Things (not big things, just things) are afoot on the mountain. The climbing fees increased from $550 to $800 in the high season, and the park is trying to become a "real" park. New ranger huts being choppered in where previously there was only a stone lean-to, base camp physicians who actually know high altitude medicine (Sebastian was fantastic, docs in previous years less so) - you won't be able to recognize the place in a few years! But there will never (in human time, not geologic time) be another highest peak in South America, so people will continue to come.
When we arrived in Plaza Argentina base camp at 13,800', they had just experienced winds of 100mph which seem to
have generated a freak twister that tore Grajales' facilities apart and nearly nabbed one of Alpine's guides. They had rapidly called in new facilities and supplies (the propane oven was delivered by helicopter while we were there) and our experience was back to normal, pizzas and all. It was still a little windy at base camp, but the rest of the trip was great - just a day or two of moderate winds, otherwise generally quite calm and nice. Sweet!
Christmas day fell on our rest day at 19,200' Polish Camp. We made a little tree out of our ice axes and crampons and decorated it with battery-powered lights and a headlamp. A team of three Canadians who had been next to us much of the trip came by and regaled us with well-rehearsed songs of kazoo, harmonica, and recorder. What a nice touch! It is amazing what communities form in places where people are enduring common hardship. Voluntary, in this case, but true nonetheless.
We moved up to our final camp and had a beautiful summit day, with 6 of 10 of our climbers standing on top. We retreated to camp, then the following day to Plaza de Mulas base camp, and finally enjoyed a little more oxygen. After more wonderful base camp pizza, and a group sleepover in the dining tent (to avoid pitching our own tents) we hiked out in the worst weather of the whole trip, snow and rain for 13 miles to the trailhead. We even saw a small mudslide (rocks the size of pianos!)! But everyone arrived safe and sound back to civilization, and after several showers and remembering how to sit in chairs, we are enjoying the finer points of Mendoza.
Now for a little down time, sorting out budgets and trip reports and laundry and email. I'll be heading down to Punta Arenas to meet the Vinson climbers in a few days, but for now it's nice just to be wearing cotton...