We woke up to rain at Dickson.
Posts tagged ‘andes’
“Regular maps have few surprises: their contour lines reveal where the Andes are, and are reasonably clear. More precious, though, are the unpublished maps we make ourselves, of our city, our place, our daily world, our life; those maps of our private world we use every day; here I was happy, in that place I left my coat behind after a party, that is where I met my love; I cried there once, I was heartsore; but felt better round the corner once I saw the hills of Fife across the Forth, things of that sort, our personal memories, that make the private tapestry of our lives.”
― Alexander McCall Smith
I have been back in the states for a little over a month now. In some ways, my life has slowed down a lot. I go to the same place for work every day, I see my old friends. I just got my car back. I do 'normal' life things -- like get my car inspected. But at the same time, I am still in flux. Still very much in transition - sleeping on an air mattress with my sleeping bag as a blanket. Still unsure of where I will go beyond July 27th. Still unsure of what I want.
In the book description of this trek, it reads that you get pretty much everything on this trek - from seeing indigenous villages, alpaca herds, snowy mountain ranges, vicuňas (wild alpaca-llama ancestors), hot springs, and hiking 80km at 3500m or higher. They did not lie. This was one of the better treks that I have been on (and, as my faithful readers know, I have been on some good treks this year).
As I have told you all, Bolivia is the land of amazing geography — from salt flats, to one of the highest plateaus in the world to amazing mountain ranges, Bolivia seems to have it all. Among mountaineers, Bolivia is well known for the Cordillera Real (the Royal Range) – home of some of the highest mountains in Bolivia, many of them over 6,000m.
[side note for all my American readers — I know that we are still stuck in the world of feet and inches and pounds and gallons, alone in the world, sticking to our guns… er, measurements. But, as you probably also know — the rest of the world has agreed to all use the same measurements, making it easy for everyone else to understand meters and celsius without needing to do quick math in their heads. My tactic? Just go with the crowd….]
In any case, if you know me, you know that I have a thing for mountains. Especially the big snow covered variety. And since every tour agency in La Paz offers a climb to Huayna Potosi, I decided to investigate. Turns out that I could take a guided climb for 3 days and try for the summit, 6,088m. I spent a while talking to one tour agency run by a Bolivian doctor who is also a climber (and starting some studies on high altitude health). We had some fun talks about mountains and though he was quirky (to put it mildly), I felt pretty good about the agency and decided to sign on. It took a few days for their to be a group for the day(s) I wanted, but finally it looked like it was a go as one other person signed up for the day I wanted to go!
Now, I have never done a guided climb before, being the guide myself or going with friends. But, not having any firends here to go with, it makes it a whole lot harder to go climbing. I tend to not love guided trips – as I do not like people waiting on me and I always want to help – which makes them uncomfortable (as that is not how it is done). But, as one friend pointed out, how nice would it be to show up and have all the food already taken care of? Good point.
In any case, our group of 3 — Feliciano — our guide, Elad — an Israeli navy lieutenant traveling in South America for 4 months after his 7 years of service, and myself, headed up to the mountain. Feliciano, who is 40, has been spending time in the mountains since he was 14 and has been a guide for 16 years. He has climbed all the mountains in Bolivia, and most major peaks in Peru, Argentina and some in Ecuador. We had fun talking about Aconcagua (he has climbed all the routes there — which is super impressive!)
The refugio we were staying at the first night was pretty close to La Paz — just 14 or so km from the city boundary. After arriving and eating lunch, we headed up to the glacier for snow school — which was pretty much just learning how to use an ice axe, walk with crampons and play on the snow. Technically, I probably did not need this day as walking in crampons is something I feel pretty confident with — but at the same time, it was nice to go out their with the guide and feel confident about their skills and their method of teaching. And, I will always take a day to go play in the snow!
