Simon Calder: 48 Hours in Base Camp

The man who pays his way

The conceit of our "48 Hours" city-break series, which celebrates its quarter-century this year, is to prescribe a sequence of activities for a happy weekend away. The template is designed for cities with a wealth of cultural and culinary attractions, such as York. But how low can you go; what is the smallest community for which the format still works? At Base Camp for Aconcagua – the Americas' highest mountain – I had plenty of time to find out. Over New Year, I spent five days in Argentina living amid squalor at 14,000ft as I sought to acclimatise in a wintry, overcrowded no-man's land.

Why go now?: To appreciate the place you have left behind. Every serious mountain needs a base camp, where climbers adjust to a higher altitude and prepare for the journey ahead. But the only thing that unites the several hundred people who are at Aconcagua Base Camp at any one time is a desire to be somewhere else: either climbing to the summit, or descending to the prevailing high summer at lower altitudes.

Touch down: A simple choice – walk 16 miles from the highway (possibly with a night's camping); pay US$300 for a ride on an ill-tempered mule; or $1,700 for a helicopter transfer.

Get your bearings: The heliport marks the southern boundary of Base Camp, which straggles north across a barren hillside. Each adventure company has its own slice of the action: Inka is downtown, Aymara mid-town, Fernando Grajales uptown. Around their larger marquees spread suburbs of tents, with independent trekkers and climbers on the outskirts.

Check in: Stony ground; the highest hotel in the world stands across the valley, but has been boarded up for years. So settle for canvas. The basic price for a night in a tent, $30, buys a thin mattress. You could instead pitch a tent free of charge, or ask porters to erect it for $40.

Climbing Aconcagua: A long walk to the roof of the Western world

Take a hike: Any stroll around town takes you into close proximity to the sanitary arrangements. Solar-powered showers comprise the highlights; long-drop latrines destroyed in the previous night's storm are the lowlights.

Take a view: That's the general idea here. The climb to Camp Canada takes about three hours, hoists you 2,000ft nearer the peak, and gives an excellent panorama of Base Camp and beyond.

Lunch on the run: All supplies for Base Camp are brought in by mule; garbage is carried out that way, too. Nothing is wasted, so expect yesterday's dinner re-versioned. And all in a country with some of the world's finest produce.

Cultural afternoon: Artist Miguel Doura, from Buenos Aires, has established the world's highest art gallery in his marquee. Admission is free, the art is not: a bright, brash canvas of Aconcagua is yours for a couple of hundred dollars.

An aperitif: Next door, a full-scale bar-restaurant has prices to rival the chintziest venues in the capital. A beer and a pizza? Reckon on £20.

Dining with the locals: The adventure companies provide meals for $39 per person per day: with soup, meat and veg, and some sweet, sticky substance constituting dessert.

Day two

Sunday morning, go to the doctor: The mountain gods have their own ideas about whether you'll make the summit, but even they can be overruled by the mandatory health check on all would-be climbers. The doctor will take your blood pressure, measure the saturation of oxygen in your blood and demand intimate details of the workings of your gastric system before signing to permits that allows you to ascend.

A walk in the park: The nearest park of note is back down on the highway: the sombre Cemetery of the Andinistas, populated by many who lost their lives on Aconcagua. Closer to Base Camp, you are unlikely to see wildlife, but you may see wild-dead in the contorted shape of a guanaco skeleton, picked clean by condors.

Out to brunch: See lunch and dinner, repeat ad nauseum. Note the weather forecast, pinned to the kitchen tent wall; this holds the key to your mission. You need low wind speeds on the summit day, no faster than 30mph.

Icing on the cake: While the rest of the world awaits your return, you can communicate with it either by satellite phone ($3 a minute), or the slowest internet connection on the planet ($1 a minute). But in the Andes, as elsewhere, no news is normally good news.

Travel essentials

Usually when packing for a trip the mantra "half the clothes, twice the money" works well; but for a reasonably extreme mountain such as Aconcagua, it becomes "twice the clothes, twice the money". This is not a budget holiday. The peak-season ticket on BA's longest non-stop flight from Heathrow (outbound to Buenos Aires) and Iberia's longest non-stop flight (from Santiago back to Madrid) was just the thin end of a very expensive wedge.

A good way to vary the Base Camp diet is to take a picnic – and, in the course of organising it, you meet some of the fascinating characters inhabiting Planet High-Altitude. Chris Frizelle, owner of Outdoor Grub, personally tastes each variety of dehydrated meal before selling it from his warehouse in South-east London, for a fiver each. We needed 39 – there goes another £200.

High-altitude insurance from the British Mountaineering Council costs £7 a day. Mind you, I was lucky to be sold a policy at all, given my flaky answers to the pre-departure questionnaire: "Please summarise your knowledge of the area you intend to visit." Er, none. "Summarise your experience relevant to your mountaineering objective." Ditto. At least I could answer "no" to: "Have you had any previous Search and Rescue, Medical Emergency or Repatriation incidents?" You tend not to need them in York.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    SFL Group: Video Project Manager

    £24,000 pa, plus benefits: SFL Group: Looking for a hard-working and self-moti...

    Recruitment Genius: Hotel Reservations Assistant - French Speaking

    £16000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This rapidly expanding travel c...

    Recruitment Genius: Duty Manager - World-Famous London Museum

    £24000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Do you have a strong record of ...

    Recruitment Genius: Personal Assistant

    £24000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will have demonstrable unde...

    Day In a Page

    The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

    The saffron censorship that governs India

    Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
    Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

    How did fandom get so dark?

    Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
    The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
    The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

    Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

    Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
    Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

    Disney's mega money-making formula

    'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
    Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

    Lobster has gone mainstream

    Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
    Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

    14 best Easter decorations

    Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
    Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

    Paul Scholes column

    Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
    Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss