My alarm just went off. It seems like I just fell asleep. I fumble in the dark to find my I Phone buried under four layers of clothes beneath my head. They have served as my pillow for the last twelve nights on this mountain. I find my phone and stop the alarm. It’s 3:30 am. It’s pitch black and cold as I open the zipper on my sleeping bag. I was really quite warm considering it was nearly zero degrees outside. I’m waking up in a three man tent at 19,700 feet as I prepare to summit Aconcagua in the next twelve hours.
My other tent mates John and Phil from Louisville, KY, are also unzipping there sleeping bags. I can barely remember meeting them for the first time at the Plaza Hotel in Mendoza Argentina twelve days ago. Along with three younger guys from Florida and a female banker from Basel, Switzerland we made up this season’s 13th climbing team for Aventouras Patagonicas. We had a wonderful steak and Malbec dinner the night before we left for the mountain. We learned about each other; who did what, married, children, etc… We sized each other up, who was the strongest, who had the biggest ego, who might not make it. Secretly we all know that good karma has a lot to do with success on the mountain. We joked about being the lucky thirteen. The guides are boiling hot water from melted snow. They started at 3:00 am and it will take another forty-five minutes before its ready. We will each get two liters of water to carry for the next fifteen hours and a little extra for hot tea now. Three people in a tent no bigger than your kitchen table is a sight to behold. Clothes are strewn everywhere. “Is this sock mine?”, Phil asks. “Smell it, I said as I give myself a morning bath with Wet Wipes inside my bag.” 3:45 am.
I found my headlamp and turned it on. I feel pretty good as I wake up. I find my medical kit under my down jacket and pull out my finger pulse oximeter. I slip it on and wait. One second, two, five. Pop – pulse is 99 and pulse ox is 70. If I were back in Wayne my wife would have called 911. The others check with similar numbers. We are not deterred; we have been oxygen deprived since we left base camp elevation of 13,300 feet seven days ago. 3:55 am.
“Hot water soon”, says our guide, Aike. He and our other guide Marianna are both in their late 20’s. They have summited this mountain more than seven times each. Every day we ask them to tell us what’s ahead. How steep, how far, were common questions as we left for base camp. We left the road and hiked for three days, twenty-four miles and 6,000 feet to arrive at a well-established base camp with a fulltime cook and an outhouse. There was even Internet access during the day when the solar panels worked. As I slide out to the cold vestibule to use my pee bottle I wish I had a bathroom. 4:05 am.
John, Phil and I began the process of putting on all our layers. If you packed properly and didn’t over pack with weighty items you never used, you should be wearing nearly every article of clothing you own. Depending on the weather we will be able to peel layers off later. The temperature for this trip was very nice. We were warned that winds of 50 mph and temperatures of minus 200 F were not uncommon, but we were enjoying global warming at its best. We have had sunshine each day allowing us to hike with very few layers, but when the sun goes down it gets cold fast. We have been told that we will approach the summit on the glacier and will be on ice for most of our summit day. We were told to put our boots and crampons on as we left Camp 3. Have you ever tried to put on double plastic boots, crampons and long gaiters, in the dark, in the middle of the night, in zero degree weather? Breathe, breathe. I grab a Pro Bar, 392 calories, one of eight I will eat in the next twelve hours. 4:20 am.
“Hot water ready!”, the guides yell. With my boot and crampons on I carry my pee bottle off into the distance to empty it. Otherwise it will be frozen when I return from the summit later today. I return to the tent to grab my two other water bottles (author note: Mark one bottle for Pee and try not to mix them up!). Aike fills both bottles and I put one in an insulated sleeve. The insulated water bottle will fit inside my down parka now, and the other will go inside my backpack. If I am lucky it won’t freeze up before I have a chance to drink it. The others are exiting their tents. We are not talking, we are saving our energy for what lies ahead. We have been talking for twelve days; we know what’s next. Aike says, “Leaving in fifteen minutes.” Last night at dinner he told us that we would be leaving at 5:00 am, no exceptions. Aike said it would be cold and he was not going to wait for anyone who was not ready. 4:45am.
Our appetites were not so good at this altitude last night. The menu of instant mashed potatoes with sundried tomatoes and dried mushrooms was hard to swallow. I know from prior trips that food gets bad near the summit and our appetites diminish with altitude. I tried and managed to eat my portion as best I could. Sitting inside our tent we heard the shout of “Seconds” and we just laughed.
Only a few minutes left before we leave. Last minute mental checklist. At this altitude it’s easy to forget things. The brain is slow to process everything due to the lack of oxygen. I remember reading that at 20,000 feet there is roughly fifty percent oxygen available when compared to sea level. Too late, here we are! Check, double check, triple check. Extra batteries for my headlamp, check. Energy bars and water in my parka and backpack, check. Extra gloves and hand warmers, check. Camera, check, everything zipped and secure, check, ice axe and poles, check. Boots tied and crampons secure, check. Later today someone will have their crampon come loose and fall off. We will wait for fifteen minutes in the snow while he gets it back on and secure. We are all now standing around in the dark with headlamps on. Somebody asks if I remembered to put on sunscreen, “Oh, shit!” Who remembers to put on sunscreen at 3 am when it’s zero degrees outside? Aike shouts, “Let’s go!” It’s 5:00 am.
Breathe, step, breathe, step. It’s cold and I am wearing six layers on my upper body. The trail out of camp is steep. We are not going to arrive at the summit until 2pm if we are lucky. As we leave camp, we become a centipede of headlamps along the steep rise in front of us. I have seen these headlamp trails before. On Kilimanjaro, Elbrus, Mount Blanc. It’s always the same. Leave before dawn to get to the summit early and avoid the bad afternoon weather. However, on Aconcagua we leave later, because it’s often too cold to travel in the dark. One trade off for another. Breathe, step, breathe. 5:05 am.
We have walked for nearly ninety minutes. During that time there was no talking. Nothing to say as we try to wake up mentally and physically. The trail was steep but not technical. During that time I was thinking about our two days in base camp. We had a great cook, Chemello, and an actual dining tent with a table and chairs. When I met Chemello we had just arrived and he had pulled out a pizza from the oven for us to enjoy. He had a smile from ear to ear and a pair of sneakers so worn and torn that the tops were just loose flaps. I had brought a pair of sneaker to cross the river twice on our way to base camp and I would not need these for the remainder of our trip. I presented them to Chemello after dinner. You would have thought I had given him a million dollars. Over the next two days I found extra portions on my plate during meals and special snacks. Eating several steak dinners before and after our trip and with the extra food from Chemello, I still managed to lose 10 lbs. during the trip. The morning light has been increasing for the past 30 minutes, but the sun has still not appeared. We arrive at Independencia, our first rest. We are at 20,500 feet. Time to eat and drink. 6:30 am.
We stop for an unusual break of nearly 20 minutes. Normally this can’t be done because it’s too cold and the wind is too strong to stop. But today it’s calm and warmer than usual at five degrees Fahrenheit. My water bottle has been tucked
into my parka to prevent freezing. I removed my summit mitts. They resemble boxing gloves and have prevented my hands from freezing. I unzip my parka and take a drink. Breathe, drink, breathe. Then I reach in one of my pockets for my energy bar. I smartly tore open the energy bar package the night before so that I wouldn’t have to fuss with it in the cold. Breathe, breathe, chew. Ever notice that chewing and breathing is hard to do? We sit and stare at one another as the sun struggles to peak out. Everyone seems in good spirits with a small smile and we make eye contact with one another. Aike yells, “We go in 5 minutes!” I finish my energy bar and drink more water, still warm in the bottle from earlier. I zip up my parka, put on my pack, grab my ice axe and stand up. Ready to go. 6:51 am.
A few days ago we asked our guides about the summit path. We were told that after Independencia we would hike a long traverse to the “Cave”, a natural formation of rock providing a break from weather and wind. Shortly before we arrive we would cross the “Windy Pass” so named for the fierce winds that are usually present. I am worried about this area. Back in Mendoza I met climbers returned from their summit experience. A group of three from Ohio never made it to the summit. Their cheeks were red, purple and swollen. They were suffering from severe windburn and partial frostbite. There had been a bad storm that they endured up to the Cave. At that point the weather report was worse than earlier reported. They made the tough decision not to attempt the summit. One of the climbers retold the story and seemed relieved that they did not push further. He said that he was scared and cold and was happy when the decision to turn around was made.
