Experts say mental acuity diminishes with altitude. We proved them right even before we began our big climb in the high South American Andes.
Four of us were at 9,200 feet, bunking at the Puenta del Inca Hosteria near the Chile-Argentina border. When our leader departed for the airport to pick up the fifth member of our expedition, the rest of us decided to go for a late afternoon hike. Our target was a cross, which stood atop a cliff band on a nearby knob. We reached the shrine near dusk, but it proved to be a false summit. The actual apex appeared to be a short climb ahead.
With darkness eminent, anyone possessing a molecule of mental competency would turn around immediately. Not us. Like three, oxygen-deprived stooges, we continued upward.
The second point also proved to be a mere bump on an endless ridge. Collectively inhaling, we activated dormant brain cells and elected to turn back. No worry, we had our Mini Maglite flashlights to illuminate the way. They proved adequate until we reached the sheer edge of the cliffs. There, plunging darkness swallowed the impotent, double-A beams. We were stuck.
Among the three of us, we had one jacket and one Gore-Tex parka. By 11:00 p.m., we were shivering. Eventually, a rising moon cast its light on our predicament, and we discovered a route down the precipice. Returning to the Hosteria, I prayed this wasn't an omen of blunders to come on our impending ascent of Aconcagua.
At 22,834 feet above sea level, Aconcagua looms as the highest peak in the Americas. It lies in Argentina, roughly midway between that country's wine center of Mendoza and the Chilean capital of Santiago. By its easiest route, the climb is not technically demanding, but the twin jabs of altitude and weather have knocked out many who have attempted its summit. My visit to the nearby climber's cemetery provided a sobering reminder that the Reaper works overtime up high.
For me, the "stone sentinel of the Andes" was a personal Everest -- a peak I wanted to climb "because it's there." On an attempt the previous year, I came to within two days of reaching that goal. Then, a simple head cold contracted on the approach worsened into bronchitis on the mountain. I had to decide if going for the summit was worth the health risk. On the edge of a glacier, I made my choice.
I looked across the snow. On the far side, a quarter mile away, lay a dark sleeping bag. It enshrouded the body of a Canadian climber who died a year or two before. His corpse still awaited rescue. Death's reality made the decision suddenly simple. I turned back, vowing to return.
Like the first time, my second attempt began with an overnight stay in Mendoza. During the day, our climbing party discussed plans and made a final check of equipment. In the evening, we dined alfresco at a sidewalk restaurant where we devoured steak, guzzled wine and admired the nubile Argentine women who sauntered by in skintight jeans.
The combination provided a perfect Dionysian sendoff from civilization. After this we faced three grueling weeks of high-altitude exertion and freeze-dried deprivation.
Aconcagua rises from the treeless Andes on the east side of the international border. A broad ridge and a sheer face separate its twin summits. Unlike many of the world's high peaks, this one contains only a few small glaciers. Otherwise, Aconcagua's towering pile of crumbling rock and craggy ridges earns it the reputation of being world's highest rubble heap.
The mountain has two main climbing paths with separate approaches. The normal route ascends gravelly slopes as it follows the northwest ridge to the summit. Technically simple, it is not unlike hiking up an Adirondack high peak or a Colorado fourteener.
We were to go by the more alpine Polish Glacier route on the east side of the mountain, so named because a group from Poland became the first to summit from that direction. Massive landslides, however, closed its approach valley. By default, we headed up the normal route.
Being an all male group, our conversations followed a predictable pattern. At first, we talked about equipment, exchanging details about all the fancy gear we carried. Exhausting that subject, we discussed women. Finally, as days wore on and calories wore off, we moved onto food. In short order, we had exchanged numerous enlightened perceptions about the best in bags, beauty and burgers.
Horse packers hauled our gear to the mountain basecamp at 14,000 feet, a two-day hike away. From there, time went by in a mountain climber's tedium. One day, we would lug loads up to the next campsite. The following morning, we ferried up the rest of our gear. Then we rested. The repetitious pattern gained us a couple thousand vertical feet every three days.
The daily doldrums were broken by the usual woes that make mountaineering the fine art of misery. One night, the jet stream dropped, and high winds began to shred the tent I was occupying. My partner and I spent a sleepless night sitting up and bracing tent poles with our bodies.
