Saturday, March 27, 2010

Aconcagua 2010 - Acclimatization, Lightning and Injury

Monday, March 1 2010. Got up to a thin layer of fresh snow from overnight. Had breakfast at 9:45 today. This is my last two meals of pre-arranged room and board, but I managed to get Vanessa to swap out lunch with dinner and let me have another night. That way I could spend the day acclimatizing and get this show on the road.

It snowed again around 11, but by noon it was clear and dripping, but now my sleeping bag was in a safe spot. I packed my own lunch snacks and had a protein shake, then headed up the trail. My goal was 16,000', to make up for missing 15,000' on Sunday.

I dressed fairly lightly, since I was planning on moving quickly, and took off. In less than an hour I was at 15,000' below Conway Rocks.

Looking down on Plaza de Mulas from 15,000' - notice mostly clear sky. Below is Conway Rocks at about 15,700' - notice the stormy look.

I hit 16,000' just shy of Camp Canada in less than 2 hours - averaging 1,100' per hour. Great time. But just then I noticed lightning booming around my in the not too distant peaks to the North and West. What a conflict. I was feeling really really good and wanted badly to go on to see if I could hit 17,000' and keep my pace up. But then I noticed it was heading for whiteout, and snowing and I decided to turn around and not push it.

On the way down I started to hear a weird buzzing rattling noise and realized it was static zipping off the end of my Leki Makalu trekking pole behind my right ear where it was in the side sleeve of my pack. Lightning rod. Awesome.

I wasn't sure what to do. I'd been nearly hit by lightning in Montana and Colorado, and decided to dump the pack, which is the normal instructions, and as I dropped it noticed that it stopped buzzing.

Being of a somewhat naive scientific nature, I decided to test this interesting phenomenon by holding my other pole up until it started buzzing, to determine at what height it would start or stop buzzing. BLAM! BLAM! BLAM! it zapped me through my gloves and forced my arm to clench and unclench my fist and I dropped it. Holy snot. I started running downhill and stopped by Conway Rocks where others where huddled down. Lightning blasted near my pack then, and I decided to go back and get my stuff.

I gathered it and by this time the snow had covered the trail so I felt a little lost, and soon all the zippers and a few other odd places on my clothes started to buzz and rattle. What the heck? Well, I can't just strip down to my undies and go down, so I hoped for the best and kept moving.

I saw a group of climbers led down by a guide and decided to just follow their tracks down. As I got down to about 15,200' the buzzing stopped, so I felt a lot safer now.

About 2 hours later just a little ways above where the first picture was taken showing new snow and reduced visibility.

They were going an odd way through the little gap in the rocks the switchbacks wove through, and stepping through that I slipped a bit and overextended my knee, thinking nothing of it at the time.

As I got into camp it was still blowing and snowing, but in another hour it stopped, cleared and showed a beautiful sky with colors preparing for sunset.

From Aconcagua Teaser

I cleaned, hung my stuff to dry (when I discovered that cordlocks have metal springs in them - hence the odd buzzing), having gotten damp with all the running, and ate dinner. A great Argentinian Lasagna. I crawled into bed and almost immediately my right knee began throbbing. Swollen and painful, I couldn't find any comfortable position and tossed and turned a lot before finally finding a neutral position and falling asleep while wondering if it was the over-extension in coming through the slippery rocks of the gap, or did I do it in my near-panic run down to Conway? Either way, it should be better by morning if it isn't too bad.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Aconcagua 2010 - Plaza de Mulas Sunday

Sunday, February 28, 2010. Plaza de Mulas at the base of the normal route at the top of the Horcones Approach Trail on Aconcagua. Got up with a light dusting of snow on everything. It was odd to my sense of reality because South of the Equator the sun rises in the East and sets in the West, as you expect, but does it while leaning to the North, not the South as I'm used to as a native of the Northern Hemisphere.

Because of the surrounding terrain the sun didn't hit base camp until around 9:30 or so. It's typical for most people to lay around camp waiting for the sun to hit before moving around much.

The Europeans were up in the dining tent around 8 or so, and for the most part cooking their own food on primus type bottled gas stoves using large Doite canisters. I assumed from this that some place in town or Osvaldo of LANKO sold them. He offered me canisters (his preference) or white gas.

I had chosen white gas and was told two liters was waiting for me at base camp. I had made a little fuss about it, since I had read so many trip reports about spilled gas from 2 liter bottles (the normal way to store white gas in Argentina) ruining bags of stuff on the mules. Anyway, yesterday I received my 1.5 liter Coke bottle, being told it was 2 liters. I wasn't sure if it was ignorance or deception, but wouldn't push it. I assumed I had way over-estimated anyway.