In any case, before I bore you non-mountaineering-types with stories of snow and ice, the schedule was to get as much sleep as possible the first day and then to head up to the high camp the next day (which can take our guide close to 40-50 minutes, but took us about 3 hours – but more on that later), eat dinner there and then try and get a few hours of sleep before waking at midnight to head up to the summit (anywhere from 4-8 hours).
The walk to high camp was beautiful — though cloudy. But we got some great views of the glacier, distant peaks and the valley below. Plus Huayna Potosi is a beautiful mountain (see for yourself).
I would not say that I am in the best shape of my life — exercise has been intermittent, coffee and brownies are indulged in on a regular basis (‘oh, just a little treat for myself’), Bolivia hasn’t been super kind to my digestive system and every hostel I stay in seems to have a gazillion smokers. But, I tend to do well at altitude and my strength has always been in my ability to walk up hills for hours, albeit slowly. This trip proved to be the same, and though I don’t feel like I am in the best shape ever, I am definitely more in shape in comparison to other tourists. And when you are in a group, you know who’s speed you walk at……
The high camp refugio was small, basically a shack with a kitchen — an upper and lower bunk where at least 12-18 could sleep (if you were really crowded in). Us 3 showed up early, but then a group of 5 Israelis, 1 Dutch girl (the only other girl around), and their 3 guides showed up — making it a home for 12. After an early dinner of ramen noodles and hot dogs ((I know you are jealous), we tried to go to sleep at 6:30 for our midnight wake-up call. Between nerves (I am always nervous before a climb — just ask my climbing partner how I did the afternoon we spent staring at the west face of shasta before we climbed it!), listening to a roomful of snoring boys, and how hot a tiny shack can get with 12 bodies crammed into it — all I could do was rest my body as my watch registered the hours (and yes — I heard them all from 7 until 11, at which point I resigned myself to pulling an all-nighter – which of course lead me to try and remember the last time I pulled an all-nighter… but I digress).
Alpine starts are one of my favorite things about mountaineering. I don’t know why, there is just something so cool about waking up before everyone else and heading up the mountain. I love climbing in the dark – seeing the stars, faint outlines of the mountain before me and the sight of headlamps making their way up the mountain. And the reward for that? Seeing the sunrise from high up on the mountain.
This time was no different. We started off at 1:40 (following a cluster in the refugio as tired folks struggled to put on harnesses, plastic boots, and crampons — new for most of them) with Feliciano leading us up the mountain, followed by Elad and then myself. Though the climb was really hard for Elad, I was really impressed with his ability to steadily keep moving. Others (the other climbing party) were struggling — frequently throwing themselves to the ground desperately needing a break. But Elad really pushed himself and kept moving. Though we started at least half an hour after the other climbing teams (each rope team had two clients and one guide), we quickly caught up with them and leap-frogged with them for the rest of the climb.
It was a beautiful night, not a cloud in sight, fairly warm and no winds. In other words, a perfect climbing night. The snow was crisp, if just a bit sugary, and the climb was fairly straight forward. We snaked past some gaping crevasses and climbed a pretty awesome 45 degree slope over a crevasse (front pointing is ALWAYS fun!). The approach to the summit was steep and exposed, with the finally approach along the ridge to the small summit (that dropped off to the extremely steep west face). It was probably one of the more exposed climbs I have done, which was fine on the ascent, a bit spookier on the descent (requiring full attention which is why I unfortunately do not have any pictures of it).
We arrived at the summit just in time for the sunrise, which did not fail to impress. Mountains in all directions glowing from the rising sun and the pink clouds below us. But, in mountaineering, the summit is just a small part of the journey, so we took some pictures (weak shots as there was not enough light) and then headed down in increasing day light. I was astounded as we descended at how beautiful it was — Bolivia at that moment owning my heart (sorry Patagonia, India and Nepal).
Our descent was fairly quick and involved some fun ‘skiing’ down some slopes (once we were past the glaciers) and we arrived back at the lower refugio in time for an early lunch and our ride back to La Paz. My second highlight of the day? Playing with the concinera (cook’s) daughter. She was adorable, I only understood about a third of what she said (ok, make that 1/8th, so I just said ‘no se’ a lot), but we had so much fun playing outside!
