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.
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.
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
While I have been writing a blog for this trip, WordPress has been playing up so I haven’t been able to post anything – despite the fact that there has been surprisingly ample (and free! and fast!) WiFi coverage at the teahouses throughout the trek. Who knew? Not what I was expecting, especially after the hassles of getting online in South America, which felt far less remote than this. But I have finally managed to get the post up – if not as picture heavy as it might be! If you’re interested in pictures, I suggest heading over to my Instagram, where I have been updating my “Instagram story” a lot more regularly with photos.
Day 1: Ngadi-Jagat
This was my first proper trekking day after a night in Kathmandu and two bumpy, seemingly interminable bus journeys to reach the start. After banana pancakes and coffee, we (my guide Gyan, porter Madi and I) set off on the trail at 8am. The sun was shining, the sky a perfect blue, and I was feeling good! The trail followed the banks of the Marsyangdi River, a roiling, rapids-riven turquoise tongue of water interrupted in this early stage of the trek by a big hydroelectric power station and dam. The trail cut through thick jungle vegetation and past terraced rice paddies, and, as the sun rose, so did the temperature. You sort of have to pack for all weather on this trek, but in my “lightest” gear of cutaway trousers and T-shirt, I was still sweltering. Thankfully it wasn’t too long before we finished a climb of a few hundred steps leading up to the gorgeous village of Bahundanda, with a tree in the centre draped in Buddhist prayer flags – a colourful maypole. Here, we took a short water break in the shade and watched as the square quickly filled up with other trekkers. Still, the trail isn’t nearly as busy as I had expected, and for the most part I am walking entirely on my own (Gyan and Madi aside).
After Bahundanda, the trail grew even more thick with jungle, and I crossed the first of many suspension bridges across the river. No big mountains were yet in view, but the valley walls loomed large all around us, and the occasional waterfall burst from the sides as if the gorge had sprung a leak. The sun continued to beat down, but surprisingly I felt lighter than air – maybe it was the realisation that I was finally here, in Nepal, after months of not travelling, or the proliferation of bright blue and orange butterflies that flit across the trail at my feet, or the fact that the very trail itself glittered with mica as if I was walking on stars, (or maybe just because eating too much dhal bat makes you a bit batty) – at any rate, the Annapurna Circuit was certainly proving itself to me to be worthy of its classification as the “world’s most beautiful trek”. And I hadn’t even seen a big mountain yet.
Day 2: Jagat-Danaque
When I was reading about this trek, I was prepared for a lot of natural beauty but I didn’t expect to fall in love with the little villages along the way. The tea houses are painted in bright pinks, blues and greens, mostly advertising the same style of accommodation – clean rooms, hot showers, good food and free WiFi (some of these claims truer than others). Some of the villages jut out of the valley walls, dangling precariously over the river, connected to the trail by dodgy-looking (but well maintained) suspension bridges – often with a stunning waterfall (or two) in the backdrop. Being the unabashed nerd that I am, one thought dominated this section of the trek: I felt like I was walking through a Nepalese Rivendell. With the glacial blue river below and high granite walls above, it seemed a place too ethereal for humans; it must instead be the realm of elves.
From the riverside village of Tal, we crossed over into the Manang District – a predominantly Buddhist region of Nepal, and the home of the big mountains I’d been searching for. It didn’t disappoint. Manaslu, the world’s 8th tallest mountain at 8,416m, dominated the view for most of the afternoon – and when we reached our stopping point for the night, Danaque, I caught my first glimpse of Annapurna II. Exciting. I also had my first hot shower of the trip – unfortunately “hot” in this case meant a scorching gas shower that climbed up past 65C before I had to turn it off in pain. Be careful what you wish for, and all that, but worth it to wash off the dust of the day. The evening rounded off with a Manaslu sunset, watching as the peak turned a burnished gold before disappearing into the dark, and a filling dinner of dhal bat (naturally) in the fire-warmed dining hall. Dhal bat is the local Nepalese dish consisting of rice, potato curry, vegetables, lentil soup and a sort of poppadom. I was informed by Gyan that not only was this the best fuel for a long trek but also was guaranteed to be fresh (unlike the pasta/pizza/momo dishes on offer), made with ingredients grown locally, provided the least opportunity for contracting stomach issues and – best of all – was totally unlimited. They will fill up the rice/curry/veg/lentils portion of your plate as needed until you are utterly stuffed. (Is four refills too many? Asking for a friend…)
Bed time was late by trekking standards – 9pm at least! – but every night so far I’d collapsed into bed utterly exhausted. I did creep out at 2am to look at the stars though, and I was met with an almost overwhelming sight: as vast a glittering sky as I’ve ever seen! And there, too, was the enormous Manaslu, blocking out a portion of the sky with its bulk and its peak wearing the stars like a crown.
Day 3: Danaque-Chame
Brrr… it’s so much colder now, a little higher in altitude (still only about 2200m or so – less than half as high as we will end up), and we have well and truly left the jungle behind for pine forests and groves of apple trees. Today was a rapid climb up to Timang and the best view I have seen so far – sipping tea from the roof of a hotel with the Manaslu range in the far distance, eagles soaring overhead, it was a jaw-droppingly beautiful sight.
But we had to keep moving! Thankfully after the climb and tea break, the rest of today’s walk was fairly flat, and I was lulled into a weird meditative state of one foot in front of the other – until we rounded the corner of the trail and straight ahead of us was Annapurna II. Even though it’s not as tall as Manaslu, it’s much closer to the trail and so looks way more impressive. Puffs of snow lifted off the top as if the peak were smoking – or, more likely, as a result of ferocious winds up there – and I definitely felt a shiver of awe travel down my spine.
Annapurna II stayed in view right the way to our stop in Chame for lunch, and our teahouse for the night. This was a shorter walking day (about 4 hours as opposed to 6/7 that we’d done previous), to give time to rest and acclimatise to the altitude. Chame is a much busier town, so I browsed the shops and bought a much needed cosy yak-wool hat and visited some of the Buddhist sites, including a long series of prayer bells and a huge prayer wheel taller than me. Now it’s time for more dhal bat, to read another book (I’ve read a book a day so far – this is what happens when I stop writing!) and to prepare for the higher altitude treks to come…