washing windscreens at the [traffic] lights.

The taxi approached the hotel from the bottom rather than the top, which was unusual, but the charge was still only 12 pesos. The Nutibara has changed only a little - they seem to have enlarged the restaurant area and removed a partition wall. Bigger dining room, no burgers unfortunately.

Daniel was at the hotel meeting a KE group that had been delayed by the loss of 7 bags. Seems like we will be travelling together - Ayelen, Confluencia, Plaza de Mulas. More changes - Daniel doesn’t operate a base camp service anymore, he’s fused with Aconcagua Express. He does the mules, they do the base camp. But Eva is still there with the mules. We went out and got the climbing permit straight away, a convoluted process involving paying the money in an EasyPay shop and taking the receipt to the Tourist Office - which is where the permit office has moved to. Went OK with Daniel doing all the work and paying the money. So I owe him another 1000 pesos - the permit charge is up too!

Forgot to mention the weird lighting last night on the flight to Santiago. There were blue lights dancing on the wing, like some kind of stroboscopic Christmas decoration. I think they were static electric sparks leaping intermittently from some of the rivets and screws on the surface of the wing. On top of that the trailing edge of the wing was glowing a ghoulish green colour - St. Elmo’s fire? Flying through the sky like a cross between a Nazgul and a Christmas sleigh!

Mobile phone even works here in Mendoza, amazing! Times have changed although it won’t receive incoming calls. Decided to try the Nutibara bar menu but it wasn’t that exciting - no more burgers or ham and cheese sandwiches. Had a small steak with tomato, carrot and lettuce salad, was OK. Have to think about eating out tonight. Oh well, think I’ll try to catch up on a bit of sleep for a while now.

Vital statistics at 18:55 - 912 mB, 780m, Nonin: 96 / 70.

11 January 2006

Shock, horror - the breakfasts at the Nutibara have gone self-service. No more sitting in the sunshine ordering café con leche and uno mas desayuno por favour and waiting in civilised fashion. Now you have to serve yourself. On the plus side there’s the opportunity to pile your plate with as much as you want. It must cost them money. On the minus side, coffee from an urn is never going to be as good as freshly squeezed. Mixed feelings about all the changes but I guess, on balance, they are improvements for the Nutibara.

Fired up the Geko (GPS) last night. Boy, satellites must be more powerful over here, got a good fix indoors for the first time. Geko message - ’have you moved 100s of kilometres since the last reading? Yes / No’. Hmmm - maybe! So, it’s official, the second floor at the Nutibara is 780m above sea level.

Got peckish again last night so wandered over to Facundo for a bife de chorizo and papas fritas with a large Andes. It was busy, much busier than the places across the road. Must have a good reputation. The security guard was there as usual but no sidearm, only a police baton and a mace spray. Maybe the gun was putting off the customers? The KE group were there [actually it was another group in the same situation] too so they must have had the info passed on to them on where to get a good meal. Didn’t speak to them but it seemed like they were still trying to get hold of their missing bags. There’s a Welsh guy in the group with a horrendous cough already - he’s going to have a miserable time.

I had a slight sore throat last night but it seems to be better today. Also slightly congested, this is not good but I am mentally mobilising the troops to cope with any infections. After what I’ve been exposed to the last few days it would be a miracle to come through totally bug free. Especially worrying is the twinges from my left hip, the one that suffered on the West Highland Way [in 2004], and from my right knee. Normally I don’t get problems until I’m on the way down. Hopefully some exercise will loosen things up a little. Factor in some incipient rheumatism in one finger, maybe from a old sports injury, and the outlook is for a painful start. Focus on the positive!

Perspective check - I am about to venture alone onto the highest mountain outside the Himalayas - wow!

An American group just turned up for breakfast, obviously on the way home judging from the bizarre sunburn patterns on their faces. That’s one less annoyance.

Minibus is coming in a couple of hours - time to think about packing. Decided to take everything with me, the cost will be the same and I have plenty of room so no need to scatter myself over half of South America.

Opted for one more coffee! Just seen a good old Nutibara café con leche being taken into the room beside the dining room by a smiling waitress, no less. Must be a secret society - maybe Clare can figure it out when she gets here.

09:15 - Talked to the Americans. They had been down three days so they must have been totally cooked on the mountain. Only one of four got to the top. They said that this year the trail [to base camp] goes up the right of the pleasure beach and you don’t have to cross the river at all. It’s also shorter. Also they stayed at Camp Calabra, off to the left, slightly above Berlin but below White Rocks. Clean and sheltered, seems like a good place to aim for. Also the trail up is easier than leaving direct from Berlin. Hope to be able to make use of this information. Still need to check White Rocks for the cache though.

Logistics can be interesting here. Daniel was totally against me asking the BC staff for any food, even if I was going to pay for it. Could end up a little low on the food front [since I] was counting on stocking up a little. Anyway, I have enough to survive 8 to 10 days on the mountain if I don’t eat it all on the first day… maybe I should have brought Scott or Amundsen along for inspiration [they were no strangers to a little hunger].

Nonin [results] were 96/80 this morning so at least the coffee is working. Drank half a litre of water but don’t want to overdo it before the long bus ride to Penetentes.

15:30 - at Penetentes, 736 mB, 2600m, Nonin 91/64. The luck seems to have returned, first of all I get a lady driver all to myself [all the way] from Mendoza to Penetentes. Then I get a suite at the hotel because the guy at reception is also called ’Clark’. How long can it last? Unfortunately my chauffeur didn’t speak English and I can’t speak Spanish so the conversation was slightly lacking but I think we got on OK. Stopped in Uspallata for lunch. Wondered if it was a cunning ploy on her part to get a free lunch but hers was taken care of by someone [else], not me. The lomito especial was huge but not excellent - never mind, I couldn’t eat it all anyway. [My driver] had a steak and salad, which looked better. Anyway, she was a great driver, I wasn’t near death once, which makes a change [from the usual situation on that route], and she wasn’t driving slowly either. It took 4 hours including one hour for lunch.

There seem to be a lot of new lorries on the road; I didn’t see any of the ’old smokies’ that used to travel between Mendoza and Santiago. Another sign of economic recovery, amazing improvements in the last few years - although the poor are still very poor it seems that the rest are getting better.

Beautiful weather, deep blue sky, looks like snow above 5000m but the rivers are full so it must be melting fast. The KE group is here or at least their bags are. Not sure where they’ve gone, maybe a late lunch? If so, they left a long time after me.

I’ve sorted my bags out, can send one to Plaza de Mulas if necessary, one to Confluencia. Have to find Eva at some point. Have also drunk two litres of water since we arrived. Can feel the altitude but maybe not as much as previous years. We will see - can still feel that my brain is not operating at 100% (91% according to the Nonin) though. This must be what it’s like to be a smoker!

There are only 7 in the KE group but they’ve got some gear with them. One guy’s got a ’real’ walking axe; you could build canals with it. Think he’s Australian judging by the accent. But I was right about the early lunch - they just came back.

The Geko thinks we’re at 750m so I’ve taken it outside to look for a few more satellites. Not bad, the accuracy is 8m - better than in Mendoza. [Correct] altitude is 2612m. I always said the Ayelen [hotel] was higher than 2500m.

17:50 - Just back from the fuehrer bunker. Found Eva and a couple of colleagues lurking in the gloom. They will collect the bags at 19:00. What a place to call home, I hope he’s got somewhere else. Probably a mansion in Mendoza.

