The Story of My Failed Aconcagua Attempt
The 7 summits, the highest 7 mountain on each continent (if you’re wondering what are the 7 summits, click here) . That’s my goal. It’s taken a big hit this week, but it’s still my goal. Bruised, but not broken.
Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest mountain was first, years ago. It was a beautiful experience. No training necessary really, no technical climbing, it’s a long walk with a tough last day. Most of the days are sneakers and shorts, beers in the evening. If it’s the first of your 7 summits, it lulls you into a false sense of security. 3/10 difficulty I’d say, more of a travel experience than a mountain experience. Relatively affordable too, as of 2018/2019 it’s around $2k or so. I climbed it, unprepared (as many others do!), with a couple of friends. This mountain stuff can be addictive. Years later, so it proved.
Next up was Mount Elbrus, Europe’s highest mountain, in the South of Russia, the gorgeous Caucasus mountains. Suddenly mountaineering becomes a little more real. We signed up with a Russian operator, but having taken the Trans-Siberian railway across Russia for a month, I must admit, Russia wasn’t my favourite country. Mount Elbrus changed all that. We met Sergey, the owner of Elbrus Tours before our climb and he was a gentleman. After we had everything planned and organised, we were off. Proper gear needed, sleeping in the snow, Kilimanjaro it is not! But still, just a 6 day excursion so it’s manageable. 2 people die per month so it’s no joke but with some fitness training, and a little respect, it’s possible. I climbed it with a buddy, and the 15 hour last day successful summit attempt, was legitimately one of the hardest things of my life (and a huge thanks to Victor our guide), perhaps harder even than the North Pole Marathon. And with that struggle, I grew in confidence with my ability to tackle the remaining 5 of the 7 summits. Also, the Russians that had helped us had been amazing, and my wholeopinion of Russians and Russia had permanently changed. It’s a country, and a people, misunderstood. More than that, I knew that Russians were the perfect people to guide us up mountains. Strong, honest, brave.
3rd of my 7 was Aconcagua, Argentina. I had plans for 4/7 and 5/7, just needed to get Aconcagua out of the way. We asked Sergey at Elbrus Tours once more would it be possible to have Russian guides again, this time in Argentina, and it was, so we were off.
We had 2 Russian guides (Micha and his right-hand man Anton) alongside Natasha, a mountaineer from Russia, Lily-Mae a great girl from England, 24yo, super fit, humble, super friendly and destined for big things, Will a 25yo Australian guy, ex-military, planning to swim the English Channel next summer and a lot more switched on than I was at 25, and then Anthony and myself.
Day 0 and 1 we spent in Mendoza, sorting rental gear and food for the 16 day expedition. Sleeping in a bed, with WiFi and a shower, I took for granted. It was nice to hang out with the group, eat some proper food.
Day 2 we were off to the mountains. Staying in a gorgeous mountain refuge, a few acclimatisation hikes to 3,300m then 3,800m, even time for a bottle of 2 of wine. Everything was rosy.
Day 3 was when things got real. Enter the park, sort out permits, and hike to Base Camp 1, Confluencia. Suddenly, we were aware what mountaineering was. It took 3 days just to get to Base Camp 2, the real Base Camp, a casual 8 hours or so trekking each day with bags from lower base camp to another lower base camp, eventually we reached Plaza De Mulas. It had taken me 51 hours and 5 flights from Bangkok, Thailand, not to mention $1500+, to get to Argentina but all of that is worth it when you stand atop of South America’s highest point.
And so we settled into Base Camp, or Plaza De Mulas (Place of the Mules) at 4,400m or so. Anthony (ManVsClock.com), one of my closest friends, and I set up our tent in camp. Everything was ok. We had passed our medical check at the lower base camp, Confluencia, and so we here were, December 3rd, Day 4. Ready for the next 10+ days on the mountain, our expedition planned to summit around December 12th.
Off to bed we went, a tight squeeze, but this was a real mountain, we were ready to suffer. The temperature dropped sub-zero overnight, and when we opened the tent the next day – white-out. The whole base camp blanketed in snow. Not good. Normally when Aconcagua season starts, there should be no snow until Summit Day, but here we were, 50cm on Day 5. Sh*t.
Ignoring the cold, we suited up and hiked to 5000m for more acclimatisation. 4.5 hours straight up, not too bad but bitterly cold and the wind would start to whip in a heartbeat, from nowhere. At 5000m they have Camp 1, ‘Canada’, where people start their summit attempts but for us, back to Plaza De Mulas for a medical check-up to see how the altitude was affecting people.
