Its 1741 and we are all sitting around the table somewhat stupefied. Maybe it’s just a matter of regathering our strength. Or a matter of reflection, or both. We have climbed to Camp Canada, departing at 1100 on the dot, and ascending to 5150m, a total lift in elevation of 850m. We covet every metre so when the altimeter shows we have climbed even another 50m above what was advertised we are exultant. 50m does not sound like very much but when you lift your head and see how far above you it is, then drop your chin again and start grinding out those small steps, 50m has a lot of currency. It’s very valuable indeed. (On the descent of course the value of the currency looks like the Papiermark in 1923. Wouldn’t buy you a crumb of bread!). We moved at a very slow pace – fortunately. But as Danilo reminded us, distance in these mountains is not measured by kilometres but by hours. It’s interesting to note Canada is only two kilometres away but we covered it in four hours, hitting the spur on which it sits a few minutes after 1500. It was a surprise because the whole while we were plodding this out, if you glanced up (never a good idea) you could see other climbers high on the mountain, crossing a vast sweep of ridge, at that excruciatingly slow pace. Coloured dots on a dun scree. Turns out that is the leg from Camp 1 to Camp 2 and we did not have to go up there today at all. But I didn’t know that until a few minutes before arriving at Camp 1.
When I was a kid climbing Puketapu, especially up the front face, I developed a theory that if I looked down at my feet the ground looked flat, and that as such it was an easy thing to climb over. That self deception has held good for all my trekking ever since and is a key part of my mental game on the tough stretches. I am not claiming it is a unique strategy but I was pleasantly surprised to hear Eduardo recommend it as a helpful method for getting up these mountains. “Look down and see only flat” he advised with a grin at Confluencia. “Takes the pain away”.
So for the most part I kept my head down and just kept shuffling forward. The trick is to take one step per breath and that works well, although the higher you go, the slower you breath! And that’s exactly how we started, a slow file up Iron Street, crossed the glacial stream below us and stepped off our glacier and onto the mountain proper (at last.) Zig then zag, then zig again. Repeat dozens of times until Plaza de Mulas falls away below us. It is a steep slope so de Mulas drops away quickly and soon is so many coloured lego blocks scattered over a brown carpet far below. It’s the sort of view you get from looking out an airplane window.
The sun was out today but half way up I asked Danilo his local advice about the cloud gathering on our left. He was less concerned about the cloud and more worried about the wind. The forecast for our summit day is 30km/h – a long range forecast so he is hoping it gets no faster than that. I told him that, in my book the high, stripped out cloud suggested snow. He was intrigued. Ten minutes later snow flakes floated past seemingly out of a clear blue sky. That speaks to the challenge today of determining what to wear. A good decision was to avoid wearing thermal leggings though I shifted from shorts to long pants. But the cold wind, which clearly sustained the snow flakes, meant you wanted a Gortex shell, though with the underarm vents open, for when the breeze dropped the sun cooked. So there has been a bit of experimentation with clothes as we went. The guides just rugged up and worked with whatever they had on first thing in the day but if I try that I overheat in minutes. I discovered that when I was 14 and was asked to muster cattle in the snow, which had fallen heavy and early in the May school holidays. I was loaded up with woollen clothes and an old Army woollen Greatcoat, but within ten minutes of being in that snow storm I was vomiting and unable to function. It took a while to work out that I was simply too hot. And I am one with “Ricky Baker” who tells us “my legs just never get cold.” As long as my ears are warm just about everything else is warm is well. Actually keeping the ears warm proved bit of a challenge. I tried a variety of balaclava, hat and buff combinations and finally got a skull cap and buff combo that worked well. Of course anything that covers your mouth needs to be regulated – such as the buff or balaclava. These help you retain moisture which the wind and low humidity (remember 6-9%) rips out of you. They allow you to ‘rebreath’ moist air before it’s lost to the atmosphere. But a covered mouth leaves you struggling to get that air in in the first place, so you are left to cover and uncover your mouth as you need. I tried the balaclava but ended up ripping it off as I slowly cooked in it, despite the sub zero chill factor.
The view from Canada (which we joke would be easier to get to if we took an Air Canada flight) is stunning. The mountains that loomed over us the couple of days back are peaks over which we now gaze, some of them looking decidedly small from where we are. Range after range step away into various shades of serrated blue and purple to the west and south-west, until the eye runs out mountains. The Horcones Valley is a deep and vast gulf at our feet and a little sobering for its magnitude. Suddenly there is a sense that we are playing in the wrong sandpit and really don’t have any right to be here. We’re silenced by the cathedral of creation and are in awe as we stand in its vast vaults.
The return trip is not back via the zig zag, upwards route but mostly straight down, sliding down scree for an hour which should be easy but which in fact was hard work, though thoroughly enjoyable. At the bottom of the mountain we crossed a small ice bridge onto the glacier on which Plaza de Mulas sits, walk down the moraine a short distance to camp, drop gear and head to the mess tent where we all find ourselves sitting in silence.
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