Thursday, November 24, 2005

The way to the base of the roof: When Ice, Mud and Wind come together!


Cerro Aconcagua (6962 meters) (Taken by Efrat V.)

Starting from Puente del Inca, the legendary and mystical bridge, we did our way to Horcones base, continue on to Confluencia where we passed one night in the Rio Horcones valley before attempting an approach to Plaza Francia, at 4200 meters, which ended in a wind shelter hideout and a glorious view over the roof of the Americas

Riding back to the pass
Five thirty in the morning and the alarm clock snapped me from the dream I was in into dark reality. Everyone was more or less a sleep and the first thing I though was, did Sivan got back from her nocturnal date. I pulled my self up to her upper bunk, only to see that it was as it was before turning off the light – empty. I started to worry, where is she, what she has been doing and if she is ok?? In the darkness I pulled out my headlamp and started to get dressed with butterflies in my stomach: today we gonna trek! After two months, again we will visit nature up close! Efrat woke up and asked me whats the time and where is Sivan, and I told her that she didn’t come yet and I don’t know where the hell she is. No sooner than I finished the sentence, I heard the all-too-familiar laughter of Sivan roaring from down stairs and I let out a whisperously relief sigh and continue on rearranging my stuff and getting my tooth brush and paste for a quick teeth rub. Then, I heard the door opens above my head and, there she was, peeking into the room, looking at me and immediately, what else but, laughing her mind out.
“You look so funny with this thing!” she managed to say between one gasp for air and another, and of course, half of the hostel was again on its feet (and I remind you all, the time was before 6 am…).
“Did you have some joints with Alejandro?” I asked as I continued managing my stuff, and she replied she had couple of drinks but no more. She was, obviously, half drunk. And then she continued with her roaring laughter, while Efrat switched on the light and we all got to work.
Turned out she had a nice date, by the way, but instead of staying there and start a cross investigation and examination, squeezing out the juicy parts, I made my way to the bathroom to prepare my teeth for a yet another interesting day that lay ahead. Two Argentinean girls, Nadia and Maria, both on the verge of getting their M.D., were also suppose to join us to Puente del Inca, and maybe, to Horcones camp also. The bus left this morning at 7 am and not at 6, so around 6:30 am we all took out stuff out and grabbed two taxis and rode to the bus terminal. We got to the terminal and waited with the other passengers to the bus to Las Cuevas, which on the way, dropped passengers in numerous locations. While waiting, Sivan with her vulgar talk about things I can not describe here, and with her high pitch voice and laughter, attracted the attention of the most people in the station at that early morning, even the one who were close to a good sleep...
The bus came in and we boarded it while putting our massive bags into the cargo bay. We had a 4 hours drive ahead of us, so we made ourselves comfortable and went to sleep, while the Aconcagua snowy peak gleamed in the early morning sun from 100 km away and beaconed us to come and explore…The bus passed through country side settlements, towns and passed vineyards on his way up-up toward the high international pass which Argentina and Chile share. Finally, the bus came to a stop at Puente del Inca, and a continuous gust of vicious wind greeted us. While we prepared ourselves, Nadia and Maria went to check if they could camp near Puente del Inca instead in Horocnes, where we planned to stay the first night.

