Aconcagua Climb - Day 7-21

Trip Start Jan 31, 2008
Trip End Ongoing

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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Day 7 - 13/01/09

Day 1
- Puente De Inca to Confluencia

We were driven the short distance this morning from Puente De Inca to the Aconcagua national park gate. I'm really happy to be finally hitting the trail after nearly a year of waiting to climb the western hemisphere's biggest peak. I'd booked the expedition back in January of last year and I've waiting in trepidation for this day and it's finally arrived.

First on the agenda this morning was to check-in at the rangers office to make sure all our papers are in order for the climb. The rangers are anally strict about this and fines are issued if anything is slightly out of place. We got the all clear and we hit the trail.

The weather conditions today are absolutely perfect, crystal clear blue skies with very little wind. The walk to Confluencia where were camping tonight was very scenic. We hiked up a glacial valley surrounded by barren peaks with the snow capped Aconcagua straight ahead of us like a carrot being dangled in front of us. Aconcagua is an extremely beautiful peak covered in snow and ice all year round, a 300 metre high serac clings to one of the faces like icing on a cake. The serac looks tiny from our vantage point but over the next week or so as we get closer to the peak it's grandeur will no doubt become apparent.

The hike today was a nice and gentle 3 hour, 8km stroll with only 500 metres of ascent. We reached camp just after 1pm and I was really surprised to find a little village of tents and amenities. We even have a flushing toilet, a first for me on a mountain. The rest of the day and evening was spent just hanging around camp and acclimatising, tomorrow we move up to base camp at 4400 metres which is a large altitude gain in a couple of days from 2740 metres. Feeling really good today though and hopefully I'll feel equally as good tomorrow.

Day 8 - 14/01/09

Day 2
- Confluencia to Plaza De Mulas (Base Camp)

Today was one hell of day in the mountains, a 24km walk with nearly 1000 metres of ascent. A pretty tiring second day on Aconcagua especially with the scorching sun and a 20mph head wind which blasted us for most of the day. Can't complain though, another beautifully sunny day in the high Andes with some spectacular scenery.

After leaving the camp at Confluencia, we headed up a couple of barren valley's with pockets of alpine-type scrubs. The rocky and dusty path gradually climbs up the valleys beside a dark brown muddy river and a series of small tributaries, no doubt the muddy water is a consequence of melting ice washing slit into the valley's below. The last two hours of the day were quite steep and taxing but I felt really strong until around a kilometre from basecamp where I hit a bit of a brick wall. A psychological battle insued between my head and my legs. We finally reached the ranger outpost at the bottom end of basecamp, we showed our climbing permits and headed to the top end of camp where our bags and food were waiting after being carried up from Puente De Inca by a pair of mules.

Basecamp is like a little town with dozens of tents offering facilities such as satellite internet & phone, beer, food and a free doctor's service where you can get check-up's to see how you're adjusting to the altitude. It was a real surprise to see all this infrastructure at 4.5km above sea level.

Basecamp is barren and completely devoid of life, apart from the humans in brightly coloured tents of course. No greenery at all, no animal life. The only natural colours being, blue sky and the grey's and brown's of the surrounding peaks. Strange to be in a place so lifeless, feels like an alien landscape where humans shouldn't really roam.

Around basecamp sit pinnacles of snow and ice called Penitentes. These formations are created mainly by the wind and are very elegant standing in the dusty and rocky soil of basecamp. Some are over eight feet high and are true wonders of the elements and natures powerful forces. They stand uniform in the direction of the prevailing wind like soldiers standing to attention.

We collected our shit bags today from the ranger. We need to shit in these bags when we climb higher than basecamp and carry our shit off the mountain, an attractive prospect I'm sure you will agree, not! We can't really cheat the system either because the shit bags need to be handed over to the ranger after the climb and the ranger knows how much shit the average person shits. Anyway enough of that shit!

Going be a cold night, probably minus eighteen or colder I suspect. I think I'm fully prepared for these chilly temperatures so it shouldn't be too much of a problem. We witnessed another amazing Andean sunset t is evening, the skies were crimson pink with the high barren Andes silhouetted in the foreground, it was a beautiful sight.

