Sunday, January 18, 2015

Aconcagua recap #4: Our summit push

From my previous post, I left you with a sense that I felt guilty for bringing my family to this mountain.  That guilt lingered with me for some time - particularly when I left for acclimatization climbs while they laid around basecamp feeling the full effects of altitude sickness.  Kathy spent hours laying on the ground in the cook tent trying to sip water and avoid throwing it all up; Patrick was in the same boat but he at least could sit up and converse with the rest of the climbers.  Overall, I felt horrible exposing them to this harsh environment.  We celebrated Christmas and Patrick's birthday on this mountain and it seemed like a horrendous way to "relax" during the holidays climbing a dusty, scree-infested hill.  Oh well, I had to think of the positives.  Below is a good red-tinged picture of the cook tent where Kathy is laying down and Patrick is staring blankly ahead wondering when he can head down.  It wasn't pretty.
Nope, your eyes are working fine.  This is the red light of the cook tent that fouled up all our pictures.
I still managed to focus on the climb and plan for our summit push.  Brendan and I went down to the INKA tent (another service) where they provided free weather forecasts via their WiFi service.  Here, we discovered that the weather window was fast-approaching and we had little time to wait.  I took a picture of the screen so we could go back to our tent and study our options.
The weather forecast for the next few days.  Monday (12/29) and Tuesday (12/30) looked promising.  We aimed for Monday to be safe.
Based upon the weather forecast, we saw a nice weather window open on Monday and Tuesday - three days away from the day we checked (Friday afternoon on 12/26).  I was excited for the delay because I wanted us (Brendan and me) to be strong and well-fed.  An extra day would ensure our strength and proper hydration on summit day.  We talked to Kathy and Patrick about our plans and they said "go for it!" so we planned the next few days and rested while Kathy climbed up to Camp 1 (Canada).  I basked in the sun and enjoyed the rest day after we cached some gear up at Camp 2 the previous day.  The day was gorgeous!  See the picture below, you can see I had little concern for frostbite.  
Life at basecamp was rather comfortable.  Shorts, t-shirt and flip-flops made for comfy living.
Life at basecamp on the rest day was not all that bad.  The weather was awesome, Kathy got in a nice acclimatization climb to Camp 1, Patrick walked around basecamp and hung around the cook tent with us trying to battle his continuing nausea.  When Kathy returned from her climb, we had an awesome meal and then followed it with a full game of Uno.  I can't recall who won but we all had a blast.  The red tint inside the tent made it impossible to see the numbers of the yellow cards so that added a nice twist to an already cognitively taxing game.  This night was the first I recall that we all felt pretty good.  Kathy was on the full mend and Patrick was finally eating and drinking.  My guilt as a bad husband/father started to wane.  Yeah, I was still lousy but not as bad as I thought yesterday.  My family could finally smile.  Meanwhile, Brendan and I had little trouble and enjoyed the company at basecamp.  Who wouldn't have fun in the mountains - especially when you are with friends/family who laugh most of the time.

Uno at basecamp.  I knew we had two fast-improving climbers when we managed a full game of Uno at 14,900 feet.

The Summit Push

We headed out in the wee hours of the morning toward Camp 2 to begin our summit push.  Our agreed-upon departure of 8am came and went after we realized that climbing that early only deprived us of sleep and low-altitude rest.  We knew we would make great time to Camp 2 so there was no reason to head out early, get up to Camp 2 early, and then sit around waiting to go to sleep.  Instead, we lounged around, got our gear sorted for our next few days, and headed out at a leisurely pace at around 10am.  I like mountain life schedules without alarm clocks.  Sometimes early wake-ups are necessary but not on Aconcagua.  The weather windows allow for later departures and we took full advantage of the opportunities to sleep in when possible; the first day of our summit push was no exception.
On our way to the Camp 2 (Nito) to summit in a day or so.
Patrick and Kathy managed to occupy themselves on this fine day as well.  They headed over to the penitentes, walked around, and snapped a bunch of pictures.  Below is Patrick enjoying his walkabout in basecamp.
Patrick "enjoying a day hike to the penitentes."
The nice weather also allowed us to shed some layers and expose our dusty skin to the sun.  As you can see from the picture below, there wasn't much other than dirt, pebbles, and rocks - yep, scree.  Damn scree!
Now there is one happy climber.  He's looking better than yesterday.  On the mend!
Brendan and I made it to Nito (Camp 2) in a little over 3 hours from basecamp.  Instead of taking the switchbacks where everyone else climbed, we took the direct route straight up the hill.  There were a few tricky spots but we managed just fine.  During our climb up, a porter gal - roughly 4' 10" tall and all muscle - yelled to us that we were going the wrong way.  She was crushing the hill while we looked like we were slowly plodding our way up.  I had flashbacks of John Candy and Steve Martin and Planes, Trains and Automobiles wondering "how did she know where we were going?"  
We were focused on decreasing the distance we traveled and, by taking the direct route, we cut off about an hour at least from our climb from PdM to Nito.  Upon arrival though, Brendan was feeling the effects of the altitude.  He felt great on the cache day previously but today we climbed with a bit more weight in our packs and we made better time than on our cache day.  We both felt tired from the long haul but I felt fine after drinking the rest of my water; Brendan still had a lingering headache.  I knew he would shake it off.  He is one strong dude. 