Bumped into Mathias [our local guide the first year] - he’s here with a group of 25. Yes, twenty-five clients in one group climbing the mountain. He’ll have to work hard to break all of them before the summit day. The KE boys have gone out for a stroll but I’m taking it easy. Acclimatisation by doing nothing except drinking and going to the toilet. 3 litres since I arrived so far. The Nonin says 91/60 but the SpO2 can quickly drop to 89% if you move around. Need to keep above 90 if I can manage it [to get the same results as last year].

Bought an Aconcagua sweatshirt from the shop downstairs. Looked nice and was only 50 pesos (17 dollars). Figure that I won’t be back this way for a long time and even if I don’t make the summit I think I’ve earned the shirt by now.

Pretty bizarre doing all this on my own without Dean but so far I don’t feel particularly lonely. It’s just such a strange feeling to be following the same procedure as every year, and having to remember everything that Dean normally takes care of. Together with the altitude I feel like I’m on autopilot at the moment. Into the MP3 player now, only one channel on the TV and that’s showing football.

Thinking about the logistics re. food - I know where there’s a load of food, fuel, energy drinks etc. - White Rocks, assuming it’s still there. Now that would be something, to end the trip with more food than I started [with]. Adds a certain Scott of the Antarctic epicness to the whole business too.

21:25 - So much for a 19:00 rendezvous with Eva. Saw him coming around the hotel at 19:05 so carried the bags down only to find that he’d buggered off in the pickup. Hung around for an hour then re-entered the fuehrer bunker to be confronted by a bunch of mini Evas fresh from the shower. Anyway, we agreed a new time of 21:00 and I beat a hasty retreat.

Dinner in the Ayelen dining room was much as before. Hopefully the chicken was salmonella free otherwise it’ll be game over. Apparently the dining room is a separate company from the hotel. Meals are not included so Daniel may be the one paying [for mine]. I guess I’ll find out. We can sort it out later. If I’d known I would have eaten in the bar instead of the restaurant - the food looked better.

Eva turned up on time so the bags are on their way to Confluencia. I arranged transport for myself at 10:00 - will it go, that is the question?

The electricity is unstable tonight! Just plunged into darkness but it came back after a few minutes. There seemed to be several people eating alone besides me, couldn’t work out what they were doing. I reckon [at least] one guy was probably med-evacced and was waiting for his friends. He didn’t eat much of his food and then left in a hurry. Looked pretty miserable too.

Diary writing and listening to MP3s in my ’suite’ at the Ayelen Hotel, Penetentes.

The wind has dropped now that the sun has gone down, just as well because the shutters in the room above have been banging away all afternoon. Would not have made for a good night’s sleep.

739 mB, 2600m, Nonin 91/65. Although the SpO2 is the same as it was when I arrived, it’s actually higher than it’s been most of the afternoon - was around 88% for quite a while. The air pressure is up slightly. Mathias said it was too warm but I’m not sure what he was concerned about - too warm for walking, an omen for bad weather or what? Time will tell.

12 January 2006

So this is it. In a couple of hours all the months of dreaming while pounding treadmills in various parts of Scandinavia will become a reality when I hand over my permit and start up the Horcones valley.

Slept really well last night although the Nonin still says only 90% this morning. Hopefully something will kick in soon but I guess it takes a couple of days. Fingers crossed for some [altitude] ’memory’ from Ladakh too - the old bod’s not been a [total] stranger to altitude in the last 12 months. The incipient cold is a slight concern - I can feel it in my sinuses and it’s only a matter of time before it reaches my lungs. But I am determined it will blow over quickly.

Paid the bill early this morning because I wanted to avoid a potential rush if a big group checks out. 70 dollars - lucky the exchange rate is not too bad otherwise it would be expensive, especially considering the quality of the rooms, suite or not. But the shower was hot which was the main thing. Glad I’m only staying one night here - lucky Dean will have two!

Hanging around is not a lot of fun, the suspense is enormous. I want to get on the trail and make some progress. I didn’t bother with a packed lunch - [would] only throw most of it away anyway. Have a couple of energy gels if the going gets tough but I hope to be in Confluencia by 2 PM.

13:05 - At Confluencia. Took just over 1 hour 40 minutes from the park entrance. Didn’t notice any difference from the previous years so maybe the extra night at Penetentes is a waste of time. Passed a couple of groups on the way. Both started walking after their lunch stops just as I got close [to them] so I had to go faster than planned to get around them. But never mind.

Eva turned up at 10:10, not bad. But then we had to get diesel for the pickup and load the KE bags. Then he didn’t have his wallet [so we had to go back to the fuehrer bunker]. And all the time I was expecting a couple of monster groups to set off ahead of me. Just when I thought we were [finally at the park entrance] we made another detour to offload the bags… aargh! But there were only a couple of people ahead of me at the park ranger HQ. It looks like major building work is going on there too. [Last year’s] smart Eurocopter has been replaced by a more basic version - looks like the one from previous years resprayed in blue and yellow.

670 mB, 3430m (GPS). So, Confluencia is higher than the 3300m advertised on the gate.

Took about 30 minutes to walk to the bridge over the Horcones [river]. Some of the track must have been washed away [recently] because they were bulldozing a new one on the hillside above and had diversions in force. But once over the bridge it was back to normal.

Horcones Lake at the start of the walk in to Confluencia. Snow covered Aconcagua in the distance.
Sign just before the bridge over the Horcones River. Contrast this with the same scene in 2003 when there was deep snow here.

When I’m walking I think of all sorts of profound stuff to write in the diary but once I stop I forget everything. Need to stop more often and take notes, then again, maybe this diary is boring enough.

I’ve been here an hour and I’m well on the way through 3 litres of juice. One of the perks of being on your own is a whole jug all to yourself.

Confluencia is exactly as last year - crowded with mess tents and personal tents, not much space left. Hope the mules turn up before the KE group so that I can bag a space.

Confluencia camp seen from the ridge above. Flushing toilets in the foreground.

This is when being in a group comes in handy. Just putting my tent up when a guy comes along and says he’s going to put up 3 [and wants my space]. Bugger that, I’ve paid, I marked this spot 90 minutes before he arrived and I’m putting [my tent] where I was told. Tough shit! [It was one member of this group that was to die of pulmonary oedema on the way to Plaza de Mulas]. Seems like a lot of groups [sharing the services] here tonight - looks like a couple, plus me, plus the KE group. Hope they can cope. One lot sound like aggressive Germans [actually Swiss, one of whom was destined to die at Nido de Condores]. Hope they are all tired and go to bed early. No sign of KE yet. It’s hot in the tent, cooler but dusty outside. Still about the hottest I’ve experienced at Confluencia. Did a Nonin check - said 88/80 but it is hot as hell and I’ve drunk a lot of fluid.

Saw Nils (I think) on his way down with 2 clients. He dropped by to say hello which I guess gives some kudos around here. Wish I was better with names and faces.

Oh well, into the MP3 player for a while. KE just arrived!

18:30 - Well, this was not part of the plan - seems like they are not really switched on to people travelling on their own, especially when there are big groups around. Looks like I will have to fight to get food and drink around here. Bummer, then again listening to some of the discussions amongst the KE group makes me glad I am on my own.

Strange really, if I hadn’t left the gear up at White Rocks last year I probably wouldn’t have come back this year. Maybe [I would] just have gone with Ray instead. But I didn’t want to abandon the gear while there was a chance that it was still there. If it’s gone, it’s gone. But this way at least I will have made the effort. Strange to feel so much attachment to a bunch of inanimate objects!

