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EXCERPT FROM ” AGAINST GIANTS: THE LIFE AND CLIMBS OF A DISABLED MOUNTAINEER”

The hour-long flight from Buenos Aires to Mendoza was uneventful. Below, the consistent, dull brown landscape was a reminder we were in the middle of scorching summer. The heat shimmered off the tarmac as we made our way off the runway and caught a taxi into Mendoza.

Mendoza was born when settlers used irrigation techniques to turn what was a desert into a thriving provincial centre. Today, the million inhabitants of Mendoza are in the heart of the agricultural centre of Argentina. Often known as the bread basket of Argentina, Mendoza is also famous for its tangy, bitter-sweet oranges, marmalade, and stupendously heady wines. Most striking are its streets, almost all lined with enormous, mature poplar trees. These provide excellent shade in the summer, and enhance the charm of this small city. But they are also a product of a clever underground irrigation system where street drains provide water to the trees’ root systems. However, missing steel grates that cover many drainage points also make falling headfirst into these dark holes really easy, especially since most of them are right by the side of the pavements.

Permits for climbing Aconcagua had to be obtained in person, and this, with some shopping for cheap groceries, took up most of a day. The Argentinians obviously prefer their meat fresh and there was a poor selection of meats, canned or otherwise. Some dried sausages got thrown into our basket with some fresher stuff for the following day’s lunch. We could not find any instant noodles, nor could we find any peanut butter for the climb ahead. They did, however, have about a half dozen brands of dulce de leche. This concoction deserves a mention as probably one of the most unctuously sweet stuff you might ever encounter, and might almost turn you into a diabetic overnight. It comes as a thick paste and is made from a 50:50 mixture of the freshest, creamiest milk and sugar. The two come together like conspirators and are slowly cooked until a sticky condensed milk is produced. Some versions are flavoured with caramel and some are au naturel. Spread on biscuits, bread or slathered over desserts, you are unlikely to find this delightfully sinful stuff anywhere else outside Argentina and, maybe, Chile.

As recommended by Gil, we booked a small but cosy room at a one-star hotel that cost us about US$20 a night. The rooftop of the ‘Internationale’ was a hotplate during the day, so drying off any handwashed clothing took only an hour – a useful feature for any hotel housing hygiene-challenged mountaineers. Gil turned up on the evening of the second day, smiling rather awkwardly as we met each other for the first time. He had twinkling blue eyes and thinning white hair; cut close to his scalp. So after three years of correspondence, we now had a face to the name. Over fugazza, a type of pizza without the tomato sauce base, we planned the following week’s climbs.

Gil knew of a small range about 100km from Mendoza called Cordon del Plata or the Silver Thread. Few foreign climbers ever ventured there; preferring to go direct to Aconcagua. There were several 5000m peaks which would be ideal as a warmup for Aconcagua. Unfortunately, Gil had only enough vacation time for this part of the trip, and would not join us for Aconcagua. He did, however warn us about the Cordon.

“So, why is it tricky to do the climbs in the Cordon before going to Aconcagua?”
I asked, knocking back some Quilmes, a refreshing local lager.
“Some people, they go to the Cordon. They climb Plata and then Vallecitos, then they come back to Mendoza. Then they go home.”

“Why? Why didn’t they continue their climb on Aconcagua?”
“They too tired.”
A day later saw us scrambling up the slope to the Refugio CUDA. Turning back, we waved to our mini-van driver and watched, as he zig-zagged his way down the switchbacks. He would be back to a beer in Mendoza within two hours. The refugio, or alpine hut, was a lovely stone building with wooden floors and bunks, and was owned by a local university’s climbing club. Pepe, the young guardian gave us some more pertinent information of the terrain ahead, in between his sessions of practicing sempoyan, a kind of pan pipe from Bolivia. Our goal was to acclimatise by climbing Cerro Vallecitos (5770m). It was here that Wilfred and I began to get to grips with a few more aspects of Latin American culture. Gil and Pepe were big on drinking mate (ma-tay), a kind of green tea. This is a common tea in the area around northern Argentina, Paraguay and southern Brazil though its popularity is widespread.

