Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Climbing Volcan Licancabur

My first contact to Volcan Licancabur happened more than ten years ago, watching a documentary about a french team of scientists exploring the Bolivian Altiplano, climbing the mountain, diving into the highest altitude lake inside the crater and launching with paragliders from the top of it. I was truly amazed at the time but to be honest, I wouldn't dare to think about climbing it myself. The landscapes looked like something out of this world and the image of the emerald green waters of Laguna Verde would haunt me for some time. What a beautiful planet we are inhabiting!

Fast forward to December of 2010, I found myself looking for things to do while roaming throughout the andean region in South America, provided I would still be able to walk after climbing the big one and trekking some more in Patagonia. That's when everything clicked: I had to see Laguna Verde, climb Licancabur, explore the driest desert on Earth and see Salar de Uyuni.

A quick search on google maps turned these satellite images:

Holy Cow, if that's not inspiring, I don't know what is. Since I decided I will not book in advance any tours, hotel rooms or anything else for that matter, I just made a mental note about the whereabouts and left all the details to be arranged upon my arrival to San Pedro de Atacama, a small outpost and tourism hub in the heart of the Atacama Desert, Chile.

The desert is a marvelous place and an amazing experience and I am definitely planning on writing a blog about it soon. Here's a couple of photos from the desert (altitude around 2500 m) with the holy mountain of Licancabur ominously overlooking the valley.

Notice the snow cap on top of this massive volcano, that's rather unusual for an area where rain and snow is extremely rare. In fact, there were a few areas in Atacama that just received the first rain in 200 years! That could be a huge problem, all my winter gear being long gone after Aconcagua and the trekking boots without crampons didn't seem to fit the bill. Add to that the mined fields on the chilean side (remnants of an old conflict between Chile and Bolivia) and my chances of summiting looked rather slim. There's always the option of booking an expensive guided tour on the bolivian side of the mountain but after finding out the price asked by the agencies in San Pedro, that got chalked off too. Taking day trips around San Pedro to visit the local attractions was fun and I also got glimpses of the mountain from all sides, making me even more determined to climb it, no matter what.

Tierra Mistica, an average tour agency unexpectedly provided the answer I was looking for: book a three-day tour of the Bolivian Altiplano ending in Uyuni, interrupt it during the first day, climb the mountain and join another group after two days, without paying anything extra. Wonderful deal, except one little problem: I didn't have a visa for Bolivia and there's no way to obtain one in San Pedro. It's a long story, I repeatedly tried to contact their consulate in Chicago but got no answer, walked into a consulate in Argentina but it was impossible to figure out all the paperwork and the yellow fever vaccination required to be admitted on their territory and therefore chose to spend more time in Peru and come back for Bolivia some other time. Painful decision, especially with the mountain right in front of me, snow cap shining majestically in the austral summer sun. There has to be a way...

There sure is: take the chances, get into Bolivia illegally, complete the tour in Uyuni and try to get the visa there, some 500 km inland, risking refusal, with two unpleasant possible outcomes: being sent back to Chile and paying extra for the return trip (mild inconvenience) or being jailed for illegal border crossing (not so mild inconvenience, prisons in Bolivia being infamous for the lack of human rights and miserable treatment applied to inmates). When I saw Jamie, a very nice dude from California that I just met the day before, walking in the store, also shopping for a tour to Uyuni, I knew everything would be fine, to hell with visa, prison, and other issues threatening to ruin the so far incredible experience in the South.

I knew all I needed to do was to shoot a simple question: "Jamie, are you interested in climbing a nice volcano with me?". The answer was even shorter: "Hell yeah!". That's my man.

Mad scramble to stock on food and other supplies necessary for our high altitude adventure, white gas being hard to find in Chile, get some bolivian currency (boliviano banknotes are the prettiest in South America, hands down) and the next morning, very early in the morning, we are taken to the border, leaving Chile behind for good, in my case hoping to do so without any complication.

The Border Crossing is one of the most weird place that you can encounter while dealing with official authorities. Poor shaped buildings, a lot of junk spread around the high desert at over 4000 m high, the officers speaking no english, totally clueless but nice enough to let me enter the country with the verbal agreement that I will seek getting a visa once I arrive in Uyuni.

Whohoooo! A dream come true. We still need to get to the refugio kept by Senor Macario, the official guide on Licancabur, some 10 km away from the border. We're getting a lift there and get a room for ourselves, meet Mark, a german climber who has been in the area before and finally the guide himself, the legendary Macario who had 556 summits on his belt, still running strong at the age of 62.

We are killing time walking around the lagunas in the area and taking a bath in the hot springs we founds at the base of the mountains, eagerly measuring the height of the giant cone and planning the climb for the following day. Few hours of sleep and a 4 a.m. start in Macario's 4x4 vehicle to the trail head. It's cold, it's dark, we are passing by some inca ruins more than 500 years old and making good progress up the mountain. No trees, no water, no grass. Rocks everywhere you look. The sunrise brings a much needed warmth and the landscape beneath us is breathtaking. The quiet and dry altiplano is dotted with numerous snow-capped volcanos, the green and white lagunas looking surreal, a distant jeep leaving a dusty trail behind being the only sign revealing human presence on this hostile but beautiful landscape. We are thrilled!


After plodding steadily for four or five hours into this cold and thin air, strong UV rays on top of it, the mountain takes it's toll: we're all tired and slow and I feel especially weak with almost one hour still to go. Thinking of calling it a day. But after a longer break, plenty of water and more coca leaves I am ready for the final push. I am feeling better and I know I will make it when we hit the snow and soon enough, the steady slope begins to ease and we have the summit within sight. And what a beautiful summit it is! The highest altitude lake on Earth is nested on the bottom of this dormant but not extinct volcano, frozen and still. There's a very good chance I am the first romanian summiting Licancabur but it doesn't really matter at this time. I am happy to be back at high altitude, around 6000 m, taking photos and enjoying the view into three countries: Argentina, Chile and Bolivia. We were actually back in Chile, but that's just a nuisance.

It's cold and windy but we want to linger on a bit more, instinctively knowing that a magic place like this will be hard to match. It was truly one of the most spectacular view I could hope for and the feeling of accomplishment was tremendous. I have come a long way from watching the french expedition on TV to setting foot on top of this perfectly shaped mountain. What a joy!

Going down was no fun, Macario taking a shortcut straight down on the acareo, loose rock that reminded me of the ordeal I had to endure on Aconcagua. We made it though with no incidents, feeling better as we reached a lower altitude, filling our lungs with the much needed oxigene and experiencing a very pleasant form of euphoria.

I'd dare to say this was the best mountain climbed so far, my mountain!


Monday, February 28, 2011

Patagonia. Torres del Paine

My first contact with Patagonia happened when I was around 10-11 years old, watching a fabulous movie, an adaptation after the Jules Verne's book 'The Children of Captain Grant'.  After reading the book the image got a bit clearer and Patagonia became the mythical land of volcanoes, savage indians and high mountains impossible to climb. An image that will haunt me and always trigger a rush of emotion every time I heard the name or saw an image from there. I had to go see it, even without talking loudly about it or actively planning doing so. It stayed with me, buried deep at subconscious level until it finally emerged at the age of 33 and here I am, sleeping at the foot of Fitz Roy, one of the most iconic and beautiful montains in the world.

