The morning off our summit attempt of Aconcagua began with more of a whimper than a bang. We set off in marginal circumstances for the summit on 30 December, faced with a 1500 metre ascent from Camp 2, as the incoming storm had already blown five tents off from the high camp (camp 3). A lenticular cloud had sat ominously over the summit, foretelling dangerous weather incoming. I anticipated that a successful return trip to the summit would be at least a fourteen hour day, if we even had the chance before the storm forced use off the mountain. This was our one and only summit window during our time on the mountain, so it was now or never.
Faced with a 2am start, having been fed slop (sorry, I was supposed to call it corn beef hash but it had the consistency of baby food) and dehydrated food the day before, we pushed off in the dark in 30mph winds up the hills. The pace was slow and steady, but we were aware that the storm was incoming so could not slack off too much. I tried to steel my nerves against the self-imposed pressure of wanting/needing to summit this mountain, and fought the claustrophobia of only being able to see the patch of ground in front of me illuminated by my headlight, with my goggles on and thick winter buff muffling my laboured breathing.
What little skin I had exposed was battered by the icy cold relentless winds. I spotted a hole in my liner glove that left one finger tip exposed to the freezing wind whenever I needed to remove my mitts to adjust kit. I thought of a friend who had lost fingers on an earlier expedition we’d done by exposing his fingers for just a minute, and vowed to never use old liner gloves for big mountain days again. I fought the urge to stop to constantly adjust the awkward angle which my rucksack sat on my back, and I struggled with venting my clothing when I got too hot – the zips were all playing up from the constant dust thrown up by the mountain, and my mitts give me the dexterity of a baby, unable to grasp and pull the small zip handles.
After an hour of ascent into the dark, I thought I had overcome all these niggles, but then a nausea rose from within. Feeling like retching, I slowed my pace as the wind picked up and dropped to the back of the group. I’ll not go into more detail here, but once I was done I still felt awful and dizzy on my feet. Stepping forward in a straight line was an effort, and misplacing a footstep on one of the steeper sections would easily knock me off me feet. An unknown guide came to me and asked how I was doing – at this point I didn’t recognise him but let him convince me to walk higher to camp 3 (generally walking higher when you have symptoms of Acute Mountain Sickness [AMS] is a big no no).
After walking with this stranger for fifteen minutes and talking to him absent-mindedly as I fumbled my way up the mountain in the rising dawn, it eventually clicked that I knew this guide: in fact this was a guide I had seen almost every waking minute of every day for the last three weeks. The fact that I had not recognised him by his outfit, voice, demeanour and the fact that he knew exactly who I was made me laugh, though I recognised the inability to identify him as another telltale sign of AMS.
As the dawn broke I hauled myself into a mess tent at camp 3, happy to have arrived, but disappointed and angry at myself for succumbing to AMS. If it wasn’t for the storm, we would have all spent a night acclimatising at camp 3 before a shorter summit day, but these were the cards were dealt. The summit was still one vertical kilometre above me, but given the incoming storm, the pace we needed to set, and the fact that I already exhibited multiple classical signs of altitude sickness, I knew this would be as high on Aconcagua as I would reach in 2014.
Although I was angry at myself for not being able to continue, being able to identify AMS in myself was important as I stopped before it progressed to something more serious. I spent the next few hours at camp 3 fighting a banging headache and cloudy vision that came and went (at first I assumed the inside of the tent was cloudy… Again that was my brain not thinking straight). Eventually once I had taken on sufficient fluids and some biscuits for energy, I progressed back down to camp 2 with several others of the expedition who had succumbed either to exhaustion or altitude sickness.
Back at camp 2 I felt fine. A bit dazed from the day’s exertions, but no longer walking in a zig-zag and slurring my words like a pub drunk. I was pleased that a good friend of mine (JM) made it to the summit with a few other new expedition friends, so that they could each in turn claim their stake as the highest person in the world at that point in time (based on the assumption no one in the world is attempting winter ascents of 7000+ metre peaks in the Himalaya or northern hemisphere).
The following day I started to redeem myself by running back to Base Camp in my big mountain boots, which took just under an hour to drop 1250 vertical metres. Base Camp was busy as almost everyone had been forced by the storm to descend from the high camps, and I partied into the new year with dozens of mountain guides in the Ranger’s station, decked out with flashing LED lights and a half-decent sound system.
With a blurry head, the next morning I turned my efforts to running the 28 kilometres off the mountain from Base Camp to the park gate. But that epic run is a story for another post…
In other news, my summit attempt became the topic of conversion on BBC Radio Six’s Radcliffe and Maconie show on 8 January 2015, where they discussed the aspect of “close but not quite” with their listeners. That’s my first mention in the media this year!
Keep pushing yourself in 2015