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A day and a half in Mendoza was a godsend. After lancing a biscuit-sized blister right at the bottom of my heel, I hobbled into town and replenished our food supplies for the main event. At a local climbing equipment store, we picked up another 4l of white gas for our stoves, as well as some compressed gas canisters as a back-up. We celebrated with one final meal at Las Tinajas, an enormous buffet restaurant where US$10 buys you as much as you can eat. There were seats to cater for several hundred diners, and the tables creaked under the weight of some great-looking food.

Cheeses and many different hams were laid out in slices, like oriental fans, black olives winked at us from the crispy green depths of the salads. The main courses sat silently, exuding steam and a mixture of aromas – pungent, piquant sauces, earthy odours of braised mushrooms in olive oil and the caramelised desserts, all combined to send some nutritionally-deprived climber into nirvana. In one corner, a spread-eagled pig carcass was slowly being roasted, its part crispy, part juicy meat to be devoured at some later stage. The grill section had a comprehensive selection of chicken joints, blood sausages, lamb chops and various cuts of beef. From the sooty slats, tongues of flames would dart out, licking their way around browning chunks of meat.

Singaporeans are famous for their love of buffet restaurants. Not only are these viewed as good value, it also indulges the generally greedy side of our natures. Unfortunately, this reputation of piling plates high with the choicest portions is an uglier side of Singaporeans’ nature as well. It was ironical that Las Tinajas is owned and run by Chinese immigrants, the kind of people you would least expect to meet in the heart of a small provincial South American city.

“Bife el chorizo – uno porcion poquito, por favor”, I said, in broken Spanish. I used my hands to demonstrate to the grill master that I only wanted a small version of the steak. Somehow, small portions are decidedly wimpy in Argentina and I almost dropped my plate when the chef peeled the slab of meat off the fire and dropped it, like soft brick, onto the plate.
That night, our rigours of the past week were forgotten as we packed in the calories for the big climb ahead. I surrendered after five rounds at the buffet tables. Despite his reed-thin frame, Wilfred appeared to have a bottomless stomach. He only waved the white flag after seven rounds at the tables. At ten, we staggered out into the cool night, gently patting our drum-tight stomachs and swearing to return to do battle with the buffet tables again.

We stood alone in patch of baking sand. Up high, the fiery orb of the sun shone bright. The cornflower blue of the sky and a slight breeze in the poplars brought a rustling sound to my ears. A good time for a lunchtime nap I thought.
“Oi! Time to go!” said Wilfred waking me from my daydream.

The minivan we had hired had dropped us off at Punta de Vacas (Bridge of the Cows). The tanned, sullen-looking boy with the mule we hired was taking his time tying our two duffels to the animal. They were packed with two weeks of food, fuel and gear. Even then, we had rucksacks weighing around 12kg to carry for the three-day hike into base camp. I made one more adjustment to the velcro straps of my leg brace and began.

There is some video footage of me leaving for the climb from this patch of sand, lurching from side to side. It remains an informal record of my progress in my comeback and normally triggers off laughs from all those who have watched it.
The High Andes, in which Aconcagua is located, is an extremely arid zone with humidity around 10%, much drier than the contents of any camera drybox. The Vacas valley is dominated by numerous hills and the Rio Vacas, a fast flowing river, grey with silt and mud. By 6pm, we were both pretty tired and dehydrated. As the sun crept down, I spied a crude wooden cross by some rocks. A hand-painted note said ‘Last Place for Water’. True to the sign, a short distance away, a small stream volunteered a trickle of water. Filling up, I plodded the last kilometre to the first campsite, Pampas Las Lenas. Next to the dusty patch was a stone hut. Inside, Wilfred had been getting acquainted with Martin, a cheerful Guardia Parque, or park ranger. After checking our permits, we sat around drinking some mate and wondered what had happened to our mule and gear. This turned up at 8:30pm and we scrambled to set up a tent and fix dinner before it got too dark. A can of mixed vegetables has burst open inside a duffel, and that required some mopping up. It can be hard on tempers when you are tired, hungry and rather cold and have to get on with setting up home. I gave silent thanks that both of us had been through this kind of situation many times before.

The following day, we made a crossing early in the morning of Vacas when the level of the river was manageable. A ‘security’ rope was stretched just above the surface of the water, but I had some advice never to grab it. There’s a story of a pack-laden climber who lost his footing there, and he grabbed the line with two hands. The force of the flowing current against his pack pushed his head below the water, and he hung there for a while, like someone doing some belly-first water skiing. I didn’t find out what eventually happened to him.

By the end of the next day, I had figured out why we were feeling rather drained. We had underestimated our energy requirements in trying to reduce the overall weight of all our gear. Breakfast was half a mug of muesli and some tea with lunch being two or three cereal bars. It was patently clear that this kind of rabbit food would not do if we were expecting to march for eight hours a day at altitude. By far, the last day was the hardest.

We made a 7:30am river crossing, splashing through ankle deep water. From here, our northwards path would make a sharp left, making a beeline east along the banks of another river, the Relinchos. All day, mule trains trotted by. Some were fully laden with climbers’ gear going up, and some were coming down empty. The rugged mule drivers or arrieros, would sometimes wave. The views for most of the walk had been interesting, though I missed the wildlife at Cordon del Plata. True, there were herds of wild horses, but the quirky guanacos were up high on the hill slopes, an inevitable reaction to the human traffic in these busier parts.

We made several more river crossings; wasting time as I tried to figure out the easiest sections to get across. Many crossing points were marked with small piles of stones or cairns. What intimidated me were the boulder-hopping that was required. Crossing the river sections demanded the hiker jump across to one of these smooth and wet intermediate boulders before making a second jump to the other side. With my bad leg and lack of dynamic stability, it was psychologically and physically scary stuff. The icy cold waters that flowed past the boulder at high speed were not for falling into. Ultimately, to save time, Wilfred would cross first and double back without his pack. He would take my pack and cross again. Once safely on the other side, he would extend his ski-pole. I would make the jump, grabbing the ski-pole as he yanked it (and me) across, providing an artificial boost to my jumping stride. When your calves are non-functional, you simply aren’t able to ‘jump’. At noon, Wilfred had stopped at a corner on the trail. He waved me on.

“C’mon up here,” he urged.
“What do you see?”
I turned the corner.
“Woah! Aconcagua – at last!” I said.
Some afternoon clouds covered the summit, but the sweep of the Polish Glacier on the peak’s slopes was unmistakable, as was the large bulk of the peak. Emotionally, I could only react with a feeling of awe, and a sense of the task ahead.

The mountain dominates the entire region, and being so big, has an effect on the micro-climate there. As the mountain warms-up in the summer sun, the hot air rising from it sucks in cold air from the adjoining valleys. A common occurrence that starts in the early afternoon is a sometimes unpleasant wind that sweeps in against your back as you march towards the mountain. More serious is when the Viento Blanco (white wind) strikes. A result of a cold front coming in from the Pacific Ocean, the Viento Blanco produces terrifying lenticular shaped clouds over the mountain, and hurricane force winds.

At about 6:45pm with the light beginning to fade, I sat down by a dry stream bed. There was no sign of ‘Plaza Argentina’, the base camp. Wilfred had trekked on ahead and must have arrived an hour or more ahead of me. I felt my pockets and found my last energy gel, popped it and sucked its contents out. I had either underestimated my stamina, or the guide book was grossly inaccurate in terms of hours needed to cover the distance. I stood up and plodded just 15m up a rise. At the crest, the whole of ‘Plaza Argentina’ lay before me. Tucked in the lee slopes of the mountain, it was not visible at all throughout the day. My spirits lifted, I marched the remaining distance and made for our tent that Wilfred had erected by himself much earlier. Spreading out an old, quarter-inch thick foam mat, I fell asleep soon after dinner.

‘Plaza Argentina’ was a collection of about thirty tents spread over several thousand squarem. At 4200m, some extra acclimatisation is no bad thing. We spent the next day resting, eating, and strengthening the guy-lines which anchored our tent to the ground. We built a high windbreak with as many large boulders as we could find. Clean water was obtained from a small pipe the rangers had jammed into a glacier. To get to the water, we had to hop and jump rocks across a stream and walk about 300m from our tents. Returning with filled water bags was trickier. Since my balance sucked, this was Wilfred’s job. I did chores around our tent.

For those more used to Himalayan expeditions, all these mundane and energy-sapping tasks are usually fulfilled by cheerful and eager local staff and cook-boys. Here, none existed, and our plans to climb the mountain would be wholly on our own efforts – including water carries. I quickly made acquaintances with some teams around base camp. A pair of American college professors proved to be helpful and friendly. I dropped in on them as they were drying off some gear and sorting a load carry. I looked at their supplies. A huge mess of freeze-dried food mingled with door-wedge blocks of cheese, meat and packets of biscuits. Inside their tents (they had one each), they slept on a combination of inflatable mattresses and closed-cell foam mats. John and Denis were chatting whilst sorting out their stuff.