The doctor delivered some bad news. The next day we were due to sleep at Canada camp, but 3 people within our group of 7 were suffering from altitude sickness, Camp Canada was cancelled for at least 1 day. So day 6 was an enforced rest day, and as Base camps go, Plaza De Mulas isn’t about to win any awards. All our rest day brought was a dropping temperature and more f*cking snow. Not good again.
As we mingled with other groups we heard notions and whispers, the white-out had carried on even worse up the mountain. From camp 1 at 5000, Canada, to camp 2, Nido De Condores at 5500, was almost impassable. Taking experienced mountaineers over 10 hours to climb just 500m altitude, with snow levels past waist level. All hope wasn’t lost, but the chances to summit were dwindling. Day 6 wasn’t going well.
Anthony and I spent the evening of Day 6 Googling ‘Aconcagua Summit Forecasts’ and a bad day got worse. Snow, and more f*cking snow. It was December 5th, our expedition ended on December 15th but it takes 2/3 days to descend so our effective last day was 12th, 13th at a push. From December 5 to December 9th more white-outs. El Nido, the weather phenomenon, had carried a horrible storm to the mountain. Hugely uncharacteristic for December in Aconcagua but out of our control. So maybe after December 9th, we can try? December 10th has a small window of ‘almost-summitable-winds’ but 2 Germans had reached 6000m and said the snow was up to chest level. Impossible.
Our only chance was to wait past December 10th, so back to google, forecast? 100kph winds every day until December 15th. Once the snow subsides, the wind begins. F*ck. Our hero guide can only manage 50kph himself, us? Anything beyond 40, at a push, would be suicide. There was now an official avalanche risk too, so even inside the tent, anything beyond 5,000m, was sketchy. Rumours of closing the mountain we’re picking up, we saw people being escorted down the mountain on ropes due to fatigue and altitude sickness.
Our Russian guide, Micha, was not to be deterred. 47 years old, half-man, half-mountain. His mountain stories put hairs on our chest, the man is a walking testament to the strength of Russian mountaineers. So rather than quit, he wanted us to fail with our own eyes, not on the rumours of others. We loved the guy.
Day 8 we attempted to reach Nido de Condores at 5,500m. As we ascended the mountain, hordes of mountaineers we passing us in the opposite direction. It took us 4 hours or so to reach Canada Camp, there were 4 or 5 experienced Argentine guides and mountaineers there. I told them our plan to ascend to 5,500 and from there, who knows. “No chance. No chance this week. Almost no chance next week. Maybe January”. Ouch.
Micha, in true Russian stoic fashion, “We are here now, let’s set up tents, sleep here”. Wind beaten, snowstorm, Russian guides are the best. So we set-up camp, snow coming in vertically, temperature perhaps -10 and dropping, 7 people in 2 tents, the only people left at Camp Canada. Huddled around our stove, instant noodles in hand, the reality was slowly dawning in us. It had been a week since we showered, sleeping in the snow, living in 4 square meters. Heartbroken doesn’t come close. The emotions, the suffering, the discomfort, the finances – all of it worth it IF we Summit, now the chance had gone? It was almost unbearable.
Maybe it’s ego. Ok, it’s almost definitely ego. But the failure is still cutting me deep. 1/7 mountains. 2/7 mountains. 3/7 mountains. And onto 4,5,6 and 7 summits, failure wasn’t part of my plan. But here we are.
So where does it leave me?
Day 9 on the mountain, we are hoping to be back in civilisation on day 10 or 11, 6 days earlier than expected and no summit to write home about. Tears? Aggression? Self-loathing? Guilt at choosing early in the season, and bring others along with me? All of the above.
This blogging, traveling, adventure life. Maybe things were going too well. It had me thinking the glory is easy. It’s not. The universe needed to bring me down a notch, cockiness or arrogance isn’t endearing. So let it humble me, and let it make me stronger. Back on the horse, that’s what they say, right?
So I’ve reserved my spot for January 2020, Aconcagua, you won the battle, but the war is still on-going. And I’m coming back for you. But this time in peak summer. No more f*cking snow. And to double-down on this mountain failure? Let’s do Mount Blanc in September too. I’ve learned a lot these past 2 weeks, most of it a painful lesson, but a lesson none-the-less.
What can I say? Thanks to Elbrus Tours for an amazing experience, albeit one without the outcome we wanted. Thanks to Micha our stellar guide, thanks to our group and the new friends we made, and a huge thanks to Anthony for the only person mad enough to attempt this stuff with me.
Now I’m off to find a bathtub in Mendoza, and a place selling cheap enough Malbec to fill the bloody thing with the stuff. I’ll see you guys on another summit soon x