According to the Nonin I’m now 85/79, was down to 82% earlier when lying in the hot tent. But it varies from minute to minute. I had a high of 88% just now. Difficult to know what it means. Anyway, I’m not that well at the moment it seems. Slight headache and slight sore throat and upset stomach. Wonder if the latter was the chicken last night? Maybe it’s bird flu? Just seen that they are boiling up a huge pan of chicken legs - how the hell can they be safe to eat? God knows where they were stored between here and Mendoza. Oh well, into the valley of death and all that.

21:20 - In the tent sucking a Strepsil. I take it all back - got a seat in the KE tent for dinner and the chicken was excellent. Hope for no more side effects. At least no more signs of this afternoon’s episode. The KE group are OK, a couple of Americans but both the quiet, intelligent types - not the usual sort. One or two of the Brits have some strange ideas - wanting bed tea and tea facilities when they wake up. Oh well, I guess they’ll learn that they are not in a third world country soon. The camp is buzzing around me, I guess they’ll quieten down as it gets colder. Still too warm for the sleeping bag at the moment. One more Strepsil, clean my teeth and off to bed!

673 mB, 3440m (GPS) 88/81. Just heard a German [Swiss] guy outside discussing his ’values’. He had 88/88 - guess I’m doing OK. Hope the pulse rate comes down soon though. Bugger - need some earplugs, bet I haven’t got any - must look.

13 January 2006

Here I am at 3960m, 520m above Confluencia. Thought I’d take the same route as last year and climb the gulley behind the camp. What a difference though, last year it was a pleasant walk with occasional scramble but today it’s loose rock and ice all the way. A real nightmare. Now I’ve reached a point where going any higher would be ridiculously tricky so, discretion etc., I’ve decided to call it a day and spend some time at this altitude. It’s a beautiful day although there’s a bit of a cool wind blowing. Perched up here the only sound is the wind and river under the ice, and the occasional bird - quite pleasant!

The gulley that I ascended during my acclimatisation day at Confluencia, achieving a height of 3960 m.
View across the valley from my acclimatisation high point.
Looking further up the gulley from my acclimatisation high point. The terrain is much steeper than it looks in the photograph!
View across the valley from my acclimatisation high point.

Slept really well last night but was woken by the same loud guy, maybe he was actually Russian, talking really loudly at 05:00. They were off to Plaza de Mulas, God knows why they want to leave so early. I wasn’t the only one they disturbed.

KE had planned [an early] breakfast at 08:00 but when I got up at 09:00 they were still in the mess tent. They didn’t leave for Plaza Francia until almost 10:00 - rather them than me.

I left at 10:00, had one rest stop at 10:45 and then reached this point at 11:45. Not going as fast as last year lacking one day’s acclimatisation and the conditions have been bad.

Start to wonder why I’m here, especially when perched on the side of a crumbling piece of rock!

21:25 - a few words from the comfort of my sleeping bag. The decent was a little ’interesting’ at times but I got down in one piece. Left the lunch spot at 13:15 and was down by 14:00. Procured some juice and drank that while reading my book. Spent the rest of the afternoon idling the time away in the tent. The direct sunlight has started delaminating my Thermarest mattress; I hope it is not going to start leaking. Stomach is still upset, wonder where it came from? Could be better. Plus a headache that I’ve had since leaving the UK. Guess that’s not altitude sickness anyway, but worrying all the same. Got 91/88 on the Nonin earlier. High pulse rate still - why? Want to be on the road by 08:30 tomorrow so off to sleep now.

14 January 2006

The Spanish and Argentineans had a noisy party that didn’t finish until after midnight - bastards! People started moving around at 06:00, a bit better than yesterday. Got up at 06:45 and used the facilities before the queue built up. No toilet paper again - amazing how quickly it goes! Maybe I’m not the only one suffering.

Tent down and packed by 07:20, then milling around waiting for breakfast to gradually appear. Too slow, in the end I had just two small pieces of toast. Anxious to get on the trail and get it over with. Said goodbye to Marcello and Carla, tipped them 10 bucks for the excellent food - maybe the service was too easily distracted by the Spanish-speaking members of other groups but I definitely can’t complain about the food.

Walked out of Confluencia at 08:10. The KE guide, Jose, still hadn’t appeared - maybe he was at the party. Took the Plaza Francia trail and then cut left to join the original track. Down the loose gravel ramp, filling my boots with stones, and then down the river and over the bridge as usual. There was a huge group, maybe Mathias’s although I didn’t see him, having a sun cream stop on both sides. Fortunately managed to sneak past them just as they were setting off again. Lucky because they were obviously planning to move at a snail’s pace up the hill.

At the top of the hill I found a fierce headwind blowing which would be a constant companion for the rest of the day, making life very hard. The new glacier from Plaza Francia, off to the right of the trail, was even bigger this year but the sun wasn’t on it so I decided to try and get a photo on the way back. An incredible sight, blocks of black ice and gravel thrown randomly across the landscape. Given the rate of movement you’d almost think it was a giant ice-snake.

On the ridge above the old Confluencia Camp after crossing the river, looking up the Horcones Valley, the ’Pleasure Beach’ in the distance.

So, onwards into the valley, keeping to the right and not crossing the river this time. Made it to the ’toilet’ rock in 2 hours. Then on to where the valley narrows and the trail gets rocky. According to the Americans it’s possible to stay on the right of the river all the way, but I couldn’t find [the route - it had been washed away] so ended up crossing the river about 27 times and getting one boot full of water. By this time the headwind was really tiring my legs - lack of strength as usual. Anyway, reached the lunch rocks at 11:00 and had a Power Gel. Since I had forgotten to pick up my packed lunch [from Confluencia] it was all I had. But 500 calories is 500 calories, probably more than [I would have got from] the packed lunch.

Lunch stop at the end of the Pleasure Beach - drying out my socks and getting a GPS waypoint.
Looking back down the Pleasure Beach in the direction of Confluencia.

Onwards over the up and down humps that line the side of the river valley, a real struggle by this time with the wind still blowing a stiff breeze in my face. Hope it’s the same on the way out. Way marked the Mendoza University marker on the Geko [GPS] and then continued. Reached the big slope [at the end of the valley] and carried on without stopping for a rest but going really slowly. Hard to keep lifting my legs only to be continually sliding back down on the loose gravel. Not affected by the altitude, breathing almost normally, just no strength in my legs - which doesn’t bode well for the next few days but at least tomorrow is a rest day.

From the top of the slope into camp took forever as usual and it was a relief to reach the ranger station after 5 hours 50 minutes of almost continual [uphill] walking. Checked in and got my shitbag then started looking for Aconcagua Express - fused with Alessio. Found it right at the top of [Plaza de Mulas] which means not such good views of the route up and down the mountain. But it looks comfortable and I have a huge mess tent all to myself.

A distant reminder of Christmas still decorating my personal mess tent at Plaze de Mulas.
My green Quasar amongst the other tents in the Aconcagua Express area at Plaza de Mulas. Yellow tent belongs to Gordo the porter and was a regular late night meeting place… unfortunately.
Typical Aconcagua sunset shot. Note the large penetent field at the bottom left which has to be crossed to gain access to the mountain itself.

I was met by Sushi, who was [with Alessio] last year and offered meat and salad but I opted for crisps and juice. Drank two litres straight away since I’d only had half a litre since breakfast. The back of my left hand is very sunburnt despite two applications of factor 30 and wearing gloves towards the end of the day. Haven’t had this problem since the first year, I guess the sun was pretty fierce but the wind made it seem cold.

So I have put my tent up on the hill [above the mess tents], flat but very stony - was better in the old [Alessio] spot. Hope the groundsheet will be OK - it’s probably seen worse. Found that I had left my head torch in the tent when I packed it up - idiot! But it seems to have survived.

So here I am once again confronting the Big A, no backing out now and no help from Dean to keep me motivated. Today was a hard day but there are harder ones ahead. We’ll see - ’every day at a time’ as I seem to remember someone said last year.

 
15 January 2006

Rest day today. Had a reasonable night’s sleep although awake from 2 - 3 AM. At least no breathing problems. Took a paracetamol because the headache that I’ve had since I arrived [in Argentina] was annoying me. Woke up at 07:00, found my nose was blocked and I had something in my right eye which I couldn’t get out. Spent too much time rubbing it so now it’s sore - idiot! Disappointing results on the Nonin - 80/78 but varying between 84% and 74%. Most strange.

Turned out at 09:30 with the KE group for breakfast. No pancakes this year, only cereal and toast - shame. Sat until 10:45 talking with the KE group. One of the Americans, Chris, seems pretty sick. He’s had HAPE before and nearly died. Wesley, a Brit, lives in Milton Keynes and does IT support for the OU. [On first meeting he seems] a bit of a strange case - nerd adventurer?

Heard that a Spanish guy died this morning. He got sick walking in from Confluencia and died of cerebral oedema down at the old Plaza de Mulas hut [just before the slope at the bottom of the valley]. I think he was one of the ones who kept us all awake at the party the other night. Also heard that someone collapsed and died at the bottom of the Canaletta while in his way down from the summit. Brings home the seriousness of this little adventure. I will have to go more carefully. The low O2 readings and the high pulse rate are a concern - I am not acclimatising as well as last year, probably due to not being 100% well and having a cold. It is very frustrating. Tomorrow I will make a light carry to Camp 1, I think any plans to go straight to Nido have to be abandoned. I will plan for two carries to Camp 1 and then a rest day, then two nights at Camp 1 with a carry to Camp 2. The rest [of the planning] will have to wait.

Dean will be arriving in Mendoza today but I will be on the mountain before he gets here.

Time to start sorting gear [for the mountain]

Food

  • Breakfast x 9
  • Dinner x 11
  • Soups x 9
  • Snickers bars x 8
  • Deserts x 9

17:00 - was interrupted in mid sort by Steve [from the KE group]. Didn’t mind really - anything to take my mind off the imposing task ahead. I don’t envy Dean being responsible for others as well as himself. Chris in the KE group has a SpO2 meter too; they tested themselves this morning and seem to be getting in the high 80s. I’m still only getting low 80s even down into the 70s on mine, but then it’ll suddenly go up to 88% for a while and drop again. At least my pulse rate is coming down, mid to low 70s now, which is an improvement.

Had lunch with the lads and then back to sorting. Lunch was good, soup followed by meat stew and then peaches. Have sorted into 3 loads, taking the lightest tomorrow but it’s still going to be quite heavy I think. Forecast is snow for tomorrow but the weather looks pretty stable to me - we’ll see what happens tonight. Steve came in again to fit his crampons. It’s good to have some friends around but it’ll be a bit more awkward on the mountain - can’t go to them for help. Everyone is a bit stunned by 2 people dying in the last couple of days, makes you really start to wonder if it’s all worth it. Anyway, just have to take it easy and see what happens.

Today is a day of mishaps, first the delamination of my Thermarest is getting worse, threatening to roll me off during the night, then my eye is still sore and, finally, I discover that the liners of my plastic boots have rotted - the foam has gone hard and brittle especially around the ankles. At the toes it still seems to be OK which is something, no insulation [there] would be a serious problem. Also the Nonin is refusing to switch off all the time after use, it seems to detect phantom pulses regardless of what I do with it - I have to take the batteries out. I’m starting to wonder how much I should trust it. I will check it against another when I get a chance. Going to distract myself by reading for a while now.

The cloud clears to reveal a freshly snow covered Aconcagua.

Decided to bite the bullet and take a walk down to the medical tent [since it’s theoretically a requirement and the KE guys had been there too]. There was quite a queue so I had plenty of time for some moderate deep breathing while waiting outside. Got an SpO2 of 92% and blood pressure 120/80 - ’perfect’ according to the doctor. I guess I’m fooling him and myself. Anyway, I [now] think the Nonin is reliable but my breathing is too relaxed to keep the O2 above 90%. When I want to I can get it up there but most of the time my body just doesn’t feel the need.

Had dinner with the KE folk again. Excellent fried chicken, had a second helping - there’s nothing wrong with my appetite. Tomorrow is a big day!

 
16 January 2006

Had a reasonable but not brilliant night’s sleep - like waiting for a big exam. Put off getting up for as long as possible but eventually had no choice - nature calls. Breakfast in the KE tent again, left them at 09:20 to have a quick packing session. It was really hard to leave camp, thought about having another cup of coffee with the lads but then realised that I just had to bite the bullet and get on with it.

Left camp at 10:00. It’s close to the track so only had to cross the small stream, over a hillock and then into a field of penitents - snow pinnacles about 3 to 4m high - with a narrow path running through it. A tight squeeze with a big rucksack. Felt good once I got going, taking it very easy listening to my breathing, no panting allowed just steady breaths and slow, steady paces. Got to the top of the ramp in about 30 minutes and traversed the steep section onto the mountain. Once I was on to the main trail, zigzagging slowly upwards, there was no one in sight for a while and I started to remember why I was here - some of the stress started to lift. The views of the surrounding snow covered mountains were really uplifting.

Made it to Conway’s rocks in one hour, which is the same speed as last year. Stopped for 10 minutes then continued zigzagging, overtaking a mixed group of American, Polish and Spanish. It was surprisingly easy and I reached Canada [Camp 1] at 12:05, almost exactly two hours from Plaza de Mulas. Again, the same as last year. So not too bad, maybe I should have taken some more weight [this time].

Made a cache in a survival bag at Canada and then sat around for a couple of hours admiring the spectacular view and watching the arrivals and departures. There are some unlikely looking people on this mountain. I wonder what they think when they see me? There was a cold breeze blowing but I managed to find a reasonably sheltered rock to sit behind.

Stayed at Canada for 2 hours, tempted to go higher but decided to save that for tomorrow. I guess I will have to make two carries to Nido [Camp 2], which means two nights at Canada. Maybe I will forego the rest day to keep up with the KE lads. See what the weather does. After a while there was cloud building up around the summit - looks like the forecast for snow up there was correct. Hopefully there will be a big dump because it’s quite dry at Canada. Left to come down at 13:50 and was in base camp at 14:30. Terry, the Australian KE client, was there; he’d opted out of [climbing] Bonete due to a serious headache that didn’t respond to painkillers. I think he may not go any higher - the recent deaths have got everyone paranoid.

The KE group is going really slowly on Bonete. They left about 10:30 and were not even up to the crag by 14:30. I seem to remember that Dean and I used about two and a half hours for the entire ascent in 2004. Better try to restrain myself from telling them that when they eventually get back.

Looks like the American group that was staying here have gone up the mountain and a new group is moving in to their mess tent. I wonder what happened to the Americans’ bags?

Thinking about going over to the Refugio to use the phone.

Wandered over and gave Clare a call, 5 bucks for 5 minutes instead of 5 for 1 minute on the satellite. Asked if she could try to get hold of some new liners for my plastic boots, no good for Aconcagua but better for Llullaillaco. The Refugio was the same as ever - bizarrely rundown. Fortunately there wasn’t a huge queue for the phones. I didn’t hang around and came straight back. Crashed out in the tent for a while, the KE lads were still on their way down from Bonete.

