Day 13 - Summit Push Day
Oh Day 13 ... a day to remember for the rest of my life. Its actually day 11 on the mountain (my favorite number) BUT day 13 of our trip to Argentina and I am not superstitious whatsoever but perhaps after this day I will become superstitious and start reading my horoscope daily, and get a deck of tarot cards and go to a fortune teller so she can tell me I will drown swimming in my friend's pool... Back to the point: If you ask me I think summiting on day 11 of a 21+ day long trip is a little too aggressive of a schedule. I paid for a 21 day trip and I accounted for it with my vacation, finances, and planning. So why am I summiting on day 11 of being on the mountain? When I google: "How long does it take to climb Aconcagua on average?" I am presented with the numbers: 12, 13, or 14 days as the summit days. With my level of experience I know better and question myself whether I should follow this plan like a sheep? So we are definitely a couple days too early. I mean aside of yesterday, every day was tough for me and perhaps its my body getting used to the altitude and it needing some more time. This was the first red flag for me here. I mistakenly decide to ignore my intuition on this one. Yes, weather, is a thing to factor in and it is not favorable after today so perhaps I justify things to myself this way?
Speaking of weather: the second red flag for me was the weather forecast. The forecast was not so good for our summit day whatsoever and albeit it getting worse the following few days I think we came here for the perfect (or rather low risk) weather window and not this... its windy, freaking cold, and yes let me say it again: freaking windy in the numbers of 50/60! Again: I mistakenly decide to ignore my intuition on this one. In fact I try to voice my concern to the group and to the guides but I get dismissed by being told: "John Snow you know nothing" (my ego says: ouch!).
So back to the timeline of events: At midnight of January 23rd, 2023 / start of the day of January 24th the group met in Camp 2 - Nino De Condores outside of our main kitchen tent ready to rock and roll. Locked and loaded! Balls of steel! We got a small snack package and the lucky chosen ones (understand: not me) hot tea and a small brekky snack. Anyhow... 17 of us musketeers started the climb up to the summit. I remember the morning being a little disorganized and was surprised the guides didn’t check everyone's gear / did at least a basic sanity check (I didn’t mind as I know my gear in and out but I could see some folks were struggling to find their favorable summit setup). So off we went at about 00:10 and at about 1am we saw 2 of our team members walking back down to C2. This left about 15 of us up there going for the summit push. Peter and I were in the first group climbing fast with the guide in the front and another great guide Juan in the back. In our group was Tim, Kasper, Rob, Garreth, Margarita, Peter and I. We are going real fast and at about 3:30am we reach Camp 3 at 5930m called Camp Refugio. I am impressed at how fast we got up here. I am still feeling great. Off we go to continue our way up to Independencia at 6380m. This is where I start running into some problems. The wind and cold are unbearable! I am desperately hoping for the sunrise to kick in but its still too early. Not sure but for some reason our guide lets us stand in the wind in line waiting. We are just there in the wind, waiting and standing and waiting. WTF are we waiting for? I see up above us one more guide from our group with 1 more group member from our team and they are moving up slowly but we are just there standing and our guide is not having us move up nor is he communicating with us why we are just standing there. So I walk up in the line and I confront him: "Hey guide! why are we standing in the wind here lets keep moving I am losing my body temperature when not moving." His response is the lamest and most unprofessional thing I have ever heard: "It's the mountain...." Wow.... and then he adds: "You should have gotten a down suit like the list of items said." Little does he know my set up is warmer than a down suit. Wont get into it here but if you want to challenge me on this happy to have this discussion. The third red flag for me is a rude guide that is letting us stand in the wind and has an unprofessional approach. Not good, not good at all. Again: I mistakenly decide to ignore my intuition on this one.
Painstakingly we get up to Plaza Independencia at 6380m and I am tired and cold. To be honest I am having a lot of chest pain and it feels like my heart is hurting + I have a thing called: "eagle syndrome" and it is getting progressively worse up here which is unfortunate because I didn’t expect it to flare up in these conditions + during such an important day. Perhaps a fourth red flag that I should listen to my body? and i really need to get that surgery done for this stupid eagle syndrome thing when I get down from the mountain.
