At the beginning of my trip, I read a book about the history of Aconcagua, featuring the early attempts on climbing the mountain. One of the first key explorers was Paul Gussfeldt, a German credited with a number of first ascents in the Alps, who then became fascinated and obsessed with Aconcagua, travelling to South America in 1882 to find and climb the legendary queen of the Andes. He had a downright horrible go of it from start to finish, finally reaching 6500m before giving up in dire health conditions. As the story goes, after recovering and returning to Europe, he never climbed another mountain. I can now understand why.
To preface the actual hike: I knew this was going to be difficult. I was prepared for it to be difficult. And still, I was surprised by how exceedingly trying it was. As part of my preparation for this trip over the past 5 months, I’ve read 3 books about Aconcagua, numerous internet articles, and I’ve talked to various guides about it. Training has included steady-state running, threshold intervals, fartlek intervals, hill intervals, weight training in the gym, trekking with a backpack full of weights, and endless sets of lunges and squats (also partially with a weighted backpack). I studied gear lists and reviews, created my ultimate packing list and re-packed 3 times. And I took Spanish lessons. It’s a stretch to believe that someone could possibly be more prepared than I was; and still, at least 3 times during summit day, I stopped long enough to seriously consider simply turning around and just heading back down off this god-forsaken mountain.
Heading out of camp 3 at 4:50, everything starts out well enough. Not too cold (granted, I’m wearing 3-5 layers including down gear from head to toe), but there’s not much wind. We head up the steep path from Colera, walking slowly but steadily, taking a short 5-minute break for tea after about 1.5 hours. As we continue up towards Independencia, the sun begins peeking over the horizon and we are treated to a beautiful painter’s palette of red, yellow and orange with the Andes underneath us – already at 6250m, the world is at our feet. Independencia is a stop on the way to the summit; at 6400m there is a tiny, make-shift shelter that has partially fallen apart – hopefully not needed by anyone, but even in its dilapidated condition, better than nothing in an emergency. We take a 20 minute break here for tea and a good long breather. I choke down half a candy bar and hope the sugar will give me more energy for the next section. Independencia is sometimes billed as the halfway point to the summit, but it’s really not. We arrive there in 3 hours and 5 minutes, it will take us another 5 hours to get to the top. Partially because it’s another good 562m to the top, and also because the terrain and length of the trek beyond Independencia present a whole new challenge.
The slope above Independencia has a bit of snow and ice on it, but there is a path melted through and we walk up without needing to affix crampons to our boots. As we come out over the top of this snow field onto the ridge, the view in every direction is incredible. Entering the traverse across the “Gran Accareo” (long haul), which is a huge scree field at an incline of 35-45⁰, we can see all the way down to Plaza de Mulas, all the way across to the Canaleta and the summit above, and behind us down to Independencia and the valleys below. At this point, I am still (barely) able to appreciate the view.
The traverse begins as a horizontal path, albeit over a steep slope, which is a bit disconcerting given that by now I’m feeling a little tipsy. This seems to be my #1 reaction to altitude – light-headedness and less control than usual, very similar to the feeling I get after a few glasses of champagne. Sounds not too bad, until you combine that sensation with this terrain and the need for another 4 hours of strenuous physical activity. At about the halfway point of the traverse, the path begins to steepen, and the last 1/3 is a very steep climb up. It is at this point that I begin cursing – at first under my breath and later aloud to anyone nearby to hear. Pushing through scree on a 30-40⁰ incline just sucks. Every step is a burden and requires three breaths to obtain enough oxygen to prepare for the following step; and with every 30 cm step, the hill slides away beneath and I’m left with a net gain of about 5 cm. Climbing hundreds of meters of elevation in 5 cm increments is a strength game: mental strength even more so than physical endurance. Step, push, slide, gasp, swear and repeat becomes my modus operandi and eventually, a little over 2 hours after leaving Independencia, we come up over a ledge onto a flat area beneath huge cliffs. Known at the caves, this is the next well-known resting point before entering the Canaleta.
Already sitting in the caves is our team of porters, who have chosen this day for their summit “field trip.” Because there are currently not many clients on the mountain, they obtained special permission to make a summit attempt on the 6th – and a group of about 10 of them are currently en route. Some had, like we, left from Colera (3 hours later than we did), some had started a couple hours earlier from Base Camp and caught up to the rest of the group. At this point, I have to mention that porters absolutely rock. Anyway, as we approach the end of the traverse and come up to the caves, there is a wild round of cheering and applause, which is probably what gets me the final few meters before collapsing.
Bernie makes a nice attempt at trying to get me to appreciate the view; I can’t. I drink tea, again try to choke down a couple of bites of something (I think it’s still the same candy bar I’d opened a few hours earlier), and I lay on the ground and breathe. The primary thought in my mind is “How the f*(& am I going to finish this?” closely followed by “everyone says the Canaleta is the worst part, and I can’t imagine it getting any worse” which then returns me again to the first thought. This endless loop continues for a good 15 minutes while we decide what to ditch out of my backpack (the crampons go) to lighten the load for the final 400m. And then we start up the infamous Canaleta. I begin silently praying as we go.
