Punta de Vacas (8900ft)—beige shipping container transformed into ranger station, gnarly fences crossed together with wire—is where our climb begins. Standing still, the heat is almost unbearable. Dust waves wrinkle the spiky landscape while a breeze splashes mist from the Vacas River, which churns methodically downhill.
We carry little: three liters of water, snack food, raingear, warmth layers, cameras, collapsible campstools we’ll use on the trail. The mules, a train of war-torn bays with skinny ankles and harnesses cinched tight around their bellies, will carry the rest: climbing gear, tents, 20 days of food, stoves, fuel, extras. Any climber in their right mind uses mules to tote their supplies to base camp and as the cumbersome duffel and barrel loads pass us, I’m glad we have too. The hererros—Argentine cowboys—wave from the saddle, colorful flat-caps bouncing along the rocky landscape.
“That’s the last tree we’ll see for the next two weeks,” says Jake, nodding at a lanky, poplar-like arbol that sways in the heat waves, leaves glittering and singing like chimes. It remains in our rearview mirror for a while. Then, following a bend in the turbid river, we lose sight of it; a rocky trail, cactus-like shrubs, thousand-foot talus fields remain. Along with beckoning peaks, this will be the scenery for the next three days of hiking.
We stop every hour, apply sunscreen, drink, eat, share yerba-mate. Jake carries a thermos, pours hot water into the herb-filled lid, inserts the silver straw, passes me the concoction. It’s a ritual that I’ll come to savor and today the caffeine shock helps my legs and heart shed five-day dormancy. It takes four hours to reach Pampa de Lenas (9800ft), where we share a packaged-rice dinner, shake hands with descending guides who talk about escaping “Armageddon.” Retiring to our sleeping bags, we nervously ponder this word; our sleep is tumultuous.
The next day is a slightly longer, steeper uphill walk. We spend five hours in windswept sunshine on the way to Casa de Piedra (11,000ft), an exposed camp on a vast floodplain at the foot of the Relinchos Valley. Gazing between the 14,000-foot walls of the valley, we get our first glimpse of the mountain, an enormous wedding cake, a massive lampshade, a looming crescendo covered in ominous spindrift like some terrible Einsteinian hair do.
“It is Armageddon up there,” says Jake, “look at all that spindrift.” The sight makes me anxious. The mountain seems incomprehensibly big, beyond my eye’s reach, let alone my feet. And although the sky is clear, the wind is extremely powerful. Even here, it buffets our tent walls, rattles the poles, conducts an intolerable racket that, again, prevents easy sleep.
Hoof beats break our rest at 530am. Jake fires the stoves, boils water for hots—cocoa, cider, coffee, chai tea, yerba-mate. It’s still dark when we strike the tent, load our duffels and barrels for the mules. The hererros have a long day. They must go from here to base camp and then return to Pampa de Lenas. That’s why we must start so early.
The morning obstacle is the Vacas River and it’s a serious obstacle. There is light in the sky but the sun has not broken the valley as we remove our shoes, roll up our pants, steel our minds against cold. Small pools and narrow veins of the river are frozen solid as we step over them, but the main artery is churning strong and deep. Perhaps the only reason it is not frozen is because it is so fast and deep. When my skin touches the water, it freezes and numbs instantly so that I cannot feel the rocks on my feet. But there is a gnawing, bone-deep pain that rises from my submerged knees and grips my body. This feeling is more invigorating than coffee, more hyperactive than yerba-mate. I stagger rapidly across the river, dig my campstool into the sand, inspect my soles for damage: no cuts, no bruises, just purple flesh and knobby toes. Jake and I pound fists.
We hike for about five and a half hours today, gaining 3000-feet on our ascent to Plaza de Argentina (14,000ft), our base camp. As we stomp along the dusty trail, shielding our cheeks and noses from the windblown sediment, we say goodbye to vegetation, enter a world of strictly snow, ice and rock. Spindrift lines the distant summit. The gusts here are strong enough to knock us off balance; we rely on our trekking poles, fighting the thermal flow while pushing against gravity.
Plaza de Argentina is a city of nylon, rubberized canvas, guy lines, aluminum boxes for bathrooms. Besides vegetation, we also say goodbye to our mule team; we’ll be carrying everything from here on out. Jake fires stoves while I open canned vegetables for a soup; we’ll get rid of the heavy stuff first. He dishes up the steaming broth and hearty chunks.
“If you need to augment your ratios, feel free,” says Jake, nodding at the steaming pot. For some reason, this cracks me up. My ratios are all out of whack, I think. But actually, I’ve been feeling great so far. The real climbing hasn’t begun yet though. It won’t ever begin unless this gale, this Armageddon, ever stops.