My first eye contact with Patagonia and Fitz Roy happened two weeks ago when the Aerolineas Argentina jet plunged through the clouds drifting above the pampas approaching El Calafate and a jagged ridge appeared towards the western horizon, with a massive spire dominating the rest of the peaks surrounding it. White glaciers were gently flowing into huge lakes, penetrating deep into the dry, wind battered plains. My dream was about to become reality and I couldn't be more happy.

I didn't realise how weak I was after Aconcagua until returning to Mendoza and finding out that suddenly all my clothes were one size larger than before, meaning that I lost a good 5-7 kilograms (12-15 lbs) and my appetite was so big that I couldn't stop eating. I ate with such pleasure that I thing only the individuals going through periods of famine and starvation could understand. The return of Brad from Chile was peppered with new adventures, like watching a giant wave washing his wallet off the shore in Vina del Mar, he barely recovered it, having serious problems at the border because of a bag of raisins he forgot in his backpack and other small inconveniences that seem to always follow the guy everywhere he goes. The we took an overnight bus to Buenos Aires where we spent another couple of pleasant days, walking the streets, taking pictures and eating like crazy. We almost got lynched by an angry mob of old ladies in a favela for occupying too much room with our backpacks in the public bus that runs from downtown to the airport. We had this brilliant idea to save money and the real city with good and bad suburbs and it turned out to be wilder than we expected, but all was ok in the end and I was relieved to see my companion walking to the gated area of the airport, nothing bad could happen from now on. Wrong. Once again, he found a way to screw up and this is a good one. A gas canister for the stove forgotten inside the backpack triggered and alert with dogs, security agents, antitero squadron and what not. He got away with that too and made it safely home to wife and bees. Well done Brad, way to travel!

Buenos Aires

Back to Patagonia, my promised land, I found myself dropped in Calafate, a very touristy town in the middle of nowhere, with a main street rivaling any sky resort around the world. Souvenir shops, cafes, a large building that turned out to be a casino. I knew I was in the wrong place so I started to ask around for the bus terminal. 10 minutes later I was on my way to the hostel and a bus ticket to Puerto Natales for the following day in my hand.

Nice clean hostel but the beds were really bad. Did some shopping in the morning and then took the bus to Natales, crossing to border into Chile for the first time this trip. The landscape reminded me of Alaska, just a bit drier here but the same endless tracts of nothingness with the occasional sign of life, a remote farm or a little plant or a mine. The pink flamingos feeding in small lagoons add a nice touch of color in this rather harsh and rugged arid environment. Puerto Natales is a small port town at the Ultima Esperanza Sound, a Pacific Ocean fjord that runs deep into the interior among beautifully looking glaciated peaks. The main attraction around here is Torres del Paine National Park, drawing trekkers from around the world but also very popular among Chilean hikers who outnumber the foreigners. 

Day 1

Another night in a hostel, more shopping and then a ride of over 100 km delivers me at the park entrance, where I meet the two cute Austrian girls that I kept bumping into from the hostel in Calafate on my way to Paine. We start chatting and since we are having similar plans for the next day, we agree to hike together to Camp Chileno and be in a position to start early next morning and see the sunrise at the Torres del Paine. Claudia sets a good pace and in less than 2 hours we arrive in the most crowded camp that you could imagine, just before getting dark.

A herd of guanacos and the Torres del Paine

Day 2

Alarm goes off at 5:30 am but I am already awake and excited about my first day of shooting in Patagonia. The plan is to hike light and fast to the high camp and then to the Mirador (lookout) and catch the sunrise at the Torres. It's a bit long and starting from Chileno is not ideal, but we really had no choice. Walking in the dark, on an empty stomach and enduring the morning cold is not very girl friendly but the girls are doing all right and pretty soon we get to the final slopes before the mirador, were stop to take a few shots of the gorgeous sunrise. Laking interesting clouds in the background makes it less spectacular than I expected and we are 10-15 minutes late anyway. By the time we get to the best viewpoint about the Laguna Torre, the best light is already gone. Not the best start for my Patagonia photo adventure but the view is so stunning and beautiful that everything around me stops and I just stand there, fascinated, admiring this amazing view. Torres del Paine translates as Paine's Towers, they are spires of old granite rising vertically above the surrounding landscape. As elsewhere around the world (Yosemite), the granite produces some of the most interesting shapes in the places where the softer layers of rocks are being removed by erosion. Towers, domes, spires, needles, sheer faces of vertical rock that makes it a rock climber's dream. It's time to get the tripod out and start shooting.

 Morning light

The granite spires of Torres del Paine

Going down is brings the first nasty surprise: a sharp pain in my right knee means my plans for the full circuit of Paine are toast. There's no way to walk over 100 km with a heavy load in my backpack when my knee hurts like this after an easy 2 hour scramble. I'm obviously very disappointed at this point and my next best option is to do the W part of the trail, a 4-5 days short version of the trek. Better than nothing. After a copious breakfast back in camp, I sadly watch the girls packing for a long hike to Camp Cuernos. I need more rest and I'll go down slowly to  the lower camp later and I'll leave the final decision for tomorrow morning. A pretty young and good looking fox is circling the camp looking for food and I take my time trying to catch it in a good light. My 135mm lens was a good choice, even though I knew I was not going to use it extensively and it adds a lot of weight to my kit, on top of my spectacular 35-70 Zeiss and 24 mm TS-E.

Going down was slow, the day was hot, the pack heavy and my knee pretty bad. I limped to Camp Torres to find the girls relaxing there, a good decision considering the high temperatures and the length of the next section of the "W".  We spent a pleasant afternoon cooking and talking and the clean showers with hot water made it even better.

 Chaura (Pernettya mucronata)

Day 3

I sleep late and I take my time packing the huge backpack. I silently think about trying to start the whole circuit and return in case my knee gets worst. I am walking slowly and steadily, knowing that the 12 kilometers on a more or less level terrain can be covered easily in 4-5 hours  and that shouldn't pose any problems. It was easy hiking and the landscape was pretty dull, rolling hills and old moraines along the Paine River valley with patches of lenga forests. A very typical Patagonian landscape I would say. Camp Seron was pretty windy and we all had a good laugh watching to funny guys trying to set up a Doite tent that they obviously rented for the trip and had no clue how to do it. The english speaking hikers somehow got together as Simon and Katherine, a nice couple from England were making rounds introducing themselves and finally gathering everybody to my american neighbors, Travis and Glenn. Graham from UK, Josue from Spain and Callum from Australia completed the ad-hoc congregation and the next days were already looking promising, these were well traveled folks and with a great sense of humor.  At 10 pm the day light was vanishing and the mosquitoes were ferocious and therefore everybody called it a night and went to bed, a long day with 19 km of hiking awaiting us the following day.

 Paine River

Day 4

Another late start and a slow pace at the beginning of the longest section of the whole circuit ensured me I had a functioning knee and i was grateful and relieved to notice that I was able to walk almost at the normal speed, passing a lot of hikers on my way to the saddle that marks the first major change of direction as we were slowly going around the big chunk of rock known as Paine. The pass was extremely windy, it was blowing so hard that I had problems placing my feet on the ground and moving forward. As soon as we dropped under the ridge it become more manageable and from this point on it was just a long slog towards Camp Dickson, very picturesque situated at the banks of the Dickson Lake and overlooking a large glacier feeding the lake at the other end. We enjoy hot showers once again and we are all eagerly waiting the kiosk to start selling beer at 8PM but realize the wine is a better option and after a few liter of Gato "cartonay" and a few shots of bourbon (nice job Travis and Glenn) I am completely wasted, barely finding my way into my sleeping bag. Totally unexpected but a very welcome change as my tolerance to alcohol is nowhere near what it used to be.