We continue our push up towards "The Traverse" and at about 6400m I decide to listen to my intuition and body and I turn around. I just know something's off but I cant explain it and I also cant keep ignoring my inner voice. Its time I add all of the factors from above and call it quits for the day. I do have enough experience of over 15+ years in the mountain that I am comfortable with making this judgment call. I am a firm believer that we need to listen to our selves and that often times people ignore their inner feeling for the sake of other's opinions of them (I could care less what others think of me). However, It is harder than I thought to turn around. Perhaps a lot harder than to continue upwards as a lot of doubts and semi regrets and emotions pour in on me. As I go down I see one of our teammates and friends having a hard time and so I inquire what’s happening. They tell me that their insulin pump froze and that they cannot control their insulin levels so they have to go down. I see on them that they are very disappointed and I try to console them. Furthermore I notice a weird pain on my fingers specifically around my nails and beneath my nails. On the way down one of our female guides is walking with me and the other friend down as we pass several other groups of our team. I stop at one of the groups hesitating whether I should go up or down again and I take my gloves off and see that my fingers are literally dark blue/purple all the way from the tips to the first knuckle joint. DAMN! Some light onset of frostbite. Yeah.... I gotta go down. Fifth red flag for me! Oh well. I say goodbye to the rest and I bid them a lot of luck! I love rock climbing and my fingers are essential for climbing + that is what I truly love and wont sacrifice my health if it means sacrificing climbing in life. On the way down my friend is having a lot of pain and nausea. They seem to be suffering from the effects of mismanaged insulin levels due to their frozen pump...but what do I know ? I dont know anything about diabetes. I am just grateful that I am safe, healthy and on my way down. Throughout our descent my friend gets really sick multiple times and there are times where I have to catch them from falling. They collapse on the slope at one moment and claim they cant breath. I open up their jacket and take of their back pack and harness and press on their chest with my palms (simulating some type of amateur resuscitation). Too bad later this team member does not fully remember I helped haha BUT thats ok I am not here for the ego and compliments I am here to genuinely help. I take their backpack for the rest of the day down while they and our female guide go down to C2 to a medical hut to get checked. I try to rationalize things again by telling myself that if I didnt go down and walk down with our team member they would actually be in worse shape. Who knows...It is true that everything happens for a reason. As I approach C2 I am quite shredded (meaning: destroyed) but to be honest I still have a lot of energy its just that my finger tips are frozen and really painful. 3 beautiful and the most kind hearted girls from the team greet me. They help me with my stuff and the other member's backpack and take really good care of me. They are so kind. They get the medal for being unconditional loving human beings. Thanks Rana, Nouf, and Kate :) In tough situations I am not always so kind hearted (although I did just help someone the whole way down from the mountain). They get my biggest thank you and regards for all the positive energy they brought into this trip. True examples of nice human beings! Cant thank them enough. Among others... you others dont feel any less after reading this. The whole group was one of a kind and out of the whole trip I am most grateful for meeting you! the people that made this experience a lifetime experience and memory!
I collapse in my tent and a flood of thoughts pour in as I fall asleep for a 15 minute micro nap.
About 2 hours into me sitting at C2 (wanting to go down to base camp but not allowed ...why? dont know....) something happens. Tons of people start running around speaking louder / screaming. I understand from their body language that an accident happened. 2 of our cooks/porters run up to me and they ask for my climbing equipment (ice axe, crampons, and helmet and beeners). I give them all my stuff. It takes about 30 min for those of us in camp to find out that it was an accident up on top of the mountain at the end of the traverse. After about an hour we find out its a team member from our group.
Slowly but surely team members start returning to camp 2. Down comes Peter and Mike. Later down come the rest. I am still missing 5 people in total in my attendance count. I must say I am shocked (perhaps scared is a good description of the word/emotion I am trying to describe?). Scared of who it is and what happened. In the moment I am hoping its a minor accident (think: broken arm, leg or bruised forehead).
When Ben and Sophie and Garreth come down I learn the hard truth: it is Rob who had the accident. 2 hours after this piece of information I see a bunch of medics running down the hill and I see an orange bob sled type stretcher behind them. I suspect Rob is inside of it? It takes about 15 minutes after for the helicopter to arrive (it feels like ages in the current perception of time...). Painful 15 minutes of all eyes in the direction of the orange bob sled. Then all eyes on the helicopter and then grave silence after the helicopter flies off. A lot of confused, sad, and perplexed faces.
4 members are still up on the mountain... From what I am told there are at least 6 to 7 witnesses to the accident and some of those are still up top near the summit. Have they been forgotten? I see all our guides down here. All in all just an odd situation. Tough to explain. PLUS – I am only sharing my version of the story. I didn’t see the accident so I cant comment on it and I wont either. Its not my story to tell. I just hope Rob is OK you know!?
One of our team members insulin pump needs to be replaced and so together with them and the best guide ever (Juan) we walk down to C2. I join him as mental support (at least I like to think so but perhaps I am annoying the shit out of them) and also because I adamantly want to go down.
The day is over. I message home from the wifi and pass out. I am thankful for being safe and fed and in base camp in a “comfortable” sleeping bag.
I am grateful. I will share more thoughts on everything in the next post.