Aconcagua – last day in Mendoza

This was our last full day in Argentina and it was a relaxed affair. Carmel read her book around the pool and I faffed about on the computer copying more photos from the groups cameras.

The weather was disappointing in that it was not cloudless skies and 40C. It was very pleasant and plenty warm enough though. Carmel and I had lunch at the Park Hyatt which was very quiet. Carmel had the bug for rosé wine after trying a very good glass of the stuff on our winery tour the day before. Service was almost non-existent so lunch turned into a two hour event, but it was all still so much nicer than being high up a mountain.

I visited the largest supermarket in the city, a Carrefour about 15 mins walk from the hotel. Ruth had bought a 8GB memory stick the night before so I was keen to also get one, as the 4GB one I had bought the day before was not quite big enough to store the photos that everyone had taken. Just like Tescos et co. in the UK, supermarkets supplied electronics cheaper than the specialised stores.

Later on in the afternoon Carmel spent a couple of hours dozing and reading around the pool. I had a much more entertaining thing to do – I had to go and report my camera missing and get a crime reference number so that I could claim on the insurance when I got home. I asked at reception for the location of a police station and the person there gave me directions to somewhere about 20 mins walk away.

The police station was a very rough building that appeared not to have been looked after at all. The public entrance was through to two or three battered rooms with non-matching and sparse furniture from a couple of decades ago. The paint was peeling off the walls, and there were scuff marks over all the doors and walls where people had kicked or punched them. The surly and uninterested policeman who was at the desk near the door did not or chose not to speak English and he had to ask somebody else to come along. I was quite daunted by this entrance and was wondering if getting a crime reference number was perhaps a mistake. However the English speaking police person was a friendly girl who was very chatty and nowhere near as intimidating as the surroundings. She invited me into an office which would have been considered perfect for use by Hollywood as a 3rd world interrogation room.

After taking a statement and a bunch of details I was given a document with a crime reference number and I was able to leave. Of all the time I spent in Argentina on this trip, the most scared I have been was feeling very British and out of place in that police station. Although the police girl herself was extremely friendly and seemed out of place. While I was collecting the report the next client came in. A Brit who had been mugged and lost his camera, wallet and passport at the strain station. I almost felt lucky, but the photos on my camera meant more to me than my face, wallet or travel documents.

A little later we had our final group meal of the holiday. Carl chose the restaurant which was up near the Carrefour supermarket and was perfectly decent.

The meat eaters almost exclusively had steak and chips, washed down with a lot of local beer. One of the waitresses was absolutely stunning, but seemed more interested in flirting with Jamie at 18 than me and some of the others who were way too old at almost twice his age. I felt ancient.

After dinner we wandered down towards the centre of town to find a bar we had seen earlier in the trip. The bar was called The Liverpool Pub and sounded a perfectly pleasant place to end out stay in Mendoza.

The bar used to be owned by some Scousers (or at least Liverpool FC fans), but now was run as a Argentinian bar and did not seem to have any character or charm to keep us interested for long. In reality we were all stuffed and tired so after having a single drink each, within our little splinter groups, we headed back to the hotel for the last night.

Aconcagua – Mendoza winery tours

Today Carmel and I went on a full day winery tour. Carmel and I felt pretty rough after our late night, but this gradually faded during the day.

The first winery was Clos de Chacras. We were met at 8:45am in our hotel reception and along with Simon and Josephine, we shared our day with a Canadian. Before sampling the wines at Clos de Chacras we first had a tour of their old winery.

All the tours, at each of the wineries, the tours were entertaining but basically to me, as a first timer in a winery, they all were very similar. The sizes and age of the wineries determined the type of the vats, but that seemed to be about it. It was interesting to hear the history of how the wineries came to be, typically with links to Europe, and interesting to hear about how the grapes are nurtured and how malbec is the grape of Mendoza.

The second winery stop was at the Belasco de Baquedano winery.

This Belasco de Baquedano winery was particularly interesting as it had an aroma room where you were able to sniff 50 or so aromas that are associated with wines. These included both good ones and bad ones – the bad ones were not pleasant. There was a test after the sniffing session were we had to identify five aromas. I managed to name 4 successfully, but Josephine named all 5! For our success we were given certificates each.

Lunch was at the Bodega Ruca Malen. This was a pretty spectacular venue set outside in the vineyards with the mountains in the distance. The food was top quality, consisting of 5 courses with accompanying wines. It seemed such a long time ago now that we were camping on a freezing cold mountain. Our only headaches on this day were brought on by too much beer the night before.

However, the killer was a 5-course lunch with accompanying wines. It was almost impossible to stay awake for the final winery visit after that. The food was fantastic.

The final stop was at the Alta Vista winery.

A youngish Dutch couple joined our group for the winery tour. They had been cycling around the wineries – which sounded quite a nice thing to do.

My lips were cracked, cut and generally knackered from the cold and wind on Aconcagua. This means that the wine drinking really hurt, although I was brave enough to carry on. Carmel, being female, had used some sort of cream lip protection and so did not have the same experience of wincing when sampling the wines.

In the evening I went on a shopping mission to find a memory card reader and a USB stick to copy everyone’s photos from their cameras before we all separate tomorrow. This was sort of successful but there were no high capacity memory sticks (just 4GB and I would probably need 8GB).

Carmel had looked up decent places to eat in Mendoza on the internet in the hotel and the summary from all the Web searches seemed to be a place called Azrafan. We tried there and by chance met up again with Simon and Josephine. The food was excellent – I had to go for steak again. The only problem was that the restaurant was famous for excellent wines, but Carmel and I couldn’t face any more after the days drinking, so it was beer for us.

Aconcagua – civilisation, Mendoza

Back in the world of the living. Waking up felt amazing, really totally amazing as though I’d remembered this was the first day of the rest of  my life. I was clean, the bed was comfy, I had no headaches and the only thing I had to do was get up by 10am in order to catch the end of breakfast. It felt really great. And then I remembered I had lost my camera and all its photos, which brought me back down to Earth a bit.

The hotel that the whole group was staying in was the Hotel Nutibara. It was pretty good and not at all like a hostel or other backpack-focused place that I imagined we’d end up in. We met most of the group at breakfast during which I had more fresh fruit than I think I’ve ever had in one sitting. And a couple of pastries. And tasty black coffee.  Everything tasted delicious.

I spent the morning playing on the computers that the hotel had for their guests to use. It was good to tidy up my Twitters and blog and catch up on email and other news from around the world. Carmel spent some time by the pool with a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice and her book. We were both very happy in our little worlds.

There were three full days remaining for us in Mendoza and we had to plan carefully how we would spend our time. In the afternoon we spoke with Simon who had met up with his wife, Josephine. She had spent the last few weeks while we were on the mountain in Buenos Aires learning Spanish and a little about the culture. They had booked themselves on a day’s wine tasting trip for the next day and suggested that they would not be put out if we also booked onto the trip and joined them. We looked into this and it seemed a good idea so later in the afternoon Carmel and I also booked ourselves on the trip.

Carmel spent some time researching restaurants to visit during our remaining nights. We planned to have a group meal tonight and a group one on the final night so that only left one night to ourselves.

Mendoza is a good place to try your hand at white water rafting, so this was also on our list of things to potentially take part in. However Carmel was reluctant to spend a full doing the activity so we decline. However Neil, Ian and Tariq booked themselves on a half day rafting session for the final full day.

The weather was seriously hot today. It was apparently around 40C and made for a perfect day to sit in the shade and have a few drinks.

There was still no sign of my camera. I have only a limited idea of where I left it – which was probably by the wash basin in the restaurant toilet. I hadn’t been anywhere where no-one would not have found it, so I was frustrated that nobody had owned up to having the camera. However I managed not to lose my camcorder and still had lots of video footage, but I knew I had over 300 photos on my pocket camera.

