Adventures at Aconcagua: Trekking past Altitude Barriers

Aconcagua Travel Blog

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Mon 29 December 2008


Not surprisingly, we got a late start hiking. We didn’t leave Puente del Inca until 12:30ish. Figuring out which way to go was crazy.  Only a bit of a walk down the road and we weren’t sure which way to go.  We came to the border checkpoint, and, not really sure why it was located there, asked 3 different guys the route.  Still unsure, we continued up the road.  After about a 3km uphill, we made it to the visitor’s centre.  They directed us further up the road to where we would check-in our permits.  There, we were given a rundown of what we already knew – trash bags that needed to be returned or else we’d be heavily fined, etc.


So we started off toward Confluencia – again getting confused with the trail since there was a bit of a tourist trail running around the direction we were also heading.  At this altitude, some people drive up, and there were plenty of cars in the parking lot – this and we’d just hiked hours to get there.


We watched some other hikers with packs continue down a trail and we decided they must be going to Confluencia so we followed them – both pissed that there weren’t appropriate signs for our trail.


From the point of check-in, it’s supposed to be a 4 hour hike. We hadn’t calculated that it would take that much time to get to the check-in point, so now it was getting late and our arrival to Confluencia would be past due.


My pack was lighter than usual, being that we left our extra gear at the hostel (for free!). However, I knew the hike would be tough since I wasn’t in shape and I’m bad at going uphill.  Nick and I took turns leading.  Other hikers were also starting off as late as us, and we kept getting passed up.  Soon, there weren’t any more hikers to pass us and we were on our own.


For awhile, we tried keeping up with the closest person in front of us.  Then, he’d get ahead and we’d be on our own.  “Shall we go faster,” I yelled to Nick, trying to catch up with those who passed us. I didn’t think I’d be leading, but that’s the way it was.  A long time passed and I saw someone. I thought to increase my speed to catch up, then realized the hiker was coming toward us. We continued uphill as I noticed my breathing was getting shorter – not like in the winter, but I knew the altitude was affecting me.  The actual hiking bit wasn’t difficult, it was carrying the pack.  We finally made it as the sun was edging toward the mountains.  By this time, Nick had surged ahead of me.  Then, I saw a sign, followed by a wooden fence and a few dozen multi-colored tents.  It was more than I expected. I was so glad to see the Confluencia sign at 3400m that I stopped to photograph my most recent achievement. Nick and I took more photos and were told to set up our tent in the designated area before checking in. Upon slowing down, my body was a bit off balance and off kilter due to the altitude. Nick forced me to sit down and rest. I drank a bit, then helped him set up the tent – or rather, he showed me how, so I’d be able to help on subsequent nights.


After settling down, we checked in.  The park ranger gave us some tips, then we rushed to the medical tent before it closed. My blood pressure was normal. My oxygen levels were as to be expected. Nick was normal too. So we made our first hiking dinner and adjusted to the high altitude.


On the bus ride, Nick and I had set out a plan to keep us on track with our schedule.  Throughout the next few days, our schedule would continue to change.  We had spend one day/night in Mendoza, one night in Puente del Inca and one night at Confluencia.  It is suggested to spend 2 nights in Puente del Inca or 2 nights at Confluencia.  However, we figured we were acclimatized enough. The ranger told us to do Plaza Francia first, which we had planned.  This route takes about 5hours and reaches an altitude of 4300m. We were aware that most climbers go up and down in the same day (8 hours of hiking). What we didn’t know is that all climbers either go up and down the same day OR reach Plaza Francia and move onto Camp 1 in the same day.  The point of coming down is the rule of them to acclimatization – hike high, sleep low. I had hoped we could go up and down, since I was unsure of how the altitude would affect me, but Nick had this idea in his head to spend an entire day at Plaza Francia and 2 nights – celebrating New Years there and watching the climbers ascend Aconcagua.  I wasn’t up for the idea, but thought I’d just go with the flow, knowing our plans were changing 3 times a day anyway.

