Rhymer´s Travel Diary: Entry 46, 31 January 2003
Mt Aconcagua - Snow Dumps, Realidad TV, A Failure of Keeness at SIX - FIVE
Click here to see photos of this attractive and studly summit:



Last Year's Big Idea

Oh, dear, it was time to face up to last year's big idea. So, after a couple of pleasant post new year weeks messing around in Chile and Argentina, we headed up to Mendoza to climb Mt Aconcagua, which, at 6964m is the highest peak in the Andes. To recap, it is an unusal mountain in a number of ways. Firstly, the highest Ande really should be up in the Bolivian altiplano somewhere, not down entre de Santiago y Mendoza. And secondly it is probably the highest mountain anywhere in the world that you can climb without any real mountaineering experiencience. Because of this you get a lot of people telling you "...it's really easy yah..." Anyone says this is either a very experienced mountaineer - in which case they are telling you the subjhective truth - or some stupid twat traveller who has read in his or her muppet's guide to South America that "Aconcagua is technically easy" and has absolutely no idea how difficult it is to muster the energy to scratch your arse above about 5500 metres.

We spent a few days in Mendoza beforehand: finalising everything with our guide and extreme equipment people and bumping into other people who were planning to do the same thing. Rather disconncertingly, the first of these was a chap called Russell from Canada. He and his mates all looked like ex marines and wore T-shirts that said "2003 British Columbia summit team." I found this troubling as, after 11 months' travel I had the physique of a girly weed. Although Jane and I supposed that if we rushed out sharpish we might.just might have time to get a couple of "London SE1 Summit Team T" shirts knocked up, thus narrowing the preparedness gap between us and Russ.

The other thing we were busily doing is trying to put on weight. Yes, alright, all you plumpsters out there, I know this sounds like a conceited thing to say. But it's true: you do not want to be climbing a big, icy, frightening mountain when you weigh 62 kg (134 Ibs/ 9st 7). Besides, have you ever tried to put on weight? It really is quite disgusting, especially in a place like Argentina when your principle vehicle to greater girth is steak. My last supper (as it were) at the Hyatt was about two thirds of a kilo of steak of such visceral rawness that nobody would have noticed if it was sitting on a butchers slab.

Realidad TV

I am pleased to say that the first thing that I discovered when we arrived in Parque Nacional Aconcagua was that a Spanish company was shooting a reality TV show there, imaginatively entitled "The mountain." This had somewhat polarised opinion within the local community. The park rangers seemed to think it was a real giggle, but many of the guides seemed to think that it would attract yet more imbeciles to a peak that already recives more than its fair share - mant of them the aforementioned people cannot tell the difference between the phrases "technically easy" and "easy". For myself I was unsure. While I could certainly see the guides' point, a part of me welcomed a reality TV show that actually made the craven, fame hungry cretins do something genuinely difficult for their fifteen minutes, rather than just complete mindless tasks, expound their more mindless philosophies and fondle each others' grubby bits in the encounter room.

Remember Summit

Our first night on the mountain (at a pifling 2,800 metres) did not augur well. The clear, starry sky over the Andes is an extraordinary sight and one whose luminous beauty I got to appreciate half a dozen times over the hours of darkness as I had a particularly unpleasant case of diarrohea, bought on, no doubt, by eating virtually uncooked meat at the Hyatt. I resolved to upgrade my steak orders from raw to rare.

The following day, I started taking antibiotics and matters solidified. We also met our first descendents. One was a group of people who had all turned back from from the base camp at Plaza del Mulas, at a mere 4200 metres. We were vastly underwhelmed by this. FOUR-TWO (all heights are described thus in extreme circles) is hardly a vast height; if you get altitude sickness at this level, you really should go down a little then have another pop. Their problems suggested that they'd either rushed up, were massively unfit or were just kind of stupid. Much more impressive was a Dutch bloke who, when we asked, said that he had been to the top before continuing "Well - I think I did. My water froze and I was so dehydrated I can't remember anything. I'll only really believe it when I see the photos." This was more like it: we saluted his extremeness.

