Author’s Note: This story covers two trips to Mount Aconcagua in Argentina. Text related to the second trip begins with the year of the trip – 1997. All other text relates to the 1996 trip.
I leaped to my feet and pointed with a trembling finger at an incredible babe who sauntered down the sidewalk next to us, clad in the tightest possible miniskirt and a halter top. Stu Ritchie, our guide, dragged me down into my chair.
"Don't be so obvious," he hissed. "Her boyfriend could beat you to a pulp for that." Stu pulled out a large pair of binoculars and closely observed her buns as she swaggered away. Emily, the lone female in our group, curled up into a ball to be less obtrusive and closely examined the menu of our outdoor cafe, located on the main thoroughfare of Mendoza, Argentina.
"Goodness, look at the price for a chicken and french fries," she exclaimed.
"Oh my God," Mel, an executive from BellSouth, jumped up, knocking over his chair, His jaw fell off and hit the ground with a clatter at the sight of a pair of well-endowed and very young women who had somehow forced themselves into red miniskirts that were riding up their thighs in the general direction of their bare belly buttons. All of us stood up and gibbered at this religious vision while Emily curled up into an even smaller ball and began a loud perusal of the dessert portion of the menu.
Ten of us were staying in Mendoza for the day before making an attempt on the highest peak in the western hemisphere, Mount Aconcagua. Some of us were thinking about skipping the climb and settling down in Mendoza right away, based on the view from our sidewalk cafe. However, the disturbing thing about the women (and actually the entire population) was that no one seemed to be in very good shape - the women flaunting their bodies were in a narrow age bracket where they looked good even without any exercise, but everyone else looked very run down. There were no gyms, joggers, bicyclists, or other evidence that sports intruded on the lifestyles of the Argentines, except for the occasional soccer field.
"Time for the Super Bowl!" Stu announced. All nine of us men raced for the television in the hotel lobby, leaving Emily to pay the tab. We clustered around a small television to cheer for the Steelers while the other hotel patrons smiled in sympathy at those crazy Americans, and wandered off to find a more entertaining soccer game on another television. The Steelers lost to Dallas, so we wandered disconsolately into the next door ice cream shop for dessert, followed by a 10 p.m. dinner at the nearest restaurant, where they served the national meal of steak - and lots of it.
I headed back to the hotel to crash along with my roommates, Dave and Paul. Both were well over six feet in height, and their feet stuck out beyond the ends of their beds. Dave snored louder than a whale, so Paul and I spent the night throwing pillows at him. The decrepit air conditioner wheezed next to my head, barely puffing out enough air to keep us from choking in the ninety-degree heat of the room.
1997 Stu Ritchie picked me up at the Mendoza airport and introduced me to a pair of climbers, Kent and Ned, who were not really part of my privately guided trip, but who were “tagging along” for the ride up to the Aconcagua trailhead. We waited until the next morning to pick up the third member of the group, Matt Robertson. Matt was a powerful climber with boundless energy. By keeping the climbing team small and experienced, we should have a good chance of making it to the summit this year.
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Like any good guide, Stu followed the principle of "drive high, sleep low." This meant that we were to drive all the way up to the pass where the trail leading to Aconcagua began, and then drive back down a ways to our accommodations at a ski resort a few miles down the road. To do this, we boarded a private bus that would take us there. Our driver, Abdullah ibn Faheed, a member of the Iranian Penske clan, drove us at very high speed up a good asphalt road, Highway 7, taking care not to pass anyone until we were going uphill around a blind comer. Emily ignored this male macho problem by continuing to read the menu from the cafe, while our hardened guide Stu clutched the seat back in front of him and whimpered. Dave and Ray (a fireman from Illinois) ignored our imminent deaths and loudly discussed the details of sky diving, thereby firmly establishing the fact that they were extremely poor insurance risks.
After blasting through a pretty dry river valley that none of us noticed, we screeched to a halt in front of the primary climber's lodge, Puente del Inca. The lodge was full that night, meaning that we were staying a few miles down the road at a ski resort that was never open, since there was never any snow. However, we had lunch at the climber's lodge first. Jovially forcing our way through a pack of vacant-eyed climbers who walked with limps and had frostbite on all of their fingers, we occupied the largest table in the hall and had the usual meal of steak and more steak. This was a problem for Dave and Emily, who were both rabid vegetarians. This was also a problem for the restaurant staff. Stu explained the situation to the head waiter, who chuckled warmly and returned in moments with the chef; who frowned and fingered a carving knife until we explained that they weren't questioning the quality of his food. Then he smiled and wandered off, muttering "loco americanos."
1997 We rented a private bus for the trip to the Puente del Inca lodge and arrived there in just a few hours. Stu had reserved private rooms for us in the lodge. Matt immediately went outside to work on the first of many sun burns.
Emily and Dave eventually received salads to eat, while the rest of us purloined their steaks and gnawed on them like the barbarians we were. Water was bottled, since there were the usual restrictions on drinking local water. The obvious way to avoid the entire problem was to drink alcohol; we adopted this approach with some enthusiasm, knocking down a number of bottles of wine and local brews. After becoming pleasantly inebriated, Stu reminded us that this was only lunch, and that we could do it again for dinner. Muttering about what a great country this was, we staggered back onto the bus and drove down to the ski resort.
Stu gave us the evening off to deal with our hangovers, but sharply reminded us that dinner would be served promptly at 9:30 p.m. Argentines don't go in for early dinners, and generally don't seem to go in for the other two meals at all. This was acceptable to me, since I had brought a six-pound stash of dried fruit and candy. I took this precaution after Thor, the owner of Condor Adventures, delivered a duffel bag to my house in Denver that was stuffed with oatmeal and PowerBars, to be brought by me to Mendoza. I hate both oatmeal and PowerBars, and concluded that some "real" food was required. Incidentally, when the airport personnel at Denver International Airport asked me if I was carrying anyone else's baggage, I dutifully pointed out Thor's bag; three security personnel [I am not making this up] showed up to take custody of it. After some whining and simpering on my part, the security detail was reduced to one porter, whom I followed down to the x-ray machines in the main lobby. The porter ran the bag through the machine repeatedly while I leaned over the security person's shoulder and helpfully pointed out suspicious items on the monitor. After a half-dozen passes through the machine, I judged the oatmeal to be sufficiently nuked to be unusable, and allowed the security folks to send the bag through to the airplane.
