Saturday, April 30, 2011

Aconcagua: Gear Issues

More on Aconcagua, this time about gear. This post covers a few of the surprising and obscure gear-related things I discovered on the expedition. In another post I'll go more systematically through the various gear categories.

Get to grips with your balaclava

Some of the trickiest items of gear to get right are the ones you never need until you're in really extreme conditions. For example, the balaclava. This is something you might not pay much attention to. Everyone's used to jackets, sleeping bags, boots, and it's easy to imagine them needing to be bigger and warmer high up on the mountain. But needing to cover your whole face is a little harder to envisage until you're actually being battered by freezing winds and horizontal snow. At this point, you really want your balaclava to fit well, and to let you breathe.

A couple of days before our summit attempt. I was pretty sure I would need to wear a balaclava for good part of the ascent, especially on the stretch from Independencia to the Cave where the wind is usually relentless. I hadn't got used to wearing either of mine in a way that I felt comfortable with and was panicking slightly. On the climb to camp 3 in fine conditions I experimented with wearing my buff over my nose and mouth. I found that to be ok when walking slowly and steadily, but rapidly ran out of breath whenever I had to make an effort. How would I manage on the summit climb? Would I be forced to choose between running out of oxygen or getting a frostbitten nose?

Fortunately, we were blessed with a summit day of unusual calm; on the infamous traverse (see picture) there was hardly a breeze. I wore my balaclava in the morning cold up to the rest stop at Independencia (6,400 metres) and then dispensed with it. But when we are eating dinner on our arrival back at Penitentes, we sat next to a group of Polish climbers who had summited on a different day than us: several of them had painful-looking swathes of windburn across their faces, rather like protagonists of that joke where you answer the phone while ironing.

Kill two birds with one pair of sandals

There's little doubt that on Aconcagua you'll need two main pairs of footwear: regular trekking boots for the walk in and double plastic boots from base camp. The gear list from Adventure Consultants also recommended: 1) some old running shoes for wearing around camp and using in river crossings and 2) down booties for wearing around camp and in your tent/sleeping bag. Based on my experiences, I would scratch both those items and replace them with a good lightweight pair of sandals. The running shoes were comfortable to wear around camp on the walk in, and I did use them on our one (brief but stunningly cold) river crossing. However, from base camp space and weight were at a premium and there was no way I could justify taking the shoes. I did squeeze in the down booties, but found they weren't up to the task of tramping round camp in the deep snow. Their role inside the tent is limited, since you mostly just put your feet in your sleeping bag to keep them warm.

After many occasions battling to get my double plastic boots on and off just to get in and out of the tent, I was looking enviously at the sandals worn by a couple of other expedition members. Small and light enough to carry, they can be worn with socks (there are no fashion crimes above 5,000 metres) and are a good option for short trips around camp. Sure, they're not the best in deep snow either, but are more robust and more easily cleaned or dried than the booties.

Yes, you need those water bottle jackets

Another obscure item you might not spent much thought on is the insulating "jacket" for your water bottles. While I researched and fretted about many of the items on the gear list, I had completely forgotten about these, and was fortunate enough that my sister Terri threw a couple in with some other things I borrowed off her just before I left. They aren't always sufficient to stop your water from freezing, but they are necessary.

Also, one area where I felt the pre-trip advice was wide of the mark was the recommendation to take two 1-litre drink bottles (plus one pee bottle). Most days you want to drink at least 3 to 4 litres, and for much of the expedition there's no chance to refill. We had to use coke or mineral water bottles for the additional water, which was not ideal. I would recommend taking at least 3 dedicated, wide-mouth 1-litre water bottles on the expedition. The softer plastic Nalgene bottles are probably better than the hard plastic ones, since they squash down better when empty.

Hand warmers are worth it

When I looked at the suggestion of hand warmers on the gear list I was a little sceptical. Surely if you got the right gloves and mittens you wouldn't need them? Well, yes. Top-line mittens will be plenty warm enough if you have them on the whole time. But to do anything like opening your pack, getting water, or even adjusting your hood, you need to strip to liner gloves or even, as in my case for about 15 minutes on summit morning, your bare hands. Your mittens might not be enough to warm your hands back up, and a throwing a couple of toasty hand warmers in them gives you extra security. On the other hand, there's not much point in getting specialist toe warmers: there's generally no space for them in a well-fitting pair of boots.

