We also chat with Gabi, who has been leading clients from an Argentine guide service up the Plaza de Mulas side of the mountain. Warm hugs are how we greet. He congratulates us, whistles with envy at our summit time, smiles deeply when Jake shows him the picture of the cross. This merry reunion helps boosts my waning energy, propels me down the 45-minutes to chopper camp.
It’s the end of an unbelievable day and I’m completely exhausted, completely content to devour cheesy rice, drink hot drinks, and let the day’s events mix with the events of my dreams, because honestly, they’re exactly the same thing.
Heavy backpacks require a spotter. I help Jake harness his enormous bag. Since we’ve moved so fast up the mountain, we’re left with an abundance of food, fuel. In addition to this and all the other gear, we carry our solid waste downhill. From chopper to Camp 1 our loads are not too obscene—mine is probably 60-pounds while Jake’s is 75. However, there is a duffel full of equipment, and probably ten more pounds of shit, still cached there.
Arriving at Camp 1 and inspecting the cache, we have a debate. Is it better to try and carry this stuff down now, or to descend to base camp first and then return for a second load? I know what will happen if we decide on the latter option. We’ll return to base together and Jake will force me to stay there while he comes back up and carries the load down by himself. But we’ve climbed this entire mountain as a team and I’m not about to let him do that, so I start strapping on fuel bottles, extra clothes, garbage.
“Alright man, if you can take that stuff and the shit bag I think we can do this,” says Jake.
“No problem,” I reply, taking the sun-warmed bag that smells disturbingly fresh and clamping it beneath my pack lid. Jake, for his part, hefts the entire duffel, lands it horizontally on top of his pack frame and cinches it down, transforming his load into one giant T-bone steak that takes both of us to lift.
To say the hour descent is painful would be accurate but insufficient. Pressure on my hips and shoulders cuts off my circulation, numbs my toes and fingers. For breaks, we set our packs on waist-high boulders without unclipping the suspension—the strain of lifting them outweighs the benefit of removing them. Eventually, after much grumbling and swearing, we arrive at base and remove those epic loads forever.
Jake procures a scale that the hererros use to measure their mule loads. My backpack weighs-in at 85-pounds. Jake’s, which is nearly impossible to lift, crosses the line that reads 105! I’ve never carried such mass and neither has he. We’re both extremely relieved that four-legged, bad-tempered equines will be shouldering that burden from here on out.
What took three days up takes two days down. We hike from base to Pampa de Lenas on the first day, say goodbye to the lenticular-clad mountain as we cross the Vacas River, shed layers, the heat rising while our elevation falls. The greenery is surprising after weeks of strictly snow and rock. I have the surreal experience of recognizing certain shrubs that caught my eye twelve short days ago when we were on our way up. Standing in the same place I did then, deltoids sore from yesterday’s load, skin layered with dust and sweat, toes throbbing from hours downhill, I wonder in amazement at the last month and a half of my life.
In one sense, these expeditions have passed in a blink. Here, a night away from the trailhead, I’m astounded that this monumental step of my journey is almost over. The peaks of Aconcagua and Mt. Vinson, which once seemed so distant, so illusory, so high are now intimate memories, portions of profound experience condensed into the passing glimpse of an infinitely complex image; the memories last only an instant.
In another sense, upon recollection I’m reminded of how hard and how full the last few months of one-foot-in-front-of-the-other have been, and it astounds me that I’ve made it through. Time’s rich texture is imprinted on my lean abdomen, my scruffy beard. I feel like I have experienced a lifetime worth of adventure and that the ripples of these memories will radiate forever.
The hererros light a fire, tap coals free, spread them beneath a thick-barred grill. They pile-on steaks and as the fatty cuts sizzle, we share boxed wine and chat in Spanish about the gorgeous night. When the meat is ready they slice-off thick pieces, rest them on white bread and hand the combination over to us. There are no plates or utensils. We eat each slice out of our hands and when we are done they have another slice ready. The meat is thick and tender, and it’s not long before we’ve eaten our fill.
When the box of wine is empty we thank the hererros and stumble in the darkness to where we have unrolled our pads and sleeping bags. The night is silent except for the river and clear except for the stars. There is no need for a tent. Jake and I point out satellites and planets for a few minutes; then we grow quiet.
Lying there, I breathe thick air. Orion’s Belt and The Southern Cross stand out. Innumerable stars decorate the rest of the moonless sky like white writing on a black page. Perhaps there is a story told there. I try to read it but the page is too enormous, the symbols too complex, so I blur my eyes, diving into the endless constellations. A powerful sleepiness overwhelms me and I begin losing myself, without resisting, in some wonderful memory or dream. And I can’t tell which.