Sunday, November 30, 2008

What´s an expedition without something going wrong?

Well, only 3 of our 6 checked bags arrived with us. My one bag arrived the next day, but we´re still waiting for Aaron´s two bags. This means that our schedule is delayed by at least one day. We should still be ok, schedule-wise, but it just adds a little "excitement" to the trip!

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Before the Climb

As many of you know, I'm about to depart (this Friday!) to attempt Aconcagua, the highest peak outside of Asia at 6960meters/22,840feet. We'll see how I feel afterwards, but right now, I'm thinking that some of the hardest part of the climb has been done/is being done, now, before the climb even begins. Or, I suppose, the other way of looking at it is that the climb has already begun, and started way back in May.

For me, the first time I ever heard of Aconcagua was in 2000, when one of my running buddies, Monty, headed out to climb it. He'd climbed all over the Northwest, but was about to do this big mountain. I went to his slideshow about it when he returned, and the climb, itself, gave plenty of stories for many runs to come. At the time, I liked the idea of it, because it was a mountain, but it didn't look particularly pretty to me, and, well, I just wasn't ready for doing such a climb. By then, I'd climbed Mt. Hood, once. I knew that I enjoyed climbing, and I remembering feeling jealous that someone was about to do this sort of climb, but other than that, there were no thoughts in my mind of doing the climb, myself.

Now, with probably over 70 attempts and 52 successful climbs of Cascade peaks, I have a different viewpoint. And now that I've actually been to Mendoza, and hiked in the hills very near where we'll be, I see that there is beauty there, in the many colors of the mountains, if not in the snow covered peaks that are part of the Andes. I *am* interested and ready, psychologically, to do the climb. We'll see if I'm ready, in other ways, if I successfully summit and return, safely!

So, back in May, a couple of guys asked me if I were interested in joining them on Aconcagua. As I prepare to go next Friday, those 2 guys are NOT going this year, so I'll be going with 2 other guys, Wim and Aaron. Just agreeing on WHEN to climb turned out to be a multi-month discussion, honed when Wim joined the team and was limited in timeframe by his work, and finalized only when Aaron joined the team, and was limited by when he could get flights using his frequent flier miles. If he couldn't change his itinerary from his previously planned Vietnam trip using frequent flier miles to this itinerary, he wouldn't be able to go. So Wim and I waited for him to get his flights, and then we got our flights to match, fortunately, also using frequent flier miles, saving somewhere between $1200 and $2000 dollars, each, in airfare (airfare was soaring due to the soaring price of fuel at the time). Our flights were booked by mid-August.

With tickets to get to South America bought, the climb started to become a reality. We spent some time trying to decide what route we should do, since route would change logistics, and potentially the equipment list. Neither Aaron nor I have climbed higher than 14,400 ft (~4400meters), before (the height of Mt. Rainier in Washington state), so for us, going to 22,840ft should be a challenge in and of itself. Base camp for Aconcagua is similar to being on top of Mt. Rainier. Cold and wind are expected to be our other major challenges. I've never done an expedition, before. Doing one of the "walk up" routes definitely sounded like a good plan, as it would reduce the weight we needed to get up and down the mountain, enormously, if we didn't have to worry about ropes, harnesses, and all of the other gear associated with doing a technical climb. Having decided on a walkup route, we then had to decide WHICH of the walk-up routes we'd do. One is longer and less traveled, which was immediately appealing to us, but that also meant that we had to plan more time to get up the mountain, and, since we are going early on in the season, might mean that river-crossings would be challenging due to snow-melt. We finally elected to do it the absolutely easiest way, by taking the Normal Route, and stick to merely the cold, wind, and altitude challenges.

