DESCRIPTION: Mike's attempt at Aconcagua in January, 2009
PEAK ELEVATION: 22841' / 6,962m
DATE: 1/18/2009
Arrived in Lima, Peru at approx. midnight local time. Amazed how fast Spanish comes back when your immersed in it and forced to use it. Had 2 meals on the plane: Dinner was ravioli, salad, a roll, and passion fruit cake. Snack was a ham, cheese, and mushroom sandwich, fruit, and coffee. It's like first class with a real glass, metal flatware, and even complimentary glass of wine. Inca brand cola is yellow, strange! T-Mobile sent me an SMS with the international roaming contact phone number, how cool is that! There is a Peruvian pan flute band playing in the airport terminal, haha. 8 hours on a plane and another 8 hour layover sucks. I'm also confused about the time zone here...maybe Eastern time or +1 from that. Very tired, but can't sleep, spent most of the layover walking end to end in the terminal. In one of the shops I found an awesome dark chocolate covered passion fruit candy that is fantastic and eating helped me pass the time. Finally passed out and slept for about 2 hours, but this airport is noisy at all hours of the night and I kept waking up.
Santiago, Chile. A very old design airport, initially it smells musty and of smoke, but once in the main terminal it's quite nice. Has a Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts, and some other nice shops and restaurants. I got breakfast on the plane and it was also very good: Eggs, ham, carrot cake, bread, and jelly. I saw Aconcagua from the plane as we approached Santiago. It's enormous! Good lord, am I really about to try and climb this thing? When we hit 23,000 feet the monitors on the plane read that it was only 0 degrees F...not bad actually. The landscape is very arid here, it reminds me of the hills near Los Angeles or west of Salt Lake City. There is a thick smog in the air here and it masks the gigantic Andes mountains to the East. It's like looking through a piece of oiled parchment paper at silhouettes of mountains. The flight to Mendoza, Argentina was short and uneventful but we flew over some large and spectacular glaciers. The migration and customs lines at the Mendoza airport were very slow and it took forever to get out of there. All my luggage arrived just fine and even my zip ties were intact. I guess the food I packed was no big deal. A $10 frightening taxi ride brought me to my hotel, El Portal suites. I would never try and drive in this city. The roads are a twisted tangled mess and there is not much traffic control, it's all about yielding to others when appropriate. My nose is extremely dry and chapped and painful from the dry air on the planes and in the airports.
Mendoza: Met my guide, Elizabeth, (Eli) at 11AM, did a quick gear check, and she's impressed with my gear choices. Initially she thought my blue light-down jacket was my down *parka* and got a nervous look on her face, but I explained that I had an Absolute Zero parka packed in one of my compression sacks. We walked several blocks down and over from the hotel to a bank that has an ATM with a "swipe" slot instead of "card eating" ATMs where Eli got cash for her permit. On Necochea street, there was an overwhelming smell of garbage but I couldn't tell where it was coming from. Other streets were fine though. This part of town is a lot nicer than the parts I saw between the airport and the hotel and there are lots of good restaurants. We walked a few blocks from the bank over to an office where we traded AP$1,500 (about $480 US) for a slip of paper and a receipt. Then a few more blocks walk to the tourism office for the permit. The tourism office has big double "cathedral" style gates with a large circular stained glass mosaic above. We walked up some very worn marble stairs to the main hall and then up a large spiral marble staircase to the Aconcagua permit office above. I browsed maps and posters hanging on the wall and talked to Eli and Jurgen while awaiting processing of our permit applications. After getting our permits we headed to a nearby patio for lunch. I got the Ensalada Especial which reminded me of a Vietnamese or Thai dish. It was a salad of carrots, cabbage, onion, tomato, and a dollop of fish puré (maybe tuna) in the middle. I dressed it with vinegar, salt, and pepper and it was very good despite my first impression. We chatted and toasted some Stella Artois to Obama's "ascencion" as they call it here. It's already 3pm, wow time flies fast. Jurgen (was supposed to be our assistant guide) has a bad case of Montezuma's Revenge and got robbed the other day by a gypsy for $500 so he decided not to go on this expedition. **And then there were two!** A totally private expedition! How cool is this! However, I'm not sure if I should be worried or celebrating.
