Words By: Drone Major
Challenge 12. Summit Cerro Aconcagua (6961 M ASL)
Words By: Jennifer Price
This was by far the grittiest challenge of them all. My mental and physical robustness was significantly tested on this expedition, much more so than any other, and, if I am honest, I think I am a little broken now!
The combined effects of a 17-day expedition; carrying a heavy pack, eating foreign food, drinking from mountain streams and, most notably, living at significant altitude, was a bit of a beating.
That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy trekking up Aconcagua, the Andes are of course beautiful and striking, and I met some amazing international people along the way, but I underestimated this mountain – classic me.
It all came down to genetics, it appears I just don’t have the DNA for altitude! I felt the effects almost immediately on arrival to our first camp and, from that point on I was constantly trying to catch up; either by drinking gallons of water or attempting the Wim Hoff breathing technique. These tactics went some way to helping however, I still managed to projectile vomit on one of the key acclimatisation hikes, twice, and found myself incapacitated for the first hour at each new camp. This made enjoying the scenery a little difficult!
The worst moment, however, was when I came the closest, I’ve ever truly come to a near death experience.
About two weeks into the expedition and at about 5500 meters, I found myself feeling surprisingly good. We had completed a rest day at high camp 2 the day before and only had to walk 3-4km (but about 500m in altitude) to the summit camp. This we did and I was pleasantly surprised at how energised I felt in comparison to previous stages. Looking back, I think this was, perhaps, forced optimism as, although I had previously reconciled myself to the idea that I might not make the summit (based on my performance over the course of the expedition), there was still a small flame burning internally. We were so close, and I wanted that summit photo. I wanted to achieve a clean finish to my 12 challenges.
When we arrived at the summit camp, we began to set up our tents, the idea being that we would eat, sleep, and then wake at 3am to begin the brutal 12-15 hour climb. Unfortunately, I started to feel a bit unwell so went to lie down in the hope that rest would cure me as it had before.
5 hours later I was in a bad way.
My tent mate (Kit) realised something was wrong when I was unable to finish my sentences and kept dropping my water bottle inside the tent (the water immediately freezing to the ground sheet). As soon as I took my eyes off the water bottle, I forgot it was there, I didn’t have enough brain capacity to multitask. I also attempted to drink directly from my thermos (boiling water!) and when asked where my food bowl was (right in front of me) I repeatedly replied with ‘go get some food’. At first the guides told my tent mate to get me to drink more water but when I eventually vomited in my hands (I just about had the sense to manage to get it out of the tent), the guides rushed over, dragged me out and into their tent dome. They tested my blood oxygen saturation, found it to be dangerously low (28% when it should be in the 80-90s) and promptly fixed me up to an oxygen cylinder. In case there was any doubt, by this point, I was well aware my summit attempt was definitely not going to happen.
Thankfully after 20 – 30 minutes on oxygen (I’m guessing because I was rather delirious and not able to track time), full brain function returned, and I was forced to drink copious amounts of Argentinian mate (tea) before getting back into my sleeping bag. I was briefly woken at 3am by the team getting ready to summit but, after wishing them good luck and handing the Veterans Foundation flag over to Kit, I was quite happy to snuggle back down into the safety of my sleeping bag and continue my recovery.
That was a potentially very dangerous situation but, although I was conscious of what was happening, I was at no point afraid. Yes, if the guides had not been there to either give me oxygen or get me down the mountain, there is a good chance that I would have become unconscious and or incapacitated, but they were there, as was the rest of the expedition. The risk was manageable and one that I knowingly took. Of course, I am incredibly grateful for the quick actions of the guides and my lovely tent mate who, apparently, I terrified in my delirium.
After all of that you might think that I would be disappointed not to summit. Quite the opposite. Of the 12 individuals climbing with the same company, only 4 made the summit. This is a tough mountain and not one anyone should be ashamed not to have completed.
I actually found that I felt a little proud of myself. Proud that I could still be a team player and remain level-headed, even when things got tough. I think big mountains truly show a persons’ character and I did not find myself wanting. This expedition reminded me that, despite my many faults, I am a good person, a resilient person, and a team player. When we all carry our own daemons, it’s good to be reminded of that.
I have focused on the summit camp because that was the most dramatic moment of the trip but of course there was so much more to the expedition. For a start we had two amazing guides, Marcos, and Coqui, who expertly looked after us, we also watched Argentina win the world cup whilst on the mountain, and we drunk Argentinian Malbec in the snow on Christmas Day in Plaza del Mulas (the second biggest base camp in the world).
It was one hell of an expedition and one that I wholly underestimated, but I am so glad that I attempted it.
My final point is a huge shout out to Kit O’Callaghan for taking on the baton (/flag) and smashing it up the mountain!