19.01.2012 - 25.01.2012 13 °F
Aconcagua. The highest mountain in the Americas.
Back in Boston, on one of those hot summer hikes, it was wistfully mentioned to me by another hiker.
And Aconcagua stayed. It stayed in my brain, slowly and surely planting its web until I eventually realized that I had to face it.
And, it seemed like such a good idea.
I would be traveling in Argentina, with all the time in the world to do the 16 day trip up the Normal Route to the 6,962 m (22,841 ft) peak.
So, I found a reputable agency, bought some impressive gear and signed up. While still in Boston, while it was still warm and beautiful.
I was due to begin the climb on January 6.
Almost as soon as I began the trip, the thought of nearly 7,000 meters began to dawn on me. And unlike before with other mountains that I was planning to hike, there were sprinklers of definite fear mixed in with the looming excitement. The mountain, even from Santiago, looked big.
And then, they began. Clear, unmistakable messages. ¨Don´t do it.¨
I tried to ignore them, dismiss them.
While in Patagonia, when we were caught in a crazy snow blizzard, my brain received a pronounced directive ¨NO!¨.
I dismissed it.
A few days later, on the way to a bus station, I met the only Russian I was to meet until Aconcagua. We had met at midnight, before my 12:30 am bus, and somehow the subject of Aconcagua immediately came up and he told me a horrible story of his failed assent.
Could the Cinderella message be anymore clearer?
A few weeks later, as January was fast approaching, I was biking from a lake, thought of Aconcagua, and had a vivid flash back to a nightmare headache I had felt on my way up to Kilimanjaro.
Then I met a guide, who told me about a client of his who had died.
Ok, Ok, I got it. I called my agency, and switched. Fast.
Forget the peak, ¨no¨ to the 16 days.
I will take the 5-day trek to the base camp instead.
So, on January 18, I arrived to Mendoza, gear check on the 19th, and on the 20th off we were.
Of the 12 in the group, only I and the ¨flako boy¨ were not aiming for the top.
The first day, we were taken up from the safety of 800 m (2,600 ft) of Mendoza to Puente del Inca at 2,725 m (9,000 ft), where for dinner we were served a milanesa: a breaded and fried piece of beef, topped with cheese, topped with ham, topped with a friend egg -- No Joke.
Next day, we trekked through mind-blowing sights of magnificent cliffs amidst multi-color valleys framed by snowpeaks, all the way up to camp Confluencia at 3,300 m (11,000 ft).
Should we be soo tired after only a 3 hour trek.
Being the slackers of the group, flako and I made another trek in the afternoon. Wow. my heart, loud pangs. Ok, ok, at dinner, we all rested, exchanged stories and our small but tight English-speaking part of the group found ourselves panting from fits of giggles that one experiences when in the back on the tent one sees the rising and rather menacing view of the ¨cumbre¨ the peak!
We slept. Mostly ok. 11,000 ft is after all only the beginning.
Next day, an acclimatization trek to Plaza Francia at 4,000 m (13,125 ft).
Again, absotely stunning sights of red, yellow, green, and all shades of grey peaks, striking lines made by gusty winds, ever changing views of rising peaks. Gorgeous.
Oh, did I mention, to acclimatize, one needs to drink at least 4 litters of water per day.
Me, well, remembering the piercing headaches of Kili all too well, I drank 6 litters per day. No Joke.
So, naturally, the trek to Plaza Francia was numerously interrupted by runs to the nearest rock.
Run. Pee. Pant. Rest. Look around. Walk. Pee. Wow, tired. Rest. Look around. Pant. And so on.
Day 3. Trek to the base camp. Plaza de Mulas at 4,350 (14,271 ft).
The sign showing directions said 8 hours.
8 hours on the dot it was.
The first 4 hours, again, absolutely gorgeous. We walked through several valleys brimmed by ever more gorgeous peaks.
Some gusty winds to add to the panting. The never ending runs to the rock also increasing the panting. But overall, so fun.
Next 4 hours, a climb, up.
You know those moments when you hear your heart loud and clear.
Well, for the next 2.5 days, I heard my heart very loud and too clear.
We got to Plaza de Mulas. It was snowing (did I mention, back in Mendoza, same day it was 33 degrees celsius (98 F). Brr. It was cold.
We ate. Another fit of giggles with the English speakers, now integrated with the universal language of panting done in English, Portuguese, French, African, Australian, Spanish and occasional Russian (of course).
At night, in the tent, the thermometer showed -4 degrees.
Freaking 6 liters. ¨Must go out, must get up.¨ So I did. And the sky. Sheer milky way. Incredible. Lit up with innumerable stars and constellations. Beautiful.
But c´mon. Freaking Cold.
Back in the tent. Ok. Sleep. Wow, is that my heart. No. That´s my truck driver breath. EEEEh. EEEh. That is loud.
But that´s ok. My tent mate turned onto the other side and is now panting just as heavily. A chorus of EEEEh EEEEh.
Next day, we are supposed to have a rest day of acclimatization.
But clearly, as the slackers of the group, flako and I had to venture out.
We walked, no more than 3 hours.
We got back. I was doubled over, panting.
During the by-day oxygen, pulse and blood pressure check with the doctors, my oxygen went down. Of course.
I was running a fever. My head doubled in size and ¨What, what did you say?¨, couldn´t hear a thing. Great!
And it got cold.
And the group slowly started looking, well, not so hot.
Sagging skin, big circles under the eyes. Panting.
And rapidly rising fear as we looked at the sights of the peak hanging over the base camp.
And the Fear rose even more as I was told by the guide and the returning climbers about the fate of the expedition that took off on January 6 -- Had I Gone:
They started off nicely, just like we did. And after 5 days at the base camp, they moved on, as planned. The weather turned. 3 days of bad weather, followed with more bad weather. That happens, a lot, on Aconcagua. A lot.
To try for the peak, they had spent extra 2 days at the highest camp, at 6,000 m (19,685 ft) -- basically they slept on the peak of Kilimanjaro. It was -42 degrees, with 90 km winds. They couldn´t move on. They couldn´t try for the top, they went down.
But imagine, 3 days at that height. In that cold. With so little air.
Thank you messages. I was ecstatic.
Best decision to not try for the top.
And while at the base camp, I swear the team was plainly jealous that I was returning down after 5 days, sparing my body from the titanic effort of the climb.
And it looked like a titanic effort.
Those few who we met who had made it and were descending looked, well, horrific. Wind-burned, dazed, confused, none were smiling. They were exhausted.
And after 5 days, my ever-loud heart and truck driver breath, I was also exhausted.
As we were bidding good-bye to the rest of our now sicker group, I was anxious for them, scared.
I certainly had no desire to stay and try to the top.
The double-boots, the jackets rated to -40, the liners, the double gloves, it all seemed just not enough to spare from what they will be facing.
So happily, I began to walk down.
31 kilometers of down.
Into increasing air.
Take off the balaclava.
And 8 hours of fast down, we were back in the 30 degree heat of Mendoza.