Day 1 – Surprise, Surprise - Going all the way to Confluencia (2700-3300 MASL)
After visiting the Puente del Inca (again) we shouldered our backpacks and made our way back to the highway for the next 2 and a half km walk to Horcones park entry. A local guy tipped us that there is a path that goes in parallel to the main road and it will be a bit easier. We thanked him and started our walk on the highway. Soon, we realized that a small black dog was accompanying us, running here and there with great enthusiasm, with his tongue slips between his parted jaws and his gleaming white teeth. Thinking about him, the first name that pops into my head is Sharky so for convenience, this will be his name. At first we laughed and said that Sharky will accompany us all the way up to Plaza Francia…well, truth was not THAT far from…
After crossing a bridge over the Rio Mendoza that runs from the pass down toward Mendoza, we left the main road and took a small path that lead 500 meters into the country side. The mountain ranges on our left were partially covered with ice and as we walked we found a stretch of 30 meters of a slope covered with Ice and the girls went to do some sliding on a nylon bag, cheering and yahooing all the way down. After we finished taking the pictures and sliding, we continued on only to meet with a French guy walking alone along the trail. Nico, 28 of age, was a nice companion and Sivan quickly introduced herself with her French, and as we continued to move along the valley the two talked a mixture of French and English while the rest of us talked about this and that, till we saw the amazing mountain (the same spot, by the way, where the high mountain tour stopped for us to take pictures). Nadia and Maria said goodbye to us as they had to return, and we five continued on to Horcones, a one triangular building with couple of antennas and a big hanger-like nylon tent. The door of the nylon tent was open and a park ranger was standing there, greeting us in Spanish. The wind already was whipping us in the face and we hurried inside, where the wind could not penetrate and I explained the ranger what are our plans (first night at Horcones, second and third in Confluencia). At first he said no problem and supplied us with an unmarked nylon bag for our garbage. But, no sooner than five minutes later, the guy came back and said it is not possible to camp at Horcones because the bathroom facilities at the moment are in order…What!? So, what’s the problem, there is nature, I said…No, the ranger replied, that is NOT allowed, only in a facilitated bathroom.
So we had two options: either to go back and sleep one night in Puente del Inca (a dumb idea) or to go forward all the way to Confluencia, a 3-4 hours hike. The time was 2 PM so we didn’t have too much time. I tried to explain him that we are not acclimatized and it is better if we could acclimatize in Horcones, but he said in reply that we can either acclimatize 100 meters down the road or either go up to Confluencia where there is a doctor that can take care of us if we feel bad. Great! We didn’t have any choice so we went on and checked into the park.
Each one of us got a nylon bag with a number written on it with a marker. On the back of the permit it was written that loosing this bag can get you fined dearly (200 USD!!) but I was a bit skeptical they would charge such an amount of money from a returning backpacker. In any case, we took our bags and went on our way with Nico and Sharky. Quickly we saw signs explaining about this unique area geology and the formation of the rock formation due to glacier movement in the Ice age period. We continued to walk on till we reached the Horcones lagoon which the mountain ridge was reflected on. We took some picture and continued on till we passed the scouting point on the mountain. Nico came only to see the mountain and after 20 minutes of walking decided it was time for him to return to Puente del Inca. And, with that we continued on with Sharky along the path going up the moderate incline while people, mostly one day hikers, greet us as they passed by on their way down to Horcones. We walked some 4 hours, very slowly, and made several stops to ease the packs on our backs. After knowing who I am dealing with, I was not surprised to see that the girls were in good condition and tough, and not a single whine could be heard all along. As we continued on, I could feel the exhaustion of the pack on my back as my legs felt tired and it was hard for me sometimes lifting my legs. The scenery, on the other hand, was superb with the Rio Horcones roaring on our left side, and Ice fields covering several parts on the sloped on our right side nearby. We also crossed several large Ice fields, which were stiff to the foothold and even so, were easy to slip on…At mid afternoon numerous convoys of donkeys lead by local Gauchos passed us by, and so differently from the Bolivian/Peruvian Arrieoros, this Gauchos were horseback riding while the donkeys were running like crazy down the path, sometime going the wrong way while the Gaucho shouts at them and pursuit them down the ravine to fetch them…
As it happens in most treks, the whole company got separated and we walked with big gaps of hundreds meters as each one walks in a different pace and ability. At one point, me and Ravid were walking together and we saw a guy coming down and talking with Sivan a bit and then continues on. When he came close to us we greeted him and asked him where he came from.
“Oh, I came from Plaza Francia now, very beautiful, very!” he replied vividly. Plaza Francia!? He was only with a day pack on his back which meant he did not stay the night in Confluencia…The invitebale question came immediately:
“You went to Plaza Francia in a one day trek!?” and he answered with a tired smile saying: “Yeah, I started at 10 am and it was ok and very beautiful, though I am very tired now…” yeah, well I was tired also from walking only from Puente del Inca! Only this guy ascended and descended 1500 meters each direction, a total of 3000 meters in one day!! THAT WAS CRAZY! While he continued to descend I was still in amazement how he made it so fast…
Finally, I saw the silhouettes of low buildings in the distance and I was happy that soon I will take the heavy bag off my weary back and legs. When I got into the camp grounds (last by the way), I noticed that several expedition tents were pitched as well as backpackers tents, along with the rangers permanent building. I saw a sign directing me to the check in point where the ranger building was standing with the door open, and I could hear already from a far the rolling laughter of Sivan. When I finally was close enough to see the faces inside the office, I could see the girls sitting by and sipping tea looking at me in a mixture of an amuse stare with the stare of “what-took-you-so-long”.
After dropping my back with the rest of the pile I entered the office and the girls introduced me as the “fourth chica, the wussy-pussy”. We all laughed and I added that after walking with the girls I started to turn into a woman. “I don’t want to think what would happen to me in the next few days after sleeping in the same tent with them…” Everyone laughed their heart out and I pulled out the necessary permit so it would be stamped. One of the rangers showed us the camp site, and we quickly found a place and hurried to pitch the tent before it will get colder than it was. We saw some of the Israelis that were with us in the hostel and that the next day were planning on going down to Horcones. They told us that on the way up to Plaza Francia one of them got dizzy and went down while the other two kept and went up all the way to Francia.
After I changed to some warm clothes, we sat to prepare our dinner: pasta with tomato sauce (now we had a lot of food, because we shortened our trek by a day). However, cooking 500 gr’ of pasta in one pot was not that smart, as not enough water were in the pot and the whole thing was not cooked enough no matter how much time we put it on the stove. So, we ate as it was with great sauce Efrat made and after a sweet tea we cleaned the utensils with the freezing water and went to prepare ourselves for sleep. As I was a gentleman, I took the one of the sides of the tent (the most exposed part of the tent to cold and wind). I didn’t know how cold its gonna get there, so I dressed myself as usuall, thermal shirt and pants and hope for the best. As the girls stated, “you started snoring the minute you closed you’re flashlight…”, and indeed, it was a good night sleep that I had that night.