1997 The dining area at Puente del Inca was not crowded. The peak part of the season had already passed, so the number of climbers was reduced. A group of climbers with beards and sun burns had just returned from an unsuccessful foray up the Normal route – weather conditions had been poor for the last week, forcing many expeditions to leave the peak. A fresh-faced group of climbers at another table was about to set out for the slightly more difficult Polish Glacier route. We learned that two people had died on the peak earlier in the year, though no one knew how they had died.
I hiked up the ski slopes across the highway, following Paul and Dave, who were blazing straight up under the chair lift. I cut off to one side for a late-day view of some 16,000-foot peaks down the valley; peaks that are enormous in other parts of the world are not even named in the Andes, since they are insignificant in size compared to the 20,000-foot behemoths that top the range. After a few photos, I trooped back down the access road, taking a long stop to remove several hundred prickly burrs that had stuck to my socks. Dave and Paul were further up the slope, taking in the fresh mountain diesel fumes floating up from the highway. The sun set abruptly behind a jagged peak, so I scrambled down to the lodge while the wind picked up and the temperature dropped.
1997 We made an acclimatization hike of an unnamed peak directly behind the Puente del Inca lodge. Upon reaching its 13,000-foot summit, we considered various names for it, such as Irritating Peak and Annoying Peak, and finally settled on Stan’s Peak. A condor circled as we descended, waiting to pick off a weak climber. We jogged back down the mountain to the lodge, where Matt immediately completed three dozen pull-ups from his fingertips in the main lobby.
After the usual daily interval of re-sorting gear into different heaps and putting it all back in the same duffel bags, we had dinner. Gene (a 66-year old polio victim who had lost most of the use of one arm) and Mark (our desperately poor assistant guide) were finally wearing clean clothes, because we had stopped at the Mendoza airport on the way up that morning to pick up their bags (which had been stalled in the Santiago airport the previous day). Speaking of Santiago, we had trouble procuring boarding passes for the flight to Mendoza, because the United Airlines personnel took our tickets (and even Gene's passport!) when we got off the flight from Miami and promptly disappeared with promises to bring boarding passes to us in the departure lounge. As the flight to Mendoza started to board, we continued to not have any boarding passes, so several of us did some quality groveling (between whining, simpering, and groveling, this trip was doing nothing for my self-esteem). The groveling paid off when a harried employee ran over with the passes just before the gate was closed.
After this foray into bad paragraph structure, we all went to bed. Going to bed and sleeping are two different things, especially when there are two recipients of the Malcolm Baldridge Quality Snoring Award in the room. Mel and Dave conducted a hard-fought contest throughout the night, competing on volume, pitch, and nasal control. Also, since the room was pitch-dark, there was no way to see the path to the bathroom; as a result, I heard (between the snores of Dave and the mutterings of Mel) the imprecations of Bill, Gene, Paul, and Ray. Otherwise, it was a pleasant night for sleeping.
1997 Matt snored like a diesel railroad engine. Nothing could stop him – we tried throwing pillows, water bottles (full) and even Swiss Army knives, but he would not wake up. We finally drifted off to sleep at about 2 a.m., being too exhausted to care about the racket.
Stu and Mark grabbed our luggage and disappeared at 9 a.m. the next morning in the direction of Puente del Inca, where they had contracted with a local mule transport company to take our gear up to the Confluencia Camp at 11,050 feet. However, they did not return for four hours, so we sat outside the lodge's cafe, drinking Pepsi and listening to the music of Air Supply blasting through a stereo system at the gas station next door. Air Supply can be really sickening after a while, but the lodge's staff began burning trash (including a tire) on the opposite side of the cafe, so we were caught between the two evils. To make the best of the situation, we clustered around the burning tire and toasted marshmallows, thereby keeping us as far away from the Air Supply music as possible while also giving us our required daily dosage of carcinogens.
Stu eventually arrived in a battered pickup truck belonging to the owner of the mules (an older gentleman who had been an accomplished climber in his earlier years - in fact, it seemed as though all of the Argentine service people on the mountain were very serious climbers on the side). We drove back up to Puente del Inca in batches of four, and then hiked two miles alongside the highway to the trailhead, while Stu hauled our equipment ahead of us in the truck. The trailhead of the Horcones valley route was most uninspiring -- just a dirt parking area with a ranger hut made of aluminum sheeting. We strapped on light-weight packs (water and cameras, mostly) while Stu handled the paperwork with the ranger, and then set off down the trail.
For this first day of hiking we walked eight miles, starting at 9,000 feet and finishing at 11,050 feet at the Confluencia Camp. Stu led us down a wide, dry and windy valley, where we had a good view of Aconcagua's difficult south face, covered with snow. The dust swirled into the air as miniature tornadoes raced across the valley, sending dirt up our noses and into our ears. A large thunderstorm boomed far down the valley while snow fell on the summit. A good day to be hiking down low in the valley. Stu was concerned that the weather was so unsettled; he mentioned that there had bee a considerable amount of snowfall late in the summer, combined with extremely cold temperatures. These two factors had kept most people from summiting, with an estimated success rate so far that year of only thirty percent.
1997 According to an article in Rock & Ice magazine, the actual success rate for 1996 on Aconcagua was a paltry 9%.
The trail led us over a minor river that was colored chocolate brown with glacier runoff. A new suspension bridge allowed us to cross high over the river. Dave and I stopped to photograph Bill while he crossed; Bill was in all of the trip's fashion photos, since he had all of the latest Marmot climbing equipment (colored red to ensure a good pose against the snow). while crossing the swaying bridge and clutching the support ropes, I reflected that the flight over the Andes had been much easier - the flight from Santiago to Mendoza is one of the world's most scenic routes, and involves no hiking with better views. After a couple of hours, we descended to cross another bridge and then turned a corner to arrive at the Confluencia Camp. This was a sorry cluster of thirty bedraggled tents pitched in a wind tunnel, with a field full of turds on one side, the corpse of a mule behind it, and streams bracketing it on the other two sides. We huddled within some rock shelters to stay out of the wind and waited for the mules (who were carrying our tents and other gear) to arrive.
1997 The new suspension bridge from the previous year had been torn down and replaced by another one that was three times as wide and anchored into the ground with massive bolts.
