Aconcagua Trip Report
This is a summary of my son, Anders and my attempt to climb Cerro Aconcagua. We went with a group organized by International Mountain Guides (IMG). We had three guides leading our group: Ty—our lead guide—was attempting to summit Aconcagua for the third time; Tincho—our Argentinian guide was attempting his 16th summit; and Pete—the assistant guide—had never been higher than Mount Rainier.
There were also eight clients on our trip: two brothers, Levi and Stu and their friend Brad—all in their late 20s—who had climbed Kilimanjaro (Kili) before (19,341). An ex-Army guy named John who was 30 or 31 years old joined them. Finally, a Canadian husband and wife team were both in their early 50s and had climbed above 18,000 feet in Ecuador. My son, Anders, was the youngest at 26 and he had previously climbed Kilimanjaro as well. At 55, I was the oldest of our team and my prior high point (14,409 feet: Mount Rainier) was also the lowest of the team.
Cerro Aconcagua is 6,962 meters (22,841 feet) in altitude. It is the highest mountain in the world not in Asia. It is the highest in the Southern and Western Hemispheres and is one of the Seven Summits. It is the 2nd most prominent mountain in the world. Aconcagua means White or Stone Sentinel.
While there are many very technical routes up Aconcagua (especially on the South Face), the route we had selected—The Polish Traverse—is not a technical climb at all. However, Aconcagua is not to be taken lightly as its extreme altitude and weather are frequently fatal to both the unprepared and prepared climber. The success rate is thought to be around 30% of those who attempt to summit. Over 150 people have died trying and it seems some 3-5 perish each year—usually from HACE (High Altitude Cerebral Edema) or HAPE (High Altitude Pulmonary Edema). Indeed, the day we arrived in Mendoza, Argentina, two American climbers died from complications arising from some combination of the above.
Anders and I were reasonably fit when we left on this trip. We had spent the prior month hiking most days with 50+ pounds on our back—for 2-4 hours. Prior to this, I had just completed two Ironman races in the span of five weeks—Ironman Hawaii and Ironman Arizona. I had trained almost 1000h ours during 2012. We were optimistic about our chances….
We flew from Philly to Miami as our first leg. Once in Miami, our flight to Santiago, Chile was cancelled and we rebooked on a later flight. Upon arriving in Santiago, we learned that we had missed our connection to Mendoza, Argentina but we caught a flight that left 5-6 hours later. It took us about 30 hours to get there, but we were finally at our hotel in Argentina.
We met with our guides and I expressed a desire to hire porters to help with some of the heavy load carrying that is part in parcel of expedition climbing. However, they shot this down. Ty was adamant that Anders and I were (on paper) very fit and that he had the least of worries about us and our chances of summiting. We discussed this for a while but I reluctantly dropped the topic.
We met our team and went out to dinner on New Year’s Eve. From all appearances, Argentinians really love their fireworks! The next morning we loaded up and drove 3.5 hours to the ski “resort” of Los Penitentes. We spent quite a bit of time sorting through our gear and packing and repacking bags…. Some of our stuff we would be carrying on the approach and some a team of mules would transport for us. We had a nice night at Los Penitentes and by mid morning the next day (Jan 2nd) we were all loaded up and ready to begin in earnest our adventure.
The Approach Trek (1/2--1/4/13)
Our approach, up the Vacas Valley, is the less travelled route. Most folks (75-85%) go up the Horcones Valley via the Ruta Normal. The disadvantages of our route are that it takes quite a bit longer and normally involves a complete “transit” of the mountain—we come down via the Horcones and this creates some logistical challenges. The advantages include more time to acclimatize on the approach, far less people climbing around us and an overall more interesting route as we are doing one big circle—as opposed to an out and back.
To start, we drove back down route 7 to Punta Del Vacas at 7900 feet. We seemed to muddle around a bit before getting going and we didn’t actually hit the trail until around 11:30am. It was an incredibly beautiful day. VERY sunny, dry and no clouds. I’d guess the temp was 55-65 degrees, but it felt warmer. I climbed in shorts and a technical long-sleeve shirt.
There was a persistent 15-25 mph breeze blowing down the valley all day. It made for delightful trekking. We had a couple of places were we climbed 100-200 feet above the river and we were on narrow side valleys so you had to make sure to not fall (probably not fatal but certainly a bad thing if you did).
