One fateful phone call; that was all it took for me to embark on a metamorphic journey that I was as ill prepared for as one could possibly be. With only two months of training to get myself in shape, would I really be ready to scale dizzying new heights of adventure?
Setting Eyes on the Beast of the Andes
Since I left the UK for somewhat flatter lands to the East I hadn’t been climbing or mountaineering regularly. I had been popping back across the waters infrequently for the odd week of mountaineering in Scotland, and far less than I would have liked. As such, years of professional life had taken their toll. I was slightly overweight, terribly unfit, and smoking a (large) handful of cigars every day. To put it bluntly, I was in no state to do any kind of serious mountaineering, let alone a high-altitude expedition. So, when I received an email from my friend Guy at the end of September with the title “Anyone fancy a crack at Aconcagua over Xmas and New Year?”, the sensible thing would have been to dismiss it. However, as you may have guessed, I am not sensible. Not one bit.
“I was in no state to do any kind of serious mountaineering, let alone a high-altitude expedition.”
Guy, an old friend from my mountaineering club, had been scheming with fellow club member Ian. I didn’t know Ian very well at the time, but upon enquiring as to what sort of chap he was, I was told ‘he’s an acquired taste, so you two should get on like a house on fire!’ It turns out they had a point there. Guy and Ian had apparently come up with the idea to climb the tallest mountain in the western and southern hemispheres; there is no mountain higher outside of the greater Himalayas. At 6961m, Aconcagua is a beast. You can quibble over a few metres, but a 7km high mountain has an air pressure at its summit of 0.4 atmospheres; that’s 60% less oxygen than at sea level. On altitude alone, it is a serious undertaking for even the fittest of mountaineers. It may not have any technical difficulties, such as ice climbing or even any sections that require one to be roped up for safety, however, the altitude, cold, wind and loose boulders mean that it should not be underestimated in the slightest. Definitely not the sort of thing for an unfit smoker who’s spent too much time sitting in an office and eating out on company courses.
One week later I got a phone call from Guy. Despite my astronomical lack of fitness, they thought it a good idea that I should join; probably no one had told them about my snoring. Nevertheless, it was time to begin what would be one of the most gruelling journeys of my life; from couch potato to mountain athlete in only two months. Would that even be possible? Most sources say that one needs at least 6 months of training to do such a climb, assuming an average level of fitness. I saw figures as high as 10 months for the unfit. Compacting that down to two months, while finding time to do a full-time job, was going to be a challenge, to say the least! So began the road to my salvation, or potential destruction, if you believed what my friends were saying (having read about Aconcagua, one friend described it as ‘Zander’s death walk,’ which happened to be a name that stuck for our WhatsApp group for the trip). Having smoked my last packet of cigars, it was time to dedicate every spare minute I had to prepare for the 2nd highest of the Seven Summits.
Training can be fun, or it can be a damned chore. Typically, it becomes a chore when you have repetition. To try and make life slightly less tedious for myself, I split my training into three components: running, mountain biking and crossfit. The running was important because it is high impact, and with my full-time job, I had to squeeze in as much as possible and it made a great ‘lunch break’ activity (if you broaden the definition of ‘great’). Furthermore, it’s as close to replicating the required leg motion that I could in a province where the tallest hill is genuinely a rubbish dump, ambitiously called the Col du VAM, at a dizzying 48m above sea-level. However, running is an activity I would normally only do if being chased by a rabid honey badger, especially given the sorry state of my knees.
“Running is an activity I would normally only do if being chased by a rabid honey badger.”
The second torture method that I chose for myself was crossfit; dragging days’ worth of supplies up a mountainside made almost entirely of loose scree, while remaining sure footed, takes considerable core strength. Unlike most who climb the mountain, we’d be not using the services of porters from base camp upward. We’d have to ferry gear, namely food and fuel, up to the higher camps in supply runs ourselves. Only to base camp would we get equipment taken by mule as it’s nearly impossible to carry three weeks’ worth of food, fuel, camping equipment and general supplies up to this point in one go, unless one gets really inventive (and mildly masochistic). As such, crossfit would be a great way to build my core strength in as little time as possible.