Try it all on

As I gradually accumulated gear in the months before the expedition I on various occasions got myself dressed up in layers of thermals, jackets, pants and socks. I felt rather stupid as I tried out my down jacket in the middle of summer, sweat pouring off as I fiddled with various chords and zips. Ultimately, however, I probably didn't do enough of this. You really should know exactly how everything zips, buckles and fastens, what can be worn with what, the best way to adjust your hoods, and so on. And you should practice doing it all with gloves on. For the same reason, as much of the gear as possible should be your own. Most items can be hired in Mendoza, but renting an item from a limited selection with 15 minutes to choose is not ideal. I got pretty much everything except crampons and ice pick. I did generally get to grips with the crampons in my hotel room in Mendoza, but on summit day I realised that I'd never tried them on with my snow gaiters and insulated pants. The extra bulk under the already short straps meant I had a panicky 5 minutes or so wrestling to get the crampons tightened in -15 degree conditions on summit morning.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Important Things About Aconcagua

I still plan to write a blow by blow account of the Aconcagua trip: it was about sixteen days up and down, so it's going to be spread over at least three posts. Meanwhile, here are some general thoughts about things I learned or found to be very important during the expedition. Some of them might be useful advice for people thinking of making the Aconcagua trip themselves. In another post I'll focus specifically on gear issues.

It's the Guides, Stupid

Some very experienced mountaineers will prefer to organise the trip themselves, taking care of all the gear and food, planning their route, and evaluating the weather. For the rest of us who go on an organized expedition, the quality of the guides is paramount. I cannot exaggerate the importance of the contribution made by our three guides: Matias (Chilean, lead guide, 16 previous Aconcagua summits), Leo, (from Mendoza, 11 previous summits) and Agustin (also from Mendoza, 7 previous summits). The expedition was organised by Adventure Consultants, based in Wanaka, New Zealand, and the local agent was Fernando Grajales Expeditions of Mendoza. Both companies did an exemplary job with the logistics. But up on the mountainside, any plans and policies of the tour operators rely on the guides to implement them properly.

The first night we all met up at the hotel in Mendoza, Matias gave a briefing which set the tone for the expedition. He told us that the objectives were, in order: 1) to get off the mountains safely; 2) to enjoy the "process" of climbing and learn something; and 3) to reach the summit. In a period where three people died on the mountain and a number more were evacuated with frostbite, none of us were left in any doubt about the wisdom of that approach.

Eat, Pray, Love, Drink, Eat

If I were asked to identify the other most important success factor for Aconcagua, it wouldn't be great physical fitness. Sure, there are some minimum standards. But apart from a couple of hours here and there on different days, it's wasn't an especially athletic expedition. The slow, steady rhythm set by the guides was aimed at conserving energy. If you work out a lot or play sport, you'll probably actually lose form while on the mountain.

No, the key to survival and success on the mountain was simply to eat and drink as much as possible. To operate at altitude, as a friend in Peru once said, you need a "strong organism", and that organism has to be constantly refuelled. On Aconcagua, everything dehydrates you: on the walk in, it's the heat; higher up, it's the altitude. So, if you want to do well, you have to drink a lot of water. Drink before you get thirsty. Drink more than you think you need. Wake up in the middle of the night and drink some more.

Eating is just as important. All the theory says that you lose appetite at altitude, and most of the accounts I read of people's experiences on Aconcagua described forcing down minimal quantities of food at the higher camps. This wasn't so for me and most of the others who made it to the summit. In fact, the guides said they were rather taken aback by how much I and my tent mate were still eating at 6,000 metres, "maybe even more than at sea level". This was helped by the fact that the quality of the food was very good, which again, was in large part thanks to the guides. One of the defining moments of the expeditions came after we had braved a fierce snow storm to arrive at camp 2 and set up our tents. Cold, bedraggled and anxious about our prospects of even getting an attempt at the summit, I and my tent mate were roused by the voice of Agustin telling us that dinner was ready. We unzipped the back door to find Agustin, icicles clinging to his beard, holding a large pot from which he served us generous helpings of spicy meat and and rice. It was one of the most memorably delicious meals I've had, and greatly improved our mood at a difficult time.

Details Matter

I hoped the Aconcagua expedition would be a learning and growing experience for me, and in a number of ways it was, even if it just showed me how far I still had to go. One of the sharpest learning curves was to do with organisation and attention to detail. So many small things can derail your expedition. Secure your tent ineffectively or leave it unzipped and it could blow away, ending your trip. Fail to dry your boot liners or let your water bottle freeze and you could be in big trouble. It's not just with gear that that things can go wrong, but with your own person. Catch a cold or get a bout of diarrhea up high, and your body may not be able to recover quickly enough. Sunburn, headaches, blisters, and dehydration can all be dangerous as well.

