"I'm thinking about going to Aconcagua next month." said Jeff, referring to a brief window of opportunity before starting a new job. "I haven't climbed a big mountain for several years - it's been too long and this may be my only opportunity for a few more years."
"Interesting." said Jerry. "Sounds like a good idea. Wish I could go, but I would slow you down too much and I'm not up to carrying those heavy loads any more."
Jerry and Jeff, father and son, ages 62 and 31, have climbed lots of mountains together, including Denali and Mt Logan. But leg injuries and asthma (and age) have slowed Jerry down; and three weeks did not seem enough time to get ready for something as major as Aconcagua.
But Jeff called back a day or so later. "If you would like to go, I'll carry most of the weight and be satified with your pace." So father and son were off on another big mountain adventure. In a partial attempt to get a bit ready, Jerry "did laps" with a 35-pound pack in the stairwell of his ten-story office building.
Plane tickets were purchased to Mendoza, Argentina, and AndeSport engaged to provide transportation from/to the airport, mules to pack gear to base camp (Plaza de Mulas), and meal support at base camp. On 2000 Feb 2 we departed DFW for Miami, then on to Santiago and thence to Mendoza - the last two flights on LanChile airlines.
A few days earlier Jerry had picked up a cold; in the Miami airport it seemed as if it was developing into a sinus infection. His asthma doctor had sent him off with a Z-pack antibiotic, for just such an eventuality, and Jerry decided to use it - the last tablet would be taken the day before reaching base camp, hopefully averting an infection on the upper mountain.
On the flight from Santiago to Mendoza we happened to sit with Mariano, the meistro of the aconcagua.net website - he knew a lot about the Aconcagua scene. He recommended that we visit the Cyber Cafe in Mendoza and hoped that we would get good service from AndeSport; something in his tone suggested that we might not.
Upon the Feb 3 morning arrival at the Mendoza airport, we were met by Jorgelina, of the AndeSport Mendoza office, and what turned out to be the superb AndeSport support began. First Jorgelina dropped us at the Hotel Lauerte, were we would spend the night before picking up our permits the next day and proceeding to the AndeSport headquarters in Los Penitentes.
The Hotel Lauerte was near the center of things in Mendoza, and we quickly got oriented and found the walking mall and its park-like terminus, Plaza Independencia. At 4:30pm, after siesta time, the supermarket a block from our hotel opened and we purchased the last items of food for the mountain ($56).
Three blocks the other way from the hotel we found a mountain supply shop that sold white gas, and we filled our six liter bottles ($10). "Do you need mules?" asked the shop proprieter; "MULAS" shouted a sign on his wall - virtually everyone has gear transported to base camp by mule. "No" we said, "we've already arranged for mules". "Who?" he inquired. "AndeSport." we said. "Sorry to hear that." he replied, and for the second time that day we were left with the impression that perhaps we were not in good hands.
That evening we went to a restaurant a block from Plaza Independencia, where on our earlier walk the waiter George had accousted us promoting his wares. George spoke English and it looked like a fine restaurant. We passed up the famous Mendoza wine at this meal, however, reserving that for after the mountain.
At 8:30 the next morning Jorgelina picked us up at the hotel, took us to pick up the permits for Aconcagua, and sent us on our way in a private van for the 2.5-hour drive to Los Penitentes. There we were met by David, the AndeSport proprietor, and his wife Monica. Monica offered us refreshments and showed us our room; we would be spending the night there and organizing our equipment bags (no more than 30 kilos each) for the mules.
Los Penitentes (2600m) looks like, and is, a ski resort. AndeSport has one of the hotel/restaurant facilities that in the winter plies the ski trade. At this time of year, summer, the town has the typical deserted ski resort look; AndeSport turns to the climbing business to fill in between ski seasons. Being near the end of the climbing season, we had the place almost to ourselves.
The first order of business was logistics. The normal walk to base camp is in two segments, first to Confluencia (3300m) and then to Plaza de Mulas (4300m); we planned to do that in on two consequtive days. David suggested spending an extra day at Confluencia, to aid acclimatization. "You can pack one bag for the mule to drop at Confluencia and in two days the mule will pick that bag up at Confluencia and take it with the rest of your gear to Plaza de Mulas." That sounded good to us; we scheduled an extra day at Confluencia.
Monica served a great meal that night. Joining us in the large restaurant were two other AndeSport customers, an Italian team that had just come off the mountain (they had put two of the five team members on the summit) and a guided team of eight who had just arrived and was on the same schedule as were we. The latter team had three Ecuadorian guides and five German clients. We were to become good friends with the Ecuadorians, especially the one named Patrick.
On Feb 5 Monica took us to the Horcones Ranger Station at the Aconcagua Park entrance; we checked in, got our trash bags (all climbers must collect their trash on the mountain and surrender it when they leave), and at 11am started toward Confluencia with light day packs. The two foot bridges made the wild Horcones River crossings a snap, and at 2:30 we checked in with Confluencia ranger; a half hour later the mule arrived with our "Confluencia bag", which included our tent and sleeping bags.
We found a spot, erected the tent and made some tea. Conflencia had a good water supply (we filtered it, though most didn't) and four latrines. The latrines are holes in the ground covered with a wooden platform about a meter square; in the middle of the platform is a hole about 20 centimeters in diameter. On each corner of the platform is a pole, anchored with guy wires, and a heavy plastic sheet is wrapped around the poles. A vertical zipper in one side provided access to the interior, and one can therefore squat in relative comfort and privacy. We were to discover that such latrines are also de rigueur at base camp.
The next day we slept late and both awoke with slight headaches - it was good that we had decided to take that extra day. After a late start we walked most of the way toward Plaza Francia and a partial view of the Aconcagua south face; our headaches were gone and we both felt great. (Jerry had a brief headache that evening, but concluded it was probably from caffeine withdrawal - he hadn't had coffee for a couple of days.) On that acclimatizing hike we met Yaz, a young Japanese climber and one of the hardy few who eschewed the mules and carried all his gear to base camp himself. Yaz was glad we spoke English -"more easier" he said than Spanish; turns out he was a Cornhusker, having attended college at the University of Nebraska.
The next morning, Feb 7, we broke camp, left a bag for the mule, and at 8:30 headed for Plaza de Mulas. Hedging our bets, however, we decided to carry our sleeping bags and pads, just in case ... That slight worry was unfounded, however, as the mule collected our bag at Confluencia, just as David had promised, and it and the rest of our gear was waiting for us when we got to Plaza de Mulas at 4:30 that afternoon.
The walk from Confluencia was reputed to be a hard day, but we found it not bad at all. The fabled river crossings ("bring sneakers for crossing the river") turned out to be minor - we hardly got the soles of our shoes wet on the half-dozen crossings. Turns out that the Horcones River above Conflencia is nothing like it is below; the bigger half of the confluence is the stream draining the south face, not the namesake of the Horcones Valley that we were traversing. The trail was gentle, with good footing; the surrounding peaks an interesting blend of colors with an emphasis on dark red.
The trail began to steepen at lower Plaza de Mulas, and the footing deteriorated somewhat. Jerry began to tire, but otherwise felt good; Jeff felt good and still pretty fresh. Nevertheless we both were looking forward to being greeted with some hot tea upon our arrival at base camp.
But Matias, the AndeSport base camp honcho, was nowhere to be seen. The Ecuadorian/German team, which had arrived just before us, was also disappointed. We found a tent site reasonably near the AndeSport cooking and dining tents (and latrine), pitched the tent, and settled down to await Matias' appearance. Plaza de Mulas is quite a tent city, including many large outfitters tents (such as those of AndeSport) and even more climbers' tents. A half mile away was the infamous Hotel Refugio, which we had intended to inspect but never did.
Eventually Matias materialized, and then we got our tea; that evening he prepared our first base camp meal, a welcome hot vegetarian rice dish (we had requested vegetarian meals, as Jeff is a strict vegetarian). The Ecuadorian/German team had the same rice but with tuna fish added. One of the German clients does not eat fish, but Jerry does so they traded dishes and all worked out well. The two tables in the dining tent each nicely fit five, so the Germans normally used one table and we shared the other with the Ecuadorian guides.
Matias had a guitar, and apparently this was party night. The AndeSport cook tent was soon filled with party-goers from around base camp; music and song flooded the night until 4am. Fortunately for us the next day was a rest day.
Feb 8 we spent just lounging around base camp, soaking up the sun, and watching climbers come and go above base camp. Jerry had had some Cheyne-Stokes breathing during the night, but we both felt great. Before lunch Patrick, an extremely strong climber, and one of his partners made a quick carry to Nido de Condores (5400m), returning by lunch time. For lunch Matias made a superb sphagetti meal, with vegetarian sauce for us and meat sauce for the Ecuadorian/German team.