The mules showed up an hour later. One mule went astray and clattered through the camp with a muleteer in hot pursuit, swinging a lasso over his head. He cornered the mule and roped it, treading on several helpless climbers in the meantime. We untied the mules, removed our duffel bags from the white sacks used to transport the gear, and puzzled through the instructions for erecting five tents. Stu and Mark took the best camping spot (ostensibly to obtain shelter from the wind for cooking purposes), leaving the rest of us to build rock walls to provide some shelter from the incessant winds blasting down the valley. Water was obtained from a stream at one end of the camping area, while any toilet needs were fulfilled by squatting in a marshy area at the other end of the camp. Sunset was early, since we were well down in a valley, so everyone was in bed by 9 p.m.
1997 Matt and I set up a North Face VE-25 tent next to Stu’s Marmot tent. I led Matt up one side of the valley to a spot where we had a beautiful view of the sun’s light playing over a multi-colored ridge that was not visible from the camp.
We arose at 7 a.m. and waited in a line outside Stu's tent for tea and oatmeal, waited in a line to use the somewhat vague restroom facilities, and then lined up to clean our cups and spoons in the wash basin - this was similar to the lines of communist Moscow. Then we packed everything back into the duffel bags, tied the bags into the white transport bags, and left them in a heap in the middle of the camping area. Theft of equipment never seemed to be a problem, since the Argentines are an honest bunch and (even better) it is in the interests of the guides and muleteers that the area not have a reputation for theft. We shouldered our packs and set off up a steep incline behind the camp. This quickly led us into a wide and incredibly long dry river bed that led along one side of Aconcagua's base and far around its back side.
We formed up in a line behind Stu with Mark bringing up the rear, and set off at a steady pace across this wasteland. As we moved up the valley, the sun came up overhead and beat down on us while eddies of wind kicked dirt up in our faces, sticking to our sun block. Despite being covered by a thin layer of dirt, we had a good time admiring the towering peaks and ridges on both sides. Dave and I scampered away from the main group many times to take pictures of them against the high peaks and stony wastes.
We stopped for a rest after an hour in the only grassy spot left in the valley. Another tour group was resting there as well. Their guide knew Stu. Everyone knew Stu. Whenever we crossed paths with another group, their leader would invariably yell something to Stu in Spanish; we would all cluster around, grinning at the other group members, while our two guides jabbered about conditions on the peak and any injuries or fatalities. In this manner we learned that a Japanese climber had recently died when he slipped near the base of the Canaleta (a 33-degree scree couloir currently full of snow that was near the summit) and skidded all the way down to the Alaska Camp (at about 17,000 feet), bashing his head on a rock. Also, a pair of Argentine army personnel on a training trip had gotten severe frostbite high on the peak and been airlifted out. The winds were generally severe, and the cold temperatures at the high camps were driving people back down to the Base Camp at 13,878 feet. Very few people were summiting.
We continued down the valley. There was no more grass, just dirt and rocks. The landscape became so monotonous that I stopped taking pictures. After two hours of this, we came to a spot where the river bed made a gradual turn to the right. We stopped on a knoll at this corner for lunch. Stu and Mark carved up chunks of cheese and meat for us to eat with crackers. Several of our group were awfully quiet - we later learned that half the group had gotten blisters while hiking up this valley. After I started rooming with Bill a couple of days later, I saw his morning half-hour ritual of bandaging his completely raw heels with synthetic skin and duct tape.
We formed up into a line again and made the turn. The valley slowly narrowed until we were hiking a hundred feet above the stream on an up-and-down trail that branched and merged repeatedly. A swarm of mules passed us with their muleteers jogging along behind. Several other teams had passed us during the day, ferrying gear up and down the peak. Mules can cover the entire distance to Base Camp and return in a single day. They are poorly treated creatures, with red sores showing where ropes and bags chafe against their skin, and scars where the muleteers have gouged them with spurs.
1997 Stu led the way through the dry river bed while Matt fell back repeatedly to snap photographs. It was a hot day with no wind. Our mules jogged into sight as we approached Base Camp.
The trail finally turned into a series of switch backs where it ascended a steep incline. Stu called a halt at the top of this section. Emily collapsed in a heap, and several others sat with their heads in their hands. Altitude strikes again! We were near 14,000 feet, and the altitude was beginning to wear on us. Our line was badly strung out, so we waited in this spot for the others to catch up. Meanwhile, we had a new view - the glacier leading up to Base Camp was directly in front of us; partially covered by rocks, it was not entirely visible. Another trail crossed the valley from the Hotel Refugio that had been built a few years before on the far side of the glacier (Stu warned us against it, telling of shoddy construction and tainted food). Behind us was the remaining 9,000 feet of Aconcagua, with its 22,841-toot summit still out of sight. Its rock was divided into colorful striations similar to those of a Colorado 14er named Uncompahgre. After the group was back together, we marched the remaining distance to Base Camp, passing the tattered shack of the old Base Camp (along with its two landing zones for helicopters) on the way. Base Camp is located at 13,878 feet. I counted 114 tents, not including tents for eight latrines. A volleyball court had been set up to one side of the main encampment. This was a permanent base for a number of Argentines who provided services to the various outfitters. Stu led us to the tent of a pair of these men, who were to cook our meals during our stay in this camp.
1997 Upon reaching Base Camp, Matt immediately dropped down and ripped off several dozen push-ups, accompanied by cries of “Schwarzenegger!” by the members of nearby expeditions. The volleyball court was missing, but a windmill-powered shower had been installed (only $10 for a shower!). The Base Camp service tent we were relying on to provide us with food had not received notice that we were coming. Stu found another service provider around the corner that employed a pair of very cute Argentine women, Andrea and Alexia. Matt found this change to be most satisfactory. He had brought two dozen condoms to Base Camp (I am not making this up) and fully intended to use them; he spent most of that evening and the following day following the Argentine women around the camp. The condoms remained unused, and might have been put to better use as high altitude weather balloons.
The cooking tent was attached to an enclosure that housed a pair of rickety tables that we used for meals. We crammed into this tent immediately and piled into the snack food and jugs of Tang provided by our camp staff. Nearly everyone looked droopy, and a few sat on the rocks outside of the mess tent with a dazed look on their faces. Emily and Ray appeared to be the worst. Stu took their pulses and decided to give us an extra day of rest in Base Camp to let them recover. Setting up our tents was made easier by the camp staff, who had marked out several camping spots for us - each service provider in the camp lays claim to some camping spots for their client outfitters, which is a good way to keep groups of climbers sleeping near each other. For those of us with a need for toilet facilities, they had also erected a wooden platform over a pit, with a fabric shell around it to give some privacy (and more importantly, some protection from the wind, which cut through the camp most of the day). This latrine had a lock on the zipper, so that no one could use it but the clients of the camp staff. This was a problem when going to the bathroom at night, since the key was not available for those sudden needs. Consequently, an informal dumping ground was used at night, while the latrine was used during the day.
