Aconcagua from my perspective.
So I figure I do a fair amount of tougher than average outdoor things at home right?… I run the odd marathon and I spend most of my spare time hunting in the hills of the New Zealand bush or free diving in the ocean. People that I take on adventures with me end up calling me ‘the mountain goat’ or ‘racing sardine’ or some other similar reference that made me think.. Yea I can handle the outdoors better than the average bear! In fact I can’t actually think of any outdoor physical type challenges I’ve ever backed away from or been unable to do?
So when Dave asked me to come and climb a couple of mountains with him I figured yea sweet no worries!.. Now I certainly wasn’t thinking it would be easy nor was I completely naive about what’s involved. I’ve read Dave’s blogs, I’ve talked first hand through the stories in hunting trips together and I’ve heard his professional speaking gigs. I knew this was going to be a big big test of my physical endurance, but at this point it was just words and theory.. Well that soon changed!
It was the 8th of January 2016 and I was now standing with Dave at the Aconcagua park entrance sign. I could see the track leading to the mountain we were meant to climb. (minus my camera gear and passport of course.. But we already know that story).
I looked up at Acon and honestly my brain was unable to process how it would be possible to climb to the top. The thing is massive.. It’s ridiculous.
We started the 30 odd kilometre hike to Basecamp carrying what I would call a medium sized and weighted pack for a long weekend hunting camp in the bush. High spirits, feeling strong, we got this!.. Well hello altitude… WOW!
By the time I reached Basecamp at 4370 meters it had taken 2 days and around 12 hours of walking. I was a broken mess! My head was pounding like someone had been constantly throwing rocks at it and I couldn’t suck air in fast enough. My chest was ready to explode. I remember thinking this is probably the hardest day I’ve done ever. Not long after that thought Dave mentioned that this was to be one of our easier days… It was pretty clear this was to be no walk in the park. I honestly thought Basecamp could be as high as I go.
Dave on the other hand was skipping around like he had just gone to the end of the drive to check the mail. The dude isn’t human I swear!
After what felt like a hundred litres of water was poured down my throat.. (Drinking enough water on the mountain is nearly as hard as climbing it trust me) I actually started to improve and settled with just a dull headache. Man was I looking forward to the rest day tomorrow!
Over the next couple of days we went over the plan and waited for our new mate and save the day camera guy Mat to arrive. I even felt well enough for the acclimatisation hike to nearby peak La Bonnetta. I was determined to feel strong for it and surprised myself that I actually made it to Bonnetta’s summit of just over 5000 meters without too much trouble. That peak smashed my previous Mt Tongariro record of 1978 meters! It was just awesome! What a view!
I told myself up there that if this was to be my only summit for the trip I was cool with that. I was stuffed but it was worth every step! Speaking of steps Dave is still skipping around like he hasn’t got off the starting line yet.. It’s not fair!
What it did tell me though is that despite his illness in Mendoza, this fulla is feeling really strong and he’s adjusting well to the height. I didn’t want to jinx anything but I knew that summit was highly likely to have his name on it! All we needed was the weather to play ball.
Another rest day was to follow with Mat due to arrive any day now. When he walked into our Basecamp tent the next evening looking like he had just had a relaxing ten minute stroll I felt a huge sense of relief for two reasons.
Firstly, we had a camera guy.. I had put so much thought and excitement into recording this epic challenge of Daves. I had all the film gear, gopro’s and SD cards I could muster just to have them taken as we are about to get on the bus. Now at least Dave could get the footage he needed to share the adventure with people back home.
Secondly, Dave now had another proper mountaineer with him. My great company, unrelenting humour, wit and skills at the card game of altitude scum could only really help so much. At least now there was someone with us realistically capable of reaching that summit alongside Dave. I still was far from convinced that I had it in me and didn’t want Dave alone up there. For that I was very grateful and will always think of Mat as a legend for dropping everything and joining the expedition last minute!