Feeling pretty knackered this evening, hardest day in the mountains for a couple of months. Tomorrow is a rest day to allow our bodies to acclimatise to the lack of oxygen up here. Basecamp sits at 4400 metres so we're relatively high, higher than most European peaks and with the quick ascent our bodies will take some time to adjust to this difficult environment.

Day 9 - 15/01/09

Day 3
- Plaza De Mulas (Base Camp)

Had a restless sleep last night, no doubt due to the rapid ascent to basecamp over the last couple of days. Felt pretty rough and lethargic all morning. Went down to the lower end of basecamp after breakfast. Wanted to see the doctor to get my oxygen saturation and blood pressure levels checked to see how my body is acclimatising to the altitude. My blood pressure was a little high, which is to be expected and my oxygen saturation was 80%. At sea level, oxygen saturation is 100% but when you climb high it reduces as the air gets thinner. Normally at this altitude my oxygen saturation is around 90%, so 80% is a little disappointing. Hopefully over the next couple of days this will improve as my body acclimatises to the lack of oxygen in the air. Two doctors from an American university are doing a study into the effects of altitude on the human body and they asked whether I'd take part in their experiment. It was really interesting to participate, a variety of tests were conducted to assess how the human body adapts to this harsh environment. After the tests I returned to my tent for a nap, still feel a little rough. By mid afternoon I started to feel a lot better which is a big relief, so I put my mountain boots and crampons on, picked up my ice axe and went to a nearby glacier for a practice on the ice with the expedition lead and few of the guys from the team. It was really good fun to have a play around on the white stuff for an hour or so.

After today's rest, tomorrow is a carry day where we take food and gas to the next camp called "Canada". Tomorrow's climb has two purposes. Number one is to assist with acclimatisation, secondly we need to carry food and equipment to the higher camps for when we make an attempt on the summit. Should only take 3 hours to reach camp Canada and then we'll return to basecamp to sleep. Climb high, sleep low is the golden rule of high altitude mountaineering.

Day 10 - 16/01/09

Day 4
- Plaza De Mulas (Base Camp) and Camp Canada

Today we carried food and gear to a rocky outcrop near camp Canada at around 4900 metres. It was a steep and dusty climb from basecamp but thankfully I'm feeling really strong and I'm acclimatising well. We stashed our gear behind a big rock and relaxed for half an hour or so before traversing to camp Canada for lunch. It was another gorgeous day, and the views of the surrounding peaks and glaciers were once again majestic. The tents at base camp looked like multicoloured dots from our high vantage point. We then descended back to basecamp down the steep zigzag path covered in glacial scree. We reached basecamp in the early afternoon and pottered around camp for the reminder of the day. Climbing Aconcagua requires a lot of waiting around and doing nothing, can be quite boring at times but this essential for allowing the body to acclimatise to the lack of oxygen. We'll be living at over 4400 metres for nearly 2 weeks with many days spent much higher. Understanding how your body reacts to these altitudes is essential. We have to drink at least 4-5 litres of fluids a day to keep hydrated due to the dry air, eating well to build-up strength is also a must.

Tomorrow we take the same route as we did today but we climb higher to 5550 metres to a camp called Nido de Condores. We'll carry more gear and food tomorrow before returning to basecamp once again to sleep. It's going to be a really tough day with over 1000 metres of ascent and decent.

Day 11 - 17/01/09

Day 5
- Plaza De Mulas (Base Camp) and Nido de Condores

As expected, today's climb to Nido de Condores camp at 5550 metres was really tough. The glorious weather we've been experiencing since the start of the climb turned for the worse today, high winds and snow made this already difficult climb even tougher. The purpose of today's climb was to carry gear to the higher camp in preparation for our summit attempt in a week or so. We carried food, crampons, ice axes the usual stuff. We stashed some gear yesterday near camp Canada which we picked up today and carried on to Nido de Condores.

Today's climb was not technical in the slightest, just a hard slog up a steep scree slope. It took little over 5 hours to reach the camp where we emptied the contents of our rucksacks into dry bags and then hide the bags behind a big rock at the camp. We then quickly descended back to basecamp due to the worsening weather conditions, this took two an half hours. I made a bit of school-boy error today. I didn't take enough warm clothing with me, my hands were frozen, so getting back to basecamp as quickly as possible was essential. I've learnt my lesson, and the next time we go up to the Nido camp, a down jacket and warm pair of gloves will definitely be in my rucksack.