I lit up my MSR XGK to see how it ran, and it smelled odd, but close enough to white gas to work. It's a bit scary, honestly, since the typical thing to do in Mexico is to go to a paint shop where it's sold as paint thinner called gasolina blanca. Here it's called naptha. As you drive by the gas pumps you see two grades of diesel and naptha as the three options. Hmmmm - I would be careful about venting if that's the case.

Lunch was set for around 1 PM. Annoying. I'm not going to do this again. I had decided to go ahead and get two days of full service so I could acclimatize and build camp without stressing over cooking, but now I can pass this advice on - don't. Sure, if you want meat get the dinner. It won't really affect anything, but having to wait around till nine every morning and then again at noonish puts a real damper on the schedule.

Add to that the apparent cycle that everyone there seemed used to. 9:30 sun hits camp. Everything dries out. 11:30 storm hits camp and blows everything away and covers everything in snow. 2 PM sun comes out and melts everything making it all wet. 5 PM storm comes in and covers camp again.

Carlos told me he had stuff to do, places to go and all that, and Vanessa was in charge now and he left. Vanessa had about as much English as I had Spanish, so maybe it would be okay.

I had originally planned to go 1,000' higher every day to test my speed and acclimatization level, but with this crazy schedule, and the sneaky storms that I wasn't prepared for dealing with at this point, I decided to honor the rangers and not go up till my 6 PM checkup.

And lucky thing too. I had thought of going up at the 2 PM clearing, but every window in the quonset hut leaked the melting snow onto the bunk below it. Including my appointed bunk. I was out enjoying the sun and thinking of heading up. Got my boots on. Prepared my water. Noticed drips running on other bunks and looked at my sleeping bag and found about a quart of water inside. I quick flipped it out and dried it with a microfiber towel. Thanks to pertex it was fine, but very annoying. I managed to rearrange my stuff and had to hang some things out to dry between windows.

I spent the afternoon drying out my stuff and moving to another bunk. Then to make things more interesting a couple of Polish climbers, presumably married, came in. I had to again move stuff around to make room for them, and pointed out to Vanessa that the bunks leaked so she moved stuff around too to make room for them. They looked in really bad shape.

I did my checkup, had decent numbers and returned to camp to prepare for dinner. The Polish climbers joined me tonight and she had some English and him almost none. Shortly after bedtime she began puking a lot. Over and over. All night. Oh, joy.

Aconcagua 2010 - Confluencia to Plaza de Mulas

We'd heard vague rumors that the night earthquake was in Chile and massive. And of course for what we felt, being about 80 miles from the epicenter as we'd heard, it had to be.

I prepared to hit the trail again. Breakfast was some stale rolls and a dish of various jams and butter spreads. I remember some kind of granola or oats and milk. Amazing. We were given sack lunches and parted ways.

In the spirit of various "failures" on this trip my REI softshell trail run gaiters tore out the front hook on one. I put it on anyway and hoped for the best. Today was a bit cooler, though I spent lots of time in the desert part of the trail.

I crossed the river on the wire grid bridge and got to a damp area with very soft trails that were very non-obvious. I realized this as the trail disappeared in the soft sandy mud and backtracked to the creek looking for an alternate path. The mules had obscured any footprints and I decided to cross the creek and follow them. I removed my shoes and waded in shin-deep fast water with the rocky bottom and found a rock to sit on to replace my shoes when a mule pack came by led by four horsemen. One was kind enough to stop and tell me my path was across the creek and that I should go back.

Good enough. I went back over and balanced on one foot at a time replacing my shoes. Guess a foot bath wasn't totally unwelcome with the serious red dust I'd accumulated from wearing trail runners. I recommend no one else do this. Wear goretex or leather boots. Really. It's not worth the minor speed difference. At least wear goretex trail runners with gaiters.

Anyway, I went back to the soft muddy wet area and got lost again, so I looked back and saw a trail fork off at the little hill above the creek crossing. Drat. So I went back and this trail ran along the edge of the bluff in a wet and rocky area, and was vague and indistinct as well. But it got me there.

Eventually I got lost again, and again. The trail isn't very obvious and I discovered some areas where landslides had covered the trail in places, that I had to pick my way over carefully lest it slide more and take me with it.

I passed the very obvious landmarks as listed in the various books and guides, and totally dug Ibanez, a large rock where the trail gets steep with skull totems and a warning sign "4 hours to Plaza de Mulas".