The total trek on this first day was about 7 miles and we climbed up about 1750 feet to around 9400. Our first camp was at Pampa de Lenas. It was a very pleasant day and I have to say I felt awesome! A couple of folks in the team had slight headaches but both Anders and I felt super strong.
We set up our tent for the first time. Anders was much better on the knots (I had quite a bit of trouble) and he was much more organized—something that I knew I needed to improve upon quickly.
The Muleteers grilled a great steak meal and Ty made a delicious avocado salad—we ate like kings! This whole climbing a Seven Summit thing seemed pretty sweet at this point!
When the sun dropped below the ridgeline it got cold very quickly—down to freezing right away. We were in our tents by 9:15. We did not sleep very well—lots of tossing and turning. I had to get up several times to pee—perhaps a function of the Diamox that I started taking today. The stars were amazing when I went outside. I probably only slept for an hour or two but this was not a worry given all the hanging around we had done over the prior days leading up to the start of our expedition.
We did a good job of packing up the next morning (January 3rd) and we were on our way by 9am. Right from the start, there was a difficult section with a fair amount of exposure that really demanded your attention but after this first 20 minutes the second trekking day was easier than the first. Another very pleasant, sunny day (in the 50s) and I listened to my iPod (Linkin’ Park) for part of the trek.
As we neared Approach Camp 2 we pulled even with the Relincho valley and we were treated to our first glimpse of Aconcagua and it’s satellite, Ameghino up the narrow valley we would be climbing the next day. The overwhelming reaction is OMG—that is one HUGE Mountain. Obviously, it’s bigger than anything I had ever climbed before and way bigger than anything I had ever seen before—a very humbling and sobering experience! We had kind of gotten used to all the mountains around us but when we first saw Aconcagua, we were aware it was a very different beast.
We pulled into the second trekking camp, Casa de Piedra (Stone House) after a little less than seven hours of trekking. We covered nine miles and gained 1120 feet to 10,500. We set up camp quickly despite quite a bit of wind blowing down the Vacas valley. The guides made a nice pork and veggie thing and we downed it with some hot tea. There was a hose with some running water from the river and it was nice to rinse out my shirt and my socks as well as wipe some of the crude off of my body. As with the day before, it turned cold once the sun went down and we were in the tents early—we were both able to sleep better on this, our second night.
We were up at 5:30 for a 7:30 departure, but had to wait a half-hour for the mules. This was worth it as we were able to avoid wading across the icy Vacas and instead rode across on mules.
The third trekking day was much tougher than the first two. We traveled up the north side of the Relincho on narrow ledges that at times climbed several hundred feet above the river. This was definitely a no-fall zone! We made very good progress and we climbed 3200 feet over 10 miles before arriving in the early afternoon at Plaza Argentina (13,678 feet). We passed a number of other groups on the climb and both Anders and I felt very, very strong. Neither of us had any AMS symptoms.
The views of Aconcagua and Ameghino were spectacular throughout the day as we climbed up the Relincho. The Polish Glacier and the upper South Face were very prominent. We could see very strong winds blowing at the summit of Aconcagua. We could also see the higher mountain route up past Camp 1 and leading to Camp 2 over the Col between Aconcagua and Ameghino. Very exciting.
It was very, very windy at Plaza Argentina and Anders was a bit frustrated with my continuing inability to properly tie knots. I vowed to take remedial lessons while we were at Base Camp so that I could be more of a help higher up the mountain.
Base camp was quite the affair. Probably 150 or so people there. We were able to take all of our meals in a big group tent and there was even access to the Internet and a “shower”, which we vowed to check out the next day. We settled in for the first of our three nights at Plaza Argentina.
Plaza Argentina to Camp One (1/5—7, 2013)
After the big day yesterday and with almost 1000 meters of altitude gain, it was important to take a rest day and give our bodies a chance to acclimatize. Most folks on the team had headaches, but both Anders and I felt great.
We slept in to about 8:30—I was up about a half-hour before Anders so I just read my Kindle (both of us were reading a great book called Shantaram—about an Australian Heroin dealer and user that escapes prison and flees to India and falls in love with that country). It was very windy and the tent was rattling. When we left the tent, we looked up at the summit and saw a huge lenticular cloud parked on it—certainly not the day to be up there!