11am, I checked out of the hotel and we drove to Penitentes. It is VERY much like N.M. here. There are even red rock formations like the ones in the Jemez mountains north of Albuquerque. The Andes mountains, however, are much larger than those in NM and are snow capped and glaciated. The weather is crappy today! There are thunderstorms everywhere and light rain. I hope it clears out. We weighed in our main duffels, water, fuel, etc... for the mules and then checked in to the hostel next door where Eli and I (mostly Eli) repackaged food. The barrel of food weighs 25kg, 55lbs. I walked around and took photos and some old guy talked *at* us in heavily accented castallano spanish for a while...even Eli couldn't translate him. He just kept exclaiming "Aconcagua!" and nodding with a grin on his face. We ate dinner at 7:30pm and then crashed early to prepare for an early morning.
Camp Confluencia! 11,187 feet. We set our alarms to get up at 7am. I heard an alarm clock, got dressed, brushed my teeth, and started putting on my boots when I looked at my watch and it was only 6:12am. What the hell? Apparently the walls in this hostel are quite thin. Went back to sleep and slept to 7:30 since I was already dressed and ready. We took an old "African safari" style diesel Land Rover a few miles up the road to the park entrance and trailhead. The weather was clear this morning and I could see Aconcagua from the road. It's gargantuan! We checked in with the rangers and hiked to camp Confluencia. A super easy hike that we did in only a couple of hours. I bet this is the teaser hike that makes you think this mountain is easy. It is beautiful up here despite the large number of people. We're surrounded by massive mountains, meadows, and creeks. Confluencia is like a small town, there are large base camp tents everywhere, a ranger station, and outhouses with flush toilets. We get the honor of sleeping in bunks tonight in one of the large geodesic dome base camp tents. The base camp services are very welcoming too: Tea, cakes, cookies, and tang were waiting for us when we arrived. To blow time and energy, I scrambled up a small nearby chute to 3,555 meters and could see a fantastic panorama below me with base camp, creeks, meadows, and a gorgeous cascading waterfall in a tributary valley. The weather turned, though, and it started sprinkling so I hurried back to the tent to read and rest. Dinner here was pumpkin soup, spaghetti with good homemade vegetable sauce, and fruit.
Day hike to Plaza Francia. Got up at 7am, had cereal, pancakes, toast, and tea for breakfast. Hit the trail at 8:45 after shuffling some layers around in my duffel bag. About 1 mile into the hike, what I thought was a large volcanic rock face turned out to be the toe of the Horcones Inferior glacier. We followed the glacier moraine for about 6? miles to Plaza Francia where we got incredible views of the South face of Aconcagua. The Horcones Inferior glacier is very "dirty" with tons of mud, scree, and talus. You wouldn't even know that it's a glacier until you start seeing visible "clean" ice popping out a few more miles up the trail. There is a small pack of trail dogs following us and loving on us, 3 total mutts, and one red Siberian Husky. I nicknamed the husky "Rusty" because he reminds me of a dog I had as a teenager. We hung out at Plaza Francia just long enough to eat and rest because clouds rolled in and it started snowing. The South face of Aconcagua "talks" to you, like Rainier, with occasional rock and ice falls. As we started walking out of P.F. we were treated to large ice avalanche roaring down a gully about 500m from the P.F. camp and I was able to snap a few quick pictures of it. The hike back to Confluencia was quick. My iPod died for the first time on this hike and I broke out the MintyBoost (A USB AA battery charger) to charge it back up. Eli adores the MintyBoost and thinks it's a great accessory for the back country.
