After the epic adventure on Mt. Elbrus in southern Russia, I really wasn’t sure if I wanted to take on another big mountain. I had my doubts. I had made mistakes in Russia and had taken for granted that others outside of our team could be trusted. At 54 years of age, I questioned if it was really wise to taking on even higher elevations. True to my commitment to my wife Linda, I shared every single detail of Elbrus and reminded her that she always had the trump card on future high altitude adventures. I was surprised that after sharing every detail of the epic adventure of Elbrus and asking her view she simply shared that “in time…you will figure it out”.
A few weeks later a good friend of mine who I go to church with asked me if I would consider going to Aconcagua with him. He didn’t want to do it alone and hoped that I would go with. Del was an amazing athlete in the mountains and had dreamed of climbing Aconcagua for 15 years. He and his son had climbed all 54 14,000 peaks in Colorado in just under 15 days and held the father-son record.
Earlier in the summer, he climbed Kilimanjaro, the tallest mountain in Africa. According to his recount, summit day was a speed climb starting at 3:00 AM in the morning while most other climbers start at midnight. Del proceeded to pass all of the other climbers and stood at the top before the sun rose. After waiting 15 years to go to Argentina to climb the highest mountain in the world outside of the Himalayas, Del was ready to claim his second seven-summit peak.
In addition to Del, Dan Sidles who was on the Elbrus expedition and who was the only one to summit, wanted to continue going higher. Dan was definitely committed to going to Aconcagua one way or another. With his training regimen, unbelievable strength and fearless perseverance, there was no doubt in my mind about Dan’s ability to summit. The truth of the matter was I would be the weak link between the three of us if we were to go to South America. An expedition lasting 3 weeks and reaching an altitude of 22,843 ft. was unexplored territory for all of us.
One Sunday after church, Linda simply stated, you and Del and Dan should go climb Aconcagua together. I was amazed. Most wives hinder or put up hurdles for their spouses wanting to keep them home bound, but Linda encouraged me to pursue even more adventure. What a great woman, a great wife and my best friend of nearly 35 years. Over the years we have managed to make the necessary but balanced deposits and withdraws in our relationship. It has worked of which I am very grateful.
There are many guide services to choose from on any of the Seven Summit expeditions. Aconcagua offered at least a half dozen but ultimately price prevailed with the choice of Alaska Mountain Guides. Included in the price was the permit fee, which had been $750 the previous year. They committed to a team size not to exceed 10 climbers and they included the basics that I figured we could live with. For the most part, it was a no frills trip and as the time drew closer for us to begin our journey to Argentina, there were a few surprises including an additional $250 for the permit fee. Just 48 hours before we left Colorado to head south, we received an email from the guide service suggesting that we factor another $700-$800 for porters in order to improve our chances of making it to the summit. That advice was summarily dismissed, but in retrospect we see how this might indeed help some folks in their effort to the summit.
On the morning of our departure from Denver, Dan became very ill with a stomach virus. It was ominous as he was in pretty bad shape on the flight to South America. This is definitely not the way you want your strongest guy to start an Aconcagua expedition. We flew into Santiago Chile and then took a connecting flight to Mendoza Argentina. Mendoza at 2493 ft./760 meters above sea level is well known as the major wine-producing region of South America. It is also known as the origination point for those headed to Aconcagua some 90 minutes northwest in the great expanse of the Argentina Andes.
At the hotel, we were introduced to Ross and Roman the other two climbers who would be rounding out our team of seven. Both individuals were from Australia. Ross had attempted Aconcagua the previous year but was unsuccessful in his effort due to altitude sickness. Roman had never climbed a mountain higher than 4000 ft. and this was his second mountain ever. Initially, I was stunned and would have bet good money that he wasn’t going to make it past base camp. I figured that Roman wouldn’t make it past base camp. To his credit, he surprised us all. They also started the use of Diamox at the trailhead to aid in their ability to acclimatize better.
Later that evening, Tom did a gear check on each one of us. I figured this would be a quick five-minute checklist but Tom took the check-off pretty seriously asking to look as every single item I had. Unfortunately he wouldn’t give me his OK on the boots citing that they needed to be double insulated. Heck, I figured I would be OK with my Evos and I never had issues with my feet getting cold, but he wasn’t buying my insistence. Next day, I ended up renting a nasty looking pair of double plastic boots, which turned out to be lighter and warmer than the boots that I owned. Good call Tom!