So, you need to be meticulous about keeping your hands clean, your feet dry, your body warm, your skin protected, and your things stashed and organised. There are many details to think about. Are your plate, cup and spoon quickly accessible? Can your jacket be easily pulled out and stashed again at rest stops? Are your trekking poles set to the right length for the terrain (shorter for up hill, much longer for down)? How can you secure your water bottle to allow you to take sips while you walk?

It's also important to be familiar with all your clothes and equipment before the expedition, including how things tie, zip and buckle, what can be worn with what, and so forth. More about this in the post on gear. Despite my efforts to improve my organisational skills, and many nights spent lying in my sleeping bag mentally organising my pack, I struggled with this aspect and was always one of the last to be ready, starting in the morning, pitching and packing tents, and at rest stops (to be fair, three of my companions were ex-military).

Stay Regular

There was a lot of pre-trip information from Adventure Consultants, ranging from the essential to the relatively obscure, from advice on insurance to tips on high-altitude photopgraphy. Funnily, nowhere was there any comment about something that had inspired curiosity in most expedition members: how would we go to the toilet? Up to and including base camp, there's little mystery. Each expedition company supplies the camps with long drops -- barrels which are helicoptered out when full.

Beyond base camp, it's a different story. Within Aconcagua Provincial Park, the authorities have taken the admirable decision that you can't just "go" anywhere. Each person is given a quota of "wag bags" which they must use for any number two beyond 4,200 metres. The wag bag includes an inner, larger bag which contains a chemical powder that neutralizes and deodorizes excrement, as well as an outer ziplock bag designed to hold the inner bag.

For me, learning to love the bag was an important mental step in surviving and thriving on Aconcagua. It's tricky enough to aim into a bag in any situation, but when perched on a mountainside at -15 Celsius with snow and freezing winds, it becomes an adventure sport. Yet, it's not a good idea to avoid a showdown by eating less or just bottling it up. Staying healthy and comfortable means staying regular, so you need to treat it as just one more challenge to embrace.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Peruvian Elections: Humala First, Second Round Unpredictable

For various reasons (Master's thesis, Aconcagua, travelling in Peru away from internet access, many things to do on arrival back to New Zealand), I haven't done any blog posts on the Peruvian presidential and congressional elections, which took place on Sunday 10 April local time. The line up of candidates made as much, if not more of a soap opera story as it did in 2006. The lead up had even more twists and turns, as right until the end there were five candidates with possibilities of making it through to the second round of voting.

In the end, the result of the first round has meant a rather different scenario than the last elections. As he did in 2006, Nationalist candidate Ollanta Humala headed the initial vote. Coming from seeming irrelevance only a couple of months ago when he was polling below 10 percent, Humala won around 32 percent of the vote, almost identical to his numbers five years ago.

However, this time there's not going to be a solid alliance of the "democratic" establishment against "authoritarian" Humala of the sort which benefited Alan Garcia in 2006. This is because Humala's opponent in the second round will be Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of the currently imprisoned ex-dictator, who in her campaign has frequently referred back to what "we" did in the 1990s. As La Republica columnist Mirko Lauer puts it:

In addition, if it's about a competition between two political chambers of horrors, the phrase used by political scientist Steven Levitsky is eloquent: "you can have doubts about Ollanta but about Keiko we've got proof"

The success of Humala and Fujimori sends a clear message. The establishment candidates -- 2001--2006 president Alejandro Toledo, former Lima mayor Luis CastaƱeda and one-time Prime Minister Pedro Pablo Kuzcysnzki (PPK) -- eventually obtained less than 45 percent of the vote between them. It's not quite true, as is being portrayed in some places, that Peruvians abandoned the centre and chose contrasting "extremes". Despite being placed on the far right, Fujimori shares a similar economic approach with the other three candidates -- with PPK probably the purest neoliberal -- while Humala is hardly "leftist" in any coherent sense. What these two have in common is their populism, and the perception that in some sense they are outsiders. Their strong showing amounts to a rejection of continuismo and disagreement with the establishment argument that staying with Peru's current economic and political track will eventually be good for everyone.

Since the last election, Humala has gone a considerable way towards moderating his image. He's been dressing smarter, got a team of Brazilian advisors to give his policies an aura of Lula-ness, and avoided the association with Hugo Chavez that Alan Garcia took such advantage of last time. Already, the sort of people who pegged their noses and reluctantly voted for Garcia are wondering whether he might be the least worst option. Mario Vargas Llosa, for example, has said that he "could" vote for Humala, depending on the kind of alliances he forms, but could never vote for Fujmori. In another post, I'll give my own opinion.