Thursday, January 15, 2015

Aconcagua recap #3: Climb 2 preparation and initial ascent

I made it home and decided to rest, relax, and clean up my gear before enjoying a sit-down session with my computer.  Today through the weekend, I have posts to share on the full climb along with the post-climb celebration in Chile.  Stay tuned for them all...

Where to begin....

I finished climb #1 without a successful summit.  My retreat to Mendoza allowed me to recuperate fully and ready myself and my family for climb #2.  I was really excited to climb with them but a little nervous how they might fare on a huge mountain.  The trip would be hard but hopefully fun; stressful for me for sure and a challenge for them without question.  Here is how it unfolded:

The airport

Kat looking relieved to finally arrive in Mendoza; Patrick was nowhere to be found.
Kathy and Patrick were scheduled to arrive at 3pm in Mendoza but their flight was delayed for unspecified reasons.  Hey, the fact that it took off at all was a minor miracle as I learned later.  The flights between Buenos Aires and Mendoza have a 50% on-time rate.  Sheesh!  Next time your flight gets delayed, just think of that rate.  At any rate, the delay was perfect because it allowed me to sleep in, check out of my hotel, check into our new hotel, and then catch a cab out to the airport to greet them.  I knew they would be exhausted after the long (27 hour) trip.  Here they are upon arrival:

Great to be with my family.  We are in Plaza de Independencia, Mendoza.

 Permit time!

The airport pickup was the easy part.  Next up in our day was to secure our permits for the climb.  As I detailed in a previous post, the permit process contains many steps including 1) arranging mule service (to get a steep discount on the permit), 2) exchanging currency, 3) paying for the permit at the Pago Facil, and then 4) getting the permit from the tourism office.  Our permit process was a bit more complicated because we were climbing with our son - a minor - and that proved far more difficult than even I imagined in my worst nightmarish vision.  We decided to go to the tourism office to find out what things were necessary to get Patrick's permit.  The gentleman - I'm being kind - said "no possible."  That phrase became the standard Argentinian phrase that became our punchline for most of the trip.  My exchanges with the Mendoza locals would go something like this:

Me:  Can I get a cab to the airport in 10 minutes?
Reply:  Is no possible

Me:  Can we sit outside to eat?  (nobody was at the restaurant)
Reply:  Is no possible

Me:  Is it possible to get a permit for our 14-year old son?
Reply (from the guy below):  Is no possible

Picture taken of "Is no possible" man at the permit office.  NB:  I was extremely angry at this moment.
 We would not be deterred even by the bureaucratic process Argentina threw at us.  I wanted to climb with my family and no amount of "is no possible" would deter me.  Kathy and I left somewhat deflated and certainly irritated.  We pressed on.
Andrea and Kathy sort out the paperwork while Patrick played on his phone.  Thanks to Lanko, we got our permits!

Lanko to the rescue

OK, a shameless plug that was well-deserved.  If you have any interest in climbing Aconcagua, I highly recommend you use Lanko for your mule, meal, or tent service.  
These folks go above and beyond the call of duty to help climbers.  We were desperate and the Lanko folks pulled out all the trump cards.  They contacted the US Embassy on our behalf, printed out the paperwork, attended some judge ruling on our behalf, and then got us the permits.  What a fiasco!  Meanwhile, we enjoyed a few great meals with our new friends (thanks to Eduardo and his family for hosting us at their house for a real Argentinian barbeque).  Lanko rocks and I thank them from the bottom of my heart for their efforts to get us our permits.  
Jose Casas from Lanko
The McKnight family en route to climb
Jose (see picture above) did the initial legwork in Mendoza.  Thanks Jose!  Andrea helped us with the necessary paperwork and walked around Mendoza with us to complete the deal.  Eduardo hosted us for lunch and fit us in his hectic schedule to ensure we had a comfortable ride up to Penitentes.  Yeah sure, Lanko had something to gain in our services but they helped us through a very challenging process and never asked for anything in return.  I plan to repay them by recommending their services to all my friends.  So after two days of frustration and fingernail chewing, we were off to Penitentes courtesy of Eduardo and his fine service.  Thanks again everyone for your help.  We intend to repay you guys with countless recommendations.


 Our 3-hour trip to Penitentes from Mendoza was easy thanks to Eduardo's excellent service and wonderful conversation.  He pointed out all the interesting aspects of the area including the rail service that was no longer maintained by the government (since mid 1970's), the old roads (new, old, and older) connecting Mendoza to Santiago, and last but not least the Inca ruins and trail.  Eduardo was an awesome tour guide and his good nature put us all at ease.  The accommodations in Penitentes was fantastic.  We stayed one night at that altitude because I wanted my family to slowly acclimatize.  Mendoza is fairly low (3,000 feet or roughly 1 km above sea level) whereas Penitentes is almost 9,000 feet (3 km).  That huge jump made me a little nervous so we spent our time relaxing in a nice refuge away from the hustle of Mendoza.  Here we are "relaxing" with the Lanko folks in a friendly game of foosball.  
North vs. South in foosball.  The McKnights dominated.
Pat and Kat on the ski slopes outside Penitentes
I sat down with my family and explained the whole process of acclimatization.  They knew the deal but I wanted to reinforce the process so that they would readily agree to all steps.  After relaxing in the comfortable confines of the Refuggio Cana de Cruz, we headed up the slopes for a casual acclimatization hike.  The hike provided me an opportunity to talk to them about pacing and such for these hikes.  I think they readily appreciated the importance of slow hiking since they both felt the altitude.  Glad I got them out.  