Interestingly I noticed on this day in the hotel how much weight I had lost. I had lost at least half a stone and probably more. It all seemed to disappear, along with my appetite, during the last few days on the mountain, which were obviously the toughest. Carmel also lost quite a bit of weight too. Neil on the other hand, with his extra days in Mendoza, had managed to scorch his “6-pack” in the sun.

In the evening we all met up for a group meal. This would be the last chance for us all to say thank you and goodbye to Quique and Martinez who were off to visit their own families for a short break before heading back to Aconcagua with another group. Quique chose the bar, called PH, about 10 mins walk from the hotel. We were a large group once more, with 16 of us sitting together on various tables outside on the bar’s veranda.

The evening was good fun and I drank far too much beer – especially considering the 9am start the next morning to go wine tasting. Carmel and I were watching our wine-tasting companions Simon and Josephine and as long as they were still staying out and drinking then we felt entitled to stay out too. It was too late, however, when we realised that they were drinking water while we were drinking beer. The evening eventually ended for Carmel and I around 3am when we staggered back to the hotel (I managed to leave my cash card in a bank machine on the way).

Aconcagua – Base Camp to Mendoza

We were to walk from Base Camp to the park entrance today. This was the longest distance of any of our treks and would take us approximately 8 hours. The plan was to get down off the mountain as quickly as possible so that we could get travel the 3 hours back to Mendoza in the evening. This meant that we had our alarms set for 6am and with the goal of an ice cold beer in Mendoza in our heads the early start was absolutely no problem for us at all.

The difference between us spending the night at Base Camp and the night before that at Camp 3 was immense. From being unable to sleep at the high camps due to the various symptoms of altitude sickness we were now able to sleep through the night once more. Carmel was relieved that she could wander to the toilets with her head torch, rather than having to struggle again with her she-wee. On the other hand I made sure that I enjoyed the benefits of using my pee bottle in the comfort of my own tent for the final time. We woke up in the dark at 6am in a great mood. We were tired, sure, but this was the day with the cold beer at the end and we could not wait to get going.

Our tents had to be packed up before breakfast and this meant that we first had to pack our bags again. The days when we didn’t have to faff around packing or unpacking rucksacks and our other equipment bags seemed such a long time ago. It was still pitch black outside so the packing was done with a bit of difficulty. I was now even more grumpy with the members of the group who had proudly announced to me the night before that they had already done their packing. Once packed, the tents came down and then we were ready to leave.

The difference the sun made to the temperatures was impressive. We sat together having breakfast in the Grajales mess tent for final time wearing some of our warmest clothes. Breakfasts were never my favourite meal and I was glad to be leaving these particular breakfast behind. A typical meal would be some toasted bread which was always dry and would crumble as you brought a knife close to it. On the bread we had butter and some Dolce Leche (milky, toffee spread). The butter was rock solid from the freezing temperatures so we had to sit on it for 15 mins. By which time the toast was cold (or had gone). We would sometimes get pancakes (US style thick ones, not the thin UK style ones) – these were fairly popular but again it was difficult to get anything to spread on them. Finally there was hot water with which we could make tea or coffee. There was no milk, so black was the only option. Sometimes the guides would put tea bags into the hot water container, which made made everything taste of tea. All this was ok, and I was very aware that in comparison to other groups we were pretty much being spoilt, but by the third week it was definitely getting tiresome.

We got the water for our water bottles for the day from up the stream where the river was not frozen and still running. I even managed to wash my hair – so, so cold and does wake you up more than any caffeine could ever manage.

At 9:30am we left Base Camp for the last time. We were to walk along the river bed to Camp Confluencia and then down to the park entrance. It was a relief to be carrying just a day pack with us – we still had 4 litres of water and spare clothes and bits and bobs, but the difference between the difficulty of walking with a day pack and our full packs was incredible. Mules were carrying the rest of our equipment down for us.

