Uncomfortable statistics: There are many stats about the death toll on Aconcagua. In the three weeks we were on the mountain 7 people died. Only around 20% of people who attempt the mountain manage to summit.
There comes a time on every expedition when you think to yourself “What on earth am I doing here?” Its cold, you are exhausted and hungry, everything is wet and you have not had a shower in weeks. But hey, no one said it would be easy and so you persevere and somehow bumble through. Slowly over the months the memories of suffering and vowing never to do anything like that again fade away and all that remains is the view from the top and warm fuzzy feelings
I’ve been on a number of expeditions so I have a pretty good idea of what to expect, and even though I love them, I am under no illusions that they are tough bastards that you often just want to escape from. So I’m not sure what I was thinking when I invited Marthe to join me on our Aconcagua expedition in January 2011? She had never been mountaineering but had recently started rock climbing and is pretty fit and has a strong mind. So we did the training. Running and carrying 20kg backpacks up and down hills. This we followed with a Christmas regime of stuffing ourselves with as much fatty and sugary food as possible to try and gain a bit of weight for the trip.
Aconcagua is one of the Seven Summits. A mountaineering challenge which was originally undertaken by the Canadian Dick Bass – who wanted to climb the highest peak on each continent. Since then it has become a respected feat to undertake and thousands try each year. Many just do a few of them like Kilimanjaro or Mt Elbrus in Russia. Fewer graduate onto the bigger peaks like Denali in Alaska and of course Everest being the bigun. Carstens Pyramid is in Papua New Guinea and is the highest point in Australasia and along with Mt Vinson in the Antarctic they are the most remote and difficult to get to (translate this as expensive). This leaves Aconcagua in a league of its own. Second only to Everest in stature, it is a non-technical mountain – however, it is still 7000m high. As a result Aconcagua sees more casualties than almost any other mountain in the world – people really underestimate how dangerous it can be. We underestimated it.
Our five person team had been on the mountain for two weeks by the time we were ready to do a load carry to our final camp at 6000m at the base of the Polish Glacier. We had been filming the progress of all the carrying and setting up camps and doing interviews etc. In mountaineering nothing happens quickly. Making a cup of tea can take an hour by the time the stove is primed and water boiled. So as we made our way up to our final camp Marthe and I were walking together and doing what is called a rest step. Basically you take one step, breathe three times and then take the next step. Slow but effective we were about 15 minutes away from the camp when Marthe suddenly all but collapsed. Her vision was impaired, she was struggling to speak and had a terrible headache. As quick as I could I threw everything out of our backpacks and into a duffle bag and left it there, picked her up and headed straight down the mountain. She could just walk with some support and luckily we had ascended a long scree slope that morning. We barreled straight down the scree, in a spray of stones and ice, towards our previous camp where Celmence was waiting for us (she had gotten snow blind the previous day and was in a lot of pain). In about 40 minutes we descended 1000m, Marthe getting better all the time. We fed her sweet tea and she improved and her headache started to subside. It was decision time. Did I carry on with the expedition or was it just too dangerous? I didn’t want to put her in the same position again, it had been a close call.
Every day in our second camp we would see people trundling past from their summit attempts. Most of them looked haggard and had long stares. With a switch in the El Nino cycle the blocking highs which usually give predictable weather were gone. On Ac people usually say you have 6/7 days of bad weather followed by 3/4 days of perfect weather. This was not the case. One woman told us how she had spent the night in a tent next a dead climber who had succumbed to mountain sickness. Hardly anyone had summitted.
Filming on expeditions is always difficult. You have to be physically fit and have a high tolerance to discomfort. You also have to be self sufficient and look after yourself – but it is easier to make those decisions if it is only you they affect. I was in unknown terrain on this one. Luckily Marthe recovered quickly and was determined to get to the final camp. We monitored her carefully after a days rest and she made it with no problems.
We were all now very tired, and as the plan was for Pierre and Marianne to fly off the top of the mountain we were watching the weather very closely and getting constant updates on the Sat Phone. There was a window the next day, which had been a planned rest day before the summit bid, after that it closed down with very high winds. This was our only chance.
We started to the summit at 3am, it was minus 25 C. I spilled my cup of tea onto my camera but luckily it just froze solid as soon as it touched and I could just crack the brown ice off. Slowly the sun rose over the surrounding peaks which were all now below us. Pierre and Guy were stronger and went ahead. Marianne and I toiled at the back. Its hard and unglamorous. Forget anything you have ever seen of mountaineers taking in the view and savoring the thin air… its mostly just looking at your feet and concentrating on breathing. At one point I was taking 1 step and then breathing 5 times before the next step and it felt like I was at a flat out sprint. The rythym is everything.
Filming in these conditions is really hard. I had opted to use a GH1 which I could keep under my jacket – if I had had to take the camera out everytime I wanted to shoot we would have been too slow. Its an amazing thing to look back on some of the footage now. When you are up there you think you are functioning perfectly, just a little tired, but when I look at the footage I can see I was functioning at around 60% of my normal capabilities – fingers in front of the lens. Forgetting to hit the stop button and filming 5 minutes of my feet… its kind of a mess. Luckily we shot enough crappy footage to be able to pull out some decent stuff.
Once on the summit the wind shut us down. We were too late. Aconcagua is a twin peak and we could see the squalls coming in off the opposite peak and would all lie down on the paraglider to stop it from flying away. Four hours on the summit like this. Most people spend 20 minutes and head back down. We packed it up. By this time we were so tired and the descent is always the most dangerous. Its a bit like a dream as we stagger drunkenly back down the way we came. At one point I dislodge a rock and before I know it I am accelerating down the mountain. I dig my poles in, my crampons catch and wrench my knee… but I come to a stop. Suddenly fully aware that I am at 6700m and we still need to get down the mountain. I fall again as we traverse back along the Polish Glacier to our camp, and this time break my walking pole. We are all a mess. Its been the hardest day of my life. But one which as the months pass by, seems more glorious every day. When people ask me now “So how is Aconcagua?” I am beginning to reply “Yeah, its not so bad, a little cold and hard work, but not so bad!”
Here is a clip from out 7 Summits exploits.
You’ll remember this from your childhood… Aconcagua in popular culture!
JVC HM100/Panasonic AG170/Panasonic GH1/GoPro