Friday, December 26, 2008

Pictures from the Aconcagua climb

Wim put captions on about 50 pictures, in case you're interested. I've not had a chance to sort through all of our pictures, yet, to pick out my highlights. . . I do still plan on doing that.

Here's the link to his captioned photos:


The return home

Returning home was quite the adventure. Aaron was able to fly from Mendoza to Santiago on the same day as the rest of his trip home, and except for a delay or two, and getting in a tad later than expected, seems to have had a fairly uneventful trip home. Wim and I had to fly into Santiago the day before the rest of our flights, since there wasn't an early enough flight from Mendoza, Argentina to Santiago, Chile, before the first leg of the rest of our flights, headed to Sao Paulo, Brazil. So, we had to actually look for a place to stay in Santiago when we got there. And, because the US apparently charges Chilean residents to enter the US, Chile has a nice little "reciprocity fee" that they charge US citizens upon entering Chile. $131.00 US dollars. It's good until your passport expires. The last time I went to Chile, I had a different passport, so I got to pay the reciprocity fee, again. Wim, a Dutch citizen, didn't have to pay this fee.

We took a taxi to a place that Wim remembered some hotels located that he discovered when he was browsing the web for places to stay, earlier. It was around 9pm, so we just took the first hotel we saw and then went in search of some street food, which we found - sopapillas! Sopapillas were round little (about 4.5" in diameter) deep-fried breads. A salsa, mustard, ketchup, and hotsauce were provided to put on top of the bread. I put the salsa, mustard (which was a tad sweet), and hot sauce on mine. They were so good that I kept going back and getting another. I think that I went back about 5 times. Wim found some meat on a stick, and also tried some mini-pizzas. I was still hungry, so we continued to search for more street food, but all of the vendors had already packed up and were clearing the streets. We found a low-end restaurant that was still open, and we shared a salad. I got to have Pisco Sour, and Wim had beer. The next morning the in-hotel breakfast was better than the Argentinian Tang + Croissant by having REAL orange juice, yogurt, and some sort of corn flakes cereal in addition to toast and jam. We checked out of the hotel and went in search of a bus to take us to the airport, but we managed to walk by the place where the airport bus left, and, running short of time, we took a taxi to the airport. We'd left all of the luggage that had our gear in it at the airport, so we picked that up and checked in. Wim and I had the same flight to Sao Paulo, but from then on, we had different flights, with me expecting to arrive in Portland around 1pm Christmas Eve, and he expecting to arrive around 8pm Christmas Eve. We'd heard that Portland airport had been closed, and other airports had had lots of cancellations, but we'd also heard that the weather was improving, so we were hoping to bypass all of the pain and agony of canceled flights, and closed airports.

I called Wim's wife while at Denver (my route was Santiago->Sao Paulo-> Toronto-> Denver-> Portland) and it turned out that Wim had been able to get a direct flight to Portland from Chicago, expecting to arrive roughly when I was to arrive. Anna Maria didn't know about the state of the Portland roads, yet, so didn't know if she'd be able to pick us up, but, whatever, Wim and I both needed to go to his place (it's where I'd left my car), so it was good news that he was expected to arrive at the same time. My flight to Portland was delayed some, but not too much, and when I went to pick up my bags, I was greeted by Anna Maria! It turned out that the roads were fine from their place to the airport, so she was able to show up to pick us up. We went down to collect my bags so that we could load up her car, but my bags didn't show up. When we reported the bags missing, they told us that they were on the carousel in Denver. Oops. . .

Anna Maria and I went up to wait for Wim. He arrived, but since his bags hadn't been rerouted, he didn't have any luggage to pick up, either - they'd arrive that night, likely. We went to Wim's. His street wasn't plowed, and in Oregon, salt isn't used, so my first test was to see if I could drive my car out of their neighborhood (there was a huge hill). After several false starts, and several incidents of getting stuck, I zoomed up the hill and out of there! I hoped that I was home free. I wasn't. The 40 minute drive from Wim's to my place took over 3 hours. While the highways were mostly ok, most cars were going fairly slowly, since there were still lots of chunks of ice, or ice/snow separating lanes, and generally, people seemed to be gun-shy after several days of treacherous conditions. The conditions got worse the closer I got to home - and by the time I got to Banks, some 10 miles from my home, I had to put on chains, as there was a sign requiring them, and the road was covered with snow, so it wouldn't have been safe without them. My chains aren't easy to put on, so I spent 15 to 30 minutes futzing with them, and finally headed toward home. One of the chains loosened about a mile later, so I stopped and corrected the situation. Then about 1 mile from my place a big pickup truck in front of me had stopped and was in the middle of the road. I pulled over and stopped, and noticed that the problem was a tree had come down over the highway. It was arched over the highway, so we all got out of the cars and started breaking off the smaller branches, hoping to create a tunnel to drive through. We got such a tunnel, that was good enough for my car, but not yet good enough for the truck, but I told them that I was taking off - I didn't mention that it was because I'd been traveling for over 24 hours with no more than 2 to 3 hours of sleep. . . The last part of the drive to my house is about 1 mile on a private road. This road hadn't been plowed at all, and the closer that I got to my place, the less traveled the road was. I started slipping and a-sliding, but was still able to make progress, all the way to the mouth of my driveway, and then the snow was just too deep, and my car couldn't plow it's way in any further, so I walked down my driveway, and entered my cold house. The power was out. The temperature outside was hovering around 32F/0C, and the temperature inside was 41F/5C. It was late, and I was tired - I called my neighbor who was watching my cat and house for me to let her know that I was back, and learned that the power had been out since Sunday, so this was now the 4th day. I got out a sleeping bag and went to sleep.

The next day I got out a camping stove and heated some water for breakfast. It was feeling a little like being on the mountain. I have a wood stove, but the stove pipe leading from the stove to the chimney is rusting out, leaving big holes through which sparks could fly, so I didn't want to start that up. I finally realized that I had to get the house warmed up, so I wrapped the stovepipe with some aluminum, and got the wood stove going. Since I have a well for water, no power means that there is no water, either. I started melting snow (there is over 2 feet of it, outside) for water to use to flush the toilets. I already had lots of bottles of water to use for drinking. I was REALLY feeling as though I were still on the mountain. The wood stove got hot enough for me to use that for cooking. I took everything out of the freezer and dumped it into the snow outside my dining room door. A lot of it was still frozen, which was very encouraging. I started cooking everything that had started to thaw. The living room and upstairs of the house warmed up to a nice and toasty 53F/12C. My neighbors got reports that the power wouldn't be restored for possibly another 4 or 5 days, so I figured that this would continue to be the life. The good news was that I finally had time to read. This was definitely a difference from the mountain - there, I hardly ever had a chance to read - there was always too much to do - either getting ready (sorting gear and food) for a carry, or having to melt snow/cook, or putting up or taking down the tent - there was always something. Here, the "tent" was my home, and there were no carries to plan, so getting wood, melting snow, and cooking were the big tasks, none of which take too much time, so I got my chance to read. (Jim Wittaker's "Life on the Edge" - memoir of the first American to climb Mt. Everest - in case you're interested. . . A very good read.) Wim called to tell me that he'd picked up my bags, and informed me that one of his bags had, for some reason, been sent back to San Francisco. . .

Today, I thought that I might start the arduous process of getting my car into my garage, but with 1/10th of a mile of driveway, it's a huge task to do by hand, but I started it, anyway. I removed the first 20 feet or so of snow. It's VERY heavy (the over two feet of snow has now consolidated, greatly, and is packed in to about 1.5 feet with a couple of layers of crusty ice). . . I returned to the house and had just stoked up the fire so that I could cook some more when the power came on!!!! Yippee! We'll see how long that lasts - so much snow is on trees that they are still falling due to all the weight of the snow. For now, though, I think that this mountain journey is now over. (Well, will be when I pick up my bags from Wim!)

Stay warm and healthy! And Happy Holidays!


Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Aaron and Wim summitted, I did not. We´re off the mountain, now.

Hi, all - The last several days have been a bit of a whirlwind. We had some great weather when we needed it, and a few snowy, windy days that gave us an excuse for a rest day - actually of the 15 days that we were on the mountain, we only had 2 rest days that I can remember (I´ll have to double-check that, later). The 2nd rest day was sort of pre-determined for us: I was just asking over from "my" tent to "Arron and Wim´s" tent (for most the trip, I stayed in Aaron´s 2 person tent, and Wim and Aaron stayed in my 3 person tent) whether they wanted to "rest or carry", today. They told me to go to their tent so that we could discuss. Just when I got into the tent, we heard someone outside. I looked out, and saw a guy sort of collapsed (on his knees) outside our tent. I quickly re-put my boots back on, and ran over to him. He couldn´t feel his fingers, anymore, and wanted a drink of water. I ran back to my tent, got a bottle of water, which I then had to "serve" to him, since he couldn´t use his hands. I then ran back to the tent, got out my high altitude mitts and we took off his wet mittens and put mine on him. Wim suggested that he go into the tent. We got him into Wim and Aaron´s, and then Wim and I got the stoves going to get more water (we spent hours each day melting snow, turning it into water, boiling water for our breakfasts and dinner). We fed him breakfast (I happened to have an extra, as I hadn´t finished the previous night´s dinner, so ate that for my breakfast). Aaron sat there talking to our guest all morning long. By mid-day, he was feeling fine, having recovered feeling in his fingers and toes, and took off. For us, the day was pretty shot, so we declared it a rest day. The unfortunate thing for us, though, is that we were really getting antsie - Aaron was even thinking that if we had to have another rest day, he´d rather go down than try to go up. However, we´d already done a carry to Berlin - our highest expected camp, so we had stuff up there that we didn´t want to leave.