We spent another day in Mendoza securing our permits a government office, which turned out to be a real pleasant surprise – one of which has happened so many other times in Mexico, Russia and on the mountains in Colorado. Approximately a month before, I was on Pikes Peak hiking up the Barr Camp trail. It’s not a difficult trek at all but a great route to do winter training with weight. I’m not really sure how many times I’ve been up and down this 13-14 mile trail in the dead of the winter but probably over 30 times. For Aconcagua I kept increasing my pack weight until I reached 55 lbs. and on occasion I would go up to the second stop on the trail to the A-Frame and back down for a 20 mile workout and 4000 vertical feet. Dan did this training with me on one occasion.
At the Barr Camp there are some great hosts in this little cabin where you can go in and warm up, get a hot cup of coffee and rest up before heading up higher or return down to the trailhead. I met Pete Lardy and his wife that morning at the Barr Camp and found out that he was going to be headed to Argentina to guide with Alpine Ascents International. As we talked and shared dates, it looked like we were going to be on the mountain at the same time. Pete Lardy runs a business on Pikes Peak teaching mountaineering and rock climbing techniques. His business is the only approved guide service on the iconic Colorado 14er. He is a great teacher and a kind soul.
The morning in Mendoza when we secured out permit and as we stood in line to sign off on the paperwork, I saw to my surprise Pete with a group of excited climbers. What a small world this climbing community is. As it turned out, I saw and talked with Pete many times throughout the next three weeks as our teams leapfrogged each other to another world near 23,000 feet.
After securing our permits, we crammed all gear in a multi-passenger van and headed into the Argentina oblivion known as Penitentes at 8940 ft./ 2725 meters above sea level, where few people seem to live, where mountain passes were dangerously navigated at high speed by our driver, and the landscape was unappealing barren. We arrived at a defunct ski lodge transformed into an overnight stay location for folks getting ready for Aconcagua. Apparently 10 years before the lodge was a bustling resort but there was virtually no snow there was no business and the resorts were all but abandoned most of the year. They kept the place open for the occasional travelers coming across the border from Chile and for climbers like us. After dinner, we settled into our beds for a good nights rest before starting the journey the next day.
After breakfast, we were all anxious to get going. We had been in Argentina for a couple of days and we were ready to get on with the purpose of the whole trip.
From Penitentes we were transported to Point Vacas trailhead at 8000 ft. above sea level to start our hike our first camp Pampa Lena. Over the next three days we would trek 30 miles from the trailhead to base camp. Pack mules carried all of our heavy gear leaving each of us with backpacks containing the day’s essentials of water bottles, snacks and a light jackets.
The best description of the terrain and scenery from the trailhead along the route to the base camp, which took three days is a vast waste land of crumbling rock, small wind blown shrubs punctuated from time to time with a meandering muddy stream, a mule carcass, and random outcroppings of more crumbling rock. One could see for long distances and despite the lack of varying features, there was beauty in the isolation and in the uniformity of nature that surrounded us.
On the first night at Pampa Lena we were treated to steaks but it went down hill from there to soups, pasta, tuna and crackers over subsequent days. Tom and Nickel set a great pace for us and we didn’t miss the opportunity to demonstrate that we were ready for the 30 mile to base camp. All in all we were in good spirits, primed, pumped and ready for the challenges that lay ahead. This part of the adventure was really easy. Fortunately for Dan, his stomach had settled down and his appetite had returned.
We had the sun in our face, light backpacks, overall good weather, full stomachs and great camaraderie getting to know one another. We talked about our families, past experiences, jobs, aspirations, politics, religion, jokes, current events in effort to get to know one another better. Its always pretty amazing to me that I get to know someone on a mountain in a few days than I do my own neighbors who I have lived next to for 10 years. Both good and sad.
From Pamapa Lena we would continue to trek to Casa Piedra where we would get our first stunning view of the east face of Mount Aconcagua. From there we would then make our way on the third day to Plaza Argentina at13800 ft.
