Friday, 29 January 2010

Back to Civilisation...and steak...and wine...

We are finally back in Mendoza after a two day trek from base camp,which seemed like a week! The morale in the team is high after the successful summit on Saturday 23rd January and the realisation of the achievement made by the group still hasn’t really sunk in, though i’m sure its nothing a good few bottles of Argentina’s finest won’t sort out! Now that we’re back in Mendoza and feeling a bit fresher,we thought we should fill in the gaps between when we last wrote this blog at basecamp and reaching the summit.

The start of the long climb up the mountain began with a series of load carries to various camps. We were itching to get started as the climatisation days spent at base camp were long and fairly uneventful,mostly consisting of sunbathing or “OP Bronze” as Rich would put it! This was often scuppered due to the dramatic changes in weather going from absolutely “redders” to Arctic conditions in minutes!!

The first task was to load carry to Camp 1 [5200m] , our first taste of climbing with heavy ruck sacks at this high altitude. Load carries are simply moving kit and equipment required to survive at the next camp and beyond. This proved quite a test, moving steadily up over the glacier and rocky minefield, trying to fit through the many penadanties that hindered the way! The aim of this initial carry was to give the body a taste of the altitude and then to descend to recover with the philosophy of ‘climb high,sleep low’. Following the carry, we took a rest day back at base camp and there was a definite mood change amongst the team as the seriousness of what was to come moved into our minds. Also we were anxious as to how we would react to the altitude. It was not uncommon to wake up with a headache ,feel groggy or be out of breath very easily. How effectively we dealt with any early signs of acute mountain sickness [ AMS ] would massively determine how we would cope further up the mountain. Following another rest day at base camp we completed the move up to camp 1. Things were now going to get serious!

Our first night at Camp 1 was a perfect example of the diverse weather conditions up high on the mountains! We arrived around mid-afternoon in scorching sunshine. Having set up our tent and stowed our kit the Arctic conditions had started to set in. Two inches of snow fell in what felt like ten minutes! After a quick game of ‘fives’ to decide who would go to collect the water from the frozen stream, it was Matt who ventured out into the blizzard! He returned almost half an hour had been one hell of a slog!.....but nothing like the slog Pete had to endure to do the washing-up!!

After a successful though bitterly cold night’s sleep, we woke up to bright sunshine and a light snowfall. The task of the day was to load carry to Camp 2 [5900m]. This ,far more so than the first load carry, seriously tested all of us both physically and mentally. It was easily the hardest climb to date, much steeper terrain than we had faced before and the air became noticeably thinner the higher we climbed, making every step ten times harder. It was interesting to see how differently we all reacted to the altitude. Pete, strong as ever, continued to pace up the mountain like a tall ginger mountain goat; Rich, who has never been any higher than sea-level, seemed to have no dramas whatsoever; Andy decided that contrary to his earlier comments , walking poles were actually good value for money and Matt spent most of his time when not climbing in the foetal position.....

After the six hours it took to climb to Camp 2, it took all of forty minutes to descend back to Camp 1 for much needed food and rest! Morale was pretty high at this point as in reaching Camp 2 most of us had reached our own personal altitude records, officially higher than Mont Blanc and Mount Vinson and a fair few others!

After a rest day back at Camp 1 which was spent participating in endless crosswords and ‘OP Bronze” [ or “OP Lobster” as has now been nicknamed for Pete and Andy] , everyone’s attention switched focus onto reaching the summit of the mountain. “ You have to break the expedition down” , was the advice we received and tried to adhere to, and“ don’t think anymore than a couple of days ahead”. In other words, don’t get hung up about summit day while you’re stuck at base camp. In honesty, since we landed in Mendoza I don’t think the summit of Aconcagua had ever left our minds but now it was right at the front - in front of everything! We were itching to crack on with it and besides, there’s only so much factor 30 suncream [ 50 in Pete’s case] to go around!

The move up to Camp 2 was physically demanding but we all felt stronger than the previous load carry trip much owed to the philosophy of ‘climb high, sleep low’; confidence in the acclimatisation days had given us a boost with none of us showing any signs of AMS. Once at Camp 2 we had five days set aside for summit attempts. This meant we had no reason to rush things. We had the supplies to wait at Camp 2 until we were ready to go for it and not be forced to take on the hardest part under bad weather. However, we were ready to go then and there! With the word that the weather forecast was good for the next day , the decision was made to go for the top - the top of Aconcagua! A sleepless night followed - anticipation of what lay ahead , kit checks followed more kit checks and then mental kit checks - questions, so many questions - how would our bodies react to limited oxygen? could we handle the severe climb? did we have enough left in us? was it the right decision to go for it now without at least one day of rest?
Finally there was nothing left to do or think about except wait, wide eyed in the sleeping bag until the crackle of the team radio at 0400 hours sharp......

“ weather looks good guys, lets do this......”

And so it was into our fresh socks and as many layers as we could pile on , we began under torchlight to attack the mountain. Clear skies and very light winds provided perfect conditions, indeed the weather remained kind to us for the majority of the day! Seeing the sunrise over the Andes was what can only be described as breathtaking......for eight hours we battled through the constantly thinning air, less than 50% oxygen at its thinnest, with wind and sunburnt faces and next to nothing left in the tank until finally we arrived at the infamous “Caneletta” , the soul destroying final few hundred metres to the summit which took upwards of two and a half hours to scale. Although this proved the most challenging for everyone , far more challenging than any of us had really imagined, it did not stop us! Getting to the top was a real test of physical and mental endurance. At that altitude, doing the smallest of tasks feels like moving the mountain itself! Once there, it was time to enjoy ourselves!

We spent a good half an hour on the summit. Its funny how no matter how hard something is, when you’ve completed it you forget about the pain and focus on the achievement - on how great it feels to be the highest people in the southern hemisphere! There were spectacular views from the top as well as an incredible feeling of elation! Handshakes and pats on backs as we shared the moment with each other, together with climbers from South Africa, France, Norway and of course a few local guides. The moments spent on the top were special.
And then we made it more special for everyone , as the words “ NAKED PHOT” were could we resist!

Naturally, any mountain purist will tell you, “Its not a successful summit unless you make it back down again”.
The next few days were spent making our way back down; trying to remain focussed despite being absolutely shattered and completely overwhelmed was almost as hard as climbing the mountain in the first place, but we retained our composure and all made it down in one piece!

Photos will be added as soon as we get back......if anyone would like a ‘signed, naked, summit photo’ , please send us an email!

“Climb as high as you can dream”.........

Matt and Pete.

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