Everyone on the team had to visit the camp doctor to get approved to climb higher—all 11 of us passed. I was a bit disappointed that my O2 saturation was only 89%, while the rest of the team was all in the mid 90s. The doctor wasn’t concerned but I was a bit worried that I was acclimatizing a bit slower than the rest of the team. On the plus side, my pulse was 71bpm and my blood pressure was 120/80.
Anders and I each paid $20 for a shower—this means they boil a gallon of water and add it to some other water and you stand under a gravity fed valve. It felt fantastic but this may be were I made a very bad mistake. Later, Anders told me he was super careful to not let any water get into his mouth. I was not as diligent and perhaps I swallowed some bad water. We’ll never know for sure, but this is where it might have all begun to unravel for me.
That night we had pizzas and they did not “sit” well with me. I had to visit the facilities several times to deal with my distress. Further, I began to generate a pretty good hack that was noticeable enough for people to comment on it. I tried to play these symptoms down, figuring that there was a good chance they would soon pass.
During dinner, one of the climbers at Base Camp was flown out via helicopter as he was displaying clear signs of HACE. The whole camp turned out to watch and I’m sure we were all secretly hoping that we would each be spared that fate.
After a very windy night, we awoke on Sunday January 6th to a beautiful, clear and breathless day. We had lucked into perfect climbing conditions. We were up at 6:45 and had a simple breakfast (which I skipped due to my stomach) but it seemed to take forever before we finally got going around 9:30.
This was our first experience on this trip with carrying real weight. I’m guessing my pack was easily as heavy as I had trained with back in Delaware so I’d say 50+ pounds. It was also very bulky as we were each tasked with transporting a lot of the group equipment and food that we would need higher on the mountain.
That said, it was absolutely beautiful out and we were all lifted by the reality of now moving up onto the mountain itself. I felt very good on the first section and while I was coughing quite a bit, I felt normal and more than fit enough.
The 2nd pitch, during which I set a new personal altitude record (passing above 14,500 feet), was an entirely different story. There were several stretches were it became quite steep (30-40 degrees) and the footing was poor (very soft scree and rocks). This, combined with some exposure and awkward scrambling repeatedly sent my HR up to threshold. It was hard for everyone but it seemed to be harder for me. It seemed like I spent a whole hour doing interval work. It didn’t help that I was really beginning to cough away. Pete asked me several times if I was OK and I send sure, just working through a tough section.
The third pitch brought a reprieve and I felt pretty good again. It was about 50 degrees outside, no wind and perfectly clear. I just had a light 200-weight merino wool on top. You could not ask for a better day to climb!
The last section, up to the plateau where Camp One sits, was another matter entirely. I was repeatedly pushed to my limit and I just couldn’t figure out why I was so whipped. I had to fall off of the pace over the last 400 feet of the climb and I finally struggled into camp some 3-5 minutes after everyone else in my group. I was crushed and I just had to lay down to try to get things back under control. I was completely mystified by the way my body was responding to this climbing stress.
Fortunately, it was a beautiful day and I had the luxury of being able to just hang out in the warm and pleasant sunshine. Anders helped me a bit unload all the group stuff I had carried and to get ready for our descent back to Base Camp (climb high, sleep low). I finished the last of my 2 liters of water and it occurred to me that I might be having a hydration bonk. It was hard for me to figure out as not much was going right with my body.
It took us just under 5 hours to go the 3 miles and climb 2600 feet (up to 16,273 feet) to Camp One. We were one of the slowest groups climbing that day—I was probably one of the causes of that.
The big surprise was the descent—which only took 90 minutes. With our packs unloaded, we flew down the mountain. Before the climb I had been worried about how my knee would hold up on the descents and I was pleased to see that I had no problems. In fact, it was a real blast to fly down—it was almost like we were skiing—we would leap into the air and slide several feet on the loose rocks and pebbles before launching again. This really lifted my spirits and by the time I returned to Base Camp I was prepared to just write off the challenges of day as a fluke.
We only had 45 minutes before dinner back at Base Camp. I set my boots out to dry and called Judy via the Sat phone. Dinner was subdued as we were all pretty whipped. I was very hungry, due to my careful managing of my food intake—I didn’t want any problems during the climb itself. Dinner was cheeseburgers and I quickly ate two—they tasted amazing!
However, whatever had taken over my body soon let me know that it did not like cheeseburgers. I’ll spare you the details but I proceeded to have one of the worse 90 minutes of my life. It has horrible. It felt like I was going to die.
Back in the tent, I shared with Anders everything that was going on with me. He felt real bad for me. I told him that he now needed to start watching me closely as I might be developing some type of AMS. We looked through all of our meds and we decided that I shouldn’t take CIPRO because of the side effects but that I should start trying to control my GI issues with Imodium.
And so I spent an uncomfortable night. I was worried that my climb might be over as soon as the next morning but with Anders’ encouragement, I was hopeful that I would have a good day the next day and begin to make a rally from what hopefully was just a transitory bug….
The winds absolutely ripped from 9:30 until about 12am. The sides of our tent were just pounding against our heads. But then the winds subsided and we awoke in relative calm at 7:40 for our 8 am breakfast. I was pleased to find that the Imodium seemed to be working and I went light on the breakfast—skipping the bacon. As we packed up our tent for our move to Camp One, it occurred to me that I was good to go.
Our packs were quite heavy this morning as we left Base Camp for good. We all had lots of stuff hanging off the back—it was a bit comical how much stuff we were all carrying—my load was above 50 pounds again.
I did much better on the move to C1 than I did on the first carry. I think three things may have contributed to that:
- We went quite a bit slower…taking 6:15 to reach C1.
- I was much more hydrated and I really focused on my rest-step technique, which seemed to pay dividends
- Perhaps I was a bit better acclimatized.
In any event, we hiked through a really nice day without incident. It was colder and windier (15-30 mph) than the day before but still the weather was excellent for Aconcagua. The wind was actually a bit tricky on some of the exposed ridges as it caught our bulky packs and blew us around and off-balance from time to time.
We were very efficient setting up camp—I even managed to successfully tie a bunch of knots—Anders was grateful to have me being a bit of a better climbing buddy. It got quite chilly quickly at 16,273 feet and we were all down and trying to sleep by 9 pm. This was the highest sleep for most of the team—even those who had climbed Kili had not slept this high before.
I had a pretty rough night. My GI issues seemed to be under control but my respiratory challenges dramatically worsened. Anders and I discussed my issues and concluded that I had one of three things going on:
- I had a real bad case of mountaineer’s cough from the dry and windy environment
- I had some type of respiratory bacterial infection
- I was displaying the early symptoms of HAPE
Anders went and discussed this with the guides and the consensus was that I most likely did not have HAPE, as I was showing none of the typical symptoms (beside my cough). It seemed like I probably had some type of serious bacterial infection in my lungs and we decided that I would start a five day course of Azithromycin (Z-Pak). We were hopeful that these antibiotics would help me stabilize and lead to a bit of a rally in the days ahead.
The High Camps (Jan 8th-11th)
Despite the challenges of the night I awoke feeling a bit better and pretty optimistic. It may have been mental, but I felt like the Z-Pak really was helping my hacking cough. After dry cereal and coffee we were on our way in yet another fantastic climbing weather day.
The route to C2 climbed up the valley above C1 and over the Col between Ameghino and Aconcagua. This was to be a 6-mile round trip and entailed an altitude gain of 2132 feet to 18,405 feet. Just 45 minutes into the climb, Brad, one of the under 30 crowd could not climb any higher. He was dizzy and refused to go higher. We waited for 30 minutes or so to figure out what to do and ultimately, the decision was made to send Brad back down to Camp One.
I felt good on this morning—perhaps it was a bit of a lift to not be the guy in trouble for once. The climb was relatively easy with good footing. The views up the Polish Glacier were amazing—we were probably only a mile or so (as the crow flies) from the summit at this point.
We reached C2 (helicopter camp) in 4:50—not bad given the 30-minute delay. We unpacked and cached our carry loads and 30 minutes later headed down again. The section back through the Col was a bit tiring for me—it was so weird for me to lack my normal energy and endurance. We stopped about 1000 vertical feet above C1 and Anders gave me a caffeinated gel that seemed to help.
We then proceeded to fly down to C1—it was really fun, jumping and running down hill in a cloud of dust. We actually got all the ways back from C2 to C1 (3 miles) in exactly an hour.
We had a chicken and rice dinner and my appetite seemed to return a bit. My hacking cough worsened during the night but I was actually pretty confident that I could manage it with the Z-Pak. I wrote in my diary that I felt pretty confident that my body would hold together for a summit attempt in a few days….
On Wednesday the 9th, we were up at the crack of dawn to disassemble our camp and move to C2. For some reason, I ended up with a very heavy group load and my pack was heavier today than at any time before. I had a bunch of the fuel and this extra weight was problematic for me throughout the climb. I regretted our guide’s mandate against using porters to help with the load carrying.
It was a real struggle for me. My respiratory problems seemed to worsen as I climbed higher. I was a good 5-10 minutes behind the rest of the team as I finally dragged myself into C2.
We set up our tent and hung around outside as the guides made dinner. I felt completely wiped out. It was very weird, as the work we did today should not have impacted me as much as it did. The guides were concerned and Pete came over and asked me to measure my O2 saturation. It was pretty shocking when it came in at 55%. (In comparison, Anders was at 94%).
This was crushing news for me. I knew then that I likely wouldn’t be able to summit. I was just really bummed. Anders asked if I was ok and I couldn’t even really talk. I was very upset that my body was letting me down. He told me it would be ok and I replied that I didn’t think so. I could see the writing on the wall.
Anders encouraged me to not give up and I agreed not to but I also told him I was now more concerned with my health and not jeopardizing the team’s chances of summiting, than I was in summiting myself. Much discussion ensued among the guides and Ron (who is a doctor). Later the guides came by to evaluate me and help formulate a plan.
Ron gave me a steroidal inhaler to try to combat my constant coughing. The guides and Ron all felt that I most likely did not have HAPE and that their preference would be for me to continue climbing up to C3 and over to Plaza de Mulas on the other side, even if I couldn’t summit. They felt this was a better choice than splitting up the team and sending me back down to Plaza Argentina for a helicopter ride out.
I wasn’t really sure how I felt about this. On the one hand, I didn’t believe that I had HAPE. However, I clearly wasn’t normal and I had to admit that I really had no idea what HAPE actually feels like. We decided to have Anders monitor my O2 saturation every hour during the night and to get folks up if I took a turn for the worse.
A further development was a dramatic change in the weather forecast. We had been previously targeting the 13th-15th as our summit window and the weather forecast for that window had generally remained very positive over the prior week. However, the latest forecast this evening showed a possible 15 inches of snow on the 13th with more to follow. Tyler made the call to skip our carry day for tomorrow (the 10th) and to take our rest day one day earlier. Then move ho High Camp on the 11th and go for the summit on the 12th. Tincho and Pete would do a carry on the 10th and we would all need to carry a bit more to High Camp on the 11th due to the skipped group carry. The upshot of all of this was I would get a rest day tomorrow and with the data from this evening; we could make a final call on whether or not I could go higher on the 11th…
Anders set his alarm to wake him to measure and record my O2 saturation on the hour. He did measure it for the first three hours but then he fell asleep and his alarm didn’t work. It didn’t matter as I was very restless thinking about whether or not I should descend and I just measured it myself and since it was fairly stable, I didn’t feel a need to wake him. Here are my O2 and pulse measurements from that night:
8:00 64% 92bpm
9:00 60% 91bpm
10:00 57% 85bpm
11:30 57% 85bpm
2:30 64% 77bpm
4:30 60% 80bpm
5:30 61% 86bpm
7:00 64% 80bpm
My hacking cough was brutal from 8 until 10—I was raspy and I could definitely feel “stuff” in my upper lungs but I still had no other signs of HAPE. The inhaler seemed to work better by 10pm and I had a relatively better night from then on.
The guides and Dr. Ron paid us a visit at 7 am and I shared with them the above data. They asked me a bunch of questions and seemed satisfied that I was stable and the plan of just hanging out at C2 for the day made the most sense. We knew we could get back to Plaza Argentina in just a few hours if I took a sudden turn for the worse.
I got up and felt a little wobbly at first but this may be just more a function of being at 18,405 feet. It was pleasant and sunny (but quite cold) and I enjoyed my breakfast of coffee and French toast. As the day progressed I seemed to be feeling better. I checked my O2 many times during the day and was pleased to see it generally in the high 60s and low 70s—not good for sure, but a bunch better than the mid 50s.
I called home and explained the plan to Judy. I reassured her that I would be very conservative on summit morning and I would avoid jeopardizing my health or the team’s prospects for summiting. I think she felt a bit better but not being there I’m guessing fanned her anxiety.