After reaching the sanctuary of basecamp the snow started to fall heavily and the winds intensified. As we were sat in the mess tent enjoying a cup of tea we saw someone's tent fly 20 metres into the air so we all rushed outside to make sure it wasn't one of ours, which luckily it wasn't.

A couple of Canadian guys shared our mess tent tonight. They'd summited yesterday and returned to basecamp today before heading back to civilisation tomorrow. They told us that someone died on the mountain yesterday from a falling rock, another sad story from Aconcagua. That's 5 deaths on the mountain in the last week!

Tomorrow is a rest day, so I'll be doing nothing around camp, nice. I'll just laze around reading, writing and recovering from today's hard slog. I'll definitely sleep well tonight!

Day 12 - 18/01/09

Day 6
- Plaza De Mulas (Base Camp)

Over the last couple of days I've been having some problems with my throat. It's been very sore when I swallow and this morning my neck is very tender to touch. I decided to visit the doctor at basecamp to get it checked out. Unfortunately I've contracted a severe throat infection and I've been prescribed antibiotics for 3 days. We were suppose to return back to the Nido de Condores camp tomorrow but due to my illness the expedition lead has changed the plans for the climb. We do have contingency days in place but I still feel bad that my illness has caused a day to slip. Just hope the antibiotics work over the next 48 hours and I can continue up the mountain. If the medication doesn't work, my expedition is over. As you can imagine I'm extremely pissed off, I'm having a bad day.

Today is a rest day, nothing else to do at 4.5km above sea level apart from eat and sleep and that's exactly what I did. After beautiful crystal blue skies this morning the cloud and snow set in again in the afternoon, another sprinkling of snow at basecamp and without the strong south American sun warming my bones, it was a rather chilly day.

While at basecamp we're being supported by a company which cooks all our food. We've been eating big steaks, pizza and home-made cakes, unbelievable really when you think where we are!

Day 13 - 19/01/09

Day 7
- Plaza De Mulas (Base Camp)

Woke up this morning feeling slightly better than I did yesterday. The antibiotics seemed to have kicked in and hopefully I'm on the mend. Another lazy day around basecamp before heading higher tomorrow. Our plans have changed slightly, rather than climbing to camp Nido tomorrow we've decided to stay at camp Canada which is 500 metres lower at a little over 5000 metres. This decision was made to allow my infection a little more time to clear and also aid with acclimation before we sleep at higher camps further up the mountain.

After breakfast I started to get all my gear together to start the 6 day summit cycle which will hopefully result in me standing on the roof of the Americas. I'll probably be carrying around 17 kilograms in my rucksack to the various camps on the way to the summit which compared to the loads I carried in New Zealand at the end of last year is more than tolerable.

I treated myself to a shower today at basecamp. Cost me a whooping 7 quid, but I thought it would be nice to be fresh and clean before starting our summit cycle tomorrow. The last time I had a shower was over a week ago and it's a glorious feeling to be clean and put on s fresh set of clothes.

Today we cooked our own food using supplies the mules carried to basecamp for us a week ago. We thought it would be sensible for the team to get use to the stoves and cooking generally up high. Also, we only have 6 breakfasts, lunches and dinners with our support company and we've devoured 5 of our dinners already. We thought it would be nice to save one hearty meal for when we return from the summit.

I met an Argentinean guide a number of days ago at another camp, he's an avid Manchester United fan due to Carlos Tevez connection. When I told him I live near Manchester and also support the mighty reds he asked me to wear his united shirt on the summit and to take some photos. He gave me his shirt this evening, just hope I stand on the summit and make him and United proud.

Went to see the doctor again this afternoon and he said my throat appears to be on the mend, only a little bit of redness now. My blood oxygen is also improving and now stands at 88% which is above average for this altitude, my heart rate was low too, only 68 beats per minute. Looks like my body is adapting well to this harsh environment. After finding out about my physical improvement I'm starting to get quite excited about the prospect of beginning the push to the summit of Aconcagua. If all goes well and we have a lucky weather window, we'll be standing on the summit in 5 days time.

Day 14 - 20/01/09

Day 8
- Plaza De Mulas (Base Camp) to Camp Canada

Left the comforts of basecamp this morning for an assault of the summit of Aconcagua, let the summit cycle commence! We are hoping to stand on the roof of the Americas in the next 4 or 5 days, weather permitting of course. After packing our tents we ascended steeply over 600 metres to Camp Canada which sits at 5050 metres. Took us around 3 hours to reach camp, a relativity easy day on Aconcagua. We arrived by mid-afternoon, set up camp and began to collect snow and ice from a near-by glacier to melt for dinner. Camp Canada is perched on steep scree slope with a handful of flat patches of ground to pitch tents. Behind the camp sits the majestic summit of our end goal and at the front the jagged peaks of the Andes, it's certainly a special spot.

Just as we finished our dinner, dark and ominous storm clouds rolled in. A few claps of thunder could be heard in the distance. Then the inevitable snow started to fall and the wind began to blow the light snow horizontally across the mountain. Nothing else to do but batten down the hatches and retire to the tent.

After a few hours lying in the tent, I decided to venture outside and was presented with an awesome view. It was snowing, the skies angry and moody as the sun was setting across the valley where basecamp is nestled. Two vertical rainbows appeared either side of the orange setting sun with the mountains of the Andes silhouetted in the foreground, all I can say is WOW! This is exactly the reason why I climb mountains, to see amazing spectacles such as this. Haven't seen such an awe inspiring landscape like this for several months.

Day 15 - 21/01/09

Day 9
- Camp Canada to Nido de Condores

From a physical perspective I found the climb today pretty straightforward, a 3 hour, 500 metre altitude gain to 5550 metres. The camp we're staying at tonight is called Nido de Condores and we've visited here before a number of days ago to drop off food and climbing equipment. When we reached camp, the usual tasks needed to be fulfilled, pitch the tents, sort out bags, etc. Just as the tents were fully pitched a series of massive grey storm clouds approached camp once again. We still had to melt snow for drinks when the storm hit with heavy snow and loud claps of thunder.

We starting to get seriously high now, only 1400 metres to the summit. Tonight will be the highest I've ever slept, feeling good though. No signs of acute mountain sickness, a little dehydrated and hungry but that's to be expected up here. Still smoking so I must be feeling good! Starting to look like a real man of the mountain, I have a wispy beard, my face is sun and wind burnt, my nose looks like it's about to drop off and I look at least a decade older than when I stared the climb. Good job there's no one to impress up here.

The plan for tomorrow is to have a rest day due to the bad weather which is expected to continue into tomorrow. Then the next day, cart all our gear to camp Berlin at 6000 metres. This is the camp where we'll hopefully make our summit bid from. Really hope the weather improves over the coming days.

I mentioned early, that today wasn't physically challenging but due to the heavy snow and freezing temperatures, it takes it out of you from a psychological perspective. Doing things like cooking or melting ice and snow turn into massive challenges especially when it feels like your toes and fingers are about to drop off.

Day 16 - 22/01/09

Day 10
- Nido de Condores

It was an extremely cold night in the tent, it even snowed, may sound strange but the condensation freezes on the roof of the tent, then falls as snow. I was awoken a few times by snow flakes falling on my face. My thermometer recorded minus seven in the tent, I reckon outside it was probably closer to minus twenty, but surprisingly I was snug and warm in my sleeping bag.

Today is a rest day and on rest days all we do is melt snow and ice to get re-hydrated. This so important at these altitudes where the air is nearly completely devoid of any moisture, lots of tea and water was the agenda today. It was my turn to cook dinner today, so me and my tent buddy cooked a Michelin star meal of mash potato, tuna, cheese and a variety of herbs and spices. Think it went down pretty well.

The weather was very odd today. We had the usual early morning clear periods, then in the early afternoon the snow storms hit. The difference today, the sun was strongly penetrating through the snow clouds. It felt like it was 30 degrees but heavy snow was falling, it was impossible to sit in the tents because it was so hot and when I went outside I could feel my face frying with the strong sun. Very strange and uncomfortable conditions, never experienced anything like this before, another first for me.

Tomorrow we move all our gear to Camp Berlin at 5950 metres. This is the last camp before we make a bid for the summit. The weather on our planned summit day looks mixed, heavy snow but light winds. I so want to get to the top of this mountain, fingers crossed!

