I’m composing this story in my head at about 4000m, walking down the Horcones river valley from Plaza Des Mules (base camp) where I camped last night on the glacial moraine to Puenta del Inca, the road head where I will be picked up to be driven to Mendoza in Argentina.
On 18th February at about 3.30pm I stood on the summit of Aconcagua, at 6962 meters the tallest mountain in South America, and, in fact, the tallest mountain outside of the Himalayas. Summit number 5.
I am following the 40km mule track to the highway and it will take me about 5 hours carrying only water and a Discman to cover the distance. Having come down almost 3km in two days from the summit the extra oxygen in this air gives me incredible strength and stamina, allowing me to quickly cover large distances across very rough ground with ease.
The track from base camp to the highway follows the bottom of this wide dry glacial valley, often crossing the meandering icy stream that flows during the day when the sun hits the snow and ice high on the mountain slopes. Early in the day it is easy to walk along the stream bottom, crunching the ice from the previous night, but beware the gurgle that warns of the approaching icy wave that begins the daily flow. When the stream flows I must walk along the mule track, stumbling across the rough broken ground, every step avoiding the sharp broken rocks that litter the ground.
I am still above the 3500m vegetation line of the Andes Mountains, and around me nothing lives, except for the occasional eagle or condor scavenging a food cache left by some careless climber. Everywhere is dust; the air is dry, and the large temperature differential between day and night shatters rocks like glass, leaving sharp scree everywhere except the stream bottom. Everywhere is dust that invades the lungs, the mouth, the nose, and clothes me in a fine sweaty layer. When the wind blows, whirlwinds of dust careen up the river valley and I lean into it, close my eyes, and shield my face with my hands.
There is blood on the rocks. A shiny red spot here, another a few meters down the track, and more in the distance seemingly like a path leading me out of the mountains. Poor mules. The mules are the pack animals of choice here, and carry huge loads in rarified atmosphere across impossible ground. Often the mules come into camp with scraped legs, broken hooves, or bellies rubbed raw by their packsaddles. The unlucky mules drop dead of exhaustion beside the track and over time are either picked clean by scavengers or dry to mummified corpses to remain there to forever remind the other mules that blood is a small price to pay.
I clear my throat and spit and a shiny scarlet streak appears on a nearby rock. My throat has been bleeding for a week, since my nose blocked the first night at camp Canada at 4900m and I was forced to sleep with my mouth open, burning my throat with cold dry air through the night. My nose also bleeds occasionally and my lips are cracked from the dry air, but with my descent I know will come healing and I am happy to pay this small price for this summit.
High on the mountain, on summit day, there were other larger patches of blood on rocks indicating the place of death of unfortunate climbers who lost their footing and fell to their death. About 2000 people attempt to climb Aconcagua each summer. About 40% get to the summit, and about 10 will die in the attempt. We saved the life of one 21-year-old Japanese climber that we found after sunset at about 5000m unable to stand and shivering uncontrollably. He had been left behind by his climbing partner and would have frozen to death had we not fed, clothed, and housed him in a spare tent for the night. He had underestimated the mountain, and had thought that because it was summer in Argentina that summer clothes and a sleeping bag would be enough on a mountain that in summer can subject the climber to storms of Antarctic severity, with temperatures down to -40C and wind speeds over 120km per hour.
I look back at the mountain and by midday the summit is obscured by swirling clouds that mean that no-one will reach the top today without paying the ultimate price. Climbers in the high camp of Berlin at 5900m will be packing and coming down or filling their tents with rocks so that they don’t blow away. Often in these storms all tents in these upper camps are either blown away or shredded and climbers who have spent weeks acclimatizing will be forced to abandon all efforts and return home.
The human body has strange reactions to altitude and lack of oxygen, many of them nasty, but one that is rarely spoken of is Hypoxic Dreams. My understanding of dreams is that the brain tries to make sense of the random neuron activity that occurs when we sleep. When sleeping in low oxygen environments the brain gets less oxygen than it needs, and slowly dies. This slow death and inactivity leads to short term memory loss and even total incapacity and death in the worst case. In mild cases during sleep it causes the most realistic and detailed dreams imaginable – and it seems usually of a sexual nature.
I have had these dreams on Mt Vinson and Aconcagua and always it is the same, with the climbers meeting at breakfast with a sheepish look on each face avoiding conversation until one finally says, “I had the most amazing dreams last night – I think I need to see a shrink.” and everyone else nods and agrees. One dream I had on Mt Vinson was so real that I would actually describe it as better than any real sex I have had. I woke with a start, remembering the dream in detail, and worried about what movements or noises I had made inches from my male climbing partner in the cramped tent. If medical science could determine a way to artificially create these vivid dreams I would be first in line, but until then Iï¿½ll stick to high altitude climbing for my thrills.
We left Mendoza on 6th February to a hotel at Puenta del Inca, then the next day hiked in to the first camp at Confluencia to spend thee days acclimatizing by hiking in the surrounding mountains, valleys and glaciers. When we were strong we completed our trek into base camp at 4200m and spent a further three days acclimatizing there, waiting out strong winds and snow storms before moving up to camp Canada. From Canada we carried our food and fuel up to Nido de Condores (the condor’s nest) to acclimatize and the following day moved up to this camp at 5300m. Usually people rest for a day at Nido, but bad weather was coming in and as we were all feeling strong we moved the next day to Berlin against a stream of descending climbers, had a troubled night of sleep and left for the summit at 8am.
