Note: I’m writing this almost two months after our summit day: 12/14/2014.
My final days on Aconcagua were very difficult both physically and emotionally.
Our summit push began early in the morning just before sunrise. We had been concerned about weather for the past few days, but that day it looked pretty good: few butts and light winds. It was going to be a great day to summit.
Our pace was slow and deliberate; we were in no rush at this altitude. Every breath was difficult, but our packs were light. We only needed to carry extra layers, our snack food, and lots of water. Climbing at those altitudes is a strange physical experience for me. While physically it is not that challenging, the lack of oxygen makes everything frustratingly difficult. So, as I reflect on it now, I don’t remember it being that hard, but I’m sure at the time I was annoyed why even slow, small steps could be so hard.
The first big rest stop was at Independencia at around 21,600ft, which is higher than Mt McKinley the highest peak in North America. I remember getting there around 9 in the morning, and I felt great. Yes, there was lack of breath and it was hard just to take a step, but I felt strong, I didn’t have any altitude problems, and I was so happy to be up that high. We rested for about 20 minutes before started the next leg taking us to “The Cave” which was to be our last big rest before the final push to the summit.
As we climbed higher, my mood ascended with me. At one point when we were coming to the end of “The Traverse” and close to “The Cave” I was in such a euphoric mood I was nearly in tears. I was so happy to feel so good, so strong, and so close to finishing something I had been planning and preparing for for nearly two years. I was imagining the joy of standing on top of the summit, done with this arduous effort and ready to go back downhill to my home and wife.
I’m not sure exactly when it started, but it was soon after I checked myself back in to reality. We were close to The Cave, which was really just a hollow in a cliff side rather than a cave, when I noticed my legs were not working like they were supposed to. My steps and balance became unsure. By the time we reached The Cave a few minutes later I could barely walk straight. During our rest there, I could feel my strength draining quickly. Our guide noticed it too and said when we started again I would go up slower with another group member and the junior guide.
I knew I was in trouble very quickly once we began the final push. My balance was almost completely gone, and with the crampons and double heavy boots my legs became exhausted after only a few dozen meters of climbing. At our first brief pause, I almost fell over when I stopped climbing and had to sit down. At that point the junior guide rightly became very concerned and began a radio conversation with Ilan about what to do with me. I asked — pleaded? — for one more chance, and they eventually agreed. I didn’t want to quit, but somewhere in my increasingly hazy thoughts I knew I probably wasn’t going to make it to the summit. At our second pause, maybe 10 meters farther up and roughly 125m from the summit, I nearly tipped over when I tried to sit down. That was it. I knew my would not summit. At this point, my grasp on what was happening around me was so loose, I was numb to my failure and my need to go down. I just accepted it as it was supposed to happen.
I descended with the junior guide. It was the hardest physical task I’ve ever done in my life by far. My quadriceps were constantly burning, my knees were weak, my balance was barely there, and I was exhausted. Long before we reached our high camp, I had to sit down every 10 minutes to re-gather what remaining strength I had. Those last few meters into camp were too much for me alone, and my guide had to give me his shoulder. Collapsing in my tent, I immediately fell asleep.
The next day we descended from Camp Colera to Plaza de Mulas, a total of ~1600m or 5300ft. In good condition, I could have basically jogged off the mountain. Instead I had to go very slow and take lots of breaks. I had recovered some balance, but I was still very unsteady. By the time we reached base camp, my legs were so exhausted again I was about to collapse. The rest of the afternoon I stewed silently, rested, and then we drank a lot of wine. That helped a little.
Our last day on Aconcagua. We started down soon after the sunlight hit us. Heading down we all went our own pace, and I was soon separated out from everybody else by hundreds of yards. My legs were good enough again. My balance was better but at any point that had more than a gentle downward slope, I had to be careful.
I was glad to be alone most of the 25km walk to the park entrance. Emotionally I was wrecked, constantly fighting back waves of frustration, anger, and feelings of failure. It was hard not to break down weeping periodically. I’ve found it is very difficult for me to describe how I felt that day. Perhaps it was a crushing sense of failure and unfulfillment.
Just before reaching the park entrance, the trail climbs slightly and bends around the base of a mountain. When you’re going up, this is the first full view of Aconcagua’s ridge. When you’re doing down, it is the last. Here we turned and took our final pictures of the mountain. As I snapped a few photos I could feel my despondency well up again. When I turned my back on Aconcagua, I couldn’t hold in all my tears. I still can’t two months later.
I didn’t fully recover my balance until the following morning in Mendoza. Our conclusion was I suffered high-altitude cerebral edema.