11.30am, 9th February 2020. I’m pulling myself up onto the highest point in the Southern Hemisphere. The air glitters with flecks of snow and ice. A large white cloud swirls beneath the summit, like whipped meringue or a bucket of liquid nitrogen. The sky above is the kind of dark blue that suggests outer space is just within reach. I sit down to catch my breath, the first person on the summit. When the rest of my teammates begin to emerge over the ledge I crack them a bloody smile, my gums bleeding from wind chill and the pressure of altitude. I try to speak, but there’s so little oxygen in the air that my voice comes out as a rasp. I haven’t slept in just over 26 hours, and I won’t for another 7. But I’m fine – I’ve made it.
Aconcagua is the tallest mountain in the world outside of the Himalayas and the second highest of the Seven Summits (the highest peak on each continent) after Everest. It is just under 7000m high (6962m). For context, the death zone – a name used by climbers to refer to an area of high altitude where there is not enough available oxygen for humans to breathe – begins at 7500m. At over 8000m you start losing brain cells.
Aconcagua is not a technical peak, but it is not to be underestimated. The high altitude alone presents its own set of risks, but it is the weather on Aconcagua that is truly challenging. Prior to our summit push we had been grounded at base camp for 6 days due to a storm higher up. Winds up to 120kph enveloped the summit, making the the traverse – a section of the ascent that is essentially an exposed trail of ice clinging to the mountainside – impossible. If we had tried it during these adverse conditions we would have blown clean off the mountainside.
Aconcagua is all about mental willpower, acclimatisation and timing your summit push for the best weather. Knuckle down and keep putting one foot in front of the other until it’s over.
The last couple hundred metres before the summit is a famously challenging vertical scramble. It is the the hardest part, with the least oxygen. A short section that can take hours depending how slowly you move. It’s here, painfully shy of the summit, that most people turn back. For us it was (at least) a 2 hour effort that drew tears from at least two team members as we wound our way up over the seemingly endless tower of jagged rocks. Having pushed throughout the night, all you want is sleep – but you can’t sleep, because at this altitude a nap might kill you. Every step feels like you’re towing bricks when there’s so little oxygen on offer. The summit looks close, but never seems to get closer. You inch forward and pause to catch your breath, take a couple more steps and then the same again, and again, and again.
Before that, though: 10 hours of pushing up vertical slopes in the dark.
The summit push had begun at 11pm the previous day. It was, as you might imagine, a fidgety sort of day, anticipation hanging in the air. We sat around our tents at camp 2 (5570m), having aimless conversations and preserving our energy for the challenge ahead.
By 6pm we had sorted out our equipment. Helmets and flashlights were laid out; summit suits, boots and harnesses went on; pockets were stuffed with snacks, crampons, and what little water would fit. Silence descended over camp as we retired to our tents to try and get a few hours of sleep. I didn’t manage to get any, and sat awake obsessively knotting a spare piece of rope. Double figure 8 loop. Alpine butterfly. Clove hitch. It was a meditation of sorts, a way to mute my restless mind until the sudden clanging of my alarm five hours later.
Ascending through the mountains at night was eerily beautiful. Quiet, when the cold wind ceased. Colourless, bar the moon’s silvery glow. My head torch revealed the world before my feet and little else. What I remember most about these early hours of the morning was an overwhelming desire to sleep. As the hours ticked by I encouraged shorter and shorter rest breaks for fear of genuinely nodding off with my head against a rock. Every hour was broken up by a general murmur between us – “you alright guys? everyone ok?” – and we kept on. I fought to keep my eyes open until, at around 3am and 6000m, the sleepiness was replaced with nausea brought on by a powerful cocktail of altitude and hunger.
Up until that point it had been pleasant. I had ascended with confidence, feeling strong. The next few hours were a real test of that strength. Every step I took was accompanied by an intense wave of nausea, while climbing higher just meant that the wind blew harder, the temperature dropped lower and the air grew thinner. I willed myself not to be sick – if I were, and I started to show certain other symptoms, that’d make me a bad case of altitude sickness and I’d have to turn around. Fully prepared to abandon the climb if medically necessary, but not for a second wanting to, I pressed on, my commitment to the climb renewed tenfold. Mind over mountain. Some call it grit, others self-confidence, perhaps even resilience – but it’s effectively sheer determination and mental preparation for getting the job done. I was always ready to suffer. If you’re not prepared to push yourself, you’ve mentally defeated yourself before the hard part’s even begun. Of course, the possibility of something going MORE wrong was cripplingly daunting, but I knew that was exactly what would happen if I didn’t keep my mind relaxed.
It’s easy when it’s easy, the trick is to keep doing it when it gets hard.