I had a spring in my step. The sun was up and we were getting off this horrible mountain and back into places that serve beer.

Carmel had a limp in her step. The day before when we had descended from Camp 3, she had not done her boots and gaiters up sufficiently and snow had got inside her boots and soaked her socks. This had caused her to get numerous blisters which were making walking difficult. A far from ideal situation given the 8 hours of trekking we had ahead of us. Carmel’s discomfort, combined with the fact that she was still exhausted from the previous couple of days activities, meant that the two of us walked at the back of the group at very much our own pace.

About 30 mins from Base Camp we descended from the glacier in to the valley below. From the top of the steep slope looking downwards we could see the skeletons of the few mules that had slipped and tumbled all the way down.

We descended the slope and then headed over to the squashed-by-avalanche military station for our first rest. Our group was very spread out on this day, with the front folks being about 10 mins walk ahead of Carmel and I at the back. We had started off at Base Camp wearing multiple layers for warmth but now, as the sun had risen higher and we had dropped from the glacier into the river bed, the temperature was lovely and warm and it was time to discard the fleeces and wear more comfortable shorts and t-shirts.

Our mission to get off the mountain as quickly as possible was not to be interrupted by rest breaks. We would only stop every hour or two and then only for a couple of mins. Walking down the valley with Aconcagua to our right was amazing. The weather was perfect and the height of the mountains on either side of the valley made for spectacular views. If only Carmel would stop hobbling and looking sorry for herself. Carmel and I fell even further behind by taking many, many photos and camcorder footage. I don’t think I can relay here how happy I was to be coming off this mountain and I was enjoying every minute of the walk out. Around this point we started seeing tiny, individual plants. The first sign of nature that we’d seen for weeks. Although small and fairly unremarkable, they did encourage photos from most of us.

After a couple of hours we reached the marked half way point between Base Camp and Camp Confluencia. At this point we met tens and tens of fresh climbers all heading up towards where we had come from. This was the spot where I had talked to a South African chap who had not made the summit on our way to Base Camp a couple of weeks earlier. It was great to be in the reverse situation now. Perhaps it was unfair of me, but I had started checking out every climber that we passed and making an assessment of whether they would make the summit. The memories that stand out are those of overweight, past middle aged people, struggling on their way to Base Camp. If people were noticeably struggling at this point then really they would have little chance at the higher altitudes.

The path down the valley now took us next to the river along the wide river bed floor. Previously we had been walking a few metres elevated from the narrow, raging river, but now the river had flattened out considerably. I was chatting geeky stuff with Ian, discussing experiences with NASes, HD films, DSLRs etc. Carmel was still hobbling and looking fairly miserable.

The next stop was at the “rock”. The river bed was wide and barren with no features to note, except for this one rock. It wasn’t the biggest rock in the world, but was a recognised stopping place for us, and it’s shade made the far side of it a recognised toilet stop for most climbers, or so it appeared.

Every now and again we would look back and see that the peaks around Aconcagua were slowly retreating into the distance. The views in the warm sun were really spectacular and I felt guilty for wanting to get as far away from them as possible.

It was only an hour or so now to Camp Confluencia where we could have a sit down and a drink in the mess tent. The landscape was rapidly becoming more and more green which enforced the fact that Base Camp was now a long way behind us.

Just before Confluencia there was a river to cross. This was a fast flowing torrent of filthy brown water, not a place you would want to drop your hat in. Across the river there was a steep incline which caused Carmel to grumble and hobble a bit more than usual as she staggered to the top. And then on into Confluencia, our first camp.

