Trekking the Andes: Of unspoken adventures, charging mules and first snows

In school, we had chapters in geography for each continent and my only memory of South America were the coffee plantations and the mighty Andes. Many a explorers have been sacrificed at the altar of mountaineering trying to scale them, and it has a mythical presence in ancient South American traditions.

Just before I started out for Argentina, I came across Kim MacQuarrie, an award-winning filmmaker, anthropologist, and journalist, who shed the spotlight on enigmatic highlights of South America’s past and present through his book Life and Death in the Andes: On the trail of Bandits, Heroes and Revolutionaries. Mixing history, interviews, and tales from the road, MacQuarrie linked the different stories in each chapter with the presence of the Andes and his own exploration through the famous mountain range. It filled me with what the Swedish describe as Resfeber: the restless race of the traveler's heart before the journey begins, when anxiety and anticipation are tangled together.

While I was not a MacQuarrie, nevertheless we planned to summit Aconcagua — Confluencia — a day trek to the base camp of the highest mountain in the Andes Range.

Tuesday: 27th December 2016: 06:00 hrs: The journey begins
We were on a 4 hour bus ride to Las Cuevas, the last town on the Chilean Argentinian border. It was our starting point to hike to Confluencia — Mount Aconcagua, with our sage like guide Eduardo. It would be my first encounter with the Andes. From textbook to playbook, from imagined heights to actual hikes— and a hope to see the enchanting views of the Argentine plains, the vineyards and the hairpin bends of the Andes. We prayed for the elements to be with us, as we tried to summit these beauties.

We set out around 10:30 hrs with a bright and sunny day forecast for us. Just to ensure that we were prepared, we carried a rain jacket as well as a wind cheater.

Espejo Lagcon, which is a part of the a little wetland formed with underground water coming from thaw and precipitations, which accumulates in the lowest places, and this amount of water depends on the snowfall each season.

The climb began well enough as we eased into a steady pace with most of the terrain being flat for about an hour. There was some cloud cover which only made the trek more pleasant as we were happy to avoid trekking in the blazing sun. But with the clouds went away my hope of seeing the peaks in their full glory.

As we stopped to rest, I felt something fall on my black jacket, only to realize it had begun to snow. My first ever snowfall. It was very light and we were rather thrilled with this unexpected surprise. As the temperatures began to cool, our guide gave his gloves and caps to Manasi as she was feeling really cold. Soon I gave away my rain jacket to Chinmaya to help him get an additional layer of warmth.

By the end of the second hour, the snowing had picked up considerably and we could feel the cold seeping through. Fifteen minutes later, we realized that the snow is here to stay.

Snow picking up pace, with Chinmaya, Manasi and our guide at the far end of the picture

Here I was, 3000 meters above sea level, with temperatures plunging to near zero and snow picking up pace considerably. All I was wearing was what one would have for a summer trek — Hiking shoes with ankle length socks, quick drying track pants, a t shirt and a jacket which was part warm part rain blocking. Nothing to cover my ears, no gloves and the snow had begun to seep through my shoes. There was no question of borrowing any warm clothing — My friends needed it as much as I did, our guide was out of extras and the entire hike had no shops / restaurants to wait out the storm. This was us, being in the wild, with our reliable guide Eduardo, our limited resources and our instincts.

One thing which scientists and mountaineers agree is that we die of dehydration faster than we die of food scarcity. But what might take days to kill us can be done in a few hours by the lack of another vital resource: Heat.

In the final hour of the uphill climb, hypothermia was becoming a real threat. I kept my mind focused on getting to the summit reminding myself — Mind over Matter. But just behind me, Manasi stopped. We had been egging her on for the last hour and she kept going. But the snowfall had developed into a snowstorm, and we were caught unawares. She gave up as she was physically and mentally exhausted. The cold got to her eventually.

And just 10 minutes away from the summit, we had to turn back. The snowing was getting out of hand and the guide suggested that we could go on but we would need to trek back in a fair bit of snow. My friends suggested that I go ahead with the guide but he replied — ‘I cannot leave either of you in this state’. I had the option of doing the last 10 minutes myself, but that would mean adding 20 mins to an already worsening situation. My body had surprisingly been ok till then, but I could see my companions were in serious trouble. We were at least 2 hours away from safety, and we needed to move quickly.

We doubled our pace, and despite dwindling energy levels we were making steady ground. Eduardo wanted us to stop for a quick bite and some water to recharge our energies. We stopped for a little under ten mins and that’s when the combination of the weather and the physical stress hit Chinmaya. He started feeling a little sick but managed to get back on his feet.

As we quickly made our way down, the snow was now lashing my face relentlessly, going into my mouth, nose and ears. As we marshalled on, we suddenly heard Eduardo scream “Jump up guys and start climbing”. In that split second, we saw a bunch of mules charging towards us, wanting to get away from the snow. Manasi and I managed to save ourselves, but Chinmaya could not move in time as he was slow to react owing to the sickness. The mules were headed straight for him.

Neurosciences has come to understand how the body reacts faster than the brain. This is counter intuitive, as we have always believed that our brain controls our body. However, numerous examples from the sports world show us otherwise: a penalty kick in soccer, a baseball pitch, a tennis serve, or the jab of a professional boxer. All of these things take less than a half a second. Our conscious minds don’t even have time to register it and yet the bodies of trained athletes react without conscious awareness. Muhammad Ali’s jab, for example, is clocked at about 40 milliseconds. It takes 100 milliseconds for an image on the retina to register in the brain.

A classic example from the military from All Quiet on the Western Front:

A man is walking along without thought or heed;–suddenly he throws himself down on the ground and a storm of fragments flies harmlessly over him;–yet he cannot remember either to have heard the shell coming or to have thought of flinging himself down.
Sometimes, the body knows first.

Even before we could register what happened, Eduardo came in the way, frantically waving his arms and managed to make the mules change track last moment, else both him and Chinmaya would have made a trip to the hospital. And finally two hours after we began our descent, we reached safe ground.

The final steps of the descent. The snow was much lesser here making it easier to walk.

As I walked the last steps of the descent, I realized that travel may not always give us what we want in the moment but it always gives us what we have been needing and wanting for a while. I have been wanting to see snow for the longest time, and the elements whose blessing I sought this very morning, conspired to provide me with an exhilarating and unforgettable experience.

But it also reminded me that countries are so much about the people we don’t speak to or hear of.

In 1816, exactly 200 years ago, Jose de San Martin, running a fever, led his troops to Chile through these challenging mountains with absolutely little to no resources — there were no reliable maps, no roads and no ways to understand the weather. He liberated the South Americas from the colonialists and is today justly celebrated as an Argentine hero. Maybe this experience was a reminder of the sacrifices they made for the freedoms we take for granted. The lands that I roamed so freely — for which I owe a debt of gratitude to San Martin, and to his countryman — our guide Edurado — a man with the body of a 20 year old and the wisdom of a 60 Year old. So two hundred years apart, I hold in the highest regard two Argentines — who saved the day.

As I was back on the bus to Mendoza, my feet were killing me, my head was hurting, my muscles were screaming murder in a few hours and my hands were swollen. As I felt the cold seep right down to my bone, from the deepest recesses of my heart emanated a warmth appreciating the beauty of nature, the pleasures of companionship and an unrelenting belief in the goodness of humanity. And all this channeled into the goofy smile you see in the picture.

And as I would say a million times, this is why we travel.