Feliciano, seeing my skills and knowing that I had climbed before, offered to guide me up other mountains if I wished. We spoke last night (my first spanish conversation on the phone!) and then texted today and I decided to try for Illimani later this week. It was a bit of a spur of the moment decision as he texted me saying I needed to decide quickly as he was headed back up the mountain with another group today. There were plenty of reasons to say no (money, spending more time in La Paz since we cannot go until Friday, money and more money), but then again — when will I get a chance to climb the second highest peak in Bolivia with a private guide?!
I’m a little nervous (when am I not?) as this peak is higher, a bit more technical and potentially longer. But, I guess that is why I have a guide! And, I’ll tell you what, it felt damn good to be up on a mountain again. I remembered that my goal on this adventure was to climb and trek as much as possible — and so this seems to be a good way to achieve my goals! So now, I am going to try and figure out how to entertain myself and not spend a lot of money for the next few days!
We choose to go in the Vacas Valley Route as this is less populated and would allow us to get a full view of the mountain as we would essential come in from the south, travel up the west side and then down the NE side (which is the normal route). About 75% of the people go up the normal route, so we expected it to be less crowded. Another difference between th Vacas Valley and the Horcones Valley (normal route) is that the approach is longer on the Vacas Valley side — it takes 3 days to get to base camp (versus two).
The walk in was up the valley, through the grasslands along a stream/river. It was quite hot during the day, but much cooler at night and at times we got a sense of how fierce the winds would be and we learned early to stake down our tents well.
Each day, we would pack up our two duffles (each weighing about 30 kilos) with food and some hard gear (double plastic boots, ice axes, crampons) and leave them for the muleteer, who would then strap them to the mules and take off. The muleteers camped where we did, so we could count on getting into our food bags each day.
Eventually, we reached base camp. Now…. imagine the pictures you have seen of mountain base camps – yep, looks the same. Some structures that are there all season long and then all the hopeful climbers and their tents. Base camp seems exciting — but really it is boring as hell. You are sitting around waiting to climb. We got there fairly early on the 3rd day (keeping true to my desire to hike early in the morning before it gets too hot!), had a rest day the next day, then a carry day and then a rest day. So – we got there on the 3rd day and we would not be leaving again, really, until 8th day. Yep, that’s a long time.
There are 4 types of days in mountaineering. Here are my definitions:
- Carry days — you take as much stuff as you can – that you don’t need – and bring it up to your next camp. You have to be strategic though in case someone gets hurt or sick or weather comes in. For instance, you cannot bring up your tent, as you still need it down low. These days can be tough as you are still acclimating to the new elevation. But they also involved staying up the new elevation for a few hours (which for me, almost always involved a nap up high in the sun).
- Move days — the days you take all the rest of your stuff up to the next camp. These are usually permanent moves, such as from base camp to camp 1. Usually pretty exciting and usually faster than the carry day.
- Rest days — these are the most boring days in the world. you do….. literally…. nothing. I napped a whole lot on this expedition — like almost every day. But rest days, I pretty much spend the entire day in the tent, trying to nap, trying to stay out of the sun but getting way too hot in the tent. They would have been great days for a book…. if i had brought one….
- Summit days — these are the days you get up at some ungodly hour, like 2 in the morning, freezing, trying to boil water and keep yourself warm and then start walking slowly uphill for something like 7 hours. All for a summit. And then come back downhill for a few hours before passing out.
In any case, basecamp for us was a mix of rest days and carrys. It was good to get our systems figured out and eat, drink and acclimate. Here was where it was clear the difference between the classes. There were some people like us – going independently, without a guide. we were the ones with the big duffles, with bags that always looked full and did not have the most amazing meals on the mountain (tuna in a box, anyone?).