Gres, the cook for the Grajales tents at Confluencia, and provided us with a table full of snacks and fruit juice. The fruit juice went down a treat – I must have drunk gallons of it, which was stupid of me because it meant I was not drinking the water that I was carrying with me. It had taken 6 hours to get from Base Camp to Confluencia and I had hardly drunk a thing. However the piece de resistance was the sliced melon. Good heavens was that amazing. Fresh fruit! I could have eaten the melons whole and by the dozen. There had been me thinking that what I desired most after the mountain was beer and pizza, but apparently it was sliced melon.

We had said goodbye to our guide, Gordo, at Base Camp. He was staying for another summit attempt with another group. But Quique and Martinez were coming back to Mendoza with us. They had set off after us in the morning and finally caught us up at Confluencia. Once they had had a small rest with us we left Confluencia and proceeded on with the final section of our walk out.

The walk to the park entrance was straight forward and Carmel and I again walked at the back of the group a long way from the front.

Carmel was, unsurprisingly, still limping and finding her tiredness and blister collection to be very frustrating. I was also getting tired by now, and the long meandering walk seemed to take forever. I could feel the muscles in my legs and groin complaining and was almost as keen as Carmel to get to the ranger station.

Just when the path seemed to be never ending we started seeing “normal” people again. They appeared weird as they were not wearing backpacks, the men didn’t not all have beards, and many had children with them. They were tourists who had driven to the ranger station and taken a short stroll to find the best views of Aconcagua in the distance at the top of the valley. This was the first sign that the end was getting very close.

Two hours after leaving Confluencia we finally reached the ranger station at the park entrance, around 6pm in the evening. Our group was slumped on the floor, looking tired but very pleased with themselves. We waited on a minibus to pick us up and take us to the ski resort of Penitentes. The helicopter was here, looking like a show piece in a museum. It hadn’t been running this day, no idea why, which was strange as it seemed to fairly vital in keeping Base Camp supplied.

Our minibus arrived shortly and we all piled in. The driver was a rock music fan (as were a lot of the Argentinian guides) and we had AC DC blaring out of the stereo. Bizarrely I liked this music. However the best bit was the choice we had to make when getting into the minibus. The choice was a can of ice cold beer or ice cold coke. And I can promise that that can of cheap local beer tasted the finest in the world.

Speaking to Neil later, we found out that the driver handing out the beers was concerned whether Jamie was old enough to be allowed one. The funny part was that he asked Neil if Jamie could have a beer thinking that Neil was Jamie’s Dad. Neil, at 35 and certainly not at all related to Jamie, found this very bemusing.

The minibus took us the short distance to Penitentes where we then had to wait 30 mins for another minibus to take us the 3 hour drive back to Mendoza.

I had turned my phone on at the park entrance where there was a weak signal and it was very nice to receive a few congratulatory text messages from people that had read my Twitter reports from the mountain. However I forgot that my sister also likes to receive read receipts from her messages which meant that she got a read receipt a day or so after sending the message meaning that she knew I was off the mountain and back in signal reception. The next I knew was that I got another message congratulating me for getting safely off the mountain. I gave her a call and it was great to talk to family again.

The minibus took us to Uspallata where we chose to stop for dinner. It would be too late for dinner if we drove back to Mendoza in one go, so we were all very happy to stop half way there in Uspallata and have our first meal back in civilisation. My meal was goat, washed down by local red wine, Carmel’s was tomatoes and chips. Everybody ate well and although the restaurant was fairly unremarkable, we all enjoyed the relative luxuries afforded to us.

The remainder of the journey back to Mendoza was in the dark and it was gone 11pm by the time we arrived back at the hotel we had left two weeks earlier. As we were waiting to get our room keys we bumped into Neil and Jamie who seemed amazed to see us. Neil commented on what a state we all looked in! Carmel and I sacrificed an immediate shower for the chance to catch up with Neil and Jamie over a few beers at a local cafe. Neil and the others who had left Base Camp together had been in Mendoza for a few days, but did not know if any of us had made it to the summit. We spent a while swapping stories and enjoying beers sat out on the street in the warm Mendoza evening.