I ate a big lunch and even hiked up solo a couple of hundred feet above C2 to keep the legs loose (the rest of the team had gone for a short climb before I was ready). I definitely was feeling better with the rest and my O2 was stable (albeit low). By 1:30 it started to snow and blow a bit so we all just hunkered down in our tents and rested.
It turned progressively colder as the day worn on and we basically were confined to our tents. We had tortellini for dinner, which I managed to get down with no GI issues (Imodium doing its thing!). Anders and I played a bunch of paper and pencil games to pass the time away (he won the three dimensional tic-tac-toe). The guides checked on me once again after dinner and with my O2 holding in the 60s, they pronounced me good to go for High Camp the next day. With the rest day I certainly was feeling better and I agreed with their recommendation.
We awoke on Friday the 11th to a relatively mild morning. We had bacon and croissants and I had a reasonably good appetite. My O2 was now in the high 60s and I was confident I could get to High Camp. The guides all carried huge loads and as a result, I was looking at about 35 pounds or so—my lightest load to date.
The route from C2 to our High Camp at Piedras Blancas was pretty straightforward with good footing and no exposure. It entails about 1300 feet of elevation gain (to about 19,700 feet) over what I estimated to be about 2.5 miles of climbing. We broke this climb into five pitches. I did pretty well on the climb although my lungs continued to give me problems. I was hacking and spitting out gunk and generally having a tougher than desirable time breathing. I tried to put a positive spin on things telling everyone that I was feeling better (which was true) but I knew I wasn’t anywhere close to 100%. When the grade steepened, I was chagrined to find myself being the slowest of the group. Anders kept encouraging me to remain positive, which I tried to do.
In the end, it took us just 4:30 to reach High Camp. Tincho had gone ahead and had already pitched several of the tents so Anders and I were spared that chore. We worked on our packs for the summit bid taking care to rid ourselves of everything that was unnecessary. Anders felt great and I was very confident he would summit. In my mind my chances were at best about 20% but I tried to spin it more positively when I chatted with my teammates.
We had an early dinner of mash potatoes and bacon and talked through the plan for our summit attempt. I had a pretty good appetite and got a couple of helpings down. Everyone is ready and seems quietly determined. We are in our tents by 6. I apply moleskin to my two big blisters on the insides of my ankles and then duct tape my ankles and put fresh heavyweight socks on. We sleep in our base and 2nd layers and we know when the wakeup call comes (3 am is the plan), we’ll be on our way in 60-90 minutes.
Both Anders and I sleep pretty well. Ty wakes us 45 minutes early at 2:15. There is little wind and its very clear—the sky is afire with stars. It’s quite cold but Ty is excited about the ideal climbing conditions. To the east—back down the mountain—the sky is lit up with a massive electrical storm. Anders and I layer up (3 on the bottom: LJs, climbing pants and down pants and 5 on the top: base, fleece, soft-shell, micro-puff, and the 850 down big boy jackets) and we head outside.
We have a simple breakfast and refill our water bottles. At 3:40 am we strip off the big boy jackets and we are on our way! I have to say that this is exciting stuff. I just love climbing in the dark—quite the feeling of adventure.
This enthusiasm lasted for about 100 yards and then the trail steepened quite a bit coming out of High Camp. I was able to keep pace but it seemed like I was working way harder than I should and considerably harder than the rest of the team. My O2 had measured 66% when I left, which meant I was stable but not really fit by my normal standards.
Just 20 minutes into the climb on this morning I had a very clear and certain realization that I wasn’t going to make the summit. I was light-headed and hacking and struggling to keep up--but I was keeping up. I’m not sure why I was so certain that I wasn’t going to make it, but it was real clear to me at this point. However, I decided to keep this to myself, at least for a while.
After another 20 minutes I could no longer hold the pace. Tincho was leading and Ty dropped back to pace me directly, constantly guiding me on my footwork and pressure breathing. We would hit steeper sections and my body would head into anaerobic overload and I would need to stop to contain my heart rate. The rest of the team began to move away from me as I looked up into the inky darkness. I’m guessing that this section (from Piedras Blancas to Indepencia) is actually pretty straight forward but it was all I could handle and then some this morning.
After 50 minutes of climbing I told Ty that I didn’t think this was going to work out for me this morning. He didn’t seem surprised and didn’t disagree with me. He asked me to just push on for another 10-15 minutes where we were heading for our first break and then we would talk about it. I agreed but wanted to know if Pete took me back to High Camp if he would be able to leave me and rejoin the group. Ty said yes and in my mind that sealed the deal. I could bail on the climb and not seriously impact the team’s chances of summiting.