Had an excellent dinner this evening, various pies with different fillings - really tasty. It snowed a little during the evening and there was low cloud surrounding the mountain.

17 January 2006

A cold night; thick frost on the outside of the tent, but a good night’s sleep for a change. Up at 08:10 because KE had ordered an early breakfast - the guides wanted to carry some stuff up to Nido after reaching Canada. In the end, however, they didn’t manage to leave any earlier than normal.

I loaded up the rest of my food and 3 litres of fuel, crampons and ice axe and headed off at 09:50. More crowded on the mountain today which was a pity. There was a group of around 20 people in the distance - they must be mad.

Made it to Conway’s rocks in one hour and Canada in two, so maintaining the same pace even with a heavier load. Stashed the gear in the cache and had some chocolate. People had built caches on a lot of the tent spaces to reserve themselves a bit of level ground. Pretty annoying really and a new trend this year. It means that spaces are unavailable even when people are not using them for tents.

After about 30 minutes I decided to get some more altitude for acclimatisation, so headed up the track towards Nido. Got caught up behind the big group so was eventually forced to take a new route up the steeper, right hand flank of the mountain - the ’Grand Accareo’ - to try and get ahead of them. The track didn’t converge with the original, as I hoped it would, but continued up the slope before traversing around to approach Nido from the right. Since I was going OK and was approaching the same altitude as Nido anyway, I decided to continue on and reached Nido itself at around 14:00 (although I forgot to note the exact time).

Only stayed long enough to get a GPS waypoint and drink some water. It was cloudy with occasional snowflakes and a cool breeze. Headed back down the normal route, wasn’t too difficult with an empty rucksack, good scree running potential. Just above Canada I bumped into Quique and Jose resting on their way up to Nido with about 20 kg each - poor bastards. Had a quick chat and then continued down. Met the KE clients not far from the top of the ramp - they were going for a slow, safe descent, so I overtook them and was back in camp at 15:00 exactly. They were about 15 minutes behind.

Drank a couple of litres of juice and hung around in the KE tent for a while before heading back to my tent for a couple of hours of relaxation. An early dinner was provided due to a party being held at the Inca camp and most of our base camp staff being in a hurry to get down there. Good food again though.

18 January 2006

A rest day today. Gordo and some friends came back from the party at 01:00 this morning and insisted on playing guitar and singing in the tent next to mine. Fortunately they went off in search of more beer at 02:00.

Breakfast at 09:30 then hanging around with the KE lads. Got thrown out of my mess tent since Jagged Globe are coming up today with a group of 14. There are a lot of people heading up the mountain today even though the weather is not looking too good - clouds coming in from the west.

Pizza for lunch. Went over to the Refugio again and called Clare - she has managed to get me some new liners for my plastic boots - great!

Pre-mountain anxiety is setting in again - I would like to be anywhere but here right now. But it will go OK tomorrow.

The Jagged Globe group appear to be an incredible assortment of odd-looking people… as usual!

Nonin 89/54 tonight - that trip to Nido must have done the trick yesterday!

Steak for dinner and plenty of it - fantastic. Occasional snow showers but otherwise weather not too bad apart from low cloud on the mountain and more coming from the west. Gordo and his friends have been discussing the meaning of life in their tent until late into the night. Noisy bastards, but no point in saying anything.

19 January 2006

Up at 08:15 to get everything ready and take the tent down. Packed before breakfast - the last breakfast with the KE lads. They were already there. We actually got some eggs this morning.

Ran out of excuses so left base camp at 10:10. Rucksack heavy with tent, sleeping bag and all other personal kit. Very depressing, definitely will need to make two trips to Nido - I can’t fit everything in. I may also stash some food here at Canada and take maybe 6 days up the mountain. Worst case, I could come back and fetch it if necessary.

Quasar at Canada (Camp 1, 5050 m). The start of the track up to Nido de Condores is visible on the slope behind. Red and white plastic bag outside the tent contains snow for melting to make water.
Orange and grey KE tents at Canada. Chris, the American architect, in the red and black down jacket.
In the KE camp, Jose’s arm just visible, Quique in the tent with Tony sitting outside. Chris on the right.
I think this may be Wesley but I’m not sure!
Steve relaxing at Canada - plastic boots make an unusual choice of pillow.
View from the door of my tent at Canada, looking out over the scree towards the lower slopes of Cerro Cuerno.
The scree slope in the middle distance is the lower part of the main descent route from Nido de Condores.
Sunset over the KE tents at Camp Canada.

Made Conway’s rocks by 11:10 so not going too badly. Canada by 12:20- Got the tent up, only a light breeze so no big problems. At 14:30 decided to get some water [so wandered about 250 - 300m further along the western side of the mountain] to where I found a gulley with some clean running water and a piece of polythene strategically placed to direct it. Very useful. Only got 2 litres carrying capacity though which is a bit of an oversight - should have brought more. Never mind. Made a brew, the MSR was not working too well, kept blowing itself out. I hope I have not got bad fuel; maybe I should have taken what Daniel sent instead of what Sushi provided. Time will tell [it improved after a while].

Saw a Norwegian today, too far away to speak to but he had a big Norwegian flag stuck out of his rucksack.

The KE group arrived at 15:00. It sounds like Chris is going quite slowly. He’s first on the list to go down I suspect.

17:50 - just finished eating. Had two boil-in-the-bags, sausage casserole and bacon and beans mixed together to use up some food. Very nice it was too. Followed by chocolate pudding. Now relaxing with a hot chocolate. Had a congenial afternoon chatting with the KE lads - they are really good to me. Boy, am I stuffed!

This is when it gets lonely on your own - meal times and afterwards. I guess it’s character building, not to mention my own choice, but right now I’d be just as happy sitting at home watching television with a good cup of coffee. Except that I know that, if I was, I’d be wishing that I were here. No win - catch 22?

There are a couple of yanks and a German close by, interesting debate on the weather and what to do next. Sounds like they are keen to go down for some R and R.

 
20 January 2006

The days are flying by, 11 days since I left the UK, one week since I arrived at Plaza de Mulas. I guess Dean is down there now although I am losing track of time and itineraries. Slept well last night. One of the yanks had to go down with HAPE. Jose took care of him and made sure he left immediately. Apparently he’d been hanging around all day complaining about the gurgling in his throat [virtually his last words before he left were ’I’d still like to make the summit’ which more or less sums up how dangerous this mountain is for the inexperienced].

Tried the freeze-dried pancakes for breakfast - they will take some mastering. They come with a sachet of fat for frying. Interesting but hard on the logistics when you have no frying pan and stove with no simmer setting.

Packed up all the food and spare fuel, crampons and high altitude gear and made a carry to Nido. Was pretty tough, as expected, meandering up between the yellow sulphur fields and traversing the occasional snowfield. Took just over two hours, which is not too bad - not far behind the KE porters. The KE group themselves were a long way back so I had a look around [Nido de Condores]. Not many changes except that they seem to have [marked out] a helipad now - interesting.

Sat on a large rock for an hour, sheltering from the wind and soaking up the sun and altitude while listening to a Russian group [in the distance]. Eventually Wesley arrived followed by Steve. Chatted for a while until their tea was ready and then headed [back to Canada] at ca. 15:00. [In total] a couple of hours at Nido.