 Tues 30 December 2008

Like the day before, Nick and I got to a late start.  I felt stupid as everyone left and we were still getting ready. A 8AM departure time turned into a 9AM departure, which turned into a 11:45AM departure.  I was getting really annoyed waiting around for Nick, as I’m doing all the time. I moseyed off and came back and he still wasn’t ready. I’d hike up a hill to take photos and see him with his pack together, but by the time I came down, he still wasn’t ready.  Frustrated, I tried cooling myself off and slowing down. Past 2pm, it supposedly got really cold up there and we had already burned the whole morning away.


It was a bit of a hike around the hill and down toward the sign that pointed toward Plaza Francia.  Here, the trails to the 2 base camps diverged.  Up and down the hillside, we trekked and came across water piping.  The water being supplied at Confluencia was being taken from a stead stream about a 30 minute hike away.  As the piping went behind another hillside, a couple waterfalls washed down the hillside across from our path.  We stopped for a brief moment, then surged on.  My legs felt great.  It was just the weight of my pack that was constantly frustrating me – that and figuring out how to wear my SLR camera.  For the most of the way I swung it over one shoulder and under the other, but it bothered my neck and one of my arms.  I was half glad to have a good SLR, but was jealous that Nick’s camera could easily fit in his pocket and also took excellent photographs.


The body problems, which of course frustrated me the most in the middle of the hike, were my chest and traps.  I knew I had a weak chest. My pack dug into my traps under my shoulders in searing pain.  Eventually, I padded my shoulders with my fleece and felt much better.


Throughout the hike up, my breathing was short and heavy.  Nick didn’t seem to be having any breathing problems as I huffed and puffed my way up.  Uphill is always a difficult chore for me.  I thoroughly enjoyed the flat areas.  I was surprised that I  wasn’t having more difficulty moving my legs.  It is like the opposite of a cross country race – my feet and legs were keeping me going, but my chest was set back as if I didn’t have the heart to push forward. But I did want to get up there.  I loved the views.  It was amazing just being surrounded by all the mountains of different colors and sizes and varying distances away.  It was as pure as beauty can get.


As the hours rolled by, we kept passing hikers going in the opposite direction.  The distance between Nick and I increased at points that I couldn’t see him ahead of me and he’d ask the hikers he passed to check up on me.  I began struggling and taking a few steps at a time, then stopping, looking at the view, getting my bearings and continuing.  The upward battle became more and more difficult.  I strapped my camera around my waist and designed a way for myself to hold it with just my fingers. It took the strain away from my neck, which I had from the day before. I knew I was really slowing down, and felt bad, but breathing was more difficult.  It wasn’t like I thought it would be – the short, winter-type breaths.  I felt like I could climb just fine without my pack, but I was chained to it.  I scuffled my boots along the dirt.


Nick and I took a break and I had a second wind.  I always feel better when I’m ahead.  My pace quickened and I motivated myself by shouting, “This is my view! I will not imagine it, I will see it! I will earn this view! This view is mine!” I shouted very loudly, far enough from Nick that he wouldn’t hear my idiocracy.  We had heard that the view of Aconcagua from Plaza Francia was amazing. So I kept that in sight as I forged on.  Times became tough as I  began picking out rocks in the distance and urging myself to get to that point in trail..  As I became more tired, the distances between rocks became shorter.  I wasn’t exhausted, just tired – I wanted to be rid of my pack.  I wanted to get to base camp. But the views were amazing and that one view kept me going.


Nick got ahead of me again. He had to stop and let me catch up.  After 6 hours of hiking, I was really worn down.  At first, we were told we were an hour away.  Then two hours later, we were told an hour more.  I figured we must only be 20 minutes away. At that point, I lost sight of Nick.  I went down a hill and the terrain was all caked up, making footprints more difficult to see. 


