Day 1 – We made the short walk with our gear, around the block, and checked into the glamorous Diplomatic Hotel. We were both thinking the same thing and quickly headed pool side to enjoy the sunshine. Local guiding outfit, Grajales Expeditions, had our afternoon planned where we met with our guides and soon to be mountain friends. We discussed what the following days were going to look like and sorted out any loose ends and questions we had. We then shifted back to our room where they went over all of our gear individually and had arranged a Covid antigen test to confirm we could continue to the mountain. Then we were free for the evening to explore the street and local restaurants.
Day 2 – After our complimentary breakfast downstairs, a couple of us along with our guide continued to a gear rental shop to finalize some equipment that was required. Just after lunch all 11 team members and 3 guides loaded into the 15-passenger van and were on our way heading west to the small town of Uspallata. We were to stay the night at the foot of the Andes near the Chilean boarder and a gradual increase our elevation to help with acclimatization. We were treated to an amazing chicken and rice dinner followed by dessert after swimming a few lengths and laying on the pool deck. The spacious hotel also had a games room and social area where pool tables and ping pong would keep us entertained.
Day 3 – After a warm shower and hot breakfast, we loaded our Rab duffles back into the van and enjoyed a scenic drive from Uspallata to Penitentes and to the Grajales’ warehouse. Here our luggage was separated into four separate directions. The first bag was our street clothes and gear that was to stay off the mountain in their warehouse. The second bag was a large duffle that was to be loaded on the mules to be taken to the Plaza de Mules base camp. The third bag was our second large duffle that was to be on a separate set of mules and carried to Confluencia camp where we were to meet up with it later in the day. The fourth and final bag was our day pack loaded with the essentials that we needed for the day trek. After a quick 15-minute drive, we were at the ranger station at the gates to the park. With our climbing permits stamped we were now on foot starting at 2950m above sea level.
The landscape here is already dry and erred with low growing plants and most of the colours coming from the minerals and elements in the surrounding mountains. We followed the chocolate brown glacial river up the Horcones Valley for seven kilometres admiring the dramatic scenery. After three hours of hiking, we arrived at Confluencia Camp at 3390m for the night. We were then greeted with a snack of fruit and crackers before locating our tents where we would be spending the next two nights. With three course meals, Wifi and flush toilets this camp was anything but rough. And, with full bellies and casual conversation with our new companions we all settled into bed for the night just after dark.
Day 4 – With the guides pushing us to drink as much water as we could to aid in the acclimatization process you can imagine just how many trips out of the tent for the washroom were throughout the night. But as always, when we are in the back country, it makes for an amazing opportunity to enjoy the stars and the peaceful night sky. I even had a fox sighting as it wandered its way through the tents in search of any scraps laying around. By 9:00 am we had enjoyed our porridge with toast and eggs in the large dining tent and were ready to make tracks on our first acclimatization hike. Our 11-member team, with three guides, trekked right at the fork in the trail towards Plaza Francia and the south face of Aconcagua gaining in both distance and elevation over the next 4 hours. At 4000m we relaxed for lunch and admired the daunting hanging glaciers and icefalls as we listened to stories of past adventures from our guides. After a couple hours of downhill, we returned at camp with another 16kms under our belt. After that we had a mandatory meet up with the park doctor to check our blood pressure, heart rate and oxygen levels to make sure our bodies were acclimatizing well, then it was a big dinner feast of lasagna and a restful nights sleep in our tent.
Day 5 – The guides claim this to be the second hardest day of the expedition with expectations of relocating from Confluencia to Plaza de Mules base camp. We had our alarms set for 5:30 am for and early start on our day. With scrambled eggs and toast waiting for us we quickly packed our mule duffles, loaded our lunches and laced up our boots for the day. By 6:45 am we were in motion. We started with a left-hand turn at the Plaza Francia fork now and dipped down to a metal bridge crossing and onto the west side of the river. From here we moved further up the Horcones Valley and what little vegetation there was quickly extinguished as we climbed. Often described as dull and boring, we basically wandered our way through the wide open and exposed river bottom. Being half a kilometer wide in spots the dry earth and rocks kicked up dust with every step. The main bit of excitement was when the mule trains would catch up and pass us as they sped on by. You could however gaze high to the mountain side and take in all the colours and layering of this aggressive mountain scape. After four hours of casual hiking, we now started to gain the majority of the days altitude and had to focus more on foot placement. Seven and a half hours, and 19kms later, we had reached our resting place for the next five nights, Plaza de Mules at 4300m elevation.
This place was full of life. There were literally hundreds of tents from giant domes to tiny 2-person shelters on site. The area is also equipped with a park ranger, on site doctor, police, search and rescue, heli-pad, restaurant, store and even home to the highest art gallery in the world. We were all excited to lighten the load and get off our feet by now. Just as traditional Grajales style, we were promptly presented by the camp manager for a briefing along with food and drinks. After gathering all our duffle bags we claimed our tents and unpacked our belongings. Shannon was feeling a bit rough from the day and quickly settled in for a brief nap. The altitude was very noticeable at this elevation now. We had been taking 125mg of Diamox every 12 hours to help us along. Diamox is used for high altitude climbers to stimulate the growth of red blood cells. Some of the side affects however are tingling feelings throughout your body as well as dehydration. We were both dealing with this, so by now we were drinking well over 4L of water each per day. This is not including any secondary drinks like tea and juices we were consuming with meals. After some soup and chicken for dinner with chocolate brownie as dessert we were quick to brush our teeth and settle in for the night.