Plaza de Mulas! 14,271 feet. Was up early today at 5:30am, couldn't sleep anymore. At 6:45 I started re packing my mule bag for transport to Plaza de Mulas. Breakfast was toast, cereal, and pancakes. Left Confluencia at about 8:30 and crossed the gorge where the two forks of the Horcones river come together. Ahhhh....Con-Fluence (Together flow)...I get it now. Once back up on the other side of the canyon the Horcones valley opened up in front of me. The trek up the valley seemed endless, you must only gain about 1 meter for ever 1/4 mile. The scenery, however, is spectacular. Winds are high today, we guessed 50+ mph on the summits based on how the snow was being blasted off the peaks. Trail dogs are also with us again today...probably because we feed them scraps. After about 4 hours, and what must've been 8-10 miles we stopped for lunch at camp Ibanez - a large boulder in the riverbed that shields us from the wind. We had a slow and relaxed lunch, removing our boots and socks to dry and sun-warm our aching feet. After Ibanez, the trail finally begins climbing faster. The next few miles are even more spectacular with views of the Horcones Superior glacier and the surrounding peaks. The Horcones Superior glacier is the more "stereotypical" glacier, gleaming white with huge 1,000 foot ice cliffs, ice falls, seracs, and crevasses. We gain and lose several hundred feet at a time finally gaining the last thousand feet or so to base camp in the last 1/2 mile I'd guess. Plaza de Mulas is HUGE! A small city, with great views. Tomorrow we rest!
E-mail From Mike to Zarina: 1/25/09 - mid afternoon. "We got in to base camp yesterday afternoon 1/24/09 at about 4:30 local time...a long, maybe 15 mile, climb from the first base camp. I´m glad we switched routes now, these valleys have been spectacular and the view from Plaza de Mulas is incredible. Since it´s just the 2 of us now, the loads should be pretty light, but the route is very steep from here on out. Tomorrow, we make our first carry to Camp 1 and then come back down to sleep another night at base camp. I´m feeling pretty good so far and I've been strong and feeling great despite being at approx 14,000´ right now. If everything goes well and the weather holds we should be pushing for the summit on Feb 2-3."
Rest Day! Woke up at 7:30, went to the bathroom, wandered around for a few minutes, then went back to bed. Slept really well until about 10:30. There was a lot of loud music last night which made it hard to sleep. Also got woken up by a thunderous rockfall at daybreak. It sounded like a bomb going off. There is a lot of chatter about it in base camp this morning..."did you see the rockfall?" The weather is nice today, sunny and cool with a bit of a breeze. Base camp is full of activity and you're surrounded by people speaking dozens of languages (primarily Spanish, Polish/Eastern European, Czech, Chinese, Japanese, French, etc...) People are constantly moving loads up the mountain, and finished expeditions are cruising down the mountain. It's very commercialized with solar power, wind power, food services, internet, phone, and even an art gallery. Yesterday on the trek in, we found a horseshoe (mule shoe really). Local superstition is that carrying the horseshoe and hanging it in our tent will guarantee our safety on the mountain. We moved and sorted gear and food today in preparation for our carry tomorrow. I took a walk over to a nearby ridge to get some better photos of base camp and the surrounding terrain. It is so beautiful here! To be in the place where the earth is being sculpted in real-time, right before your eyes, is so amazing. It really is a religious experience for me! I also made a friend today, Adam, who is on an unguided expedition. Adam is from Poland and this is his 2nd attempt at Aconcagua. Expedition food is more difficult for him because he is a vegetarian. We talked off and on through day about climbing, culture, language & slang, food, etc... Later in the day I walked over to the old site of Plaza de Mulas to see the memorial of the first ascent in 1897. I think there may also be a small cemetery over there - maybe a dozen piles of rock with lines of rock all extending the same east'ish direction. There is also a wooden cross at the top of the hill. There are great views of base camp and the glacier from this old camp. I'll have to come back here with the camera after our carry tomorrow. (this never happened and I never got my pictures by the way.)
