A rest at Guanacos and we were off again. A short climb from Guanacos to the last camp before summit was ahead of us. From Guanacos at 5400 meters we were going to Camp Colera at 5970 meters. I had no idea why they named it that, but it certainly wasn’t inviting. Luckily the climb was only 3 hours but quite steep so when I reached the camp, which was higher than I’d ever been, I headed straight for the tent. I was still carrying a 16-17 kg bag and the only client left with a heavy bag as everyone else opted for porter service. Exhausted, I prepared my gear for the summit starting at 3 AM and squeezed in a bit of food. The freeze-dry meal made me sick though and I ate a bit of chocolate instead and hoped to be strong enough the next day.
I was woken at 3 AM and told to get ready. When you happen to share tent with the expedition leader, there’s no snoozing! A quick pee, putting on base layer after base layer, midlayer, thin puffy jacket and thick puffy jacket, 4 layers on the legs, double boots and crampons, I was ready to go. We set off at 4PM. Due to the snowfall during the night there was probably around 10-20 cm of snow and we had to use our crampons the entire way up. It was completely dark so we had to rely on our headlamps which made for a quite spectacular sight of a line of lights ascending.
Sunbreak came about one or two hours after we set off. It was about the same time we reached one of the waypoints. The Independencia hut is a small non-functional shelter and marks a height of around 6450 meters which is about the halfway up. It’s definitely not half the effort up as it would only get harder but it was a nice place to have some food and a drink. The hut was bathed in sunshine but to get up we had to go in the shadow of the mountain again.
The next stretch was a traverse and relatively easy. I did discover however that my down jacket was leaking feathers due to a huge hole made by my ice axe. I was wondering whether it snowed (despite the clear sky!) but it turned out to be feathers as people passing my all alerted me to it. Nothing to do but continue as the down jacket was sewed so that only the bottom part of the jacket would lose its warmth.
The traverse led us to the cave which was an overhang which sheltered us. Luckily there wasn’t any wind but clouds were gathering so we were in a hurry. At this point our large group split into different groups. Most people were in the front group, moving at a good pace. I was in the middle group with two others and my expedition leader and behind us was one person with a local guide. We had a stop at the cave before moving on to the most dangerous part of the climb – La Canaleta.
La Canaleta is dangerous due to its exposed nature and with the slope being about 30 degrees, that’s usually when avalanches start forming, a fall could pose serious trouble. We followed in the now worn path made by other groups and ascended slowly. Stopping for frequent breaks during La Canaleta we overcame it and with the summit straight ahead and up we were happy to know that we would likely make it. One problem was the gathering clouds from earlier started moving in and causing snow to fall. We had to hurry and at the last 30-40 minutes, there was no longer time to make any breaks, it was up and then down. As we reached the summit as some of the last people that day, we gathered for pictures, quick energy and started coming down.
Our summit experience was short but due to the incoming snowfall it was not safe for us to stay up there for long. Besides there was no view so apart from knowing that it was the summit there wasn’t really anything else to do. We hurried down and I discovered that my lack of eating the last 24 hours started to have an effect as I was slow in going down. On the way down, I tumbled twice because I was so tired that I made mistakes, such as hooking into one crampon with the other crampon. The guides and mountain rescue team, that patrols there, helped me down and ensured I didn’t lose my balance. First reaching the cave again, then across the traverse where I had another tumble and unknown to me at the time, had hit my right kneecap with my crampon. At Independencia hut the urgency disappeared and we came down in our own speed. I however got my second wind there so I almost ran down and ended up coming down half an hour earlier than the others. I quickly got into the tent and crawled into my sleeping bag to relax. We boiled some water and I tried to push down a bit of food before falling asleep.
The next day we were going down to Plaza de Mulas where the promise of base camp food motivated us to get down quickly. We packed up the tents for the porters to carry down and then set off. Already the first stretch proved a challenge as it was a stretch of fixed lines. I managed to get down but still exhausted and notoriously bad at going downhill I was very far behind the rest of the group. Going down we passed all the other camps that people were used coming up from the Horcones Valley. First Nido de Condores, then Plaza Canada where the snow and ice stopped but instead was replaced by scree. The crampons came off and I tried to go down as fast as possible. It was not without incidents as I had a few tumbles as well and almost took out my expedition leader! Luckily we managed and I came in to Plaza de Mulas where I felt my appetite slowly coming back. At base camp we had a few things to do before going to sleep. First, return the garbage bags we were handed from the beginning of the expedition, then the now partly full waste bags and then pack for the next day where the mules would return to take our large duffel bags down. After a nice and large piece of lasagna we went to bed, dreaming of the showers waiting for us in Mendoza.
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