Finally the wind stops. We take advantage with a heavy carry to Camp 2, chopper camp, a triangular plateau next to an ice river at 18,000-feet. It’s called chopper camp because there are old helicopter parts—tail fins, radio boxes, instrument panels, rotors—strewn randomly about, residue of some past, thin-air catastrophe.
The hike only takes us two and a half hours, which gives me time to relish the newly acquired northward view while we sip yerba-mate. The Andean range—cupped-palm couloirs, unfinished sheetrock faces, suspension bridges of snow—stretches to the horizon. There are innumerable peaks; the highest, our goal, beckons from above my left shoulder.
“You want to take a short hike up the ridge there without packs? Go fast to get the chest working?” asks Jake.
“Yeah, sure,” I say, grabbing my trekking poles.
“If we’re going to go for the summit in the next three days without any rests in between, I think a little work here would help us.”
Jake hikes briskly uphill; I’m on his heels. He moves faster and faster, essentially hopping up a scrambly outcrop, gulping down hollow air with breaths that gauge divots into the atmosphere. I’m essentially hyperventilating. I can feel the lactic acid building in my legs; it takes all my will power to continue moving. When Jake stops after only five minutes of hiking, I feel like I might puke; the exertion is that extreme.
“Keep breathing. Pressure breaths every time,” he says. I follow his advice and, in less than a minute, I feel normal again.
“Good work man. You kept up.”
“Barely,” I say, smiling.
“No. You’re strong. That little stroll will help us on summit day.”
Today it only takes us two hours and fifteen minutes to ascend to chopper camp. We feel strong enough to entertain the idea of moving to Camp 3 this very afternoon. Our original plan was to sleep here tonight, move to Camp 3, Colera Camp, tomorrow and go for the summit the next day, which is ambitious in itself. Most teams spend a rest day at chopper camp before beginning their overnight summit bid. We definitely won’t be doing that and now we’re even thinking of turning two days into one.
Jake is on the verge of saying that we go for it. I’ve been gaining a lot of confidence with the altitude over the last week and I’m pretty anxious to make the move. However, if we move to Colera today, we’ll be going for the summit tomorrow, and it is likely that after a long day with heavy loads, we won’t be at our best.
“We’ll make it either way. I’m confident of that,” I say, “It’s just a question of how hard it’s going to be.”
“Dammit man. Why you gotta be so strong? You’re messing up my entire strategy.”
In the end, Jake decides to be conservative, reminds me that the more time I spend up here the better. We set up camp, eat a late lunch of gas-inducing macaroni and cheese, eat an early dinner of ramen with spoonfuls of peanut butter, listen to the breeze fade with the sun, curl into sleeping bags, anticipate deep breaths and rest steps.
Colera, at 19,600ft, is the highest I’ve ever been. Our loads are heavy, especially at this altitude. Still, we make the move in two and a half hours, another quick day. The camp is relatively exposed, but Jake, having heard the inside scoop from a local guide and porter, Luciano, claims a space that is perched above the normal sites amongst pillowy spires of grey rock. We tie our guy lines into some of the smaller spires, literally anchoring ourselves to the mountain itself. If there is a perfect spot to weather a storm, this is it.
And a storm does come. Explosive gusts blow craters into tent walls, but not our tent walls. We are so staunchly secured that our nylon fortress hardly luffs. Still, the wind is loud and we hear the strained voices of nearby teams trying to hold down their gear in the bitter night.
I’m reminded—thanks to Jake talking about his mom and Abraham Lincoln, who have birthdays on February 12th—that today, February 10th, is actually my dad’s 81st birthday. I use the satellite phone to call home, get the answering machine, leave a message: “Hey Dad, Happy Birthday! I’m at 19,600-feet here at our high camp. We’re going for the summit tomorrow! Love you.” I think it’s one of the better voicemails I’ve ever left.
Altitude, anticipation, the racket makes sleep difficult. We must rest though, must stay horizontal at least. We are planning to rise at 4am and begin walking towards the summit at 6am. El cumbre is in our sights, 3200-feet above. The culmination of the last ten days is at hand. The apex of my expeditions, the highest summit in both the western and southern hemispheres is only one giant step away.