||...continued from Part 4...
The morning of the 27th was just as clear as our summit day the day before, with even less wind. We enjoyed a lazy breakfast and took our time breaking down our high camp. The objective for this day was to descend down the opposite side of the mountain we climbed, to Plaza de Mulas, the basecamp on the west side of the mountain. Our descent route would follow the "standard" ascent route, so we'd get to experience that, just in reverse.
The ~4 hour descent from high camp to Mulas went by quickly, as we passed a number of established camps on the west side of the mountain (Camp Canada, Camp Cholera (you can guess why they call it that...really, go ahead and guess!), and others). The first half of the day was a steep descent down a number of icy gullies and traverses. About at the midpoint of the day, near the camp called Berlin, the snow gave way to scree. So it was off with the crampons, and then a couple hours of annoying scree-surfing on unstable and steep terrain. Mulas was always visible below us, resolving from a scattering of colored dots to arrays of tents. We passed probably a couple dozen teams of people heading up the mountain, and they all frankly looked like they were having a miserable time with the scree.
It was early afternoon when we hiked/slid into Mulas. The 14,000' altitude felt like sea level after a couple days at 20,000 and above. But just as welcome was the sit-down dining tent waiting for us, with pizza, cokes and beer. After a week or so of nothing but ramen, soup and rice, the Argentinian attempt at pizza was unaninously agreed to be the best pizza EVER. The rest of the day was mostly just hanging around Mulas and relaxing. Like Plaza Argentina, Plaza de Mulas had all the creature comforts, and most folks were more than happy to throw down $20 for a shower. Knowing we had a long, long hike-out day tomorrow I figured I'd hold off until civilization. An exploration of camp revealed several shower facilites, along with internet, copying and printing services (in case you needed those digital pics printed out NOW), and even a tent to by art in (sorry, didn't make it up to that one).
My tentmate Robert spent the early afternoon in heavy negotiation with the camp managers to attempt to get a helicopter flight out from Mulas. He wasn't sick or anything...he just wanted to try to get back home as early as possible, and for him, the going rate of $700 in CASH up front was worth it. After some haggling, they finally came to an agreement, and Robert was told that he'd be able to chopper out 1st thing in the morning.
And speaking of haggling, the other interesting event of the afternoon was what we came to call Tony's Yard Sale. One of our group, Tony (our non-summiter) had promised his wife, Liz, that this was going to be his last great climbing adventure. And he still felt that way at the end of the climb. So he struck up a conversation with one of the local porters about maybe selling off some of his gear...and before you knew it, it looks like a small auction out there. The local porters on the mountain are always in need of gear, and it's not uncommon for folks to sell or trade one or two things for beers or showers. But Tony was getting rid of EVERYthing...his mountaineering boots, jackets, shell pants, on and on. We had to remind him not to sell of his sleeping bag since we had one more night out here! At the end of the day he came away will the merest fraction of what his gear was really worth, but that wasn't really the point.
And finally it was the 28th...the last day of this adventure, and the day that would turn out to be the longest, and to me probably the hardest...even harder than summit day, from a pure exertion standpoint. From Mulas, our day was a 19+ mile power-hike out to the trailhead at Horncones, then a quick shuttle ride to Penitentes to gather gear and shower, and finally back to Mendoza and the luxury of the Hyatt. Luckily, we had our mules back with us from Mulas, so we were only carrying the bare minimum on our backs...summit packs, Camelbaks, etc. The hike down from Mulas was...long. Tedious. Arduous. The bleak and barren landscape was free of any vegetation, and the washed-out, rocky valley we were descending was stark and unforviging. You remember the original "Planet of the Apes", when Charleton Heston and crew had crash-landed and were exploring the desert-like terrain? And there was all that abrupt and screetchy music? It was like that.
The only break in the day came near the 10-mile mark, as we trudged into Confluencia (a midpoint camp) for a welcome rest and lunch). From there is was onwards and downward, as the landscape went from gray to brown to brownish green and finally greenish brown, as plantlife finally started to assert itself.
Near the end of the hike out was a large wooden-and-cable suspension bridge, which turned out to have been built as part of the move "Seven Years in Tibet", which helped explain the vague deja-vu I was feeling. After crossing, it very soon became apparent that we were nearing the end of the hike, as we began to encounter folks who were day-hiking from the entrance of the park. When you see guys in flip-flops and girls wearing heels, you know that civilization can't be too far off! And sure enough, the trailhead popped into sight a few minute afterwards, and that was that. 6 hours, 19 miles and a drop of 7,000 in elevation. We were all pretty damned tired, and the shuttle ride back to Penitentes was accompanied by more than one source of snoring!
In Penitentes we had a few hours to cool our heels while we waited for our mules to catch up and our gear to get sorted. So a shower and snacks were in order, along with some catnapping in the hotel restaurant. It was close to 7pm when we finally pulled out for Penitentes with all our gear, for the ~3.5 hours drive to Mendoza. After a few minutes the same chorus of snores could be heard drifting through the shuttle, and I napped most of the way back as well.
Finally arriving in Mendoza, everyone got checked in and cleaned up. Since several people (including me) were rearranging their travel plans to leave the next day, we got together in the late, late night for a final celebration/farewell dinner in the hotel restaurant, and finally stumbling into bed around 2am, making for a 20-hour day, all together.
Next day there was time for a little tourist shopping...maps and t-shirts and gifts for people back home. The Mendoza-Santaigo flight left in the early evening, and several of us made our way to the tiny Mendoza airport to around 5pm to wait for our flight. From there it was a few hours of waiting in Santiago, the marathon flight to LA, maneuvering the insane and annoying LAX, and finally home to Denver and back to familiar environs!
From the hike out, I can see why a lot of people thing of Aconcagua as an ugly and unappealing mountain to climb. I'd hate to climb it from that direction too. But the route from the Vacas Valley was a much more aesthetic approach and climb. So if you're mulling Aconcagua over...think about climbing it from Vacas!