Carry #1 (Base camp to camp Canada). Slept in the trango tent last night instead of the base camp tent. Slept great for a change! Up at 7am to prep and load our packs for the carry to camp Canada. We carried 36 meals, 4 liters of white gas, 5 isobutane canisters, two stoves (whisperlite and jetboil), cooking pots, her axe and crampons, my down parka, insulated booties, cups and bowls, and a huge canvas duffel to store it all in while it's cached. We each carried about 22kg according to the simple spring scale. The route above base camp is very steep and loose with dirt and scree. I completed the carry in about 4 hours and felt strong almost all the way until the last 50 meters or so. The air felt very thin and simple actions get me a bit out of breath. I still have my appetite though and I'm still drinking lots of water easily. My pulse-oxygen level up there was 102/93%, no headache, no nausea, just a bit tired. This camp looks so close from base camp, but is so far away in reality. While we ate lunch, I witnessed a HUGE serac fall from the hanging glacier across the valley. The resulting ice avalanche created a cloud that rose at least 1,500 feet high and the cloud "ran" for about a mile. The sound at base camp or the refugio must have been deafening, but at Canada it was like distant thunder. After eating lunch we dirt-skied back down the scree to base camp - the return trip took only 45 minutes. Back at Plaza de Mulas we had some snacks and I washed some of my clothes old-fashion-style with a bucket and some rocks. While the clothes were hanging to dry, a powerful but quick gust of wind took my shirt off the rope and carried it over 200 feet away. It took us a few minutes to find. I proactively doctored the known problem areas of my feet with some moleskin and went for a quick test hike, they felt good but I'll know tomorrow whether they'll be OK for the long haul. It is very warm and nice at base camp today (t-shirt and sandals.) Kalamata olives are tasting great up here - they're definitely the last think I thought I would like to eat above 12,000 ft.
Camp Canada! 16,570 feet. Move camp from base camp to camp 1. A very hard day! My load was lighter today, about 40 lbs, but the double boots made climbing on the scree cumbersome and frustrating. My heels are still digging in a bit, but I didn't blister thankfully. Tomorrow we will carry to camp 2 and I will try only wearing my liner socks as an experiment. I may also try tying the boots only to the first set of hooks to give a bit more ankle dexterity. I can tell that I'm slightly dehydrated - my vision has strayed slightly near-sighted (a common dehydration indicator I've noticed since getting LASIK.) Also the inside of my nose is burning and a little chapped. I'll be drinking lots of tea today. I feel like I'm out of breath all the time.
Carry from camp Canada to Nido de Condores. This was only a 500 meter carry up to the col, and looked so close, but again is very deceiving. The monochromatic tone of the slopes makes it very difficult to judge distances, much like climbing on snow. Eli made hash brown and rice quesadillas for breakfast that were very tasty. I tossed around a bit last night, weird dreams and a brief and mild headache kept waking me up. With my sock and boot lace changes my feet were more comfortable and the climbing was less cumbersome. At camp Alaska (about 1/2 way) we decided to skip the switchbacks and went straight up the snow slope. By doing so we made great time and passed a bunch of other groups. Cutting steps in the snow also felt great on my feet compared to negotiating the scree. My pack was probably only 35 lbs for this carry, but it felt more like 80lbs. During the carry my heart was pumping so hard it felt like it would burst out of my chest, and the blood in my thighs felt like battery acid. It's gorgeous up here, but so far this is the most difficult hiking I've ever done in my life. After getting back down to camp 1, porters for a commercial expedition next door lit their tent on fire while making water. Luckily nobody was hurt and only the vestibule was damaged.