Change of Plans

The summit push begins.  Brendan fighting a headache.  Meanwhile, we just learned tomorrow is THE weather window.
I walked over to the ranger station to get a weather update.   When I got there, I recognized that none of the rangers spoke any English and I speak no Spanish.   We managed to communicate the essence of "I need a weather forecast for the next few days" and they readily obliged me by writing down the numbers for temperature and wind velocity at the summit.  I looked in horror as I saw the only weather window was tomorrow - one or two days before we planned to summit.  Horror might be a bit strong but I wanted us both to be strong for summit day and if Brendan were fighting a headache now, he might be best served to spend the day in Nito before making any headway up the hill.  AMS can really hold you back so I wanted Brendan to be rested, fed, hydrated, and healthy.  He was only missing the last one and an extra day would easily take care of the headache.  That extra day was no longer an option.  Tomorrow was our summit day and our only summit opportunity for 5-6 days.  I walked back to the tent to let Brendan know the news.  The good news is that our summit push - and hopefully summit success - would come sooner than expected; the bad news was that it was coming sooner than expected.  Brendan told me without hesitation that he would be ready.  I had no doubt.  
Our neighbors at Nito who were discussing their summit options.
The weather news spread through camp quickly.  I told our two neighbors (Kallie and Jamie - great people we met during our climb) and they debated the merits of pushing up tomorrow.  They had their own struggles on the mountain and pressing up the hill earlier than planned only exacerbates bad situations.  Brendan and I had great fortunes so far and I expected that if the weather permitted, we would easily summit.  The only thing is the "if" can be really the limiting factor.  Weather is so hard to predict on this big mountains.  Bad weather can be a lot easier to predict than good weather so we looked to avoid the bad weather by aiming for a summit attempt on a day when it would NOT be blowing 100km/hr at the top.  
The scree fields were abundant on the climb to the summit.
We pushed off at 6:20am - a far cry from our 5am planned departure.  Brendan and I both awoke early and saw that the sun had not even risen and we both wanted/needed a little more sleep.  I asked him if he felt OK to climb.  That night, I decided that if he were not feeling well enough to climb up, I would descend with him and we would wait to summit together.  Thankfully, he gave me the thumbs up.  That night, Brendan had the mountaineers' breakfast - 4 Tylenol with a chug of water.  He was ready and I was relieved.  We could climb together and get this hill behind us!  So like college kids, we hit the snooze button and drifted off to sleep for another 45 minutes.  When we awoke, it was a little chilly and the sun was just rising over the peaks surrounding us.  I was ready to get going.
Scree and more scree.  The little bit of snow allowed us to ditch our mountaineering boots and crampons.
The day of climbing began with me lingering behind as usual while Brendan set a blistering pace.  I take a while to warm-up - probably about 3 hours - but once I get warmed up, I can climb with anyone.  My body just requires more time to warm-up.  Brendan was about 200 meters ahead when he stopped and started taking off layers.  I finally caught up and we chatted for a bit about pacing, timing for the summit, and other plans for equipment.  We were both in great spirits.  It was great to climb with someone who seemed like he was in a good mood the entire trip.  I rarely get in a foul mood and Brendan was a good match for me.  We laughed most of the time and took pleasure in the same activities.  As you can see from the picture above and below, the entire day seemed like an endless scree field punctuated by a few small icy spots.  Because the terrain was mostly scree, we both opted to climb in our approach shoes rather than don our mountaineering boots and crampons.  Countless climbers in front of us had these heavy boots on and we were puzzled with they would wear them on a warm day climbing on scree.  Yeah, snow, ice, glaciers, etc. require crampons but dirt, gravel, and rock do not.  We passed all those climbers with ease and pressed on toward the summit.
Here was the beginning of our struggles.  We failed mountaineering 101 today.  Crampons would have saved us so much energy.  Dummies.  We admit it; dumb plan carried out to perfection!
One point, however, gave us a hint that crampons might make our lives easier.  The picture above shows a small patch of ice/snow that could easily be traversed with crampons.  Since we didn't put them on, we had to circumnavigate the ice/snow patch and scale a 60 degree pitch of loose scree that kept sliding beneath our feet.  I swear I took 3 steps up for every productive step gained.  It was aggravating to say the least but I was happy to see Brendan cursing that pitch when he met me at the top.  We both knew we were failing "Mountaineering 101."  Crampons would have saved us a ton of time and energy.  I felt the scree scramble in my legs at 22,000 feet.  What a stupid thing for us to do!
Olivia summited with me.  She kept me strong.  Thanks Olivia.
After a few hours of scrambling up a rock field that continually slid beneath our feet; the same feet that still only had approach shoes and NOT crampons.  We climbed a straight line up a slope of boulders that rolled beneath us and constantly tested our dexterity.  Meanwhile, a group of guided climbers were slowly ambling their way up the hill to our right, walking gingerly along an icy path with their crampons holding them fast and steady to the hill.  I swear it took them 30 minutes to casually walk up this route while we scrambled furiously up the direct route.  A few of these guided climbers were taking a seat every few steps and they still beat us up this route.  We were frustrated to say the least.  What made matters far worse was that the situation was completely under our control.  We cached our boots and crampons lower down the hill so we were completely committed to our approach shoes and couldn't step foot on the icy, slick easy path up to the summit.  Again, we were dumb.  Guilty as charged.
A google enhanced compilation of pictures from the summit.  No wind meant I had to hold out the Olivia pennant.
We made the summit a full 2 hours+ after we expected.  Our expectations were not unreasonable.  We managed to climb a typical 5-hour route in 3 hours, made Camps 3 and 4 with relative ease in less time than typical for most climbers.  Where we were unreasonable was in our expectations for our speed over the landslide prone areas we were forced to scramble up without crampons.  What morons.  You see the theme here?  We were foolish to press on without crampons and only increased our ascent time by hours. 
Relieved to be on top and off that rock scramble pitch.  Oh wait, we gotta go down?
A panoramic view from the summit
Muster up a smile for this selfie.
Happy campers on the summit.  Do we look tired?  If not, we hid it well.