Snow Fun

The next day we walked up to Plaza Francia, a pleasant little stroll from THREE THREE to FOUR TWO. One of Muscle Russle's mates had said it was pretty difficult, but we found it almost easy, the expected headaches notwithstanding. Well, actually the walk up was easy. At the top (Plaza Francia is the starting point for those who want to climb the mountain's terrifying south face, the second highest ice wall in the world) we found a couple a Kiwi blokes; they had been waiting up there two weeks for the right weather to attempt this monumental task and had the beards and fearsome mountain tans to prove it. We hung around with them for a while and admired the South face which looks like a 2700m lasagne, with snow and ice standing in for bechemal and pasta and rock taking the place of meat sauce.

Then we started down; this was about a dozen times worse than the climb up as an ice storm had started blowing little diamond daggers into the sides of our faces. Three hours later (about the same time as the ascent, we arrived back at our camp with our gloveless hands interesting shades of yellow and purple. If this all sounds like we were massively underprepared, it wasn't really the case. The weather is supposed to be a balmy 20C at the lower levels at this time of year and we had sent all our cold weather gear up to Plaza de Mulas on (naturally enough) a mule.

Actually, on Mt Aconcagua, they have the world's best mountain kit transport system. You go to a shop in Mendoza and dump your kit, for which you get a ticket. Almost a week later, and several hundred km away and 4000 metres higher, at PDM you hand your ticket in and get your stuff back. Sixty kilos for about $100. How cool is that?

Back at the camp and I got stuck talking to another Canadian whose relentless cheer and conversational manner recalled Ned Flanders from the Simpsons (he would later say that his plastic boots were keeping his feet "all toasteroonies"). Anyway, the descent and hanging around in the freezing cold with him gave me a nasty little cold and, as, that evening, I went to the loo in one of those disgusting squat toilets with sleet swirling around my head and a pit of semi frozen faeces beneath my feet, I reflected that today was in fact a good day because it really couldn't get much worse than this.

Snow Fun at All

But, hey, guess what, it could get much, much worse. The day for our walk up to Plaza de Mulas dawned bright and clear and stayed that way for at least two hours. Although PDM is the same height as PF it is about three times further away up a bleak valley of unremitting tedium. And soon we were walking up this into a wind of 100kph. Weakened by my cold, I called a halt at 5 oclock, figuring that the weather would improve and that we could walk up the following day in the bright sunshine that I had heard so much about.

Instead, that night, the worst blizzard in 20 years blew in and we got to spend a little over 36 hours confined to our tent. Now, what do you do when you're stuck for 36 hours in a tent? Well, if you are in a cheesy film, music starts playing and you and that special lady get it on. But in real life, tents are cramped smelly places and you just sit it out. Or, in the case of our low profile extreme conditions tent (guaranteed up to SIX-ZERO), you lie it out. It must be said, throughout the blizzard, our tent performed admirably and we were, as the Canadian would have had it, "all toasteroonies." Among other things we played about eight games Travel Scrabble and I must send the makers of this fine diversion a congratulatory email for making the perfect stuck-in-a-blizzard game.

Every so hour, one of us would also rise to open the tent for a snow report and be rewarded by a wall of white: the kind of blizzard that people routinely die in - and all this only two hours from our goal, where the warm clothes that would allow us to walk through this most inclement of weathers were sitting idly in a mule bag. The only serious movements we made during this time was the journey down to the close to freezing river to get water. Only a 15 minute round trip, the visibility was so low that it required careful sighing on and remembering of eight different landmarks in order to get back to the tent.

Snow Dump

But worse than that we were out of food - and toilet paper. For the first we survived our day and a half on an onion apiece, lovingly cooked by Jane into a sort of soup with powdered milk and pepped up with powdered South American parmesan which resembles real parmesan in the way that Budwesier resembles real beer. Still, when you're hungry....actually it was OK - email me if you fancy the recipe.

However defecation is always more interesting than food - well it is if you're purile and English anyway. So there I was, answer nature, crouched behind a convenient wind blocking rock wondering about genital frostbite when I experienced that Andrex moment. Naturally I panicked, but then I gathered my wits and cast around for a paper substitute. Rock? No. Gravel No.... then you think, there's plenty of it and, like loo paper, it's soft and white....

Which brings us neatly to a nice little discussion on what snow is good for. Following my recent acquaintances with the stuff I would accord it the following scores. Building snowmen (10/10) Skiing (10/10) Making mountains look nice (8/10) as a source of water or cooking ingredient (2/10) and, as an arse wiping medium a surprising (6/10) for efficacy. Though it scores (0/10) for absornacy and comfort. On a related note, during our enforced sub-zero incarceration, we also discovered that while boys can urinate out of tents with relative ease, for a girl to do the same, she would have to be limbo dancer.

Moutain Folk

The next day, thankfully, dawned clear and we walked up. Under normal circumstances this would have been a very pleasant little toddle. But when you've eaten an lactic onion apiece in the last 36 hours, and there are two feet of snow it really is about as much fun as...oh just use your imagination.

But eventually we got to Plaza del Mulas and what a ghastly, trashy place it is: hamburgers, beers, even high altitude email - all are here for the right price. I half expected to see a "McDonald's Xtreme"; indeed in my famished state I would probably have ordered a brace of the Clown's lipidinous signature burgers.... anyway, if you're expecting a bitch about this zit on the face of Aconcagua, you'll be disappointed. Looking like a commercialised and colourful version of an Afghan tent city, PDM is great - exactly what you want and all the more unexpected for being at the end of a nine hour walk during which you see nothing living except chilly mules and the odd plant clinging on to the edge of existence. Oh and ultrahikers cocooned from the elements in the finest performance equipment money can buy.

I know I've banged on about performance wear before. But there is an interesting - and entirely non-linear - correlation between what people buy and what they need. In Torres del Paine (see diary entries passim) where you need nothjing except maybe boots people buy stuff appropriate for Aconcagua. On Aconcagua they buy stuff appropriate for a walk to the south pole. I will be interested to see what sort of ludicrous garb the extreme community starts buying when the South Pole becomes a mainstream tourist destination (as it no doubt will do in time) - North Face space suits perhaps.

Anyway, our guide, Leo, a top chap, came to meet us, expressed genuine belief that we hadn't died in the blizzard and fed us on a hearty meal of lentils and beef and generally restored us to health. He also told us, rather disappointingly that the helicopter we'd been seeing buzzing around all day wasn't ferrying stiffs off the mountain; rather it was emptying chemical toilets.

PDM remined me a little of Queenstown, New Zealand. With one crucial difference. Queenstown in full of bungee jumping twits who think they are extreme; PDM is full of people who genuinely are extreme. Those who climb high mountains are an interesting bunch. Firstly you have the true mountaineers: these are by and large a very friendly lot, very friendly and helpful indeed; really, really friendly and...in fact, after a while you start to wonder if they're friendly in the way that evangelical christians are friendly...they can see that you're interested, just a little nudge and you'll be one of them, a true believer...

Then there the other sorts. We encountered some of the most miserable men in the world on the mountain. This is the kind of dourness one normally associates with Germans but here it had found a wider church. Doing an acclimatisation hike (up to FOUR - NINE) we bumped into an American, who we started chatting with, naturally enough about the blizzard. He said that he had heard more was to come; I replied that (quite factually) the weather on Aconcagua was impossible to predict, adding that the weather was beautiful now and all the snow made the mountains look cute. He looked absolutely askance at my chipper tone and replied weightily "You may believe so, but I think it is still a problem." Well it's the highest moutain in the western hemisphere, you miserable bastard, what do you expect. These are people with some weird Calvinist streak in them: if they're having a good time, it's too easy and if they're having a bad time, they're having a bad time.

The third group - and I vaguely include us in this - were younger, and rather more glib and opportunistic. They weren't travellers - the US $200 per head permit fee and other costs are a powerful disincentive to los crustidos - but most of them seemed, like us, to have showed up on the off-chance. My favourite was William, an Australian and the ultimate blagger. He was a great laugh and had made friends with a group of Argies who he was getting to buy all his meals as locals pay in pesos, foreigners in dollars. Notable also was another Aussie but for very different reasons. He was a trainee doctor (who was taking an inexplicable 13 years to qualify). Listening to him crap on, I was reminded of the self obsessed travellers who hang around SE Asia. Here was a man whose self love was so complete he probably masturabted with polaroids of himself in his left hand. Quite what he saw in himself I couldn't see.

At PDM we also got to check out a spot of unexpected toplessness. Firstly we saw a German guy hike up with his backpack on, a pair shorts and nothing else. At 4200 m on the norhern edge of the southern ozone hole, this is frankly moronic. Still, not my melanoma... Then we saw a teutonic chick step out of her tent, strip to the waist and improvise a bath with wet wipes. All very commendable and hygenic, I thought, but perhaps better done under canvas. What is it with the Germans and their desire to get their kit off? They are some of the world's most adaptable nudists: anytime, anyplace, anywhere. Incidentally this is one of the more abstruse resaons to be glad that the the Allies won the Second World War. Had the Axis powers triumphed nobody, no matter how lumpen and pendulous their bodies would be wearing any clothes.

Finally PDM is one of those great places where nobody actually speaks the native language - a sort of Eurobabble (usually heavily accented English with unfunny jokes) pervades. Thus, native speakers can get cocky. Jane walked past a group of local blokes who spent several minutes loudly discussing the qualities of her arse, finishing with "And she doesn't have a clue what we're saying" She then turned around and said (in Spanish), "Of course I understand perfectly." When she told me this, I laughed. But not too loudly as I have been in a similar position - as one of the boys, I regret, not the owner of the arse.

Fit and Fat

After a day relaxing and drinking Tang (apparently the official rehydration drink of the Andes) we headed up to Alaska, a camp at 5200m, with Leo who did a terrific job of coaxing an altitude afflicted Jane up the last 100 m. It is up here that you appreciate that this part of the Andes has a much underrated beauty. In most of the photos you see of Aconcagua it looks like a rather nondescript pile of rocks. But in the rock, well, it is a rather magnificent pile, striped like the Grand Canyon and with a trio of impressively craggy peaks. You can also see the Pacific Ocean during sunsets from here. Which has a nice way of making you forget that the second the sun goes down it drops to -10C.

Being at this altitude also gives thin, realtively trim people like me an interesting insight into what it must be like to be a flabby, really unfit bastard. When you're just slouching around, doing nothing, you're a little short of breath but you don't really notice the air. But the second you try and walk twenty metres - Jesus, you feel like Elvis must have at the end. I got to thinking that perhaps there is something to this. American comapnies could profitably send skinny types who might poke fun at their heftier colleagues on sensitivity training courses up here, rather than risk multimillion dollar lawsuits from distressed "differently sized" fat f--ks who just can't keep their greedy faces out of the cake tin.

From Alaska we pushed on to Nido de Condors, which at 5600 metres, is the maximum height of the Everest base camp trek (EBC). Here it is worth making a comparison, for those who have done the Himalayas' best know walk. It is difficult to quantify, but, although the heights aren't all that different Aconcagua is much, much harder than EBC. It is far colder, and the air is considerably drier. Moreover on the EBC there are tea houses everywhere. These are hardly luxurious, but they give you somewhere with a modicum of civilsation to recuuperate and also mean no tent and food to carry. On Aconcagua, by contrast, you even have to melt snow to get water. And, although I remained reasonably chipper, by this point Jane was getting really bad headaches and we were both waking up in the middle of the night gasping for breath.

Summit's Up

Well, the next day was summit day. Jane had decided that FIVE - SIX was quite high enough. But I woke up at 4am after a couple of hours of crappy sleep and Leo and I pressed on. First up to camp Berlin (FIVE - NINE) and then onwards to the summit. For the first few hours we walked in the dark and thereafter in a freezing wind that cut through our plastic boots like they weren't there. I must say, that although I appreciate the sentiment behind plastic boots, they are crap. Intended to be a sort of ski boot you can walk in, they have none of the ski boot's warming characteristics, nor are they notably waterproof. Until the sun came up, we were both worried about frostbite and, great though the anecodte would have been, missing toes are too high a price to pay for a funny story.

A Failure of Keeness

But matters improved. The sun came up; the wind dropped; and much to my surprise we were actually making pretty good time. SIX - ZERO, SIX - TWO, SIX - FOUR; I was sure I was going to "summit" as the peculiar American verbification has it. And then, a whisker below SIX - FIVE I got altitude sickness. I am unusual (doesn't everyone like to think this) in how it affects me. When most people get it, they have headaches or go a bit crazy, meaning that they can usually continue and have their brains or lungs explode. For me, it is altogether more practical proposition: my body turns to lead and each additional step is like a thousand. Had I got it 100 metres from the summit, I might have forced myself on. But 450m below there was no question whatsoever of doing so.

Poor Leo: he was a top bloke and tried everything he could to get me to rest and then persevere. He genuinely thought I was summit material and appeared more disappointed than I was. But eventually I told him that there was nothing for it; I would have to go down. Funnily enough, I wasn't particularly bothered. You might reasonably ask why? Having spent the best part of two weeks climbing the highest mountain outside the Himalayas only to fall 400m from the top, how could I not mind that much?

Of course, I was a bit disappointed. But I wasn't that upset - in fact, if anything, I was perhaps a tad surprised at how unmiffed I was. Actually there are good reasons for this. Firstly, having watched people come down, crushed by having not got to the top, I had resolved not to let it bother me, especially as I knew that there was a very real chance - what with weather and altitude - that this would happen. Besides, I was much more of a dilettante than most on the mountain and this was hardly the culmination of some lifelong dream - it just seemed like a cool thing do at the time. There is a lot to be said for Gen-X attitudes.

But I think the other reason was that cool as it had been - we had enjoyed a pretty fine all round mountain experience (great guide, good equipment (shitbag boots excepted), mostly good weather) I was a bit tired of it all. Living in a freezing tent, way beyond anywhere people are supposed to live, eating quick cook pasta and rice really takes it out of you. As, for that matter, does sepnding a fortnight hanging around with the kind of weird people who run ultramarathons for fun. I did think on the way down that it would be possible to hang around for another couple of days and recupperate and then with increased acclimatisation have another stab at it, probably from Berlin, the higher of the two camps. But then I thought again: from the blizzard onwards I had had this perfect, abstracted idea of the beach we were going to Uraguay. And unlike the EBC trek there is nowhere nice to hang out and rest for a few days - Aconcagua is too hard, too high, too cold and too long for the less than genuinely comitted. I decided that SIX - FIVE was quite high enough - and I chose the beach.

Obviously if I was American and read all sorts of bolloxy self help books, I would now tell you that, although I had not reached the summit, I had reached all sorts of personal summits anyway. Thank Christ I am not. But it's not like I came away with nothing. Here, down in sunny Mendoza, where the mercury is pushing 45C, some 60 degrees warmer than Aconcagua, I still have a hacking cough, one of those ruddy complexions that you only get from climbing mountains (or drinking Scotch for breakfast) and nosebleeds that would make an 80s advertising executive blush. And some came away with so much more. Jane met a bloke in the foyer of our lobby wearing bandage mittens. He'd been airlifted off for frostbite, spent four days in hospital and was slowly watching little bits of his hands fall off.