We arrived at basecamp to rest for a one day before moving up higher to the next camp. The most difficult time on these types of trips is what you do during downtime. Laying around, talking, listening to music, sipping water and eating three meals just gets plain boring after a few hours. I was pretty anxious to get going up higher by carrying a load to the next camp and then returning to base camp but Tom wouldn’t give the OK. I thought going high and sleeping low would only improve my acclimatization but he put his foot down saying no. Again, looking through the lens of a completed expedition, I can see how resting was actually more important than working on acclimatization. In reality the acclimatization was already happening of which I intuitively knew but anxiousness was getting the better part of me.
One of the highlights at base camp was to watch helicopters land and then perform one of two missions. They either picked up climbers who had succumbed to altitudes sickness and/or injuries or they came to pickup 50 gallon barrels of crap. Over the space of two days, they came in approximately a dozen times. The mission breakdown was 11-1 with injured or suffering climbers making up the larger number of flights. Using long ropes they would haul out the barrels of crap and take them someplace for proper disposal.
At Base camp each of us were required to meet with the camp doctor provided by the government. In addition, Tom had already made sure that each of us had the three prescriptions [Dex, Diamox, and Imodium]. Our blood oxygen saturation, blood pressure, and pulse rates were measured along with a series of verbal questions. We each passed but apparently he had the authority to prevent a climber from going any higher if he didn’t think they were medically in good shape.
After an acclimatization day we starting to divvy up the group gear and some of our personal gear that we didn’t need in order to stow it up at the Camp 1. Up to this point in the journey horses or mules carried all of our group gear. One of the reasons why Aconcagua has such a low success rate was soon to become apparent. Camp 1 is located on a ridge at 16,200 feet above sea level and we became the pack animals instead of mules. We would end up doing a double carry to this camp. What I didn’t completely understand was the effort it was going to take carrying 60-65 lb. loads up to 16,000 feet through the narrow, steep, scree filled trail. This trail was dangerous in several places and one slip meant tumbling down steep ravines with an oversized backpack. There is no doubt in my mind that a fall would result in severe injuries and an end the climb. Having done this route several times Tom gave us great advice and wisely set the right pace for us.
My words can never describe how difficult this was. Despite all of the advertisement by Mountain Hardware, North Face, etc. on the virtues of their pack comfort and load balancing, weight can be a brutal enemy to one moving to higher altitudes and it require incredible stamina and physical endurance. We climbed over 2400 feet that day to Camp 1.
The actual distance was not more than 3 miles but the physical and mental challenge was relentless, back breaking and down right intimidating. Total climb time was 6-7 hours. In Colorado I would have been able to do the same in less than two hours with the usual 20 lb. pack up to 14,000 feet. Unfortunately, this was only the first carry. After storing our gear at Camp One we headed back down to base camp. The next day, we repeated the whole process again this time vacating base camp – thankfully never to return.
At Camp 1, it was colder, windy, and even more desolate. And to make matters even more interesting, our latrine now consisted of plastic bags. We were issued these big black trash bags at base camp the day before. At base camp, we enjoyed the luxury of port-a-potty. I never thought I would ever be grateful for an outside port-a-potty until Camp One. Each bag had a serial number that would be checked on the opposite base camp side of Aconcagua. The purpose of the bag was to capture and store my fecal matter so as to not harm or contaminate the mountain environment. If you couldn’t produce your crap filled bag, which you lugged in or on your backpack on your way off the mountain in two weeks, a $500 dollar fine was levied against you.
After setting up camp and after being absolutely physically exhausted, we scarfed down dinner and settled into our sleeping bags for the night. Throughout the journey, Dan Del and I shared a three-man tent. It was a tight fit but accommodated us just right. In the middle position between these men, I awoke sometime around midnight with a growling stomach. My worst fear on any big mountain was about to be realized as I managed to contract an intestinal bug.
The bug stayed with me for the rest of the journey. I knew I needed to consume carbs and eat as much as possible realizing that there would be days when the calorie burn rate would be 5000, 6000 and more. But, I also worried about the amount of weight coming out of my body into that nasty black bag. After a few days, it really concerned me and so I just decided to reduce the intake to have the same effect on the out take. I debated taking medicine to solve the issue but that too has all kinds of undesirable side effects and would only to this as a last resort.