[Just outside Nido] I met a Canadian guy called Steve who was trying to get a rucksack and big holdall down the mountain but was not having much success. Offered to take it as far as Canada for him. It was pretty awkward to carry even [with two of us]. I had the holdall strapped to my back with my rucksack over one arm. But [Steve] was really grateful. [After we parted company] he’d still got a long way to go. Last I saw he was dragging the holdall behind him down the mountain.

Got back to Canada at about 15:40, found some Argentineans had put their tent up right next to mine. Fortunately they left the tent and headed back down. They even offered me food and gas before they left which was unexpected. There’s only a few others and me here [at Canada] this evening, but at the moment I don’t feel as lonely as yesterday. Will try and have a kip before dinner.

From time to time this doesn’t seem like such a bad life - just been for some more water, sitting in the tent (82/74 on the Nonin) with a fantastic view over the snow covered slopes and glaciers, blue sky and scattered cloud. Things could be worse. Just the occasional gust disturbing the nylon of the tent. Looks like I’m sharing the site with a Campobase group tonight.

18:50 - Ah! The roar of the MSR adds a homely touch. Just got some water heating up after consuming beef stew and dumplings. Will have chocolate pudding in a minute. What a difference it makes to have edible, hot food instead of cold corned beef and mash. OK, I know that Dean thrives on the stuff but it’s not something I can get down easily. At the moment I’m trying to eat as much boil-in-the-bag as possible, it’s excellent food but too heavy to carry. But I’ll keep the treacle pud for the high camp I think [750 kCal]. Will be interesting to see how much fuel I’ve used in the last two nights. I’ve only brought up 3 litres but hopefully I’ll be able to buy some [from a descending group] if necessary.

19:05 - Wow! That chocolate pudding is good. Got a slight headache but I’ve been drinking and peeing a lot so should be OK. Got a litre of hot chocolate to get through now. Pins and needles in my feet after kneeling to eat the chocolate pud - some things could be improved!

Sitting outside in the sunshine drinking the hot chocolate. First one was OK; the second top-up was a bit weak but I need to ration the stuff. Short on drinks but Jose might let me have some since they have cached 25% more food and fuel than they need since two [Terry and Fred] dropped out.

There are massive clouds building up in the west again tonight, same as last night. We’ve seen this pattern before on a previous trip but I can’t remember what happened in the end. Wonder what Lars the Polar Bear’s weather forecast says now? Would be good to have him here for company but somehow I don’t think this is his kind of thing.

21 January 2006

Another death today - the fourth since I arrived. [Although, as of 25 February, only three deaths have been confirmed]. A Swiss guy was being brought down from Berlin with HAPE when he collapsed and died a couple of hundred metres from where we are camped. Not even CPR and the prompt administration of oxygen could save him. It was surreal seeing the body dragged past [a few metres away] on a sled, bouncing around looking very alive apart from the hood pulled down over the face. Chris tried to take photos but everyone got pissed off pretty quickly and he only got a couple of shots off.

The KE boys are thinking of going down, they didn’t bargain on death being part of the package. I am not sure if I will make a summit attempt [now]. Alone or in a group it is still a risk, about 1:600 based on me being number 2558 into the park this year. Even worse odds if you base the calculation on the last week or so. (Victim number 3 fell off the Polish Glacier apparently).

[The dead Swiss guy turned out to be an alpine mountain guide and a client of Daniel Alessio. His group had given up and gone down but he’d decided to stay on alone. He got sick after reaching Berlin at 5900m. His group had gone to Santiago in Chile, the first they knew of the incident was when it appeared on a TV news report. Media interest was heightened by the sudden spate of deaths and a news crew was even flown into Plaza de Mulas to make a report. As far as we know, none of them got altitude sickness. The police responded by bringing in a doctor with extensive altitude experience and locating her at Nido de Condores].

Right now it is 19:50 and I’m in the tent at Nido de Condores. A hard day’s work to bring the tent etc. up from Canada, starting to wonder if I am strong enough to do this, carrying the same load to Berlin will be an ordeal. Maybe I can split the loads more evenly but I am not sure. I might end up with crucial gear stashed high on the mountain. Anyway, tomorrow will be a rest day, the weather has turned bad, heavy snow is falling at the moment but there’s no wind which is fortunate. Occasional thunder overhead.

Just had Lancashire Hotpot followed by some oatcakes. All the other food is in the cache outside and it’s snowing too hard to go and get it. Having hot chocolate now. Have drunk a couple of litres since I arrived so hydration should be OK.

Nido de Condores during the first snowstorm, looking out of my tent towards the KE campsite. The blue iceaxe marks the location of my cache of food and fuel which is gradually being buried beneath the snow.
Cooking in the tent while the snow builds up outside.

Spent a couple of hours in Steve and Wesley’s tent - good fun. Wesley is OK when you get to know him and Steve is a great guy. He cuts down and processes trees for the Forestry Commission. His wife is a few years older than he is and they also fight over the central heating thermostat… we have a few things in common! Wesley hasn’t driven a car since 1991 - he goes to work on a bike and never, ever, takes any drugs, not even painkillers!

Well, the snow keeps falling and the temperature is dropping. Loads of fun; have to keep shaking the snow off the tent. Preparing for bed now - not much else to do. Should go out for a pee but I don’t want to bring the snow back in so will fall back on the pee-bottle for the time being. Or maybe I should go out and check the tent before it gets dark? Did it… big mistake, lots of snow in the tent now!

22 January 2006

Rest day at Nido de Condores. About 4 inches of fresh snow last night, fantastic scenery when the sun came up. The mountains in the distance are visible through a brown, fluid-like haze except for their summits that are in the same clear air that we are.

The morning after the first snowstorm, looking out over Nido de Condores towards Mercedario.
Nido de Condores emerges from the clouds.
KE tents in the snow.
Frozen and snow covered Quasar at Nido de Condores.
The mountains in the distance are like icebergs floating in a sea of brown haze with only their tops clearly visible above it.
The Argentinian flag flies over a snow covered Nido de Condores.

Cloud coming and going all day. Occasional light flurries of snow. Forecast is more bad weather. I’d already decided to stay put. KE couldn’t make up their minds for a while but eventually decided on another night here. Steve and Wesley were going to stay one more night and go down tomorrow - they’re both fit but have lost motivation after [the events of] yesterday. In the end Jose sent them down [today] in the company of some other groups since he was concerned about them getting down on their own. They were maybe a little put out but could see his point.

Sushi and another girl from Aconcagua Express turned up as [Steve and Wesley] were leaving and moved into the [vacant] tent. I think they plan to try for the summit from here - I guess they are well acclimatised [after weeks at Plaza de Mulas], for them it will be just like a short walk in the Alps.

Tried the bacon and fried potatoes for lunch - OK but the cooking process is a little elaborate; there’s a sachet of fat in the packet, which you use to fry the food [after rehydrating it]. Ingenious I guess. Had a Snickers bar for desert since I will not need them all anymore.

Checked the Nonin earlier - 75/80. Explains why it’s pretty hard to move around. Don’t know what the average should be up here at 5580m. The air pressure is 516 mB.

Now it’s 15:00 and the snow is coming down hard again. I am not sure what to do. Tomorrow I will take an empty rucksack up to White Rocks and look for [last year’s] cache. Depending on how I feel I will decide whether or not to make a summit attempt. Looks like a couple of groups tried it today despite the bad weather but they were moving really slowly along the traverse. Don’t know if I really have the energy or strength for such a hard day, but we will see. The main thing is to avoid altitude sickness. I have plenty of food to stay here for a while and see how things pan out. Think this is the same level as Everest base camp. If I keep eating and drinking I should be able to avoid the deterioration of last year [when we ran out of food] and continue to get some more acclimatisation.