Dawn broke just as we reached the traverse. By this point my nausea had subsided, largely owing to a teammate’s spare caffeine energy drink. We shared a celebratory bottle of Coke and watched the stars dissolve, laughing and chatting with one another properly for the first time since we left camp eight hours ago. The sun, peeking over the horizon, threw that wonderful pinkish-orange light onto the rocks that mountain sunrises are so famous for, instilling in us fresh strength for the next stage.
The traverse is a long icy path; the left side faces the mountain and the right side is a sheer drop. Unlike the rest of the ascent, which is steep, this section is completely flat. We need it only in order to move ahead and slightly laterally around the mountainside. It is slippery and entirely exposed. It cannot – or should not – be attempted when the wind is too strong. It was here that the wind had lashed my face raw, leaving red marks around my eyes and on my cheekbones where my buff fell down. During the scramble I led the team at the front; oddly it was here, in the face of the greatest adversity, that I felt strongest.
After hours and hours of pushing towards it, the summit of Aconcagua appears out of no where: a large flat ledge, not the narrow, spiky cone that most people imagine summits to be. Funnily enough, because it’s so flat, in photos it doesn’t even look like you’re that high off sea level let alone the highest point in the world outside the Himalayas.
The summit comes and goes in 15, perhaps 20, blissful minutes – just enough time for photos, congratulatory hugs, a rest. The breath fluttered out of me into thin air, my voice hoarse and the emotions overwhelming as I checked in with my teammates and took pictures of them, triumphant fists raised.
10 minutes after that, I’m on the descent and a teammate is digging his nails into my otherwise numb fingers to make sure I can still feel them. I’m alright, but another teammate has developed frostbite in his toes. He doesn’t know it yet, but in a couple months time doctors will inform him that his jet-black big toe will auto-amputate itself – upon which he will invite us to place bets on exactly which day it will fall off. It’s always nice to see someone handle the loss of an appendage with humour and grace.
You think the story’s over once you get to the summit, but in fact you’re only half way. For me, the ascent was actually very manageable – the real challenge was coming back down. Because now you’re thoroughly exhausted, but without the same motivation you had before. The summit’s been and gone. Thirsty, because you can only afford to carry a 1L or 500ML water bottle for the entire summit push.* *Across 18 hours of hard work, I drank only 1L. Your legs wobble and shake as you engage an entirely different set of muscles to cope with the strain of descent; your feet struggle to grip the precarious scree that causes you to slip and fall over every few metres. The tents of Camp 2 appear as tiny dots of colour in the distance, but, like the summit on the way up, they never seem to get any closer. Just past midday in a cloudless sky, the sun’s glare is harsh and unavoidable. I felt my body get lighter, my brain tingle. Probably due to another strong cocktail of dehydration, hunger and exhaustion, I started to hallucinate. (About toilet rolls on the mountainside, nonetheless.)
When I finally got back to camp 2, I collapsed in my tent – summit suit, harness and all – and went straight to sleep.
So why would you do it? Are the 20 minutes on the top worth it?
It’s not really all about the summit. You hardly remember it, it comes and goes so fast. The journey there is what you carry with you, long after it’s all done – singing and dancing at base camp, supporting your teammates through long acclimatisation hikes, cracking jokes at inappropriate times, huddling together with your tent buddy at night, looking up at the milky way, figuring out how to use the butt flap on your summit suit, exploring the wild, magnificent surroundings of the high Andes. Those days at base camp were some of the best and happiest of my life. There’s nothing quite like a shared challenge to gel a bunch of strangers together. Due to the intense proximity and the unique nature of the challenge, you discover more about each other in a short span of time than you normally would anywhere else. It’s like friendship took the fast track to family.
There are boulders to climb and glacier terrain to marvel at, brilliant blue alpine lakes and Mars-like landscapes in the valley. You see what few get to see, perhaps what few might ever see again. And for a brief moment, in a world obsessed with the minutiae of other people’s lives and shiny new things, you live simply on what you need to survive. Yes, perhaps at the time you decry the toilet (a pit in the ground – or, at the higher camps, an orange bag for each individual that costs 1600USD to lose), or long for the days when breakfast wasn’t stale bread and a half cup of eggs, or wish for mobile broadband.
But even so, I didn’t want to leave. In fact, as the return date drew closer, the thought was almost unbearable. I love the expedition lifestyle, and when I’m back down at sea level all I think about is when I can next return. There is no protocol to the return of society after an extended period of time in the mountains. The transition is not easy and never will be. Aconcagua, the Andes, and Argentina seem like a distant dream, but I know the memories I have with that incredible team will last forever.
I exist in a state of constant excitement for the next challenge. As my friend Milky once put it, “it’s the excitement only a free person can feel, a free person at the start of a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain.” My mother often advises that, with my fast paced lifestyle, I need to take up something slower – “do yoga, or meditate”, she tells me. But when I recall sitting in a little tent fiddling with a rope at 5570m, I know that I already do. The steeper the trail, the more fluid my thoughts. The more exposed the ridge, the more perspective I gain. This, for me, is peace.