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Nov 17, 1997
How I Spent My Summit Vacation - Forbes

On my first morning approaching Aconcagua, I unzipped my tent and came face-to-face with my pack mule. Unfortunately, he was dead. His eyes were frozen in a determined expression, as if before expiring he had finally made up his mind to approach me and ask for a raise. The careless muleteer I had hired in the valley below had tied the poor critter to a boulder in the middle of wet ground, and sometime during the unseasonably cold night he had frozen to death. One look at my dead mule and I realized Aconcagua was not going to be a walk-up this year.

Even though Aconcagua, in the Argentine Andes, is the tallest peak in the Western Hemisphere, it is usually also one of the most user-friendly mountains -- especially in the early part of the year when the weather is relatively temperate. The three faces of its 22,834-foot summit offer something for everyone: the sheer walls of the South Face are for experts only; the Polish Glacier on the eastern side is a good intermediate route; and the Ruta Normal that zigzags up the North Face is essentially a scree stroll topped by the notorious Canaleta, a steep snow and ice ramp that twists to the summit.

I was in between jobs with a month to kill before having to report to my new position in Paris, and up for a little adventure and exercise before returning to a desk to gather moss. Aconcaguas Ruta Normal seemed to fit the ticket. So, bundling some elementary climbing gear together, I found myself on a 12-hour flight from New York Citys dreary winter to the charming town of Mendoza, with a change of planes in Buenos Aires. Mendoza, the capital of Argentinas wine country, was my start-off point for Aconcagua, and the last spot before the mountain where one can purchase a wide assortment of provisions.

I stocked up on enough food in Mendoza to assure that no matter how much time I had to climb, my life at Plaza de Mulas, the base camp for the Ruta Normal, would be an all-you-can-eat buffet. My gear and I then took a five-hour bus ride from Mendoza to the garrison village of Puente del Inca near the Chilean border.

Puente del Inca is a speck of a place on a high desert valley from where a trail winds some 13 miles across and 8,000 feet up to Plaza de Mulas. I spent the first night camped outside the village, next to the Cimetario Alpinista, a wind-sheltering mound on the plain that serves as the burial place for climbers who had met untimely ends on the mountain. This was the virtual UN of cemeteries, containing gravestones engraved in all the worlds major languages. To me, all of them seemed to say just one thing: DONT JOIN US.

Oh, the happy muleteers of Puente del Inca! Today a few shifty outfitters have created the ideal model of consortium pricing of $50 per day per beast. And I ended up with the king muleskinner of them all, Rudy Parra.

You will need two mules, he told me.

How much can one mule carry? I asked him. 60 kilos, he replied.

How much do I have? 67 kilos.

I decided that for what he was charging per mule, I would carry the extra 14 pounds myself.

I left Puente del Inca on my second day there, saying adieu to the last green vegetation I would see for two weeks. After a five-hour trek, I came upon a pleasant spring where I set up camp. My loaded mule and one of Rudys muleteers met me there. Neither of them had much to say to me, so I spent the evening climbing around the nearby cliffs, where I had my first look at Aconcaguas peak. From this southern perspective, the peak looked glorious, its upper glacier bathed in sunlight long after nightfall had enveloped our little valley.

That night my mule died.


Luckily, another group going up to Plaza de Mulas passed through, and my muleteer persuaded their muleteer to take my gear.

After trekking through two spectacular desert valleys, I arrived in Plaza de Mulas, almost 14,000 air-thinning feet above sea level. The Plaza resembled a kind of Hoover-ville, with about three dozen brightly colored tents scattered around the scree terrain at the base of the north side of Aconcagua. It reminded me a lot of Everest Base Camp, where Id been the previous year: stark colors, stormy lighting, ice penitentes and a sweeping glacier rolling off the sheer walls at the opposite end of the valley.

There were other people at Plaza de Mulas who were familiar with Everest Base Camp as well. During my four days there, I met five climbers who had summited Everest. Aconcagua is, in fact, one of the Seven Summits that comprise the tallest points on each continent, so its on many an ambitious climbers itinerary. Plaza de Mulas was also a magnet for the worlds eccentrics -- hermits, dreamers, people getting off on the thin air.

My favorite character was a 50-plus Czech-Canadian builder named George who comprised the Canadian Seven Summits Expedition. George was pure energy and action -- the man couldnt stop running around, shouting orders and raging against the several hundred outdoor-gear companies that had refused to sponsor him: F---ing Marmont/Patagonia/Black Diamond/North Face/Eddie Bauer/LL Bean. Those f---ing bastards arent going to get a f---ing picture of me to put in their f---ing catalogues when I get up that last f---ing summit.