Patrick learned that Jerry was carrying only light loads and offered to carry some of Jerry's gear to Nido de Condores; Jerry accepted. The next morning after breakfast, about 10am, we started a carry to Nido de Condores. Jeff was carring about 15-20 kilos and Jerry about 5 kilos. The intent was to move food and fuel needed on the upper mountain to Nido, return to base camp for the night, and the following day move camp to Nido. The Ecuadorian/German team started about a half hour later, with Patrick carrying Jerry's double boots, ice axe, and some high altitude clothing; they passed us about noon.
Nearing Camp Canada (4900m) upwards of an hour later, and making good progress, Jerry slowed a bit on a slightly steeper section. Jeff asked "How are you doing?". Jerry felt fine and tried to answer "Fine". Out came garble. Jeff, thinking the wind was responsible for the garble, repeated the question. Jerry stopped and tried to answer, but couldn't form the word; nor could he utter any other words. He thought "this is crazy - I feel great, but I can't speak". "Repeat after me", Jeff said: "The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog's back." Jerry understood perfectly, but could not utter a sound.
We took off our packs and sat down. Jeff kept trying to get some verbal response from Jerry. Jerry, feeling fine and well aware of what was happening (though not understanding why), kept trying, and failing, to speak. Jeff, scared by now, put his arm around Jerry: "I love you dad; you've been the best father. But I'm not going to let you hurt yourself; we're going down" Jerry put his arm around Jeff and struggled, in vain, to say "I love you too, very much."
It felt almost like an out-of-body experience - Jerry knowing what he wanted to do but not in control of the speech-making part of his body. But everything else worked fine; Jeff checked both of Jerry's legs, arms, and eyes, and Jerry's smile - everything, except the speech, seemed normal.
After about five minutes Jerry began to be able to speak again. At first it was very halting, with the words coming far apart; it was a struggle to produce even a single word. But slowly it got better, and in another five minutes Jerry was speaking almost normally. The incident had passed, with no apparent remaining trace.
Though everything now seemed normal we looked at each other and Jeff said "something significant just happened". Jerry ventured: "I just had a TIA.", scooping the results of the extensive medical investigation to follow. We knew we had to go down and that the climb was over for us.
Jeff cached most of his load behind a nearby rock, stuffed Jerry's pack into his, and an hour later we were in the medical tent at Plaza de Mulas. Pablo was the physician on duty; for the next half hour he tested Jerry for the normal high-altitude problems: AMS, HAPE, and HACE. Everything appeared normal. Jerry's blood saturation was 82, quite normal under the circumstances (Jeff's was also 82). Jerry's blood pressure was a bit high at 175/95, and Pablo gave him 10mg of nifedipin. After about an hour Pablo concluded that Jerry had had an "Accidente Isquemico Transitorio" and provided him with pentoxifylline (a blood thinner).
Pablo insisted that Jerry descend as soon as possible and check into the hospital in Mendoza. He would not permit Jerry to walk out but required that he either ride a mule out or be evacuated by helicopter; Jerry, feeling normal, opted for the mule. By now it was nearing 4pm and too late to get a mule out that day. Matias contacted David by radio and arranged for the necessary mules at 11am the following morning.
Jeff decided to go back up and retrieve the gear he had left by the rock; Jerry decided to avail himself (for $10) of the shave&shower facility offered by one of the entrepreneuers at Plaza de Mulas. By 6pm Jeff had returned, Jerry was shaved (and showered), and all were ready for dinner. At 7:30 Matias served an omelette dinner to Jeff and Jerry and a meat stew for the Ecuador/German team - another meal that really hit the spot.
During dinner a young American who had just summited stuck his head in the AndeSport dinner tent and asked if anyone knew how the superbowl had turned out. Jeff said that Jerry did, and Jerry proceeded to explain how St Louis won after being far ahead, being tied, hitting a long bomb to go ahead again, and then stopping Tennessee on the one-yard line as time ran out. Afterward the St Louis coach, Vermeil, retired, electing to bow out on top. Though everyone knew about Jerry's spell on the mountain, he certainly seemed normal now.
Next morning, Feb 10, we learned that Patrick, knowing we were scheduled to leave at 11am, had decided to get up early and retrieve Jerry's gear that he had taken to Nido the previous day; by breakfast he had returned with the gear and with news that overnight the wind had destroyed one of the tents they had taken to Nido. The least we could do in the face of such valor was to give Patrick our tent, which we didn't need any more and which was extremely wind resistant.
