During my years of lawyering in NYC, I was fortunate enough to meet likeminded lawyers, whose insatiable passion for adventure travel, new cultures and off-the-beaten track places remained an inspiration during long, paper-filled nights. Audrey is one of those lawyers. We were both staffed on the same deal at my first job in the city (which ended up lasting about 18 months!) and bonded over our mutual love of travel and bubble tea. Originally from Texas, she worked several years in NYC and then decided she needed to indulge her outdoorsy side more thoroughly and moved to Colorado. As if that weren’t enough, she successfully summited Kilimanjaro and then set her sights on an Aconcagua climb, the highest mountain in all of the Americas. As a traveling lawyer she was a perfect fit for Legal Nomads and I asked her to do a guest post.
Audrey Takes on an Aconcagua Climb
I spent 3 and a half weeks in Argentina — a few days in Mendoza, 2 weeks on an expedition to climb Aconcagua (6,962 meters (22,841 feet)), a few days at Iguazu Falls and a few days in Buenos Aires. I’m not sure what would compel someone who grew up in humid, hot and flat Texas to want to climb mountains. For most there would be little allure in altitude headaches, nausea, opportunities for frostbite and edema, lack of opportunities to take a shower or an unobserved toilet break, et cetera. Say what one will, I love climbing because I’m fascinated by soaring, rugged peaks and the knowledge and experience required to ascend and survive them. Mountains were the reason I moved from Manhattan to Colorado 2 years ago, and on December 27, 2008, instead of flying to a beach as one might expect, I flew to Mendoza to experience Argentina’s snowy white peaks. I spent a few days in New York around Christmas, hanging out with family and friends, before heading to Argentina and lucky for me, Jodi (I miss you!) was there for a couple days and we were able to catch up over sushi, cornbread and soup at Whole Foods in Columbus Circle.
On the Miami-Santiago leg of my flight, I ran into Elaine, a woman who lived on the same hall as me freshman year when we were undergrads. Coincidentally, she, her husband and 2 adorable children were also on their way to Mendoza and totally randomly, she and I stayed in adjacent rooms for a night in Mendoza. We landed in Mendoza a couple hours later than expected because our flight out of Santiago was turned back about 15 minutes into the flight. We could smell fumes in the cabin and we weren’t flying very high off the ground, even though we were supposed to be flying over the Andes mountains, past el cumbre de Aconcagua. Mendoza was warm and breezy with clean, tree-lined streets. Anecdotes about how attractive Argentinians are proved to be true — after a few days of eating asado, pizza, matambre sandwiches and helado, though, I wondered how the women stayed so petite. The next day, our guides checked our equipment and we met the other members of our expedition group over dinner — there were 12 in all (8 men, 4 women) — 5 Australians, 1 Swiss, 2 Canadians, 1 Argentinian, 1 Pole, 1 Irish and 1 American (me).
Hiking from Pampa de Lenas to Casa de Piedras campsite on day 2:
Of Permits and Penitentes
Before driving to Penitentes, a small mountain town less than a mile from the Vacas Valley entrance to Aconcagua Provincial Park, we had to obtain climbing permits. It turned out to be an involved process — we filled out forms in one location, walk to another location to pay, and then walk back to the original location to complete the documentation and obtain the actual permit. Ariel, our head guide, briefed us on the climb’s itinerary and expected timing, in addition to warning us not to feed wildlife, especially the birds of unusual size (which none of us saw, by the way). The dinner menu at the hotel in Penitenties had a couple interesting items, one of which was “Bird Mayonnaise”, which turned out to be chicken salad rather than what it sounds like. I’m glad I didn’t order any beef because it looked like those who did got a plate of gristly rubber.
