Aconcagua base camp life

Who knew that “rest days” could be so frustrating?

It’s the weather. It appeared that a window was going to open up on Sunday but soon, 60+ km p/hr winds were in the forecast. Now, it looks like Tuesday 18th is going to be the attempt – fingers crossed, the weather looks much better, the wind calmer, the skies bright and clear.

We just need to have patience and wait for it.

That being said, many other teams headed up the mountain a few nights ago – only to return this morning, some via helicopter. Only 3 people have summited this entire season. The winds were brutal last night, and even in our 10-person dorm, the wind battered and shook our tent until the door fell off (repeat this about seven times, until we had to rope the door shut!). I can’t imagine what it would be like at Camp 2, 1000m higher. I’m glad we’re safe and relatively comfortable down here.

So I thought a little blog about what base camp life is like might be interesting to those at home!

Plaza de Mulas is not a beautiful place – there are exceptions, like when the sun sets and paints the rock around us in a rosey hue, or in the dead of night when the skies are filled with more stars than I have ever seen. However, during the day, it’s a bit like living on top of a big quarry – dusty, rocky, sparse – nothing green for miles. Long drop toilets stand like sentries at the edge of the valley, which drops down to a small lake and then rises up again to the eerie site of an abandoned hotel. Chris and I are walking over there today to stretch our legs – others have come back with reports of menus still laid out on tables, flags hung on the walls, books on shelves – as if the inhabitants of the hotel just walked out one day and left. Calling Michelle Paver – I might just have found the site of your next remote ghost story.

Lunch and dinner starts always with a bowl of the same virtually tasteless vegetable soup (improved with chilli sauce and another necessary way of ingesting fluids). This is Argentina though, so we’ve been treated to a couple of delicious asados (barbecues) with round after round of delicious meat. Not going to lie, I’m looking forward to a huge plate of broccoli on my return! But the staff here do a great job of making sure we’re kept full and healthy on a mountain diet.

Harder to deal with are the extremes in temperature – from boiling hot in a sun-baked tent to freezing cold if the sun disappears. When boredom sets in, we read (I read A Lot!) or play cards (I haven’t played that many rounds of President since high school), or nap or take a stroll. By 9pm, we’re snug as bugs in our sleeping bags and praying we don’t have to go to the bathroom too many times in the night.

Does it sound like a hard life? Probably not, but it’s amazing how quickly frustration sets in. Still, all the decisions that have been made have absolutely been the right ones, and we are at the mercy of the mountain. For me, I can’t help the anxiety and anticipation that grows every moment I stop and stare up at the summit of the mountain, knowing that despite all the rest days, one day soon I’ll be waking up and climbing that huge Stone Sentinel once again. So I’m trying to enjoy and make use of the rest days as much as possible, practicing patience and storing up as much hydration and energy as possible.

Because before too long, I’m going to need every ounce of energy I’ve got.


To Summit or Not To Summit…

Don’t worry friends and family, I’m not giving up! This is not the relinquishing of a positive mental attitude. But as the week progresses, I’ve found myself thinking more and more about why I’m really here. Is it to make the summit? Is that the only thing that would make this trip worthwhile?

And the answer is of course not.

For anyone who knows how “goal-oriented” I am, I bet you’re thinking “yeah, right. Of course she’d be disappointed if she didn’t make it.” And maybe, before I got here, I would have agreed with you. But being here changes you. Each moment I spend on the mountain, every additional step that I take, feels like a win. A big win. Every day is pushing my limits – physically, mentally and emotionally. And I’m still going.

The truth is, I am physically the weakest team member here – every step seems to take me that just bit longer! But I’m still taking steps forward each time. And if Nims decides to turn me around on summit day, I know I will have put everything I’ve got into the attempt. So, to summit or not to summit? Honestly, it doesn’t matter, I’m going to keep moving forward either way.

So – enough philosophising! – what have we been up to the past couple of days? We spent our first night on the mountain at camp one after a beautiful hike up. Thankfully Chris and I were able to share our own tent (since unfortunately we had to say goodbye to a team member owing to a knee injury) and we laid out our closed foam mats and thermarest for the first time. Since we’re camping on snow, the double mattress is a must! A tent-cooked meal of tuna spaghetti and it was off to bed when the sun went down – a sun baked tent is too hot but it’s amazing how quickly the temperature drops once it’s dark.

The morning was too windy to start walking as planned, so we got to stay snug in our sleeping bags as Nims handed out thickly spread pate & cheese sandwiches (all about the high calorie food up here!) and hot tea. Whenever the wind gusted by, it was like being passed by a fast-moving train – scary but also a bit exhilarating! Eventually though, it did clear up enough for us to start up to Camp two – Nido de Condores.

Although this isn’t that difficult a walk, I found it tough-going. Remember in a previous blog what I said about personal admin? Well for some reason I just hadn’t gotten anything right today. My socks kept slipping down inside my boots, making them rub uncomfortably. My buff felt suffocating, even though I knew it was protecting me from the sun. My backpack has broken shoulder straps – not a problem at sea level but up the mountain, I was struggling. But all that meant making it to the top felt awesome! And although I felt like the slowest walker in slowville, we made it in about 3 hours 15 mins (and the average time is 2-4 hours, so basically bang on). It was also a good reminder that on a more important day – like summit day – I have to be extra vigilant about how I prepare in the morning.