Another day, a foggy whiteout and driving blizzard caught us exposed. We pitched the tent beneath a cliff and spent two days huddled in its cramped quarters, longing for the weather wrath to end. Boredom is the bane of mountaineering.
Eventually, we reached a large, flat site at 19,000 feet on Aconcagua's northwest ridge. After establishing camp, we choked down a pasty pasta dinner and set alarms for a predawn wake up. Tomorrow would be summit day.
The beeping watch shattered a groggy sleep. Creeping from my sleeping bag, I gazed into frigid darkness. The air blew breezy and stars salted an inky-black sky. It looked to be an ideal day to scale Aconcagua.
I joined the others for breakfast. In spite of a desperate need for calories, altitude saps appetites and makes most food unpalatable. I washed down a Pop Tart with a cup of instant coffee -- not the breakfast of champions. We melted snow to fill water bottles, loaded packs and secured camp. In the hypoxic lethargy of altitude, simple tasks take forever to accomplish.
Our ascent began in near total darkness, following a distinct pathway that twisted up the loose scree slopes. The sun eventually grazed Andean summits to the north, but the trail kept us in the cold shadows. By the time we reached the battered remains of Independencia Hut at 21,000 feet, I already felt more exhaustion than I ever experienced, even at the end of a marathon. Only here, there was no T-shirt and Gatorade, and I still had half the mountain to go.
After a short rest, we climbed a steep snow bank and marched into the direct blast of an unabated wind. The trail led us across a portion of the mountain called the Gran Acarreo, a smooth scree slope 1,500 feet below the summit. Explosive gusts stopped me in my tracks. Wind-propelled ice crystals pelted my face. A ski-mask balaclava gave some protection, but if I covered my nose and mouth I couldn't breathe.
"Yes," I kept mumbling to myself, "this is what I do for fun."
My mind drifted to more pleasant times. I thought about home and family. I hungered for a steak, salad and hot shower. I longed to share warmth and wine with my wife. I vowed next year's vacation would involve palm trees and sand, not ice and snow. Then, like a locked up computer, my consciousness went blank.
At the end of the Gran Acarreo, we turned into the mouth of a talus- and scree-filled gully where the trail abruptly ended. At 22,000 feet above sea level, we would have to scramble up a rocky slope greased by four inches of powder snow. The plodding became painful.
If a plane lost air pressure at this altitude, oxygen masks would drop from overhead compartments. We had to breathe on our own. With every step upward, I stopped and gasped for air. Then I took another step and repeated the process. Boulders and outcroppings only yards away became distant goals taking minutes to reach.
A functioning brain would ask, "Why am I doing this?" Mine never inquired. I just numbly toiled on.
We reached the saddle at the top of the gully. Ahead, the mountain plunged in a two-mile drop of rock and ice. To the right, along a knife-edge ridge, stood the lower south summit. The true top of Aconcagua, rose to the left, perhaps a hundred yards beyond.
One of our party, devoured by fatigue, elected to go no farther. While he waited, the rest of us continued along a snow-covered ridge, lumbering over boulders. Finally we reached a flat piece of ground. There was no more up to be found. We stood atop the highest point of land one can find in either the Southern or Western Hemispheres.
The mountain's face dropped away. In every direction lay a montage of snow-dappled peaks and ridges separated by dusty green-tinted valleys. It's a view reserved for climbers and condors.
For years, I had longed to reach this summit. I had acquired skills, trained hard, bought equipment and paid a bundle in air fares, and trip fees. I slept in cramped tents, ate marginal food and went weeks without bathing. Finally, it all paid off. Here I stood on the top of Aconcagua. This was my Super Bowl, my Stanley Cup, the Big Enchilada. I should be hoisting my ice-axe in triumph. But, something was missing.
On lesser peaks, I experienced euphoria, but not here. I felt no elation. No jubilation. No happiness. Nothing. Rarefied air and physical exhaustion combined to dull any realization of achievement. I sensed only the relief that there was no more uphill.
After five minutes on the summit, we started back down. The reality of the accomplishment would come days later. Now, the hour was getting late, and we needed to descend. Three of us had already found out what it was like to be stuck on a mountain after dark. Even with our brains in standby mode, we knew we didn't want to repeat the experience here.