 Neneo (Anarthrophyllum Defideratum)

Day 5

Surprisingly, I'm the first one to wake up around 7:30 and I immediately put my shades on, my face looks pretty terrible. they are selling fresh eggs for 200 chilean pesos for a pop and I treat myself to a large portion of scrambled eggs and sausage, washing it down with tea and a lot of water hoping to get rid of the hangover as soon as possible. Gone are the days when i could do this 4-5 days in a row and still be able to hike 20 km a day without breaking a sweat. Looking at the map, we all thought this was going to be an easy day, not much altitude gained and only 11 km long. Proved to be a pretty strenuous hike to the Los Perros Waterfall, but I walked with the english couple and their experience in Nepal trekking the high passes confirmed me once again that my next destination needs to be South East Asia combined to Australia and new Zealand, Nepal - Thailand- Australia- New Zealand being my ideal line up. Not half way through my south american trip and already planning the next one! Just before reaching Camp Perros, I have another pleasant surprise: Eric and Marie, the french couple I met in Cordon del Plata were walking in the opposite direction, doing the big circuit as well. We spent a few minutes together but the cold wind prompted us to say good bye and continue to our destinations for the night. 

Perros Waterfall

Perros Glacier and a lonely lenga tree

Orange. Trail mark

Day 6 

A few drops of rain and a cold night provided us with a preview of what's going to be like on the most difficult day of the trek, the cross into the Gray Glacier Valley over the John Gardner Pass , the highest altitude of the trail at 1264m. It sounds laughable but this is already well into the alpine environment, above the tree limit, with glaciers around and bellow and infamous for high winds and bad weather. The rest of the group decided to take a side trip to Puma Glacier in the morning but at 11am we were still in the camp and me and Callum decided to skip it and go straight to Camp Paso, weather looking pretty bad at this point. We are making good progress uphill, climbing the 650 m to the high pass in about 2 hours. We had a light rain, sleet and a little bit of snow, some serious winds but not really the hurricane gale the guidebooks are warning trekkers about. Crossing over to the other side of the ridge brought the Grey Glacier in view an boy, it is an awesome view. A gouge mass of ice silently and patiently flowing into Lago Grey, upper surface uniformly covered with crevasses and small seracs occasionally toppling over and making rumbling noises. We have just enough time to set up the tents before a long, cold and merciless rain stated to pout and the rest of the guys are nowhere near the camp. We cook dinner in the 3 walled shelter watching more and more wet campers arriving and looking pretty miserable. It keeps coming down, harder and harder and since there's really nothing to do, i crawl into my sleeping bag, play games, listen to some music, listen to the rain hitting my tarp and try to fall asleep, hoping for a better weather the next day.

 Grey Glacier

Paine Grande

Day 7

Still raining in the morning. Graham is shivering after a cold night, with all his clothes wet and not being able to dry them in this 100% humidity. When the rain stops and the first patch of blue sky is being spotter, everybody yells a big hurray! It turned out the break was only temporary, we had a few showers barely touching us as we (me and Callum) were on our way to Paine Grande, back to civilization compared to the last couple of days: hot showers, a large hotel, a store, catamaran service to the park entrance. Once again, after a good 4 hour hike we arrive in camp just in time to find shelter from a new wave of rain showers and a cold wind. I'm a bit disappointed about the photographic opportunities so far, it's either raining or cloudy in the morning, no good sunsets, it's a mountain very difficult to photograph. I'll wake up again next morning at 5:30 an try my luck from the ridge, come on, give me a good sunrise and I'll be happy. Meanwhile, a good moonrise sweetens me a bit but that's hard to photograph, the moon is too bright and the filters are nor helping much. I'm waiting for a few dark clouds to pass by and make it darker for me.

 Cuernos del Paine


Day 8

Spectacular day today, with a hike up the Frances Valley with a stunning view of the glacier sending chunks of ice into the valley. It looks like winter here, even though the weather is nice and pretty warm. I still can't get used to the fact that I'm walking in an alpine environment, with glaciers, steep slopes, alpine meadows and fast rivers and the altitude of the trail is in the range of 100-400 m above sea level. It blows my mind. The wind picks up a bit in the upper section of the valley and we make it to Camp Britanico, a desolated place with only a handful of tents and no services. A nice change in my opinion and we receive  surprise visit from Travis and Glen before going to bed at around 9, too cold to linger around camp with nothing to do. Turned out the rest of the group arrived late (10:30) but I could't hear them, I was listening Pink Floyd and it was loud.

Lenticular cloud above the Horns

Day 9

Woke up at before 6 (I'm starting to get used to it) and it's cloudy. What the heck, I'll give it a shot anyway, it's my last opportunity to get some decent sunrise shots. The mirador is empty, not a single soul around, I have the mountain for myself. It looks promising, with some clouds behind the ridge but no direct light on the horns. When I was about to start packing as it was getting a bit late for the morning light, the sun found it's way through some holes and started to paint some spots of really intense red and orange light on the cliffs in front of me. The didn't last long, more were showing up in different places for only brief periods of time. It was like a lighting show and the most amazing thing is that I was the only one there to witness it and record it. A very special moment and some shots that I really love. More delicate rather than spectacular but nevertheless, very special.

 The first light

This is why I'm here

Shooting beams of light

A delicate touch of light on a cold, icy rock face

I felt tired and cold and my knee didn't like that at all but I had no choice other than collecting my strength and get ready for the long walk out of the camp: down to Camp Italiano, then Camp Cuernos and finally closing the circuit at Hosteria Torres from where we would catch a transit van to Laguna Amarga and a bus to Natales. It was the longest day of the trek and we were a bit burned, but we managed and the feeling of accomplishment at the end of the day was something to remember. Not to mention the grand finale, just minutes before exiting the park we saw a puma high on the slope of the mountain, a pretty rare sight even here in the national park. 


Torres del Paine is a world class trek with plenty of wilderness, great landscapes, granite spires, large glaciers and not very difficult for an average hiker. Weather can be tricky but I was lucky to only experience a little bit of everything, most of the time ranging between reasonably good and exceptionally good. The timing was just about perfect, together with Callum we pretty much nailed it every day. It was a great pleasure to hike together, we have the same interests, same passion for nature and photography, it was a great fun completing the circuit and we're looking forward to visit Perito Moreno and Fitz Roy in Los Glaciares, Argentina. I love Patagonia!

 This one is for Chris. I'll be back!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Summit of Aconcagua

Pics here:



Lazy days in Mendoza. I had a good luck getting a ride to the city. Lolo and Elisabeth invited me to a drink and it turned into a long night, lots of beer and a nice dinner, bife del chorizo. I stumbled into my bed at Hostel Independencia after 2 am with a bunch of local guys mixed with the guests playing guitar and having a great party.
The meeting with Brad was an emotional one, the only caveat being his missing day pack. He got robbed in Buenos Aires, this being his third pack taken from him. Something is going on...
At 7:30 pm we were picked up by Lolo and Elisabeth for a tour of the city and ended up at Lolo's house, a beautiful propriety out of the city, surrounded by wineries. Traditional asado dinner, excellent Malbec and Champan. Another late night, but we realy didn't have a choice, the heat of the day and evening is really opressive, no chance you can go to sleep before 1-2 am. AC is for rich people, we cannot afford the luxury.
Saturday is reserved for shopping and organizing things and Sunday morning we go to the tourism office, get our permits, pack everything, call mom to say Happy Birthday and take the bus to Punta de Vacas, our starting point of the expedition. It's a very beautiful drive among majestic snowy peaks, colorful versants, deep valley with good rafting going one.
Our two person expedition is chaotic, how else can it be when it's just me and Brad? We don't have any mule hired, don't have a map, have no idea what to expect at Punta de Vacas trailhead.
The gendarms don't seem to want to help us, they wanted to send us to Penitentes. We're on our own.
Better luck with the rangers at the park entrances, they offered to help us obtain a mule in the morning, processed our permits, gave us water and showed us where to camp.
Traditional romanian dinner, pita, clisa and ceapa (pork bacon, just the fat part, bread and fresh onions).
We go to bed early, hoping to get all sorted out in the morning. My feeling is the authorities here don't get to see weird guys like us very often. No mules, no maps, no guides. Mental!
The most important thing is the expedition is on.