Day 2 – Looking for the path to Plaza Francia (3300-4200 MASL)
We set the alarm clock to 8 am as the other guys told us it is enough to get to Plaza Francia and coming back before sundown. Well, fact is that those guys didn’t really reached Plaza Francia but stopped some 2 hours walk before actually reaching the base of the mountain (not that we actually got there too, but that’s another little reason – we didn’t have enough time!).
Back to the first morning – beautiful! The sun shone across the whole valley and we got out with no need for all of our warm clothing, even though one of the Israelis told me that when the sun didn’t hit the area it was dead freezing…We quickly went into preparing tea and afterwards, the oatmeal. Well, even though I think it was good and tasty (I was the chef) the girls had a bit of a hard time eating the gooey mash even with the granola added. As there was so much left in the pot, I finished it all, not thinking what it would do to my stomach functionally (I have gone to visit nature three times in 6 hours!) and quickly we arranged ourselves to the upcoming walk. We prepared sandwiches for lunch, and took two backpacks (one me and the other one Efrat) and started walking around 10 am.
The walk from Confluencia to Plaza Francia is technically easy going and not demands any navigation at all, but even so, finding the path was not an easy task and it was a mission we failed several times.
We walked maybe half an hour till we reached the first confusing ending of the path into the flowing river of Los Horcones and after we sank ankle deep into the soft mud, went up a ridge, we saw the path running on the other side of the valley. We continued to walk on the main path (what we THOUGHT was a main path..) only to be confused again after only 20 minuets of walking, when again the path disappeared and we had to scramble up and down the slope to find the continuation (actually, another path). Several times we crossed ice fields that covered great parts of the slope, walking on the foothold of previous trekkers and the animals that passed through. On the slopes on our left and right we saw fields full with triangular ice spikes jutting a meter above ground, partially covered with dirt that made them look like earthly pillars more than any glacier. It was such out-of-the-world sight, and we took lots of pictures of these interesting forms, as well of the snow capped mountains that surrounded us. The air was crystal clear and visibility was perfect. We continue to move up the path (once we found it again!) and we pondered numerous times why the Argentineans don’t put some sort of a path sign so we could identify the path (The simple answer we got later is that the park officials are working hand-in-hand with mountain guides and expeditions companies, and want to encourage hiring guides and mules, with outrageous fees like 120 USD for a mule per day!!!). In any case, we all started to feel the height already as our pulse was getting faster and pounding and we moved slowly forward. Soon, we saw the start of the grandiose glacier that dominated a great chunk of the whole valley and which was covered with dirt and was brown as the land we were walking on. At that point we could see already the west face of the Aconcagua stretching for almost 2500 meters upward. An amazing sight, I can tell you that, to see the huge dark rock jutting like that with such massive size with ice covering major parts of it. Some of the ice shelves were a sheer cliff of about hundreds of meters, just hanging there in the probably freezing wind at that altitude (at 4000 meters, where we were walking, the wind whipped us remorselessly so I can only guess what is the situation a thousand and more meters). At that point we entered the wide and flat valley which curved toward the west side of the mountain, hugging it with snowy sheer cliffs jutting into the air some hundreds of meter above our head. The wind blew strong at our backs and lucky for me I was well equipped, and except for my head, I didn’t feel the wind too much. But, the height, well, I felt it really good with annoying headache that started an hour and half before we stopped at the high part of the valley. At that point I felt shit, very hard to explain exactly what was it, but I just felt shit and tired. It was 2 PM, and I just looked for a place the wind would not reach me coz my face was half frozen. I found a shallow ravine that one path lead up several hundreds of meters to the edge of the rising valley before it sloped down toward the glacier, some couple of km away toward the base of the massif. I laid down and eased the weight on my back. The girls came after five minutes and it didn’t take too much time for us to decide to eat lunch there instead at the bottom of the glacier…We ate our sandwiches we prepared before leaving Confluencia, and quickly we slipped into such a relaxation under the burning sun that we decided that this place will be called “The Nueva Plaza Francia” and with that we went into a doze for an hour before we raised ourselves and started our way back to the valley and to Confluencia camp.
We found the way back to Confluencia much easier to find, as we came from top, and we could easily detect the right path. Of course, this time the wind hit us straight in the face and almost half of the hike back our faces were freezing little by little. When we finally reached Confluencia, it was 4:30 PM and the Israelis company were gone, like most of the other hikers, and most probably were catching the 4:40 bus back to Mendoza from Puente del Inca.
We passed the time till it got a bit darker (around 6 pm) and then we started preparing some mashed potatoes while another company of four Israelis just came from Horcones. We talked with them a bit and then went back to finish the dish and eat it with some sort of delight (well, it is not like the real thing so…). The wind kept on chilling us out so quickly we found ourselves back in the tent, arranging ourselves for a good night sleep. Not that it happened, not for me in any case, coz apparently, I drank to much tea and I turned a lot that night (the girls claim I slept good, by the sounds of me snoring, while they had a hard time sleeping, for the second time).