And then there were the guided groups. They were the ones who had people cook for them, went into the tents for dinner, had hot water delivered to their tents, and did not have to carry quite as much stuff up the mountain.
In any case, eventually it was time to move up to camp one. We were all mostly feeling well (Mike had some digestive stuff going on — though the tuna in the box seemed to be the culprit — it was pretty gross), so up we went from 4200m up to 5000m. All along, the weather was gorgeous — blue, clear skies every day. Not a cloud in sight and barely any wind.
Camp 1 definitely had a different feel — no services, people in transit or resting, no more real differences between people (unless your guide brought you hot water in the tent in the morning — but we tried to ignore that! :). Things just felt a bit more exciting.
After arriving at camp 1 – we had a carry day and then a move day. Camp 2 wasn’t too far — just another 450m (though of course 5450m is about 18,000 feet). Both our carry and moves went well – and we had amazing views of the mountain along the way. We also started our traverse from the west side of the mountain across to the north side where we would join up with the normal route. We also had some amazing views of the Polish Glacier which is suppose to be a pretty gnarly route up the mountain.
So – there we were at camp 2. We meet a guy, Grey, who was the only American in a group of Swiss. We spoke a bunch (we think he was lonely for english speakers!) and he let us borrow his sat phone (which I used to call Cody). We also asked him for weather information – as we figured the beautiful weather was not there to stay for long.
We carried up to camp 3, our high camp at 6000m (~20,000 feet) which went well for the most part. I was climbing really strong — made it from 5450 to 6000 in under 2.5 hours. Beth and Michael who had never been to such high elevations were struggling a bit more – plus Beth was coming down with a cold.
And then…. decision time. Basically, several groups decided to head up a day early (on the 12th) to try and summit on the 13th (even though the original plan was for the 14th like us). It was rumored that the weather on the 13th was going to be the best for awhile — clear skies and low winds. Our team discussed this and at first decided to go for it (which would mean missing a rest day at camp 2 and moving straight up to camp 3 the day after our carry day), but eventually it was decided that a rest day would be important to help Beth and Michael acclimate a bit better – so we stayed (along with just one other group).
The day everyone (else) moved up was cold, windy, and snowy. A few groups carried up to camp 2 and one solo person moved up to our camp – so now there were 3 parties in camp 2. That night, while we were cooking dinner — the 3rd solo party came over to ask for help with his stove which he could not get going. We let him use our stove that night and then next morning and we got to hear his story.
Turns out that Alberto (aka ‘the machine’) had come up to camp 2 from base camp. He is an Italian mountain guide — works in the Dolomites and Chamonix primarily. But, we called him the machine because four days after arriving in Argentina he was in camp 2 and on the 5th day he moved up to camp 3. Yep — that is pretty much no time for acclimating. In any case, Alberto pretty much adopted us and was with us for the rest of his time in Argentina.
But — back to the weather and camp 2. As I mentioned, we decided not to head up on the 12th to take advantage of the weather on the 13th. We had heard one report that said that the 14th would be clear (though all the other reports we heard said it would be windy). Unfortunately, the morning of the 13th, when we woke, it was clear with very low winds — which would have made for a great summit day.
In fact, when we arrived at the high camp later that day – we saw two Germans who had started the same day we had (but moved up their summit day to take advantage of the weather). They had just returned from the summit and gave us glowing reports of low winds and amazing views. We hoped our chance was next…..
On the evening of the 13th, we heard weather reports of clear mornings but high winds. But — it seemed to be our only chance. We could tell that our bodies were not doing well the longer we stayed at the high elevations (it is reported that the human body starts to deteriorate above 5000m). For instance, the 2 hours and 20 minutes it took me to climb the 450m up to high camp? The second time we did it for the move — it took me 3 hours and 20 minutes. The goal was to get faster, not slower…..
But — it was go time.
Beth and I woke up at 3 (Mike had opted not to join us as he was still struggling with the elevation) and we got dressed. Mike, amazingly, woke and helped us get hot water so we could hydrate and have something warm to drink. The icy winds were rattling the tent every couple of minutes and I was already shivering. We spent quite a bit of time looking for others who were awake (where the winds too high? we weren’t sure — but eventually we saw other headlamps).
Finally, just before 5, Beth and I started up the mountain. Alberto joined us for a bit – but not surprising, the elevation was affecting him and he had to head down. We were climbing strong and quickly caught up with a group in front of us. Within two hours we had climbed about 300m (your goal is to be traveling at least 80-100m per hour — so we were doing really well). But the winds…. the winds were fierce and biting and sometimes almost knocked us off our feet. Our faces were at risk of freezing. My toes and fingers were cold (and I was wearing 6 layers on top – but had my big puffy in my bag as a backup). At times, we could see the wind heading our way (as it picked up snow) and we would lower our heads, prepared for the onslaught, but still almost got knocked over. It was rough.
Though we were the first to turn around, many others came down later that morning. though the sun was coming up, we knew that the winds were suppose to get even worse later in the day. It took us about an hour or so in our bags to warm up. The rest of the day was spent in tents, staying warm and eating food. Alberto decided to try for the next day (he was ultimately successful) but at that point we had been above 5000 for about 5 or 6 days — our bodies were tired.
And so, on day 14 of being on the mountain (on Feb. 15th) we headed down the mountain. It was a long scree field — but with plastic boots on I could make it down in about 3 hours. We went from 6000m down to base camp at 4300m. It was strange to head down to so many people (on the normal route — which I would never recommend) but our trip was over. The following day, we hiked the 7 hours (16 miles) out to the road and then caught a bus back to Mendoza.
I love making lists. To do lists. Things to buy list. New gear. Places to go. Things to do.
But my favorite kind of lists? Bucket lists. Life lists. The lists of things that I hope to do in my life. They range from the practical (sort of) to the absurd. From building a cob house to trekking in Mongolia. From having a fantastic wedding weekend party with all my friends and family to climbing a 7000 meter peak. Yes, many of them are outdoor related. Many of them include mountains.
Making the list is super fun. It allows me to dream and think about what I really want in life. It helps me narrow the focus (even if the list is as varied as having a garden to learning how to make a good loaf of bread to living in a foreign country for a year). When I read back over the list (and I have been adding and modifying it for years), I see patterns and it helps me to make decisions.
But, you know what is really fun? Checking things off the list! That is amazing.
#7. Trekking in the Himalayas. Check.
#15. Take a year off to travel. Check.
Incidentally, the other day when I told someone about what I was doing this year, he responded ‘living’ the dream, huh?’. Yup, yes I am, I responded, grinning. (and this was coming from a guy who is an athlete for sierra designs and runs his own guiding company).
Being able to actually do what is on my bucket list is a true gift. I know that. I am aware of that and feel blessed and lucky. I AM livin’ the dream. But what happens when you try for your bucket list and fail?
Aconcagua has been on my list for years. Ever since I first started climbing mountains in Oregon 10 years ago, Aconcagua has been on my list. I remember when I took my mountaineering course, hearing tales of Aconcagua, the highest peak in South America, I thought… I want to do that. A large part of this year, the planning and scheduling of it, was based off of climbing Aconcagua. I wanted that summit. Maybe too much.
So, what happens when you try and you fail?
I have had my fair share of frustrations, missed opportunities, disappointments. Jobs, relationships, friends, students, men, plans, etc. The list can go on and on, right? We all have. But it is what we do with those disappointments, how close we hold on to them. How much we regret them. How much we second guess those ‘red-button’ decisions, those decisions that decide the fate of your dreams.
So, no. We did not make it to the summit. Aconcagua does not get to be checked off my bucket list. Today I am sitting with my disappointment, waiting for it to dissipate. Working on letting go and adding it back to the bucket list and letting that be ok.
Trip report is coming. I promise!
we are back.
all are safe and well.
trip report soon.