A horrendous night with the bladder chasing me out of the tent every couple of hours. Bonus – the night sky. Double bonus – knowing I’m hydrated. It’s 7am and I’m listening to the camp murmur awake. Interestingly the temperature has plummeted since I was up before dawn. That’s a phenomena we will observe over and over again. Mild in the still predawn, freezing just as the sun gets cracking.
We have had to organise to get our sleeping bags at the pick up point for the mules by 0645 so that is now all done and I’ve packed my bag prior to heading up to the mess tent for breakfast. The light is just kissing the tops of the peaks but we are in chilly shadow for a couple of more hours. I have already learned to temper my enthusiasm for the sun, and to wait its own good pleasure.
It’s now the other end of the day and there is only one way to say we are knackered – we are knackered. We are at Plaza de Mulas which is 18km from our start point and the previous paragraph. It’s also one kilometre higher than where the previous paragraph left off. It’s been a long climb in the sun – we walked in at 1720, a very long day indeed. Kavitha is sitting in the mess tent, dozing upright since we are not allowed to lie down within two hours of gaining altitude. I need to look in to that. Something to do with the capacity of the lungs to recover. But she is out of the wind and enjoying the sun on her back. That sun has fried me today despite the sunscreen. I am still in T-short and shorts but it will be long pants and long sleeves tomorrow.
Tents have been allocated and I have dropped our day packs in ‘The Ritz’. The challenge is to now find our sleeping bags. Our high altitude gear should be here somewhere as well but that can wait until tomorrow if necessary. It’ll be very cool up here tonight so that bag is the main thing. I find the bags and our goose down mattresses and set the tent up while the sun is shining and the tent is an oven. Better then than when the sun has set, the wind is on the prowl and the tent feels like a freezer.
Plaza de Mulas (Mule Square) does in fact have a horse fragrance to it. You know, that warm musty stable smell. No? Okay. But it works for me. It’s a semi permanent town, with its streets marked out by stones, its CBD being a collection of igloos and large domes which a central, contracted expedition company uses as the centre of all food and other logistical operations and which each smaller expedition like ours uses. The main street is called Iron Street and leads to the top of the site at which lies an art gallery! Yes, an art gallery. There is an internet gallery that exploits everyone’s need to connect with someone in a warm office (well, nearly everyone – we left it alone, especially once we saw the prices though I did yield USD5 to have my camera batteries charged). If the CBD is the centre of operations for the contracted expedition company the suburbs comprise all the yellow two man alpine tents you associate with these sorts of adventures. A permanent staff are up here coordinating meals, water, the airport (chopper flights), communications, sewage and all the other utilities a small town would sport. The mules run in and out of a mule terminus (timetable mainly limited to the first half of the day) while a clinic with at least one doctor, sometimes two, can be a busy centre of activity. But right now a tour of this town is not really my main priority. Rehydrate. Get some food into the tank. Rest.
In sum, this was our longest day. Hot with a warm wind blowing on occasions as the sun heated up the gravel and rock of the valley floor. The pace was manageable but we found the final ascent a real challenge and it took all of us to get up the track. The mental game over the last couple of kilometres was doubly challenged by repeated false crests which teased us as we edged closer and closer to Plaza de Mulas. The whole site sits atop a vast glacial moraine which in turn sits on top of the glacier proper. If you know glaciers you will understand the way these fields of stone can be a rolling field of obstacles. Add to that a deep ravine cut out by water, throw in some altitude, then combine with not enough lunch and you have a fatigue recipe at the end of the day which leaves us close to spent. But we are here now and happy to be so.
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