Day 3 – The way back to Mendoza
The next day was expected to be a relaxed one: walking down from Confluencia to Horcones was expected to take between 1.5 to 2 hours and walking back to Puente del Inca was a 1.5 hour walk more. There are two buses that ride back to Mendoza, one at 11:40 am and another one at 4:40 pm so we quickly realized that if we want to catch the early bus we will have to wake up REALY early in the morning, and due to the fact that it is freezing outside before the sun goes up, we decided to catch the later bus.
I woke up early, around 7:30 am and because it was very cold (the sun still was hidden behind the mountains) I decided to walk to a part of the valley that the sun has reached and sat there for maybe ten minutes before a wind started to build, and before I known it I rushed back to our tent, just to find that it was also cold there, even when the sun rays washing the whole camp site. I went to clean the pot so I could make some tea to warm myself and when I returned I saw that Efrat was awake and outside. I told her that I am going to make some tea and she said she would join me when suddenly the wind got stronger, and Efrat changed here mind as fast as the wind strengthened, and blurting something about getting back into the sleeping bag, she was out of sight. Not that I can blame her, it was damn cold!
When I lowered the pot on the windshield we built from small rocks, I grasped that no way I can keep a stove working in such a wind. So, I took my diary and went under the nylon cover of the tent’s porch while laying back on one of the backpacks. I though of preparing the tea in the porch, but I knew it would wake up everyone in the tent due to the whoosh of the flowing and burning gas. But, the wind on the other hand grew stronger and the nylon cover was pushed so hard I though the whole tent would tear apart and fly to high heaven! A lot of sand grains flew with the wind and everything was getting grainy and covered with a thin layer of sand. As things developed, there was no chance of cooking anything in that wind!
So, when I heard the girls move and talk, I went outside and brought in the tea bags and the pot full with water. While I prepared the tea the girls got arranged while Sivan popped her head through the narrow slit of the tent’s opening zipper, commenting on this or that and nudging me to prepare her tea (“I AM preparing tea, god damit, go back to sleep will ya?!” I commented half laughing while she continued on to tease me out of sole boredom…). Breakfast was also prepared under the covers and at a certain point it was less cold (but not less windy) and we started to wrap out things before we descend to Horcones. Don’t think that it was easy to wrap the tent, as the wind blew the cover and the tent itself, and we had to use all our limbs to keep the two parts from flying toward Horcones…Finally, around 10 am the packs were ready and we strapped them on our backs. Suddenly, out of the blue, I noticed that a big whirlwind was built in a second some 20 meters from us, gathering and spreading brown sand grains to all directions. I shouted to the girls that there is a sand storm and took off running away from it with my 15 kg pack on my back. As I turned back to see where the sand storm was heading, I saw that it passed Sivan and Ravid by half a meter, filing and covering them with sand grains while Efrat ran by my side. The sand storm continued on and broke on a pile of equipment with a crashing and flapping sounds of nylon flapping under the blowing wind. The camp people popped their head to see the commotion, and quickly went back to their own business. When we regrouped, the two proclaimed in a disappointed voice as to me “escaping yelling Sand storm without saying RUN”.
“Hey, you had enough time to look and run away, why you stayed planted in your place, in any case?” I answered half laughing as they brushed off the sand grains. I didn’t get any reply beside the sound of the wind still blowing in the background, so with that we started our descend to Horcones. Amazingly, the wind continued to blow all the way down to Horcones, while we met several trekkers coming in the other directions, mostly climbers of a tour to reach the top of Aconcagua. We wished them lots of luck. At one time we saw three trekkers and no other than Sharky, that disappeared after the first night in Confluencia. The little dog ran toward us with joy and enthusiasm, rattling his tail and flanging his pink tongue as the wind blew. What a wild dog! It reminded me of my own dog, Shoshi, that died at the age of 14 some twelve years ago (wow, am I getting old or what?!). It especially reminded me of all the times I was coming back from school and as I entered the walkway to the house she would wait patiently on it and when spotting me, would run with joy similarly to Sharky, and would be happy as hell!
Well, Sharky continued with the three climbers he was accompanying and we continued walking down till we finally reached the Horcones lagoon and the park entrance. We went straight to the rangers permanent tent only to see that it was empty and no park ranger behind the desk. We waited there for ten minutes while Ravid dressed her blistered ankle and once this was done, we decided to go without doing the check-out that was required from us (well, what they think, that I am gonna wait for eternity??). So, I scribbled a little note saying something like this:

21/11/05, 13:00

Hello park ranger!
We were here BUT you weren’t:
Chen G
Ravid L
Efrat V
Sivan M
Attached are our garbage bags.
Thanks for your hospitality!

We took our backpacks and while a school tour came into the park we headed out, back to the international road and from that cross walked all the way down toward Puente del Inca. On the way we met four Israelis coming up the road, hauling ass with a full backpacks (turned out that they carried also small backpacks on top of the other things they were carrying). We gave them tips and information best as we could and after talking like this on the side of the international highway, we continued going down the asphalt road till finally we reached the complex of Puente del Inca. And, who do you think we find sitting warming in the sun and talking to a local chick?? Nico, just waiting for his ride to Santiago! We talked with him a bit and afterwards retured to our original plans as we had one and half an hour ahead of us, but quickly the original plan of making pasta there transformed into sitting in a local snack joint and munching on hamburgers and empanadas.
Time passed slowly as enormous tiresome feeling landed on me and almost crushed me into sleeping on the dirty table but at the end I managed to stay awake till the bus came.
Well, this part was quite funny…When it came, I went straight and first to the entrance with my backpack on my hands. I immediately noticed that this bus didn’t had a cargo bay so I asked the driver where the put the bag and he pointed toward the depth of the bus. So, while still moving and asking I continued naturally into the bus and threw the bag on the last row of seats, as I guessed that the bus would be filled with people and trekkers backpacks. As I turned to meet with the girls, I noticed through the bus windows that they were going with their backpacks toward the ticket office…OOPSS, I realized that I should have boarded the bus with a ticket…When they returned, I decided that I am not gonna sneak like this, so I went forward and met with the girls that bought the ticket from a middle aged man standing at the entrance to the bus. As he finished writing Sivan’s ticket, Sivan continued into the bus, but put her foot over mine, lost her balance with the big bag and fell backwards toward the surprised driver. Everybody started laughing (especially Sivan) and the ticket man asked me why did I do that “did what?” I replied back…
I am not sure why, but this bus ride was a very jumpy one, and the bus jumped all the time, as well as we the passengers with it. But even so, I slept like a baby for the first half an hour, till we had our first stop at Uspallata and lots of children boarded the bus, making me move the bag from the seat and putting it near me in the passageway. Of course, every time someone would want to pass through I would had to lift the heavy bag and let people pass. And it happened to often in my taste… In addition, this 4 hour long and tiring ride was accompanied by a babbling group of women sitting behind me, which made it even worse and when the bus finally got to the station, they didn’t even waited till it come to a full stop and went into the passageway anxious to get off (and of course the bag on me…).
Getting back to Sosahuas was great and we were greeted warmly by Sergio who invited us to Asado. What a good timing! So, while the girls went to shower I went to send an email to my family and when I finished my shower the grill was just prepared so I sat with the Israeli gang we met at Confluencia on the first night, and we talked and laughed. The Asado was splendid and afterwards we went to bed tired but full and happy…

No comments: