Aconcagua Memoirs Summit Day
Aconcagua Memoirs Summit Day is my account of my summit attempt on Aconcagua from High Camp 3 on 18th January 2018.
I wish I could say I woke at 03:15 am when the alarm went off in our freezing cold tent.
I had never managed to sleep.
I lay in my sleeping bag aware of tiny pieces of ice flakes falling onto my face from the roof of the tent, like tiny pin pricks of ice cold. Not unpleasant. Just different.
It was summit day and while I thought I would be looking forward to this day I knew I wasn’t.
I felt exhausted and needed more sleep. But that option was gone.
Head torch on and the process of boiling water in the pitch black freezing temperatures began.
We needed another 1l of water each to take up the mountain having already melted 1l each the day before.
At this altitude and temperature, melting snow takes considerably longer than lower down the mountain.
We were due to leave our tents at 5am for the summit bid.
While the Jet boil raged away in the doorway of our tent I took my Oxygen Saturation. 68%. I tried it several times on both fingers. I put it down to the freezing cold and told myself it wasn’t reading right. You can convince yourself of many things if you think long enough about it – or just forget it, as I did.
90 mins later and I had just about melted enough snow to make another 2l of tang, force fed myself some cold Thai Green Curry Noodles left from the night before and began to squeeze myself into my summit clothing, layer upon layer.
I peered out of the tent and it hit me. The extreme cold on my face. High winds again outside and I could see many, many lights in a line trailing up the mountain – groups were up and out already making their own summit bid.
I wanted to get going and yet I didn’t.
Gear sorted, boots wrestled on, crampons on with the help of George and gloves on from the outside. Fingered gloves to kick off.
The 4 of us set off at 05:15am into the darkness, out head torches lighting the way up the steep snowy mountainside, following the tracks of others.
We trudged slowly. Very slowly but as fast as we could manage.
The wind on my face felt like my skin was burning. I had ski goggles on, woolly hat on, hard-shell hood up but the exposed cheeks were taking a battering. “I wonder what frostbite feels like” I thought to myself.
I pulled up my buff from my neck to cover my exposed skin and provide protection from Mother Nature. It was -40 to -50 degrees out, the coldest I had ever experienced. The problem with a buff over your mouth and nose at high altitude is that it makes the breathing even more difficult. It’s a trade-off between discomfort and not losing flesh.
After a couple of hours I could see the sky to my left begin to light up with the sun rise.
There was no dawn chorus. Nothing lives up here really. Just the howling winds of this hostile environment.
As we climbed I kept trying to wiggle my toes in my boots. My toes were now very cold indeed but I could still wiggle them. My fingers were also heading in the same way so off with the fingered gloves and on with the high altitude mittens.
A number of people have overtaken us as we climbed and I contemplated how long this cold would last for amongst my suffering, shortness of breath and if truth be told, slight fear within of what lay ahead.
After 3 hours the sun was up but it made little difference.
One of the team was struggling with altitude sickness and risk of frostbite to the toes. The pace was so slow that we doubted whether a summit in the 10 hour window would happen at the pace we were moving, at least not without serious risk of losing fingers and toes later on.
My team mate and his partner decided to head back to camp 3 to safety and to rest up and try again the next day.
I said to Banjo “Let’s do another hour mate and see if we can increase our pace and warm up our feet a bit.”
So onwards we went. Both us by now had totally numb toes that we could barely feel. My fingers, well I can’t remember about those.
We continued trudging for what seemed forever. We met a friend who was descending from a little higher. He had decided to turn back for fear of frostbite to his hands. We chatted and he decided to come with us and have another crack.
Eventually we got to a more sheltered spot – Refugia Independencia.
We rested with many others. Despite the sun the cold was still well below -20 degrees and the wind added to that.
Myself and Banjo took off one boot at a time and spent time trying desperately to revive our toes. Bending, twisting and trying to regain circulation and some degree of sensation.
I looked around and thought “surely everyone else is feeling the same way, surely their feet are just as cold as ours and they’re not turning back” in an attempt to justify things were ok.
The fact is, I was scared. I didn’t want to return to the UK having lost any body parts.
Banjo posed the question of us going down and trying again the next day due to the severity of the cold.
“Mate, there is no way I am coming back up tomorrow. It’s either today or not at all for me.”
I was suffering. I had suffered for 5 hours now and the idea of going again tomorrow was just too much.
“Let’s just try another hour and see how we feel”
We went on for another hour, which turned to 3 hours. In all honesty I don’t remember how I felt thereafter.
We traversed a long trail along the mountain side with snowy flanks of the mountain above and below us. It looked to be around 700m or so. The pace was painfully slow. Take 10 steps and stop to breathe for a minute or so, slumped over trekking poles breathing as if I had just sprinted for 400m.
We took some photos, we bolstered each other on and we ate a little food.
I had been having problems my mittens. My thick gloves were too cumbersome to operate my trekking poles and so had taken off the thick outers leaving on my thinner inners.
My hands had gotten too cold again and so tried to put my outers back on. Problem being, my hands were too cold now to maintain the strength to be able to pull the outer on. I cursed the gloves and my stupidity. My hands were in fists within the outers and that would have to do.
After what seemed an eternity we eventually arrived at The Cave.
The Cave. 6746m Altitude.
A well-known resting spot before the final steep summit push of around 200m.
