Usual fun and games on the flight – tug truck has a problem and despite the pilot requesting a replacement truck to be sent as well as the engineers, only the engineers turn up. Surprisingly after half an hour they can’t fix the problem and agree that it might have been wise to have requested a replacement truck as it will take another half an hour for one to arrive!. Pretty ordinary films (Sweeny and Taken 2 – don’t rush to watch either) and then Xanax comes to the rescue again giving me a good 7 hours or so sleep until just outside BA.
Immigration and customs are absolutely packed so it takes over two hours to leave the airport – luckily my next flight to Mendosa (from a different airport in BA and a 1.5 hr transfer) is not until 17:45 as I certainly had not incorporated the four hour delay!
BA looks pretty nice in the Summer – lots of greenery and open spaces. Sports facilities everywhere including open air swimming pools. An interesting mix of colonial and modern architecture with wide roads certainly confirms the impression of a high quality of life.
Fairly painless flight to Mendoza - a smallish town of 1m people in the foothills of the Andes and then off for dinner. The town is actually pretty nice with more wide avenues and pedestrianised areas. Lots of families are out enjoying themselves along with a number of well behaved groups of youths - T Blair's cafe culture seems alive and well here!
Great hopes of starting with a famous Argentinian steak are dashed as the restaurant for the evening turns out to be a rather mediocre Italian.
I do get the chance to continue refamiliarising myself with Spanish, translating and ordering a series of pizzas, salads and drinks. Plan is for an early night as everyone is pretty tired after a long days travelling but we don't get back to the hotel until almost midnight - the speed of the service being balanced by being able to eat outside having come from the depths of Winter in London.
Up early (06:30) and the sun is shining so head off for a run - the city is lovely at this time of the morning and I encounter a mix of industrious locals bemused at a foreigner going for a run at this time of the day and rather less industrious locals staggering home from what appears to have been either an excellent night out (canoodling on benches or shouting from the sunroofs of cars) or a disastrous one (crying and shouting). There is a wonderful park and I find it rather energizing to run under the auspices of the mountains we are heading off to climb; however I impress myself by being mindful of not getting overconfident and spend quite a bit of time stretching and enjoying the view - last time I go without any form of camera (apologies for this one and not to be repeated slip up).
Then it is a reassuring kit check and off to the permit office for a rather swift and very friendly procession of stops to pay and then pick up the licenses. We pop into a local shop to get some more gear and then lunch at a local mall. Luckily there is a grill there and a rather good steak - not sure how much (if at all) my enjoyment was augmented by the fact that the others I was eating with were all vegetarians and the salads were nothing to blog about!
Afternoon was shopping for the expedition. 7 chaps looking for an odd collection of items with little help from several very uninterested staff. Good fun and a good chance to get to know my fellow climbers a bit better. Then re-packing bags for the trek into the park, a quick swim and dinner. Service issues amused us again but food not to bad.
We get up at about 06:30 to pack and prepare for a departure some time prior to 8 when the porters are meant to arrive. A couple will come with me, Zac and Gus to the mine with our bags whilst the rest will begin the journey back to Sugapa. Obviously they don't turn up until nearer 9 - the only reason that this is a slight issue is that we have given the mine an ETA which we will now not make.
Anyhow, after saying our goodbyes to everyone we head off down to the mine. Our porters try their best to come up with reasons as to why they should stop at certain points but through a mixture of good humour, feigned misunderstanding and plain old ignoring them we manage to keep them going for a while. We had been told that they did not want to be seen by security so had agreed that when we got near to the mine boundary that they could head back. At about this point, we come across some keep out signs
Shortly after this the way becomes flooded and we have to climb up and over some cliffs and then hike up a few hundred metres of a slag pile to get up to where we thought we had seen a security officer waiting for us.
However it turned out that this was not in fact security, just a couple of containers and now the person who was looking down at us has gone leaving the place deserted. Unfortunately the mobile phone signal that we had been lead to believe was here wasn't and so we could not contact anyone.
A leisurely start to the day as we are not heading off to the mountains until 10:30. Fun and games with emails and updating my blog given the impressively poor wifi in the hotel. Our driver's firm conviction that he always has the right of way leads to some rather hair raising moments but this is soon forgotten as we see the Andes rising from the plains. We stop for lunch in Uspallata, the last bastion of civilization, where a thunderstorm soon arrives that quickly turns into a hailstorm. This is apparently propitious as poor weather now means a better chance of good weather later. The only person not enjoying this is one of the other customers who races out with one of the parasols to shelter his car - not surprisingly the parasol is very soon blown away. Laughs all round for those outside until the wind strengthens and all sorts of twigs, leaves and seeds get blown from the surrounding trees onto our food. Then onto Los Penitentes (a small ski resort) where we stay in a small hostel which serves a rather good supper given how remote we are.
The hostel has the superb combination of steep, creaky stairs with a very low roof above them – I struggle continuously, especially as our bodies start acclimatising with several trips to the bathroom during the night.
Clear blue sky in the morning and the sun hits the valley at about 8am. Perfect conditions for a bit of yoga despite the amused hoots from passing truck drivers. Off to the entrance hut to check in and get our personal rubbish bags-
$300 fine if you do not return it when you leave the park - and then we start to hike up the Vacas valley. It will be a gentle trek over the next few days rising from about 2,400 to base camp at about 4,300m. Today we climb up to about 2,800 at Pampa de Lenas. Not too long a trek but the sky is cloudless and the sun strong - as it is 8 chaps we obviously all get sunburnt; not too badly though. The valley is pretty steep sided and the rocks and plants provide a fine spectrum of green and browns which contrast well with the bright blue sky.
A couple of us go for a dip in the river on arrival at camp; refreshing doesn't begin to describe how cold the water is. The muleteers are cooking a BBQ for us tonight and I am writing this next to the fire - it smells superb! I have very sensibly brought a couple of bottles of good Malbec up from Mendoza – the epicentre of the Argentinian wine industry.
The BBQ is pretty huge - the photo was just for one small group - by the end, the whole grill is covered with meat - two types of sausages, large chunks of beef and rib strips which are mainly fat and gristle and smothered in salt before cooking. Somehow it turns out that the strips are for our group and I don't think that I impress the muleteers by leaving large amounts behind; luckily there is so much of the big beef chunks that we get some of those as well and they are delicious!
A fairly leisurely start and a similar day of trekking but with our first view of Acongcagua just before camp. This is the Casa de Piedro at about 3,200m.
We arrive at about 2pm and the sun is really strong - even the tents provide little shade - and the camp site is a very sorry place until early evening when the sun goes down. Then there is a rapid change and a very cold evening wind blows through. We have another BBQ but this one is much later and we are mostly too cold to enjoy it - may have to dig out my down jacket for evenings from now on!
Accounts and photos of completing the Explorers Grand Slam - 2 Poles and 7 Summits. By Sebastian Merriman. Aconcagua, Ama Dablam, Carstenz Pyramid, Denali, McKinley, Elbrus, Everest, Kosciusko, Kilimanjaro, North Pole, Arctic, South Pole, Antarctic, Antarctica, Vinson, vertigo, climbing, mountaineering, skiing to the pole, skiing to the poles, seb2poles7summits, seb27, Seb Merriman, seb2poles, mountains, poles