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Summiting Aconcagua (Episode 3)
February 2004

Hey folks,

I am pleased to say that I summited Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the Western and Southern hemispheres, at 6962m or 22,841 ft. It was spectacular, grueling, and the most morbid two weeks of my life. Toward the end of this account I'll describe my own near-death fall and how I broke my hand.

Our group consisted of 14 clients, mostly Australian and British, and 4 guide-types (2 American, 2 Argentine). We approached from the east side, a route taken by only 20% of Aconcagua climbers, using the Plaza Argentina base camp. Half of our group planned to summit by the Polish Glacier, ice climbing on the last day, while the rest of us planned to walk the whole way.

The first two days we climbed gently along a hot, rocky river valley. We saw condors and sometimes mule skeletons. We used mules for the first 3 days to carry gear; sometimes they rolled in the dust or river with our bags on them, or stampeded the campsite before dawn. The head muleteer liked saying my name as often as possible, once he figured out that it was not actually "Marisol."

At midnight of the second day, two people walked out by moonlight, reducing our group to 12.

The third day we turned sharply up the mountain and arrived at base camp (4200m), where it started to hail. The next morning I woke up to find the camp covered in snow, beautiful. Here the mules left us, and we spent a day acclimatizing.

A doctor provided free health care, including oxygen saturation checks. At this point breathing was difficult and the smallest tasks made us gasp for air. Some of us sat around laughing in our hypoxia, like nitrous. With day hikes upward, we adjusted to base camp, but for the duration of the trip, as long as we gained elevation, the gasping, headaches, and insomnia continued. I could only sleep a few hours each night, and a lot of people had apnea, where they would stop breathing and then wake up gasping.

There were 2 points during the trip in which I thought I would not make the summit. The first was on Day 5 when we carried half of our gear to Camp 1, up a horrific scree slope, before returning to base camp to sleep. I developed a terrible headache and my guide told me to go down right away. I talked to people through a veil of pain, like being drunk or having an out of body experience. I wondered if I had a cerebral edema and would have to be evacuated. Someone had died of an edema on our first day, from ascending too quickly, and we had watched the helicopter flying the body out. But most likely I was dehydrated and sleep deprived. I took Diamox to help me adjust to altitude and to sleep better. I figured I would spend an extra day at base camp and fall behind the rest of the group, making use of the sweep guide. I hardly thought I would be among the first in the group to reach the summit.

That same night I watched a rescue team arrive in base camp with the frozen bodies of 2 German climbers who had fallen from the glacier. The next morning I watched them wrap the bodies and load them onto the outside of a helicopter. It was sobering for everyone in base camp, especially those involved in the rescue. Some of our group members decided at that point not to climb the Polish Glacier as planned, a trend that ultimately left just one client doing it.

Day 6, while the others moved up to Camp 1, I rested and drank liquids and hung out with the Argentine base camp staff. But a few hours later I felt well enough to continue, and arrived in better shape than most of the group. The following day I even felt well enough to move (with a full load) to Camp 1.5.

Some nights the wind was so strong that it would bang the walls of the tent against me, adding to the psychological problems of the noise. The inside of the tent developed a layer of frost, and when the wind shook the tent, it would snow on my face. The morning of Day 8 we received a weather forecast that it was going to get worse for several days, and we nearly decided to descend to base camp to wait it out. It was very lucky we did not, because we would have missed the window of good weather that allowed us to summit when we did. That one perfect day was directly followed by many days of heavy snow.

Getting to Camp 2 was the hardest day of the whole trip. With a full load of 30 kilos on my back, climbing very steeply on scree in high winds, I thought my heart might burst or my whole body might give out, and I could fall asleep on a rock and die. Just behind me was John Muir, a famous Australian mountaineer who looks like Ghenghis Khan, with a full beard, sheepskin hat, and a red and blue face from zinc sunblock. He was going as slowly as me. Guides on the mountain like to say, 'Walk like an old person, arrive like a young person.'