Nido de Condores! 18,240 feet. Today we moved from camp 1 to camp 2. My pack was probably 35 lbs again, but today I made the climb in 2 hours 40 minutes - good time. Setting up camp was exhausting! Moving large rocks at 18k feet is not fun. I started feeling like I was getting a head cold with an itchy nose and a sore throat, but this passed quickly. Every little movement gets me out of breath. This camp is at the col (col = a saddle or pass) for the NW ridge. The col is very flat compared to the rest of the mountain and has a slight bowl shape which makes it seem very lunar in appearance. The soil is a gray mixture of pebbles, sand, and finer particles with a spongy feel when you walk on it. The surface is littered with volcanic stones and boulders that were blasted here by two volcanoes that can bee seen in the distance (Mercedario and Ramada.) The volcanic rocks are very smooth textured but with very random and "meteor" shapes. What's neat is that the rocks have a pleasant bell-like ring to them when they hit each other. I walked over to the N edge of the col and the view is spectacular. It feels like you can see forever. There is also an interesting layering in the atmosphere that creates a bold color difference with a very sharp border. I'm told its an inversion of dry and dusty air below, with humid cleaner air above. The windchill up here at sunset is very cold, but not severe. I did decide to break out the down parka tonight, though, for comfort while sitting outside and visiting with our Polish friends (Adam, Tomasz, and Mariusz.)
Rest day! The temperature inside the tent got down in to the 'teens (f) last night and I slept well overall considering the altitude. Outside, however, it's eff'ing cold this morning with sustained wind of about 20-30 mph. I estimated the wind chill to be about 0f. It did warm up later in the day and I sat outside behind a rock and read my book for several hours. There are incredible 180-degree views from this camp and we are already higher than most of the surrounding mountain peaks. The weather forecast is good for the next 5 days and I am still feeling strong. Tomorrow we will probably single-carry to high camp and then blitz for the summit on the 1st or 2nd of February. If so, I don't know what I'll do in Mendoza for 6 days - probably will look in to getting a stand-by flight or see if they can change my tickets.
Camp Colera! 19,620 feet. Today we moved from camp 2 to high camp. And today the fabled Aconcagua wind finally showed up. Until now we've had extremely good weather, but it all started to change. Eli radioed down to base camp and the weather forecast is still supposed to be decent for the next 3 days. Since this was a single-carry we moved all the gear in one trip. My pack is HEAVY, feels like 100 lbs, but is probably more like 60 lbs. My pulse-oxygen this morning at camp 2 was 85/91% - still really good. Didn't sleep very well last night at camp 2, really cold and windy as all hell. The carry to camp Colera was extremely steep and difficult - the hardest day yet! I still made good time, though, and got to the camp in less than 3 hours. The wind-chill during the climb was brutal! When we got to camp a storm quickly moved in and it dropped to the low 20's and started snowing. The wind gusts up here must be ~50 mph and they easily pummel the tent despite it's bomb-proof anchoring. The altitude is getting to me finally - I'm getting a more persistent headache and I have no energy, but otherwise I'm doing ok. This camp is probably the most disgusting so far. It reeks of urine and feces no matter where you go - it's a literal latrine. I'm also quite congested today and there is a bit of blood in my mucus (from my sinuses and not my lungs thankfully.)
Location: Hell! Last night I passed out at about 7:30 and slept like a rock until about 2am. Then I woke up with a splitting headache and nausea. To make matters worse, no matter which direction I lay in this campsite it always feels like my head is downhill. The wind is gusty and smacks the tent so loud that we have to yell to hear each other. Between the headache and the constant pounding noise from the tent it feels like nails are being driven into my skull. At other times it feels like I'm being hung from my ankles and dropped on my head onto the rocks. At daybreak, I knew there would be no summit attempt for me today. This is the first time I've actually considered *giving up* and going down. After breakfast I sat outside, drank about 6 liters of tea, ate some sweet bread and a twix, and after spending a few hours in the "good air" I finally started feeling better. We'll make another summit assault tomorrow! Many teams moved in to high camp today and we can hear at least one person who is vomiting - at least I wasn't THAT bad this morning. A mother-daughter team also came up today, Matty and Sarah McNair, who lead arctic and dog-sled expeditions - how cool is that! They are seriously hardcore ( The air is so thin up here, I have to be careful not to move too quickly or I start feeling light headed. Only one of our Polish friends made it to the summit today, Mariusz (I later learned that he had pretty bad frostbite on both his big toes.) Adam and Tomasz decided to turn back due to severe wind at Independencia. Tonight I will sleep the other direction and stack clothing and gear under my back and head in hopes of sleeping better and not feeling like I'm upside down. Wind this afternoon died down a bit so hopefully it will stay this way.
