We are due to launch at 1250 but don’t rotate with the usual roar until 1323. I should care less about such things given we have a five hour layover in Santiago before heading to Argentina. But it’s a warm Sydney day and the plane is a stuffy tube until we get going. We have been spoiled by the A380 and more modern tubes. These old 747s are tired and very passé. It would be good to have recharge ports and a big screen in the seat thanks. (How my expectations have changed since the first international flight I ever took!) QANTAS is not as competitive as Singapore or Emirates or the other Gulf airlines for that matter when it comes to these sorts of resources (in reality, passenger distractions designed to keep us in our seats) – come on Big Red, we are ‘long haul central’.
Now we are airborne we can get our heads into the game. An advantage of Victorian era, or even expeditions up until WW2 was the long transit time to the jump off point during which one could plan, focus and reflect. This morning I am making phone calls to work colleagues and trying to make sure there are as few loose ends as possible. Aconcagua is the last thing on my mind. But now we are in the air I can turn my thoughts to this expedition and what might unfold ahead of us.
I’m calling it an expedition in preference to anything else. It’s not a trek which hints at something flat, though of course a trek can be anything you like. A walk to the shops if you care to name it thus. It’s not a climb though its true we do nothing but ascend for most of our timetable. Its logistics and planning require a little more than the usual attention and although much of that lies in the hands of others we do need to mesh our own logistics and planning with those who are leading this push.
There is a purity of sorts about tackling a mountain, regardless of size. A singleness of purpose as you step into its presence. Its scale always helps convey a sense of that, stripping away the frivolous. The larger the pile the deeper that impression. For even when in a group or team it still remains an experience of you with the mountain. Not you agin the mountain for that implies a sense of combat, a sense I have never had. You in communion with the mountain, deep in its presence, overshadowed by its might, dwarfed by its magnificence, stilled by its bulk. It’s a small step from that awareness to worshipping them, an appreciation I first had as we circumnavigated the Annapurna Circuit and those 8000m peaks reared high above us. Its no wonder the locals ascribe a spirit and personality to mountains such as those, though its not something to which I incline. But to be sure, the collective is more than just a pile of rock.
Now a cliché, Mallory’s “because it’s there” response to the query about why climb Everest holds good here too. For any climb on any mound really. But this is more than just an expedition. On this scale it’s a ‘reverent expedition’. Reverent in the sense of being long considered, not taken lightly. A prolonged immersion in the preparation and the execution of the thing. Something clearly weighed and judged. Defined by what it is not – not the quick buzz of the sky dive, the white water raft or the overnight trek. What’s more, this reverent expedition has a mind game element different to anything else because when you get onto these large mountains not only are you in the presence of something ‘awe-ful’ but your life is something you need to carefully consider in a way that you don’t with any other activity. When each step is a breath, or two, or three, and you strive for every molecule of oxygen your attitude of reverence is directly proportional to every centimetre of altitude gained. And as you go you are listening to each breath testing whether or not you have reached your altitude limit. An altitude prompted pulmonary or cerebral oedema is not what you want to discern.
Patricio is a jolly round faced three days growth bald tanned guy who spots us in the terminal but who looks aghast at our pile of bags. He is conveying Cicero of Brazil to his hotel as well and it will be a squeeze, he confides. I assure him we will squeeze everyone in – we are the last flight and I don’t want to be hanging around the airport at midnight any longer than we have to. So he bustles off to fetch his car and leaves us on the pavement in the 33 degree heat and exposed to the whistles and calls of the cab drivers who suddenly think we are fair game. While we wait for Patricio Cicero tells us he is part of a group of 30 from Brazil who are walking from Mendoza across the Andes to Santiago. Five days, and ascending to more than 4000m. When he asks where we are going we tell him but he is confused. After a few attempts at ‘Aconcagua’ he finally cottons on with an “Aha” followed by an ‘Aconcagua’ we have never ever heard. When Patricio arrives and we are running the dark empty streets of Mendoza he applauds our aim. I comment that it is a mad errand but he protests.
‘No, no, I never think that about anyone going up the mountain. It’s a brave climb.’
‘No, not mad. And you should have good weather. The season has been excellent with lots of climbers getting to the summit. The weather has been clear.’
‘It can be socked in, just as long as it’s not windy.’
‘Yes, but there is apparently more snow up there this year than usual.’
‘Snow we can handle. Just as long as the wind stays down’.
He drops us at the apartment after we have all practised ‘Aconcagua’ a few times. Both he and Cicero energetically shake our hands and bid us adieu. It’s been a warm and friendly welcome to Argentina even if we took the long way round to get here.