The next morning, December 31st, we embarked on our expedition. The hiking was hot and dusty, and Ariel set a slow and steady pace for the group. We were able to drink the water right from streams we crossed. While I was nervous about not treating it, none of us got sick from it and it tasted fine. Our New Year’s Eve destination was Pampa de Lenas, where we drank wine and ate asado to celebrate. In retrospect, it was probably strange to spend New Year’s Eve with a bunch of new acquaintances, but then New Year’s Eve is more about hype than about celebrating anything special, so I didn’t think much about that at the time. As the new year rolled around in one of our countries, we’d wish the others Happy New Year, but for me, that time would not have happened until 4am in the morning at Pampa de Lenas. I retired to my mattress pad before midnight, but the muleteers whooped it up until the wee hours, but I was so tired I didn’t hear them. It took 2 more days and 2 stream crossings to reach Plaza Argentina, which is base camp on the Vacas Valley route. Mark, a friend from Colorado, happened to be taking a similar route up the mountain, and he decided to do the 2 stream crossings in his Speedos — if he was looking for attention, he certainly got it, especially from the muleteer taking our group across one of the crossings!
To go up or go down?
The doctor at Plaza Argentina checked each of us to confirm we were okay to continue up the mountain. Above base camp, we had 3 camps above base camp. We would take one day to carry food and some gear up to a higher camp, rest the next day at the lower camp, and then move to the higher camp. We planned to summit the day after we moved to Camp 3. One of the Australians decided after our rest day at base camp, and 3 more Australians decided after our rest day at Camp 1, not to continue with the climb, and went down by mule. We lamented that as expensive as it was to go up the mountain, it would be more expensive to go down — you had the option of taking to the park exit a helicopter (at $800 per person, or nothing if the doctor thought your condition required immediate evacuation), a mule or a 2-3 day walk, after which you had to pay for a shuttle to Mendoza and lodging in Mendoza upon arrival. We were a spirited group, and I think we were all happy that we got along so well, notwithstanding our size. However, our spirits were somewhat dampened by news that 5 people from 2 different expeditions had died on the mountain during our stay at base camp. It reminded us about the seriousness of the climb.
Taking care of business
Base camp was luxurious by comparison to our three camps above base camp — it had a kitchen, long drop toilet with toilet seat and toilet paper, a mess tent, internet access (very expensive) and satellite phone (extremely expensive). Above base camp, we had to do No. 2 in a black plastic bag, and you couldn’t get any No. 1 in it because you (or a porter, if you paid for one), had to carry it out — let me just indulge in TMI for a moment — it’s hard enough to do No. 2 while holding a black bag over one’s hiney (and braving the wind and cold), but it’s even harder as a girl not to get any No. 1 in there. At Camp 1, it was impossible to find a potty spot that wouldn’t be observed by others, so the girls and I tried to go at night, and above base camp, I used my 2.5 liter pee bottle whenever I could. One of my tentmates, Frances, called it my “briefcase”, because I was all business whenever I walked through camp to empty it (I mean…it was sort of embarrassing walking around with a huge plastic thing with yellow liquid in it…).
Climbing from Camp 1 to the Colera, which was about halfway to Camp 2:
This is supposed to be fun?
During the week we spent above base camp, I had altitude headaches and nausea on and off. I tried sleeping, propped up against the side of my tent near the flap a) so that I could unzip and lean my head out if I needed to vomit and b) in the hopes that it would keep those nightly splitting headaches at bay. It turned out I didn’t actually vomit and those splitting headaches were bullish about coming on in the middle of the night. When I looked at my photos, I found that I’d hardly taken any above base camp, and I’d taken none after Camp 2. Luckily, my tentmates, Emilia and Frances, kept me entertained, and thus mostly distracted from the discomfort. I don’t know what I’d have done without Emilia’s blue pills :) I wasn’t the only one suffering, though. The remaining Australian in our group after Camp 1, would, apparently, sit up all night because he couldn’t breathe when he lay down. Max, the Swiss, sounded like he might go into convulsions any time he entered or exited his tent, or when he’d wash his plate in the river. Others in the group were also experiencing headaches, but all of us were able and determined to continue ascending, so we soldiered up to Camp 3.