Then there was mountain biking. Now, I will freely admit that this was in the mix mostly because it was the only activity that I really enjoyed, despite my reputation for hitting large static objects and splitting helmets open. Crossfit could be fun after having done it, retrospectively, but not during. The adrenaline rush of railing berms (banked corners) at high speed was sufficient to keep my interest piqued, while helpfully impacting my anaerobic fitness and leg strength. All of this was in consultation with my newfound fitness team; a ragamuffin bunch of friends comprised of an ex-pro cyclist, a not-quite-so-ex-pro cyclist, and an amateur triathlete who plays ice hockey at a national level. So, for the next two months, I dedicated my life to the following routine of pain. 3 days a week I would go for a lunchtime run at work; either a fast run or intervals. 3-4 days a week I would go mountain biking, which would require most of these rides to be at night-time; cue various comedy crashes or moth-swallowing incidents (the dusty buggers being attracted to the light on my helmet like landing lights to a plane, with my mouth acting as the aircraft hanger). Finally, I would do crossfit twice a week, typically on a weekend morning and one evening in the weekdays.
How did this brutal schedule leave me? I have one word; exhausted! (I did have two words, but the first one wasn’t family friendly.) Typically, for proper training, recovery is almost as important as the exercise. However, with only two months before the expedition, I had no such luxuries; I had to go for broke or break myself in the process. To allow some semblance of recovery, I’d allow myself one day’s rest a week. On more than one occasion I’d hop on the bike for a ride, then cycle less than 500m before realising my legs were totally shot and I’d lose a drag race with a wheezing 10 year old. Even my future partner, who now edits this website, was told she’d have to be patient and wait until after the new year before we could have a date. Romantic, eh?
“Even my future partner was told she’d have to be patient and wait until after the new year before we could have a date.”
As you may have guessed, it is not just training that gets you up the mountain. After all, you can’t just wander up in your birthday suit and expect to retain all your appendages. However, I had most of the equipment needed from my Scottish mountaineering exploits, including a wildly thick Rab down expedition jacket I got on eBay some years ago, in yellow of course, as with most of my mountain gear (it makes it easier to find the body). Scottish mountains in winter can be a fearsome place, and not just because of roving bands of half-cut locals. I’ve had a multi-day solo climb where the temperatures nudged -20 Celsius. However, Aconcagua can get colder and the wind speeds can be exceptional; in fact, many climbers say it’s often colder on the summit of Aconcagua than on many Himalayan mountains. This is further compounded by the fact that, unlike in Scotland, one moves very slowly at altitude. What would be a sweat-inducing speed climb in Scotland to beat the dwindling daylight turns into a slow trudge that would have most people overtaken by grandma on her zimmer-frame at sea level.
Being the technically minded sort of chap that I am (a polite way of saying ‘the equipment geek’), I was tasked with compiling the equipment lists for personal and group kit to ensure that we were fully prepared. So, what was I missing you might ask? The key items were the bits at the end of the long things… mittens and boots! Up until 6000m, including the acclimatisation climbs, I was already well equipped with my existing kit. However, summit ‘day’ (half of which is done at night-time) requires specialist equipment just for those few long hours. For my hands I treated myself to a pair of ‘summit mitts’ from North Face. These are huge pillowy mittens which prevent one from doing the most simple of tasks, but they do keep hands warm on 8000m mountains; I wouldn’t want to end up missing a few digits like Sir Ranalph Fiennes, nor my old woodworking teachers at school for that matter.
“Spending 50 euros per toe seemed like quite the bargain, if one is keen on keeping them attached.”
Then there was the question of the boots. My fancy Scarpa Phantom Ultra boots just wouldn’t cut the mustard at such altitudes so I investigated the next model up in the series; the Phantom 6000s (designed for 6000m mountains, funnily enough). These are double boots, much in the same way as ski boots, that have a removable inner boot. They’re supremely warm but slightly cumbersome and devilishly expensive. However, unlike with one’s hands, my flexibility is such that I can’t simply pop my feet in my jacket when they get cold. I ummmed and aaaahhhed for a little while before looking at them from an insurance point of view; how much was I willing to spend to ensure that I didn’t get frostbite in my toes if it was particularly cold on summit day (many people have got frostbite on Aconcagua). Spending 50 euros per toe seemed like quite the bargain, if one is keen on keeping them attached. With those purchased it was really only a matter of getting hold of some down trousers and some high-altitude sunglasses so as not to go snow-blind from the intense UV radiation at altitude. The rest of the camp items were sourced between the group and we were all set.