Jamie, at 18 years old, was understandably very frustrated he had not made the summit and had to turn back at Camp 2. He vowed to return within a few years and make it to the top. Neil, on the other hand, was in the same mindset as Carmel and me and right now had very little interest in ever stepping foot on a mountain again.

We went to bed around 1am following showers. It was great to lie down on a mattress again! Some people cope very well with tents, sleeping bags and stony ground. I am in that group.

For me, this was the day that I lost my camera. It still makes me sick to think or write about it. As we arrived into Mendoza and I was gathering my things from the bus I realised I did not have my camera. I was pretty sure I had it in the restaurant but had not seen it from then on. I was convinced I had left it on a chair in the restaurant but even though Quique twice rang the restaurant over the next 24 hours and asked them if they had found it, the camera was not to be returned. Frustratingly Carmel had taken fewer photos with her camera as I was taking so many with mine. I had taken over 300 photos of the trip and managed to lose the camera on the very last day after leaving the mountain. I was, and still am, absolutely gutted.

Duration 8:26 hours
Distance 15.8 miles
Total descent 1,400m (4,350-2,950m)
Path (Google Earth)

Aconcagua – Camp 3 to Base Camp

Our last night at Camp 3 was yet another troubled one. Carmel and I did not sleep much and the headaches and general rough feeling were back at forefront of our minds. Carmel actually woke up feeling a bit sick and I couldn’t face breakfast at all. It seems impossible to state enough times how miserable we were feeling and how keen we were to get off the mountain. We hadn’t slept properly for a week or longer and we were feeling worse each day. However at least we were now counting down the time until we were off the mountain – less than 2 days…

Today’s trek was down from Camp 3, all the way through Camp 2, past Camp 1, and eventually ending up at Base Camp. Although it had taken us 3 separate days to make the journey up the mountain, gravity was now on our side and we hoped to get down to Base Camp in about 4 hours.

The half day trek to Base Camp permitted us a lie-in and allowed us to take the morning at our own pace. This gave us one last chance to appreciate the view over the Andes from our camp at 6,000m.

The lie-in was necessary  as our group of mountaineers had turned into a bunch of zombies. We had to pack up all our equipment and take down the tents but these tasks took us hours to accomplish. No one really talked much, we just wandered aimlessly around camp only able to focus on one thing at a time. Everybody looked utterly exhausted. It took forever to pack up, but eventually around midday we were ready to leave.

For the final time we were carrying our full packs on our backs, and at least today we were heading downhill with them. I was so pleased when we eventually got going, I could not wait to get off the mountain and if that goal necessitated another day carrying a heavy pack then so be it. There was plenty of snow on the ground, so we started off wearing our crampons.

The trudge down to Camp 2 was fairly straightforward. Although the snow prevented us taking the most direct route down the scree slopes, we were able to proceed steadily. The weather was cloudy but it was not snowing yet. Going downhill was a pleasant change, even though we were weighed down by our heavy rucksacks. The slope to Camp 2 had quite a few climbers on, some heading up and some heading down. We passed a couple middle-aged German speaking couple and in reply to our smiles and greetings they angrily told us that our crampons where churning up the snow and making it difficult for them to walk along the faint paths. This was fairly incredible. Crampons are designed for walking on snow and ice, and given that that was what the conditions were we felt were perfectly entitled to look after our own safety by ensuring we had good footholds. We muttered some snide comments back and spent the next few minutes slagging off Germans in general (hoping the couple were indeed German and not Austrian or from another similar friendly German-speaking nation).

Although the route was straightforward and uneventful, rude Germans aside, it became clear to us quite how exhausted we were. The mountain had really taken a heavy toll on us, and I was permanently looking for an excuse to rest. The combination of a long summit excursion the day before, the lack of sleep for over a week and the complete loss of appetite and no intake of sustenance had left me exhausted. That combined with the heavy packs, the deep snow and hidden rocks underfoot, crampons on our feet and the steep slopes requiring focused concentration was not providing us with a care-free stroll down the mountain. A part of me was really keen to get down, but the 4 hour descent was very hard work. Carmel, in particular, was really struggling and had given up talking to anybody. Y0u could see in her face that she was finding it very difficult to continue and was lagging behind the leaders at the back of the group.