Location: Hell, v2.0. The wind got strong again last night and I only slept for a few hours. It got really cold too, single digits (f) inside the tent. My hips are aching and my back is really sore from sleeping on the ground all these nights. I'm finally starting to get seriously homesick. I'm missing home and my family really bad now and I'm about to give in. Despite sleeping the other direction with all my gear under my head, I still felt like I was upside down. I'm also starting to think that the nausea is actually motion sickness from the tent shaking furiously all night long. I say this because whenever the wind dies down or I go outside the nausea goes away very quickly. I felt pretty good and strong at 5am so we got up and prepped to climb. I got a great photo of the pyramid shadow at sunrise too. At sunrise, it was deathly cold outside with the windchill. I can't have my expedition mitts off for more than a few seconds at a time or my fingers literally start to freeze. On my upper body, I wore my heavy weight and expedition weight long underwear, my hardshell, and my Absolute Zero parka. On my lower body I was wearing expedition weight long underwear, a down insulation layer, and my hardshell pants. We started cramponing up the ridge but about 100 meters up, maybe 30 minutes of climbing, the little bit of skin on my face got painfully cold. I tried to cover it with my neck-tube-thing but that made breathing too difficult. The wind was also so strong that it was knocking us off balance and we couldn't make reasonable forward progress. We called it a day, and went back down - there was no way in hell I wanted to endure that for 12+ hours. Nearly everybody turned back at some point today. Only a few people summited, and their faces don't look good (who knows what their toes and fingers look like.) Even at 1pm today with full sun it is still extremely cold outside so I layed around most of the day trying to stay warm. The altimeter rose about 75 meters today - not good! (Higher altitude means lower air pressure, which means a storm is coming.) By 4pm it was a whiteout. It only snowed about 2 inches, but the wind kept the snow moving for hours. It's nearly impossible to keep the spindrift out of the tent. Eli radioed down again and the forecast for tomorrow is a cloudy AM with a clear and windy PM so we'll stay one more night here and maybe try again tomorrow. Hopefully it works out, because the forecast for the 4th is crappy and that will mean the end for me this year. It's pretty bad news, but my health up here is pretty poor - I feel like I'm dying. It's agony! So, if we have to go down tomorrow, I won't be too terribly disappointed. Strength-wise I'm at the top of my game right now, and this adventure has been fantastic.
Throw in the towel! Today the weather was supposed to be better, but at about 3m the wind started howling through the rocks like a banshee. It literally sounded like wolves and demons were howling outside our tent. The constant wind sounds like a jet engine roaring as it scours the side of the mountain. The turbulence it creates is like bombs going off all around the tent. The gusts come from every direction and they are so strong that the tent is folding flat to the point that it nearly touches our faces. Despite being anchored to hundreds of pounds of rock, the tent moves as if it were not guyed out at all. The sound the tent makes is thunderous, and is really starting to hurt my ears. Last night I slept in the direction of the 1st night here, again with clothing and gear piled up under my back and head. But yet I still felt like I was upside-down - this campsite is magic I guess. I did sleep pretty well, though, but woke up really hot at one point and had to strip layers and unzip my sleeping bag. The wind was still howling by the time the sun came up so it looks like I'm not going to summit this year. The wind last night tore the tent's rainfly and damaged many of the poles. I'm sooo glad to go back down to 14,000 feet where the air is "thick" and "warm." What took us 6 days to climb up, took only 3 hours to climb down. On the way down I blistered toes on both my feet so the trek out tomorrow is going to be a bitch. At base camp, Vern Tejas is camped next to us and I got to talk to him for a bit. (Vern Tejas is a semi-famous mountain guide who did the first *solo* winter ascent of Denali and is known for his, er, musical talents while on expeditions.)