That evening I bumped into two members of another climbing team that we had spoken with several times here at Basecamp. The only problem was they had left that morning to go to camp Nido de Condores and begin their ascent. Really nice guys, but they shouldn’t be here? We spoke in English (because everyone had learnt to give up on speaking Spanish with me) and I was told they had got to Nido and went to their tent which they had setup the previous day in a porter similar to what we were planning. The tent had been set with large rocks in the corners and secured down with guy ropes attached to more rocks in the usual fashion. They had put inside sleeping bags, gas cookers, clothes etc and walked away returning down to Basecamp. This tent however was no longer in Nido. The brutal winds had picked the whole lot up, gear, rocks and all and thrown it off a cliff. Their expedition was over and they left the mountain. Ouch.
The next day with only a mild ‘brain being hit with a baseball bat’ feeling.. Dave and I began our own porter and took a load of supplies up to camp Nido. Mat rested in Basecamp to acclimatise after his long walk in.
We gained 1300m (1.3km) in altitude on that hike from Basecamp to Nido de Condores.. I’ve since learned that’s quite a lot for one day. Not that I really needed to be told that after we finally arrived up there late in the afternoon. I was stumbling around like a drunk, the baseball bat in my head had graduated to a concrete pole and I was honestly and literally tasting blood in my mouth through my cheeks. I wobbled and went to fall over but Dave grabbed me and held me up. We were at 5600 meters and this was no joke. I know that Dave has watched climbers pass away just meters from him here and I’ll admit I was scared.
What perked me up from this? Dave had this little grin on his face as he looked up from Nido at the summit above us.. The bugger was still 100% strong. I don’t know how it’s possible but he was and again I thought to myself.. ‘Oh yea he’s got this!’.. And then I got the hell outta there and we retreated down to Basecamp again with me improving each step down.
On the way down we found Mat sitting on a rock hundreds of meters above Basecamp.. Apparently climbing to 4370 meters last night wasn’t enough for him and he didn’t need a rest day?!.. I’m climbing with robots I can’t keep up.
Next day was the move that started to get me a little nervous but definitely excited.. We were leaving Basecamp, moving everything and climbing to camp two. Because Mat had far less days acclimatisation than us the boys decided we would not go as far as Nido but instead to camp Canada around half way.. Boy was I in approval of that decision!!
We arrived several hours later no dramas and set up the tent. As the evening went on however I started to feel less than well. My guts weren’t happy and the baseball bat had returned again. After melting snow for water and cooking a dehydrated dinner we hit the sleeping bags and sleep. Only I didn’t do the sleeping thing.. That was one rough night I won’t forget in a hurry. I lay down and took the pain as long as I could.. Taking ibuprofen pills and headache pills. Eventually I couldn’t take it and my stomach had me sitting up in the tent clutching my guts trying not to wake the boys. When I could no longer do that I evacuated the tent in the middle of the night and spent a good 30 minutes
crouched behind a rock with my standard issue red bag. It was freezing and it wasn’t fun. It took a long time for the sun to come up that morning and when it did I realised I had left both my drink bottle AND the wet wipes packet outside of my sleeping bag. They had both frozen in the tent beside me.. Bugger.
When the mountain sun finally smashed into the tent at around 9am both Dave and Mat looked at me.. Yea it wasn’t pretty. They knew I had a tough night and were genuinely concerned. So was I to be honest but I had come this far and I knew I had more to give yet. After a fairly serious discussion and consultation with a very experienced climber and guide who happened to be in camp I made the call I wanted to continue and not go down just yet. I can’t explain how much I wanted to do this.
We packed up camp and left Canada for Nido de Condores (named after the Condor’s that can be occasionally seen up here – nope I never got to see one unfortunately). However many hours it was later that we arrived at our previously stashed gear in Nido, I was feeling reasonably alright. Things had calmed down a bit but of course the dude with the baseball bat was still going strong.
We spent two nights at Nido with most of the second day being an acclimatisation hike to camp Berlin above us. Berlin sits at just under 6000 meters and after a short stay there we returned to Nido to sleep.