Day 17 - 23/01/09

Day 11
- Nido de Condores to Camp Berlin

Well today is the day before judgement day. Tomorrow we make a summit attempt of Aconcagua!! We reached our final camp named Berlin at 5950 metres in the early afternoon. The climb today was a two and half hour, 400 metre zig-zag ascent. Hard going due to the weight in our rucksacks, but not as difficult as we all expected. We had to haul the entire camp to this rocky outcrop where the oxygen levels are only 50% that of sea level. Just like the previous few days, the heavens opened with heavy snow just as we finished pitching the tents.

Tonight will be the highest I've ever sleep, we're currently higher than Kilimanjaro, Africa's biggest peak, much higher than Everest base camp and higher than any peak in Europe. Tomorrow we have a 1000 metre slog to the summit, and with significantly less than 50% oxygen when we approach the summit, it's probably going be the hardest day I've ever had in the mountains. I feel fit and well currently and if the weather is kind, I think I have a good chance of summitting. Problem is, it hasn't stopped snowing since the mid-afternoon and it's still snowing hard now as I write this blog entry at 9pm. There's nearly two foot of snow on the ground in places, which will freeze hard by the time we set off at 4am and this snow-pack could make things a little difficult underfoot.

Hopefully my next blog entry will be a jubilant description of climbing the biggest peak in the Americas but who knows, will have to see if the mountain gods and mother nature are kind to me tomorrow.

Day 18 - 24/01/09

Day 12
- Camp Berlin & Summit Attempt

The expedition lead has decided for our team to piggy back onto an American lead team supported by 6 high altitude Bolivian guides. The Bolivian's will cut a path through the thick snow to the summit which will increase our chances of reaching the top of Aconcagua.

At just before 4am we followed the American team on the freshly cut path to the summit. The conditions for the climb aren't ideal, very strong swirling and gusty winds and with a air temperature of minus 20 without the wind chill, it's basically bloody freezing! I had every available layer of clothing rapped around my body and as we set off under head torch light I felt reasonably warm, considering the conditions. The first few hours before the sun broke the horizon, we climbed to the Indpendencia hut located at 6350 metres. Physically I was feeling very strong, no problems at all with the altitude, but I did have a problem with my right eye. I didn't put my goggles on quick enough when the sun rose and I started to see star bursts as I blinked. Turned out that I had a touch of snow blindness, but this became the least of my worries. As we approached the the famous traverse at around 6500 metres the wind was blowing at over 60kph reducing the temperature to minus 40 Celsius which is unbearably cold. Most of my body parts were warm apart from my feet which became worryingly fridgit and unresponsive. At this point I knew I was in serious trouble, I carried on for a further hour before I realised I'd lost all sensation in both my feet. I had to make the heart breaking decision to come down 300 metres short of the summit close to the base of the Canaletor which is a steep wall of snow and ice. I was absolutely gutted, I told my guide about my worryingly cold feet and we descended back to Berlin camp leaving the other guys from my team with the American climbers to carry on to the summit. After a speedy decent to Berlin I found that I have mild frost bite, if I'd carried on to the summit I certainly would have lost both my big toes, no mountain is worth that!! I obviously made the correct decision to come down but it still emotionally hurts not to summit after waiting to climb this mountain for a year. I have no feelings in both my big toes but I've been told the feeling will slowly come back in the coming weeks and my nails will probably drop off, great!. My toes are slightly black but thankfully and luckily, no long lasting damage. No amputation required :o)

The failure to summit means I'll have to come back next season to give it another go, but due to the cost of climbing with an expedition I'll try and climb solo next time. I think I've learnt enough about the mountain to give it a crack. Climbing solo will obviously reduce costs considerably but the sacrifice is increased danger and solitude, which I think I can overcome.

The other members of the team summited with the American team. They returned to camp in the late afternoon looking rather jaded. One member of the team with frostbite on his face and toes and the other two guys were relatively unscathed.

I think my climbing boots were the culprit of my feet issues. There're a very good alpine boot but not up to the job for Aconcagua. Next time I will use the boot-type the Everest climbers use to be ultra-safe.

Tonight we stay at Berlin camp and tomorrow we decent to the thicker air of Basecamp. Will be a tough day due to us having to carry all our gear off the mountain. For me a pretty depressing day in the mountains but I'm really chuffed the other guys made it to the roof of the Americas. It's extremely frustrating and upsetting not to summit but at least I still have my big toes attached to my feet!

Day 19 - 25/01/09

Day 13
- Camp Berlin to Plaza De Mulas (Base Camp)

The long steep walk back to basecamp from Camp Berlin begun this morning. A 1600 metre decent which doesn't sound like much but with the heavy loads on our backs, chilling winds and after 12 days in the mountains, I felt pretty knackered by the time we arrived back to what you could call the civilisation of basecamp. Still feeling depressed about not summiting but deep down I know I made the right decision, if I'd stayed up there for a few more hours I would definitely lost a few toes.

We eat our first good meal in a week this evening, a stodgy lasagne layered with beef, ham and copious amounts of cheese. I couldn't eat all of this heavy and rich meal. I think my stomach has shrunk slightly. Wanted to eat every last bit but I was incapable. I've probably lost 5kg over the duration of the climb, 5kg that I couldn't afford to lose really. I look a little like I did after I had typhoid last year. Gandhi with a beard would be an apt description to my current physical appearance.

I sat outside my tent at basecamp contemplating going back up by myself for another summit attempt. I still have days left on my permit, enough food and gas is available, I can borrow a tent, the only thing I haven't got is a pair boots that will stop my feet from freezing. I talked to the expedition lead about this scenario and he was happy to provide me with everything I need apart from the boots which he didn't have. It's a big decision to go back up, but I'm fully acclimatised and I could probably get up and back to basecamp in 5-6 days. I'll sleep on it tonight and make a decision in the morning.

Tonight we went out for a few Beers in a bar tent a basecamp. We had a fun night out at 4400 metres. The tent was full of guides and porters from other teams drinking and singing after coming down from the mountain.

Day 20 - 26/01/09

Day 14
- Plaza De Mulas (Base Camp)

We had rest day today before the big 32km hike out to the Trans-Andean highway or civilisation as it's commonly known. I've felt starving all day even though I've been eating like a horse. I'm constantly hungry, think my body is yearning for those calories to be ingested back into my skinny body.

I've decided not to go back up the mountain for another summit attempt. It's far to risky with my feet in their current state. I'm slowly starting to get some feeling back in my toes but they still feel very uncomfortable and sore. If I expose my toes to further freezing temperatures I could do further damage, it's just not worth it.

We had a bit of excitement at basecamp this afternoon. An avalanche cascaded down a ridge near mount Horn. A big lump of ice dislodged from a glacier with a thunderous clap, I ran out of of the mess tent to see the a massive plume of pulverised ice accelerating down the mountain. Quite a large and impressive avalanche, biggest one I've seen in the mountains for a year.

Went out for a bottle of wine in the evening and retired relatively early in preparation for the big hike out to Puente De Inca tomorrow. Going to be a tough and arduous day tomorrow.

Day 21 - 27/01/09

Day 15
- Plaza De Mulas (Base Camp) to Puente De Inca

The long march back to civilisation begun today, a 32km, 7 hour stomp to the national park gate on the Trans-Andean highway. It was a hard 1700 metre decent in the powerful burning sun with the dry dusty air trying to suffocate me. It's actually not that hot, but the sun at these altitude's attacks you with a fearsome and burning hand, the rays are relentlessly scorching.

The team separated for most of the decent, it was quite nice to be on my lonesome to enjoy the scenery on the walk back and contemplate my experience on the mountain. Towards the end of the trail near the park gate there's a beautiful translucent green-coloured lake which offers a perfect panoramic view of Aconcagua. I lay down on the banks of this magical lake looking at the mountain thinking, I'll definitely be back to conquer this peak next year. Had some real bad luck on the mountain in 2009 with a throat infection, snow blindness and mild frostbite. Just hope 2010 will be a successful year on the mountain for me. I will attempt to climb solo next year, I think I know the mountain well enough to give it a try, also this will reduce the costs of the climb significantly rather than joining an expensive expedition.

After returning to Puente De Inca I had a feast of pizza and burger in the café by the Trans-Andean highway as the big trucks thundered past on the way to the Chilean border. Well and truly back to civilisation now. Had a shower after eating which was rather nice, I was slightly disgusted though to see the colour of the water which rolled off my dirty body. Anyway, I'm now clean again which is great feeling. Back to Mendoza tomorrow morning on the minibus for a couple of days before heading to the capital. The climb is officially over.
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