Aconcagua: Summit Day

At 4am, Armageddon still thrashes outside, but maybe, just maybe, it’s tapering off a bit. I’m thinking our summit bid is ruined, but I’ve forgotten that we’re a strong and fast two-person team. Jake doesn’t seem worried. In fact, he seems confident.

“Here’s what I’m thinking. We sleep for a few more hours, give the wind a chance to die, get up around 730 or 8, check things out. If it’s decent we’ll fire stoves and get out of here by 9. And we’ll still summit before…pretty much everyone,” he says, smirking.
“Ok. Sounds great,” I reply, rolling over in my sleeping bag.

Shrill voices yell over the gusts, bootsteps crunch as climbers pass, their Gore-Tex shells whipping dissonant beats into the twilight. Here, the patience I’ve been learning is an asset. The early-rising climbers could distract me. I could get anxious, lose rest by thinking that we’re making a mistake, that we should be climbing. I don’t feel like that though. Instead, I trust Jake and I trust myself. I know that we can move fast when the time comes since we’ve been doing it the whole way up the mountain. I’m comfortable with our strategy and it allows me to steal one vital hour of sleep.

And when I awake, it’s a truly beautiful day. Gusts have transformed into caressing breezes. The cyan sky is an empty canvas waiting for a painter and his giant white brush. The mountain itself is splendidly sharp, black and red hues kneaded into form by the contrast of utter space. Sunshine bakes our tent into a sauna that helps loosen our night-stiff muscles. Jake boils water for yerba-mate, cocoa, and instant oatmeal. It’s the first time we’ve eaten the stick-to-your-bones paste, an accomplishment for which our stomachs and psyches are quite proud indeed. Now, scarfing the nauseating slop while I listen to The Prodigy, I taste only raw fuel, fuel for our summit push.

“If you need to augment your ratios…”begins Jake.
“No man. Today my ratios are perfect.” I say, winking.

It’s after 930am when we start uphill; we’re the last team on route. Wearing crampons from Colera—we don’t use ice axes and are not roped together— we kick point-prints into a ribbon of snow that switchbacks up a maroon talus field. We’re moving well, maintaining a rhythmic plod that begins and ends and is repeated with deep, forceful breaths. Breathing is vitally important, but so too is the heel-down rest-step; it is the mountaineer’s best chance at sustainability.

I’m thankful, now, that we stayed at chopper camp two nights ago. I’m feeling strong and I know it has a lot to do with that decision.

Even before our first rest-break at Black Rocks—about 20,500-feet—we begin passing people. By our second rest break, Independencia refuge (21,300ft), we chew chocolate amongst lines of European and American climbers who hunch over their trekking poles, take a few rushed steps and then hunch over again, trying to catch up with the altitude.

We have been climbing for about four hours when we reach the base of the Canaleta, a rocky bottleneck at about 22,000-feet that leads, via patchy snow, to the summit. I notice barrels and duffels cached against the rock. They bear the symbol of a windblown tree and the words “El Fede” Campanini Foundation. The cache is one of three emergency equipment caches that were placed on the mountain in January, an effort that the foundation, created in Fede’s memory, coordinated and sponsored. The equipment, some of which was donated by local climbers—Gabi and Willie Benegas to name a few—includes technical climbing gear, rope, medical kits, oxygen bottles, regulators, and breather masks; all the essentials for high-altitude rescue.

I can’t help but be reminded of that night at the Hostal Alamo, the pain and raw emotion that was released, the friendships and connections that were formed as a result. I remember thinking how Fede’s legacy would remain in the hearts and actions of the people around the table, how his positive energy would permeate our lives forever. Now, seeing these caches, I realize that his legacy is much more tangible. His strength is anchored to the mountain; his memory, cemented in the form of this equipment, will save lives in the future.

But the question still remains: Why Fede? As Jake and I eat and rest, two young American men, boys really, begin talking to us. Soon, they ask us if we have any extra water. Apparently, they are completely out. Jake, obviously peeved, tells them he will share some on the summit. How can kids like these climb Aconcagua and survive while Fede can be so unlucky?