Suddenly it was time to move to summit camp. The plan called for that to be camp Cholera which is slightly past Berlin sitting just over 6000 meters. I was at a bit of a crossroad here and did some serious thinking to myself. Do I continue up with Mat and Dave or do I go back down to Basecamp and wait for them to return. I was tired and weakened and really sore. I knew the hardest day of all was in front of us still and I didn’t want to be a burden or the reason these two don’t summit. I had to be all in for this or retreat now. It was hard and a bit scary but I wanted in.. I told myself I can do this and at the end of the day I trusted these guys and knew they would force a call for me to go down if it came to that and they wouldn’t be angry about it. They knew I had to try and so did I so.. Cholera it is.
I’ll spare the details of the following hours of one foot in front of the other climbing with packs to Cholera.. The camp Dave had described as a wind blown, frozen hell where you hide in your tent praying that you won’t be picked up and thrown off a cliff. We walked in to sunny skies with a gentle cool breeze (ok it was still probably -10 degrees or more but it was really nice!).
We set to work melting snow for water bottle fills and cooking.. Mountain admin we called it. It takes hours but by late that evening we had downed our required 5 cups of tea, 2 litres of water, had knocked back a dehydrated meal and all water bottles were full again. This time I remembered to keep everything including my summit clothes inside my sleeping bag with me to prevent them freezing.
Not much sleep tonight for me again.. I was pretty apprehensive about what was to come. Dave and Mat were like excited little school girls. It was kinda catchy though and I was keen to see how much more this mountain was going to throw at me and if I could take it or not. It may sound horrible but it’s actually a lot of fun finding out just how far you can push your line before you break. We are capable of so much more than we think and I had already proven that to myself.. Here I was camping in Cholera at 6000 meters!! Woop woop!
Summit day.. I was preparing myself mentally for without doubt the hardest day of my life. If all went well with strong climbing it was a good 8 hours of brutality to the summit.. I was banking on around 9.
When we left Cholera, all my nerves and self doubt I had been experiencing were truly gone. I was so focused and determined. My mind was made up, I was here and I was doing this.. It’s on! We left together around 7am and could tell it was going to be an incredible day. There was barely a breath of wind and it was not going to be weather that stopped Dave from reaching the summit this year! Man I was excited!
We climbed up and up in the cold and shade as the 9am sun had not hit yet. My toes got a bit cold and numb. My head started playing back stories I kept hearing and reading of climbers losing toes and other appendages up here.. I kept wiggling them for an hour or so and as the sun came up they came right. We kept climbing.. Up scree slopes and snow slopes and over rocks and ridges. Hours of climbing. I was trying hard to keep my head in the game and focussed but it was hurting for sure. We came to the last camp that only yetis must use really because it’s so high. Camp independencia.. and there was actually a lone tent there! Crazy.
I put my crampons on my boots… Ok well pretty much Dave put them on me as I was too busy gasping for air and shaking from cold and a few nerves which had returned too. I knew this was the start of the famous traverse. It was along here that Dave had turned back in his two previous attempts. I had actually made it this far.. I didn’t know how and it didn’t really matter. I was here and I wasn’t turning back. I got this!.. Then Dave said ‘ok now the real climbing begins!!’… Mat started grinning like finally he was getting to the good stuff!!.. I got nervous again.
We climbed out of Independencia onto the exposed snow and ice slope where the wind and cold really picks up and we got stuck into the Traverse..
This is where basically everybody wears crampons. The snow and ice is slippery and steep in parts. To me it was scary looking down thinking about what would happen if you slipped. I’m not convinced you would stop yourself before literally falling off the mountain in some places. Dave and Mat however were wearing no crampons. They just had their boots and hiking poles.. Well actually Dave only had one pole..
I knew that this wasn’t some reckless stunt they were pulling, being foolish or showing off. It was a difference in skills in this terrain. They were completely comfortable in what they were doing. They knew how to dig their boots in and cut their steps on the right angles as they climbed. To them this wasn’t dangerous, it was familiar and.. well it was fun! I guess I can relate it to my free diving and frequently seeing and dealing with sharks that come to take my fish. Poking sharks in the ribs and swimming directly at them to make them back down seems nuts to some people but I guess it’s what you know and feel comfortable with. No different for these guys here. Me… I stuck with crampons.