The camp also contained a medical tent with a doctor, a radio tent that was mostly used to send messages to the muleteers at the highway that a load of luggage needed to be hauled out, a packing service($180 to carry your pack to the high camp at 19,520 feet) a beer and Coke tent, and even a wind-powered turbine to provide electricity. Climbers of many nationalities wandered around camp in brightly colored clothes, while others made the 3/4 of a mile trek to the hotel in the evening for the 6:30 p.m. hot shower (it was available from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m., and there was a waiting line). The sun set at 9 p.m., sending everyone scurrying for their tents, and it rose again at 9:30 the next morning, making for a long night of sleep. After a day or two, this became a very relaxed and comfortable camp, but I suspect that a week or more in this one spot would become very confining and dull.
Dinner was an interesting affair - the two dining tables were so rickety that bumping a knee against either one shook Tang out of the pitchers and onto the table. Also, the floor was dirt, so anyone entering the tent through the vertical zipper in the wall brought in a billow of wind that kicked the dirt up into our faces and into the food. From the cooking side of the tent came the comforting buzz of American disco music playing over a tiny radio, along with a duet from our two cooks (who did not speak much English, but managed to mutter along with the music). Meanwhile, Stu was invariably leading a discussion on movie trivia (in which he was completely unbeatable) while Bill yelled for Gene to come to dinner (he always missed the meal call, and ended up coming in late and taking the worst seat). The discussion was something like this:
Stu: (Grinning evilly) Who was the seventh crowd extra from the left in the second war scene in Braveheart?
Bill: Gene! Dinner time! Damn it, where is he?
Everyone. Damn it, shut that door! You're getting dirt on the crackers!
Bill: (To Dave, who just came in) Have you seen Gene?
Dave: Of course I saw him. He's sitting right outside the door with his fly open. Say, did someone just ask about the name of the seventh crowd extra from the left in the second war scene in Braveheart? That would be Elmer Q. Fidleweathy!
Stu: Damn! All right...what was the name of Lewis and Clark's dog?
Kitchen Crew: More than a woman, more than a woman to me! [dancing - someone hits the tent post, sending water down on us from the ceiling].
Gene: [entering] The name of Lewis and Clark's dog was Alfred. Say, did I tell you about my ascent of Orizaba?
Bill: [head in hands, sobbing] No...
Gene: What, you haven't? Well, there I was, vomiting on the crater rim...
Me: Gene, I hesitate to bring this up, since I'm not wearing any pants at all, but your fly is open...
Gene was an interesting case. He was a music teacher and piano tuner who had been on a number of adventures over the years, and who wanted to see how far he could get on Aconcagua. He was my tent mate during our nights in Base Camp, and was an ideal companion, since he was never in the tent -- he preferred to sit on a rock and stare at the peak all day, occasionally scribbling in his notebook. He also liked to engage us all in penetrating conversations about how we felt about the trip ("well, Gene, I'm on my way to the doctor's tent to beg for drugs, because I'm about to vomit!"), told stories about crashing a number of private planes on runways, was forgetful of everything (leaving critical items like his glasses on the ground), and had a bad habit of forgetting to zip up his fly (though it reduced the number of steps required to go to the bathroom). To top off matters, he somehow ripped an enormous hole in the back of his pants, so that he had more than adequate ventilation in both the front and the rear.
I started taking Diamox in Base Camp. This is ostensibly a high altitude drug whose only impact on me was to create an incredible need to pee during the coldest part of the night. Invariably, I'd wake up with a bladder as tight as a drum, scamper out into the cold air and huddle behind someone's tent to avoid the cutting wind while peeing. After everyone started to boast about how many quarts of pee they were unloading during each moonlight trip, I timed one such effort at 63 seconds duration. While outside, I noticed that the night sky was pale, since the moon was always flooding the landscape with light. Still, since we were at 32 degrees south latitude, it was easy to see the Southern Cross and the Magellanic Clouds.
1997 Matt brought a pee bottle on the trip. It was wrapped in duct tape so that we could readily identify the bottle in the middle of the night, and was labeled, “NOT MOUNTAIN DEW.” Having a small bladder, Matt was up as much as ten times a night to use the bottle. Since it had an ounces indicator line on its side, the pee bottle was used for an expedition-long pissing contest. I immediately set the standard with a 24-ounce effort, which Matt beat on the final day of the competition (in accordance with the rules of the Pissing International CommiSSion -- PISS) with a 24 ½ ounce sally.
On the second night, I returned to bed only to hear someone engaging in projectile vomiting next to our tent. This reminded me of Emily and Ray, who were slowly recovering. Emily spent almost the entire day sleeping. Because of the slow acclimatization problem, Stu mandated another rest day, followed by a short carry up to the Canada Camp at 16,250 feet and a return to Base Camp for yet another night.
1997 Everyone was in good condition, but we took a scheduled rest day anyway – and a good thing we did! A storm blew in from the Pacific ocean, knocking over Base Camp tents and blowing snow horizontally for most of the day. A stream of climbers came down from the higher camps, complaining of high winds and battered tents.
A Japanese climber wearing wet cotton clothes arrived from the Confluencia Camp, leading to some speculation that especially stupid climbers should have their odds of survival painted onto their backpacks so that the rest of us could place bets on them.
I went to bed that night listening to Schumann’s third symphony on a Walkman. Matt listened the selections by Big Head Todd and the Monsters. There must be a generation gap.
The next day provided some interesting viewing. We spent the better part of the day watching a group of climbers ascend a peak at the head of the valley, Mount Cuerno (17,920 feet high). The group was painfully slow, and seemed to be stuck in a snow field high on the peak as the sun was setting. We took turns watching through Paul's binoculars until the setting sun washed out their figures. In the meantime, a group of Argentine rescuers were hauling down the body of the Japanese climber who had died several days before. They dragged a sledge down into Base Camp with his yellow-clad body lashed to it. The next morning, they tied the body to a mule (a tough job, since the body was frozen solid) and hauled it back to the highway.