Across the way was another hill, but I wasn’t sure where to go up it.  I was delirious at that point and I didn’t see the tracks on the other side. Shit, I thought. Nick was way ahead of me and I don’t know where to go. “Nick,” I yelled.  When I was dumbfounded halfway between the two hills, he yelled at me, “Here! Go up here!”  I saw where he was standing, but still couldn’t make out the trail. “Just go up,” he yelled, mystified why I wasn’t going up to meet him. As I got closer, I saw the tracks, but by that point my paces was as slow as a turtle’s.  I’d take 2 steps and look at him, then 2 more and stop.  He looked at me as if I were crazy.  Then, halfway up the hill, I vomited up my breakfast. At that point, Nick knew I was sick.  He left his pack and headed up the hill – I thought he was checking to see how much further we had to go. Instead, he was scouting a place for his tent. I just sat next to my pack and relaxed.  Despite the fact that I had just

gotten sick, I didn’t feel that bad. I didn’t have a headache – the one sign that’s most commonly looked for with high altitude sickness. I made myself continue drinking water.  I felt like I could go on if it were only 20 minutes more. Well, very slowly, without my pack. I didn’t want to lug my pack around anymore.


Nick came back excited about a perfect spot he had found for his tent.  He asked what I wanted to do, but I wasn’t healthy enough to be in a decision-making mood.  So I let him make it for me.


We hiked about 100ft. to an area with a large stone and several smaller stones circled near it.  Nick began right away fixing the shelter.  He asked for my help, but I needed to rest during spurts.  I helped dig out the area a bit, but Nick was so excited and full of adrenaline that he just kept on.  I stumbled around and drank a bit more.  At one point Nick told me to start dinner and that it would be done by the time he had the tent fully set up.  I just sat there looking at my pack thinking, “Are you kidding me?”  I was in no position to cook and had no appetite. Damn it! I thought. That’s another symptom of high altitude sickness. 


When Nick finally realized I couldn’t cook, I got into bed as soon as I could and put on every dry layer of clothing I had – except for the pants I just peed on and my bulky winter jacket.  I laid down and tried as all hell, but couldn’t fall asleep.  Fuck, I thought. That’s another symptom of high altitude sickness. Just don’t get a headache, I thought to myself. I drank more at Nick’s request, but couldn’t bear to eat any food.  I finally fell asleep for a little bit then woke back up mumbling, “Shit!” “What shit,” Nick asked. Then, I threw up again all over the clothes in front of me, then outside the tent. Nick gave me some Dramamine and luckily, I fell back asleep.  I was more worried than sick. With HAS, you’re supposed to descend to lower ground, but I was too sick and it was too late for that. I knew it could get worse, but I hoped it wouldn’t.  I have felt worse than this before – the flu is worse, that time I skated 75 miles and didn’t consume enough electrolytes I felt worse.  I was just worried that I would get worse since I’d never had this before.  Nick was scared too, but I made it through the night.


Wed 31 December 2008


We woke up late in our secluded campsite area near Plaza Francia. I was still dog-tired.  Nick got up to get some water and I just wanted to keep sleeping.  We figured we should leave Plaza Francia by 4pm to get back to Confluencia before sunset. We figured we were 20 minutes away from Plaza Francia, so we set out to leave about 1:30pm. I marked our camp on my GPS and kept it on to see how long it would take to get there. 


We climbed up and down about 3 short hills. As we came down the last one, we saw a small sign in a large open clearing.  As we came up to it, we couldn’t believe our eyes. The sign said simply, “Plaza Francia.” We were dumbstruck in amazement.  How could this be possible?  Where were all the people? Where were the tents and medical tent? How could this be?.........Then we laughed.  First of all, it took us less than 6 minutes to get there from our campsite. Second, the place was absolutely barren. We dropped our bags and began laughing.  Right in front of us was the south face of Aconcagua – it was supposed to be one of the best views, but it all seemed a bit eery looking at it from an empty base camp. Soon came another hiker and we shared some words, then Nick and I hiked up a ridge to get a better view. We stared in awe, photographing and trying to figure out the route.


