FIAMBALA, ARGENTINA – You may think that mountain expeditions are all about action, but in fact there’s a lot more time spent sitting around. Plans may be perfect, but obstacles arise. The weather is unexpectedly cold; the ice on the lake is too thick; the snow on the mountain is melting much later in the season than normal.
New plans are scribbled on borrowed scraps of paper and then revised. Logistics get complicated when human factors or the weather intervene.
We drove north to the province of Catamarca and stayed at Las Grutas Refugio, a bunker-like hostel of sorts for mountain people who want to crash on the floor or pitch a tent on the grounds and use the communal kitchen.
The place is lively at night with song and camaraderie but gradually empties out during the day when everyone is out challenging themselves with mountain hikes or climbs to the 6,000-plus-meter summits.
Though armed with equipment and supplies, we could not prepare for unpredictable weather and human factors.
Photo by Diana Yates
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We were in the final stages of our acclimatization, we thought. We had reached 4,000 meters in the mountains around Mendoza and now we were in the land of volcanoes, taking treks to 4,500, 5,000 and, ultimately, 6,000 meters before going to Ojos del Salado, the volcano with the lake near the top.
My husband, Jeff Hoover, had experienced headaches at lower elevations, but headaches are common during acclimatization process. He was pretty sure these were migraines triggered by the ever-changing weather patterns around Mendoza.
Catamarca was much drier, we understood. It almost never rains on Ojos del Salado. Yes, there is snow in winter and hail and outrageously strong winds, but the atmosphere is dry – one of the driest on Earth – better conditions for a migraine sufferer
On Friday, we began a hike up San Francisco, a 6,000-meter volcano not far from the refugio. We had already driven to about 4,500 meters and now it was time to push even higher, to 5,000 meters or higher
Jeff started the day with a mild headache that worsened as we climbed higher and higher. We made it to 5,000 meters, but shortly after that milestone his headache grew too painful for him to continue, and we started back down the mountain. By the time we got back to Las Grutas, he was in a bit of a stupor. His face was very swollen – a first sign of acclimatization trouble, a syndrome called high-altitude sickness.
We quickly threw all our gear in the truck and, after waiting an hour for the border police to process our paperwork, headed down to lower altitudes – the best and quickest medicine for altitude sickness.
As we made our way back to Fiambala, Jeff started to recover. By the next morning, he seemed fully himself.
Now, the entire expedition is in transition. We may have to call it off. We may find a mountaineer to join us and leave Jeff behind in Fiambala to wait for us while we go on to the volcano.
On the Road
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