After another acclimatization day at Camp 1 we had a carry day to Camp 2 [Guanacos] at 18,200 feet above sea level and then back down to Camp 1 again. Same pain, same thing but the second time up to Camp 2 I started to feel better. There were lingering effects throughout the remainder of the trip but it became manageable. Our spirits were high. I’ll never forget another team left Camp 1 about 45 minutes before our team of seven.
Once we left, we caught up to them in probably 15 minutes and passed them singing happy birthday to Dan Sidles. January 16, 2012 is day I will never forget as it was almost magical how our group seemed to catch its stride as we sang to Dan. Other climbers must have thought we were crazy but our guides shared later that they knew that day we had a pretty good chance of making it to the summit based on how well we were responding to the challenge and if weather conditions remained favorable. Typical round trip climb times from Camp 1 to Camp 2 was to be in the 7-8 hour range but we did it in 6 hours.
At Camp 2 we had yet another day of acclimatization. Once again, it was pretty boring just hanging out at the tent in anticipation of the days ahead. By then you don’t care how you look, how you smell, what you are wearing as long as you are warm. I didn’t really want to listen to music or read on my iPAD In fact nothing really mattered at that point and I found increasingly that the focus in my life became very narrow and consumed with the thought of one thing – the summit. I had read about this and never quite understood it but now I was living it and it was real.
I was concerned that our guides were going to deny me the chance to the summit given I wasn’t eating much. Being the oldest guy, I thought they would pull me to the side and attempt to talk me out of going past high camp. As strange and diabolical as it sounds, I played out in my mind what that confrontation was going to look like and exactly what I would tell them in strong, forceful and not so diplomatic language. As crazy as it sounds the summit fever mindset took hold and I was willing to threaten them with bodily harm if they were going to prevent me from a summit attempt. Thankfully, it never came to that. They checked all of several times a day with the blood oxygen saturation meter. They recorded every measurement and commented without hesitation. Del was a freak of nature with his blood oxygen saturation never going below 88. I’m pretty sure mine was in the high 70’s at the low point. Nonetheless, I never felt like blowing chunks, never really had a bad headache and felt probably as good as one can at 18,500 feet.
After a day of acclimatization at Camp 2, our guides called a team meeting and informed us that our schedule was going to change. It looked like a weather front was going to move in making a summit nearly impossible with 50-70 mph wind and sub zero temps. Based on the satellite feeds that were being called into them from their base weather station in Alaska, they shared that our best bet was to move up to High Camp 3 [Colera], skip an acclimatization day and then make the push to the summit very first thing the next morning. If we didn’t’ make that window it was likely we were going to be socked in at high camp and/or have to forgo a summit attempt altogether.
So we made our way to High Camp 3 with full loads. The location of Camp 3 helps to protect from high winds but like the previous camps, was a desolate place. However, the views from this vantage point of the Andes were spectacular. I’m not sure how heavy those packs were but they had to be pushing 70 lbs. Temps were dropping and winds were increasing at Camp 3 – high camp. The altitude readings hovered just below and above 20,000 feet.
This place was a god-forsaken uninhabitable ledge where everything started to slow down for us. We didn’t do anything at this point at a quick pace. The lack of oxygen was physically noticeable and every movement required 2-3 times more effort and time then just a mere 1500 feet below. I’ve always thought it to be remarkable that such a short distance in altitude makes a huge difference on the human body after reaching a certain altitude. For me it’s definitely 20,000 ft.
But then something else happens. It’s almost not the physical ability that takes you higher but rather the mental will.
After getting up to high camp we had our serious summit attitudes in place. After dinner we squared away everything that we were going to need first thing in the morning and attempted to get some sleep. That was a futile effort to get rest as it always is on every mountain on summit night. Anticipation, nervousness, and a slight adrenaline rush makes this impossible. Our guides came barked out to all of us to get ready approximately 5:00 AM while the stars were still out.
Each of us quickly drank some hot beverage. I had some instant oatmeal and a power bar. Outside the tent it was absolutely freezing with temps hovering around zero. But, we quickly got organized, formed our rope team, did a quick gear check, and started our summit push. I’m pretty certain at this point there was no doubt in any of our minds – we could do this – we were going to summit that day. To be sure this was not a function of unbridled arrogance or ignorance – there was just a quiet confidence for all of us that every mountain experience up to that point had prepared us for this special day.
