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.

Annapurna Circuit Trek: Part I

At the end of February my friend Josh and I ventured to Nepal to begin one of the most famous treks in the world, the Annapurna Circuit Trek. After delaying ourselves from having so much fun in Kathmandu and Pokhara, we woke up on March 6 to begin a 3 week journey from the Himalayan foothills through one of the most important ranges in mountaineering history, the Annapurna Massif.

In 1950 the French expedition led by Maurice Herzog became the first team to reach the summit of an 8,000 meter peak, Annapurna. Of the 14 mountains above 8,000 meters in the world, Nepal is home to 8 of these. The Annapurna Circuit trek not only attracts mountaineers, but geologists, bird watchers, and outdoor enthusiasts of all skill levels who will take between 12 and 20 days to complete the full circuit trek.

Day 1: Ngadi (890 m) to Jagat (1300 m): 12 km, 410 m gain


   

We take a bus from Besi Sahar to Ngadi, where we begin our hike. Bus services end here, where private Jeeps are available for a hefty price to continue on up through the valley. A huge portion of the Annapurna Circuit follows this same road as it winds up the mountainside. Since the time that my Lonely Planet book was published in December of 2015, the road expanded 34 kilometers all the way from Chame (2710 m) to Manang (3540 m).

  
Today is a relatively easy day, but it is hot. After a couple of hours, we reach a huge tree that frames the perfect vantage point for what’s to come. We overlook the Marsyangdi Valley and see our path curve along the hillside up towards another village on the opposite end. It’s the perfect taste of what we’ll see in the next few weeks.

   

Day 2: Jagat (1300 m) to Dharapani (1900 m): 15 km, 600 m gain
We have lunch in Tal, a beautiful town situated at the end of a valley and the tongue of a river. I bought a bracelet from a local man who promises me that the Tibetan Ohm will give me luck when crossing the Thorong-La Pass in a week.

 

Descending into our lunch spot in Tal

 
 

Josh gives a quick camera lesson to some Nepalese children

 
The valley walls rise dramatically towards the sky on either side to make up these lush, green mountainsides. Even though we haven’t reached the glaciers yet, snow speckles the upper reaches of our day’s hiking destination. Nowhere in America will you see such stark differences between the plunging valley floor and the towering hilltops.

  

Almost even more impressive are the villages that dot the skyline, perched on cliff ledges overlooking thousands of feet of thin air.

 

The perfect afternoon spot for a tea break

 
Today I buy a pair of trekking poles, socks, chapstick, and a chocolate cake for $12. I also experience my first cold shower, courtesy of Himalayan runoff water. “Cold” seems like too nice of a word to describe the feeling of melted ice dripping through my hair.

Our lodge is near a river, so I borrowed a washbin and hand washed my smelliest gear. In the morning I’ll clip them onto the outside of my pack, and by midday they’ll be completely dry from the intense sun. I feel very self-sufficient.

Day 3: Dharapani (1900 m) to Chame (2710 m): 16 km, 810 m gain
Our third day was by far the most exciting, for it’s the first time we get to see the 7,000 and 8,000 meter peaks we’ve been reading and seeing so much about.

  
Our first glimpse is of Annapurna II, part of the greater Annapurna Massif which I mentioned above was the first ever recorded ascent of an 8,000 meter peak. Herzog, the leader of the group, lost both hands and feet in the process.

We were surprised to encounter our first real chilly evening in Chame. After experiencing my first ever hot bucket shower, I went off to explore the town and ended up walking up past a school, a monastery, and up to the upper reaches of the village. There, I was greeted with the late afternoon alpenglow coming off of Manaslu, the 6th tallest mountain in the world.

  

Today brought to life the stories I’d read from history’s most famous mountaineers, and I know that in the days to come we’ll only be more impressed and surprised by the sights of the full Circuit.

   

Day 4: Chame (2710 m) to Upper Pisang (3310 m): 14.5 km, 600 m gain


We woke up today with our breath frosting the air in our lodge room, and the temperature too cold to hold a book in bed with one hand for longer than a minute, before needing to switch out under the covers with the other. But by the time we’d gotten up, had breakfast, and stepped outside, the sun was blazing hot.

  
If we thought we’d gotten used to the mountains from yesterday, we were wrong. Every uphill and every turn granted us jaw-dropping views. The weather was crystal clear, as perfect as it could’ve been, with these gigantic jagged peaks cutting across a flawless blue sky in what was probably the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever experienced in my life.

  
We pass by an apple orchard, and it’s not the first time we’re told that these high-altitude apples are great additions to any meal. I order an apple pie for Josh and I to split as an appetizer for our dinner. We continue to enjoy apple porridge, and apple pancakes throughout the trek.

  

Our lodge in Upper Pisang is this humongous pink building perched over a cliff, and our guide tells us that only two years ago the entire structure resided in Lower Pisang, where it was manually torn apart, hauled up 300 meters, and reconstructed. Annapurna II looms over everything in this town, even the beautiful new monastery sitting at the very top.

  
  
Day 5: Upper Pisang (3310 m) to Manang (3540 m): 19.5 km, 600+ m gain



There are two routes out of Lower and Upper Pisang; a lower route that follows the Jeep road along the river, and a high route that soars above the valley and nearly touches the surrounding 6,000m+ meter peaks. 

We chose the high route, planning only to make it to Ngawal, about half the distance it would take to reach the larger town of Manang. We were stronger and faster than we’d anticipated, and after a well-deserved lunch following a brutal morning ascent, we took the rest of the “Nepali flat” route to Manang (Pro hint: Nothing in Nepal is truly flat, be wary of your guide’s route description).

  

 
As the story goes, each day has been better than the previous, and the sights we saw and peaks we seemed close enough to touch followed us along our trek all day long. Today we mostly walked in silence, getting lost in the beauty around us.

   
   
In Manang we settle into the room we’ll stay at for two nights, to acclimatize. We did some laundry and got our first hot shower in three days.

From here on out, our trekking days will get shorter as we reach higher altitudes. Read onto my second part of our time on the Annapurna Circuit Trek to see the stunning photos of our climb to Ice Lakes.