Sorry about the delay. We will continue to attempt to update this with two days at a time over the next few days.
When we last touched base we mentioned that we had spent 3 days hiking in toward the mountain from the road (Route 7 toward Santiago, Chile – after driving 3 hours west from the City of Mendoza). This is the lesser of the two main routes into the mountain. The two routes consisting of the “Normal Route” via Plaza de Mulas (a roughly 27.2 km) gravel trail in along the Horcones River (reportedly dirt bikes have gone this route in) and more popular route; or else our less frequented route up the Vacas (cow) River valley – 38.2 km. This 3 day trek was a great opportunity to acclimatize to elevation at a slow pace and undertake activity our bodies will need to get used to. Constant movement over cobbled boulders with a 30 lbs (15kg) backpack on, getting used to hiking poles, constant rolled ankles and he need to focus on your feet and not the scenery that astounds the senses.
The first day we had followed a group of 8 guided trekkers in, however for the next two days we seemed to be one the early risers, duelling with a group of three friends from New York leading the charge to the next snack break, suntan lotion application spot, photograph point or eventual rest stop. We constantly were witness to changing mountain vistas, a bounding brown jack rabbit, small songbirds, and the occasional guanacos (local ungulate herbivores very similar to llamas). We arrived on our third day at Plaza Argentina (basecamp) at an elevation of 4200m and from there attempted to establish a plan for the successful summit of a mountain which even now we could not see and had only witnessed briefly through breaks in the surrounding ominous valley.
Day 4 was a rest day in which to organize our gear, set aside unneeded items from the hike in (shorts, general hiking boots, some food) and get used to this basic elevation. The more time spent at such heights allows the body a greater ability to adapt to the increasing height we were yet to face. Red blood cells carrying oxygen molecules are able to build up in our bloodstream and greater serve our typical body functions. Allowing for a level head (mind) and continued normal function of our bodies systems. This would increasingly be of concern as we gained further elevation. The higher you climb the more important this becomes. With slightly lower oxygen levels I found myself with a slight headache for part of the first day. The headache seemed to flirt with my mind and hold onto he back of my skull, somehow throbbing at times with my neck and spin.
In order to continue to hike further the government and our permits required that we check in with a doctor to confirm our blood pressure and oxygen levels (in our blood) prior to hiking higher. Laura and joined the que at 11am, just behind two boys from Kentucky and our three New York Amigos. Anxious moments were spent waiting and wondering if your body was good enough to adapt and allow the chance for you to move on. All I was hoping was that I would not slow down Laura in this requirement for the summit, but it all seemed out of my control.
We had set up our camp, orange tent flapping in the constant breeze near to the toilets and water source. A rock windbreak to call home and soft gravel surface to rest our heads on over the next three days or so. Fernando, a porter had stopped by to suggest a more ‘private’ location was available, however the ease of access to toilets, water, and the fact we had already rebuilt our windbreak limited further action or changes (ie. we quickly became lazy). Laura and I had spent a minimal time at this elevation in the summer, however in lifting or dragging each individual stone I needed to catch my breath and recoup. It is a scary/degrading to feel weak and unable to meet the challenges of even such a basic task. Laura seemed more able and was quick to focus on the task at hand, establishing our camp and preparing bags for the next stage of the trip.
We passed our medical physicals and luckily I was slightly higher in my oxygen concentration than Laura, 90 vs 86 and did not need to deal with any boasting (she’s a Mallory, its in their nature) and it seemed that with our previous exercise and our younger age we were in a good place. Others we had travelled with were not so able, and this would come to manifest itself over the following days.
With this news in hand we took a 30 minute acclimatization hike up into the penitentes (ice pillars rising from the glaciers) in order to build strength and hopefully continue to push our bodies.
This was our ‘rest’ day, and as we sat eating chickpeas from a tin can, boiled rice flavoured with Lipton soup and starring out over the Relincho (side small tributary to Vacas) Valley we had arrived from, I could not feel more exhausted from the basic tasks needed to arrive here and the thought of what lay ahead.