About 1 ½ hours later, we began the climb down. I definitely had more energy than the night before.  I enjoyed climbing down instead of up. My breathing was still difficult though in the thin air. It took a bit over 4 hours for me to climb back down. We planned to hike to Plaza del Mulas, the base camp on the normal route, in the morning.  I taped up my blistered toes, ate a very unappetizing dinner and went to bed.  It was about 10:30/11PM when I decided to go to sleep. The expedition groups were up partying. We had hoped New Years would be entertaining, but everyone kept to themselves.  I looked up into the sky to see the moon, but it wasn’t anywhere to be seen. It saddened me because Tim and I had promised each other to look at the moon at midnight. The stars could clearly be seen though, so gazed at them and thought about Tim. Since we were going hiking in the morning, I didn’t care much for staying up until midnight.


Thurs 1 January 2009


At 12AM, Nick and I woke up to the sounds of fireworks. We heard the partiers, but I didn’t bother looking outside the tent.


Happy New Years! I woke up in the morning before Nick, as usual, and prepared for the day.  8AM passed, and so did 9AM, but I couldn’t rouse Nick.  I suggested a half day of climbing and camping at the midway point to Plaza del Mulas and Nick agreed, but then noon rolled around and he refused to get up, complaining of being tired. So we took a rest day. I, not really knowing the term “rest” when I was raring to go, decided to climb the lookout hill and take photos.  It was incredibly windy. When my battery died, I climbed down, grabbed my book, and headed up another hill on an exercise trail.  At the top of the hill the trail just ended.  I looked down at the stream below and decided to sit alongside the mountain on my right.  It was an excellent place to sit and relax.  After a bit though, I climbed back down and headed back to the tent. I may as well try and rest.


I found Nick still laying down.  I asked if he was alright and he told me the real reason why he hadn’t gotten up – he was lovesick for Gabe.  I tried comforting him – wanting the best for him, trying to understand the position he was in. Gabe was really sick and he badly wanted to communicate with her. I was slightly annoyed that this was the reason we weren’t hiking for the day, but figured a rest day could do some good. But then Nick said he was so unmotivated that he may not be able to hike the next day.  It was then that I began to feel treated unfairly.  I wished he could just suck it up. He even suggested that I climb up to base camp alone, while he went down to town just so he could email Gabe. I wouldn’t do that – it wae unsafe for me to climb up to Plaza del Mulas alone. Then, I gave him hope by confirming that was public internet on Plaza del Mulas. He immediately  became excited that he’d be able to contact Gabe and agreed to hike in the morning. We had to wake up early for the 8-9 hour hike ahead.


Fri, 2 January 2009


In the morning, I woke up around 6:30am extremely tired.  My airmat didn’t fare well in the night. I think the altitude causes it to deflate. I had woken up a few times in the middle of the night and had really strange, annoying dreams. So for the first time, Nick was up before me. I took my time and we weren’t ready to leave until 9:30 – 1 ½ hours after the park ranger recommended. For the first time, I wasn’t ready until after Nick – and it was so important this day to be on time because of the long hike ahead. Fortunately, the rest day gave us time to eat some more food and lessen the weight on our packs. I was glad to be carrying a lighter load.


The trail begins the same way as Plaza Francia. We hiked from camp, around the lookout hill, through a wide sandy path, and down a steep hill – only this time we passed the Plaza Francia sign and continued downhill and turned left for Plaza del Mulas. We were required to walk a bit out of the way to cross a man-made bridge. Then we climbed back up and over where we saw a nice far off view of Confluencia base camp.


After climbing another hill, we came to a boggy area. We had been passed earlier by a trio of Europeans and caught up to them again. We saw a trail on the other side of the river. Nick had no problem getting across with his poles. However, the river was really wide and deep and it was impossible for me not to get soaking wet. So I followed the Europeans, knowing that they weren’t sure what they were doing. We walked all over the boggy area, trying not to get swamp feet and trying to meet back up with the trail. The river began branching out into several streams.  It was amazingly beautiful seeing the red earth soaked with crimson water.  Then, clear water merged with the crimson – it was a remarkable sight. As Nick raced down the trail on the other side of the river, he was lost in sight and not waiting up. So I took out my camera and photographed the amazing beauty. After that, it was catch up, but Nick was long gone.  The Europeans had gotten ahead of me too, by then.  I quickened my pace, but also tried focusing on the beauty surrounding me.  Meanwhile, Nick was going headstrong and not looking back. I think all he had on his mind was emailing Gabe and had forgotten about his hiking companion. This pissed me off from a safety perspective. It wasn’t smart of him to go hiking off so far ahead without checking up on me.  Sure, there were plenty of passersby, but we were supposed to be together.  When he had difficulty going downhill before, I’d only hike 10 minutes and then wait 10 minutes for him to catch up with me and make sure he was okay. On this trail, he was being self-centered and putting me at risk. So I became very agitated and for half the day, hiking for me was a mind game. After passing the Europeans and still hiking at a decent pace, I still could not see Nick even though we were hiking through a flat, desert-like terrain. I asked an English speaking hiking heading the opposite direction how far away Nick was and he said 20 minutes and I fumed.  I wanted to enjoy the beauty, but was playing a game of cat and mouse. Finally, I came across Nick who was sitting down.  He described his 2nd bout of diahrrea of the day, and I passed him up, saying he was being selfish. When he caught up, I tried explaining myself  better, but all we did was argue. He said I should have crossed the river with him, that I ruined the vegetation and didn’t listen to the ranger.  I blamed him for not waiting up on me.  Then, I got even more frustrated because he kept defending his one bit of the problem, but not apologizing for the other. 


Soon, we were hiking again through forked streams of crimson water. I tried dodging the water or jumping over. But soon I was so frustrated with Nick that I was depressed enough to sit down. Fortunately, he then did stop but I couldn’t express myself.  I finally found enough energy to get up.  While most of the hikers tried going around the water, Nick went right through it, calling the other hikers pussys afraid to get their feet wet. He seems to think that his way is the right way. My research said that you may need sandals for this trip for areas to cross the river.  Either I get my feet soaking wet, I change into my sandals. So I took off my boots and forged though the water. But the ground was so rocky that it was dangerous to walk in sandals. The other hikers hugged the wall to prevent getting wet. I wish I had just gone after them.


After most of the water crossing, Nick and I took a lunch break. I had to fix the bandages on my toes and replace my shoes while he ate lunch and got sick for a third time.  The break was really good for me as my mind relaxed and I was less perturbed.


We were told that our first 4 hours (half) of the trek were the easiest. Physically, it was, but mentally, it was tough for me. The land after the first hour was completely flat. The wind was blowing toward us, which was unusual, because I had supposed it would go the opposite way.  But it wasn’t that difficult to walk against,  just required a bandana across our faces.  We had to watch our feet because of the rocks and uneven ground, but there wasn’t much effort in that. The views from behind and in front of us were also amazing.  We hiked between an area that used to be a glacier, through an area with steep, loose mountains of rocks on either side.  The rocks also weren’t plain and boring.  They were all different colors including purple spotted with white, dark green and crimson.  We’d commonly come across larger rocks worth sitting on, that broke up the rainbow of colors surrounding us.


6 hours into the hike, we finally made it to the halfway sign. It read, “4 hours” to Plaza del Mulas.    We

had just spent four hours doing the  easy 4-hour part of the trail! After beginning late, hiking slow, getting into arguments, getting sick and taking long breaks, we were behind our ETA. At this rate, we wouldn’t get to basecamp until an hour after sunset! I had known we would take longer than the listed 8-9 hours, but I figured 10 hours, not 12 hours. We took longer getting to Plaza Francia than expected – 7 hrs vs. 5 hrs, and to Confluencia the first time, since we got lost.  Anyway, at the halfway point, we took a break, then started off again.


This was the more difficult part of the trail, but we sped up our pace, trying to beat sunset. There was a lot more uphill on this part of the hike.  We walked quite a ways through more loose rocks. Nick was going fast for awhile, but then got sick again.


It was interesting to see the flora change as we climbed higher and higher up. In lower altitude, there were purple and pink flowers, with lots of grass. Then, the plants and flowers became more spikey, a sign that they needed more protection from the elements. Also, higher up at a point, you could hear birds, but not see them. Then, altogether, there was no wildlife – no flies, no ants, no critters, no plants – only rock, but beautiful rock at that. I wished there was more wildlife to see, but I settled happily for the beauty of the mountains. After weaving around the rocks, we came to a partially constructed house near the river. It was nice hiking along the river most of the way, as we didn’t have to worry about running out of water.


Past the house, we were confronted with an extremely steep hill. “Shit,” I said. “What,” Nick asked. “We have to walk up that,” I answered under my breath. “What,” he asked again, not hearing me. “Nevermind,” I responded, forging on. There were several trails leading up to the top of the very steep hill. Basically, you could pick your poison, but you had to find your way to the top. Some routes were shorter, but steeper. Others were longer, but more gradual.  In any case, there were loose rocks everywhere including on the routes and it seemed very easy to stumble in exhaustion and plummet to a very nasty fall. The weight of my pack against gravity seemed at odds against me. Despite the fact that Nick was feeling very ill, he seemed to take to the mountain with ease. I forced one foot at time to pull me forward. This was no easy task for me. At one point, several mules began coming down the mountain. I had learned at this point, that when mules come, you get out of the way. But where was I to go? Like Hell was I going to let a mule run over me while I was halfway up this mountain. So, I cinched my way off the route I was on, and sure enough, they came my way, merely inches from my body. Then, they’d each stop, turn, and continue down the trail. I breathed again once the wrangler passed me by. It was a semi-pleasant break, but I had to keep going. We were told that this was the last bit of the long hike.


Upwards I climbed, and when I reached the top, my fears came upon me. Yes, after all that hiking up, I would have to descend down again. I cursed. I had hoped that at the top, I’d see a break in the clouds and a rainbow of tents lined in an open expanse of land. Keep dreaming. It was down one hill and up another. And then a couple more, until at last, at the top of one, I actually did spot a multitude of tents. I cheered. Nick was way ahead of me again, but I didn’t care. I was within grasp of Plaza del Mulas. I could see it! But as close as I was, I also realized how far away I still was. Again, I had to descend the hill I was on, and lose sight of camp. However, I kept it in my mind and forced myself to continue on, eager to set my foot down on that stretch of land. On the top of  the last hill that blocked my view of camp, a wind-worn flag was waving. I prepared myself for the view again, and walked up, around (quick pee break w/ my pack on), and over the hill and down into the feet of Plaza del Mulas. At the wooden banisters I stopped. I was here. Well, not at the check-in tent, but here. I basked in the serenity of being at the gates of Plaza del Mulas in silent awe.


Then, I got up, and walked to the ranger station, officially at basecamp.


Nick had arrived sometime earlier, and already had his research done. The hotel was another 50 minutes hike away, even though it didn’t look that far. So we’d pass up that sightseeing adventure. Toilets and internet had to be rented from one of the expedition groups.  We were on a glacier, no shitting anywhere except for the toilets. We would have to ask around for different rates from the companies and choose one. Check-in now. Set up tent over there. Check, check and check.


I checked in, then all I wanted was to set up our tent. We had been hiking all day long – about 9 hours (the halfway point seems to be somewhat misconstrued), and all I wanted was to lay down.  Nick, of course, was raring to get internet use and write to Gabe. So we set up the tent as quickly as we could and Nick went to search out toilet and internet rental. I was right in believing he wouldn’t come back for a long time. I was so tired, that I just laid down with my boots on and tried falling asleep. But that was somewhat uncomfortable, so I got properly undressed and laid down.


Upon waking up sometime later, Nick told me of how internet was not available to rent out at this time of night. (He forgot to find me a toilet.) And instead, he found the highest art gallery in the world, and spent 15 minutes checking emails while chatting it up with the crazy artist.  I ate a bit, and went to bed. The basecamp views would have to wait till the morning. Sleep was more important to me at that point than anything else. To my delight, I had no points for high altitude sickness. I’d acclimatized! Yay!

Sat 3 January 2009

Hike back to Confluencia - more to come

Sun 4 January 2009

Hike back to Puente del Inca, celebratory feast, bus to Mendoza - more to come
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photo by: maka77