We woke up feeling really cold at Plaza de Mulas. Weird as we had just been somewhere colder but the body adapts quickly to the warmth down at the base camp. After breakfast and packing, we were itching to get started. We were to leave from base camp and then follow the Horcones Valley all the way down to the entrance where we would get driven back to Mendoza. So without much ado we set off.
The weather was great and we quickly warmed up. The Horcones Valley was quite interesting but mostly in the differences between it and the Vacas Valley. It was much more trafficked as there was a lot of climbers going the opposite way. Another interesting observation was that even though the distance is comparable to the Vacas Valley, the camps were not nicely spread out like the Vacas Valley. Supposedly people go directly from Confluencia, which is the first camp on Horcones, straight to Plaza de Mulas (after having done an acclimatization hike) which is still two thirds of the way from the entrance to Plaza de Mulas. The Vacas Valley seemed to be a better choice to do going up than the Horcones Valley.
Going down is always easier than going up as every step down means easier breathing. Since we already felt really strong at Plaza de Mulas, it just got easier and easier. The 30 kilometer hike went by quite fast even if it did take us 6-7 hours. The change in landscape was dramatic from the barren landscape near Plaza de Mulas which turned into dried riverbeds and then to more and more vegetation. At the end we crossed a bridge, which was a bridge built for the Brad Pitt movie, Seven Years in Tibet, and then walked down to a parking lot which is how our expedition ended.
The bus came shortly after to pick us up and after a short pitstop in Penitentes, we drove for 3 hours through a thunderstorm to reach Mendoza. The shower at the hotel after an expedition is as always a treat, and refreshed I went out for a celebratory steak!
After more than a month, I still can’t really process what happened. So much has happened and yet so little really happened. From flying to Chile and losing my luggage, seeing so many places, experiencing a little bit of South America life, summitting Aconcagua, freezing at Ojos, meeting all different groups of climbers, it’s just overwhelming. But to be honest, there was also a signficant amount of downtime, resting in tents and keeping warm or sitting in cars and driving around, there was a lot of time to think or read or just do nothing. The paradox of all of this is really what baffles me and perhaps what’s so hard for me to compress. All my other trips were easy to think about, in India I saw all the sights and were hanging out with friends that I made, Nepal was an amazing trip where I followed my instincts and did what I wanted to do, exploring around, but this trip was all planned out and was simultaneously intense and relaxing at the same time.
So in the end I achieved some of my goals. I wanted to climb both Ojos and Aconcagua but had to drop Ojos as I wasn’t feeling well for it. Do I regret not going for it? No, mostly. But there’s always a niggling feeling that perhaps I should have given it a chance. After all, I did manage to do Aconcagua, which is the same height but in snow (it’s debatable whether that’s easier or not). But if I went for Ojos, and whether I managed to do it or not, would I then be able to summit Aconcagua? I guess this is a situation I can use to practice acceptance. Acceptance of what I chose and what happened and look towards what I am doing now and where I want to go. I had the frame of mind from the beginning to go in without expectations and accepting what might happen. In the end, conditions were near optimal, Ojos had great weather, Aconcagua had great weather (it’s known for ferocious winds, but we were spared of those). The luggage situation was less optimal, but we managed to work around it and I did not let it bother me too much. And that’s really more than what I could have hoped for. Getting a choice and making it is better than having a decision forced upon you and I am really happy with how everything turned out. Besides, it’s another reason to come back and climb more in the Andes in preparation for Ojos.
Another big theme was the purpose of doing an enterprise like this. So many people have asked me why I climb mountains and then why climb this incredible tall one. And there’s no single reason for it, it’s something that I feel drawn into. Maybe it’s the views that I get, the way the sunrise hits the peaks first and creates that special orange/pink hue on the mountain. Maybe it’s a way for me to prove to myself that I am no longer that overweight kid who never exercised and to show that I beat my lifelong asthma. Maybe it’s a way to overcome my insecurities in other parts of my life or as Edmund Hillary put it, “It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves”. Or it could be the pain and hardship endured during the climb that makes everything else in life trivial, that provides perspective. How could I ever become frustrated at work when it’s nothing compared to the life-critical choices you have to make on an expedition sometimes. And it could just be all of those things combined that provide me with such a high that I keep seeking it again and again. In the end, the question should perhaps not be why are you climbing mountains, but rather why wouldn’t you? Or as in the words of George Mallory, when asked why he wanted to climb Everest, he replied, “because it’s there”.
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