Let me also add here that someone climbed Aconcagua with an ironing board and an iron in order to do some 'extreme ironing.'

In Camp 2 we took a needed rest day, at the base of the Polish Glacier. My guide suggested I take a short walk to the pass, so I did, along the edge of the glacier. What my guide did not mention was that the pass ended abruptly in a 2,000 meter precipice. I discovered this a few feet away from the edge. I also saw several graves of climbers, the ones who had not made it down to the graveyard at the base of the mountain. The graves were so shallow that I could see the boot of one of them.

Most of the time I hid in my tent, occasionally popping my head out to look around, like a prairie dog. It's amazing how much of the day we devoted to survival, cooking food and melting snow for water. Living in freezerland, warmth was something special, and I was reluctant to leave my sleeping bag, especially at night to pee. (But I got used to peeing in public in daylight.) Water droplets froze on my sleeve immediately and my camera batteries didn't work well.

Day 10 I made a short but full-load traverse to Camp 2.5. By the time I got there, I had such a bad headache and was so groggy from sleep deprivation that I did not think I could summit the next day. This was my second low point. But somehow I pulled myself together enough to melt 4 liters of water for the following day (interspersed with naps) and to set my alarm for 4am.

Summit day, Day 11, was a climb of about 3,000 vertical feet (1 km). I left camp at 5:30am with the early group, those of us who thought we needed extra time. Almost everyone in that group decided to turn back rather soon. Unexpectedly, the American guide showed up with just one client (contrary to plan) and told my Argentine guide to go down the mountain with the struggling people, saying he would take over for the upward group. I didn't have time to object; suddenly my trusted guide was gone. The American guide didn't even wait for us but rather charged up the mountain by himself. Not long after that, he turned around and went back to high camp because he felt ill, leaving us with no guides on summit day, and me with no one I knew.

In the dark, the lines of people with headlamps trudging silently reminded me of a migration or a war march out of another world.

I joined and passed a number of expeditions, until I seemed to be the highest person on the mountain. But the cold, the dehydration, and the loneliness eventually got to me, and I slowed down considerably. My toes always seemed on the verge of frostbite, and there was little to do but wiggle them. An anaesthesiologist took a picture of me, saying my face was so blue that he was going to use it as an example in his lectures.

The last haul was extremely steep, although fortunately there was enough snow to cover the scree, and we were wearing crampons. (Essential.) Toward the top I saw my friend Ben below me and waited for him to catch up, figuring arriving as a team was just as good as arriving first. We were just a few minutes from the summit when I stopped to breathe and he said, "I'm going to go on ahead."
Me: What? You can't do that! I waited for you!
Him: I want it to be a special moment. I want to summit alone. But you can tell everyone you got there first.
Me: Whatever.
When I summited at 12:45pm, I found him with a big group of Belgians, sort of ironic.

The summit itself was flat like a tennis court without snow or wind. There were about 10 people hanging out and taking pictures. On the cross and in the box with the log book, people had left letters and photos and tributes to lost loved ones. I sat there for a long time reading and soaking up the sun, like being at the beach. Below us, 360 degrees around, were enormous, snow-covered mountains.

I kept hoping I'd feel something, a sense of awe or accomplishment, but my mind was numb. After an hour and a half, we decided to go down.

Three of us descended together, completely exhausted. I was with Mitch and Ben, while just a few other group members straggled up. Neither of the other women summited. Toward the bottom we became separated, and a sleazy guide from another expedition was hitting on me while ignoring his altitude-sick client. While trying to avoid him, I made a turn toward the wrong camp, Camp 2.

I found myself on a steep slope of ice and snow, which later turned out to be the False Polish Traverse. After leaping down through pillowy snow, I hit ice, and sat down to put on my crampons. One came apart and tumbled down the slope. Stupidly, I tried to retrieve it. Immediately, I slipped and fell. Without an ice axe, I had no way of stopping myself. My one crampon caught on the ice and made me start bouncing. I tumbled and slid faster and faster, head first, like being sucked into a vacuum. As my head hit ice over and over, I screamed, "Jesus Christ!" I surrendered to fate, considered I might die, and wondered if anyone in the camp below was watching my fall. I stopped suddenly, for no obvious reason, next to a rock. I landed hard on my back, making enough of an impression in the snow to hold me.

