As I had tried to do on my previous moves and carries I made a conscious effort to move slowly, and not strain myself. I could see a group at most a kilometer ahead of me, moving slowly. There was another group a little further along that seemed to be making better time, so I thought I’d peg my speed to theirs. I set off and once again I was loving the fact that every step took my higher than I had even been, I kept on checking my altimeter to see what personal milestones I was passing, 16,500 feet, 17,000 feet and feeling great. But right about 17,500 just before I had caught up to the first group, I felt my heart go crazy, pounding extremely fast. I stopped, stood and listened. The beats were so hard in my chest that it was more like hearing them than feeling them. I had a moment looking down on Camp One about 1000 feet below, just before reaching the Ameghino Col (a saddle that joins the two mountains) where I almost turned around. I had only been climbing for a short while (I was going too fast again) but I knew something didn’t feel right. I stopped and rested, took a swig of water and waited to see if my heart would settled; It did. After what felt like a long time but was probably just a few minutes, it returned to a normal rhythm and I decided then that I would continue. Hell, despite the anxiety caused by my heart I was having a damn good time.
I caught the first group on the col; they had stopped at an intermediate cache they had left there the previous day and were busy changing some supplies. I stopped and chatted with them a bit about the usual things people talk about: candid gear reviews, how you’re feeling, whining about the interminable rocks and dust. I felt amazing at this point, I was breathing heavily but honestly I felt like without 20 or 30 kg on my back I could’ve jogged. Of course, if I had tried this I most likely would have passed out, but nevertheless I did feel great. The views were stunning as the higher you go the more the vistas open up; climbing the highest mountain outside of Asia also means that it’s the highest mountain in the range you’re in and at around this point every step one takes up Aconcagua causes their view of the Andes to grow. It was beautiful.
I resumed climbing realizing that no matter how hard I tried I wasn’t able to slow down my pace, so instead I resorted to simply stopping more. I didn’t have a set time per se, but I would walk for however long and then stop, catch my breath, drink a little and wait. Following this routine I slowed, but was still closing in the faster group too quickly. I soon caught them; we were just above the col looking down on what appeared to be a little sulfur puddle. I said hello to the first of them, they were strung out over a couple of hundred meters and we chatted briefly. It turned out that this group was the guys that had been set up just above me in Camp One. I continued up and soon caught the next guy and the next one after that, all the while moving higher and higher up the side of the mountain. Looking up I could see the Polish Glacier under which I would be caching my extra stock in Camp Two. I could see the summit, windswept and barren but still far overhead.
I climbed a little higher, finally reaching 18,000 feet or 5,468 meters when my heart started again. I stopped following the same routine I had done earlier and it settled again. I resumed climbing until I reached around 18,800 feet or 5,750 meters where my heart went once more and I decided I would turn. The decision didn’t come easily but I was far from comfortable and I knew I wouldn’t be making the summit at this point. Mentally I was OK, but just a little too nervous for my own good. If I hadn’t been alone I think I would’ve been able to continue but after about ten minutes of sitting down and resting only a little below Camp Two that sat just over a ridge above me, I decided I would turn. I took some pictures, shot a video and began to climb down.
Within about thirty seconds of turning I went through a gamut of emotions; sadness, exhilaration, defeat, and finally excitement at the thought that if all goes well I’ll be home in just about three days! I arrived at Camp One, exhausted, ate a snack then read a little and prepared my gear for the hike out. After all the days getting to where I was it was only going to take me a day and half out. I didn’t think it would be so bad, however I knew that tomorrow the hike from Camp One all the way to Las Lenas was going to be hard. Las Lenas was a good 32km away and 8000 feet or 2,500 meters below where I was now, and I would be doing it with a heavy pack down some very steep terrain. However once there I would only be about 12km from the trailhead and after that a quick 2-3 hours drive back to Mendoza.
I went to sleep that night excited and still worried about rocks falling on me. I had a slightly better sleep than my first night at Camp One, however it was far from good. The next I packed up early and moved. After sliding down the hill below Camp One, getting lost in the minefield once again, I arrived in Base Camp. There I checked on my friends from Grajales, met some Canadians who had brought Pringles (those damn mules) and I gave away almost all my extra food and snacks, reducing my load as much as possible and continued down.
This day was torture. It was by far the hardest and most painful part of the trip. The constant jarring, rocks, dust and fatigue caused my feet to blister, my knees were aching after only a few hours and it took my close to 12 hours to get to Las Lenas, minus the hour or so at base camp. I couldn’t believe how hard this day had been. When I stumbled into Las Lenas I set up my tent and limped over to the water source cooked some dinner. Didn’t bother getting more water for nighttime sips because the thought of walking the 50m’s to the river made my feet ache. I passed out soon after eating.
The next morning involved a hasty coffee and quick breakfast and I was off early. My ride was supposed to be meeting me at around 1 at the trailhead. I gave myself ample time and arrived around 11:30. I sat and waited and rested, that last 12kms had been tough as hell and the pain in one of my ankles is still nagging me when I wear boots, now over a month later, and my toenails are just now about back to normal.
I arrived at the hotel in Mendoza that afternoon, showered twice lay down slept for a while changed my flight to one leaving the next morning and then went out for some beer, an amazing bottle of wine and a delicious steak. More than a little tipsy I showered one more time and passed out.
After a harried day and night of traveling, I didn’t know there are two airports in Buenos Aires…did you? I arrived home tired, stinky, still dirty but happy and alive. Needless to say my mother was thrilled.
I’m not too upset I didn’t reach the summit. I went into the trip more as test rather than a quest and I think I passed. I didn’t push too many of my own boundaries and I want to go back. In fact I am going back once a little thing called the London Olympics are out of the way. After a year of planning, reading and obsessing I can finally, proudly put it behind me, and focus on my task at hand. I’m happy with the knowledge that I’ll be able to head back there again, hopefully with some friends, to try it again.
Go Back: Trip Report #4