The Canaleta is essentially a continuation of the upper part of the traverse, with a 35-40⁰ incline comprised of hundreds of thousands of loose rocks ranging in size from pebbles to boulders. Every step poses the probability of dislodging something, which consequently goes careening down towards any climber in your fall line. It’s now that I really begin to lament the mild winter last year – it did not snow much on Aconcagua, and the Canaleta is completely exposed and dry, making it even more treacherous than usual. When it’s covered in snow and ice, you don crampons and just climb up. Without snow and ice, crampons are useless and you have to scramble over all the loose (not frozen in place) rocks, again seeing many of the gains slide away beneath you. It is exhausting, frustrating, and not at all a fun activity – and it is seemingly endless. I find it unhelpful to look ahead towards the summit, as it doesn’t seem to get any closer. Looking down just makes me nervous (what if I go sliding? What if I step on the wrong rock, it goes sliding and I sprain an ankle? What if someone above me kicks off a rockslide?). Remember, at this altitude, the only way down is under your own power – a fact that I try very hard not to think too much about.
As we come out of the Canaleta and onto the “El Filo del Guanaco”, which is the ridge connecting the north and south summits, Bernie again points out the view down over the South Face. I look, know logically that it’s a really impressive sight (the south face is basically a vertical wall stretching thousands of meters down, covered in snow, ice and rock), manage to mutter a “wow” and then put my head down and again begin to plod on. Another 20 minutes, and I’m swearing and panting and moaning despite Bernie’s admissions that “yes, it’s horrible” and encouragement “only another 20 minutes.” To which my silent response was ‘yeah, right.’ I plod more, scramble over some rocks, swear and groan. Bernie looks back and has the insight to say,”Jaimi, if you want to turn around now and go down, that’s fine, I’ll go with you.” I more or less shout, “I am NOT going down!!!” Notice the missing word “want.” I very much want to go down – there is absolutely no desire left to continue up, only a stupid and blind ambition to do it, whether I want to or not. The next time I stumble a bit and groan, Bernie gives me a very friendly look and says, “It’s okay, Jaimi. In another 5 minutes, you will be mom of the year. You are almost there, and your son will be so proud!” That thought carries me over the final few meters and I collapse in a heap at the highest point on 6 continents. It is 13:00, so our ascent has taken 8 hours and 10 minutes.
The porters are already there celebrating and give us another round of cheering; some of them come over to congratulate us. I slap a couple hands, then wave them away and sink into myself, just trying to stay alive (or so I thought – it was probably less dramatic than it felt). After about 15 minutes, I’m able to rouse myself enough to drink something, take summit pictures and share hugs and cheers with the group. I remember seeing the South Face, thinking about how big the summit of Aconcagua is (it’s a large flat plateau on top of this enormous mountain), and how the rest of the Andes around don’t really look like mountains at all from up here. But that’s about it – I can’t wax lyrical about the view from the top of the world, because I couldn’t appreciate it and don’t remember all that much about it. Mainly I was trying to recover and wondering how the hell I would get myself back down again.
The descent is horrible. Down the Canaleta is every bit as bad as up the Canaleta, and by now there are many more people heading up (we were among the first on the summit), so it requires utmost concentration to avoid knocking rocks onto the people struggling their way towards the summit. I’m trying to find stable footholds, reach them correctly despite my foggy brain capacity and lack of clear vision through the altitude drunkenness, not kick loose a rockslide, and not fall over myself. And of course, I’m swearing and asking myself why I do these things. It’s also impossible at this point, on the treacherous terrain, to avoid thinking about helicopters only being able to fly to 5500m.
When we return to the caves, I first stumble off to the side expecting to vomit. I don’t, but sure feel like I need to. So instead I crumple up on the ground, try to drink some tea, and then proceed to try to go to sleep while Bernie talks with the porters. As soon as he realizes what I’m up to, he shakes me and insists that there would be no sleeping up here – I can only sleep when we get back down to 6000m. So with a groan, I slowly climb back onto my feet, shoulder my pack, and we head down and across the traverse (which thankfully is much faster in this direction, as we slide through the scree). Arriving at Independencia, I sit on the ground with my legs up in front of me, my forehead resting on my knees. And now, I do manage to puke my guts outs, leaning down between my knees towards the dirt below. Since I’d eaten basically nothing in a very long time, it’s pretty much just tea and tang (which tastes the same in both directions and I hate it even more now), but my body wracks with heaves and doesn’t want to stop. Once it finally does, we get up and get moving immediately, under my assumption that the altitude is worse than the exhaustion. And exactly 12 hours after leaving camp 3, we arrive back at Colera and collapse outside our tent.
I have to admit to feeling a little wussy at this point, what with my utter exhaustion, the vomiting, the swearing and groaning throughout the day. It takes me 15 minutes to unlace and remove my boots, and another 10 minutes to actually crawl into the tent. About 10 minutes thereafter, Bernie rouses himself enough to ask if I need anything – hot water or so. When I decline, he looks relieved and lays back down. We are both asleep within seconds. Around 18:30, we wake up again, go to the bathroom, have a short conversation about to eat or not to eat, and jointly agree to just go back to sleep. He’s almost as wasted as I was! So then I decide I’m not such a wuss and I drift off with gradually improving thoughts of having actually done what I set out to do.