I was stunned, winded, shocked, and grateful. It made no sense, but I was glad the chaos had ended. My left arm had a sensation of brokenness in it somewhere, but this seemed like a small price. After a while I noticed that one of my feet was bare with just a sock, the boot having flown off with the impact. The boot was below me, my gear was strewn above me, yard-sale style. I wondered if I had injured my spinal cord, but when I thoughtlessly twisted my body to look uphill and I didn't die, I decided it was more or less okay. Maybe my framepack protected it. Still, I did not want to move because there was no reason I wouldn't slip again and fall the rest of the way down the slope. I wondered how long it would take my group to get worried and start looking for me. I needed someone with a rope and a few ice axes.

I could see Camp 2 below and to my right, so I yelled and waited for help for about an hour. In my bright yellow jacket and orange mittens, I was very visible. But nothing happened. Eventually I decided that what I thought were people were probably sleeping bags hanging out to dry. I contemplated staying the night on the slope. Some Poles had recently survived a night on the glacier with some minor frostbite, and I had a very warm down jacket. But it sounded like a long and lonely night.

Finally I decided to screw caution and did a self-rescue, maneuvering very carefully around the slope. I got my boot back, minus the lost crampon, and slowly kick-stepped my way upwards. Some snow was soft, but where it was hard, the need for repeated kicks hurt my bruised legs, and I prayed to the small dents I made, "Please hold, please hold, please hold." It was like rock climbing without friction or a rope. I felt like if I fell a second time, I would die.

I collected all my gear and finally reached a 'trail' that turned out to be just a thin line of crampon marks. Since I had managed to lose both my crampons by then, I traversed very slowly down to Camp 2 on the edges of my boots, and on edge psychologically. I arrived around 7:30pm.

This was when I realized that it was Camp 2 and not Camp 2.5. Still, I hoped to find the three ice climbers from my expedition or at least people who would check my injuries and contact a ranger.

No one was there from my group. I encountered two people, one Pole I had met before and someone unfamiliar. I said, "I had an accident. I fell down the mountain." A pause. "Oh," they said. A few minutes later, "Would you like some tea?" It wasn't what I expected, but it was the first small nice gesture. I knew the man had bronchitis because I'd previously translated the doctor's diagnosis for him, but I drank it anyway, being desperately thirsty.

I was exhausted, dehydrated, and in shock, but my adrenaline must have been high because I urgently wanted to leave and get to Camp 2.5. It was 20 minutes until sunset, my flashlight was broken, and there was no moon. But I was pretty sure I could make it, even if it took hours. I asked them to tell anyone who contacted them what had happened to me and where I was going. But I don't think anyone ever talked to them.

I went at a snail's pace. I tried not to fall over, because when I did, my injured arms made rising very difficult. I hallucinated vivid images of things being squeezed violently out of containers, like my brain being squeezed out of my skull. I counted my steps for rhythm in cycles of 8, then 4, then just 1-2-1-2 when my brain was tired.

At first, in the dark, I followed the path by where footprints had broken through the snow to the rock. But it eventually became pitch black and the snow turned to pure scree, without possibility of footprints. When I lost the path, I aimed toward the silouette of some distinctive rocks against the sky. In the final stretch I trudged directly up a slope of scree because I couldn't see the switchback trail.

Eventually I reached the White Rocks and went to the pass between them where I thought the campsite was. There was only a moonscape valley there. I tried the next pass, and still nothing. I thought I might have to spend the night outside after all. I yelled for help, but the rocks were vast and windy and silent. Finally, at the third pass, I found some tents.

I drifted into Camp 2.5 at 10:30pm. Most of the tents were dark, a few lights were on. I knew they were not my group, but I called out anyway as I passed through them. No one responded.