As the body descended, we ascended. We carried 25-pound loads up a long series of switch-backs to the Canada Camp at 16,250 feet. This was a dreary process of lining up and staring at the feet of the person in front of us for two to three hours while shuffling through the dirt and wincing as wind blasted through, pelting us with dirt. A difference in conditioning was immediately apparent as our line of hikers strung out from the moment we left Base Camp.
1997 It was apparent that our use of a small, very fit climbing team over the less-energetic team of the previous year was going to work very well. We packed loads up to Canada Camp at high speed and dropped back down to Base Camp with no ill effects.
Canada Camp is situated in one of the prettier spots on the mountain, with precipitous drops on three sides (not good for sleep walkers) that afforded great views of Base Camp, the hotel, and the other peaks surrounding the valley. Unfortunately, it was also covered with turds. No one seemed to have any conception of public health, and just dropped trou in any convenient spot. This also created a problem with toilet paper, which flew about the camp site in the most annoying fashion and fastened itself to embarrassing spots like your forehead. Since this toilet paper had been used, it earned the affectionate nickname of the "brown-breasted seagull."
After locking our gear into some duffel bags that were stashed under a heap of rocks, Stu used a different approach to descend -- running straight down the peak, which involved making giant leaps through the scree and stirring up choking clouds of dust through which the next person in line had to pass. As a result, it looked like a long line of tornadoes was descending the peak. In this fashion we reached Base Camp in only a half-hour.
We had trouble that night with a group of jabbering Russians who pitched a tent next to Stu and Mark; they didn't shut up for most of the night. Though we yelled at them in every language we could think of (English, Spanish, German, and Czech -- don't ask), they refused to understand. A well-aimed rock through their tent door did the trick. I was awakened by the same person conducting a projectile vomiting session next to the tent at 2 a.m., and sat there wondering what it was about our tent that attracted these people. I finally got up and used Gene's pee bottle four times consecutively before crawling back into bed. The next day was a rest day, so we sat around leisurely sorting through our gear. I started tracking my pulse to see how it would increase as we scaled the mountain, and established a baseline of 46 beats per minute.
By the next morning we were anxious to get going, and had the tents broken down and packed away in a couple of hours. After making the same dreary slog to Canada Camp, we found that Gene was very tired and had a pulse of 105, which was approaching the maximum allowable rate. While Gene rested, the others put together tents while the wind and scraps of toilet paper gusted through the camp. The best approach for putting up a tent in these conditions was to have a designated tent holder who was in charge of not letting the tent fly down the hill. Everyone else "gang banged" one tent at a time, which meant that each tent was pitched in about five minutes. Then we built walls around the tents and spent a great deal of time roping them down. Stu and Mark got several MSR stoves (indistinguishable from blow torches) going and soon had tea and soup ready. This required more work than at Base Camp, since several people had to carry over chunks of snow for melting. However, this was not Base Camp - we squatted outside the cook tent and slurped liquid from our cups as fast as possible before the cold air froze everything into our cups. It is difficult to eat something while wearing mittens, so the task of eating evolved into tearing off gloves, rapidly spooning down a few gulps, waving away any flying toilet paper, and stuffing our hands into our armpits to warm them up again. If the food was not tasty (e.g., oatmeal), then I broke out a private stash of dried fruit to eat. This was a frequent occurrence, because the quality of food dropped a lot once we left Base Camp.
There was a precarious perch to one side of the rock outcropping where everyone went to the bathroom. Between concentrating on not sliding down the chute with one's pants down and trying to effect a satisfactory result, it was difficult to appreciate the spectacular view of Mount Cuerno's slopes turning pink in the light of the setting sun.
That evening was not good for sleeping, because the winds howled around us the entire night. We could hear the wind forcing its way up the slope before it burst over the edge of the precipice and ripped through the camp, causing the tent walls to crash in and out. Since we had some of our gear stashed in the tent pockets that were sewn to the sides of the tent, this movement of the tent walls sent some of the pockets crashing into our heads. Dave claimed to have spent part of the night lying against his tent's windward wall to keep the tent from flying away. He thought that some wind gusts were in the vicinity of 80 miles per hour.
1997 The team moved up to Canada Camp and rapidly set up tents in a protected area. As if this was not enough work for the day, Matt ripped off a few dozen push-ups in the tent. As soon as we were set up, a line of snow squalls tore down the valley and slammed into the camp, sending everyone under cover for the rest of the day. A few inches of snow accumulated before the storm abated.
The next morning Gene's pulse was down to 88, but he decided to bail out and head for Base Camp anyway. This was probably a good idea, since carrying a load to the next highest camp would very likely send his pulse rate back up again. This forced me to look for new tent mates. The best choice was someone small, since I'd have to go into a tent that already contained two people. By default, this meant that I would be rooming with Bill and Emily. Actually, they moved in with me, since my tent was larger than theirs. We broke down their tent and gave it to Gene, who carried it down with him.
Moving in with Bill and Emily was an experience, because things got very crowded, and also because I found that Emily was an enormously sociable person who attracted people like flies. She had a habit of making friends with everyone in every camping area we visited (no matter what the language) and finding out all kinds of useful information. Being one of only three women on the entire mountain may have had something to do with this. As we continued to ascend the mountain, I found Portuguese, Argentine, South African, and other nationalities of climbers (all male) visiting our tent at the damnedest hours to see Emily. Even people coming down the mountain seemed to have heard of Emily. Sleeping with Emily could be a bit trying, for she slept in the fetal position, which meant that she curled up so tightly that her knees drove into my back while her feet rammed into Bill's stomach - this is not a good way to wake up.
This was a carrying day, so we packed small loads further up the mountain to the Nido Camp at 17,600 feet. This was also a steady trudge up traversing paths, with one exception - there was a thin covering of snow that started at about 17,000 feet. Upon reaching Nido, we stashed everything in a pair of large locking duffel bags, hid our ice axes and climbing rope underneath the pile, and made a fast descent to Canada Camp.
1997 The team packed loads to the Nido Camp without bothering to make a rest stop anywhere along the way. It was becoming apparent that we were the fastest group on the mountain, for we were passing everyone, dropping loads, and returning to Canada Camp before anyone else even reached Nido Camp. This trip was starting to feel very good. We were precisely matching our anticipated targets without any medical problems having occurred.