After eating lunch, burying gear and spending about two hours at camp two, we then basically “slid” down the mountain to base camp as quickly as possible.

It looks like the weather is clearing for the weekend, so now we’re ready for the push! But if I don’t make the summit guys, don’t be sad for me. I’ve already accomplished way more than I possibly thought I could.


Trek up to Camp One (aka Camp Canada)

Oh Aconcagua, what are you doing to us?!

We’ve now had three days at base camp – long drop toilets, no showers and temperatures of about -20C and below with the wind chill. Suddenly I’m grateful for all the layers and equipment (however expensive!) that we brought with us, including the 8000m boots (mine are the La Sportiva Olympus Mons), the Rab 1200 sleeping bag, and the aforementioned (in the previous blog post) summit suit. We’re all acclimatising well though, my oxygen saturation levels are in the mid 80s and heart rate is good. It’s all about “personal admin” up here, remembering to have gloves and sunglasses and a buff, being religious about sunscreen and drinking water (or rather, Tang!), using hand sanitizer. Base camp rest days are spent reading, posting blogs, swapping stories with fellow team members and eating. We try not to sleep too much during the day because bodies don’t acclimatise as well during sleep.

The nights are cold but full of stars… a small consolation for having to exit the warmth of a sleeping bag for multiple pee breaks in the night!

Trek to Camp One

Yesterday though, there was a nice break in the weather and we were able to take a trek up to Camp One. Now this is the kind of experience we had been waiting for! Bright blue skies, stunning vistas of the Andes. We have a professional photographer on the trip and he has been taking some truly epic photographs of us (his name is Leonardo Avezzano if you want to look him up on Instagram and online).

In this photo above, I’m 2nd in line and Chris is 4th.

As you can see, we were in our big boots and crampons right from the start. It’s not often that there’s snow on the route up to Camp One (more normal is rock and scree), but actually walking on the snow is quite easy and saves the soles of our boots. Nims focuses on a slow and steady pace on the way up, stopping to teach us crampon skills and how to breathe with a buff without fogging up your glasses. The sun is fiercely strong up here, and although it’s so hot that we strip down to base layers, it’s important to keep your face covered as much as possible. The rays reflect back off the snow, so full coverage sunglasses are a must too. Gear and admin!

It takes us about 4 hours to reach camp one (with a long lunch stop), and it’s picture perfect up there. We stop for a couple of hours, setting up a tent and storing gear for the next time were able to get up there (fingers crossed). Thankfully getting down is much faster as we’re able to take a much more direct route down the slope.

Honestly, this is what I was hoping for when coming to Aconcagua! The hike up was tough but stunning, and so worth it for the views. But the weather is not playing ball with us. The winds at base camp were so strong last night that they blew off the door of our tent!! Luckily we were able to “fix it” with some guy rope and gumption. The next week is not looking good either, with strong winds forecast. We have until the 18th to attempt the summit but that will be a lot of roughing it at base camp – not so fun! I much prefer the days we get to walk, to stretch our legs and see the views. But the mountain is the mountain. We’ll just have to wait and see if we’re permitted to climb any higher.


Aconcagua calling…

Hello readers!

A proper 24 hours of (relatively) pain-free air travel later, Chris & I have arrived in Mendoza! I had forgotten what a beautiful city this is – so lush and green and with a dramatic backdrop of the Andes – and it’s so strange to have crossed not only a few time zones but a few seasons as well, back into the warmth of early summer in the Southern Hemisphere. But of course, it’s this season that allows us to attempt to our goal: to summit the Stone Sentinel, Aconcagua, the highest mountain outside of the Himalayas, standing at 6962m tall.

It might sound obvious to say, but this is not as straightforward as it sounds! Despite being known as a “technically easy” mountain, Aconcagua can potentially throw many challenges our way. At our briefing last night, the expedition leader Nims Dai went over a few of the potential risk factors. Aconcagua is low on “objective risk” like crevasses or avalanches but weather (extreme winds and cold) is a major danger. We mitigate that with gear and keeping an eagle eye on weather forecasts, but it’s still the most common reason people don’t make the summit. And then there’s “subjective risk”, like fitness level and how well a person adjusts to altitude. We’ll be following the old mountaineering adage of “climb high, sleep low” and taking it slowly to give ourselves the best chance at acclimatisation.

Still, it’s worth noting now – before it all begins! – that the summit rate on Aconcagua is quite low (I’ve seen ranges online between 30-60%), so while the summit is absolutely the aim, it’s not the reason. Aconcagua is going to test my limits and push me way out of my comfort zone – plus offer the experience of a lifetime, no matter what the outcome.

After a fantastic al fresco dinner last night of juicy bife de chorizo and lomo de cerdo, the team is all acquainted and ready to get started. We’re skipping the first stop at Penitentes to give us an extra contingency day for summiting, so we’re starting the trek straight away after breakfast this morning! Next time I update this blog will probably be from base camp Plaza de Mulas at 4260m in a few days, so acclimatisation will be well underway.

Wish us luck! And don’t forget to follow along on Instagram too… @amymccullochbooks