Having chosen the route, we moved on to the other planning. We talked to a whole bunch of people who have done the climb, before - in-depth discussions about logistics, experiences, trials, pitfalls, and highlights. We created a "to do" list, as well as equipment, food, schedule, and "conditioning" lists. We talked to more people. We obtained other people's lists. Wim and I attended Monty's latest slideshow on his Everest attempt. We went out and bought the same gloves that Monty used. We bought new boots - everything that I was reading was saying that I should be using plastic boots, but my new last-boots-I-will-ever-have-to-buy mountaineering boots that I bought earlier this year, were not plastic. Wim bought a new backpack. We lucked into a huge discount on a specific brand of gear, so I bought my second expedition tent, this one for 3 people (my other expedition tent is a 2 person tent), and a 40 degree below sleeping bag (-40 is the same in both Celsius and Fahrenheit temperature systems!) that actually fits into my backpack! We went on conditioning hikes to test out our new backpacks and boots, and to get our backs used to carrying large loads (although each hike, we've successively *reduced* our loads - not the normal training), as well as for trying out various snack foods. Since getting enough calories in high altitude is an issue, we were trying out various granola bars/candies to find out which were absolutely delicious. If they aren't delicious at sea level, they won't be palatable at altitude.

The conditioning hikes proved to ourselves that we have a good team as far as talking goes - we chatter at each other constantly, which makes the miles melt away. And our climbing philosophy as far as climbing this mountain goes, is the same, which is VERY important. Tensions can soar if one person thinks that the climb should be done in a week, while others want to take more time, for example.

Wim and I have climbed some difficult routes, together, multiple times, and Aaron and Wim have climbed difficult routes, together, multiple times. The three of us, however, have only gone ice-climbing together, and not really as a team - Aaron and Wim were climbing together, and I was sort of wandering around from one team to another. So, the conditioning hikes were important to get us all synced, discussing climbing philosophies, in general, and for Aconcagua, in particular, and finding out how we three got along together, as a team. Do we watch out for each other? Do we even *like* each other? 20 days straight on a mountain can be a really, really long time, so it's best if we all get along with each other!

I went on my previously planned 3-1/2 week trip to Argentina. I was lucky - my fellow travelers were also interested in Mendoza (the starting place of the expedition, where the climbing permits have to be obtained), hence, we went there, and I was able to contact a company that organizes muleteers and mules to carry equipment to base camp, and find out about how to get fuel for the stoves (since we can't take that onto the airplane!). I got experience with the bus system and even got to see one of the trailheads for one of the routes up Aconcagua. I reserved a couple of hotel rooms in the same hotel in which Ed, Rebecca and I stayed. I learned where the permit office is, the best way to get money and where the ATMs were located, and where Carrefour (the big supermarket) is located, should we need to make any last minute food purchases once we are down there.

Meanwhile, Wim and Aaron dealt with the drugs. They visited a doctor who is quite knowledgeable about high altitude climbing (being a doctor, a climber, and interested in high altitude climbing, himself), and got us perscriptions to deal with the various maladies we hope that we will never get, and were taught about the symptoms and what is actually going on, and what the drugs actually do to the body. They talked to more people, and set up a private slideshow for when I returned to the US, with another climber who successfully climbed Aconcagua starting with a 3 person team. That slideshow turned up other topics of discussion (When is it ok to leave someone from the team alone on the mountain? What should we take for reading material, if anything?).

We've created a schedule that is extremely generous with acclimatization, and still leaves time to wait out storms, and wait for a good weather window to summit, yet only spend the 20 days maximum allowed by the park service. We hope that through this extremely generous acclimatization schedule (3 to 4 days at each camp!), that there will be no need to dip into the drug supply. . .

I've spent hours making up ziplock bags of dinner and breakfast foods. Lunches, in general, are expected to be cold snacks, so I have set those aside, too. The ramen-type noodles that my friends from Taiwan have been religiously supplying to me whenever they come to the US is a staple in my dinners. I love the taste of these noodles, and the flavor packets are strong enough that I can add bulgar wheat, rice, or couscous to the soup, some soy protein, and still think that the whole thing is yummy! Since drinking 4 to 5 liters a day is difficult, but necessary in the dry high altitude air, I've also brought along a lot of soup mixes, and drink mixes. My problem is that I have too much food set aside, (I'm at about 2.5 pounds per day, whereas I think that 2 pounds should be the max, and Wim is even thinking 1.5 pounds per day should be plenty) and will have to get rid of some stuff before we head out. Not sure, yet, what will be removed. . .