The Descent

"What goes up must come down" and Blood, Sweat and Tears would be a major theme for our descent.  We had to descend the scree, rock, and landslide prone areas back to Nito before we could call it a true summit.  Remember, the summit is only half-way on an expedition.  I was beat.  The thought of going back down was not terribly appealing but I was ready to put my body through it all over again as long as I could use gravity to my benefit.  Below is the hill we both dreaded.  In fact, I even thought about striking this picture from the blog post because it brought back visceral feelings of fatigue and frustration.  The picture does not do justice to the pitch of the slope nor to the complexity of the descent along these boulders that constantly moved, slid, and rolled every step down.  I was extremely thankful for all the hard workouts that strengthened my ankles.  

Sorry Brendan for reposting this picture.  We will both think about this dreadful hour with the spite it deserves.
The scree never ended but at least we could see the Nito (Camp 2) tents from 4,000 feet above.  Those tents never seemed to get any closer no matter how long we descended.  We made it back to Nito in about 2 hours after the summit - say roughly 5pm.  Our summit time was about 3pm and that was at least 2 hours past our estimated 1pm summit time.  We were beat when we returned.  I just laid down in camp and waited for the sun to go down...or for me to regain some energy so I could crawl into my sleeping bag and sleep through the night.  We chatted with our neighbors and they mentioned the expected weather forecast for the next few days.  Brendan and I had little food and little interest in spending any more time at Nito so we quickly made the decision to descend to basecamp - leaving at 8pm.  Yeah, it was getting dark but we knew we had at least one hour left of sunlight and then about another hour of moonlight to navigate the scree slopes back down.  We were both determined so we struck camp, packed up and headed down on our wobbly legs.
Nito tents way in the distance.  And this picture is more than half-way down the slope.  We were almost home!