We finally stopped at just about 20,300 feet and I broke the news to the team. I apologized and wished them well. Not much was said. The rest of the team was focused on their own personal challenges. Anders sat down next to me and asked me if I was sure. I said yes, absolutely. I was exhausted and still hacking away. I gave him our Flip video camera as well as my little green Kermit the Frog that I had been carrying on the expedition. I told him to make sure that Kermit made it to the top. I hugged Anders. I apologized again and I told him I loved him. I told him I’d see him back at the tent after he summited.
Pete and I made good time back down to High Camp arriving there about 30 minutes after we left the group. I have to say that even the descent was causing distress in my weary body. Pete left me at High Camp and a couple of other climbers came back into camp having also washed out.
Soon I was very alone. I decided to just lay down on the snow outside of my tent ay 19,700 feet and look up at the stars. It was still very dark and absolutely silent—no wind at all. I wasn’t thinking about much to be honest with you—I think I was in a bit of a state of shock.
After about 30 minutes of laying outside I noticed it was getting lighter in the East and decided it was probably a good thing for me to get into my tent—especially since it was right around zero degrees. I hacked away for a while when I laid down but I was so exhausted that I soon fell asleep. I awoke at 10 and begin to feel sorry for myself. I had a bit of a pity party but finally decided to do some housekeeping around the tent to make it easier on Anders when they all returned.
At 2:15 I was surprised to hear the whole team arriving back after all ten of them successfully summited. Ten and half hours from soup to nuts is very impressive and they were easily the fastest team on the mountain this morning! They were exhausted and the guides and Anders told me they missed me on the summit. However, there wasn’t much talking as they all soon collapsed into their sleeping bags.
The rest of the day was pretty subdued as they were all thrashed. Anders had only drank 1.5 liters and was severely dehydrated. He had a real bad headache and was barely functional. He couldn’t eat our crappy pasta dish and just emptied it in our vestibule of the tent. It was snowing pretty heavily at this point so I brought a bunch of snow in to cover up the pasta so we didn’t have it all in our tent.
So the team was very successful. Ten out of eleven made it, which on this mountain is pretty darn good. It less good if you’re the one who didn’t but that’s the way it goes. The weather was fantastic and just about everybody who tried to summit on 1/12 was successful. We had a lot of snow overnight and it snowed again on the 13th and from what I heard, no one was able to get up for a couple of days afterwards.
In the morning, it was very cramped in our tent and everything was wet. We had to pack things up and get ready for a long trek down the mountain. When we opened the vestibule of the tent, snow poured in. We had to go outside (in our big puffies) and struggle to put our ice-cold boots on. We had some warm cereal (please God not again!) and weak coffee. Finally after about 2 hours we were ready to descend. I arranged for a Porter to carry 30 kilos of our stuff, so instead of carrying 55-60 pounds on our backs down the mountain we were carrying only 25-30. Frankly, I am not sure my knee could have stood carrying the full load.
The top of the descent was very sketchy. Our guide told us to bag the crampons and with the snow on scree it was quite slippery. The very top as you leave High Camp is a bit exposed but there were fixed lines that helped us negotiate the first 50 yards or so. After that, the exposure risk was minimal, although we all fell at one point or another--I fell five times--but this was really more an annoyance than a danger.
We made great time and you could literally sense the thickening O2. At 18,000 feet it was noticeably easier to function. It took us 3:15 to go all the way down to Plaza de Mulas at 14,009 feet. We had a big group tent and we elected to not bother with the individual tents. They brought us several pizzas around 3:00, I had a couple of slices--little did we know this was dinner and no more food was coming!
It rained a bit and then got a lot colder and began to sleet and snow. I was very tired and cold. I did talk to Judy and had my pic taken by the webcam at Mulas. Back in the tent, we sat in a big circle creating stories--the first person would start the story and then we would build on it as we went around the circle. It was about 30 degrees in the tent so we all sat around in our sleeping bags.
We were all desperately hungry and talking about food back home. I had a flash of inspiration and with TinCho; I rummaged around in our unused food stores and found some crackers, cheese and some bacon. Somehow, TinCho got someone to fry the bacon up and we had bacon and cheese crackers.... once again, this went right through me so off to the luxurious restrooms....
