Up early as the mules need to get up to base camp and then back down to the road head. The camp is very pretty prior to dawn with a variety of lights and reflective patches.
Then we head across the river into the valley. As we are crossing it at about 07:130 and it is a rather chilly morning, the water is freezing and there is a rather painful few minutes until our feet go comfortably numb. We turn into the Relenchos valley along a rather tricky riverside path (lots of scree and mudslides) and up to a col
where we get our first really good views of Aconcagua. Then it is a long undulating walk up the valley.
to base camp where we are greeted with kisses from the lovely Ilena who prepares an excellent lunch for us as we put up our tents. Again the afternoon sun is really strong and we retire to our tents for some much needed rest. Base camp is a semi-permanent group of large tents (dormitories, mess tents, cook tents etc) owned by various agents. We opt for the tough options and remain in our tents!
Tomorrow is a rest day to acclimatize before we start to lay provisions further up the mountain and acclimatize at higher altitudes.
Visit to camp doctor in the am for approval to proceed. Checking ox saturation level and blood pressure - mine is 95% and blood pressure is 120 / 80. Others generally ok but three needed to be retested after the carry tomorrow. Two for water on lungs and one for blood pressure.
Blood pressure seems to be the main concern with 160 being the limit. However, you appear to be allowed to keep going back until you pass and they will give you a pill to help lower your blood pressure - strangely this pill is only a short term measure and there is no requirement to carry on taking them higher up the mountain.
Anyway after a few visits, the whole group is cleared to proceed. The rest of day is sorting out food and kit to take up mountain.
Today is a toughish climb as we are now hitting altitude for the first time - up to Camp 1 at 5,000 mtrs - and doing a carry of most of the food and gear that we will need for the ascent. The food is both freeze dried (rehydrate in the bag) for high up on the mountain when there is no water and melting snow uses precious gas so neither boiling or washing up are really an option and locally bought pasta and sauces for easy cooking and carbs lower down.
The camp is just over the light grey ridge that is on the mid-right side of the picture above. We are carrying full packs, I a bit over 20kg but I want to push it to see what sort of speeds I can do in comparison to the suggested speeds and also to accelerate my body's acclimatization. On the other hand we are making this attempt as a group so while I can push it for a bit we regroup every 60-90 mins or so, so there is no real chance to test myself against any of the times for the various stage walks. Having said that we are probably the fastest group on the mountain with many adopting the pace on summit day at these much lower altitudes. It will be interesting to see whether they are managing to save much more energy for then or this is in fact their pace at this altitude and they will really struggle higher up.
The final slope up to the camp is mainly scree and very steep - this is a real tester for legs, lungs and mind if you are pushing it! Bear in mind the below picture only shows the second half of that slope.
We spend a bit to time at the new camp to help acclimatise, have a spot of lunch and enjoy the view up to the next col.
The return to Base Camp is quick and fun - the long scree slope up becomes and very quick scree run down. The picture below shows the first half of the final slope together with what remains of the famous 'penitentes' at this stage of the season. Penitentes are wind eroded snow/ice towers formed from large snow fields.
Then it is just a saunter along the various paths with an empty pack - the traditional cache and carry system. When we get back it is an easy afternoon lounging in the sun and chatting until supper. We each brought a luxury item along to be brought out and shared with the others at an appropriate moment. I had brought a range of flavoured Korean chocolates and wanted to have these before our taste buds started to turn off as they do at altitude and so brought them out on this final night before we headed up the mountain. Generally ok, but there were a few left and so I took these through to the chefs having checked with the guide that they like spicy food - off the three left, one was a chili chocolate; nice at first but with a delayed and reasonably strong hit of the chilli. Unfortunately it turned out that the cooks in fact did not like chilli and it was rather amusing to watch their increasingly frantic attempts to find water in a mountain cook tent where anything that is left freezes shortly after dark.
Having stored much of our gear at Camp 1 yesterday and then returned to Base Camp to sleep (climb high sleep low), today we move up to Camp 1 and stay there. This is another day of trying to push it to really get prepared for the higher altitudes.
The water supply at the camp is a very small run off of melt water on the other side of the valley from the camping spot. It is not clear why, but the stream runs out pretty close to the bottom of the of ice. Even whilst we are filling up bottles the stream recedes further and we are forced to reposition the one metre length of pipe that is used to collect the water - just hope that this does not continue as having to melt ice for water at this altitude will be a real drain on our gas supplies. During the day the camp is very hot and the sun very strong - clothes need to be used in a variety of protective ways up here:
But we do have a pretty good view from here:
The food at base camp has fit a certain formula. Breakfast is a mix of porridge, cereals, cheese, ham and bread. Lunch and dinner are soup, meat and veg and some form of pudding. This is pretty standard fare for a base or catered camp in the mountains although I have to say that this is towards the top of the that range. I will write more about the food that we have brought and will prepare for ourselves on the mountain. Tonight is our fist time to cook on the mountain and we are doing so at 5,000m! We have pasta with cheese and broccoli, plus tuna and creamed corn- lots of garlic chilli sauce. Obviously we don't read the label properly and do two packs which apparently provides enough for 6 people. Despite a valiant carbo-loading effort we can't quite finish it but at least this provides leftovers for breakfast tomorrow. Quality and quantity - not much more that you can ask for from a meal on the mountain!
The normal route on Aconcagua is Base Camp, Camp 1, Camp 2, Summit. However most groups are now doing Base Camp, Camp 1, Camp 3 (from another route), Camp Cholera, Summit. This latter route allows a bit longer for one to acclimatise and then a shorter summit day which is proving very popular. We are doing the latter route as well.
A stream has sprung up overnight which has flooded the area just in front of our tent. Oddly it seemed to do so just before it became very cold as all the water has in fact frozen so we are surrounded by ice. We have pitched our tent at the top of the group and so have been hit first.
We carry our tent some way down the little valley to find a new spot - however as it is not clear what has caused this new stream it is not clear where it will head off to next - fingers crossed! The morning is quite slow as we wait for it to warm up before heading off to Camp 3 up the steep col. This does give us a superb view back down to Camp 1 and beyond.
The going is noticeably tougher today as, despite the reasonable footing, the path is steep and the altitude is beginning to really effect people some people. Camp 3 is a lot higher colder and bleaker at 5,680m:
When we get back, we have a long afternoon recovering and chatting at camp before having to head to the tents early in the evening as it gets very cold when the sun goes behind the mountain which is at about 7pm. We have had the first casualty of the trip as one of the group needs to head back to Base Camp having not been able to make much of the ascent to Camp 3.
Remains of pasta from last night
Two melted and then resolidified chocolate bars
Poor relation of super noodles with some ham and cheese.
We woke to find that the stream had indeed followed us down the slope and hit our tent spot again as well as some of the others higher up - our defences had kept the water out of the tent though. This led to an enjoyable morning, reminiscent of childhood damming and channeling the rivulet through the rest of the camp out into empty space to ensure that no other poor campers get hit by this. There was brief discussion about whether I was in breach of the terms of the climbing permit by altering a watercoure in the national park - and whether the Argentinian wording reflected the difference in English between altering and channeling the course of water...
There was not much to do and it was very hot so we mainly lay in tents, listened to music, chatted and read. I decided to have a shave - after all, being on the highest mountain outside the Himalaya is no excuse for slovenliness - but it was a painful affair given the state of my skin having been exposed to the sun, wind and altitude. Will have to reflect on my attitude to this conundrum given the new info I have.
In the evening, I was chatting to one of our neighbouring groups and met Mike Hamill who is a very experienced US mountain guide and author. We chatted about doing the 7 Summits and also discussed climbing books as I have a copy of his one and he is very keen on the rucsac reader series my aunt is involved with.
Most importantly, there was no flood in front of our tent this morning following the successful channeling yesterday. The group continued its relaxed approach to getting up and off in the morning (lets hope that this is from choice rather than an inability to get organised quicker and that this does not become a problem later in the trip when we need to start quicker!) so I headed off with Mike (my tent-mate) to get some good tent sites at Camp 3. The other groups had all left whilst we were waiting so we needed to move quickly (at least that was my expressed reason, I wanted to continue pushing it just as much) and headed off at quite a pace.
I did make sure that we kept close to each other on the journey and Mike (despite being 54 and Welsh was able to keep a pretty decent pace up). We passed the other groups on the way and got to camp just before weather turned bad.
We got set up and put the stove on for hot drinks for the others when they arrived. I had agreed a radio check-in with Stu (our UK guide) but a combination of the weather and the mountain being in the way mean that it was pretty challenging to communicate as I could hear little that was actually being said. Still his tone seem fine and he appeared to be able to heat what I was saying so we settled down to wait for the others.
Unlike the previous cloudless days of strong sunshine, further up the mountain we had a lot more cloud and snow. The sun was still very strong when it shone through though. That afternoon saw a very rapid lowering of temperatures and snow as the following sequence of pictures shows:
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