2/15: On our connecting flight from Santiago, Chile, to Mendoza, Argentina, we fly over the Andes and fingers point to the rocky, snow covered peaks. With a window seat, Spencer has the optimal view and rests his forehead against the oval window pane. There is an empty space next to him. Stuck with an aisle seat on the “mountain-less” side of the plane, I unbuckle my seat belt and jump over a sleeping women to sit next to Spencer. The opening of Teenage Wasteland rattles on my MP3 player. My eyes dart back and forth in sync with the music and my legs bounce up and down. In the distance, the tall shoulders of Aconcagua rise.
The plane lands and we collect our luggage. Most of our food makes it through customs, though Tim loses a few bags of trail mix and Spencer has to open one of his MRE’s. Carlos, a gregarious man with a round belly, escorts us to a stifling white van that has been cooking under the afternoon sun atop a sea of asphalt. Oh God, I think. No better time than the present to practice breathing. Carlos drives us to the permit office. Mendoza is a beautiful city. There are lots of parks with couples lying on blankets for siesta. Soccer teams and runners stretch while cyclists churn by. We collect our permits and Carlos drops us off at our hotel. For the first time in 24 hours, I lay down and it feels so blessedly wonderful to be horizontal on a starchy white sheet in a room with air conditioning. Come dinner time, we venture downtown and calorie up on platters of meat and loaves of bread. Surprisingly, when it comes time for bed, I’m wide awake, thinking of those mountains we flew over. The trek begins tomorrow.
2/16: Carlos picks us up from the hotel at 8:05 am and we begin the drive to Penitentes. The morning is cool and the van winds up the valley. Vineyards line both sides of the road. A classic rock station plays on the radio and we sing and laugh. Tim points out different rock formations and we have a mini-geology lesson en route. At the home base for Granjles expeditions we explode our duffel bags on the floor and begin the process sorting out what goes and what stays. Duffel bags are repacked and weighed carefully because in a couple of hours they’ll be strapped to the back of a mule.
In my day pack I fit two liters of water, a zip lock bag of snacks, sun screen, wind jacket, and camera. At 1 pm we hit the trail. We follow a dry and dusty herd path indented with hoof prints along a river that runs through a canyon. The sun is high and we hike eight miles to our first camp. Around 5 pm, we set up our tents, refill water bottles and fire up the stoves. The sun sets, moon rises and I peer at the stars through my tent fly. What a beautiful world. There is no other place I’d rather be.
2/17: We wake early, break down camp, and hit the trail eager to hike in the shade for as long as possible. Llamas are spotted on the steep slopes. The landscape reminds me of southern California. Once the sun hits, we stop and put on sunscreen, hats, and glasses. We stop for lunch by the river and watch our mules trot by with our duffel bags. Shortly after lunch, we see a blue and white flag snap back and forth in the wind marking our second campsite. Tim stops and points up the valley. There is it. Aconcagua. We find seats among the rocks and examine the routes, standard and Polish glacier. After camp is set up, Spencer and I scamper up the hillside to get a better view of the mountain. I pick up a pink quartz rock and tuck it in my pocket. There is something calming and grounding about it. For siesta, I curl up against a rock and read. After a Mountain House dinner of chicken and noodles, Jason teaches Henry and I a new card game called Yaniv. It’s of Israeli origin and popular in Nepal. The team is coming together. Tomorrow, we’ll arrive at base camp.
2/18: A cold river crossing starts our day. We untie boots and trail runners to strap on sandals. My toes are numb by the time I reach the other side. Fortunately, it doesn’t take long for the sun to reach and warm us. We are gaining altitude, going from roughly 11,000 to 14,271 feet. After lunch, I put in ear buds and push to the front of the line. I want to get to base camp and scout for campsites. I crest a hill and there it is, a high arid settlement of domes, small buildings, and tents. I smile and jog around. Music plays from the cook tent and boosts my morale. I look up at the mountain and dance. A few minutes later, the rest of the team arrives and I point out my finds. We grab bags and secure tent spots. I bend over to move a rock and my head begins to spin. Oh no. I’m dizzy. I need to sit down. Scratch that, I need to lie down. Suddenly the task of setting up a tent seems impossible.
Thankfully we’re welcomed into a tent with pizza, nuts, cookies, and water. I slump into a chair and stare blankly at the spread while my teammates dig in. I envy their smiles and appetite. Their booming laughter hurts my head. I’m nauseous and don’t want to eat or drink anything. “You’ll feel better if you do,” my teammates encourage, so I sip on a cold glass of lemon infused water and nibble on a piece of pizza. My gut is off and I make multiple visits to the outhouse. I lie on my back and pull my hat over my face. It doesn’t take much to punch you from 60 to 0 in the mountains. And that’s why you shouldn’t go from 0 to 60. By night fall I’ve made a full recovery. Lesson noted. Just like how the moon rises: Slowly, slowly.