Any multi-week expedition can be a logistical challenge, even with the assistance of mules to basecamp, and then there are the matters of climbing permits to obtain and food and climbing itineraries to draft. Luckily Guy and Ian took on these tasks so the workload was split across the group. This was all managed via one online spreadsheet and we kept in contact with bi-weekly video chats to discuss matters at hand and update on progress. All very professional really… I think that might have been Guy’s influence. Ian was probably prepared to walk up in his gorilla feet slippers and I would have surely obtained a permit for the wrong mountain. This is where there is strength to be had in numbers and is an available luxury that probably puts most people off the sort of solo trips I tend to gravitate to.
“Ian was probably prepared to walk up in his gorilla feet slippers and I would have surely obtained a permit for the wrong mountain.”
With all the equipment meticulously sorted and best laid plans put into place (no mice here), I booked my tickets to Mendoza via Buenos Aries. I would be flying out on my birthday and would spend both Christmas and New Year on the mountain with my friends; this wasn’t the first time I’d be spending Christmas in the mountains of Argentina though! As you can imagine, my excitement was building to a crescendo but I had some trepidation as to whether I’d actually make it up the mountain, despite the best efforts of my intense training plan. As a little extra insurance, I paid a visit to my local doctor who wasn’t the least bit surprised about my latest endeavour, having already made many referrals for me to the hospital for various adventuring incidents. He kindly prescribed me Diamox which is used to prevent and treat altitude sickness. It’s always worth having one more trick up your sleeve.
With all the preparation done, all that was left was to step on to the plane and begin what would turn out to be a journey that tested the limits of my physical endurance and mental resolve. I spent my birthday with a party-for-one on the plane to Buenos Aries, followed by a further flight to Mendoza, where I’d meet Guy and Ian for a few days of final preparations. I was laden down with two very large duffle bags worth of kit which were particularly hard to drag across airports, much like a pair of uncooperative children who refuse to go to the dentist. High-altitude clothing absorbs a lot of luggage space, and I was also tasked with bringing enough freeze-dried food to feed three very hungry climbers at the higher camps.
“I am fairly sure that Raymond Blanc never had to cook over a blast furnace with no simmer function.“
As per our food plan, at base camp we’d attempt to cook up some world-class grub brought in with the assistance of some local mules, although I am fairly sure that Raymond Blanc never had to cook over a blast furnace with no simmer function, while at the higher camps we’d use my trusty freeze-dried meals which I have used for well over a decade on all my camping trips. While seemingly a relic of cold war fallout shelters, freeze-dried meals are actually very handy because one doesn’t need to lug any unnecessary water up the mountain while also gaining more pack space. One has to simply melt snow, or find a stream if not up a mountain, get a boil going and hey presto; your meal has tripled in size! Guy was somewhat put out that the vegetarian options were limited to only 800 calories, while Ian and I would be able to feast on 1000 calories per meal; clearly carnivores have more fun.
Once settled in at the hotel, I awaited the arrival of my companions for our foolhardy walk up the Southern Hemisphere’s largest rubble pile. Once all the how-do-you-dos were dispensed with, we hit the town to sample the two things that Mendoza is known for around the world: bold red wines and exceedingly good meat, and the town did not disappoint. The next morning we were up bright and early, at least in one time zone or another, to set off in search of hard currency to fill our coffers and permits to allow us to ascend the mighty Aconcagua. I had attempted to obtain dollars back in the Netherlands, but of course my local banks were unable to obtain, store or provide foreign currency; presumably unaware that they were meant to be functioning as an actual bank rather than a convenient rain shelter. Thus, instead I had to carry euros and exchange them locally for dollars and pesos. Though to be fair, I got a better rate than at the vaultless Dutch establishments back at home. Many euros were required on this occasion as climbing permits are not cheap, especially when you make the uneducated mistake of trying to climb a very popular mountain.