When we arrived at Camp 2 an hour or so after leaving Camp 3 it felt like we had been walking all day. We slumped on the snowy ground at the camp entrance a short distance from the tents and took time to have a drink of water. Carl met up with a South African friend at this resting spot. The friend was also a guide and was heading in the opposite direction to us, helping his group of charity climbers ascend from Camp 1 to Camp 2. We had met many of the charity group at Base Camp before we left and they were quite a large crowd of mixed ability and age. They certainly did not look much like a group of fit and experienced mountaineers. Carl’s friend illustrated this by highlighting that he was carrying an extra 20 kg rucksack, that belonged to one of his group, in addition to his own 25kg pack. This was a spectacular feat – but he looked pretty knackered. About 200m behind the guide was the rucksack’s owner was an overweight, exhausted, red-faced girl in her late 30s who undoubtedly would not be going any further up the mountain. Seeing the state of her made me question the guide’s decision to carry her pack at this relatively early stage in the ascent when she really would have been much better off just giving up. And finally, just to highlight that the guide was fairly super-human, he told us that he would setting off from Camp 2 at midnight that night to try and get to the summit the next day. We had summitted from Camp 3, but he was going to attempt it from Camp 2 which would have been an amazing achievement.

The break at Camp 2 was absolutely needed and I wished it could have been for longer. At this point I was feeling as exhausted as I had ever felt on this expedition, but my headache and other altitude sickness symptoms had improved during the descent from Camp 3. We had descended about a third of the way to Base Camp and I knew, tiredness aside, that every 100m drop in altitude was going to be noticeable by my body and gratefully accepted.

When we got walking again we shortly met up with the two Irish lads that we had met much earlier on in our trek down at Camp Confluencia. The two of them were on their own and walking up to Camp 2 so we took the opportunity to stop and have a brief chat with them. Since there was only the two of them they had no porters or ability to carry more than they could fit into their backpacks. They had already spent some time at Camp 2 but due to the bad weather conditions they had had to return to Base Camp for supplies. The weather forecast was something they had to rely on to tell them if there was a window to get to the summit, and they had been told that morning that the only window in the next week was the next day. Therefore they, and other groups, were all racing up to the two high camps so that the following morning they could attempt the summit. While our journey to the summit had taken 5.5 days from Base Camp, they were having to attempt the same in 1.5 days. The Irish lads looked tired and worn out but were determined to give the summit a go, and were planning on climbing all the way to Camp 3 on this day. We never found out the outcome of their attempt but we were all pessimistic at the scale of the challenge. It very much reminded us how lucky we were with the weather, with having a few porters to carry our tents and food, and with having experienced guides that knew the routes and there allowed us to summit on a snowy day where navigation entirely by sight would not have been possible.

The final kilometre in vertical descent to Base Camp was fairly straightforward as we just pointed ourselves at our destination and walked. Carmel was really feeling the exhaustion and we kept up the rear of the group. The straight route down to Base Camp avoided Camp 1 which was fine by us. We just wanted the shortest route off the mountain.

As we descended the snow was getting more and more slushy and then became more patchy. There was snow in the air, but the warmer temperatures as we descended meant there was less snow under foot and eventually we had to remove our crampons. Everyone was tired and the slushy conditions caused us to be careful with our footing. Jenny got unlucky and was caught slipping over twice in succession by my camcorder.

I didn’t talk much on the way down, partly at least because I was knackered but mostly because I was walking at the back with Carmel who looked like she had given up on her legs and was practising looks of desperation but with only me as her sympathetic audience.

