Tuesday, March 18, 2003

Aconcagua diary, continued:

Part 2 of 7

Saturday, March 18th: Today we began the ascent. We left Uspeche at seven, after a small but satisfying breakfast. All equipment OK. Velez and Feld are carrying rations, Bundy and Ulloa the spare ropes. We will operate on a rotation-type system, distributing loads. Peter has decided to solve his problem by growing a beard. The roads away from Uspeche are muddy.

13:00 Lunch. Canned chicked done on the Primus. My compliments to the chef. All sorts of mosses and lichens about, but none of the colour that was seen below. We are approaching the arrete from the North-West, so the actual summit will remain hidden from us until we reach the first peak of the arrete itself, which we hope to do by the 20th. More later. We hope to make good ground, for the weather seems good.

Standing at nearly twenty-three thousand feet, Aconcagua is the highest mountain in the Americas. Three thousand feet higher than Denali, in the longest mountain chain in the world - the Andes. Aconcagua stands in Argentina, a few miles from the border with Chile, but it is much closer to Chilean cities of any size than to the nearest large Argentine cities, Mendoza and Buenos Aires, miles to the East. It was for this reason that we had come from Santiago on the Chilean side, and chosen to go through the customs at Uspallata rather than to get billed a lot more for shipping through B.A. This was one of more difficult climbs, for mountains are not necessarily rated simply by their height, but by the ease or difficulty in attaining the summit. Aconcagua did happen to be a rather high mountain, and a difficult one, but we could not think of that now. We were on our way. Up.

March 18th, continued: At around three we passed the passive snow line. Strange shapes, mushroom-like, about six inches tall, were everywhere, giving a fairy tale atmosphere to the already strange surroundings. These snow mushrooms were the product of different rocks, as each rock held a different amount of heat, and melted the snow differently. Or so Hernan says. He (Ulloa) also pointed out some strange rodents in the distance. I forget the name he used, but he did say no one knows what they eat. I suggested rock. They'd never run out. There's plenty all around - strange to see no green.

By five even the lichens had started to disappear, and we passed up into the eternal snow. About a foot deep, this snow might have been here for years. The only sounds are the winds, the trudging of our feet, and the voices of the mountains themselves: the incessant adjusting of the snow mantles, an eerie creaking and groaning, and the occasional thunder as a hanging glacier lets a fragment fall. We can see two enormous glacier faces from our path, and Peter estimates they are at least five hundred yards thick. They seem to be in slow motion, as a piece will tumble interminably before it crashes, the sound reaching us seconds later.

By six it was dark, and we stopped to set up camp. A thick fog enveloped the area, and the lamps projected shadows of giants as we walked around. We just had dinner, also hot. We plan to be asleep by nine o'clock. The ground is hard, and pegging the pup tents proved vigorous.

The first day had gone well. We had covered our estimated distance, as well as made up some for the next day. As I lay on my cot, I could hear the mountain shift. The sound went on regardless, day or night, winter or summer. Even now, before the cold started, there was this continual shifting of snow masses that gave the mountains their strange reverberations. We were warm in our down bags, while outside the air skidded by, below freezing. Comforting. I had to be careful to channel my thoughts away from those of isolation, and the urge to wake up Robert subsided as I thought of the day to come. Tomorrow held a particularly hard leg, the climbing of a rock face, several hundred feet high, up to an easy plateau, gently sloping again until the rocks jutted skywards. Tomorrow we would ascend this face, and camp on the plateau above.