Slept so good last night despite the whipping winds at base camp. Got up at 8:30, had some pancakes, and finished packing my duffel for the mules. We finally got out of base camp at 10:50 and began our long trek out by descending the moraine down to the riverbed below. The trek out was fast and uneventful and we completed the trek from P. Mulas to the trail head in just under 8 hours with only 3 short breaks. On the way out I frequently stopped to take quick photos of the mountains and plant life. Eli says I'm the only client she's had who actually enjoys the trek out so much - apparently most people are so summit focused they could care less about anything else. Big black storms at the summit grew fast today, I feel sorry for anybody that's up at camp 3 today. I'm glad that we decided to come back down, it was the right decision. I'm incredibly sore from yesterday's descent and my blistered toes aren't any better or worse, but they were tolerable for the trek out. Taking a shower at the hostel in Penitentes was incredible. Dinner was awesome too "hamburguesas con papas fritas." The burger was huge, about the size of three 1/4 - 1/3 lb patties in a giant oval served on a pita-like flatbread. Eli and I also shared a liter of Andes lager and shared lots of stories about mountain trips, herbal medicine, and philosophy. It will be so nice to sleep in a "real" bed (miniature hostel bunk) with no ice-cold drafts tonight.
Drove back to Mendoza today. Uneventful overall. It was so nice to take a real shower in a real, private, bathroom. Eli and I went to La Barra for a steak dinner to celebrate. This steak must have been 1/2 kg, cooked perfectly, and very tender. This is what I expected for the famous "Argentine Beef!" Eli is a regular there and knows the cook; since it was just the two of us, he and his wife? invited us to their ranch to go horseback riding and to have an asado (barbeque). How freakin sweet is that!!!
Slept in like crazy today and mostly just lounged around. I went to Carrefour and got a little bag of powdered laundry detergent and washed my clothes in the bathtub. My legs and feet are still very sore so I took a long and very HOT bath to soak it out. Later I walked around Mendoza and did some shopping for gifts before going to dinner. The food portions are huge here! For about $30 US, including tip, I got a lamb rib roast with awesome wine & mushroom sauce, potatoes, beer, and desert - again about 1/2 kg of meat in this roast.
Slept in again today! Eli called my room about midday - we're still on for horseback riding. Awesome! I got lunch at about 4pm and then met Eli and Susanna downstairs at the hotel. Susanna drove us out to the ranch (about 30 minutes north of the MDZ airport) and then down a dirt road to their small whitewashed brick and adobe casita. There are two large orchards (almond and olive) and four beautiful horses. Apparently we're going riding tonight. Juan, their neigbor, joined us. The saddles they used are not the typical "western" style saddles we see in the american west, nor were they the "english" style saddles. The saddles are very simple and remind me of the ones the mule drivers used - they were, however, very comfortable compared to a western saddle. I got to ride the white and gray horse, which to my surprise was very responsive to my commands and even started "hugging" me after a while. (A complete change of perspective compared to all the stupid "trail horses" I've ridden.) We had a great time riding through the orchards and out on to the desert. After dark, we drank lots of wine and fired up a wood-heated horno (igloo shaped oven) and cooked dozens of empanadas. The food and the wine was awesome and my spanish is getting better after hours of spanish-only conversation (and a bit lower inhibitions ;o).