The last two hours of the descent were in sleety conditions, but when we rounded one large rocky outcrop and could see the route into camp, and even make out our mess tent, we began to relax a little. All except Carmel who looked no happier and was as grumpy as ever until she was firmly sat down at Base Camp.

Over the last stretch we took photos of camp and joked for what seemed like the first time in days.

We were welcomed into Base Camp by our hosts Grajales and it really felt great. We received many congratulations and revelled in this for a few minutes, once we’d dumped our overloaded rucksacks off our shoulders and onto the ground for the last time. The descent had taken 4 hours, but this seemed like a very, very long 4 hours. It was such a relief to get the heavy packs off our backs.

We helped ourselves to some orange juice inside the mess tent and slowly began to regain a little life. Our mood was improved immensely when we were presented with home-made pizzas (Domino’s did not deliver to Base Camp). There was more than enough pizza for everyone to have their fill, and while they were not the best pizzas in the world at that moment it didn’t really matter. What did matter was the fact that the pizzas were not porridge, rice, pasta or black tea flavoured. I recall eating at least 3 times as much pizza as everyone else. I hadn’t eaten properly for days and I needed to make up for lost time… The 5 members of the group who had turned back before summit day were not to be found at Base Camp. A few days earlier they had decided to return to Mendoza and await the rest of the group there, while enjoying the best steaks and beers that the city had to offer. We didn’t blame them and were pretty jealous.

We had to put our own tents up – so this reminded us that we were not off the mountain just yet. We were all in a group to the back of the mess tent and were next to a commercial group representing sales staff from North Face (Americas region). These folks seemed a nice bunch and Carmel and I spent a few minutes chatting with a couple of them. The North Face company had paid for representatives of their Americas staff to come and attempt Aconcagua, but only some of them actually seemed ready for this – from their grumbling it sounded like many of them had not spent much time camping before.

It was nice to be reunited with the rest of our mountain kit at Base Camp. These bits of clothing and equipment included our warm weather clothes, but for the item I’d most missed was a pair of trainers for around camp. After wearing plastic boots for 7 days continuously it was amazing to put a pair of lightweight trainers back on and feel a spring in my step.

With the tent up and our kit unpacked within it, Carmel and I used the time before dinner to go and visit Miguel in his Art Gallery tent, and use the internet. After entering a bunch of Twitter updates to tell our families that we had returned safely from our summit attempt we had serious look at the paintings on offer. Miguel had produced quite a few different styles of paintings, including some particularly trippy ones that made you think he might have taken too much medicine when painting them. He also showed us a couple of paintings that he had painted on the summit on two separate occasions. I’m not sure what we expected, but the primitive pencil sketches weren’t something that reminded me of the summit at all. To be fair, just getting a pencil and paper out at the summit is an achievement, but unfortunately this does not mean the resulting picture is a work of art.

After some deliberation we ended just buying the following print from Miguel, which he kindly signed. The print was A2 sized and wrapped up inside a protective plastic tube in order to survive the rest of the journey.

Carmel and I have fond memories of our visits to the Art Gallery. Miguel took good care of us and provided us with cake and chocolate during our visits. I think this was almost certainly down to the presence of a girl amongst the smelly, unshaven male climbers that typically frequent his place. He was amused by the Irish v English partnership and made a point of playing a few Irish “rebel” tunes over the speakers (although not quite Eire Og levels).

It was nice to have dinner around the table again. There was more space than before since 5 of our group had left, but we still enjoyed ourselves and following the food we had a few games of shithead for old times sake. Carmel even remembered how to smile again.

Before long though we were ready for bed and none of us had a particularly late night. Actually, the guides seemed to be making the most of Base Camp by drinking fairly heavily, so perhaps they had a late night. Certainly Carmel and I were straight to sleep.

Duration 3:55 hours
Distance 3.2 miles
Total descent 1,580 m (5,930-4,350m)
Path (Google Earth)