In my grouping of tents I found one person awake, my 22-year-old Argentine guide Ariel. He had just heated a Nalgene of Tang and was preparing to come look for me by himself, having already radioed the ranger. I collapsed in his doorway, gave him my hand, and described my fall in Spanish. He was angry about the whole situation. "You could have died!" he said. "If you'd had a guide with you, this wouldn't have happened." It was obvious why I hadn't had one, but I didn't have any energy for emotions or commentary. He congratulated me on summiting, but again it was slightly beside the point.

The American guide had gone to sleep, along with everyone else. They had been worried about me but concluded, "She's probably okay. She's probably camping with another group." So what if my sleeping bag and tent were there in their campsite?

I wouldn't see my bruises for several days, but my left hand had swollen up like a baseball. Ariel, who studied sports medicine, poked at it with a knife tip to test for feeling because it was so cold and numb. For some reason I had removed my mitten from that hand, maybe to make it numb. He rubbed analgesic cream on it, gave me the Tang, and I went to bed.

My tentmate, an elderly Belgian man, was relieved to see me and helped me with basic tasks that I couldn't manage, like taking off my boots and unzipping my sleeping bag. I rolled into it like a log and let him zip it up.

In the morning Ariel was going to help me carry my things down the mountain, but instead I ended up helping him. A man in our campsite got a cerebral edema, which is the worst thing you can get, and he looked on the verge of death, barely able to speak. It was depressing to watch. I knew Ariel had to help him, and he did, with 5 other men who carried the rudimentary stretcher down the mountain on steep, nasty scree.

Ariel had asked me to take his tent down for him, since I was the only fluent Spanish speaker in the group and he was in a rush. I figured I could get someone else to do it, but each person I asked got distracted and wandered off. So I did it myself, ending up with an even more sore hand.

I followed the edema group but eventually lost them because they were running. I hiked down to the Plaza de Mulas base camp alone, finding no one I knew.

The edema patient had recovered in the doctor's tent, being coherent and quasi-mobile when I saw him. He left on a mule, strapped to a saddleback. I continued to wait to see the doctor while the man's friends argued about edema theory for a very long time.

The camp doctor saw my hand and the bump on my head and he breathed, "Mama mia!" He could do nothing but check my skull and give me painkillers, which I didn't take because I couldn't feel my hand very well anyway. The next morning at breakfast I started crying, and my group concluded I must be in pain so they gave me more pills. It was a nice gesture, but more to the point was the visceral realization that I'd almost died.

That day we all walked out to the paved road. My teammates became more helpful as we descended, especially those in the medical field, who made me a sling and guessed at diagnoses. The American guide, who generally only thought about beer, literally ran out of base camp being chased by someone he hadn't paid. The porter said he was worse than a client.

We returned the city of Mendoza the following night, a Sunday. After dancing all night (with an ace bandage), hung-over and not knowing where my friends were, I finally got treatment, 4 days after the accident. I spent 3 surreal hours in a well-lit hospital where people were friendly and helpful. The X-ray showed a fracture in one hand bone, not displaced. So I have a cast now, for 30 days, covered with messages and hieroglyphs. My legs are also covered with huge purple bruises, and my back and scalp are scraped up.

Argentines say that the mountain charged me for climbing, and it charged me cheap. I feel like I got off pretty lightly. The housekeeper in my hostel told me that 2 people staying there died on Aconcagua recently, and they turned out to be the 2 Germans whose bodies I saw.

We celebrated my birthday with dinner at the Hyatt, during a rare rainstorm. A few of us also went paragliding over Mendoza in what became another lightning storm. I even went white water rafting with my cast on, though I did not paddle.

The yearly wine festival is going on in Mendoza right now. Last night there were amazing fireworks, and wine queens wander around kissing people on the cheek.

Take care,



2018 Addendum: Intuitive clues tell me that many spirits were with me on the mountain. Jesus, Mary, 3 Orixas (from Africa), Spider Grandmother (Native American), my ancestors Siward, Ingegard, and others.