Tomorrow, we'll be meeting at Wim's to actually pack everything - make sure that we have proper bags for balancing loads for the mules, and also for getting everything onto the airplane. And, to double check everything against our equipment lists. We're expecting this to be an almost 1 day activity.

And, maybe, just maybe, I'll be able to get in another climb before heading out, early Friday!

(I'm enclosing our schedule, in case it is of interest to people. . .)

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Iguazu Falls, Argentina

Hi, all - I'm back from 3-1/2 weeks (Oct. 17 through November 10th) of traveling in Argentina, with the final two days spent in Uruguay. Iguazu Falls, in Argentina, was the first place that we headed.

Rebecca (wife of a high school buddy), Ed (high school era and travel buddy), and I met at the airport in the Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas:
and then flew down to Buenos Aires, got a taxi from the international airport to the domestic airport and got on the first plane out to Iguazu Falls. These falls are absolutely spectacular. I've had people send me power point slides of these falls, and I've seen websites of friends who'd gone before me, so I already knew that I'd be in for a treat, but being there just makes it all so much more real, and, well, so much more spectacular. We'd reserved two days to actually visit the falls, and I'm glad that we did, as one day would just not have been enough for us.

The falls:

The first day we wanted to get a little exercise, so we chose to start out with a hike to one of the smaller falls. The hike turned out to be longer than expected (3km just isn't that far, but it sure felt as it if were!), but we amused ourselves with the plants, birds, and butterflies (many, many) that we saw along the way. Here is a montage of some of the many different types of butterflies that we saw:
We then took a little park train and went to what was supposed to be the most spectacular part of the falls, and therefore suggested to be saved for the last. The book warned us that we should expect to get soaked. This being spring, down there, it was actually quite warm, so getting wet wouldn't be a problem, and we decided to go see that fall, next. The train let off at a path that was at least 1/2 mile from the platforms looking over the falls. The path was mostly an elevated walkway with a metal grating that allowed one to look down at the wide, wide river running below the walkway. We saw, first an anteater, and then hawks and cormorants on the way.

This picture is to give you just some idea of the walkway to the falls - we're already almost there, having gone at least 2/3rds of the way, already, all the way walking over smooth, shallow, river. You can just make out the tops of some of the falls in the distance, and the mist from others:

When we got to the overlook platform, there were tons of people. We joined the crowd. We got soaked as the spray from the falls was whipped back up and around us by the wind. We looked into "the Devil's Throat" and were absolutely entranced by the amount of water, the speed of the water, the roar of the water, the long drop of water, and, the spray. This was a very Niagra-looking/feeling waterfall. And like Niagra, where another country is on the other side of the river, here, Brazil was on the other side. We kept watching the waterfalls, and eventually, would be the only people around! The next trainload would come, and for a while, we'd be surrounded by many others, until they moved on, and then would once again, be some of the few standing around. We stayed for hours, partly because we tried to get in a "your magazine was at Iguazu Falls" picture with a local newspaper near Ed's place. We never succeeded in getting that picture - the winds were just too unpredictable, causing drenching actions very often. We took a ton of photos, none of which can possibly capture the feeling, the sound, the experience. We saw swallows diving under some of the waterfalls into their nests behind the waterfalls! This was a very, very, very captivating sight, indeed.

Here is one that attempts to show what I think of as the mouth of the falls (The Mouth of the Devil's Throat, if you will. . .):
The above was just off to my right on the big platform. Moving the camera farther to the left, I could see all of these falls raining down from Brazil:
And then looking off to my left, at the other falls falling down from the Argentinian side of the river, there were these - see if you can see the birds just about to dive into the waterfalls to get to their nests:
The falls produced so much spray that it was rarely possible to see down to the river, below, since the water was coming from all sides and just pouring into this narrow little canyon. The roar was intense!

When we'd finally decided to depart the falls, leaving the rainbows, roar, and wet, behind, we were absolutely drenched. The sun came out to warm us, and by the time we got back to the train, we were dry!