Myself, Banjo and his mate from Ireland, Mike sat on our rucksacks.
We drank some tang, pushed trail mix down our throats.
“I feel like I could just lie down in the snow and sleep forever” I commented.
The boys agreed. The 9 hours it had taken us to get here had been exhausting, physically and psychologically.
The sun was being engulfed now with snow clouds coming in from the South.
“Better push on boys” as we reluctantly got up, slung our rucksacks on and readied ourselves for the agonisingly steep, snowy climb that lay before us.
We tagged on to the end of a guided group and followed in their footsteps. Up 6 inches, slide back a little, take another couple of steps. Lean over trekking poles and repeat.
After 30 minutes we were heading into a white out. Banjo was behind me by about 15 metres and Mike was just ahead.
As I climbed, breathing heavily I noticed my stomach shift. There felt an urgency to my bowel that, despite having the shits since I had arrived on the mountain, felt different. It subsided and carried on.
30 minutes later it felt like I had barely moved. I can’t remember exactly when it happened but as I climbed I became aware of a very strange feeling in my fingers. They had been numb for most of the last 5 hours. Now I could feel a strange electrical, tingly type feeling which I hadn’t had before.
“That doesn’t feel good” I thought to myself but carried on.
My head had felt lucid for hours, thoughts delayed, vision a little slower and general feeling of total exhaustion.
Now my exhaustion was at a level I had never experienced. Every part of my being wanted to lie down in the snow and sleep.
Mike said to me “Matt are you coming up because if you are you need to follow this last group.”
I said I was and carried on a little further.
The tingling was getting worse and my vision shifted. I looked around to the summit now around 150m away and I nearly fell over. My vision had a strange green tinge to it.
In that moment I heard an inner voice speak to me.
“Matt you haven’t got this today. You’re getting Cerebral Odema and you need to get back. The summit is only half way.”
My mind flickered to all the films I had seen about Everest and how many people perish on the descent due to exhaustion, the summit fever they experience that leads them tantalisingly to their deaths.
Only days before a person had sadly passed away 30m from the summit of Aconcagua and whose body was still up there.
I took another few steps but knew I was done.
So near yet so far.
I took one more look at the summit and thought about the life I had left to lead.
I recognised I was not in a good way and turned to start moving down the mountain.
My legs felt like they were not my own. Lacking co-ordination and strength I stumbled down the steep slopes barely able to control myself.
30m below me I met Banjo who was also suffering.
“Mate I’m not feeling right. I’ve got cerebral oedema symptoms.”
Life Saving Drugs.
“Can you swallow” said Banjo as he passed me a Dexamethose Tablet (a powerful steroid for helping to relieve symptoms of this potentially fatal condition) and a Diamox tablet to relive altitude sickness.
I took them both and said “Maybe we should give it one more stab?”
“Mate you are DONE” he said which I knew in my core was true.
We slid and stumbled down to the Cave before resting.
The thought of stumbling along the narrow, long traverse filled me with fear.
Banjo instructed me to use my Ice Axe to stick into the snow on my right and use my trekking pole on the left to steady myself.
I held onto the threads of motor control of my legs in complete fear of stumbling and falling down the mountainside. There were another group of 4 people in similar state to myself I noted.
I felt scared like I had never been scared before. The magnitude of getting back to camp 3 seemed too much to handle and I had to keep stopping. 99% of my being just wanted to lie down and sleep.
1% of me said “if you do that you will never wake up again. You HAVE to get down Matt, you have too much living to do”.
“YOU GOTTA KEEP GOING MATT” Banjo shouted at me.
Half way down the long traverse I stopped and looked in my rucksack for another pair of gloves. My hands feeling frozen I opened the top and felt like I was looking into a black swirling cauldron.
I couldn’t see anything other than swirling black and green. It was pointless.
“I’m hallucinating” I said to banjo and he gave me another dex and Diamox.
Down we went. I stumbled, barely able to walk, like I was some out of control drunk.
With tunnel vision I was focussed on Banjos rucksack. As I looked at it my mind thought it looked like Thomas the Tank engines face. He then emerged from his rucksack and disappeared. Odd.
Down, down, down.
“I can’t die here” I kept saying to myself and my mind flicked to my son and loved ones back home.
“I have to live” I said to myself.
As I continued in my lucid state my mind contemplated many things.
Most of them consisted of the realisation I hadn’t done enough of what I wanted with my life and hadn’t spent enough time with those who I loved the most.
I looked over at the mountains in the distance and blinked my eyes as I saw the logo for the boy band JLS on the mountainside.
“That’s weird” I thought.
We had been joined now by another man behind me. He kept talking about getting medical help but we were struggling to understand each other.
I had no time to talk, I knew I needed to get down and needed help.
After what seemed like a lifetime high camp 3 came into sight. Banjo went off ahead to get help while I staggered, fell, picked myself up, unable to walk in a straight line.
I walked down a gulley and saw George and Rob walking towards me.
I fell to my knees in tears. “Boys I’m sorry I’ve fucked up” I said. “I need help.”
George handed me a hot mug of electrolyte drink and Banjo came over with the only “medical” help there was – a porter from one of the other tents.
He tested some of my motor skills, looked at my eyes and gave me more Diamox.
“You can’t get a helicopter up here he said in broken English. You’ll have to get down further.”
To be continued….