As my brother James frequently tells me, I misuse the word troglodyte, using it to describe anyone not up to date with the world. This time though, I’m using it correctly…
We wanted to climb Mesa. It’s a really long climb, and takes many days. We hired mules to carry our things as far as possible up the network of valleys, before we would have to take over and carry everything higher up the mountain. The forecast was not good; we had just had extremely high winds, and 50 cm of snow was forecast for the next couple of days higher up, falling as rain in the valleys.
We unexpectedly encountered a gendarmerie on the drive to the approach, but managed to get past them with the usual delay. We met our mule drivers, and told them that we’d drive to the end of the road and leave our bags with the car for them to pick up. We picked up their belongings and took them in the car too, to save the animals a bit of unnecessary work. At the end of the road we dropped our things outside the car, and headed off up the valley on foot. It was raining torrentially, and Max and I didn’t have waterproof trousers, so rapidly we were soaked to the skin. We walked into the afternoon, and at 4:45 we spied a huge rock and sheltered underneath it, worried that the mules hadn’t overtaken us yet. We expected them any minute, so we sat there for a while, and by this time were shivering and shaking with cold because we were so wet. We ate our sandwiches, and eventually found some dry wood and lit a fire to try to dry off. Three hours later, no mules, and we were beginning to wonder…
At this point, we decided they weren’t coming; it was beginning to get dark, and we couldn’t think what had happened to them! They were supposed to just follow the trail; there was nowhere we could think that they could have gone wrong. We collected a huge amount of soaking wet wood and found a sort of cave to shelter in. When I say cave; it had a roof and two opposite walls.
We filled in the other walls using our walking poles as a frame, and any branches and rocks we could find to stop the wind and keep the heat in.
We dug out the cave to make as much flat space as possible, but fitting five in there was a squeeze! Our only food was one remaining sandwich between us, and half a melon that Max had carried (not sure why!) and I had a knife, so we shared that, and huddled around the fire.
The good news was that we managed to dry ourselves completely, but there were some sacrifices: my socks melted, a huge chunk of burning coal spat out of the fire and landed on my waterproof jacket, my gloves melted (not sure how that happened) and my trainer was knocked into the fire and the toe melted. The others suffered similar damage in our enthusiasm to get dry.
We only had our day-clothes with us; no sleeping bags, tents, warm clothing (suitable for a night spent outside). The fire was warm, but the smoke was choking and we couldn’t all sleep close enough to benefit from the heat. The rain continued, and we realised that the roof of our cave leaked…
We got INTO our rucksacks, covering us (in my case) up to mid-thigh, and of course were wearing all of our clothes. We had sleeping mats thankfully, and we huddled together. Only having eaten two sandwiches and a slice of melon all day wasn’t helping us to stay warm. There are four people in the photo below – you can see with me too it was a squeeze!
We were in good spirits, but we had a seriously cold night, despite keeping the fire going. We awoke the following morning to snow falling.
The question now was: where were the mules? Had they somehow overtaken us? Had they not made it to where we were? How could we know? Max went onward to the next camp to see whether they had overtaken us. I climbed up a valley and saw tracks in the snow and wondered whether they had overtaken us in the night, and Max would find them further up the valley. It was still raining/snowing, and I climbed up to a place where I could see up the valley, but I saw no sign of them. The others saw a condor nesting in the rocks and took some amazing video of it taking off. I went to the nearest river, hoping there might be something I could catch that we could eat, but it was melt-water from the mountains, muddy, and flowing really fast, so those hopes were dashed.
Max reported no sign of the mules. We had to return to the car, or spend another night in our cave (still with no food) and hope the mules turned up. We walked back again, and it finally stopped raining/snowing! A victim of the fire, I had only half of one sock, and no toe to one shoe, and the snow was ankle deep even at our relatively low altitude, so it was a chilly walk.
(Zoe and Michelle, that last photo is for you – my beloved green Salomon trainers melted and ankle deep in snow. They may have seen their last mountain marathon!)
When we got to the car we found all of our belongings sitting where we had left them, but the boxes belonging to the mule drivers were gone. We ate the best-tasting sandwiches of our lives (having not eaten for 30 hours and walked tens of km in the mountains) and drove back down the mountain.
The mule drivers had made it to the car on horseback, decided it was raining too hard, taken their things, and returned home, leaving us to freeze in the mountains without equipment. If we hadn’t happened upon some shelter, had the ability to light a fire, and been in a valley that happened to have shrubs growing, then I am sure that given that we were soaking wet, we would have suffered exposure given the freezing temperatures.
(here’s a gratuitous photo of me and Jovani on the way back to the car!)
What lessons can we learn from this? Well, perhaps we should have carried more survival equipment. I had four ‘top layers’ and two leg layers – I’m unlikely to willingly carry more than that, and pay a mule driver to carry my things also. An emergency blanket or something would have been useful to stay warm – we only had one between us in case someone was injured. The lesson I take from this though, is that we should have put a SPOT locator device in one of the bags. We could have used some code I wrote for the satellite phone to have tracked the latitude and longitude of the bags and we would have known they never left the cars. Lesson learned!
The amount of snow that fell in the storm will take days to clear, the rivers will be so high we will be unable to cross them for a week or two, and we won’t have time to return to Mesa sadly. We do have permission to enter the gold mine though, so we’re heading there now, hoping to climb Toro. It’s always an adventure with us….