Climbing Aconcagua

trilondonIn December I had the fortunate opportunity to try and scale the jewel of the Andes, Argentina’s Mt. Aconcagua, the tallest peak outside of the Himalayas (6,962m). Not strictly triathlon but a fantastic experience made possible in part by my base fitness from years of triathlon training. I know the passions and athletic endeavors of our club members know few bounds, so maybe my tale will inspire a few more to “head for the hills”, or at least enjoy my journey vicariously.
I climbed Kilimanjaro 2 years ago. 5,895m; 5 ½ days up and 1 ½ days down. No problem with the altitude or the exertion, Aconcagua was the next step. And a rather large one, as I was about to find out.
Still not a technical climb, South America’s highest peak does present its own challenges. It is nearly 1,100m higher, and those meters mean a lot at that altitude. It does not jut up from a surrounding low-altitude plain like Kili, but is nestled in a huge mountain chain, and so necessitates a 2-3 day trek just to reach base camp at 4,200m. And it is COLD! This was expedition-style mountaineering, requiring setting up intermediary camps every 5-600m up the mountain, and taking nearly 3 weeks in total. And necessitating special cold-weather gear.
Funny things happen at altitude, and I was learning on the fly. You have very vivid and elaborate dreams – this was freaky but also very entertaining. Your body doesn’t heal very well, so chapped hands and minor cuts just linger on. Appetite is supressed, so while I felt hungry at mealtimes I would be satisfied after just 4 or 500 calories [I lost 8 kg in 16 days of climbing, almost 10% of my body weight]. Base metabolism, on the other hand, increases by as much as 50% due to increased breathing and heart rate, so while we would only march about 3-4km per day (over 4-5 hrs) we would burn lots of calories. The body’s extremities – hands, feet, and in my case my nose – receive less blood flow, so it is necessary to don insulated boots (heavy!), serious mitts and face protection, especially on summit day. And for the most part, you spend most non-daylight hours in your sleeping bag, trying to stay warm and grumbling to your tent-mate about how Hawaii is a FAR better holiday destination.
The mountain has been fortunately kept nearly pristine (unlike Kili) due to the concerted efforts of the Argentine government. Which means all waste comes down from the mountain. Including human waste. I’ll spare you the scatological details, but mountaineers have developed some ingenious technological solutions. Though I was still happy with my loss of appetite [what goes in has to come out…]
We were 11 climbers in the group, with 3 guides. The lead guide, Victor, a 63-year-old Scotsman and passionate rock climber now living in Chamonix, has summited Everest 7 times and is a small, sinewy guy with great prudence, unbelievable mountaineering aptitude, and near zero ego. He has great tales to tell, has a keen intellect and a Zen-like approach to the mountain, I came to respect him more and more during the climb. The two local guides have 30 combined Aconcagua summits to their name, great rapport with the muleteers and the base-camp personnel (really helps ease our trip), and are once strong and rational. No worries that we will be well cared for, and any and all eventualities will be handles with expertise and aplomb.
We spend 2 days at Camp 1 (ca. 4800m) and 3 climbers are felled by the altitude and can’t quite recover (vomiting, insomnia, appetite loss, and in general feeling like sh*t). They re-descend to base camp and then back to town, where we re-join them after the climb [one is a 60-year-old neurosurgeon from Perth who has lots of climbing experience, he has educated us enormously on the physical adaptations one’s body makes at altitude, which he has researched and personally experienced extensively; a shame it didn’t work for him this time]. The weather forecast for the summit is for 100+ kph winds for the whole following week, not doable, but fortunately we are not due there until after.
Here’s the rub: sometimes you spend 2 weeks and umpteen dollars travelling and climbing and acclimatizing and waiting, and then the summit window just doesn’t open, so you go home empty-handed. We hope this won’t be our fate. This was basically what happened on Everest during the fateful 1996 climbing season. Very poor summit potential that year, many people tried anyway, too many didn’t make it back home. “Summiting is optional, getting back down is mandatory.” [Ed Viesturs] Tattooed in my psyche.
We continue to slowly advance up the mountain and monitor the weather forecasts, and a good summit window opens, but it is short. We need to climb 600m to Camp 3 in one go, then drive for the summit the next day, with no further acclimatization. The summit day is always the toughest one; the last 1,000 or so meters are done in one go, with return, often a 12+ hr. day. It’s just not worth spending the extra time and resources setting up an additional camp. It’s all about that day.
Summit Day. I have slept well, am feeling strong, no headache. We leave camp at 5am, it is dark and very cold, we creep up the mountain with the flickering of about 20 other small head torches above and below us. Then the light-headedness sets in. It’s like being drunk or high, wading through mental molasses. We break after about 350m of climbing to put on our crampons. 1/3 of the way there, but the hardest is yet to come. The gradient reaches 30% at times, the scree (lose rock in a talus slope) unforgiving as we slide back a step for every 2 forward, we welcome patches of snow as they provide better purchase. We make a few detours, occasionally back-track to find the best path, it all seems like wasted time and energy. The slope extends for far too long, to the end of my vision, no use thinking about how long it will take at our snail’s pace, with the thin air and uncertain footing. Just slog on.
We break again 2/3 of the way up. After 20 min. a couple of slower climbers reach us. We set off as they arrive, and they ultimately decide to abandon the summit and return to Camp 3 after a 45 min. rest. They are just moving too slowly and are too tired.
I am stumbling, falling occasionally. The guides and my fellow climbers are getting a bit worried. I continue my extreme effort to keep it all together, am fed some altitude meds, ditch my pack (along with 2 others in our group) and we soldier on.
At 2pm, 6 of us + 2 guides realize there is no more up: we have reached the summit! The view is unfortunately non-existent, as clouds surround the mountain (but our proximate visibility is good), the sense of exhilaration is nonetheless palpable. Hugs all around, pictures galore, we rest and take it all in for about 20 min. before heading back down. For Victor, this is his 7th summit – he has now scaled the highest peak on every continent. I’m in the company of giants.
Yet the excitement isn’t over yet. 1/2 an hour into the descent I suddenly hear, “Ray! Rock!”, and turn to see a car tyre-sized boulder careening down the hill towards me, 20m above. I impulsively if foolishly step to the side without looking, and execute what my friends would later describe as a spectacular back somersault with half gator, landing 2 seconds later on my bum, completely unharmed and facing down the mountain. The rock bounds past, missing all of us but grazing the leg of one of our guides and opening a large gash in his trousers. It’s a poignant reminder that on the mountain you must never let your guard down.
The 2 ½ days it takes to get back out the road – covering about 40km and descending over 4,000m – are hard, but pass without further incident. The goal has been achieved and there is never any question of making it down. The blisters will heal, the muscles will recuperate. The memories will endure.
And my mountaineering “career” is over. Everest is 1,800m higher, the expedition lasts about 2 ½ months. I have zero interest, and likely insufficient aptitude, given my ordeal above 6,000m. No regrets.
Hope I didn’t bore you, and do get in touch if you are interested in taking on Aconcagua yourself.