We weren’t the only team headed for the summit that day. There were probably 5-6 teams and half the Argentinian army. We really never got the full story but there were between 50-75 soldiers in full gear making their way up to the summit. In total there were nearly 100 climbers that day. The Argentinian soldiers were without question the slowest of all of groups and on multiple occasions served to be a bottleneck for other teams attempting to pass them.
Step after slow step we proceeded to make our way along the well-defined route up the North Ridge to the Refugio Independencia at approximately 21,400 feet above sea level. We would then continue to ascend the west face up to the Canaletea, which is a renowned 800-foot colour of pure rock screen. From there we would follow the Guanaco Ridge, which provided a 360-degree view of our high altitude surroundings.
The climb itself wasn’t technically difficult and as the sun peeked over the horizon, the air started to warm ever so slightly. In many ways it reminded me of the walk ups on so many rock piles called 14ers in Colorado. The only difference was there was no oxygen and every movement was an effort. Nonetheless, we stayed together and we took a few breaks to hydrate and consume power bars to regain some lost energy. We passed, 21,000 ft. Check – all systems good. We made it to 21,400 feet and took a long break. Check – still feeling OK. The much talked about and vile colour awaited us. There are many stories about how this is a nasty life sapping pile of scree that persists for nearly 800 vertical feet. It is said that if you can make it through this section of the standard route up to the summit, the last segment is a snap. Thankfully, there was some snow on this section that had consolidated so we made our way up relatively quickly. I envisioned this would take us a couple of hours but through steadiness and sure steps, we whisked through in less than an hour. At the top of the colour Tom pointed to the summit, which required us, stay on a well-defined path that had a few rocks to climb up and over. It looked pretty simple at this point and not really that far away but I found this last section to be the most difficult. Our pace just amounted to a near crawl. The physical demands of the day were starting to take a toll and my energy reserves were totally depleted. But step after slow step, minute after minute and what I thought was only going to take another 20 minutes took another 75 minutes. Coming closer and closer to the summit Tom kept urging us on.
Ross summited first and within a minute, I summited second with Tom on my heels. Del was right behind Tom and then came Dan, Roman and Nickel. At 2:30 in the afternoon we summited the highest mountain in South American and the highest peak in the world outside of the Himalayas and the Karakorum ranges of Nepal and Pakistan. It had taken us 8.5 hours to climb 2841 vertical feet. The actual distance was less than two miles, which is difficult to comprehend when considering how much ground you can cover at sea level it didn’t really matter as we collapsed to the ground. I remember crying with my snow goggles on and could only say “this is so hard…I’m here…I’m here”.
I thought of my wife and my two children Ben and Jenny. Instantly I “really missed them”. I though of my life and the struggles, tears, hardship, trials and disappointments. As Dan made his way to where I was now standing, I gave him a huge hug. I told him that no one could ever take away this moment from us. He had done it. He shared a few choice words how Aconcagua was a lot more difficult than he though it would be. We just embraced. All of us embraced one another and quickly started taking pictures. These were precious minutes to capture a once in a lifetime achievement and as we clicked away, snow flurries started to fall.
It has been a glorious sunny day all day but within minutes of reaching the summit the weather front that was to bring high winds, cold temps and snow – started to move in. In the midst of rapidly increasing flurries, the Argentinian armies made it to the summit and were celebrating with each another. At 22,841 feet it was a festive atmosphere of emotional congratulations, countless pictures, handshakes, hugs, and exclamations of pure unadulterated joy. After spending nearly two and half weeks to get to the summit, we invested a total of 25-30 minutes at the top, and it was worth every second.
Knowing the slow pace of the soldiers, we decided to move quickly to head down. It’s amazing how fast you can move going downhill and we made rapid progress outpacing many on the trail. Meanwhile, it snowed harder, the wind gusted more and more until at times it was difficult to see where we were going. At the bottom of the colour, we put on more winter weather gear, hydrated once again, and took in another energy bar. From there, we resumed our pace. After 30 minutes, we picked up the pace more. After another 30 minutes even more.
