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)