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)