The tests were clear said the doctor. I
did not have diabetes, my heart was fine, pulse healthy,
cholesterol low, blood pressure perfect. “Now go and
climb your mountain and tell me all about it when you get
back,” he said. I left the surgery feeling dejected.
I knew there was something wrong with me.
My wife knew too. “You want your
head testing,” she said, when I told her I planned
to climb a 23,000-ft mountain in the Andes. She had a point.
For the price of a mountain adventure I could have a week
of pampering on a private island in Mauritius. It begs the
question: why does anyone want to spend good money, risking
their life and their health, surviving on poor food, numb
with cold, struggling to sleep on a windswept rocky mountainside?
It was a question I asked my companions
on the flight to Buenos Aires. “I’m not sure,”
said Mark Brownjohn, who owns and runs a building company
and answers to “BJ”. “I suppose I like
Charles Godden, a consultant paediatrician,
had suggested the climb more than a year earlier, shortly
after getting to the top of Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. The
idea had been mooted by his friend, Bruno Martin, a Chamonix-based
mountain guide and ski instructor. “If you thought
Kilimanjaro was tough you should try Aconcagua,” said
Bruno. “Aconcagua? Where’s that?” said
Charles had recruited the team artfully,
one at a time, like Yul Brynner collecting his unlikely
bunch of gunslingers in the Magnificent Seven. The pattern
was always the same. The phone would go, a minute of silence
from the listener, then the questions: “Aconcagua?
Where’s that? How high is it? How difficult?”
“It’s in Argentina, it’s
the biggest mountain in the Western Hemisphere, or the Southern
Hemisphere for that matter. In fact it’s the biggest
mountain outside Asia. It’s 22,840 feet high (6,962
meters) and it’s not technical. It’s a high
altitude walk. If you can do Kilimanjaro you should be able
to do this one. It just takes a bit longer.”
For the rest of the team - Simon Sheldon,
a chartered accountant at the Prince’s Trust, Jane
Corfield, a medical writer and round-the-world yachtswoman,
and myself - the conclusions had been the same. It would
be a challenge, a stiff test, an adventure, something just
right for our time of life – each of us is the wrong
side of forty. We asked about costs too but Charles had
been vague on that one just as Brynner had been uncertain
about the number of Mexican bandits.
Aconcagua’s climbing season had
claimed its first victims with two deaths since the start
in December. Now we were well into January as we made a
connection in Buenos Aires for Mendoza, capital of Argentina’s
wine-growing region. From there it was a half-day mini-bus
ride to the start of the walk at the gates of Aconcagua’s
national park. Heavy snowfalls had made the mountain unclimbable
just a week earlier. Now the meltwaters had turned the streams
into chocolate-brown torrents as we began the 20-mile hike
to Plaza de Mulas, the base camp at 14,400 feet.
Pack mules make the journey in five hours.
Everyone else takes three days, camping on the way to acclimatise.
A few years’ ago there was no more than the odd hut
and a few tents at the foot of the mountain, first climbed
in 1897 by the Swiss alpinist, Matthias Zurbriggen. Today
Acocagua is growing in popularity as a high altitude trek.
Among the patchwork of bright blue and
yellow tents at base camp are odd signs of civilization
like the entrepreneur equipped with solar panel and a satellite
dish, who offers web site access at $10 for 10 minutes.
Across the valley there is even a hotel where you can get
a $10 shower, once you have negotiated an ice field of Penitentes
– monolithic, wind-eroded statues of frozen snow that
look like praying monks, hence their name. The nights were
cold but clear and starry. “Tonight we stay at a million
star hotel,” said Simon, hunkering into his down bag.
The hardest lesson was the time it took
to do anything. At this height every step is an effort.
Headaches strike without warning and the thin dry air can
soon induce a hacking cough. Each of us had headaches but
Simon was suffering the most as we headed higher. On the
day we packed our rucksacks to move up to the next two camps
he collapsed about half an hour into the walk. As he turned
and waved to go down we did not know we would not see him
again until we returned to the UK. A doctor diagnosed the
first signs of pulmonary oedema, a potentially fatal condition
in which water gets on to the lungs. Simon’s only
choice was to go down by mule.
Two days of climbing brought us to camp
three, Nido de Condores, at 17,650 feet. Most summit attempts
leave from a higher camp called Berlin, but Bruno chose
a lower start to avoid the debilitating conditions associated
with trying to sleep at 19,000 feet. A solitary Japanese
climber had pitched his tent nearby. He smiled and produced
a maroon flag from his pocket. “This is my courage
flag,” he said before he crossed over to a rocky overhang
and bellowed some incantation in to the void. Mountains
do this kind of thing to people.
The weather was perfect with clear deep
blue skies, smudged now and then by the briefest wisp of
cloud. So it was quite a blow to abandon our high camp and
return to base camp, . All the effort seemed wasted but
when we returned a day or so later we would be stronger
for the experience said Bruno, whose knowledge and commitment
were proving vital on the mountain. For every carry upwards,
he would carry more. Whenever we reached a camp he would
be there first, pitching the tent or brewing some tea. “I
dreamed of being a guide as a child. It was the only thing
I wanted to do,” he said. Forty-four others achieved
their guiding diplomas the year he qualified. Fourteen of
those have since died in the mountains.
We tried not to dwell on the risks and
did everything we could to avert illness. At altitude even
a minor illness or injury can ruin your chance of success.
As it was Charles had broken a thumb opening an overhead
luggage rack on the plane and BJ was climbing with a bandaged
calf after pulling a muscle before leaving. Drugs such as
Diamox, a brand of diuretic, can help to lessen the odds
of oedema. Ordinarily I avoid medicines but by the time
I had finished I must have taken almost every type of tablet
in our kit. Sharing a tent with a doctor is a hypochondriac’s
Climbing has a romantic image that is
not matched by reality. When not walking or resting most
of the conversation seemed to centre on flatulence, snoring
and the various bodily functions that ensure the comfortable
progress of food and water from one end of the digestive
system to the other. A medical urinal became my most precious
By the time we returned to the high camp
Jane knew that a back strain she had suffered earlier in
the climb was going to rule her out for a summit bid from
the lower camp. She decided she would go no further than
the final camp on the summit day. “Perhaps if we had
gone from camp Berlin I might have made it. Who knows?”
she said later.
Joined now by Nestor Arena, an experienced
Argentinean guide, our party of five edged slowly up the
mountain. Flurries of fine snow crystals were whipping down
the slopes, pitting our cheeks with needles of ice as we
approached a high exposed ridge. “They call it the
door to the wind,” said Nestor. Someone appeared to
have left it ajar.
The elements combined with a grinding
ferocity to slow our progress. I waited for Bruno to wave
us back. But we carried on and twenty minutes later had
reached a more sheltered approach. Hard packed snow was
gathered now in gullies so we donned crampons and roped
ourselves together. There were other climbers ahead but
as we reached them it seemed as if they had forgotten their
purpose. One of the saddest sights of our summit day was
finding climbers sitting just 500 feet from the top, their
faces drained of any expression, their bodies utterly spent.
Charles, usually the strongest of our group,
was suffering with every step. The summit was close now
and yet the effort in that final stage was monumental. By
late afternoon we reached a point where there were no higher
steps. The top was a bare stretch of rock crowned by a small
cross, covered in ragged totems. “Five minutes and
no more,” said Bruno; “this is only half way.”
There were handshakes but no whoops or cries of jubilation,
just a sense of relief and satisfaction mixed with the disappointment
that two of our party were not alongside us.
Climbing a mountain like Aconcagua is
a big undertaking, but not so big that it cannot be organised
yourself. A number of adventure holiday companies include
the mountain among their itineraries. The specialist operators
were charging between £2,000 and £3,000 for
a three-week package, excluding flights. This would cover
some accommodation in Argentina, guides, mules, portering,
tents on the mountain and a flexible itinerary designed
to give their parties a good chance of making a summit bid.
But larger parties in package trips do
not allow much time for teams to form a friendly understanding.
We opted to put our trust in Bruno and had few regrets.
The idea was not to save money but to improve on and personalise
the trip. Bruno’s approach was to sub contract the
services we would need on the mountain. Our flights were
booked through a local travel agent and hotels in Buenos
Aires, still reeling from a 30 per cent devaluation of the
peso, were falling over themselves to offer knockdown terms.
There is nothing cheap, however, about
a high altitude climb. The outlay on expensive mountain
equipment is unavoidable. On Bruno’s advice we chose
Marmot sleeping bags, down jackets and mitts which left
us little change from £600. Most of the group opted
for Scarpa mountain boots at more than £200 a pair.
Then there were the sundry items – back pack, ski
poles, sleeping mats, insulated mugs, water bottles, hats,
gloves, socks, high protection sunglasses, torches and high
factor suncream. My outlay on thermal underwear alone came
to more than £150.
Finally there was the medical kit with
everything under the sun for headaches, sickness and diarrhoea.
Before leaving we seemed over supplied. In the event we
would use much of what we took with us. The final outlay
for each of us would run to something between £4,000
and £5,000, including regular gym training for eight
months prior to leaving. You have to pay dearly for this
kind of suffering.
The walk down from the summit was uneventful.
The sun had set by the time we made camp. There would be
hard days to come in the long trek off the mountain but
every thousand feet of descent made the going ever easier.
“Did you enjoy it?” asked my wife when I called
her. Even now I do not know the answer. But we went and
we came back and we learned some things, not least that
mountains are climbed in their own time. As Edward Whymper,
the legendary alpinist once said: “Do nothing in haste,
look well to each step and from the beginning think what
may be the end.”
Further images of this trip to Aconcagua
can be found at http://dickdonkin.smugmug.com