Day 1

We wake up at 10 to find the camp deserted, no mulas, no movement. The ranger carries a rake in an attempt to make the premisses look better, but it's obvious he's bored and he would rather be somewhere else. I approach him and start a conversation in spanglish just to find out that he works in the park for 15 consecutive days and then he gets 15 days off. Not a bad deal.
I tried to make him call a mule company for us but it seems he doesn't like to work, period. He hands me the radio and tunes me on Grajales Company. Next 10 minutes is pure comedy but I manage to drag a rep to the ranger's hut, get the price down to $200 (from $290) and voila, we have a mule for tomorrow!
We frantically pack a bag with high altitude gear, fuel and food and hand it to the guy together with the money and get no receipt, thinking about how many things could ruin our expedition to Aconcagua.
Left with only one small and one large backpack, we don't feel like waiting another day here for the convenience of having the mules traveling on the same days with us. We charge north on Vacas Valley, to wait them at the next camp, Pampa de Lenas.
Sunny weather, extremely hot, dry and dusty. Trail is rocky and after a few hours of walking in this dry environment, we enter the camp to find a nice campsite, protected by a huge rock. We are tired but happy to have the first leg of the expedition started. A thin soup is our dinner, not enough calories for the hard work we are performing here. We plan to compensate that with more hours of sleep. At 9 pm we are already in our sleeping bags, still smelling the asado cooked by the rugged arrieros on the traditional grill improvised behing the stone hut.

Day 2

After a good sleep, another meager breakfast and seeing everybody leaving the camp, we feel strong enough to continue ahead of our mule to the next camp, Casa de Piedra, some 15 km up the valley but only 400 m higher.
Same kind of landscape, a dry valley swept by strong winds. We have a better pace than yesterday but the distance is longer and the last couple of hours are the most difficult: strong headwinds without any breaks. It blows continuously, slowing us down pretty obviously. The camp is finally in sight and as a bonus, we see the mountain for the first time. What a spectacular view! The Polish Glacier is looming and we now get to understand the scale of our endeavor. Almost 4 vertical kilometers that we will have to climb in order to reach the summit. Can we do it with our limited resources? Will the weather stay stable? Will we be able to aclimate well and stay healthy? So many questions... I guess we'll take one step at the time and try to get as high as we can and enjoy it. If we don't get to the summit for one of the numerous reasons described above, we will still have all the memories and experiences of a high mountain expedition.

Back to reality, the task at hand is to set up the tent in high winds, without losing anything. We do just fine, we get inside and cook dinner. It's dry chicken soup and pasta. Sounds fancy but being dry food it tastes horrible and Brad has a big problem eating this.
Waiting for the mules here and taking a rest day here is an easy decision. I'm having a hard time going to sleep, killing the time playing games and writing this on my aifon.

Day 3

After two 2 days of hiking in this dry and hot environment, the prospect of another day with the added difficulty of gaining 1000 m with high headwinds is too much to bear. It's better to take a rest day and wait for the mules, get some better food and get to the Camp Argentina next day, trying to sneak the second backpack in the pile so we don't have to carry it.
We hang out around the camp trying to avoid the scorching sun and the wind that doesn't give us a break. We take pictures of Aconcagua and talk about fancy recipes. Every time human beings are getting stranded in places without access to good food, the conversation always steers towards exotic foods, favorite dishes, mouth watering fruits and deserts. We are definitely looking forward to get some salami and dry sausages to spice up our meals.

Around 4 pm the mules arrive in camp and I see my pack getting trashed by a crazy and restless mule, compression sack for my down jacked ripped of, a couple of holes in the pack and a lot of dirt. At least I have it and that makes me happy. We descend upon my pack like vultures, looking for some salami and cheese. No such luck. It seems we forgot the bag containing the goodies in the fridge back in Mendoza. Desperation can be seen on our faces, we are now dangerously low on food. While I can eat anything as long as it has some calories in it, Brad has serious issues with dry and tasteless food. He eats mainly fresh, organic food and I can confirm that some of the best meals I ever had were the dinners I had at his parents in Ranusa. We'll have to get creative and he will have to really try eating whatever is available. We made it a matter of pride for having no guides, no maps, no schedule and minimum support but this can be a disaster. We reluctantly settle for some rice and a can of fish. Brad is disgusted and only has a few bits. His face tells everything... no more fish. The only good news is the wind suddenly stopped and we are getting ready to call it a day. A group of 10 guided americans are belaboring around camp, setting up tents and working like robots, tightly controlled by the guides. A good reminder why we don't like the idea. When we see camping chairs and grilled meat cooked by the arrieros for them we know it's time to dive into our sleeping bags and zip off the doors. We don't particullary like our neighboring tent occupants, they fart, cough, spit and talk very loud and proud. We eventually fall asleep ending a day that is a good candidate for the low point of our expedition.

Day 4

At least we get to move up the mountain today. Waking up at 6 am is not a problem, there is a lot of agitation around us. Everybody is going to Plaza Argentina, the official base camp on this side of the mountain. I brew a hot tea, green with a strong taste of fish. Ups, forgot to wash the pot thoroughly last night. We add chunks of marmelade and crackers to save it but it doesn't help much. By 8 o'clock we're ready to start moving, packs loaded on mules. Crossing the icy cold river is the first obstacle, the air temperature is still bellow freezing and the water doesn't feel much warmer either. We take off the boots and cross barefoot, it feels like being stabbed a thousand times with a knife. Shortly after we start climbing west up the Relinchos Valley, straight toward Aconcagua. Steep terrain with some exposure on the slopes high above the creek but we enjoy gaining altitude rapidly. We pass the guided americans early and we keep a good pace of roughly 200 vertical m per hour.

 Weather is nice, the mountain in plain view, displaying the scary looking Polish Glacier in all splendor. Icy and steep, a hell of a climb.
By 2 pm we arrive in the base camp, the first climbers for the day. I feel good but Brad is a little weak and after pitching the tent, he crashes inside with a severe headache and nausea that scares us both. Ibuprofen doesn't help at first so we go to see the camp doctor. Good oxigen saturation, normal blood pressure, he starts to feel better already. Turned out to be normal symptoms of high altitude, nothing to worry about. Tea, noodle soup, beans with slanina and garlic and we're feeling strong again. We even manage to email home from The Grajales Headquarters, lettting the family know that we are fine and in good spirit. The view is spectacular, we are on top of the glacier, on a morraine. It's only now that we understand the enormity of this adventure. We are about to try to climb Mount Aconcagua, one of the Seven Summits, the highest mountains on each continent. Tomorrow is a rest day for acclimatisation, we have to check in with the rangers and pass the medical examination in order to be allowed to go higher. We go to bed early as the air temperature drops fast as soon as the sun goes over the massive pyramid of Aconcagua.

