Finding Patience and Pride at 22,841 feet on the Summit of Aconcagua

“I feel drunk right now,” Nina groaned. She was wobbling, her balance impacted by the increasing elevation, though each teetering step continued to propel her up towards the summit at the rapid speed of 250 vertical feet an hour.

Hanne hiked quietly, deliberately placing one step in front of the other, occasionally looking up towards the summit with a glowing grin plastered across bright red cheeks. I kept meaning to remind her to cover her face with her buff as the sun gradually showed its strength on her fair Norwegian skin, but then my thoughts would float skyward.

We’d been hiking up the same gully for (seemingly endless) hours. The summit was so close we could practically reach out and touch it, and I knew that Nina – one of the strongest women I know, an ultra marathoner and mountain runner – was no doubt dreaming of jogging on up as she did her local LA peaks. However, our hands were tied by the high altitude’s oppressive demands. Even if we could move any faster, it wouldn’t be smart or healthy for our body’s acclimatization. Just as on the rest of this entire trip, we were forced to move at a snail’s pace.

This was a real test of patience for all of us.

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Neighboring peaks of Aconcagua shot at sunset from our first high camp.

 

For the first time in my life, I experienced what high-altitude mountaineers describe in books, speeches, and tales from higher places. My breath lagged, my legs adopting the weight of concrete blocks. Every step strained my muscles, every sharp inhale seemed to do the job of half. I moved the slowest I ever have on a hike or climb, and somehow my spirit still soared.

I was functioning very well for such a high altitude. I’ve summited three other peaks near the 20,000 foot mark and always felt fine and strong, but this was new territory. The extra 2,800 feet on Aconcagua was significant enough to demand my full attention, and every foot I moved higher on summit day, I felt my strength challenged.

Of course, there’s a lot more that goes into the physical challenge that mountaineering inflicts on your body. A lot of it is unseen.

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The shadow of Aconcagua stretches over the horizon at sunrise.

Summit morning

It’s 4am when we hear the familiar clank of stoves and shovels as our guides wake up to begin melting snow for breakfast. The three of us clients lay stiff in our sleeping bags, afraid to move just an inch in case the chilled air could leak into our perfectly warmed cocoons, while Miki, Charlie, and Ulises brave the cold. Our valiant guides had already melted 60 liters the night before, to ensure every climber would have enough liquids to get them through the night and the entire summit day. Each of them were strong, selfless, and big reasons as to how each of us remained healthy and happy throughout our expedition.

As to be expected, not one of the three of us really slept that night. Our high camp Colera was at 19,586 feet, two hundred feet higher than the summit of Kilimanjaro. Miki was right about one thing; it was a lot more comfortable squeezing three women into our two-person tent, the body warmth at least made our last evening more bearable.

But that’s not why we had tripled-up. We were warned that a solo inhabitant wouldn’t have the body weight to hold the shelter down in case of high winds. Our guides had dealt with a similar situation before: Chasing a willowy female client down the mountain as her tent catapulted her, body and all, past camp and towards a steep drop-off.

Besides, we were teeming with excitement, eagerness, and just a little bit of anxiousness for what the morning would bring. None of us quite wanted to get our hopes up.

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Killing time in the dining tent at 18,200 feet, where we were camped for three nights.

Two days before

The wind is too strong to entirely stand up, so we half walk, half bear crawl from sleeping tent to dining tent.

A howling 70 mph gust goes by, and we scramble to reinforce our shelters with 20, 30, and 40 pound rocks. Each of us is slowly, numbingly losing feeling in the tips of our fingers, toes, and nose as the temperature plummets with the lowering barometric pressure. We try to resist calls from Mother Nature, dreading the contact of wind on delicate skin, leaning against a small frozen rock more for the emotional comfort rather than any real wind block.

We’ve already spent two nights at Nido de Condores, our intermediate high camp at 18,241 feet. We’re behind schedule, using up our extra weather days for their very intent. Every day we see bluebird skies: The forecast doesn’t predict any precipitation; this is a dry, clear, yet deadly windy storm. With gusts reaching 100km at our current elevation, we can’t imagine what climbers up high were experiencing.

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Nina looks out over Argentina’s Andes mountain range on an acclimatization hike.

 

A few of the friends we’d made at base camp are turned around from their summit attempt, and we feel for them, in part because we’re all thinking the same thing: The longer we spend here, expelling energy at such a high elevation, eating our food reserves, and waiting for a last ditch chance for the weather, the lower our chances are for our own summit attempt.

We’d accepted this possibility, our most probable outcome at the moment, getting ready to spend our third night at Nido when Miki asks to meet with us.

“There’s been a change in the weather forecast. There’s a small summit window opening up in 36 hours,” he tells us. “Do we want to try our luck?”

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Photo courtesy of Hanne Lund Danielsen.

Sunrise

We’d been walking about an hour – or was it two? My watch was bundled underneath layers of jackets and gloves, and I was using the slow onset of dawn to measure time, as well as our progress.

It had been a beautiful morning so far, with a gentle wind (or “kiss from the mountain” as Miki insisted), and everyone seemed strong. We reached the broken down Refugio Independencia (20,930 ft.) just as the sun was making its final rise over the horizon, brightening up everyone’s faces and spirits. There had to be a dozen teams at this pivotal point in the climb, more climbers than any of us expected. We soaked up the rays, forced down some food, and lathered on sunscreen before strapping on our crampons and setting up the slope again.

We breached the ridge above Independencia and got a full view of our next few hours across the Great Traverse. Some of us thought it looked simple, some said it seemed like it stretched on forever. I stared out at this section draped in shadow as a gust of westward wind blasted us and had one thought only: Looks cold.

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The impressive South Face of Aconcagua looms down at us from Plaza Francia (13,300 ft).

Two weeks before

“I’m boiling alive,” Hanne complained, fanning herself with a baseball hat. She was wearing shorts and a thin t-shirt and looked more comfortable than I felt in my long pants and long sleeves. I hate coating my body in sunscreen even more than I hate the heat.

The Argentinian summer heat was oppressive at our Confluencia Camp (11,300 ft). We’d come up from the trailhead the day before at the mouth of the Horcones Valley (9,678 ft.), and we were already feeling like we’d never cool off from the desert climate’s wrath. Our bodies sticky from sweat, we lamented that we still had two and a half weeks before our next shower.

Our journey was just beginning. We had just started the ritual of massive hydration, not-so-secretly competing with one another to see who was drinking the most liquids throughout the day. Even so far away from our summit attempt, we were still counting down the days to the top and maximizing our chances of success down to every minute detail.

Even though we’d seen the mountain from a distance at the very entrance to Aconcagua Provincial Park, it wasn’t until that second day at Confluencia when we really got to understand what we’d signed up for. An acclimatization hike to Plaza Francia (13,287 ft.) brought us to an absolutely breathtaking view of the south face of the mountain, peering up nearly 10,000 feet – almost two vertical miles – to the summit we’d all flown across the world for.

I think we joked to each other about the heat, and the hydration, because all along we all really knew that things would get a lot less comfortable up high. But we still had a long way to go.

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Our descent on summit day, racing the sunset back to camp after 7pm.

The final slog

The long, undulating and gradual traverse led us to La Cueva (21,817 ft.), or The Cave, at the base of a large rock wall. Here, climbers gather strength and enjoy their last break before the final summit push, all while facing the objectively most difficult – and most dangerous – part of our day.

The Canaleta is the steepest section of the entire climb, beginning from the base of La Cueva and stretching up just a few hundred feet short of the summit. When dry, the Canaleta is plagued with deep scree that backtracks climber’s progress nearly two-fold. Sections reminded me of the volcanic ash I was so familiar with climbing back home on Mt. St. Helens, South Sister, Mt. Adams: One step up, two slides down.

We were lucky. Because of the last week’s storm, we greeted the hard-packed snow and ice that covered the Canaleta with gratefulness.

So here we were, with Nina’s restiveness, Hanne’s stoic march, and my haggard breaths slowly inching us towards our goal. Our guides Miki and Charlie coached us mentally just as much physically, as the impatience of the preceding two weeks crept up on us and I fought the urge to race ahead.

Finally, minutes blended into moments, and we were greeted with flashes of brightly colored parkas, national flags, and a decorations adorning the summit cross. We’d made it to the top.

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Nina, Hanne, and myself on the summit of Aconcagua (22,841 ft).

It’d be easy to say that our hard work and perseverance paid off. From the months spent training at home, to the days of load-carrying to camps. But I think that we owe the real credit to the mental battles each of us faced. Fighting through the internal protests of: “I’m too cold,” “I’m too tired,” “I’m not cut out for this.” Breaking the opposing mental walls of agony and boredom, seeing past the easy way off the mountain and silently suffering through the discomfort. I credit our success to our patience on acclimatization days, bad weather days, and mornings we were too cold to leave our tent.

We wouldn’t have shown up if we weren’t physically fit enough for the task at hand, but we wouldn’t have succeeded if our mental and emotional strength didn’t stand up to the challenge. Patience is similar to pride, gratefulness, and joy in that it can be invisible… but they’re the most valuable things we carried with us once we left that summit.

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Photo taken from a load-carry acclimatization hike. Aconcagua marks the third continent, and fifth summit, that Nina and I have tackled together.

Sea Level Training for High-Altitude Endeavors: My Regimen for Aconcagua

Just two weeks ago I made the plunge and decided to join one of my most fearless friends on another high-altitude excursion across the world: Aconcagua in Argentina. At 22,841 ft., this mountain will be the highest (and hardest) summit we’ve ever pursued, and I couldn’t be happier to be embarking on this expedition with one of my bravest, most driven and adventurous friends.

When I tell people I’m leaving in a week to climb the tallest mountain outside of the Himalayas, the highest point in the Western hemisphere, and the Seventh Summit of South America – the first question I get is inevitably: How are you training for high altitude while you’re here at sea level?

The easiest (and only) answer: You simply can’t prepare for altitude. But you can condition your muscles and mind to be ready once you arrive.

Here are the main ways I’ve been amping up my cardio, strength, and endurance training for Aconcagua the last three weeks…

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Viewpoint from Pittock Mansion in downtown Portland

(1) Trail Running

Despite its notorious rain, Portland is one of the top destinations for runners in the country, partly due to the trails it has right within its city blocks.

Hands down, my new favorite running trail has been Leif Erikson Drive. Super accessible from anywhere in NW Portland as well as right off of the freeway, this wide, gradual, and feet-friendly trail is over 11 miles long. Plus: this route features distance markers every 1/4 mile, which make it super easy to track your progress. I started out at 10 miles, then onto 12, and on my latest trip I reached 15 miles round-trip. It’s definitely my go-to spot for upping my mileage week after week as my climb approaches.

This has been my first winter back in Oregon since high school, and the adjustment from a California climate to the snowy season we’ve been having has been a learning lesson for my layering system. I’d read some time ago that cold air makes your lungs work harder to metabolize oxygen, so frigid temperatures should get you used to these same effects at high-altitude and help enhance your ability to acclimatize. So in a way, the winter weather is really doing me a favor.

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Hike Lower Macleay Park in downtown Portland

(2) Strength Training

Because I already love running, the first to-do of my training list was a cinch. I knew that my biggest challenges would come in strength training, which I hadn’t done since before I left on my worldwide trip in February (nearly a year ago). So I got to dust off my weights, and I now dedicate 3-5 days per week on different arm, abdominal, and leg muscles during 20-40 minute HIIT (high intensity interval training) sessions.

My strength training regimen also includes weighted walking, which is when the photo above was taken. On this brisk Friday afternoon I loaded my backpack up with 40 lbs of Nalgene water bottles, handheld weights, and heavy books to hike out of Lower MacLeay Park. I was not paying attention to how far I could go; I knew that distance and pace mattered little to me today. I simply set out with a goal of spending at least 2.5 hours without dropping my pack, continually moving, to get my entire body used to the strain that would be put on it on the slopes of Aconcagua.

At altitude, every little detail is over-exaggerated. Weight feels heavier, breathing feels harder, muscles are more sore and headaches are more severe. The more I can get my body used to this agony  while stuck in the city, the better I’ll perform in the mountains.

(3) Duration Over Distance

Throughout all of my training, no matter where, when, or what; my main focus has been on endurance. Endurance Athletics is all about how long you can last under extreme physical strain – and that all comes to how well you are prepared for it.

That’s why when you’re training to do a seriously intense athletic feat, it’s important to place a huge emphasis on duration over distance. Even if you find yourself trotting downhill and hiking slowly uphill (as I did on the day that this photo was taken), the most important part of training is to work through the hurt. And trust me, your training should hurt. After all…

Progress doesn’t happen within your comfort zone.

Like I mentioned, this mountain is close to 7,000 meters and poses all types of objective climbing hazards, and because of this – our #1 goal is getting down safely. Aconcagua has a 30% success rate, mostly for its subzero temperatures, unpredictable weather, and seriously high altitude. Because of all of these factors, this peak demands humility from those who attempt to climb it. I feel no pressure, I only have hope that all works in our favor and we can reach this incredible summit in the heart of the Andes.

I am excited, I am anxious, and I am ready to chase this dream with such a kickass friend by my side. Keep an eye out for my wrap-up post at the end of January!