I went to sleep at 2200 last night and woke at 0700 which is an excellent sign the acclimatisation is working. Not even a pee break in the middle of the night. It’s calm at 7am which is a good thing but the wind soon picks up and whacks the tent around. But as long as you are out of the breeze you can be quite comfortable. Being an acclimatisation rest day we have breakfast at 0900. We sit in a cool mess tent that has a fridge like feel to it, until the sun finally reaches us at 0940 and instantly turns it into a hothouse. All around us are groups gathering gear and heading down the mountain to Mendoza. It’s the end of the climbing season and most have already come and gone. Tents vanish overnight as expedition companies start to pack up. And of course there are the solo travellers who pack up and vanish as well. Everyone who departs gathers in the little plaza outside our mess tent, take group photos, applaud (justly) the support staff, give each other high fives then clump off down to Confluencia 18km away, and thereafter to the front gate of the park followed by a bus ride to Mendoza. There is something other-worldly in the concept that at the beginning of the day you can be in a frozen outpost like this, while at the other end of the day you can be sitting in a warm restaurant in a cosmopolitan centre eating a freshly cooked meal and drinking a just-opened bottle of Malbec. Mule trains flood in from pre-dawn to pick up their gear, and expedition company gear as well, snorting and clopping their way past us then clattering back again after they are fully loaded up with everything from backpacks to gas bottles – the latter making them appear rocket propelled, what with a tank strapped on either side.
There are two different types of look among the trekkers at Plaza de Mulas. There are those, like us right now, that look relatively fresh faced and eager. Then there are those who come in from the higher camps who look grizzled, tanned and fatigued, gaunt even. They have another type of eagerness about them despite their slow movements. An eagerness for a Mendoza hot bath.
We have spent the last hour fiddling about getting ready for tomorrow. We need to prepare for the summit so we strip out any unnecessary gear and make sure our high altitude kit is in order. Packs are repacked and checked for weight. With all that done we lie out of the wind in the heat of our yellow dome. Kavitha is frantically trying to finish her Kate Morten novel (The Secret Keeper) before the day is out – she does not want to lug its weight up the hill. I’ve started ‘The Prince’ by Machiavelli but it is a slim volume so I might slip it in the pack. It’s enough to make me want to revisit Florence. But right now I am suffering Kavithitis – reading is putting me to sleep.
The view out the tent over the tops of my boots includes the neighbour’s tents with laundry drying, beyond that a cluster of the team standing around Henrique who is sorting all his gear, and beyond that the spreading, undulating, stony moraine on which sits the derelict remains of a dream of someone who thought they could run a hotel up here. Beyond that the buttresses of Mt Cateral (5265m) and Mt Bonete (4950m). Stripped of vegetation and without the softening given by snow or frost they are stark shards of rock that lift dramatically straight out of the glacier and tower over us in an infinite variety of tan and dun.
Interestingly the valley gouged out by the glacial stream between us and the hotel did not exist three years ago. In fact where there is now a deep gully there was a ridge of ice which meant the hotel was not visible from here at all. That shift in the ice means there is thinking afoot to move Plaza de Mulas across to the site of the old hotel which is considered to be on more stable ground/ice.
The afternoon is spent in a useful tutorial on boots, crampons and manoeuvring on the top of the mountain. It’s a handy refresher but I’m thankful for all the instruction out of Tekapo over the last few years that makes me more comfortable and familiar with what is going on. Kavitha is also ahead of some of the team on these matters. About half of the group have not used double boots before and nor have they used crampons. The key thing for me is that the guides are comfortable with where everyone is at and so far they have proved knowledgeable and conscientious. I don’t have a sense they will be cavalier with anything.
As we had our medical checks this evening we fell into conversation with a chap who summited two days ago. He said there was not a breath of wind on mountain when they left Colera (Camp 3) and the still night (0400 start) continued through until they returned from the summit in mid afternoon. The long term forecast remains for low wind on our summit day. We are praying for the same.
We are looking forward to tomorrow. We gained a lot of confidence from our previous trip up to Camp 1 (Canada) and even though it is quite a slog it puts us well on the way to the summit.