Summit day was hell and our guide told me that it is physically harder than Everest summit day. We left Berlin camp at 5900m and zigzagged up scree slopes to the wind-destroyed hut at Independencia. From there is a treacherous traverse along an icy path to the base of the Caneletta (Spanish for colour). One Japanese climber died here in 1997. His crampon came loose, he put his ice axe down to tighten it, slipped, and slid down almost 1000m down across sharp scree until his body stopped in a bloody mess, froze, was stripped of valuables by passing climbers, and was eventually carted out by mule stiff as a board and wrapped in plastic.
Most high mountains involve a summit day of snow and ice slopes, difficult because of the lack of oxygen, but reasonably simple to accomplish with a regular pattern of three or more breaths then a step. Aconcagua, because it is so dry, involves a last hideous push up 300m of constantly moving scree. It is difficult to move slowly up snow at 7000m, but on a surface that is two steps up, slide one step down the average climber manages about 100m ascent every hour. By the time I reached the summit after 7.5 hours of climbing I was so exhausted I could no longer control my body temperature and shivered in the warm sunshine and icy winds while I waited for the remaining climbers from our group to reach the top.
We picked the perfect day. The day before was strong winds, the day after was strong winds, but by summiting a day early we had light winds and perfect sunshine.
We did incredibly well, with all five of our party (four English climbers and me) plus our guide summiting. An American group of eight climbers who moved camps in parallel with us and shared our stoves, fuel and food totally failed. Five climbers quit at base camp because the tent accommodation was not up to their standard and the remaining three turned back on summit day because they were too slow and not well acclimatized.
It seemed that the camps were full of loud Americans that believed that money, nationality, and Coke would get them to the top without any of the training, pain and toil that the rest of the climbers invest. Needless to say a much greater percentage of American citizens fail to summit than other nationalities, but strangely it is never their fault, and always blame their guides, or the weather, or their expensive but untested equipment.
The Japanese climbers are similar, spending money on porters to carry their loads to high camps instead of doing the carrying themselves and gaining the fitness and acclimatization this high altitude work gives. They are left with empty pockets, large amounts of food at high camps, but too weak to summit.
Two days before we ascended to camp Canada we had just done a carry of food and fuel and tents there from base camp when a storm came rocketing down the mountain and we had to race down to avoid frostbite in the thin clothes we had ascended in a few hours before in perfect sunshine. On our way down we passed a group of five Japanese climbers still ascending slowly against all logic. An hour later from base camp we heard them on the radio asking for someone to “please send porters with tents” as they were by then in the middle of a fierce snowstorm and could not reach their cached tents higher up the mountain at Nido de Condores camp. Of course, no porter would risk their life in the storm and two days later when we got back to camp Canada we found that they had used our tents to survive the storm. They had also left the tents on the ground without the covering of rocks to stop them blowing away. If our tents had blown away because of their carelessness our climb would have been over.
All of the many nationalities rely on each other and laugh and joke in broken Spanish or English as they pass each other on the climb …. except the Japanese climbers. Of the dozens of Japanese climbers I said hello or Konichi-wa to not one bothered replying. One Japanese group came to base camp and went to the tent of another Japanese climber to find he had been dead for 10 days and no-one knew because he never spoke to a single person. This lack of communication with the wider climbing community causes many extra problems for the Japanese climbers because they never find out weather forecasts, or snow conditions, and often need to be rescued by other pissed off climbers who have to risk their own lives in dangerous conditions.
I spent about three hours on summit day climbing breathlessly beside a Polish climber up the Caneletta. He spoke no English but did manage to catch enough breath about halfway up to smile at me and say “Fuck Caneletta” before having to breathe again. He summited at the same time as I did, but stayed after we descended. We were back in camp Berlin by 6pm exhausted but happy to have succeeded. As the sun set and the Polish guy did not return we grew gradually more concerned and a decision was made to mount a search at first light.
He finally staggered into camp at 12:30am, with the temperature -20C, dressed lightly for climbing during the day and having spent 16 hours struggling at high altitude. He had mistakenly stayed too long on the summit, tried to descend in the dark without a torch, lost his way, and almost given up finding shelter when he found the camp. He was too exhausted to melt snow to get water to drink and we were forced to give him food and water until he recovered enough by midday the next day to pack and descend. He was lucky and extremely grateful for our help.
On our descent to base camp to our surprise we passed the Japanese climber we had rescued a week before and sent down. He was still wearing only light summer clothes and climbing alone, was almost too tired to move when we passed him late in the day and I am sure he will be a statistic soon.
Aconcagua is a large mountain, requires no technical knowledge or climbing tools but is not to be underestimated. Many of the accidents and disappointment on the mountain could be avoided if tour companies told the truth and people did a little research. Many companies advertise the mountain as “The highest trekking peak” leading people to believe that it is suitable for an average hill walker when in fact it requires dedication, fitness and experience similar to that of Everest to overcome the extremes of weather and altitude. Some people are lucky like we were and have perfect weather on summit day, but many don’t and return year after year until they succeed.