Our guides were relying on weather reports from base camp and from Miguel, a logistics person with our expedition company, who checks weather from several sources and reports back by 2-way radio to Aike twice a day. We have enjoyed fantastic weather on this trip, thanks in part to global warming and La Nina. We were told to expect good weather today, but a storm was moving in by afternoon and we should try to summit and return by early afternoon. Our guide was telling us that timing was everything. The other groups at our camp and below were one or two days behind and would not be able to summit due to a weather system coming in. We would be the lucky ones.
The traverse to the Cave is long and slow. Breathe, breathe, step. We stop three times since Independencia, and it took nearly four hours. Each time was the same; drink, eat, go. No more than 10 minutes at each stop. As we approach the “Windy Pass,” Aike laughed and said that he had never seen it this calm. We also laugh and think about all the anxiety leading up to this area. The sun has been upfor a few hours and we have all removed two layers and changed our large summit mitts for regular ski gloves. We arrive at the Cave at 11:00 am. Elevation was 22,000 ft. We rest for nearly thirty minutes since the weather is good. Breathe, drink, breathe, drink, breathe, eat . Another group of climbers was just leaving for the summit. We were the second fastest group that day. There would be others behind us. It was late in the season and there are fewer groups climbing today. Breathe, breathe, drink, drink. 11:00 am.
We’re told to leave our packs and parkas at the Cave as the weather was good and would hold until we returned. It feels lighter without my pack, but I am still breathing hard as we leave. As I walked I was thinking about all the hours I had logged on the Stairclimber at the Philadelphia Sports Club in St. David’s. I was the one with a backpack for sixty to ninety minutes at a time, six days per week for months prior to this climb. Without trying I did attract a fair amount of attention. Someone asked if I was training to be a firefighter. Someone else asked if I was joining Outward Bound. Each time I answered, “No, I am climbing Aconcagua in Argentina.” Each person I told gave me the same strange look. They had no clue where I was going. Breathe, breathe, step.
Each hour passed and we were getting closer. Aike was now pointing to the summit and we were getting excited. It helped at this point to see our goal . The terrain was a mix of ice, rock and snow and it was steep. Breathing was really tough. I was thinking of the hours spent on my treadmill at home breathing from my MAG- 10 Mountain Air Generator. It’s about the size of an indoor humidifier and sucks the oxygen out of the air. My wife would say that it was sucking the life out of me! At least twice a week I would put on my heavy mountain boots, crank up the incline on the treadmill and strap on the mask from the MAG-10. I would dial in an altitude of 16,000 ft and watch my 02 rate drop on my finger pulse ox. My wife and kids would laugh at me. Can you blame them? The summit seems so close now but with each step another follows. Breathe, breathe, breathe, step.
I am sure that from above we must look like a group on a walk around the intensive care unit at the hospital. We are moving so slow. Breathing to keep the muscles going. I want to sit down and take a break, but we are so close. Just a little further. We stop at a rocky incline. Our guide turns to us and points. “There, just up these steps, the summit”. I can’t believe it! With the last of my strength I climb the rocks to the summit. 22,841 ft., but who’s counting? All of us! The summit is bigger and wider than I expected. The best part was that we all made it! We will be the only group of the fifteen other summit attempts by Aventouras Patagonicas to have all members summit successfully. Now I could sit down and rest. But not before the traditional man-shakes and hugs. Rarely do we yell when we make it. There is no strength for that. Most of us will cry out of joy. 1:50 pm.
Once we have taken in the enormity of our accomplishment we must do the ritual photographs of every combination. Me and him, and me alone, and me with the guides and all us, and this one with a flag and this one with a message, and so on… As we left the cave it was sunny. Near the summit the clouds began to form. Now, at the summit it’s snowing lightly. We need to leave. 2:15pm.
So twelve days, countless miles and nearly 16,000 feet up we have conquered Aconcagua. As I leave the summit it occurs to me that I am only half-way. Oh well, at least it’s easier breathing going down. Breathe, step, step.