Thursday, January 13, 2011

Argentina Days 4-9. Cordon del Plata

Day 4

Nobody at the hostel went to bed before 2am. Fiesta all the way. The ear plugs saved the day and I got a decent sleep, spoiled only by my bad sinuses. I'm afraid this can deny me climbing at high altitude if they clog off completely. I decided to go find the answer today.
Quick shower(probably the last one for a week, but I'm carrying wet wipes to cut down on stinkiness), changed more dinero, bought 1 1/2 liters of white gas, dropped my extra gear at the hotel storage hoping that I'll find it there when I return and by 10 am I checked out and grabbed a taxi to the bus terminal and went on to find transportation to Vallecitos, a small ski resort at the foot of Cordon del Plata. There's no such thing but I'm told (in Spanglish) that I can get the local bus to Potrellilos and hitch hike for the rest of the distance, 23 km. Cute girl on the bus next to me, and she speaks english. She's not local but she ask the bus driver for a better way to reach Vallecitos and there is one: ride the bus to the end destination at Piedra Blanca, hike down 1km to the road from Potrellilos to Vallecitos and that gets me closer to my destination, only 12 km left to walk. It's 3pm, extremely hot and the road is deserted, no skiers, no traffic. After a couple of hours of hiking I get lucky and catch a ride to Vallecitos, saving me hours of suffering walking on a dirt road in the scorching heat. I refuse the kind offer to spend the night at refugio and climb higher to Las Veguitas, a very nice base camp at 3200m. I make friends with couple from France who just started a one year tour around the world, looking for the ideal place to live. Pretty amazing. After taking some pics at the sunset, I'm ready to call it a day, a good day for being able to get from Mendoza, altitude 760m to 3200m without much effort. Click on the images to see a larger version.

Day 5

Couldn't get much sleep last night, checked the weather at 5am (too dark) and 6 (cloudy) for some sunrise pics but no luck. Packed my backpack and started my push to Camp Salto de Agua. Not a brilliant idea to do it without acclimatization, it's over 1000 m (3300ft) gain and the weight of the pack made it harder that necessary. Dslr+tripod at 4250m? It takes a lot of discipline to keep moving and the upper section suggestively named "infierno" for it's steepness combined with loose scree did not make my life easier.
My strategy was to keep moving for one hour without brakes and than stopping for 15 min for snacks, pictures and hydration. That means a slower pace, 200 vertical metres/h using the rest step a lot and ensuring I don't exhaust myself too soon.
6 1/2 hours later I reached my destination, a clutter of tents overlooking the glacier I just climbed. I'm surprised to see so many people after meeting only 3 souls on my way up. I could tell they're all seasoned climbers, most of them Argentines with a few foreigners doing acclimatization for Aconcagua. I find a protected site for my bivouac, the area is infamous for strong kathabatic winds ripping off tents and I just have enough time to cook dinner, force it down in spite my lack of appetite and get into my bivy bag for a nap. Weather clears briefly around 8:30 and I'm taking the opportunity to get some exposures, especially the handsome gaucho driving the mulas carrying equipment for the more affluent expeditions, get to know my neighbors and then get to bed, feeling burned but accomplished. Other than a hint of headache, I'm feeling ok.

Day 6

It's Sunday and therefore a rest day. It snowed all night but it was pretty light and the warm rocks and intermittent sunshine melted all the accumulation during the morning. Some kind of biological alarm woke me up every 2 hours to shake the snow off my shelter and drink water, but other than that I had a good sleep.
By the time we had lunch with a group of nice Argentines from all over the country it started to rain, than sleet and rain again... Nothing to do but to get inside my bag to do some writing for my blog or just let some random thoughts keep my mind busy. With all this time spent on the horizontal, I'm afraid I won't be able to fall asleep tonight. I hope I don't have to spend another day like this, I need a window of good weather to go higher for acclimatization and to keep me busy. Half of the camp population left already disappointed about the weather and the poor condition on the trails to the main summits. Lets hope Aconcagua will treat us better.

Day 7

Horrible night. A lot of snow, noise, semideflated Thermarest airbed, couldn't fall asleep till 4am, when the sky cleared and high winds replaced the snow, just a different kind of misery.
Ate the usual oatmeal, having a hard time eating it without vomiting. Appetite way down, lack of sleep, half of my stove fuel gone from not tightening the stupidly designed cap all the way... Not my best day ever.
I partnered up with the only english speaking fella in the whole camp, a canadian from Quebec to do some altitude gaining for acclimatization. Turned out he was here for a week, had great climbing experience and after 3 hours steadily climbing higher, I had to throw in the towel and let him go ahead. At 4800 m I already beat my altitude record but I'm not in the mood to celebrate. The snow is difficult, I'm tired, I gained the recommended 600m, it's time to take some pics, enjoy the scenery and head home.
I am observing the glacial morphology, thinking about the classes back in college... How grateful I am to be able to see all this amazing places and have a different understanding compared to the regular folk who just sees the beauty of nature without questioning how stuff works.
The camp is quiet, a large slovenian expedition scattered on the rugged landscape, very unfriendly and yeah, pretty rude for yelling to each other across camp at 5am getting ready for a climb.
Takes me an hour to befriend an odd fox, who was circling the camp hoping to snatch some unsupervised piece of food. Slim chances but I get a couple of pics with the worst wildlife camera-lens combo one can imagine: 5dII with a manual aperture, manual focus Zeiss zoom 35-70mm. I put my best animal behaviour for the amusement of the whole camp and the fox gets bored after a while and accepts me closer than the usual tolerance distance.
Finally got to understand how my new stove works and make mashed potatoes (tasteless) with greasy spam. Not great but I need the calories.
I'm so tempted to bail in the morning, Mendoza sounds like paradise at this moment but I have to promise myself that I'll have one more push above 5000 tomorrow if the weather stays calm. This is easier said than done, it's funny how fast the enthusiasm goes down after a few bad nights. I have to get out of my sleeping bag to remind me that I have one of the most beautiful views in front of my eyes and stop bitching and moaning about all this small inconveniences. I'll eat salami and cheese and I'll be fine. See you in Mendoza!

Day 8

Cold night, I couldn't get hot in my sleeping bag, that's something new. I wasn't cold either, just comfortable but that's strange, it wasn't that cold outside. I suppose I ran out of energy and my body reacted to this. It's an interesting exercise trying to read your body, learn how it reacts in extreme situations.
I slept late, until the sun made it to hot to stay inside, that is. I pretty much decided to go down but funny thing, when I started packing, I did the day climbing pack, no internal debate, no mental process, I just packed for a normal day hike. With the last drops of fuel I made a ginormous portion of oatmeal to have enough energy for the day and at 9:30 I was on the same trail like the day before. I didn't like the fact that I had to retrace the exact same trail but at least I get to compare my performance after a good sleep and supposedly better acclimatization. And boy it works! I had a much better pace, no long brakes, made a much improved time. After my yesterday high point the terrain steepens, the trail follows a culoir that takes me to a long ridge that connects to the main ridge between Vallecitos and Plata. It'a a bit dangerous without crampons but I manage and after a long slog up the easier terrain, I reach the final snow traverse to the main ridge. Knowing that I'm above 5000m already, I find new sources of energy to top it out at the small summit of Portezuello, aprox 5200m.
The view is spectacular, with Aconcagua looming in the distance. Mountains all around me, no signs of human presence. I'm stunned! My plan was to have lunch here but the fierce wind made me reconsider so I after taking one more pic of Aconcagua and a self portrait, it's time to head down.
Arrived in camp by 5pm, stinky fish in a can for supper as I'm out of fuel. I'm invited over for mate and crackers and cheese by my new local neighbors, who unanimously told me I had balls of steel for sleeping in a bivysack at this altitude. Nice to be invited over by the locals, the slovenians were the most antisocial bunch I ever encountered, and they spoke good english.
All in all, a very good day, I feel well aclimated for 4000m, let's hope I'll be strong enough for almost 7000. It's hard work, no doubt about it.
I go to bed now dreaming about a hot shower and a steak dinner. Adios

Day 9

Another good sleep, this time I'm going down for real. Left the camp in perfect weather, sunny and a cool breeze. Dropped over 1300 m in less than 2 hours, not knowing if there's any available transportation to Potrellilos or Mendoza. At the Refugio (alt 2900m) I meet two of the argentines from Buenos Aires that left earlier than me and found out they arranged transportation to the bus terminal in Mendoza. I approach Fernando, the driver and after one minute, I'm on the list. Peace of cake. The only problem is we don't leave soon, so we kill time in the refuge playing games (in spanish, it's really fun but it's a strategy game and I'm doing ok).
At 4 we depart in a Land Rover and take secondary streets through the wineries, very tempting to just stop by and spend the night drinking. Elizabeth is from Austria and she's in Argentina for work (at the bodega Norton) and learning spanish. I get invited by her and Fernando to have a cold beer in Mendoza, it's extremely hot and I just can't say no. We ended up talking all evening, drinking countless Schneiders (1 liter beer, the're not playing games in Argentina), had a nice steak dinner and being dropped of at the hotel after 1 am, buzzed up and happy. Friday night traditional dinner at Fernando's, asado and Malbec to go with it.
Life is good!

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