After breakfast we broke camp and were ready to go by 11 am. But there was no sign of either mules or Matias. We woke Matias, the mules showed at about 1pm, and we were on our way shortly after 1:30. Jerry got along fine riding the mule down from base camp and Jeff kept up with the mule train, mostly by walking but jogging when necessary. David met us at the Ranger Station and, on the way to Los Penitentes, picked up our bags at the mule corrall in Puente del Inca. We arrived at Los Penitentes at about 7:30, where David had a van ready to whisk us to Mendoza. Jeff took a quick shower and Monica, hostess par excellance, restoked our furnaces with beer and a cheese omelette, and then we were on our way to Mendoza.
Though getting late, the first order of business in Mendoza was to pick up Jorgelina, then to the hotel to drop our bags, and then on to the hospital specified by Pablo, Hospital Italiano de Mendoza. We hit the emergency room at around 11pm, with Jorgelina taking command; because neither Jeff nor Jerry spoke much Spanish, Jorgelina stayed the course, helping out, for the next two hours.
Jerry had the first of three neuological exams (all normal), an EKG, a chest xray, and blood drawn for blood tests; blood pressure, taken in each arm, was 110/70. He was told that he needed to stay in the hospital overnight because there was no one at that hour to read the EKG. He didn't want to stay, but Jeff convinced him that he should. There were assurances that, unless they found something serious, he would be out by late morning the next day, or in the afternoon at the latest. So Jerry curled up on the hospital bed and Jeff went to the hotel. Jeff and Jorgelina would stop by the LanChile office in the morning, to arrange early flights back to the US, and then come to the hospital around 10am.
Soon after breakfast an attending physician, with a trailing covey of residents, administered Jerry another neurological exam, accompanied by quite a long discourse for the benefit of the residents. Unfortunately there was no translation, then or later, for Jerry - though the attending did give a thumbs up to Jerry's thumbs-up or thumbs-down query.
Then shortly Jeff and Jorgelina appeared, with the depressing news that LanChile was not being helpful and that they required a "release" form to be submitted by the hospital; all transportation arrangements were on hold until that form was processed, and then the soonest they could guarantee flights was five days hence.
A nurse appeared to draw more blood; Jerry balked and required an explanation. The nurse didn't speak English, so a physician who did was summoned. He explained that they suspected a serious condition, which the blood test would confirm or deny. In addition they now wanted to do an echo-cardiogram and an echo-doppler (the latter on the carotid arteries). Moreover because of scheduling problems they could not do the echo-doppler that day, and that therefore Jerry would have to stay in the hospital another night.
All of a sudden it seemed clear that this was a teaching hospital and that Jerry was an "interesting case". At which point Jerry said that he was not staying another night. He would be glad to give blood again, to undergo any tests they wanted, and to cooperate fully; but he was leaving the hospital that afternoon - any tests they wanted to do would have to be done that day.
So blood was drawn again (though with everyone standing about in a somewhat charged atmosphere the nurse missed the vein and struggled to get a little bit of blood), shortly the echo-cardiogram equipment was rolled into the room (results: normal), and shortly after that the echo-doppler equipment, despite the "scheduling problems", appeared (results: normal). Subsequently that critical blood test also turned out to be normal.
Finally the third neurological exam was administered by neurosurgeon Daniel Araujo, who spoke English well and whom we both thought was very good. He said that everything was currently normal and that what had happened was consistent with a very localized TIA, focussed on the speech center. It was his opinion that it was altitude related, and due to either low blood oxygen, thicker than normal blood, or a (presumably temporary) blood vessel constriction, and that Jerry should experience no such problems at lower elevations. He recommended that Jerry not climb any more big mountains (over 5000m) and that he begin a long-term regime of blood-thinning medication, such as Ticlid, to help guard against any platelette clumping tendencies, but otherwise continue life as before.
So it was finally time to leave the hospital. But wait. Not yet. The insurance companies had not yet authorized all the expenditures; Jerry couldn't be released until those were in the bag. And of course it was late on Friday afternoon - chances were that acceptable responses from the insurance companies wouldn't be forthcoming until Monday. So Jerry decided to pay the hospital bill himself, and fight with the insurance companies about it later. With Jorgelina's help in rounding up all the necessary signatures and paperwork, we said goodbye to the hospital in the late afternoon.
In the meantime, Jeff and Jorgelina had taken the required form, duly completed and signed, to the LanChile office. That had to be faxed to Santiago for approval by the LanChile physician; nothing would happen, flight-wise, until that occurred. By closing time that evening, physician approval and not yet been obtained and we were advised to check with them the next morning. So we bid adieu to Jorgelina for the evening, with plans to reconvene at the LanChile office at 9am in the morning. Then off to a nice dinner, complete with our first sampling of the famous Mendoza wine.