“Hey John! You want this cheese?”
“Naw, we got enough, And those olives can stay, we don’t need that.”
“You going to eat all that?” I asked hopefully.
“Naw… if you want some you can take it. We just didn’t want to run short, y’know. That’s why we had two mules to carry our stuff up. How ’bout you?”
“We had one mule,” I replied, gratefully stuffing my jacket with the half loaf of excellent Argentine bread, cheese and olives.

One thing was certain, Wilfred and I wouldn’t be hungry for long.
That afternoon, we divided our supplies based on the number of nights we expected to stay high. The plan was to make one carry to an Advance Base Camp (ABC) at 5100m, and from there make a push to 5900m, and then to the summit. Getting to ABC was a meandering hike that offered a choice at the final slopes – a loose, scree path or a field of penitentes.
The ‘penitent ones’ were named after their resemblance to people in prayer. To us, they were unusual snow formations comprising a field of snow which had melted to form tightly packed rows of ice shafts. You could not walk on them, only around and between them. We chose the scree field. But the higher we got, the looser the ball-bearing like gravel became. On many occasions I had to take six steps to get a step higher. Then at about noon, the wind from Aconcagua hammered us. Each blast sent fine grit into our clothing and eyes. I stopped, and dropped my head each time until the gust petered out. Near the top, an enormous gust barrelled in and slammed into me. I could hardly believe it as I was, in my stationary position on the loose sand, physically pushed a metre down the path by the sheer force of the wind.
The only water source at the 5100m camp, a tiny stream, was frozen solid. The winds persisted, making the setting up of a tent a miserable task. I threw myself into the tent and went into a spreadeagled position so it would not go airborne as Wilfred staked out the corners. Once secure, we left some rocks inside to weight it and scrambled back down to base camp.

Strong winds slapped our tents from 5am the next morning, I peered out to see base camp dusted with some light snow. Worse of all was the wind. It thundered down the glacier like a freight train and rattled our tent, making further sleep impossible. We could anticipate the gusts, grabbing the tent pole from inside the tent to stabilise the thin nylon walls as the wind pounded us.

Despite the wind and Wilfred protests, I thought we could make a trip to ABC. We left at seven and slowly leaned into the wind. Twenty minutes later, we were hit from various directions with strong gusts. I was carrying a full load for our summit bid and had the aid of two skipoles. And yet, these were for nothing. In a space of five minutes, I was bum-rushed twice by the wind. My sore bottom and amazement were sufficient signs that it would be suicide to continue. We returned, very sober, from failed trip. Till this day, I have no idea exactly how fast the winds were, but they were stronger than any I had encountered in my ten years of climbing, even stronger than any I had experienced on Everest.
“This mountain eats tents for breakfast,” I said.

 

All through the day, the winds rattled and pummelled our small nylon shelter. Nearby, a strong expedition tent was in shreds, the wind having slowly picked it apart. Further towards the river, a poorly reinforced tent whose owners were absent was also a goner. The winds had ripped the outer shell almost completely off, making the dome-shaped structure looked like a freshly skinned creature. Snow drifts whipped around the miserable campsite. Occasionally a streamer of toilet paper whipped about in the winds.
“Hope I don’t run into one of those,” I said, taking a snapshot of the ruins around us.
That night, we finished packing all that we needed for our summit push. We carried about a week of food that included noodles, potato mash, energy bars, powdered drinks, four gas canisters, a litre of benzine for the pressure stove, a camera each and the small back up tent. This was a Macpac tent made from just one layer of a windproof, breathable fabric and just two poles. The floor space inside did not exceed the size of a queen-sized bed. And there was only one entry and exit point. It was so small, if you smiled, your teeth touched the walls.
“Damn! We shouldn’t have set up the North Face tent up there,” Wilfred said.
“Well, we guyed it well. I’m only worried that there aren’t enough things inside to weigh it down. Those small boulders aren’t that heavy.”
“Ya, but what if we go up and find it has gone to Chile?”
“There’s always the Macpac.”
We slept well, troubled only by the fact that tents as strong as our North Face tent were being decimated at base camp.
If I was carrying about 20kg, Wilfred was easily heaving 30. We set off again on the 13th and made good time, taking half and hour off our previous time by mid-morning. Soon, we were grabbing hold of, and squirming our way past the dense forest of chest high ice shafts – the penitentes.
My diary says:
“Instead of the yucky scree, we chose to ascend by the penitentes on the left. Hard going with feet sliding off many sections of glassy ice overlaid with a dusting of gravel. Still, better than the scree in moving upwards. Also, no wind in our faces!
We got to the top (ABC) after about four and a half hours, tired but OK. Biting cold. Stream frozen. But best of all, the North Face is 100% OK – almost unbelievable considering the ferocity of the winds. Piling in, our cocoon of comfort makes us happy.”

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