Osvaldo had told me there was no camping here, but that's a bit subjective, since there are definitely cleared camping spots for a few tents, but no obvious drinking water. The way up from there to Plaza de Mulas was very rugged and steep, but more obviously trails, so no more getting lost.

Ran across some mules that were either slow or careless or sick. Photo above of one. Near the end I crossed paths a few times with two guys who had camped at Ibanez and had drunk the muddy water. Having camped they had a very large load, compared to my < 20 lb pack (much of which was my -20 degree bag that I really didn't need in Confluencia). I loaned one some of my water, as he was out, and I had about 4 oz. left. Finally, after a good tough 7 hours, I made it into Plaza de Mulas, 14,100' base camp for the normal route on Aconcagua. I checked in the rangers who told me to report back at 6 PM the next night for my health check.

I went over to the Lanko Camp and reported in with Carlos, the camp manager who directed me to my bunk in one of the huts, showing me specifically which bunk was mine. There were several tents up in the tent yard, and a few bunk users in the other hut. He showed me the dining hut, available for cooking, and the outhouse and outhouse key.

The water was from one of two blue barrels, fed by a tube from some junction in the mad spider web of tubing snaking through the camp. It was obvious as the rest of the water everywhere that it was not safe to drink so I kept treating my water (I normally treat all water with a steripen, even if it might be safe).

Vanessa, his wife, was the cook, and dinner would be a fashionably early 7:30. I got my bags and headed to the hut to unpack and organize.

Dinner didn't actually arrive till 8:00 pm, but oh, well. It was good enough. More meat. There was a Hungarian team there, led by two girls who did not ascend, but managed logistics as part of their tour company. Charles on that team had good English. A couple of the Hungarians were up making a summit bid, the rest had bailed for weather and cold.

A Spanish team was there as well, just two guys, and Kiko on that team had good English. He gave me some Spanish lessons while I was there and was fun to talk to. I went to bed in my cot as an evening snow squall passed through.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Aconcagua 2010 - Earthquake

3 AM February 27, 2010. Bed shaking. It increases in intensity and goes on and on. The Canadian starts yelling in Spanish and the other unknown bunkmate responds. In my state of confusion I pick out something like "should we run".

As the top of the bunk sways almost a foot either direction, and the legs feel like they're sliding and hopping, a low rumble, familiar sound. Rock slide. I know in my heart the shaking isn't because of the rock slide. It's an earthquake.

The other two jump out of their bags and run to the door. I realize I'm about to be buried in the bunk under a million tons of rubble, and figure that would really suck about now.

I jump up to run to the door.

Looking out just up from camp is the huge cliff falling down on us. Clouds of dust swirl in the moon and starlight down into camp. Dozens stand in various phases of undress shouting something that sounds a lot like Spanish for "which way do we run".

The dust swirls into camp, covering some outhouses, then stops. We're safe.

So I climb back into bed, where I'm treated to a series of aftershocks, but manage to sleep till morning, when I take this picture of the aftermath.

It was a lot more exciting looking in the dark. Not to mention how it felt. ;)

Aconcagua 2010 - Horcones to Confluencia

Me at the entrance to the Horcones Trail. Aconcagua behind.

Osvaldo of LANKO had me stop here and break out my camera so he could take this ominously meaningful picture. He dropped me off at the ranger station at about 9,000', and I checked in with the rangers and got my first garbage bag. You must either bring the bag back, or have your mule provider sign off for you that they are dealing with your bag, or you will be fined a large amount. I heard something like $200 US, but that's hearsay.

There is dirty running water here and a toilet trailer. I suddenly discovered a slew of little difficulties. I had packed my sunscreen in my mule bag. I only had half of my trail food. My trail running gaiter was missing a cord. My camera was gone. I emptied my bag and finally remembered that it was out for the above ominous picture, so I had the ranger radio down to Osvaldo, who came back with my camera. In the meantime I found a camera strap I wasn't using and rigged it as a gaiter cord. An hour later than I expected, I hit the trail.

Wearing my white UA-style shirt in full sunlight along the Horcones Trail. Aconcagua behind.

It was difficult moving my clothes around to protect me from the sun, but I managed to make great time along the trail to Confluencia, 6 miles away and at about 11,000'. Within minutes of 2 hours. Nice pace 1,000' vertical and 3.0 miles per hour. There is a water hose and picnic table right before the ranger station, and I sat and snacked.

I checked in, receiving a new bag, with instructions to bring it back here (in very bad English). I suppose in some odd ways I was very lucky that none of the rangers I encountered spoke any real English at all. Made for a lot less hassle. I was to stay in the dome to the far left of the above picture, a subcontractor named Carlos that maintained it for a number of other mule services. He was to provide a cot with pads, and three meals. A typical late Argentinian dinner and breakfast, and a bag lunch.

Nice steel dome with nice steel beds and nice thick mattresses. Ominous.

Since it was still early, I decided to do a little more acclimatization, and run up the Plaza Francia trail to 12,000'. This is the trail to the horrible, difficult, test-pieces on the South Face of Aconcagua. The trail was a bit softer and more rugged, and I got off-trail (lost - ominous) a number of times, but did make it to 12,000' in an hour over an estimated 2 miles. Not a great view from here of the South Face, but oh, well. I ran back to camp as the sun went down, and prepared for dinner. Again, the meat, but it was pretty good, not as fatty as the meat yesterday. Eduardo re-ordered for me the previous day, as he had noticed that most Americans (United States) don't like fat.

In my dome was an empty sleeping bag laid out (not sure for who) and a guy from Quebec trekking (not intending to summit), who was fun to talk to during dinner. We went to bed around 10 PM (about the time dinner was done) and shortly after some guy came in and filled the empty bag.

About 3 AM, I woke to the bed quickly but gently swaying, wondering what the heck was going on.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Aconcagua 2010 - Salt Lake City to Penitentes

Got up early on February 24 to go to the airport and fly Southwest to Los Angeles. In Los Angeles I had a few hours to kill, and there was a major order issue with the Satphone that required I pick up a Fedex at a nearby Fedex facility, so I let Southwest keep my bags for me and walked to Fedex about 3 miles away. I rode the B-lot shuttle back, retrieved my bags and wheeled them over to Tom Bradley where I passed them on to LAN.

Tom Bradley still sucks. I made a protein shake and hung out killing time on my DSi (which is one of my new favorite airport/airline time wasters). Finally I got on the plane and flew on to Santiago Chile, where I would have another few hours to kill. Santiago at the time was under construction, and it was hard to find a money change place and food in the international wing. Chile has odd rules, and if you leave that wing you have to pay a fee to enter the country (even if it's just to go to the bathroom). I finally found the money changer and grabbed a vegetarian sub sandwich at Dunkin Donuts.

Santiago Chile Airport

I got on my plane for a very short flight to Mendoza. Customs and immigration was easy. In Mendoza I was met by Jose of LANKO, and his sub-contracted driver Eduardo. They grabbed my bags and loaded them in the Mercedes minibus and we drove to the city center where Eduardo guarded the van and moved it around the parking police, and Jose took me to the tourist office to get the permit invoice, to a money changer to get Argentinian pesos, to a Western Union to get the receipt for the invoice, then take the invoice back to the tourist office to get the permit.

I should point out that my poor Verizon world phone did not work here. It's dual-band GSM and I guess you need quad-band here. Oh, well. There's still the satphone.

Jose took off then to do other busy work involved with running LANKO in Mendoza while Eduardo took me to Walmart to get supplies. He followed me around and helped pick stuff out, which was mildly frustrating, but at least helpful when I couldn't find anything instant like I was used to finding. He explained that they don't do that here. Everyone cooks everything from scratch. That sucks for backpacking. He kept trying to get me to buy tuna and canned veggies, and even loaves of bread and fresh fruit. Um, yeah. 26 miles on the back of a mule. Then I haul it up the mountain on my back.

On the two hour or so drive from Mendoza to Penitentes we stopped at a restaurant where Eduardo eats for free because he's such a good networking driver person. He gave me a business card and invited me to bring all my friends and have a great tour. This was also my introduction to the typical Argentinian diet. Three or more courses. Lots of meat. Dulce de leche (caramel) on all the deserts.

In Penitentes I was dropped off with Osvaldo running interference to keep me from either tipping or talking to Eduardo. Interesting. I was given a bunk in a dorm-style room upstairs and shown a place to sort my bags. I got right into sorting my bags, and managed to get done fast enough that he sent them up with the next day mule trip. Normally your stuff goes up a day after you, but I was fast.

I took a shower and changed, then went outside to make a satphone call. It was annoying, to say the least. Not sure if it's just my destiny, but overall the service sucked. I would hate to have an emergency and need it. Anyway, then on to the typical Argentinian late dinner. 8:30 PM. Meat. Desert. Wow, I'm going to be so sick.

LANKO Penitentes Hostel

Got to bed and woke at 7 AM, and had to wait an hour for the typical late Argentinian breakfast. Very continental. Sliced meat and cheese and rolls. It was now time to make the transfer to the trailhead. Osvaldo loaded me into his old Toyota 4x4 diesel truck and make the half hour trip to the Horcones entrance.

Thursday, March 11, 2010