I was the first climber on our team arrived to get back to high camp. After descending in just under two hours, absolutely exhausted and on the verge of collapse, I struggled to remove my crampons and boots. Unzipping the tent, I crawled into my sleeping bag with all of my outer winter gear still intact. With barely in ability to move, I was completely spent. Never in my life had I been so tired.
Within 5-10 minutes Dan and Del arrived at the tent and repeated the same process removing boots and crampons and just getting into their bag.
To tired to eat and to tired to even replenish my water bottles, I lay in my bag dehydrated with chapped and parched lips. But I also had a powerful sense of satisfaction knowing that all of us made it to the summit. There is something about that sensation that is beyond words – its life changing and my life changed that day.
More certainty about direction in life.
Unquestionable sense of purpose of life.
Nearer to God.
I didn’t move that night despite the fact that I was terribly thirsty. I was just too tired. Dozing in and out of sleep, I kept telling myself to just hang in there until the daylight hour. Too tired to sleep, I listened to the howling winds blasting our tent. I just kept thinking that this is the real deal. Morning came and the guides offered all of us a hot drink. That was the best hot drink in my entire life.
Rolling out of our tents, we started to pull all of our gear together. We were going to make our way down to base camp on the opposite side that we had come up. The descent was 6000 vertical feet from High Camp to Plaza Mulas on scree filled trail with 70 lb. packs in wicked weather. After a few hours of breaking camp and lashing every remaining item to our backpacks, we started the day’s journey. It was brutal. I fell at least 6 times and due to the enormous weight and the weakened state from the previous day’s exertion, I couldn’t even get up. Repeatedly teammates helped me and in return I helped them when they fell.
The descent to took about 4-5 hours with many breaks. When we left high camp it was snowing but as we approached base camp, it started to rain. But it was in that in between wet versus frozen state, which just chilled me to the bone. The minute we arrived at Plaza Mulas and I stopped generating any heat from body movement, I was painfully cold.
That evening we were fortunate not to have to erect tents but rather we stayed in a huge tent structure that was already in place. It was during out check-in with the Plaza Mulas camp officials that we learned that our team was the first team to achieve a 100% success in the Aconcagua climbing season. We met up with our friends at Alpine Ascents and Peter Lardy that afternoon and learned that their team achieved the standard 30% summit success. After eating dinner and getting our sleeping bags arranged for the night I couldn’t help but consider the intensity of the rain outside and realize that 6000 feet higher on the mountain a tremendous snowstorm was well underway. By one day, we could have been at high camp in the midst of this storm. I slept well that evening snuggled in my sleeping bag oblivious to the precipitation outside.
The next morning the low depression which had settled in over the entire Aconcagua region only as the downpour intensified. This was to be our last day on the mountain and while the trek was downhill we had 18 miles of ground to cover from Plaza Mulas Base Camp to Horcones Park trailhead.
At Plaza Mulas, we were able to shed the bulk of our remaining supplies, as pack mules were once again available for our use. That left each of us with 20 lbs. of gear in our backpack, which felt as if we were carrying feathers.
After breakfast, we moved quickly down the trail, in the rain, and with each step closer in our final journey. Hour after hour and mostly in silence we quickened our stride to the point that we were almost jogging. Periodically one of the team would say something about the surrounding landscape or make a comment about a mule skeleton but there was no small talk. Teams that were doing the expedition in the reverse direction that we had done would be making their way to Plaza Mulas. They were straining under their heavy loads and punishing rain. There was secret joy in knowing we were approaching the conclusion of this great journey while others were just starting.
Once we arrived at the trailhead, we were transported back to the Penitentes lodge where the expedition had begun. Once there, we each weighed ourselves and compared the findings to our individual weight totals from three weeks prior. Everyone lost at least 10 lbs., a few had lost 20 lbs. and I had lost 30 lbs. After the weigh in we returned our rented gear, checked into the lodge and took showers.
Hot water and a razor never felt better. That night we celebrated with steaks, wine and gorged ourselves on everything else that was put in front of us. Drifting off to sleep in a bed with a cotton mattress, I reflected on this great adventure. The satisfaction of successfully and safely completing this expedition was something that couldn’t be undone.
It was finished. One more page in the chapter of my mountaineering life was written.
I had proven to myself that I could stand atop the highest mountain in South America. I was one step closer to doing even higher mountains.