Last night, Eli and I slept on the floor of the Almond Room. A small outbuilding with a tile floor that is used to age and hull the harvested almonds. I slept great! We had a simple breakfast of Maté and sweet bread. We snacked on fresh almonds while talking about the orchard and their farming there and after a while we finally drove back to Mendoza. I finished packing my bags for the trip home tomorrow and had a late lunch of a huge steak sandwich, fries, and a large beer which only cost me about $15. I wandered around Mendoza for a while and then got dinner down on Sarmiento St. The server there seemed bigoted to young people, completely ignoring many college-age people & myself while being very attentive to older and elderly groups. Many younger groups gave up and left, but I paitently waited and after about 30 minutes finally got a menu. The rest of the dinner experience was the same, but I had a good meal and finally got out of there. What an asshole! Some good ice cream afterward, however, cures all.
Slept in! Saw Eli one last time for a quick and formal "goodbye" and she gave me a CD of photos from her camera. I had breakfast, checked out of the hotel, and went wandering again. I got a cheap and simple ham sandwich lunch at about 2pm and then walked up to the good gelatto place to ditch some AR$2 bills (in exchange for more awesome ice cream!) The ice cream here, seriously, is really, REALLY good! At the ice cream shop, I ran in to the La Barra cook who took us horseback riding. It felt good to say a final "Gracias y Ciao." Eventually I got bored with wandering and went back to the hotel, picked up my luggage, and loitered around surfing WiFi on my blackberry until it was time to go to the airport. A quick, and somewhat less scary, taxi ride brought me back to my starting place...but this time the airport is DEAD EMPTY! Apparently siesta even applies at the airport. After sitting on my big duffel for a while eventually somebody came out from behind the counter and liberated me of my 100lbs of luggage. While waiting for boarding, I met Dave proudly wearing his Alpine Ascents t-shirt and talked to him for a while about his climb. He made it to the summit on the day that we were climbing to high-camp. After some conversation, I learned that John Mitchell (the guy from MA on my Rainier training trip) was in his expedition and summited as well. I guess mountaineering stuck with him which is surprising because he didn't seem to be very keen on the Rainier trip. The big crowds of people didn't start showing up to the airport until about 6pm - there's no 3-hour rule here. When the office finally opened, we paid our $18 airport tax and got our quick "check out" stamp from customs. A quick hop brought me back to Santiago, where I enjoyed a nice shrimp and pasta dinner. From Santiago, my next flight was to Dallas, TX and while lounging in the waiting area for my flight, I quickly learned why "Americans" are so easy to spot in a crowd. In general (and I'm self-stereotyping here), 'we' really are large, loud, ignorant, and arrogant. What I saw even more is that 'we' are ANGRY many of them had such an aweful attitude and aura about them (a somewhat reverse-culture-shock for me after spending all that time in Argentina.)
The flight from Santiago to Dallas was operated by American Airlines - who sucks compared to LAN airlines. Yay, back to the USA airlines' culture of small cramped seating, crappy food, and no amenities. Migration and customs in Dallas was a breeze except for the long lines at migration and to get back in through security. American security policies for flying are total BS! What a waste of tax payer money and Americans' time. The flight to Los Angeles was fast and easy, I got my luggage, and only had to deal with one more security line to get in to the Southwest Airlines' terminal. I'm only hours from home now! I had a horrible and tiny $9 chorizo burrito from one vendor which left me hungry, and then went to McD's for a quarter-pounder which was only slightly more satisfying. While waiting for my flight I sat around and reviewed photos from the trip and then went back to McD's for the $1 fudge sundae. Time goes soooo muuuuuuuuch slooooooweeeer at sea-level. I wandered the airport and hung out in a bookstore reading the entire current Backpacker Magazine to waste some time. Finally it's 1:30pm and I'm going home to hold Z, Chris, and my dog Snugee. What an adventure this has been - only setting the precedent for what's to come in the future - I hope!