Christmas is approaching and our flights to Argentina are confirmed. On a Sunday afternoon I fmd myself at home, surrounded by the largest collection of gear I’ve ever assembled for a single trip: rucksacks and duffel bags, stormproof tent, my warmest sleeping bag and double boots, sack upon sack of dehydrated food. And a fluorescent green plastic pee bottle, marked with a large skull sticker. We’re heading to Aconcagua. It’s a journey which started a long time ago. It slowly came together over sparse talks with friends and was postponed year after year for injuries, weddings and financial crises. But then, the phone and email traffic increased, lists of food, equipment and trekking providers appeared, and we found ourselves running, cycling and sweating up and down the stairs under a big pack as the neighbours’ watched on with a bemused stare.
Christmas has come and gone. All nine finally meet at the airport: Alex and I, friends from previous hiking trips, Barbara, Gian, Victor and his tent-mate Rick, and Roberta, a lively 50-year-old lady from Bolzano with her partner, Syl-vain, who decided to attempt Aconcagua (6,962m) at 64 after defeating two cancers.
Our bags are so heavy and unwieldy that I’m shocked they’re even allowed near the economy check-in desks, but soon we’re all in an airplane flying over the Atlantic. We see it for the first time many hours and a few flights later, drowsy from the long journey. The Horcones Valley lies beneath the airplane like a giant wound in the earth. Above it, so high we can almost touch it, rises Aconcagua. The black, enormous, frightening piece of rock stares back at us, daring us to climb it. There’s no time for apprehensiveness in Mendoza as we meet Nicolas, our provider’s contact and are immediately confronted with the bureaucratic ordeal of getting our climbing permits.
The streets of Mendoza are blocked by a raucous crowd. “Macri supporters”, says Nicolas as we negotiate our way past the demonstration. National elections are near, and the two main candidates have split the public opinion. He continues: “Yes, this is still a divided country”. We leave Nicolas at the park headquarters and head straight for the outdoor shop where we’ll get our fuel and last bits of gear. Then it’s the bus ticket office and, finally, a restaurant. “Did you say you’re a plasterer?” I ask Barbara as we sit on the coach to Penitentes, plains and mountains rolling away under a low cover of clouds. “Yes,” she smiles, “I actually graduated as a chemist, but after one day at work I realised I wasn’t cut for an office job. My boyfriend was a plasterer, so I started working with him. If that sounds odd, ask me of the house I bought in Mongolia”. Penitentes looks like an abandoned outpost.
A few houses line the windswept road where big lorries speed and never stop. Rundown hotels and chair lifts are leftovers of the time when this was a popular ski resort. But Penitentes is where trekking providers have their stores and tomorrow morning they’ll carefully weigh and label our bags, load them on the mules and take them to Plaza de Mulas, where we’ll arrive in three days. There’s just enough time for a last as a do, Argentina’s famous grilled meat, before we sort out our packs and enjoy our last night in a proper bed. Fernando’s minivan drops us at the entrance of the Aconcagua National Park, the rangers check our permits and give us our rubbish bags and a detailed briefing of all the regulations. In practice, anything you do will trigger a $1,000 fine. Outside the window, framed by the deep blue sky, Aconcagua stares down at us while the ranger keeps talking.
The trek begins. We walk through the vast landscape and the sparse, hardy vegetation. We dance over a suspended bridge, a line of mules overtake us as we negotiate the steep, eroded banks of another stream. Confluencia is a small group of coloured tents, each quarter occupied by a different agency. Alex and Sylvain look a bit tired, but this is the first day and we’ve reached 3,200m of altitude relatively fast. The crazy thing is, round here 3,200m is low. The ranger on duty greets us with a friendly smile and quickly stamps our permits, all the while without taking his eyes off Barbara’s long hair. We spend two nights at Confluencia, hiking up to Plaza Francia to better acclimatise and give a close look at Aconcagua’s imposing South Face. As we walk along the Horcones Inferior Glacier, Lorenzo and Victor discover a common passion for rugby, and their tales of matches and drinks fill the grey, red and brown valley.
Plaza Francia is a silent, empty site with a lonely signpost in the middle. The immense, white wall of the south face looms over it while a small cloud dances on the summit, perhaps there’s someone now at the top, looking down on us from 6,900m. We’re back at Confluencia for the medical check. Just in time before the doctor calls it a day, he’s got an invitation to the rangers’ barbecue, which has exceptionally been extended to Barbara. The doc clears everyone for the next leg, apart from Sylvain. “Your blood pressure is too high. Take these,” he frowns, handing him a few pills. “But if it’s like this tomorrow, you’ll have to go down”. While the rest of the group sets off in the early morning, Sylvain, Rob and I wait for the doctor to open shop for another check. If the evening party has taken a toll on him, he hides it well when he opens the door.
Sylvain’s pressure has dropped considerably, and with another handful of pills we’re good to go. It’s a long way to Plaza de Mulas, and over 1000m of height gain. After an hour or so we enter the long, endless Playa Ancha: the valley floor is almost flat here, so empty and featureless that it looks like we aren’t even moving. We carry on walking, staring ahead with minds as empty as the land scape itself. We approach the final, steep ascent. It’s all grey scree and dust now we left the last shrubs a long way back. Aconca gua’s western buttresses tower above us. It’s almost evening when we reach Plaza de Mulas, a surreal village of plastic domes huddled in a vast rocky bowl, inhabited by strange humans all wrapped in duvet jackets. With the possible exception of Gian and Rick, we’re all tired from the long day and some are feeling the altitude: Victor is a bit nauseous, Roberta has a light headache.