We'd had a pretty full day so decided to just head back. While others were in the rest room, I was looking out at the green grass, and noticed some animals scurrying about. We asked and were told that they were guinea pigs. Some were almost a foot long, so they seemed a little different than the ones that we have in the US:
We had our tickets stamped on the way out so that the following day, we could get in at 1/2 price.

The following day, as we packed to get ready for our second and final day at the park, we reviewed the material for the falls and determined that it would be a "dry" day. That is, the part of the falls that we were going to visit wouldn't be sending mist all over us, and the wind wouldn't be whipping it against us - we were going to be just too far away from this other set of falls. We returned to the park (the bus ride in from the town was about 1/2 hour) and bought our 1/2 price tickets. Right after getting in, Ed noticed a park ranger standing around, and decided to go and talk to her, telling her that he, too, worked for the park service, but in the US. She told him that he didn't have to pay, then - Argentina extends a "professional courtesy" to park employees from other countries to enter their parks, free. However, he had paid. She brought us back out of the park to go into an office where there were some other park officials, and introduced Ed and Rebecca and me to the others there. I thought that we were just having a chat, but what was really going on was that she was trying to make up for Ed having paid for two days. They asked us if we'd taken the boat, yet. We hadn't. They told us that we should first go to the interpretive center, and then meet someone at 10am at a specific location. We went to the interpretive center, and there the people gave Ed a whole bunch of brochures and a couple posters (which he then left with them for safe keeping while we toured the park), and then went to the appointed spot. The ranger, Nancy, had arranged that the 3 of us should get a courtesy tour of the jungle by truck and the falls by boat by the vendor! Ed was in shock. In the US, not only do his friends who visit him have to pay to visit the National Historic Site where he works, but he has to pay to visit any other national park. And here, a park employee was able to get a park employee of another country, and his two friends, a free tour by a vendor working in the park!!!

On the jungle tour, the tour guide kept asking if anyone had questions. We realized that this was our opportunity to get all the questions we'd been accumulating from the previous day, answered. Even though there are plenty of animals in the jungle, we saw none of them on this particular tour. The next step was the boat ride. We were given life vests and drybags to place our shoes and anything that we were carrying, including cameras. They told us that we'd be able to take pictures until a certain time, and then they'd tell us to put it into the drybag and close it up. Oh, so we might get some spray. Maybe it wouldn't be such a dry day, after all. . . We sped up the river from down river of all of the falls. The river itself was fast-flowing, and we had a rapid or two to negotiate - the standing waves were high, so it gave some of the crew quite a thrill (and we rafters got a thrill, too, since they were impressive waves!). They drove us to some picturesque sight, gave us some time to take pictures, and then told us to put cameras into the dry bags. They then took us to the base of some of the falls so that we could experience the force of the falls. We experienced it, alright! We got mostly drenched. They then took us to the base of another fall. It appeared as though we were going to go right under the actual fall, but really, they only took us near to it, yet the spray was so intense that it thoroughly soaked us. Everyone on the boat was excited about the experience and called for them to do it one more time, so the guy turned around and dove back for the falls. We know that they do this multiple times a day, but it sure feels as though one time, they might just get it a little wrong, and the boat would be capsized in a moment. However, nothing untoward happened to us, but I definitely hung on for dear life, and was THOROUGHLY soaked by the time we'd done it, again, if not before. . . Looking at other boats doing the same thing, I saw them disappear in the mist at the base of the falls.

This was the view:
The mist at the base of the left-most falls is where the boat would disappear into, and then come racing back out.

Here is a more distant view of the above waterfalls, plus more of the surrounding falls:
The big white fall upper center of the picture are the falls that we went under in the boat. The falls to the far left of the picture are the falls coming down off the Brazilian side of the river in the place that we were, the previous day (fifth picture from the top of this article).

Some birds (2nd is a Turkey Vulture):

And more wildlife:

I hope that this gives you some sense of the enormity of the whole thing. It was truly, truly impressive. And in addition to the falls, we didn't see such a variety of butterflies anywhere else, and this was the only place that we saw the anteater and the fairly large reptile pictured above, whose name I've forgotten.