After further wining and dining that night under the pretext of building up our essential energy reserves for the climb, our task the next morning was to purchase sufficient food to keep us fed for approximately two weeks at base camp. While our expedition was largely unsupported, we had made the concession of using mules to carry the bulk of the food and equipment to base camp, given it was a great distance from civilisation and would have required multiple trips otherwise. Anything that is to be carried on the back of a mule for 50km has to put up with significant bouncing in baking sun. Thus, we had three main requirements for the food we had to purchase; it had to be donkey-proof, it had to require no refrigeration, and it had to be easy to cook. With this in mind, we proceeded to purchase significant quantities of eggs, meat and cheese. This was further supplemented by the usual suspects of pasta, rice, vegetables and endless quantities of salted and chocolatey treats. Not all decisions made with the stomach are good ones. In fact, they rarely are. However, I can tell you now that all those Snickers that I bought saved my life.
Having bought sufficient food to weather an apocalypse on Aconcagua’s western flanks, we had to spend the rest of the day playing Tetris with three duffle bags’ worth of supplies, ensuring that the items we’d need for the first three days’ trek wouldn’t get mixed up with the items that were being bounced along to base camp on the back of a stubborn mule. There is nothing worse than setting up camp to find that a mule is in possession of all your contact lenses or that your nice sleeping bag is keeping a fragrant muleteer (mule driver) warm at night. The days before we set off from Mendoza would also serve as time for my education in a game that would keep us entertained for most of the trip. While high altitude appears incredibly intense in the countless Instagram posts, in reality, it is a lot of waiting around in a tent for bad weather or acclimatisation, interspersed with short bouts of painful slog up and down to ferry supplies or creep up the mountainside. There is only so much that one can play cards when stuck in a tent for days on end, so we treated ourselves by bringing an iPad to be able to play the strategy game ‘Settlers of Katan’ on those monotonous days.
On the morning of our departure, we arranged a taxi to haul our bloated caravan of equipment to the local coach station for our ride to the Andes. It was here that our first physical challenge awaited us. We discovered that the Mendoza coach station is huge and that our bus terminal was, naturally, on the other side. With so many bags per person, it would not be possible to haul them across in one go. With only a few minutes to spare, we had to ferry the bags across in batches, with watchers keeping an eye on the stationary ones. As the biggest chap, it was no surprise that I ended up as chief-hauler, with thin straps cutting into hands and shoulders, and pointy equipment stabbing at my skins. While not fun at the best of times, I was suffering from a dodgy stomach after consuming a questionable, but delicious, portion of offal the night before. After the sweaty rush to deliver the bags to the coach, we then had to persuade the driver that it would all fit as he was under the illusion that the bags should be left behind. It was no mean feat, and once done, we collapsed into a sore heap at the top of the coach, ready for a cinematic view of our meander through the foothills of the Andes.
“In retrospect, we probably should have brought more poo-bags… and stronger ones.”
We spent the night at a rather basic digs in Los Penitentes at the entrance to the Aconcagua Provincial Park, not the best place to be feeling ill, before again hauling our spoils to the logistics base which would ship our supplies to base camp, mule-freight. We repacked the bags to distribute the weight, carefully packing our eggs in a vain attempt to mule-proof them and then set out to the park warden’s hut with our own rucksacks filled with 3 days’ worth of edibles and sleep equipment. It was here that we were given our infamous poo-bags; one per person for the entire stay on the upper camps of the mountain! We learned that while there were ‘toilet facilities’ (using the term loosely here) at basecamp, courtesy of our mule company, on the higher camps we had to collect our business and paper and hike it off the mountain due to the number of people climbing. In retrospect, we probably should have brought more poo-bags… and stronger ones.
We took our first steps into the park at a relaxed pace and wandered in awe through the spectacular route on our way to the Confluenza approach camp. It was here that we gained our first view of the mighty Aconcagua’s south face; an imposing beast, slumbering at the end of a long meandering valley which guided us to our prize. The valley floor was lined with a rich carpet of green over brown, while the steep sides were composed of beautiful, banded sandstones in every conceivable colour. Even with the mild elevation gain from 2800m to 3400m, I could feel a shortness of breath, in amongst the stomach cramps lingering from the previous day. Nevertheless, we made it to the camp in excellent time and got our first peek at one of the canvas metropolises that dominate high-altitude mountaineering life.