We took down the tents and moved up to Nido Camp the next day. Nido is a large flat area with room for well over 100 tents. Stu's favorite spot was behind a large stone outcropping to one side of the camp, since it broke the wind that poured through the area at all times of the day. We clustered the tents in the lee of this rock and spent a long time securing the tents. Emily and Bill decided to take a nap, so I wandered off through the camp with a camera, looking for choice photos. Nido is bounded by the ascent path from Base Camp on one side, the summit cone on another, and a steep descent into a different drainage on a third side. There are excellent views of the Andes to the North, and of a smattering of peaks to the west (the winds come from that direction). This area could be mistaken for a trash dump or a giant outhouse, for there were piles of abandoned trash everywhere, and even an abandoned tent full of trash. With no obvious spots to go to the bathroom, people had gone virtually everywhere, so it was almost impossible to keep from stepping in something brown while moving through the camp. Getting clean snow for melting purposes required a walk of several hundred yards to keep away from the sewage.
The tent full of trash, a purple one, was right next to our tents. The wind had shredded it so that it was really just a framework of poles with some fabric attached to it. Of more interest was a brown tent about a hundred feet away that still contained a climber's pad. We speculated that this was the tent of the dead Japanese climber, and (true or not) this tent was called the Japanese Tent. We were very affectionate about this tent because it was the only shelter within easy reach when going to the bathroom; everyone in the camp ended up crouching next to it in the midst of an increasing pile of feces.
1997 Everyone had a small headache in Nido, possibly because we were downwind of a large pile of feces. Matt complained of being very clumsy, to which Stu and I provided a variety of possible reasons, using our most professorial manner – lack of I.Q., constipation, and being dropped as a child were all held to be valid possibilities.
I returned to find nearly everyone suffering from headaches. Stu solved this problem with lots of water that he spread around in the form of tea and soup, followed by mashed potatoes, chicken and peas for dinner (yes, it froze in our cups). I joined a group of climbers near the western edge of the encampment as the sun set for the traditional round of photos. With wisps of clouds racing directly overhead that were back-lit by the sun, this was one of the better photo opportunities on the peak. The temperature dropped hard when the sun set, sending us running for our tents. I kicked someone out who was conversing with Emily, and went to sleep.
Diamox brought about the usual bladder problems during the coldest part of the night, so I went outside to pee, and enjoyed the sight of steam rising against the glow of a full moon. Dotting the landscape of the camp were the pale moons of climbers who were squatting by their tents to relieve themselves. Reflecting that not everyone got to see this ethereal image during their lives, I went back to bed.
By the next morning my pulse rate had risen to 52. We put on crampons for the first time and carried light loads to the Berlin Camp at 19,520 feet. Once again, the line was extremely strung out, with the altitude beginning to impact some of us quite noticeably. Berlin Camp was a squalid set of hovels peppered with dung. A few tents shook and rattled in the off-colored snow while blasts of wind roared over cliffs on two sides of the camp. We found a flat area slightly above the main camping area, dropped our loads, and scampered back to Nido Camp in just twenty minutes, stopping on the way to fill a duffel bag with snow for melting into water. The views on the way up and down were tremendous, since we could see for many miles to the north, past the snow-covered cap of Mercedario and on to other smaller peaks.
As the sun set that day, I squatted next to the Japanese Tent for a peaceful dump and contemplated the situation. The wind had finally died down to a light breath of air, which Stu claimed was the normal situation on the peak. And once this condition set it (or so he said), it usually lasted for several weeks at a time. Things were looking good for a successful ascent in two days' time - however, I had been blown off some "easy" peaks in the past, and harbored no illusions about the odds of making it to the top. Everyone who had descended past us had complained of bitter cold and stunning winds high on the mountain, and no one had summited for a week. Still, it would be nice to bag this thing.
I walked back to our cluster of tents, passing a pair of Argentine policemen who were carrying a new aluminum cross to the summit to replace one that had been stolen. Approaching our tents, I noticed a cluster of hunched bodies near the cooking tent who appeared to be in a feeding frenzy. A closer review showed that they were scavenging the remains from a can of tuna fish. A sudden urge to stuff tuna into my mouth seized control, and I elbowed into the pack, grunting and mumbling.
A few minutes later, covered with fish oil and wiping cracker crumbs out of my beard, I wandered past a tent full of Brazilians who were singing "Happy Birthday" in English to a tent-mate while Emily hovered in the vestibule, trying to make friends. Emily arrived back in our tent an hour later with a grinning Brazilian in tow, having learned the entire language from scratch since I had last seen her. Bill and I, being essentially anti-social people, kicked them both out into the cold so that he could have more room in which to conduct advanced micro-surgery on his bloody heels while I ripped through the remaining sacks of dried fruit and gorged on water.
1997 Stu set up his tent next to the VE-25 so that he could throw food into our tent from his front door. He threw a heavy can of kippered herring through our door, whacking me on the wrist. This was the beginning of the last great South American Kippered Herring War, of which many stories of courage and cowardice have been told – to keep things short, I will point out that I bonked Stu on the nose with a retaliatory frozen Milky Way bar, and left the rest of the war to the diplomats.
My pulse had risen to 53 by morning, but got no higher even after the next few days at Berlin Camp. We cleared up the camp in increasing winds and packed full loads up to the Berlin Camp. Mel and Dave were still strong, keeping close to Stu, but it was obvious that the additional weight of the loads was causing problems for a few others.
It was a fight to erect the tents in the high winds of Berlin Camp, but a great deal of roping and covering of snow flaps with rocks made things reasonably secure. I tried to build a stone wall across the windward side of our tent, but found that the effort required to pick up and carry a twenty-pound rock was dizzying. Dave came over to help, and we eventually succeeded in completing a wall just over a foot high. There was a patch of ice in front of our tent on which people slid regularly, so most visitors to our tent(always asking for Emily) were swept away by wind gusts before we had time to unzip the tent flap to see who was there. The rocks above the camp had been scoured by the wind so badly that there were dozens of indentations that looked like a chunk of Ben & Jerry's Granite had been pulled out with an ice cream scoop. Amongst the rocks was a dumping area which afforded great views to the west, though the chilly temperatures and screaming winds tended to make visits to this area quite rushed.
1997 The team made a couple of easy carries to the Berlin Camp, where winds were light under clear skies. What a difference from last year! We set up camp and ate large quantities of food and water in preparation for an early start the next morning.
