If you’ve followed this post from the previous one, you’ll know that here I am at 6,000m, or 19,800ft, and am hopefully waking up for a 5am departure to the summit of Aconcagua. All I’ll tell you is that that it was by far the longest night of my life.
From settling down in my sleeping bag at 7pm the previous evening until the point in time that head guide Peter knocked at the tent to rouse us, I didn’t sleep one wink. I couldn’t. My headache was pretty bad. My breathing, which I thought I would struggle with, was absolutely fine, but my head felt like it was in a vice. I had AMS, and I knew it.
I told Peter as soon as he came to the tent at 4.30am, and after some discussion he suggested I take 250mg of Diamox, and try to get some rest. My attempt, and any thoughts even, of the summit, were over immediately. It was now about being safe and well from now on, and hope that AMS remained at just AMS.
The troop departed at about 6am, and I wished Gary my tentmate the best of luck. He’s as strong as they come, and I knew that if anyone would make it, he would. I hoped they all would of course too.
I wasn’t alone in not ascending that morning. Mo had woken up in the middle of the night with a hugely swollen eye. Peter had attended to him and said that he had a facial edema, so his ascent was over at that point too.
Tincho, the local guide, stayed behind to attend to us, and he came into my tent at about 8.30am. My headache wasn’t improving much at all. I knew I needed to ascend, and asked Tincho what the plan was. He said we should wait two hours and he would make a recommendation at that point, which wasn’t really the news I wanted, but had to accept. He then returned about 5 minutes later however, and said we’d go at 10am. The reason was that another climber with Grajales (the local guides that Tincho belonged to) had taken ill in the night too with AMS. He needed to go down too and would join us. We’d all go straight to a Doctor at the bottom.
Tincho asked if I could carry my gear, or otherwise we could book a porter to come up to help. The thoughts of putting 20kg+ on my back in the condition I was in was fairly horrible. I knew however that if I didn’t it would delay the 10am departure, so I said yes, and began the difficult job of packing when you can’t function properly and feel like complete crap.
We duly began our descent, the four of us, in freezing conditions, towards Plaza de Mulas, Base Camp on the ‘Normal Route’ of the mountain. I couldn’t feel my hands, despite two pairs of gloves, a merino wool pair covered by my warmest Goretex skiing gloves. The next two and half hours is a bit of a blur really, but helped by an incredible desire to ascend, the fact that the air was palpably getting thicker by the minute, and the knowledge that if I stayed up high any longer I was putting myself in harms way, I put all my concentration and strength that I had into it. I was weak, very weak, partly due to the fact that I hadn’t slept for 36 hours.
We got down by the ‘Porters Route’ mainly scree, in about 2 and a quarter hours. It was exhausting, but rolling into Plaza de Mulas shortly after midday was a great feeling. I knew that even though I was still at 4,400m (14,900ft) I was in air that I could breathe and that I’d be ok. My headache was still there, but better, much better.
We were greeted by Grajales staff, and given juice, pizza and cake. It was wonderful. It was even warm – people were in T shirts, and what a contrast to the numbing cold that we had left behind.
Base Camp (Plaza de Mulas) comes finally into view.
We we assigned bunk beds in a tent alongside an elderly Canadian Team who had just arrived too heading in the opposite direction. I lay on my bed and slept like a baby for about three hours. It was bliss. My summit, Aconcagua, was over, but I didn’t care. I was safe, it was good, I would take stock when I got back, now just wasn’t the time.
Base Camp is a relief, even if I would rather be on the summit.
The view the other side of Plaza de Mulas, looking up to where we had just come down from. The summit is well off to the right of shot out of sight.
There’s even a plastic palm tree at Plaza de Mulas!
At the end of the afternoon our Doctors appointments duly came. I was passed as fine, other than my AMS, and told to keep on taking Diamox until I reached Mendoza, which I duly did. Mo was fine too – his eye swelling had dramatically improved on the way down, and so the decent obviously made a huge difference to him. The pictures I saw subsequently of his swollen eye at Camp Cholera were horrendous – he looked like a bug-eyed chameleon who had then gone ten rounds with Mike Tyson – not a pretty sight at all. He said afterwards that he felt that his heart was actually beating in his eye, it must have been a scary experience.
The interesting thing about this day for me was the fact that the German climber (the doctor) had also got AMS. Here was a very experienced climber who had done Aconcagua before, Denali, Kartstenz Pyramid and all manner of other high and scary mountains, and he was prone with AMS also. He’d also looked as fit as a fiddle all of the way up the mountain. As he said at the time though, “I’m a human being just like you, it can happen to anyone”.
I have to thank Tincho most of all for this day. He was brilliant. He hadn’t ascended the mountain himself as he was also sick. He had a terrible sore throat and had been very much under the weather for days. Despite that he’d carried 38kg on his back the day before to give us the summit shot, and here he was tending to the sick and needy and haring down a mountain to get them all to safety. ‘Chapeau’ as they say in cycling.
So my day was over, and my thoughts and hopes of summiting Aconcagua too. There was no going back up. It would either be never, or a long wait for another day. Now wasn’t the time to dwell on that.
News came later of successful summits for each of Gary, Pete, Fred and Eduardo – ‘chapeau’ to them too. If any of them are reading this and would like to write up a piece for me to insert of your summit day and experience then please let me know, and I’ll put it up here too. I know from your stories afterwards of how much mental and physical energy it took, and my hearty congratulations again to you all.