My family.  You'll never get a smile out of Patrick.  Never.
We had a great hike and I was impressed that they both could ascend 500 feet without much trouble and navigate the scree with ease.  Good job McKnight family!  We are off for the Horcones trail head in the morning.  Good night.

The climb begins

I had a good sense of their pace (slow) during our hike up the ski slopes in Penitentes and wanted to get an early start on the climb to Confluencia.  The trek to that first interim camp usually takes about 2 hours and I figured we could make it in about that time - perhaps a bit longer - but I wanted to do it in nice weather.  Well, we were all a little slow to pack, repack, unpack, dress, undress, brush teeth, shower, etc. so our departure was much later (1pm) than I scheduled (9am).  Regardless, we were all in good spirits.  
Happy times en route to the Horcones trailhead.  Still no smile from Patrick.  One is coming, I promise.
 We had the good fortune of getting a ride from Osvaldo of Lanko.  He was so kind to us during our stay and I really appreciated his good nature and kind offerings to my family.  Thanks Osvaldo (he got clipped from the photo above but I assure you, that is him driving us).

Just as I predicted, the trek to Confluencia took a little longer than 2 hours; actually, it was a 3-hour trip with plenty of stops due to a bizarre blizzard that hit us about 30 minutes prior to our arrival to the camp.  Glad I suggested to ditch warm clothes for the trek into basecamp!  Yep, sarcasm.  Last time I hiked into basecamp, the temperatures soared to 90 degrees F and I had a tough time in my shorts, t-shirt, and flip-flops.  It was way too hot for any clothes when I first came up; this time was totally different.  We all froze a bit in Confluencia.  Below are a few pictures of the family enjoying the cook tent (pic 1) and our acclimatization hike in the snow storm (pic 2):
A google enhanced series of pictures of my family in the Confluencia cook tent.
Brrrrrr.  Yep, snow at Confluencia.  We were ill-prepared for our acclimatization hike but did it!

Off to Plaza das Mulas (PdM)

We pushed off after a less-than-stellar morning feeling the chill from the previous night.  Fortunately, I had the foresight to ditch our tent and cookware for the trek to PdM - opting for Lanko tent and meal service at Confluencia.  That decision saved us from lugging our gear up the long approach to basecamp and also gave us the opportunity to ditch our sleeping bags for the next leg.  I rousted the troops early (6am) so we could pack our sleeping bags and any extra unnecessary gear for the trek and give it to the Lanko folks to put on the mules heading up to PdM.  The night in the Lanko tent was memorable for Kat because she slept for about 30 seconds; meanwhile, Patrick and I slept through the maelstrom of snoring provided by all the climbers who surrounded us in the tent.  A note to those who climb or aspire to climb:  ear plugs are essential climbing gear.  Leave your AMEX at home but NEVER leave behind your ear plugs.  Patrick and I enjoyed a great night's rest thanks to our 90 db ear plugs; Kat, on the other hand, came out of that mess exhausted.  We headed out early - way earlier than the others in camp - after I noted that the trek could take our slow-moving family up to 12 hours.  Yep, it is a long trek in and I was worried we might run out of water, food, daylight, and energy before reaching PdM.  