Day 5

Good rest for this altitude, we wake up strong, with no ill effects whatsoever. Some clouds developing early in the morning, it looks like the weather is changing. Weather forecast confirms it, we will get light snow showers in the next 2-3 days but no major storms. Weather seems to be allright for climbing higher. Oatmeal and mixed cereals for breakfast, not good enough for Brad, he needs to sprinkle more raisins in it to improve the taste. We ordered dinner for tonight at Grajales, hoping that we will be able to load up on calories and save some of our own food.
The camp is very lively today, the park hellicopter busy hauling barrels of human waste out and we even witness an emergency evacuation of an older climber who developed pulmonary edema, a deadly condition if not treated immediately, in which the lungs get filled with liquid preventing the patient to breathe properly. In these cases, the aerial evacuation is free. It gives us peace of mind to know this but we go to see the doctor to get checked and make sure we are cleared to go higher.

We have very good stats, my oxigen saturation of the blood is 96, highest on the list and Brad is not far behind at 90. Blood pressure is 140/80, very good for this altitude, lungs free of fluid, we are good to go higher.
All we do for the rest of the day is to preserve energy, rest in the tent, watch the clouds gathering, get a few flurries for a good measure and count the hours to the supposedly copious dinner cooked by Gustavo, the main chef at Grajales. By 7 pm we are in an advanced stage of starvation (we skipped lunch today in the anticipation of a large dinner) and we show up at the kitchen tent where Veronica, the camp manager, sets up a table for two, as we're not eager to mix up with the guided expeditions.
They do not disappoint us: vegetable soup (with a refill), steak with mashed potatoes and wine (malbec, 2 glasses each), some pudding with dulce de leche for dessert, juice and tea. We were being offered extra meat, including chicken but it was absolutely impossible to have anything extra without exploding. Restaurant food with meat cooked to perfection at 4200 m high. We were thrilled! Not cheap at US $35 but worth every penny.
This should compensate for the lack of good food on the previous days and give us the energy necessary for a carry to camp 1 tomorrow. It's too early to make predictions but at this point I think we're looking good and if the good weather holds, in one week we could have it in the bag. It's 11 pm and I'm not sleepy, writing all this in an uncomfortable position but very gratefull to be able to type this and have it ready to publish as soon as we get back to the city with internet access. No more pen, notebook and headlamp. I also get to listen to music if I choose to do so or play games to make the hours of inactivity pass faster in the cramped tent. Power is not a problem, the portable Hypermac battery will keep me charged for the whole expedition. I am a happy camper! Lol

Day 6

Sleeping with a full belly is a pleasure nobody should be denied in this world. I'm seriously thinking about donating and charity now. Being hungry sucks big time, high on a mountain even more so. We're up at 8:00, with the sun warming up our tent and drying the dew accumulated overnight. It's getting more humid and the first cumulus clouds are starting to form. We might get a snow shower later in the afternoon. 3 crackers with marmelade and tea make a decent breakfast and we start packing the stuff that we can do without for a day: fuel, most of the food, double boots, crampons, ice axes. We end up with full packs and by 10:30 we start climbing on a morraine, on top of the glacier which is covered with rocks at this altitude, ice being visible only in some openings. We feel we're going extremely slow, but the rate of ascent is 200 m/h which is actually the norm around here. The trail is rough, with a lot of loose scree and a lot of dust. About halfway we stop for lunch, some bread with pate and an energy bar and we start atacking the latest section, a very steep and never ending scree talus. Brad is feeling weak, telling me that my slow and steady pace without brakes is unconfortable for him. He prefers going faster and taking brakes more often and therefore I invite him to go in front and walk on his own pace. Totally understandable, we're not all the same and what works well for me might not be the best for others. Unfortunately, he only lasts in front of me for about 20 metres and he needs a break.

 I keep going slowly but surely and pretty soon we have a gap. I wait for him once but I can see he's not feeling good. I don't want to stop too many times so I just keep plodding higher, knowing that pretty soon our ordeal will be over. I force myself to keep breathing with my mouth shut and go as fast as I can without changing the respiration pattern. It means slow on gentle slopes and very slow on the steeper ones. It is hard work hauling a pretty heavy backpack close to 5000 m high.
One last push and I emerge on top of the talus with the Campo Uno in sight. The last steps are the most difficult but I stumble upon a good tent site and I start to unload the contents of my pack, building a cache for tomorrow, when we need to move the tent to Camp 1. I made it in exactly 4 hours, not a record but a good time nevertheless. The view is spectacular but the summit is still hidden. A lot of rock avalanches and noisy torrents remind me about the power of erosion. It is trully phenomenal, you can actually see the forces of nature destroying the mountain bit by bit, one piece of rock at the time, a whole slope sometimes. It is majestic, one of the best lessons of geomorphology, live and uninterrupted.
I got woken up from my reverie by Brad who makes it to the camp 30 minutes later, admitting he had never been so tired in his entire life. I unload his pack, cover everything with stones and we hang out a little bit more to rest and exchange impressions with our neighbours, a pair of independent climbers like us. One Swede living in Norway and his partner from Chile, both in their 40s but very tall and fit, true andinistas. They even allow us to store a part of our stuff in their tent as they need to go back down to Plaza Argentina for proper acclimatization. Wonderful fellas.

Going down is fast, 1 hour and 15 minutes, just in time to take shelter from the storm. We relax in our tent for a couple of hours, have dinner at 7 at Grajales, make friends with the rangers, drink mate with them and talk about romanian revolution, romanian movies and their favorite subject, Dracula.
We crash back in the tent after 8, Brad going straigh to sleep but I just can't do it so early. It's already 10 pm and I'm finishing today's entry, feeling good and looking forward to move to camp 1 tomorrow and continuing our journey towards summit. We are still on track, let's hope we'll be strong enough to make it. If not, it is still a heck of experience and I am happy and gratefull to be here. Some of the best time of my life!

Day 7

It's been a week and we're still in the base camp. It snowed last night and the tent is wet, we finally feel like we're in the mountains. It's been a colder night and I did't sleep well. Brad has a solid 12 hours of sleep and he's still sleepy at 8:30 when the sun is starting to warm us up. Very light breakfast today, 3 pieces of crackers and 2 bits of marmelade each with a lot of tea. We break the camp at 10, get a loaf of bread from Gustavo and head up the glacier at 10:40, behind at least 35-40 climbers doing either a carry or moving to the superior camps. We are stronger than yesterday and the packs are lighter, soon we are past half way and take a longer stop for lunch. We get to our friend from yesterday, the scree slope but we are moving faster this time and soon enough, we arrive in camp 1, finding it much busier than yesterday. We only have time to set up the tent and get water (the siltiest glacier melt I ever had the honor to drink) and the weather turns, snow shower with thunders. We try to rest and conserve energy in the tent, debating whether to take a rest day here and then push to camp 2 at 5900 and summit from there or carry to Guanaco tomorrow, only 400 m higher, move there the following day and finally move to camp Colera to be higher and have an easier summit day. The second option is the more sensible one and we are going to decide what to do in the morning. Time to cook dinner. Noodle soup then mashed potatoes with fried bacon and fresh garlic. Smells heavenly at 5000 m but the lack of appetite makes it impossible to eat a normal portion. We try but with no success. From now on we will have to fight tooth and nail to stay hydrated and well fed, it feels like the body is rejecting everything we trow at it. We are feeling good otherwise, no headaches, no problems of any nature. I keep my mind busy playing Solitaire (I know, pretty lame) but I score well and I function close to 100% and this makes me happy. We look like shit, we even made a short video making fun of it. The sun screen is very effective but it dries the skin. Being tired doesn't help either and we are getting a nice preview of our look in about 10 years time...