We didn't set our alarm, as the sun had seemed adequate. But Feb 12 dawned cloudy and we overslept. Jeff finally awoke a 8:55, five minutes before Jorgelina was to meet us in the lobby for our morning sojourn to LanChile. Jerry quickly dressed and went out to meet Jorgelina (she had already arrived); Jeff took a quick shower, and soon we were on our way. At the LanChile office we were informed, with stony-faced disinterest, that the physician had not yet approved the form and that there would be no prospects for doing so until Monday - the office was open today, Saturday, but the physician doesn't work on the weekend. So we slunk back to the hotel, just in time to catch the tail end of breakfast, to regroup and consider our options.
Jerry shaved and showered, and we determined that the possibilities were two: (1) we bypass LanChile and make the return travel arrangements ourselves and (2) we accept the LanChile Wednesday flight arrangements and in the meantime rent a car and explore the area a bit. Since we both really preferred to return as soon as possible, rather than play tourist, we opted for (1); (2) was always a fallback possibilities if (1) failed. Having come to that conclusion, it was time for lunch.
We found a pleasant cafeteria on the walking mall and had a leisurely lunch. Then it was on to the Cyber Cafe to check the status of our current tickets (they had been purchased through biztravel.com) and the availability of flights for Sunday, Feb 13. At $4 per hour for internet connectivity the Cyber Cafe appeared to be a great deal, even though the connection speed seemed to be more like 56K than T1. We checked biztravel.com, the LanChile website, and the American Airlines website. Our current ticket holdings, according to biztravel, appeared quite "messed up", but there seemed to be seats available on several flights between Santiago and Miami. Armed with that information we headed for a telephone kiosk and biztravel customer service.
Analogous to the Cyber Cafe, which has an array of, say, ten computers already connected to the internet, Mendoza seems to be full of small establishments having a like number of telephones with easy access to the international phone space. At $1 per minute the cost is higher than internet access, but not unreasonable for the convenience offered.
It turned out to be a challenge, and cost us $52 of telephone time, for biztravel to clean up the mess. But they stuck with it, worked hard for us, and finally succeeded in getting us confirmed seats on LanChile flights 931 to Santiago and 5504 to Miami the next day. From the internet sleuthing we had done earlier we were pretty sure that LA5504 and American Airlines flight AA2100 were the same flight, cross-listed by both companies; we assumed that reservations through either company were sufficient to reserve seats on the flight. We called Jorgelina and said we needed to go to the airport in the morning.
Our tickets got us to DFW, but I needed a ticket to get to Tulsa from there. So we returned to the Cyber Cafe for another cyber visit to biztravel. Within ten minutes I had purchased a $67 ticket from DFW to Tulsa. And with that we relaxed and enjoyed a leisurely evening meal on the mall, with plenty of that good Mendoza wine, and packed our bags for travel on the morrow.
Fortunately, the next morning we got to the LanChile counter with over an hour to spare. Turns out a "hold" had been put on our reservation, pending approval of that medical form. After some fancy footwork the attendant was able to get the form faxed from the central office and we were ushered through the gate just as the flight was boarding. Jeff's bags were checked to DFW on flights LA931/LA5504/AA683; Jerry's bags were checked to Tulsa on flights LA931/LA5504/AA683/AA3821.
In Santiago the LanChile attendant in the transit lounge check our tickets and said that 5504 was an American flight and that he therefore needed to take the tickets to the American counter. On a slip of paper he had our names, along with those for several others, as flight 5504 passengers. We didn't want to relinquish our tickets, but he insisted and we couldn't get them back without making a scene; he said that American would page us prior to flight time.
In later inquiries we learned that that procedure is standard practice at the Santiago airport, but that had not been explained to us and we spent some uneasy moments in the meantime. At long last we were paged by American and informed that we did not have reservations on any flight; 5504 was indeed cross-listed on American 2100, but reservations on LA5504 were not sufficient to reserve seats on AA2100. "What about the checked baggage?" we asked; "The baggage is checked through on flight LA5504.". We never received a satisfactory answer to that question, but were assured that we did not have any reservations.
However, unlike the LanChile personnel, the American personnel seemed determined to help us. "We have three flights going out this evening." said the agent; "I'll get you on one of them." And so she did, the very first one, one that departed an hour before LA5504 aka AA2100 left and giving us a more relaxed time to clear customs in Miami. The rest of the trip was uneventful.
Our thanks go to AndeSport, who gave us outstanding support on the mountain and in Mendoza, and to Biztravel and American Airlines, who worked with us to solve our travel problems when LanChile wouldn't.