The two of them aced their way across the traverse and I gingerly followed.. I certainly had my exhausted altitude sway on here. I was hurting but I still wanted it so badly. We all made it across the long traverse, Mat constantly motoring forward and back getting into camera positions and getting some just amazing footage. I’m so glad he was there then, I just didn’t have the energy to even think about camera work. I can’t remember how many hours that traverse was but by the time we were on the far side climbing up to a part known as the cave I had slowed to about one step every 5 breaths. Man it hurt bad.
We sat at a little ledge outside the cave overhang at 6700 meters and rested. We continued drinking more of the minimum 3 litres of water it requires between Cholera and the summit and eating one square meals. On any normal day a person, me included would say that’s it.. I’m done. My body screamed at me to say that. It wanted out.. Immediately.
We looked up at the summit which was across the way and above us. It looked so close I almost got excited. Dave was talking to a couple of other climbers also resting here. Everyone was shattered, a couple were turning back. ‘Come on’ the school teacher said.. ‘It’s only a couple more hours!, three tops!’.. I’m not sure if that inspired or nearly broke me!?.. I realised although we were only around 200 vertical meters below the summit.. It was still a long way to go.
I heard Dave say to one climber ‘you’ve come this far, don’t turn back now, you can do this!’. He looked at me but I had already made up my mind.. I had more.. I really could do this.. I could summit Acon. Right then and there the three of us knew… we had this.
We got up and started up the now very steep snow slope that needed to be climbed to summit ridge. Kicking steps as we went, legs burning, this would have been one of the more physically demanding sections of the climb.. and not one of the people from the cave ledge turned back. They followed Mat, Dave and I up that slope. It was a really cool feeling.. I had forgotten the pain and suffering now, the baseball bat was trying its hardest but I didn’t care.. That summit was mine and I got into encouraging the other few struggling climbers. It always helps when you feel like you’re not the weakest link and I find I get extra energy from somewhere when i’m helping and encouraging someone else.
We climbed that slope to summit ridge extremely carefully and slowly and hit the rocky tops. We made our way across to the scramble that would lead to Acon’s summit. Still not one of the people from the ledge had turned back.. They were slow and spread out down the slope but they kept coming.
As Dave, Mat and I approached the last few rocks to scramble up, I raised my head from gasping at the ground for air and looked at Dave. He was welling up with tears and that was it, we both lost it. We climbed up on top all three of us together with the GoPro held out in front of us and on the 18th January 2016 at around 3pm we stood on Aconcagua’s summit. 6962 meters! This was beyond words incredible for me. The highest point on the continent of South America.. The second highest of the famous seven summits next to Mt Everest.. And the highest of any mountain outside of the Himalayas. You can see for absolutely MILES!!
Mat was taking more incredible photos and we soaked in the view for a good 20 minutes up there. A long time to be on a summit but the weather was perfect and we had time. Slowly but surely every single one of those climbers that was turning back from the cave rest stepped up on to the summit. I don’t think there were dry eyes anywhere haha. It was the best feeling in the world and all three members of our team were there.
Normally that would be the end of the story.. But with climbing the summit is only half way. You still need to get down. If you don’t, quite simply you will die and I knew that.
After leaving that summit and starting down, I felt the adrenaline leave me and the fatigue return. I know it’s the descent that usually becomes a climbers demise so I told myself to focus again. Fatal falls were not so much a severe risk on this mountain if I was careful but I knew I had to get down without collapsing with fatigue and putting everyone else at risk to help me. The climb down to Basecamp took two days.. It was tough but we had summited so pain didn’t matter now, it was over, the mountain let us all up.
On the 20th January we walked out of Basecamp and headed back over the 30 odd kilometres to the park entrance. Limping, skinny (I’m now 64kg) and wasted but with a memory I will never ever forget!
Thanks Mat and Dave for an epic adventure! When’s the next one!?