The odds of climbing the next day were not good, since the winds had returned, and did not appear to be subsiding. The few who had ascended the previous day and earlier today were lucky - they escaped the next low pressure cell to move in. Still, Stu gave us the traditional pre-summit day lecture about getting up at 4:30 a.m., having gear ready, keeping water bottles and sun block containers in our sleeping bags, and so on. Sure enough, at 4:30 the next morning, Stu woke us all up to announce that we could go back to sleep, because there would be no climbing that day. No kidding - the wind had been howling all night long, turning the tent into a giant bellows. I had gone out twice during the night to attend to bodily functions, and had even had to pee while crouching down on my knees to keep from being knocked over (into the pee) by the wind. Also, our tie-down ropes kept loosening during the night, so I tightened them while I was up. Bill and Emily were (obviously) awake through most of the night, so we all stopped feigning snoring at about midnight and commenced telling outrageous stories (like descending Mont Blanc on a tricycle) until about the time Stu told us to fall asleep, which we then did from sheer exhaustion.
There was not much to do the next day as we sat out the high wind situation, so everyone watched the altitudes on their altimeters bounce up and down as the barometric pressure changed throughout the day, yelling between tents when two hundred foot altitude swings suddenly occurred. I spent more time outside the tent building up the size of our protective wall and continually tightening the tie-down ropes. Even with this much protection, the tent seemed about ready to blow away on several occasions. About midday we noticed a pair of climbers go up the trail towards the summit. Both of them made it by late in the day and returned well after dark. A few days later, we saw both of them in the lodge back at the highway, and saw that one of them had frostbite on all of his fingers. Two looked especially bad, and it looked as though he might lose parts of those fingers; this was not good, since he was an open-heart surgeon. Another climber only advanced about one hundred yards above Berlin Camp before turning back - the winds were just too strong.
Everyone else spent the day reading books in their tents. Since books were in short supply, we tore several books in half so that some people could read the front half while others had to make massive assumptions about the plot and character development by picking up in the middle of the books. As usual, Emily maintained her salon in our tent, receiving foreign visitors in the parlor. As the day wore on, the winds began to die down a bit, until the wind was blowing at only thirty or forty miles per hour. Since Stu would have to drop down to Nido Camp to retrieve more supplies if we were to stay beyond the next day, it was likely that we would try for the summit the next day if the conditions were not too extreme.
Sure enough, on Saturday the l0th day of February 1996, Stu banged on the tents for everyone to get up. The wind was blowing a little, but the main problem was the temperature, which had dropped to two degrees Fahrenheit. After puffing on every scrap of clothing available and downing some tea, we went out into the cold, strapped on crampons and nearly-empty packs and headed up the trail, following the light from Stu's headlamp. After only a hundred yards, Stu stopped and suggested turning back, because the wind was picking up, sending particles (some of them pretty damned big) into our faces. Stu had climbed the peak on nine out of ten attempts, so this was not a good sign. Dave and I were the only ones close to Stu at this time, and we both were determined to carry on. So we did. The trail wrapped around the summit ridge to the lee side, protecting us from the wind as we quickly ascended past 20,000 feet. The sun came up, throwing the shadow of the peak out over the mountains to the west and lighting the snowier summits with a pink glow. I stopped for a few quick photos, but it was so cold that my fingers were freezing after just a few seconds. Dave complained of cold feet and hands. We kept going.
After about two hours of hiking, we approached the Independencia Hut, which is a tiny A-frame hut located at 21,476 feet. The group was down to Stu and me, with Dave still in sight, but everyone else was well down the trail behind us. As we approached the hut the wind suddenly ripped over the crest of the ridge and slammed us into the snow. Stu hit the ground, covering his ice ax to keep from being blown away. I was hunched over next to him with my ice ax buried in the snow.
"Son of a bitch!" Stu said. "I've never seen anything like this. Do you want to keep going?"
I knew this summit was not going to happen if someone who had climbed it nine times told me that continuing would be dangerous. Still, I wanted to continue to some recognizable point. Since the Independencia Hut was only a hundred yards away, we crawled up through the increasingly violent winds to the hut, which was protected from the wind. Ahead of us was a moderate snow slope, beyond which the trail moved into the windward side of the mountain. The summit was still a minimum of four hours of climbing distant; Stu guessed that, because of the winds, it was actually six or more hours away. My feet were getting cold, and Stu went to some lengths to describe the frostbite I would incur if I continued. I decided to turn back. It was an easy decision at the time because of the conditions, but being turned back from the summit of one of my principle climbing goals really hurt, and has hurt ever since. Still, given what transpired in the following ten hours, it was an exceptionally good decision.
We also decided to wait for Dave, who was crawling through the wind tunnel area on his hands and knees. While waiting, we noticed that there was a woman curled up inside the hut, and a man sitting amongst the rocks to one side. We couldn't get the woman to say anything, while the other climber would only say that his feet were frozen (ouch!), and that they were just going to sit there for a while. I pulled out the camera and took a rapid series of shots, which nearly froze my fingers in perhaps ten seconds. The shutter was functioning but sounded slow. Stu made an extremely low estimate of the wind speed and combined that with the temperature to come up with a chill factor of at least sixty degrees below zero Fahrenheit. I suspect that the wind chill was actually at least twenty degrees lower than that figure. Dave finally made it to the hut, where we explained the situation to him. He was very disappointed by the conditions too, but realized that continuing would cause injury. We turned around and headed down the mountain.
1997 Stu woke us up at 4:20 a.m. There was a great rushing of wind higher on the mountain, but here in camp it was quiet and comparatively warm – ten degrees Fahrenheit. After a cup of oatmeal, we climbed into expedition underwear, polypro jackets and Gore-Tex shell suits, and began to climb. The force of the wind was far less than during the 1996 attempt. We arrived at the Independencia Hut after 2 ½ hours to find a rescue team bivouacking there; they were walking someone down who had been hit in the head by a rock the previous day. We stopped to put on crampons and stow our head lamps, since the sun was now illuminating the surrounding valleys.
Immediately above the hut, the trail traversed a very wide slope before bringing us to the foot of a large couloir, the Canaleta. The traverse has been the spot where most people die on the peak, because they slip off the trail and slide several thousand feet down the mountain, usually sustaining head injuries along the way. We had no such problems, though the wind picked up and chilled us through all of our clothes.
At the end of the traverse was the most exhausting part of the climb, the Canaleta. This couloir reaches from the traverse 1,300 vertical feet to nearly the top of the mountain, and is filled with loose rocks that are exhausting to step through. Its average angle is 33 degrees. Rocks can fall the entire length of the Canaleta, causing injuries to those climbers ascending its bottom portions. We slowly worked our way up the right side of the Canaleta, cramponing through what little snow was available. We rested at about 22,000 feet, at a spot where it seemed the entire world was laid out below us. Most of the surrounding peaks were so much lower that they appeared to be mere pimples on the face of the Earth.
