Aconcagua: Ascent

There are three daily options in expedition-style climbing: resting, carrying, moving.

Resting, for me, is leftover soup, brief uphill strolls, short downhill jogs to get the heart and lungs pumping, 20 push-ups, stretches, Annie Proulx’s That Old Ace in the Hole, Neil Young and Modest Mouse on my iPod, more soup, journals, naps, candy. That’s how we occupy our first day at base camp. The idea is to acclimatize and, by Jake’s reasoning, the more time we spend low—14,000-feet—the stronger we will be up high.

“Besides, if you think about this as training for Everest, basically the more time you spend at altitude the better.”
“I hadn’t thought of it like that before.” The notion alleviates fidgety anxiousness, reminds me that this is one gradual step in the journey of a lifetime.

Carrying, for us, is loading packs with extra food, fuel, clothing, reading material, schlepping it to Camp 1 (16,000ft), and then returning to base. We ascend for four hours through choked-off talus, subterranean ice, jagged penetentes—parallel snow-fins formed by dust, sun, and prevailing westerlies. Cresting a frozen ridge, an explosion of wind almost knocks us off our feet. We press forward, reach camp, hide behind a rock wall and share yerba-mate. We cache our gear in a duffel, pile rocks on top. Our descent takes less than an hour, us scree-skiing downhill with empty packs.

“This is awesome man. You go downhill at like a normal speed,” says Jake, who is used to guiding large, soft-kneed groups that dawdle on rocky descents.

This is not the first time the advantage of our small, experienced team has become obvious. In setting up and breaking down tents, boiling water, being efficient at rest breaks, and walking downhill we are faster than everyone, not to mention walking uphill. I’m hoping that instead of as client and guide, Jake and I will begin working as two friends. Like I said on Mt. Vinson, I want to be an asset to this team, not a burden. It feels right to hear Jake talking about how great it is that there’s just the two of us.

Moving is stuffing the tent, stoves, sleeping bags, pads and remaining clothes in our backpacks, saying see-ya-later to base camp, and climbing to Camp 1. Our packs are lighter, but still enormous, and they act like sails in the relentless gusts. However, we cut half an hour off yesterday’s time, push into camp and build our tent while gripping it tightly, tying guy-lines to the biggest rocks. Again, we eat the heavy items for dinner: couscous with lentils, peas, cheese.

The nylon walls bang and shake, and we can hear each approaching gust ricochet off thousand-foot spires like a whistling locomotive that has lost its brakes. When the gales crash into us, the horrendous sound drowns out all else. I use earplugs, but they have little effect. We were thinking of carrying to Camp 2 tomorrow. “Not going to happen if it’s like this.” I roll over, covering my head in down, and try to sleep. Our first night at 16,000-feet is not very restful, to say the least.

It’s snowing. It’s windy. It’s looking like a rest day. The only reason to leave the tent is to take a crap. With the weather like it is, the already distasteful process of defecating into a plastic bag becomes downright risky. Hell, windchill could freeze your junk in seconds. Sometimes though, one force of nature is stronger than the other; I don’t think Jake would appreciate it if I tried shitting in the vestibule. There’s nothing for it but to brave the torrent, find a boulder for shelter, and bare myself to the elements. Talk about a great substitute for coffee.

After that drafty experience there really is no reason to leave the tent. Jake rigs a harness for his iPhone, suspends it from the ceiling and we watch a movie, using one earphone each. We read, eat, play a game of Spades with Billy Nugent and Walter Hails, another RMI guide.

Waiting is an important skill to learn. On climbs of this magnitude, there will invariably be bad weather, delays, rest days. Keeping occupied, focused, energetic when this happens could be the difference between success and failure. It helps that Jake has the new Terminator movie and a deck of cards. I appreciate his forethought in this regard.

“We’re only going to be that much stronger when we go for the summit,” Jake reminds me, and then, “How’s your hunger level?” This is his trademark quote, a sentence I hear uttered at least three times a day. I usually reply with an I-think-you-know-the-answer-to-that kind of look, meaning that I’m never really hungry but will always eat. When I do that exact thing this time, he produces the frying pan and starts flipping quesadillas. The melted Gouda and warm prosciutto are savory fuel that will propel me, and my load, up the mountain.

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