Brendan on the last bit of the descent.  We were euphorically speechless when we arrived in Nito.  Aconcagua, done!
We rolled into PdM at about 10pm - a full 2 hours+ after leaving Nito and a bit longer than it would have taken had we been rested.  No matter.  We were home and could sleep in the next day.  Since we arrived at basecamp so late, nobody was up to greet us.  Kathy heard our voices and we soon found a few late-night climbers up and about.  Brendan and I were spent.  We were climbing for 16+ hours that day and had enough.  I sat in the cook tent with a few other new people I hadn't met before telling them about our long day.  My fatigue probably made me fairly incoherent but I didn't care; I was sitting in basecamp in a comfy chair and could drink some water while I ate the remains of our rations.  Tuna fish in a can never tasted so good.  Brendan, meanwhile, headed for bed right away.  I wanted to eat and drink so I could recover enough and be strong for our retreat the following day (or later).  
Yep, very happy.

 Recovery Day

We decided to spend the day recovering from our long summit push and that day proved to be well-earned and much needed.  I laid about all day, napping and listening to tunes while Brendan did much the same and Kathy and Patrick puttered about in basecamp.  It was a glorious day just like all post-summit days.  I had no cares in the world.  I just wanted to rest and I took full advantage of the opportunity.
Our team and friends (Kathy, Patrick, Pedro, Brendan, Curt, and me - left to right)
 Some friends we met in basecamp - two guys from Argentina - were leaving for the circumnavigation of the mountain rather than ascend to the summit.  They saw the weather window close on them and opted for climbing higher but safer rather than wait for an uncertain period to attempt the summit.  I didn't blame them but they were disappointed.  We bid them good luck that next morning and then drifted back to sleep on this lazy day.
Kat supporting Olivia.
I got up a few times to grab a picture or two and then headed back to sleep or started packing for our eventual retreat the next day.  There were a ton of things to pack but I was in no mood to exert too much energy.  Brendan - I am sure - felt the same way.  
A well-earned nap the next day after our summit
 Patrick was in great spirits this fine day because he knew we were leaving soon.  I don't blame him.  He and Kathy put up with a ton of discomfort.  I never experienced AMS or at least not to the extent they experienced it this past week.  They were far tougher than I was or probably will ever be on a mountain.  I was happy for Patrick that he could finally get down and eat something more to his tastes.
Patrick knew the misery was about to end.
 Speaking of eating, none of us wanted to cook.  We were done with our food - not that we ran out but rather we couldn't bear the thought of another meal cooked by us.  A few climbers told us about this nice tent up the hill in basecamp where you could order a pizza and beer/Coke.  Price was not an issue so we went for it.  We ordered a beer, Cokes, pizza, and fries and enjoyed the respite from basecamp.  It was a small slice of heaven just a mere 100m from our basecamp tents.  We were still beat and really hungry.  Pizza!  Coming up.
A real meal at basecamp.  We were all done with chicken noodle soup and crackers.  Bring on the pizza!

The tent that provided us a break from food monotony.

Pizza, beer, coke, and fries.  What more could a climber ask for after a successful summit?  Oh yeah, a bed and shower please.  Perhaps a sit-down toilet would be nice too.
After eating this amazing meal, we retired back to our tents for more napping and packing.  I was ready to leave and, if left to my own devices, I would have shoved off that night and trekked out in the dark.  Once I finish the objective, I want to get back to civilization.  I was done.
Naptime in the tent on a sunny afternoon post-summit.  I was rocking out to the Who "Quadrophenia"

Happy guy.  Time for a shower soon.
 In my fifth and final installment, I intend to provide pictures of the trek down and the post-summit party that ensued.  We summited on December 28th, 2014 just after 3pm and managed to get back to basecamp at 10pm after a 3-hour rest at Camp 2 (Nito).  The next day we hung out at basecamp, rested and packed for our trek out.  My next post covers December 30th and later.

What I could see before I dozed off.
One thing I neglected to post was the news that Patrick and Kathy summited an 18,000+ foot peak on the same day Brendan and I summited Aconcagua.  They climbed together but unassisted by anyone else.  Once I collect the pictures from them, I will post them with a write-up by their accounts.  They deserve a ton of credit for dusting themselves off after a long, 5 day battle with AMS symptoms.  I am so proud of them.  They were the strongest climbers on summit day; Brendan and I were the dumbest.  

Thanks for following and stay tuned for the exciting conclusion of this Aconcagua trip.

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