We became progressively more tired as we crawled up the Canaleta and attained the summit ridge. Matt fell behind a short distance to lean on his ice ax and pant (which was quite similar to what Stu and I were doing). The final ascent was to the left up the summit ridge, with the 10,000 foot south face just a few feet to one side. I peered over the edge and looked almost straight down two vertical miles to the foot of Aconcagua. Stu had climbed the south face several years before. I decided not to offer him a life insurance policy.
Finally, after a startlingly slow last hundred yards, I followed Stu onto the 22,841 foot-high summit area and leaned over the three aluminum crosses planted on the high point, wheezing for air. Triumph at finally reaching the summit after two attempts should have coursed through me. At the time, breathing seemed more important. Matt stumbled in a few minutes later and collapsed next to the summit markers. The sky was a glorious deep blue and the Andes seemed to stretch away forever. All I could do was dimly note that this was one of the most beautiful views on Earth, and reflect on how tired I was. After a few more minutes, we posed for summit photos and wearily stumbled back to camp, pausing to admire a pair of sailplanes that were coasting the thermals of Aconcagua.
Collecting members from our group as we went, we arrived at Berlin Camp at 9:30 in the morning, not very tired but very discouraged. Everyone went to bed for a nap. I sat up in our tent eating PowerBars (thus indicating the depths of my depression). I went back and forth over our options for trying again the next day, possibly with just Dave and Stu. Of course, this would force everyone else to wait for us either in Berlin Camp or Base Camp, which might not be fair to them. I went outside to rebuild the retaining wall while thinking over the matter. Stu came out of his tent and we talked about the problem. I was generally in favor of waiting through the day and trying again, but wanted to see who else wanted to go. We made the rounds of the tents to poll everyone, and found during the survey that Dave had a small frostbite blister on one toe, which disqualified him from making another attempt. The result was that I was the only person willing to go up again. On top of that problem was the wind, which was increasing in intensity - it had even broken a few guy-lines on our tent. After a few more minutes of waffling, I opted for a descent.
Stu wanted to get down immediately, which also was a very good decision, for the weather suddenly worsened. Everyone brightened at the prospect of having dinner in Base Camp; people poured out of their tents and packed with startling speed. However, the wind was becoming so strong that we could only knock down one tent at a time, since at least one person had to hold down each tent while the others collapsed the poles. During this process I glanced over at our tent and watched a wind blast hit the tent, burst four tie-down ropes and pick up the entire thing. Bill was still inside, and only his butt touched the ground while the rest of the tent threatened to turn into a weather balloon. I scrambled across the campsite, sliding on ice, and hung on spread-eagle style to one side of the tent until the others could finish packing the other tent and come over to help.
We were packed by noon and descending fast. The wind picked up even more (if that was possible), kicking up small blizzards of snow during our descent, which forced us to stop and bury our faces in our hoods to avoid breathing snow. Another group (incredibly) was ascending to Berlin Camp at the time, and looked quite miserable. The wind was howling at Nido Camp when we arrived, but we stopped to wait for everyone to catch up. Since there was a cache of gear at Nido to add to our loads, we looked to other means of reducing the carry weight. With the help of our resident fireman Ray (motto: "We put out blazes"), we burned a pile of garbage that had accumulated at the camp (it was so pretty watching the gas canisters explode) and then continued down to Base Camp. This was an exhausting process, since some of us had already ascended 2,000 vertical feet that day and were now going from 21,500 to 14,000 feet with full loads. As usual, I blew out a pair of toenails during the descent.
1997 We departed Berlin camp the following morning in good spirits, though we were somewhat more grim after shouldering our packs and descending 5,000 vertical feet back to base camp. The sun beat down upon us, warming the slopes. A fresh breeze kicked up clouds of dust that stung our eyes. A watermelon, beer, and Coca-Cola awaited us in the camp.
Base Camp was like a different world, with a bowl of warm water to use for washing, a table to sit down at, unlimited supplies of fruit juices to drink, and watermelon and steak for dinner. However, it started to hail at about 5 p.m., forcing us to stop eating and run out to set up tents as quickly as possible. While setting up our tent with frozen fingers, I looked up to see the summit completely enclosed in clouds and heavily dusted with new snow, while swirling clouds raced down the mountain. If not for the decision to descend, we would be somewhere up in that mess right now, either climbing above Berlin Camp or trying to hold down the tents in the camp. Good thing we were here.
We were packed and ready for the long 23-mile walk out by 10 a.m the next day. We departed separately, which is a nice way to go - the route is long, and a day of quiet contemplation with a Walkman is not a bad day. I stopped frequently to take pictures, and noticed that, though the skies were clear, there were miniature tornadoes clustered about the summit of Aconcagua. I felt very let down about the climb, especially since the peak presented no technical difficulties at all. Still, the weather was cool and sunny, and the walk out was very pleasant until I reached the dry river bed. It was so long and unvaryingly dull that my goal switched from taking the best photos to just getting out as soon as possible.
I found Mel several hours later. His throat had been cut and the bandidos were scampering over the pass. I raised my rifle and... Oops; sorry, must have been the heat. I found Mel eating lunch on a rock, and looking a bit glum. Like most of the people on the trip, he was a very goal-oriented person, and did not take defeat very well. We talked about the prospects for coming back to try again, and how we detested vacations where there was no adventure. On this trip we had seen bodies carried down, experienced the effects of high altitude, viewed some great scenery, held down the tents through long, windy nights, and climbed through bitter cold - everything except reach the summit. Realistically, this had not been a bad trip. That did not make us any less disappointed.
I left Mel behind and hiked down for a few more hours. I found Dave near the end of the trail, lounging in the only grassy spot within miles. I kicked off my shoes and stretched out next to him in the sun, the grass tickling the back of my neck.
1997 Stu mentioned that his best time to hike from base camp back to the trailhead was five hours. Matt and I took this as a personal challenge, and roared back down the dry river bed, up and down the trail, and back to the ranger station through clouds of dust. We both broke the five hour mark.
Near the ranger station was a small pond, its surface rippled by a light breeze. A single white goose paddled through it; the first animal I had seen in almost two weeks. Enough of the high desolate places – it was time to go back to the warmth and comfort of home.