We all (11 of us) slept in a circle on the floor starting at 9pm. Surprisingly, I had a great sleep. I only had to pee once--at around 4:50am and I was able to find my shoes and avoid stepping on anybody and went outside (we decided to ban pee bottles in the group setting). I did not bother trying to locate the outhouse and just peed by the side of the footpath.
We all had great sleeps and we got up with the sun and TinCho brought us some dry pancakes, which we all ate with our dirty grimy hands (post Purell of-course). I had one pancake...its hard to get excited about this at 14,000 feet when its 25 degrees in your tent!
Soon enough we were off on our 18-mile trek back to Horcones (9,350 feet). I will spare the details but suffice it to say walking 18 miles with almost 5,000 feet of descent, after 2 plus weeks in the mountains, in poor terrain is a bit of a challenge--both physically and mentally. As we got lower it warmed up and we were all dirty, dusty, and dehydrated when we finally finished 8:15 later. During this time, I only had part of a Payday candy bar--around 300 calories. We all hugged, completely spent, at the bottom.
We drove the 20 minutes down Highway 7 to Los Pentitentes and waited for the Mules to bring our stuff. We had a couple of glasses of beer and just reveled in not having to walk anymore. The Mules were slow so we did not leave until about 7:30 pm. The drive down from 9,000 feet to 3,200 in Mendoza was amazing--the Andes are spectacular!
We got to the hotel and unloaded and decided to skip showers to try to get something to eat--I cannot tell you how tired, dirty and hungry we were. We found a McDonalds and at 11:30pm had some chicken nuggets and fries.
Back to the hotel, we showered for the first time in 10 days (I had been wearing the same clothes, night and day for the last 5-6 days). It was amazing to watch the dirt stream off of my body...I thought it might clog the drain at one point! Anders and I read a bit and drifted off into contented sleep. (Our room is tiny but it seems amazing to have so much space and to not have to roll our beds up in the morning!)
We spent a couple of nice days in Mendoza. We had a group dinner where we ate about 25 pounds of beef between us. Our flight home was uneventful and we began the recovery and reflection processes.
I’m writing this about 2 weeks after getting back to the US. Here are a number of final thoughts:
1. It is a very big deal to try to climb Aconcagua. It was the biggest and hardest thing I ever tried to do. It’s different than an Ironman. In an Ironman you have so much more pain but then it’s over—usually in less than half a day. The mountain climbing thing just goes on and on. It is a very difficult mental and physical test for sure.
2. It is a very demanding test for your families and loved-ones. As much as you are getting your ass kicked out there, in some ways it’s harder for the folks back home. Don’t underestimate this impact. There is probably no way to lessen its effect—get ready for it.
3. I have to say I real liked the experience. It is overwhelming and that takes some getting used to. The good and the bad are all amped up. It’s so very cool to climb high in a wilderness setting and to be responsible for your well being in a very hostile environment. Very stimulating. The tough parts are very tough but that somehow adds to it. I’ve never been through something as difficult as this in my prior 55 years of living. I had it a bit tougher than most, but I think most people would think that this is really a very hard thing to do.
4. Our conditions on this expedition were very near ideal. Aconcagua can be lethal from a weather perspective. We were blessed. It was about as easy as it’s ever going to get on this trip. In fact of the 4 IMG teams on Aconcagua so far this year, ours had the most success. The first and fourth teams were shut out. The second team put 4 out of 5 up and ours was 10 for 11.
5. It sucks not summiting. No two ways about it. A difficult pill to swallow for someone with an ego like mine.
6. I think the reasons I didn’t summit are a combination of both physical and mental. I clearly was not in a good way and as a result, my body just did not respond the way it always seems to. This definitely got inside my head as well and part of me wonders if I might have been able to suck it up and gut out a 13-15 hour summit day…just go slower…. I’ll never know for sure of-course.
7. Aconcagua is still there and I’ve decided that I’m going to go back and summit it (if I can).
8. I believe that I was felled by an unfortunate bacterial infection. I spent 8 days on Cipro when I returned home and I still have a residual hack. I don’t believe I had HAPE and I see no reason why I should have the same problems on my next attempt. I think if I bring my “A” game I can make it to the top.
9. I hope I can convince Anders to join me so that we might be able to summit together.
That’s it—thanks for reading!