Patrick charging forward.  Only 9 hours to go!
 Kat thought I was pushing them or pointing out that they were slow but really I was noting that their pace provided me with good ideas about what might be necessary for the rest of the trek.  I worried about water and food.  Lanko provided us with a bit of extra food after I asked for it.  Again, Lanko rocks.  We headed out on the long, dusty trail.  The going was tough due to the winds and dust storms.  I already endured this leg before; the second time was no treat.  Damn I hate long, boring approaches.  This one was one of the worst I can recall.
The nicest part of the trek to PdM was along the creek.  We finally got a respite from the dust.
 I encouraged Kat and Patrick to keep moving, keep drinking, and keep moving.  The faster we moved, the quicker this misery would end.  Below is where I really appreciated the toughness of my family.  They hit the infamous switchbacks just below PdM and they were exhausted.  Kat finished her water (see pic below) and Patrick was so tired, I thought he would collapse at any moment.  Consider this....we left at 7am and hiked for 6 hours (it is 1pm in the picture below).  Each of us had a little lunch and 1.5 liters of water consumed already.  The altitude gain was enough already - perhaps 1,000 feet or 300m and the heat was starting to kick in.  Patrick's legs were wobbly and Kathy had a raging headache and persistent nausea.  All was not good with the McKnight family.  
Just below the switchbacks to PdM.  Not many smiles from Kat and Patrick.  I felt fine (sorry family).
 Just 3 hours later, we reached the top of the switchbacks and walked into basecamp.  The troops were exhausted.  Kat was barely alive and certainly relieved to be in camp.  She felt awful.  Right Kat?  Those feelings persisted for some time.  Patrick was just exhausted.  He gave everything he could to get up the switchbacks; he also gave us a vocabulary lesson in newage profanity.  Well done Patrick!  They got to PdM alright but things were not fine.  My work just began.  I had to setup camp and get them some food, water, and rest right away.  No matter how hard I tried, I had no luck getting them out for a brief acclimatization hike.  
Tired puppies.  I think they both would have fallen asleep here had I let them.
 I setup the tent and got them inside with plenty of fluids in their warm Nalgene bottles.  They were tired and ready to sleep off their long trek.  I was ready and rearing to go for more climbing.  Instead, I tended to my family and hoped they would shake off the AMS symptoms they both reported when we arrived at PdM.  
The McKnight household at PdM.  Time to get them to sleep.
 The tent setup was easy - even solo.  Once it was setup, I got their pads, sleeping bags, and gear setup so they could quickly climb in and start their passive recovery.  Here they are...racked out:
Fast asleep at PdM.  Day 1 was tough.  Hopefully the AMS symptoms would abate soon.
 Meanwhile, I wondered when Brendan would show up.  He and I chatted at Penitentes on Kat's phone.  Apparently, the airline lost his bags so he had to wait for them to arrive before he could climb.  I told him to relax or, as Aaron Rodgers would say....R-E-L-A-X.  Brendan is always relaxed so I didn't need to spell it out.  He chilled out in Mendoza and ensured his rapid acclimatization by partying hard with his hostel mates the day before the climb started.  Way to go bud!  Can't wait to see you soon.  I crashed out after a few hours and expected Brendan to arrive in a day or so; for now, I could just sort out the gear, tend to my family, and get in a few acclimatization hikes just to shake out my legs.

Brendan arrives

I woke up late along with my slumbering and ailing family the following day.  It was sunny and quite still - a far cry from our trek day yesterday.  While sunning myself and sorting through some gear, I looked up to see Brendan stroll into camp.  He looked as fresh as fresh could be!  Damn was I impressed.  Everyone I witnessed walk into camp looked horrible.  He was smiling, relaxed, and ready to climb.  The climb officially began! 

Brendan Madden - climbing buddy and great guy.  Look how relaxed he looks after his 8-hour trek into PdM.  Beast!
 We hung out the rest of the day and chatted about all sorts of things - actually, mostly climbing.  My family struggled the entire day with headaches and nausea while I worried about how horrible a husband/father I was to drag them up this damn scree pile.  Why didn't I suggest a vacation at the beach?  I could drink beer all day, surf, and sleep.  There would be no AMS at the beach.  Why climb?  Well, I am a lousy surfer - dedicated and interested but lousy - and I hate sitting on the beach.  That is why.  I like climbing and thought my family would like it too.  AMS, however, turns "like" into "hate" really quickly.  I watched as my wife curled up into a ball and laid on the floor of the cook tent while my stoic son barely ate or drank of 48 hours.  We gave them drugs but they didn't seem to respond well to them.  The stress of the situation was building for me but I had my buddy Brendan to help ease the suffering for us all.  

Quick Hike to Camp 1

Brendan and I decided the following day to get out and explore the route.  It doesn't take much exploration to realize that the "normal" route is simply a scree field where everyone endures dust, wind, and scree the entire time.  We dressed up for the sunny day and headed out.  You'll see we assumed roles - I dressed as the "sheik" while Brendan played the role of "redneck."  I think we played our parts well.  Our hike up the C1 was quick and painless.  We both felt great and took tons of pictures.  
The "sheik" and the "redneck"
The scree never ended nor did the views of brown.  On the plus side, I was out there with my friend and we were laughing non-stop.  The entire time I was wondering how my family was doing and wondering if I would need to walk them down to Confluencia to recover.  Wondering is probably not the right term - perhaps worrying is more appropriate.  I worried about their states and figured their climbs were over.  What I did not know is if those AMS symptoms were worse than I feared.  Let's hope not.
Brendan:  "hey, when does the scree end?"  Me: "never"
 Despite the worries, I enjoyed my day on the scree slopes with my pal.  Like I said before, we laughed a ton and talked about climbing and other adventures.  Brendan is a hoot!
Still having fun, right Brendan?
We did have fun both up and down that day.  Below, you'll see Brendan going through the penitentes and then another picture of these strange formations up close.  
Cool google enhanced image of Brendan going through the penitentes

Penitentes up close and person.  Cool, eh?
 Upon our return to basecamp, we found Patrick up and about talking with some fellow climbers.  Brendan and I celebrated a great first day together.  Kathy (pictured below behind our new friend Eric) was not feeling well at all.  We ate with some fellow climbers (Eric and Kevin) and chatted up a storm.  Life was good for some at basecamp but not for all.  
Me, Kat, Eric, Kevin, Brendan, and Patrick at PdM
The story gets more complicated so stay tuned for my next recap.  I was worried but happy that at least Patrick seemed to be rebounding from the AMS symptoms.  Kathy couldn't hold anything down now and I started to really worry.  More later....(tomorrow).

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