The following day, we moved to Berlin. We asked all the guides that we came into contact with what they´d heard about the weather. We were hearing that the following day was supposed to be good weather, with diminishing weather the following days. This was great for us, as the following day was our summit day.

Summit day: we had some hiccups - Wim completely overdressed and had to change - I needed to change out my pants, but couldn´t do it where Wim made his clothes change as it was too steep and in the middle of the trail. So, we wasted a lot of time at the beginning of the summit bid. Aaron mentioned something about the timing - until then, we´d not established a turnaround time, and I´d just assumed that we´d get there whenever we got there. Aaron and Wim pointed out that every afternoon bad weather came in, and I mean EVERY Day, so they wanted to be coming down before then. I got slower and slower as we got higher and higher. We had about 1000 meters/3280ft to get to the top. Wim had been having a lot of issues with the altitude the previous days, and was assuming that he´d have them on summit day. I told them to go on past me. After they continued up, I continued for a while, but had to keep stopping. I couldn´t seem to find ANY pace that I could sustain for more than about 10 paces. I remembered my friend, Monty, telling me that he would step once, and then take 3 breaths, and then take another step. I tried that, but couldn´t even maintain that. I assumed that I would just go as far as I could, and meet Aaron and Wim while they were coming down, and who knows, get there, myself (as I had always assumed that I would), but at some point, all I wanted to do was sleep (we´d gotten up at 2 am that day). I looked for a rock to lie on, and tried to take a snooze. I knew that I would regret not going up any further, but I just couldn´t get any motivation from anywhere inside myself to keep going up (and where else would the motivition come from?). I saw that there were people who were moving extremely slowing that at least kept trying to go up, and I wanted to be one of those people, but, again, couldn´t muster the motivation to move myself. I asked many of the people who were descending whether they summited (in Spanish and English), and they hadn´t because of a variety of reasons.

Finally, someone coming down had summited, and to me, it just meant that Aaron and Wim would be down in a couple of hours, rather than that I should even try. It finally occurred to me to at least mark the spot that I´d gotten to, got out my GPS, and found out that I was at roughly 6593 meters (21,630ft) (the summit is at about 6960 meters/22840ft). To myself, I was thinking that that should have been motivation to at least go another 7 meters up to make it a nice 6600 meters, but, again, I just couldn´t find the motivation. I looked down and saw a rock near the path in the snow that I thought would make a good place to sleep and headed for that. I did spend a lot of time looking around at all of the peaks that used to tower above us when we were down below, and now were below me - the sight was just phenominal! Glacier clad mountains - just wonderful! Later, thinking about it, I think that lack of oxygen was definitely at the heart of my inability to move, think, and get motivated. Wim and Aaron showed up, fairly wiped out, themselves, having succeeded getting to the summit 10 minutes shy of the turnaround time. Clouds had indeed moved in, and they told me that visibility by the time that they´d summited was so poor that I don´t even think that they had a good southern view. I told them that that was ok, since I´d already seen the view! One of the summiters was so happy and proud of himself that when he stopped to chat with me on his way down, he showed me the pictures that he´d taken using his digital camera (does anyone have any other type of camera, these days?).

Anyway, re-united with Aaron and Wim, we made it back down to our Berlin camp. That night, when I would wake up for my hourly pee/drink, I noticed that I would sometimes have to make a choice: take a drink, or breathe. If I drank, I would then have to sort of gasp in order to get enough oxygen. If I didn´t drink, I knew that I would get a headache (if I didn´t already have it). This was definitely not a nice part of the whole high-altitude experience. The views, the mountain, itself, up high, were all fantastic, but the headaches, constantly having to drink, and consequently, having to pee, were just not very happy-making. I looked forward to being down and not having to drink/pee so regularly.

The following day, after the normal several hours of melting snow (and this time, having to boil all of it, as we´d just run out of the iodine tablets that we´d been using to purify all unboiled water as, although they´ve instituted a policy where all trash, and all solid human waste must be carried off of the mountain, there is still a ton of human excrement, everywhere), we packed up camp, and headed down. We´d "cached" food and clothing at each of the lower camps, and now had to pick them up on the way down. First, everything we had at Berlin, then the cache at Nido de Condores, and then the cache at Camp Canada. When we got to base camp at Plaza del Mulas, I had us weigh each of our loads, using the fish scale that Inka Expediciones uses for weighing the loads for putting on mules. It turned out that I was carrying about 68 to 72 pounds (about 31 to 33 kilograms), and Aaron and Wim were carrying well over 38 kilograms, each (over 84pounds!) (They had a hard time lifting the load with the fish scale in order to accurately weigh them!).

When we set up camp, again, for the night at Plaza del Mulas, we felt as though we´d already arrived in civilization: sit down toilets (never mind that they were boxes over a barrel), water out of a spigot (water captured on the nearby river and piped down to a holding tank, from whence a spigot allowed the water to flow), air that we could breathe (ok, so it was still very high altitude, but to us, who´d spent about the last week up higher, we weren´t having to make the choice between breathing and drinking). And our Inka Exdediciones hosts were gratious and welcomed us back with drinks (Tang) and some slices of bread, olives, and meat.

The following day, yesterday, we packed up most of our equipment and left over food for the mules to carry out, gave away our left over fuel and olive oil, and headed out for the 35 kilometer (22mile) hike out. Aaron and I both are suffering from blisters on the bottoms of our feet. We all have sunburns on our faces - Aaron and Wim from summit day, and me from the last day - we usually re-applied sunscreen at LEAST every 2 hours - the rays are fierce up high, but apparently we were either lax, or the rays even fiercer than we expected, or we didn´t apply the sunscreen very well . . .

After getting to the park entrance, we told the guy from Inka who picked us up that we were hoping to make the bus back to Mendoza *that* evening - and it was supposed to leave in only 20 minutes. The guy was wonderful, and radio´d the Inka person in Penitentes, told him that we wanted to make the bus, and by the time we got to Penitentes, all of our bags (that the mules had carried out) were waiting for us - they loaded them up in the pickup that we´d been picked up in, and our driver drove us to where the bus was supposed to pick us up. Unfortunately, the bus driver didn´t want to pull up to where we were waiting and mostly Wim and Aaron got all of the very heavy bags to the bus. But, we made the bus, and went back to our friendly little hotel at midnight, and fortunately, they had "our" rooms still available. . .

So, this was my first opportunity at an internet. It was very nice to sleep through the whole night and not have to pee. . .

We´ll see if we can change our flights. It´s unlikely, as so many segments are involved and we´re using frequent flier miles for many of the segments, but we´ll be trying, anyway.

Pictures will have to await our return. . .

Saturday, December 06, 2008

5th day on the mountain and everything is fine!

We´ve been to Confluencia, on to Plaza del Mulas, and done 2 carries (1 carry more than expected) up to Camp Canada, and will move there, tomorrow.

Getting to Plaza Del Mulas was definitely an experience - 29km and a nice steep ending to get to this place. However, the snow that we endured during that 29km hike was well worth it - the place is absolutely SPECTACULAR!!!! (and this was supposed to be the ugly route!) We were all very winded when we got here, and on the second day, the same thing. Walking across the camp completely winded us. After the 1st carry, however, walking around here is a piece of cake!

This is extremely expensive, so I´m cutting it short. (and there won´t be more facilities like this higher on the mountain, I´m very sure!)


Monday, December 01, 2008

Update - All of the bags have finally arrived!

Although the bags arrived 2 days late, we expect to be only 1 day behind on the schedule, as we´ve already packed some of the bags for the mules with the gear that did arrive. Wim and Aaron went to the airport just in time to see Aaron´s bags arrive (we had called the airlines multiple times during the day, with not hopeful info coming to us. . .), and were able to pick them up. This likely saved us several hours.

We´ll be re-packing them in mule-weight bags, tonight, and leaving early tomorrow morning, hoping to get to Confluencia only 1 day late.

Hope that everyone is doing well (there are fewer people on the mountain than expected, and many have canceled their expeditions due to the economic situation, which is affecting everyone all over the world).