The reasonable answer, as both Jake—and later my brother—remind me, is simple probability. Fede had been guiding—attempting multiple summits per season—on Aconcagua for years. The amount of time he spent exposed to the inherent risks of high altitude mountaineering was hugely disproportionate to his clients or any other non-guide on the mountain. Eventually, when taking continual risks, the odds turn against you. Maybe that’s what happened to Fede. Accept it. Move on. I am moving on. I’m moving uphill in fact, but I can’t leave it at that.

Nobody’s death besides Fede’s—he was well known and well loved—could have rippled the climbing community into forming the caches that have been necessary for decades. Aconcagua is popular and the fact that it has the reputation of being a walk-up means that it will see many climbers like the American kids without water, like the hunched over, shy-to-breathe adults. There are bound to be accidents, there are bound to be illnesses. Those caches needed to be there and it took an event like Fede’s death to make people realize that fact.

With this thought in my head, Jake and I begin ascending the final 800-feet. The altitude is affecting me intensely now; every breath is a pressure-breath, every step a rest-step, and it still feels like a high school basketball conditioning session. I’m on the verge of exhaustion, but I remain upright, using my posture to open my chest and my forced exhalations to keep moving. I think back to our uphill sprint at chopper camp and I’m thankful for it. It gave me an idea of what over-exertion at high altitude feels like. Although we’re climbing much slower today, it feels almost exactly the same. So, I already know what to do: breathe!

A cross made of metal-pipes marks the summit. It is decorated with flags, clothing articles, inscriptions. When I step, never breaking rhythm, onto the highest point in South America, tears come to my eyes. It’s taken just five and a half hours—plus eleven days—to reach this point. The tears come from a month traveling and walking uphill. They encapsulate all the preparation, waiting, stress, determination I have experienced. They represent every breath and every step of this climb and the climb on Mt. Vinson. It feels unbelievably good to shed them, and to do it here, on the continent’s rocky summit, with a good friend and partner standing close.

I give Jake an enormous hug. “Man, we absolutely crushed that,” he says, “Good job!”
“You too man. Thank you for everything. You’ve made the right calls the whole way up. That’s the reason we crushed it. You’re a hell of a guide.”
“Oh…thank you man. You’ve been a hell of a partner. It’s been a perfect trip. And it’s not over yet,” he adds.

The sky is seamless and the wind is only a reflection of its past self. We spend half an hour gawking at the near-vertical south face, snapping photos, eating and hydrating for the descent.
Before we leave, Jake transfers water to the snow-filled bottle that the kids present. He chastises them gently, shaking his head as he pours the precious liquid. After the kids have thanked him he goes to his backpack and extracts what looks like a scrap of paper. He walks up to the cross, looks at it intently and begins peeling the paper in half. I realize that it is a sticker and I see that it bears the logo of the “El Fede” Campanini Foundation. Jake sticks the rectangle to the very top, the most northern point of the cross, nods his head, takes a photo, returns to where I’m sitting with a huge smile on his face.

“Gabi’s gonna love that photo,” he says. All I can do to reply is give him a firm handshake.

As we saddle our packs, tighten our boots for the downhill plod and depart the busy summit, I look back. There is a team waving an Argentine flag and taking pictures in front of the cross. Fede’s symbol will be in those images, I think, and in every image for years to come. A smile creases my face. I turn and follow Jake down the pockmarked snow. The diverse Andean range stretches beneath me; it draws closer with every step.

“Don’t forget to breathe,” Jake reminds. It’s common to experience headaches on the descent because the work feels easier and the instinct to breathe is shut-off. I take Jakes advice, inhaling and then forcing the dry air out into the glowing atmosphere. My sunglasses fog up. I remove them, wiping the lenses with my sleeve, and for a moment the world is extremely bright. I replace the glasses and let my eyes adjust. The mountain seems somehow softer, as if sharp edges have been dulled by the wear of day. I breathe again and place my crampon in an immaculate pad of snow, an untouched cell, a pure canvas hidden amongst the clumps and heaps, the immortal grades of brick-red rock.

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