Unlike leaf-based Oriental green teas, both the stems and the leaves for mate are dried or processed together. Tea blends containing a higher proportion of leaves give a more distinctly stimulating drink. A handful of the pale beige-green powdered mixture would be put into a traditional, tear-drop shaped vessel. Hot water would be added, after which a bomba would be inserted. The bomba is, by tradition, a pure silver straw with a small cloth bag filter at one end. A few sips are taken and then when empty of tea, more hot water added and the vessel passed around.

“You first David, and then Wilfred drinks,” said Gil, grinning at our curious looks. I held the smooth cup and instinctively agitated the contents with the bomba.

“No! No! No!” said Gil, his palms held outwards in mild horror.
“No stir, just drink,” he finished.

Over the next two days, we hauled our loads up the trail towards Salto, our final campsite, laden with a week of supplies. The loads Beng and I carried also included an extra 4kg from the double-layer, insulated plastic mountaineering boots. Gil was travelling lighter, taking a risk by trekking up and climbing in a pair of uninsulated leather boots. We passed some charming gurgling streams and alpine meadows high with the smell of flowers. In fine weather we camped for two nights and acclimatised at the Grande Piendente (Big Rock) campsite. On the first evening, just before the sun went down, I heard a screeching bark that I had never heard before fill the air. I looked up and spotted several slim-legged animals.
“Guanacos!” said Gil.

The llama-like animals came within 15m of our campsite. They sniffed around a bit, lifted their elegant heads, and checked us out before scampering up the nearby scree slopes in effortless fashion. Although protected by law, Beng and I wondered, in true Singaporean style, if they tasted good. At a distant, a scurrying shape was later identified as a chinchilla , and I noted that their fur coats looked better on them than on humans. Another friendlier visitor was a mountain mouse that enjoyed our leftovers. It would dart out of its hole to grab some food we left in a very small pile by a rock, and then scuttle back to eat it before repeating the process. I delighted in these sights and sounds. Often, they remained enduring memories of a climb.

The evening before we left Grande Piendente, we were joined by three climbers. They all looked like they were in their 50s. They were planning to do a steep, technical route on the south face of Cerro Plata, the only 6000m peak in that cirque of mountains. The white-haired leader excused himself as he ran off to a river nearby to fetch two large
containers of water for his tired team mates. When he returned, we began chatting, my Spanish improving on a daily basis. He was an Italian-Argentine, and had emigrated to Argentina after the war. He proudly yanked out his old Italian army regimental flag, announcing how he hoped to carry it to the summit. Gil and I shot each other a quick look, and decided, out of politeness, not to ask him whether he had fought for Mussolini or the Allies in the last war. The friendly chap also related how he had only been climbing for a few years, and had how he met his fifty-something year old climbing partners.

“And how old are you now?” asked Gil.
“Seventy seven.”
Next morning, Mr. Seventy Seven and all of us began the slow trudge up to Salto at 4100m, the final campsite before we made a summit push on Vallecitos. We soon left behind what little grass there was, and were now truly in the alpine zone. Clouds swirling about partly obscured Cerro Rincon, a pretty 5000m peak. Not having carried 25kg up a mountain for a long time made the going a bit harder for me. As I tired, I noticed how I would rock my pelvis more and more with each step. What I was instinctively doing as my legs tired was to hitch my pelvis up with each stride; ‘throwing’ my leg forward with my hips instead of lifting it as a normal person would do.

Halfway up the dusty trail, I met Mr. Seventy Seven who was alone and taking a
short break.

“Where are your other friends?” I asked, in halting Spanish.
“Somewhere down there”, he said, waving in the general direction of where we had trekked up. They were a long way from us.

Soon after, he caught up with me and passed me. It seems age is never a barrier for climbers.
There were about six tents at Salto when we arrived. From the other climbers, we learned that about a metre of snow had fallen about a week ago, but most of this had melted away. Gil gave a sigh of relief, and the summit was planned the next day. Despite our concerns about the rapid ascent from Salto, it was felt the risk worth taking as the good weather would not last. I looked up at the steep south face of Vallecitos. It was laced with delicate ribbons of ice and snow. To the left from my view, a less intimidating route wound its way up a pass before taking a more direct line to the rounded nub that was the summit.

We got started just before 6:30am. We left our plastic boots behind since the route was supposed to be clear of much ice and snow.

“Additional training weight!” said Wilfred, laughing at how we had carried up an additional 4kg of ‘useless’ gear for three days.