The sun begins to set.
Photographing in the chill evening air as the sun goes down.
Evening cloud begins to encroach on the tents as the wind increases.
Cloud from the valley below approaches Nido de Condores…
… and sweeps across the campsite. Ranger refuge in the foreground.
Setting sun gives a pink tinge to the snow.
Pink snow and orange coloured crags - another spectacular Aconcagua sunset.
Chris and Tony (with the 8000 m boots) trying to keep warm while admiring the sunset.
Final few seconds before the sun sets at Nido de Condores.

Just refilled the MSR - going to have some rice pudding. Looks like I’ve used just over half a litre so far so I’ve got plenty of fuel left up here. Latest Nonin result while waiting for the rice to cook was 78/80 - slightly better. You know, whatever happens, I’m actually having quite a good time up here, if only it wasn’t for the moving between camps! A shame that Steve and Wesley went down, Tony and Chris are not so open to long chats in their tent. Still snowing outside but the tent fabric is warm so there are frequent drips to be controlled.

16:00 - Well, life just took a turn for the worse. A group of yanks just decided to set up camp on the ’only bit of dry ground’ about half a meter from my tent. Pretty loud to start with but then one of them started trampling all over my flysheet. When I asked them to stop I just got a load of ’fuck you’ and ’asshole’ back. Tried to make a joke of the situation to calm things down but I don’t think it worked. The last thing I want is to come back and find someone’s crapped in my tent. Hopefully they’ll settle down when they’ve acclimatised a bit.

18:00 - It’s amazing how such a small thing as an argument with an ignorant neighbour can drag you down. Right now I’d be happy to go down and join Steve and Wesley. What a change from a few hours ago. It’s still snowing heavily but there must be a lot of solar radiation getting through because it’s melting on the tent and the surrounding rocks. Oh well, on with the show. Not much life in the KE tents, I guess Jose and Quique are entertaining themselves with the women.

19:00 - Just finished chile con carne followed by another Snickers bar to cheer myself up. Apart from a lot of farting the yanks have been reasonably quiet, maybe there’s hope yet. [One of the Americans did say ’that was the hardest thing I’ve ever done’ as he arrived at Nido… asshole].

Becoming more convinced about making the trip to White Rocks and then bailing out. Monday White Rocks, Tuesday down to Plaza de Mulas, Wednesday out to Mendoza. Wonder when Dean is due up here? Quick calculation - he should have done Bonete today, he won’t be at Nido before the 26th. If I go down on Tuesday that should be his rest day. Wednesday he’ll be on his way to Canada. Ho ho! On the basis of the above maybe I could justify another Snickers bar - 6 left. Heard it was 42 degC in Mendoza yesterday, that is definitely too hot for everything except lying beside the pool.

19:50 - The snow has stopped and the wind is getting up, and we all know what wind at Nido means [see Aconcagua 2005]. At least it’s blowing from behind my tent, I think the yanks are perpendicular to it. Melting some more snow to fill the water bottles. Hopefully enough left over for a hot chocolate. The temperature is plummeting; I guess the cloud cover has blown away. The lads [Steve and Wesley] are in a better place than me right now!

I just had a cunning plan - if I get off the mountain early I could bring my flight to Santiago forward one day and meet Ray at his hotel. Thereby avoiding the very tight connection on 4th February. Definitely worth considering.

21:15 - Fingers and toes are frozen, just been outside photographing the sunset. Absolutely fantastic, colours changing all the time, yellows, pinks, reds, rainbow haloes around the sun. Incredible. In the sleeping bag now, will be a cold night tonight I think. But worth it.

 
23 January 2006

A destinaceous day. Good ventilation in the tent last night so there was not so much ice inside even though it was pretty cold last night. The sun hit the tent just after nine. Wrestled with some more apple pancakes for breakfast but can’t seem to get the hang of them. Seems to work better without the fat - thank goodness for non-stick pans. Drank a litre of hot chocolate before packing up a few things for the trek to White Rocks.

On the trail to Berlin, looking back to Nido de Condores. One of the Czech climbers coming up the trail behind me.
Looking out over the snow covered Andes towards Mercedario.

Left [Nido] at about 11:00 - there was only one guy ahead of me and I overtook him. Ended up breaking trail through fresh snow most of the way to Berlin. Eventually lost the trail completely in [thigh] deep snow and had to improvise for a while. Finally one of the guys behind took over for a while which was a relief. There were three of them from the Czech Republic and they were going to dump some supplies at Berlin before heading down and doing the Polish Glacier route apparently. [As we approached Berlin] they headed off left towards the new camp. I took the right hand trail to Berlin. [Unacclimatised], I was totally knackered when I got there.

Climbed a snow slope to get some photos and did something to my [right] knee. It was really burning for a while but then settled down to a low heat, gradually stiffening up. I could feel something catching every time I straightened my leg.

Berlin camp with refuge hut on the left of the photo. Trail to White Rocks is up the snow covered ramp ahead and is much steeper and higher than it looks here.
Berlin camp and refuge hut, the new Camp Calabria is behind the ridge, just over the shoulder. For scale - there are a number of figures moving up the snow ramp towards Calabria. In the foreground appears to be a helicopter load awaiting removal. Not bad for nearly 6000 m.
View from Berlin looking northwards.

After a while it started to feel a bit better so I ate a Snickers bar, took a Power Gel and then started up the steep climb to White Rocks. More deep, fresh snow so had to make a new trail again. After sliding down at one point, [the result of] which could have been ’interesting’ if I hadn’t managed to self-arrest with my poles, I decided it was time for crampons. Things improved after that but it was still a hell of a struggle, not like last year.

Eventually I saw the top of the ridge come into view. Not a moment too soon. Turned right just before the ridge and traversed past the snow covered White Rocks campsite and round the corner to where we had cached the gear last year. A metre of snow where there was none before. I identified the area where the cache should be and started digging under the rocks. No luck, at one point I turned up an orange rock which [for a moment] I thought might have been a corner of the orange survival bag but alas - nothing. Kept digging as much as the altitude would allow but eventually had to admit that most likely it had been taken and the gear sold on. [I just] hope it went to a good home.

Site of last year’s cache at White Rocks, now buried under a lot of snow.
Cache excavation activity at White Rocks, unfortunately nothing was found.

Took some photos and got a GPS waypoint (6080 m) then started to head down. Taking it slowly, my knee was stiff but not too painful. The KE tents were up at Berlin. Arranged with the KE porters that one would come and take [some of] my gear from Nido tomorrow. I guess the knee makes the final decision [for me]. After all the agonising the final decision is pretty much made. To be honest I am not sure that I could have hauled all the gear up to the high camp anyway. The KE bunch were very sympathetic. They don’t know what’s ahead of them tomorrow - I hope they have good weather.

On the ridge above White Rocks, looking up the trail towards Independencia and, eventually, the summit. Two figures visible on the upper snowfield.
The crags above White Rocks.
Looking northeastwards from the ridge above White Rocks.
Looking north along the ridge above White Rocks. Camp Calabria should be somewhere downslope with the Polish Glacier off to the right of the photograph.

Continued coming down, slow and with crampons to avoid a slip and more damage [to the knee]. The cloud came down and ice was forming on the outside of my pile jacket. [The visibility was so bad that I] thought I might need the Geko to find the tent for a while but then it lifted just in time. Crampons off, got some ice [for melting] and then threw myself into the tent for while - totally exhausted.

A Norwegian group has now moved in next door - 4 or 6 people I think. They have some big tents and impressive looking gear, they must be sponsored by someone, probably Kiwi based on the green colours. They seem to be OK, at least I haven’t seen any flags yet. They are very young to be at this kind of altitude, I hope there’s a guide with them somewhere. They stayed at Camp Alaska [half way between Canada and Nido] last night so they must be taking it really slowly. There’s a vinmonopolet carrier bag tied to one of their rucksacks!

19:00 - Boiling up water for some chicken and noodle meal - the first of the freeze-dried meals, I wonder what it’ll be like. Snowing again outside, not looking good for an easy summit for KE, unless they are above the weather. They will have a cold night. Wondering if my knee is bad or not? Doesn’t hurt much anymore although it feels warm and makes a nasty noise. I wonder if I can get a lift in the helicopter?

19:50 - The chicken noodle was a bit pot-noodlish. Unfortunately the boiling point of water is too low up here (ca 50 degC) to reconstitute the chicken and vegetables but the noodles were nice. I am useless at estimating the amount of water required, I always add too much. The chocolate mousse made a very nice rich hot chocolate drink. It’s also impossible to get everything out of the packet. You can open it out like a bowl at the bottom but then the top closes! [German design!] Then again, there’s no washing up… brilliant!

The yanks are cooking, the Norwegians are very quiet. I guess they have gas stoves. I think even the [short] trek up from Alaska was a trial for at least one of the girls. Spoke too soon… now there are some voices, weird to hear Norwegian at 5500m in the Andes.

My fingernails are breaking off. Yesterday I tried to trim the rough edges with some scissors but it wasn’t too successful - too brittle. Never mind, 40 degC in Mendoza. Should see Dean tomorrow too. Glad to be going down really, this is a summit too far for me unless I get a job where I can train properly and get out in the hills regularly. I will not be back here for a while, if ever. The Himalayas are much easier! I guess if I’d used porters up to Berlin it might have been a possibility, but I had no budget for that. At least I can say that I’ve been to 6100m under my own power. Come to think of it, that’s only 850m from the top. Yep, I think I can wear the sweatshirt that I bought in Penetentes.

Too early to get into bed, too cold not to. Painful sunburn on my left shoulder from 3 days ago - naughty. Feet cold, pee bottle empty - time for bed.

24 January 2006

Windiest night so far, sun came up just after nine as usual but there was a lot of spindrift blowing around and rattling the tent. Reluctant to get up, especially with the thought of taking the tent down on my own but realism took over in the end. Did as much packing as possible inside the tent, sorting out the porter load and my own. Decided to carry the sleeping bag and Thermarest down myself, then I’ll have somewhere to sleep tonight, even if the porter agreement goes pear-shaped.

Set off just after 11:00 after taking the porter stuff over to the ranger hut and leaving it there for Ceferino. At least the rangers seemed in a good mood, they had a small woman - perfectly suited to the dimensions of their refuge - in there too. I think she must have been the specialist altitude doctor flown in due to the high mortality rate this year.

Anyway, off down the familiar trail towards Plaza de Mulas - except it didn’t exist having been totally snowed over. Fortunately there were occasional remnants of footprints showing through the hard-crusted snow. Enough to keep me basically on course until the snow began to thin out around Camp Alaska. The knee was a bit sore, felt like it was going to bend backwards although that might just have been hypochondriac paranoia. Must admit it was easier going down without carrying 25 kg in the rucksack like previous years.

Passed Conway’s Rocks and continued on, taking the easier trails where possible to keep the strain off my knee. Thought I saw Dean with a couple of guys heading up, but too far away to be sure. Crossing over the last craggy section before the ’ramp’ down to Plaza de Mulas I had to wait for about 15 geriatric Japanese to come up. Very polite, many ’arigatos’, but God knows where they were going at such a low speed [rumour has it they reached the summit!]

Coming over the last part of the trail I could see the Aconcagua Express area but no sign of a Mountain Hardware tent so I was even more convinced that Dean must have left a day early, but then I saw a familiar looking figure standing outside one of the mess tents - wearing the same old wicking T-shirt and turquoise fleece trousers… the Valley’s Boy himself. I almost shed a tear!

Got down and across the final penetent field to be greeted by the man himself and the two guys in his group - Peter Hart and Adam Carpenter. Heard that the KE group were also on their way down. It turned out that [they had tried for the summit but that] Chris had turned back at White Rocks while Tony had made it onto the traverse with Jose and Quique. But the conditions were too dangerous to continue - deep snow over ice and very cold. Eventually they turned back, collected their gear from Berlin and came on down - a hard day for anyone, I know, I’ve done it twice in previous years.

Spent the day manoeuvring between Dean’s mess tent and the KE tent. KE got steak and chips for an early dinner so I opted for dinner with them. Dean came by to steal some chips and in the end the base camp staff relented and gave him a bowl of chips and then steak.

In Dean’s mess tent. From left to right - Dean, Pete and Adam.

After the others turned in I spent some time gazing at the incredible night sky - really bright tonight - and saw one amazing shooting star that must have traversed over a third of the sky. As usual the upside down constellation of Orion dominated the sky but the Milky Way was there and the Southern Cross plus billions of other stars. Just amazing.

Back in the mess tent I packed my two bags for the mules by torchlight before spreading out my sleeping bag on the floor and attempting to sleep. Don’t know if it was Dean’s coughing or the half-litre of strong coffee but it took ages to get to sleep - not before 03:00.

25 January 2006

Up at 08:30 when Dean wanted his mess tent back - I didn’t have my own by this time. Finished packing and put my bags outside. Found that I was having breakfast in the KE tent this morning - confusing! Lots of Jagged Globe bods wandering around before heading up the mountain.

Leaving Plaza de Mulas for the last time.

Gave tips to all the Aconcagua Express girls but I think they were just glad that I was leaving - had enough of itinerant Englishmen wandering between groups all the time. Took a bit of time but eventually the KE guys were ready [to leave]. They’d kindly agreed to let me walk out with them. We set off, signing out at the Plaza de Mulas ranger hut and dumping the you-know-what in the blue barrel provided. Then the usual 18-mile amble down the valley, which seemed to be even more spectacular and colourful this year, amazing geology. And, of course, the obligatory headwind - whichever way you go, up or down the valley, there’s always a headwind!

The new glacier advancing down the valley from Plaza Francia.

We reached Confluencia just after 16:00 and had some juice and biscuits provided by Carla. Down to the park entrance by just after 18:00. Listened to my MP3 player on the last stretch - made a pleasant change although I had to steal the batteries from my head torch, unfortunately getting overtaken by an Exodus group in the process. There was too much dust to be stuck behind anyone for too long.

The bus [to Mendoza] turned up fairly promptly. Should have known it was too good to be true. Even though the mules had passed us as we’d arrived at Horcones Lake, near the park entrance, it took another two and a half hours to get the bags delivered to Penetentes. Incredibly frustrating, especially when the bus drivers refused to go back and look for them. I guess they were being paid by the hour, maybe even had a secret deal with Eva. On top of that we found that we had the slowest bus in Argentina for the [160 km] trip back [to Mendoza] - aargh! On the plus side it meant we never had to overtake anything, an often hazardous manoeuvre involving long periods on the wrong side of the road in the face of oncoming traffic.

We stopped for a quick meal in Uspallata and I bought the remaining KE guys dinner - the least I could do after all the moral support and help. Finally I got dropped off at Daniel’s hotel in Chacras de Coria at 01:00, too tired to think, let alone sleep.

End of Part One - Aconcagua 2006. See Part Two - Llullaillaco 2006.

 
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