Summit attempt and end of expedition
On the first summit morning, it was windy and cold. I started a couple minutes after the group due to, well, feminine issues, and Emilia and I arrived with Adrian, an assistant guide, at Independencia Hut (6350m) about 5-10 minutes after the rest of our group. After checking the weather report and talking to some people who were coming down the trail, Ariel consulted our group, who agreed that we might want to avoid the cold windy summit this day and conserve our energy in order to make another attempt the next day. The next morning, however, only Max wanted to get out of his tent and while the rest of us walked down to Plaza de Mulas, he and Ariel summited. Actually, I didn’t walk as much as I provided entertainment for the group by falling about 35 times — it was the only section of the climb that I was carrying all of my pack and at that altitude I could barely stand up, much less walk on a steep, snow-packed decline, with it on. Juan, the other assistant guide, had to save my butt by adding my pack on top of his already huge one for most of the way down to Plaza de Mulas. While relaxing at Plaza de Mulas, Max and Ariel surprised us by walking into camp. They had walked all the way to Plaza de Mulas from the summit that same day — quite a day for Max, who is 57 years old! The next day, we practially ran about 20 miles to the park’s exit. The Horcones Valley seemed to stretch forever, and by the time we exited the park, we were waddling. Near the entrance/exit, there were people, clean people, just enjoying nature for the day, and I felt more bedraggled and filthy at that point than at any other time during the expedition. To make matters worse, Emilia and I both had burned our forearms on the first day, and I was molting like nobody’s business. After gorging on meat in Upshallata, we were driven back to Mendoza. Somehow, the hotel’s hot water didn’t run out, with 8 people showering between 2am and 4am. The water running off my body was the color of very weak coffee, and I washed my hair 3 three times before I thought I felt my scalp. The next day we had a farewell dinner, and went out in Mendoza. Wow, the locals were still partying strong when I called it a night at 3:30am.
Final section up climb up to Camp 2; Partial view from Camp 2. The panoramic view was spectacular:
Buenos Aires and Iguazu Falls
Before Emilia and I took an overnight bus Buenos Aires, Max, Emilia and I took a tour at the Rutini winery in Maipu. The setting near the Andes mountains was beautiful, though the highlight was, of course, sampling the wine. We stayed in the centre of Buenos Aires in Gran Hotel Espana, a basic, but clean, hotel. While walking from Retiro Bus Terminal, a bird managed to “mayonnaise” the two of us. It, and we, smelled like pickles and mustard — ew. Buenos Aires is a pretty and fabulous city, as they go, but I’m afraid urban activities generally hold little interest for me (even though, admittedly, I love a well choreographed and performed dance performance). So, as soon as I could, I boarded an overnight bus to Puerto Iguazu and managed to catch the last boat tour out to the Iguazu Falls. If you take the boat tour, I’d recommend wearing something that dries quickly because we were driven right into one of the falls and I got soaking wet. On the bus to the falls the next day, I realized that, goshdarnit, I’d forgotten my camera in my hotel. No matter, it was actually really nice to take in the falls without feeling the urge to snap photos at every turn. By chance, I ran into Emilia and her boyfriend at one of the falls, and we planned to meet up in Brazil the next day, but the next day, when Brazilian border patrol saw my US passport, they told me to go back to Argentina. Since I’ve returned, I’ve heard people have better luck crossing the border by taxi than by bus, which was the way I had tried to cross.
Iguazu Falls, Argentinian side:
Hasta que encontremos otra vez
My bus back to Buenos Aires was stopped at two police checkpoints. The second time, a police dog came on board and one of the passengers was detained while his bags were searched. Fortunately, he was allowed back on the bus without incident, even though those police had done their best to extort something from him. A
s I wandered around the city before my 10pm flight out of Argentina, I thought about all the things I’d have loved to experience if I’d had more time. Salta, Patagonia, glaciers, lake district and more. Perhaps I could come back soon. I’d miss this country, whose pace, culture and people I’d enjoyed so much during the last month. But how could I be sad — I was returning to Colorado, back to ski season and back home to the Rockies’ beautiful, snowy peaks.