Zig-zagging up the path, the faint trail eventually took us up a spiny ridge with a couple of scrambling sections. At a distance, the edge of the sky turned a bright egg-yolk as streaks of orange heralded the new day. By the time I got to the pass at about noon, the winds were gusting south at about 100km/h. Despite the blue skies and sunshine, I shivered, the icy fingers of the wind exploring and exploiting any chink of weakness in my nylon jacket. Occasionally, a plastic toggle at the end of a small cord on my jacket would whip around, stinging my cheek with irreverence.
Moisture and clouds coming in from the north were pummelled back, and there was a strange atmospheric condition where the clouds from the north could be seen swirling and curling around the edge of the southwest ridge, but never being able to flow over it because of the strong winds in the opposite direction. What made up for the bitter cold was the first view all of us had of the enormous bulk of Aconcagua at a distance. The 2000m south face plunged straight down, and a growing lenticular or mushroom-shaped cloud over it suggested high winds over there as well. Which ever way you looked at it, it was big.

I reached for my water bottle. I shook the container, cocooned inside a half-inch of insulating foam. There was no familiar and welcoming sloshing sounds.

Instead, a raspy noise from inside told me that the water had turned into slush. It was difficult to chug down the icy mess without my throat clenching involuntarily from the cold grip of the drink. I was miles way from the humid shores of Singapore, and a slushy was not welcome here.

I plodded on, placing one foot in front of the other. I was wearing only a couple of thin layers underneath my Gore-Tex jacket and began to suffer from cold exhaustion. This vicious cycle can happen when you get tired and slow down. As your body loses heat from the cold, you are unable to exert yourself further. Then you get colder, and the cycle continues.

Ahead, I could see two dark specks – Gil and Wilfred who were about 300m ahead of me. A faint trail through the rock and fine scree snaked downwards to me. Above, the summit block beckoned. I reached them at about 1pm, and took a deep breath, stripping off the jacket to add another, warmer layer underneath. I needed more fire in my furnace and sucked down an energy gel for good measure. The sticky, sickly sweet stuff oozed into my mouth reluctantly. Though freeze-resistant, in extreme cold, just about anything with moisture would solidify. I felt better after about 15 minutes. Soundlessly, Gil, Wilfred and I shook hands. It had been a relatively easy climb, but it was our first summit together, and that was important. 2nd February, 2000 marked yet another milestone in my comeback.

Descending, we met our Argentinian friends who had decided to camp a bit higher than at Salto. They offered us fully charged bottles of Tang and took photos with us. Long after the moments on a summit are forgotten, the simple kindness of strangers and friendships made on the hill will always stay with me.

At Salto, we celebrated the Chinese New Year. After a slap-up dinner of reconstituted potato mash and corned beef, we munched on some chocolate. The cold brown slabs took a while to snap into smaller pieces but they soon warmed inside our hungry mouths. Then it was time to immerse Gil in some Chinese culture. As it was impossible to carry all the traditional delicacies from Singapore, we had packed a small selection¬†of dried mango slices (stained red for luck), salted peanuts, and the de rigeur ‘bak kwa’ – honey roasted pork slices. In the New Year, there is also a tradition of giving away
red packets (hong bao) or envelopes containing cash, usually to children or young, unmarried adults.

“What are these?” Gil asked, pointing at the small red envelopes we had brought up.
“Well,” I said, barely suppressing a smirk. “The tradition is like this… I give you a red packet. You put some money into it and give it back to me.”

Gil raised his eyebrows and proceeded to fish around the tent for some cash.
Wilfred and I had by then collapsed in a heap somewhere, laughing hysterically.
“We could get rich this way,” Wilfred said, grinning from ear-to-ear.

We decided to spend an extra day at Salto to further acclimatise, while Gil was to make his way back on his own down the trail. We would re-unite at Mendoza. When we did descend, I faced one of my biggest fears – the steep, hard-packed scree slopes just before Salto. Descending was much harder than scrambling up. The packed earth was covered with an ultra-fine dusting of gravel. Like tiny ball-bearings, it made the down-climbing part tricky, especially with a pig strapped between your shoulder blades. Inevitably, I was to suffer a number of bum slides and minor falls; including one which snapped my left ski-pole. Wilfred generously offered me his own, making do with the shortened stump of my broken pole.
Worse, the descent and unavoidable toe-jamming led to black toenails and a few nasty blisters. Mendoza was a pretty sight, but not as good as an ice-cold Quilmes.

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