We need water and we respectfully invite each other to go get some. Brad is a nice guy and gets dressed and I feel like going out too. He demands that I take some pictures and respond "go take a hike, nothing to shoot here". When I get out of the tent I have the greatest surprise of the trip: some of the most beautiful light I have ever seen. It only lasted a few minutes and I was able to improvise a camera support using my daypack, trew myself on the ground and got a few good exposure that aren't coming even close to what our eyes have seen. The entire camp was up watching the show, it was like the heaven opened its gates allowing us to have a peek into the Kingdom of Heaven.

 All I could say was "waw", loud and repeateadly. Reminds me of Gabriela on a certain night, not too long ago but it feels like ages in the past. Speaking of wich, the thin air gives me a nice light high and listening good music gives me a great pleasure. Vivaldi makes my soul singing and the violin is the most expressive music instrument you could listen to. It was a wonderful day and the elation and happiness that I feel is hard to describe using digital ink typing on a small electronic device in an hostile environment. It's 11:03, my fingers are getting cold but my heart is warm and I can't wait to share all this feelings and experiences with all of you. A few more days and I'll be back in the internet world, the huge beehive I used to enjoy everyday. Good night!

Day 8

Pretty good rest but we feel the altitude. Brad feels weak and we don't get out until it's too hot inside the tent. Not taking a rest day might prove to be a mistake. I have to make both packs with the cache of food and fuel as Brad crashed back into the warm and cozy tent. We only hit the trail at 11:20, pretty late but it's only 400-500 vertical m and that shouldn't take long. We go for maybe 30 minutes when my worst fears come to realisation. Brad needs another rest and he is obviously not good. When he throws up I know it's game over. We have a short talk about what to do and he gratiously offers to go down to Plaza Argentina and let me try to summit solo. He would go straight to Chile to find a nice beach by the Pacific Ocean and meet me in a week in Mendoza. I hate to split the party but I feel strong and I want to give the summit a shot. I take his share of food and encourage him to rest in Camp 1 and leave the decision for the next day. I know he's a fighter and he will feel better but his chances for summiting are slim at this point. Getting enough calories in the system is his biggest problem.
We shake hands and for the first time, we start moving in opposite direction. I'm moving pretty fast and without brakes. I know the terrain from seeing the entire basin from the camp but I have no idea where the Guanaco Camp is. I'm trying to avoid going to the right all the way to Ameghino Col, but I don't feel like going to the steeper terrain on the left. I find myself on the scree slope, with no map and no trail, at the highest altitude I've ever been.

 Nowhere to go but up and soon enough I find a faint trail that gets me into the main trail connecting the aforementioned col with the main trail to Camp 2. The Polish Glacier is looming right above me and I figured the camp can't be far away, I already climbed more than 400 m, it doesn't make any sense. Few more minutes and I find the deserted camp, with no water, very exposed, not a single soul around. The sky is overcast, it's getting cold and I don't feel like wasting any more time in this dark and cold place. I cover the supplies with rocks and head straight down, hoping to find my friend in camp and in a better condition. With huge steps in the loose scree, I only need 40 minutes to drop 500 m and find Brad resting in the tent. What a tough guy! He wants to give it another try tomorrow, going slow and hoping to make it to at least 6000 m. Lets's hope it's feasible. I only have 2 minutes to get inside and the daily snow shower begins. I'm burned and I take a nap before we get hungry and I get up to cook dinner and socialize with 2 guys from one of the guided expeditions. Greg from San Diego California and Suresh from Australia think we are some kind of strange attraction and insist to take pictures with us.
Some rice and vegetables fill us for the night and soon we are rapidly adding layers as the temperature is dropping fast. By 9:00 is 0 Celsius inside the tent and for the first time we have to wear hats and wool socks.
I listen to some psychedelic rock, The Dark Side of the Moon, Pink Floyd and that doesn't make me happy. Next is Manu Chao and the mood improves and I start typing this entry. I'm tired and we have another decisive day tomorrow. It's going to be more and more difficult from now on. It's not an easy mountain by any standards... I forgot to mention about another helicopter evacuation this morning, a porter who had an accident last night, some knee injury. Let's hope we will be spared and be able to complete the jorney without incidents.

Day 9

My heart is singing: Brad recovered and he's continuing up with me. What a strong character! Once you feel that bad and pack to go down to a nice beach resort by the Pacific Ocean you normally don't change your mind that easy. We look like shit, I coudn't sleep until very late and I didn't get a good rest. We linger in the tent until very late, it's windy and cold outside, the more typical Aconcagua weather. Dark thoughts take over my tired mind. With our low calory intake we have no chance fighting the wind and low temperatures. I should have bought a new sleeping bag instead of bringing a 10 years old romanian dubious brand with more feathers than real down. I have problems keeping warm at night. I guess I will wear more layers and I'll be ok.
I brew tea and we pair it with bread and marmelade from the second pack, a better one. We leave camp at 11:20, facing a strong headwind and intermittent snow. In a way, I'm happy to see some bad weather, it's not supposed to be easy, and Aconcagua doesn't disappoint. We move up pretty fast but still slower than the average. Some porters are so fast that we feel weaker than we really are. When I get to the Ameghino Col I realize my mistake from yesterday: Camp 3 Guanaco is situated on a different trail from the one under the Polish Glacier. That means a separate trip back towards the glacier to retrieve the cache left there. This is the last thing I need but I have no choice other than suck it up and do it, either today or tomorrow if we have to take a rest day due to bad weather.
The wind is so strong in the col that it almost knocked me down a couple of times. This is not a summit day, no doubt about that. Brad is getting weaker and needs more stops and that really kills my rythm and I have to keep going to get to the camp which I find well protected, 9 tents already populating the desolated place.

I pick a good spot next to our friends and head down to help my friend in case he needs it. He's just slow but manages to get to the camp without help but pretty beat up. He needs a nap, I just stare at the walls, go get water and chat with the other climbers. Funny thing, I hear Manu Chao playing in the guides' tent and 5 minutes later, totally unrelated to this, Mauro, the chillean guy is singing one of their hits. I surprise him offering my aifon already playing "Clandestino" which he listens with a great pleasure for a couple of hours.
Polenta and slanina is a hit, we both eat better than usual and we immediatly get inside the sleeping bags getting mentally prepared for another cold night.
The common belief in the camp is that Friday will be our window of opportunity for summiting. Two expeditions tried today from camp Colera but were turned back by the cold winds. The next two days will be the same, which means a rest day tomorrow (not for me, I need to bring the stuff left in the col) and a move up to Camp Colera at over 5900 m the following day so we can give it a shot Friday. If the weather doesn't improve, we'll go down to Nido del Condores and bail, using the Normal Route which is shorter and easier.
We are in high altitude environment here, the landscape around us is amazing, unlike anything I've seen before. I'm proud to report that I feel good, no headache, with very good chances of summiting in case Friday is calmer. Right now the tent is shaking like crazy and I need to go out an pee... Scary stuff. Three more days...

Day 10

This is the tenth day of our expedition and I find it pretty amazing that we lasted this long. We are in the sixth camp and we're getting ready to move to the seventh, Camp Colera from where to launch the final assault. The wind was blowing hard all night long and I had a very bad night. Not only it was noisy but the tent was shaking so hard that I just couldn't sleep. Even Brad woke up several times but he was able to fall asleep right back. Lucky guy! The sky was clear and full of stars, you could even see galaxies with the naked eye. Come 8 am and we try to get up only to realize that we feel awfull. I felt like throwing up but hungry in the same time, dizzy and disoriented. What the hell is happening? I went outside for #2 and it was cold and windy but I felt better after that. Had some breakfast and I know I have to take a 3 hour trip to retrieve the stuff left up in the col buy I just don't have the energy to do it and we are low on water. Still windy and cold so I wait a little bit more to restore my energy level eating crackers. Word is we have only one good day for the summit and that is Friday, two days from now. That means no rest day for me, I have to get the stuff left behind today, move to high camp tomorrow and then attempt to summit. This drags me out of my lethargic state and I start preparing for the task at hand: dig a hole in the ice, collect water with a cup, wait until it refills, spend 15 minutes for 1 liter. Forgot to mention that last night the water froze in the bottles inside the tent... and it's not going to get any warmer higher up.
I start walking at 1 pm and I feel pretty good. It only takes me 2 1/2 hours for the roundrip at full speed and no brakes. It's cold and windy and I'm glad to be back, eating gulash (you only need to pour hot water and wait for 10 minutes) and resting in the tent when it's cloudy or socializing in the camp when it's sunny. I change email addresses with Greg, a nice guy from San Diego, he helped us setting up the tent yesterday and he seems to be a very nice and driven individual, the kind of guy you want to have as a partner on a more serious climb.

I'm glad Brad is eating better, this is his only chance to summit. It's even colder than yesterday night so by 8 pm we are inside our sleeping bags, getting ready for the toughest 3 days of our lives. In two days, we should be in position to go for the top. Only one shot, Friday morning or we go down because of the weather, high winds expected to start Saturday. I'm excited but I have some reservations, we are weak and a lot of things could go wrong. We will do our best while staying on the safe side, it's not worth taking risks and doing stupid things. Time to wrap it up and get some rest.

Day 11

Another nasty night. Blowing even harder, not much sleep to be had in such conditions. Even though he's been eating better, Brad looks pretty bad and he's sad for this being the first time for him to be in the mountains and not enjoying it anymore. I don't look much better but I'm not ready to go home when I still have a shot at the summit, even with the diminishing chances due to the weather and our weaknesses. The other expeditions are packing in windy and frigid conditions, we are still lingering. Thoughts of going down pass through my head, it would be so much easier... But like every day, I start packing for going up, leaving the unnecessary stuff cached. Brad drops the news: he's going down to Plaza Argentina, not feeling well. Nose bleeding, weakness, lack of appetite. He already made Camp Colera at 6000m his summit but it looks like that is too much for him. I'm sad to see him going, but it is the right decision, the mountain isn't going anywhere. His health and safety is more important.
I'm left to climb it solo, carry all the equipment to Colera myself and rely upon the mercy of other climbers to help me set up the tent. By 12:30 he heads down and I make the last adjustments, being the last leaving the camp. The first section is very steep, my lungs gasping for air. At this altitude, the air pressure and therefore the oxigen content in the air is only half of that at the sea level. For the same distance, you have to make at least double the effort and with a full backpack and no rest day in at least four days, no wonder I am struggling a bit. I soon get to easier terrain and I find my pace and I even pick up a little bit on the expedition that left half hour ahead of me. It's still windy but it's visibly slowing down. I need a brake, gulp some water and eat a cereal bar, look around me and see only mountains. Amegino looks like a fun climb and I even recognize Cordon del Plata. I can still enjoy being here and that gives me hope. Another good stint higher to 5725 m and another stop for refueling gets me closer to Piedras Blancas under which the camp is sheltered. I'm surprised to see that I can keep the pace and pretty soon I see Lars and I know the camp is near. It's windy up here, there are a few expeditions already in place for the summit, more coming from the Ruta Normal. I suspect there will be over 50 climbers summiting tomorrow if the wind drops. This is the only chance, high winds will be returning on Saturday.

Mauro helps me with the tent, I get extremely tired doing this at 6000 m high. I trow my backpack's content inside and go after clean snow to melt for water. The stove is stellar and I offer to melt snow for the guys too, 4 liters per tent being enough. I eat chicken and rice (dry food brought from The States), good taste and it fills me nicely. Chamomile tea for hydration and a bit of Manu Chao for entertainment. I miss Brad and I feel lonely in the tent. The down socks he's got as a present from his wife Mihaela are amazing. I need to get a pair for myself as soon as possible.
The wind stopped and I think the whole camp is anxious to wake up early tonight and get ready for the big day. It's getting cold fast, I expect at least -20 - 25 C but in low wind that's all right. The innerboots are inside my sleeping bag, the water too. In the morning it will be critycal to stay warm, drink a lot of water, eat something and get dressed fast and get moving by 5am so I can be on the top no later than 2 pm and have time to return safely with plenty of daylight left.
This is it! 11 days, 7 camps, over 40 kilometers, scorching heat, high winds, snow showers, cold temperatures, sleepless nights and here I am, in the position to climb Mount Aconcagua tomorrow. Let's hope the next entry will bear the title: "Succes on Aconcagua". Going to try to sleep now.

Day 12. Success on Aconcagua

The anticipation before a climb always gets me. Hard to fall asleep, weird dreams, things that prevents you to get a good rest when you need it the most. The camp is the highest I've ever been, air is thin and very cold and I have a bunch of stuff with me in the sleeping bag to keep warm for the morning. Alarm rings at 4 am and I start the day the worst way possible: no matter what I do, the stove doesn't want to work. The fuel is too cold, air too thin, it won't burn nicely. I eat some crackers and get a litter of water from Lars, doing away with hot breakfast and tea. It sucks, I wanted to hydrate more. We pack and get dressed, the lack of O2 makes me sick, I feel like going back to my sleeping bag. We start moving at 6 and there are parties above us, marking the trail for us. We are moving slow, like everybody else. For the first couple of hours, I struggle to keep my fingers and toes warm, even with handwarmers. Not much room to wiggle them inside the double boots but I can still feel them. It's harder than I thought it would be and I fell I don't have the energy to go all the way to the top. We are treated with a nice sunrise but it's too cold to risk getting the gloves off and handle the camera. I'll take the pics on the way down with the sun in a better position. By 9 am we are at Refugio Independencia, now damaged and uninhabitable but possible the highest man made permanent construction in the world at 6400 m. We rest as Lars feels a bit dizzy and then we climb the snowy ridge to start the traverse. We are now on the upper part of the normal route heading toward the infamous Canaleta. The view is spectacular, mountains and glaciers all around us, all of them below us.

The traverse is steep and airy, longer that I expected it to be. I can see Berlin and Plaza de Mulas way below. At the top of the traverse I feel finished, done, kaput. There is a guy that can barely talk, completely exhausted. He will need to be walked down before he colapses here, there is no helicopter rescue here.
No matter how tired I am, this is no place to return. I eat a cereal bar, drink some water and follow Lars and Mauro at short distance. The goal now is to make another step. It takes about 2-3 breaths to make a step. It is incredibly hard to do just that: breathe and put one foot in front of another. The double boots and crampons are heavy, the trail is steep but soon the top is visible. I know I'm gonna make it. The last steps are the hardest but a wave of joy and relief floods me as I stand on top of Americas. I'm not alone, 20-25 more people already on the summit plateau. We take pictures, congratulate ourselves and after 30 minutes it's time to head down as the weather closes and it's starting to snow. Gone are my spectacular pictures on the way down...

I try to go fast but I can't, I'm too tired for that. I now realize how long and how steep the trail is and what a great climb this was. I'm so happy to see Camp Colera after a long descend in snow and wind. I start melting snow to get water for myself and my companions who are appreciating the gesture, cook dinner and crash at 9:30, tired and happy. To be honest, I don't feel much, I'll have to let it sink in for a few days. I still have a long walk down, it will be over when we will get a hot shower in Mendoza.

Day 13

Sleeping at 6000 m is an adventure in itself. A bunch of stuff inside the sleeping bag, icycles resembling the penitentes growing down from the tent ceiling, thin air, poor food and even worst appetite. Normally, not the best place to be especially with the Pacific Ocean so close. Summer time, nice beaches, some of the best seafood in the world... But the feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction after climbing Aconcagua trumps them all. I feel good about it and I know for sure my life will be different now. As I always look to go further, deeper or higher... I know a trip to the Himalayas will be in order sometimes in the future. A lot of training and discipline will allow me to climb a 8000 m peak. Mount Everest is not what I'm looking for, way to expensive and commercial. At least it's possible to climb Aconcagua independently and avoid the busy side of the mountain. It's not the most spectacular or technical climb but I was able to prove myself I can function well at high altitude and even though I was tired, I didn't have the slightest headache on the summit. Acclimatisation worked perfectly for me and I know I only have to train harder and I could go higher. It's a new world for me and I know it's just a begining. Many thanks go to all family and friends who supported this endeavour, even if it didn't make sense at the time. I had a special moment at the top thinking about my dearest friends that for one reason or another couldn't make it: Brad, my strong partner who had to go down only two days from summiting due to altitude problems, Liliana who wanted to climb the mountain more than all of us and who's initial idea started it all, Sebi who had no choice but to climb it with Liliana, I assure you would have enjoyed it, Paul who I am quite sure would have easily made it to the top, same for Chris or Lucy who most likely had a great time rock climbing in Patagonia. There are great mountains in the world and I promise each and every one of you that we will step foot on them together.
Back to reality, it's still cold in the morning and I'm tired. No wonder I don't feel like doing anything. When the sun starts to warm up the tent and I hear movement in the other tents, I reluctantly start doing the chores that I'm suppose to do in preparation for the exit day, a day when I'm supposed to drop 2000 m and 3 camps that took so much work to climb: melt snow for 3 people, eat, pack, get ready. It's amazing how tired and out of breath you are feeling after just a little work. By noon we're still not done and it's already snowing. We start the descent with the first stop at Guanacos Camp where I have a hard time adding the left behind stuff to my backpack. It looks huge and it weighs... I don't want to know, more than I'm comfortable with. It's hard to put it on and soon my back hurts. In Camp 1 we take a brake for Lars and Mauro to add to their packs. We are all mules now and the steeper and most dangerous section down to Plaza Argentina lies ahead. Walking on the glacier is no fun, my knees start to hurt and I have a hard time to keep up with the guys. Once again, my short legs don't help me but they slow down for me and soon enough, we have the base camp in sight and this is the moment we can really feel all it's done and we can enjoy it.
Brad left a cute "Thank You" note in Mauro's tent but he's nowhere to be found. I supposed he just walked out but Veronica from Grajales tells me he's got a free helicopter ride for being sick, even tough his condition didn't really warrant evacuation. The camp doctor doesn't know anything about it so I'm really confused about what happened here. I hope I'll find him in Mendoza.
We have a celebration dinner and we arrange a mule for tomorrow, walking another 35 km with 30+ kg is not something we would gladly do. The plan is to go as far as Pampa de las Lenas tomorrow and have a shorter day the next day to be able to catch a ride to Mendoza. Two more days to get out of the mountains, shower, bed, real food... only when you are deprived of these you can understand how hard the life used to be before the benefits of the modern technology became widely available. Not that long ago actually!
Time to go to sleep, belly full, lungs happy with the air at 4000 m and temperatures more humane. It's almost over.

Day 14

After a good night of sleep, the sun wakes me up once again. We have breakfast and mate in a more relaxed atmosphere. Everybody sounds and looks more relaxed, anxiuos to go down. We are happily picking about 20 kg each from our huge packs to load them up on a mule. Lars and Mauro were short on cash but I offered to cover it and we'll meet in Chile later next week and I'll get my money back. Even as we all have planned to exit the park carrying everything on our backs, we just realised what a chore that can be and we're all happy to share a mule. We embrace and kiss latino style with Veronica and Gustavo and pack the rest of the stuff that we need for the day and we start going down after 12, pretty late for such a long section but we are confident we can do it and arrive two camps down in Pampa de Lenas during daylight. All good except my right knee, it didn't recover from yesterday and it hurts as soon as we start walking. I try to ignore the pain and keep up with my companions but it's obvious I'm slower than them. Since there's no great rush, they go slower and wait for me. The trail has a lot of rocky sections that really hurt my knee but I manage to keep walking and hide my pain as well as I can. We cross the swollen river when we exit Relinchos Valley at the confluence with Vacas. It's a treat that follows me from Alaska, every time I have to cross a river back it's swollen and more dangerous. This wasn't quite that bad and we stop for lunch, with the last view of Aconcagua right in front of us.
The next section is the longest one and we are hoping to complete it in 3-4 hours but my knee gets worse and I have a hard time just walking. It was by far the hardest day of the expedition and the kindness of these two new friends was amazing. They patiently waited for me everytime I was lagging behind, and when we finally made it to the camp right before the fall of the night, we had an improvised dinner with one of my altitude dry food portion, Brad's slanina, crackers and tea.
Since I didn't keep the tent for the day, I had to spend the night outside, with no other shelter that the starry sky. Boy, I do not regret the decision! The night was beautiful, a bit windy but clear and the sky was a beautiful show, a lot of shooting stars and I soon entered a dreamy state without sleeping that gave me a very nice warm feeling. One short day tomorrow and the expedition is over.

Day 15

This is the day when the expedition comes to an end. I would lie to say I'm not glad. It's been a long grind, I'm hungry and dirty and I'm limping my way out of the park after a good night of sleep and a decent breakfast and mate that gave me a nice boost. It was no point to keep up with the guys, they were heading to Chile anyways. We shook hands after checking out at the Ranger Station and I had all the valley for myself, just two local guys going up today. I enjoyed the solitude, being able to be just with myself. The knee was even worst that yesterday but I didn't care much, I knew by 2 pm I would be out of the park and working on a way to get to Mendoza.
I only stopped for lunch (not much, just crackers) and to wash myself and try to get a resemblance of a civilized man. I'm afraid I wasn't very successful but at least I feel a little cleaner and ready to go back to the big city. The bus to Mendoza is supposed to arrive at 5:30 so I have a lot of time to kill by the Gerndarmeria Nacional control point. Mostly people returning from vacation in Chile or different kind of international transportation. Not much traffic for what is an important border crossing point. My bus arrives early and I almost miss it for not paying attention and expecting it much later. I find myself among people, on a paved road, in an air conditioned vehicle, the price was dirt cheap and I feel like a stranger. My nose is running, the air pressure is rising and soon I will have my first hot shower in two weeks and I will reunite with Brad. Life is slowly coming back to normal.