Aconcagua A Long Way Down
Aconcagua A Long Way Down is my account of my journey to descend from Aconcagua’s summit having reached it at 10am on 16th January 2020.
We had been on the summit for what seemed like an hour.
Taking photos, congratulating each other, basking in the moment and our sense of achievement.
Aconcagua A Long Way Down – The Summit is Only Half Way
But the summit is only half way. When you are exhausted, the summit fever soon wares off and the realisation of the task ahead starts to set in.
Most incidents that happen on mountains happen on the way down after the summit.
Heading down the Canaletta presents different problems to those when you are ascending.
On the way up it is the physical exertion of climbing steep scree slope in dwindling oxygen levels.
On the descent it is the concentration needed to remain on your feet heading down on the steep, loose scree while feeling exhausted and with little left in the tank.
Numerous groups were climbing up below us and so caution must be taken to try and avoid triggering rock fall onto those below.
You simply have to take your time and pick your route carefully.
I headed down with Phil and Dan and one of the Sherpas. The trekking poles on the descent are essential and help to increase stability while decreasing the risk of falling.
It is yet another lesson in patience. The mountain cannot be rushed.
As we descended I took a number of tumbles, often due to carelessness or trying to descend too quickly.
After what seemed like an eternity we eventually made it back to the Cave for a rest. By now the cave was packed with those about to embark on their own final push to the top. Some would make it. Others would likely not. Such is the Mountain.
I was glad to be one of those having summited and knew what lay ahead for many of them.
I sat down next to Phil and closed my eyes for a split second. I felt sleep trying to engulf me like a black, peaceful, yet deadly demon. “Just a few minutes would be nice” I thought to myself. But I resisted. Phil was feeling similar and we both commented on how much we wanted to back in Camp 2.
Aconcagua A Long Way Down – Body Fat for Fuel
I pulled out my bottle and drank the remains of my 2l of Tang flavoured water. From this point forward I had no fluids left. My stomach still felt nauseous but I pulled out the last ¼ energy gel and sucked back its contents. Instantly I felt sick and wished I had save the remains of my fluid for after the gel.
Now began the long descent across the traverse with steep ground giving way to a more gradual incline.
We trekked down for a bit and caught up with some others from the group. Sitting down in the scree we could see camp 2 down far below. The distance felt painfully far away and I felt anguish about the task ahead. I felt totally empty.
As we descended further we could see a track that took off to the left down the side of the mountain. This was not the route that we had ascended on. It promised a more direct route straight down to Camp 2. On reaching the junction it became clear this was a scree descent that had been used by the porters and Sherpas to descend quicker. The surface was loose so while it would save us time, it would also likely require more energy.
What to do? Longer but easier. Shorter but more painful?
Aconcagua A Long Way Down – Shorter, Not Sweeter.
We all decided to take the hit and opt for the shorter route that tantalisingly promised a return to comfort, food and water quicker.
Within 50m it became obvious this was going to be a mission. Fortunately I am a fairly confident descender and quite like downhill “skiing” on scree.
I simply stuck to the edge of the path where the loose gravel was deepest and took bounding steps downward. Each time I did, the gravel gave way, absorbed my momentum and then I’d take the next running, come bounding step.
It makes for some rapid descending but you must stay relaxed. Trekking poles out to the sides in case of emergency.
I set myself a target of 30 paces then I would rest.
After a few attempts and seeing that camp 2 seemed to draw no closer I increased my range to 60 steps. Id then stop, slump onto my backside and sit there recovering for 5 to 10 minutes. I would then try and summon the willpower to get to the next section.
After maybe 200m of descent my legs were feeling like jelly. My mouth was so dry and I felt dehydrated on a deep level. I wanted to badly for this part of the mountain to be over.
We were in a big group of us. United in our effort and yet, at the same time each enduring our own personal battle. Together and yet a feeling of every man and woman for herself.
I can’t remember exactly how long it took to reach camp 2. I think I arrived around 4pm.
I got down onto the level of Camp 2 and could see our tents. I was utterly spent. Lifting my feet in the heavy 8000m boots felt almost too much effort. I felt like a zombie.
I felt an odd combination of satisfaction, relief, exhaustion and feeling like somewhere in my being, a bomb had gone off. A feeling of silence after something massive had happened. Which of course it had.
For a time I didn’t know what to do with myself. I wanted to drink but didn’t have the energy. I wanted to eat and yet felt sick. I wanted to sleep and yet I didn’t want to sleep in the tent, hot due to the day time sun on the yellow fabric. I felt in Limbo.
I milled about. Sat for a bit. Stood. Chatted. Basked in the feeling of weary success.
Eventually I took myself for a lie down in the tent. It was hot. I didn’t care. I closed my eyes and just lay there breathing.
After a time, around 90 minutes I felt able to sort myself out. The next day we would be leaving early for base camp.
I re-packed my bag, strapped boots to the outside and tried to eat some food that Geljen the Sherpa brought to our tent. Noodle soup. I ate one bowl full, drank some orange Tang and got into my sleeping bag to listen to some music. I slept for 9 hours that night.
Camp 2 to Basecamp
The next day we woke at 7am with the goal of leaving at 8am. I didn’t want to get up but needs must. Slightly later than 8am everything was ready to go and we began our descent to base camp.
It felt like a long way to go. We descended on a mixture of regular tracks and porter tracks in the scree. Legs still shot from the previous day. It is a case of put up with the pain and get down quicker, or go slow and suffer longer but with less intensity.
I think it took us 2 hours to get back to base camp.
I came down the final section of the hill listening to “Sweet Home Alabama” on my phone. It felt fitting and a French man passed me on the way up and said “Hey, Great Tune!”
I smiled and met the others in the mess tent. Breakfast was the same as it always was. Somethings never change.
The morning flew by with us all chatting, joking, sharing experiences and reminiscing. Letting our loved ones know we had made it and updating our social media outlets.
I had a very welcome shower ahead of the BBQ that Nims and the Elite Himalayan Adventures crew had laid on for us.
We ate and drank under the afternoon sun. The meat was delicious and the cold beers to die for.
I took a moment under the backdrop of Aconcagua and looked up at her summit. I remember wondering what it would be like to stand on top of her. Now I knew.
I looked around the team. Drinking, dancing and chatting. I thought to myself. “Life does not get much better than this right now”.
We carried on drinking for a good few hours before turning in. It was only 21:30 but the next day we had the long trek from base camp to the trail head. Around 16 miles.
That night I woke myself up shouting. I was having a dream. I fell back into sleep and woke myself up shouting again. This happened a few times until it got to the point when I didn’t dare go back to sleep. I lay in my sleeping bag, felt my eyes close and felt myself falling instantly into another dream.
The thing was, I couldn’t tell at this stage if I was dreaming or I was awake. I pinched myself several times. I felt delirious . I lay there for a few hours before sleep eventually engulfed me and before long it was time to get up and leave the mountain.
Base Camp to Penitentes
The mules were loaded and we had our light packs. By 9:30am we were on our way with a long trek ahead. Down the steep incline from base camp I felt shattered. Onto flatter sections and the pace was high. I was struggling and felt resistance to going quickly. After a couple of hours I settled into myself and we hit the valley floor. A long, boring almost never ending trek through the rock and dust. The path uneven and hard work. I took to the front and got into a rhythm on the poles. I wanted this part to be over and to get back to Penitentes. We got there after around 6 hours of trekking.
A minibus collected us and took us back to the bar we had stayed at in penitentes before our journey began.
The beers flowed and endless packets of crisps devoured. Eventually, the bar sold out of beers. The mules and our gear still hadn’t arrived. All we wanted to do was get out of there, get back to Mendoza, have a shower, a decent meal and then celebrate our success.
By 10:30pm were back in Mendoza and eating steak by 11:30pm. The beers tasted good and the steak was simply amazing. Before long we were off to a night club. One I had been in before the start of the trek. A crazy night was had with much drink, dancing and laughter.
We rolled out of the club at 6am from memory and made our way back to the hotel. Some went directly to breakfast. I simply needed my bed.
I spent a couple of days relaxing in Mendoza and sorting out an early flight back. Not easy with a stage 4 hangover! We partied for 2 more nights before it was time to say goodbye.
Looking back my expedition this time around was everything I wanted and more.
I am of course thrilled to have summitted. Having succeeded where before I was beaten. I ultimately achieved what I set out to do.
The summit strategy had made me nervous. It felt severe. But, as I look back I would not have changed it. The rapid ascent and perceived lack of acclimatisation that I felt in my mind, I needed, had triggered my own fear of the unknown. I had tackled it and succeeded. In doing so, it has served to reinforce to an even greater depth the strength of which I perceive in myself. I was stronger than I realised I could be. I achieved something in a way I didn’t think I could. Beyond the summit, this is one of the lessons I shall take away and hold in my heart. We can always achieve more if we just get out of our own way.
I must also mention the like-minded souls I had the pleasure of spending time with on this expedition. It was this collection of people who I got to know from far and wide who really made the trip into something even more memorable. We all got on incredibly well. The mission bound us together in our efforts and we shared a common experience from our own individual perspectives.
I have laughed and cried, hugged and danced, lifted up and been lifted by this amazing group.
To all of the Elite Himalayan Team, Nims and his men, thank you for creating an experience in time I will never forget. To the clients who became my friends. It has been a blast. Thank you for bringing everything you did to my experience. You guys all rock!
Until the next one. Keep Adventuring!