“Was I really fit enough to climb this monster if I was already huffing and puffing at a measly 3400m? “
After finding a slightly less crowded spot, we set up our lightweight tunnel tent where I had my first taste of altitude, having stood up too quickly after hammering in the pegs and becoming very lightheaded. Having built our house for the coming days, Ian and I strolled to a nearby crag for a spot of bouldering; cue shortness of breath again. Was I really fit enough to climb this monster if I was already huffing and puffing at a measly 3400m? I spent the rest of the afternoon investing in our well-being by chatting up the two lovely Argentine cooks of one of the big camps. My charms appeared to work on one in particular; that evening we were brought a fantastic meal of grilled fish by the lovely Julia, one of three courses that she brought us I should add. Given that we had already cooked up our own, rather less impressive grub, our double-dining left us really quite stuffed to say the least! After a brief game of Settlers, we headed to bed in our cramped tent to nurse our swollen stomachs. However, my sleep was patchy thanks to the first of many altitude-induced headaches and the sleep of my tent mates wasn’t much better after I woke them up looking for painkillers and needing the bathroom. Guy was heard to sleepily mutter ‘I want to pee but I don’t have enough stone…’ Clearly, we had been playing too much Settlers of Catan already.
The following day was spent with a relaxed acclimatisation trek to Plaza Francia; the deserted base camp for the imposing south face route. Fuelled by a delicious breakfast and well equipped with empanadas, both courtesy of the continually lovely and perpetually smiley Julia, we set off for our stroll. Unburdened by fatigue or extended use of poo bags, we merrily marched in high spirits with significant tomfoolery on the way. Ian’s antics were a constant source of amusement as we gawked at the ever impressive scenery unfolding before us. I had been to the Andes some years before, but I had almost forgotten how much these mighty mountains put to shame anything that could be found sprawled around the British Isles. After a few hours we had reached the base of the south face glacier, dusted a dirty brown with only small cracks while, as if it some enormous over-cocoaed tiramisu. It was here that we were treated to the full frontal of our magnificent quarry, rising unmatched out of its icy roots to bare its deadly South Face.
“Three vertical kilometres of rotten rock, avalanching slopes and shedding ice cliffs is enough to dissuade even the most audacious of climbers.“
With a lunch spot like no other, we sat down for a well-earned bite and a spot of tea. Ian was unable to find his food, until the point he put his jacket on; here he discovered his alter ego of empanada-hand-man, causing me and Guy to collapse with laughter. Silliness dispensed with, Ian and I decided to navigate further upstream of the glacier, while Guy settled down for a well needed sleep in the sun, clearly exhausted by the walk and our increasing altitude. After reaching the empty camp location, we paused to discuss the pros and cons of various routes we’d take up the enormous rock face, one of the world’s most dangerous big walls. Three vertical kilometres of rotten rock, avalanching slopes and shedding ice cliffs is enough to dissuade even the most audacious of climbers, and many of those who do succeed with their lives, do so at the cost of their fingers and toes. Despite its deadly reputation, a Japanese man has even climbed it in winter. He reputedly watched the face for days to note when the avalanches occurred and then timed his sheltering behind rocks during the ascent to avoid being swept off the face to his doom.
Humbled and mildly nervous of what we’d have to scale in the coming weeks, we trudged back to find Guy, who’s seemingly lifeless body we found curled up in a cosy enclave. The walk back for me was significantly less fun than the walk in; my knees were reminding me that they did not care for carrying their heavy load downhill and, as such, I fell behind the others. While I was optimistic on my chances of making up the mountain, I began to wonder whether I might ever be able to get down again or I’d have to apply for high altitude residency. Furthermore, the thin air was playing all kinds of havoc on my body and I panted my way back to camp. A stop at the doctor’s tent for the mandatory blood oxygen check revealed that mine was lingering at a measly 73%; enough to warrant a trip to A&E at sea-level. Guy was a whole 6% above me and Ian appeared to have developed Nepali genes. Despite the thin air, I was only at 3200m here; much less than half of what I’d have to climb. If my acclimatisation carried on at this rate, I’d have no hope of reaching the summit of the highest mountain in the Western and Southern hemispheres. To add to my woes, I barely slept a wink all night, plagued by headaches before one of our biggest days on the mountain; the long haul to the Plaza de Mulas base camp at the foot of the mountain.
“A stop at the doctor’s tent for the mandatory blood oxygen check revealed that mine was lingering at a measly 73%.“
If you would like to know how my adventure in the Andes continues, make sure to come back soon, or even better, subscribe to receive updates automatically.