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2002 Aconcagua, Argentina

Aconcagua, Argentina  

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 a challenge.”

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.

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.

View from Aconcagua

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 dream.

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 possession.

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.

Richard Donkin on Aconcagua

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

©2006 Richard Donkin - all rights reserved