I told George that Id just finished reading the Bass/ Wells book Seven Summits, which detailed the adventures of the first fellow to climb all seven summits and which, in fact, coined the term Seven Summits. George looked at me in alarm and asked, Do you mean that someone else has already done this? Not much of a reader, George.

I also made friends with two other soloists around my age, an Australian derivatives trader named Madison, who was doing the typical Australian round-the-world-in-three-years walkabout, and a South African doctor named Paul, who had already lost his two climbing partners to altitude sickness. Paul had what he described as a bomb- proof tent to withstand the Viento Blanco up above, so we decided to set up our next camp together.

In order to acclimatize, Madison and I strapped on our crampons and roped together for a spectacular climb up the Cerro glacier, a solid ice wall that lorded over the opposite end of the valley from Aconcagua.

During the next few days, I sat in base camp and watched climbers descend from the mountain. I could see from their defeated slouches and the tattered tents they brought back with them that the harsh weather was taking a heavy toll. The only two climbers I met who had summited had Verdun-like thousand-mile stares when describing the conditions on top. I met weeping Australian sheep farmers, angry Leicester students and battle-scarred Everest summiteers, and all of them told of impenetrable barriers near the summit: grueling nights at -40 degrees, or grueling days with Aconcaguas famous Viento Blanco, a regionally distinctive 100-plus-mph wind that hits you with the same sound as an approaching train and leaves whiteouts and flattened tents in its wake.

It was telling that none of the climbers who descended to base camp without summiting made another attempt. One group was so exhausted that theyd abandoned most of their precious gear on the mountain.

However, certain things did manage to get brought down: one night a rigid object wrapped in clear plastic sheeting appeared mysteriously next to my tent at Plaza de Mulas. I was returning from having tea with a group of Alaskans camped next to me, and I hardly gave the object a second glance as I stepped around it. The next morning, as I emerged from my tent, I discovered that the object was in fact the body of a Japanese climber, clad from head to toe in fancy North Face gear. Given my earlier campsites next to the cemetery and the dead mule, I was becoming accustomed to death greeting me in the morning.

The unfortunate Japanese had been climbing a few days earlier on the Canaleta near the summit when one of his crampons loosened. Hed set aside his ice ax and crouched over to tighten his crampon when he lost his balance and commenced a long slide that left him crushed against the boulders at the bottom of the glacier.

EVERY MOUNTAIN HAS A SPOT THAT CLIMBERS TEND TO think of as The Place Where Everyone Gets Killed. Everest has the Ice Falls, McKinley has the Latitude 62 Bar and Grill, and Aconcagua has the Canaleta. The stretch doesnt demand that much technical expertise; usually crampons and an ice ax are all that are required to scale it. But approaching it at 20,000 feet during an exhausting summiting day, people get careless.

Slipping here without the means of self-arrest is often a fatal mistake.

Mr. North Face was but one of the many climbers who met their end on the Canaleta.

Later that afternoon, four men came to carry the body back down on a mule. It was too stiff to fit comfortably on the mules back, so the men got ahold of it at each end and unsuccessfully attempted to bend it.

Finally, one of the men lifted a large rock and began hurling it repeatedly against the corpses stomach. Still no luck. Then the men gave up, tied the body awkwardly across the mules back, stiff as a board, and started the trek down. They didnt bother covering it.

After that, I always kept the leash of my ice ax wound tightly around my wrist whenever I was climbing on the ice.

After a few days acclimatization at Plaza de Mulas, Paul, Madison and I scrambled up to the Nido plateau, situated at 18,000 feet on Aconcaguas North shoulder. The altitude got the better of Madison, who, after two days of intermittent vomiting and coughing and two nights of babbling delusion, slipped back down to Plaza de Mulas.

Given that the weather was reaching 60 below every night at our next planned campsite, Camp Berlin, Paul and I decided that we would attempt a long summit day directly from Nido. As the sun rose on our second morning up there, we melted snow for our breakfast and commenced our vertical one-and-a-half-mile dash for the top.

I LOOK FORWARD TO ALTITUDE. I THINK I AM ADDICTED TO thin air, to the weird perspectives, the visions, the perceived mingling with spirits, the bizarre self-interviews as ones diminishing logic gropes with the mechanics of either ascending into space or escaping back to the Nibelungen depths with its treasure horde of oxygen. At a certain altitude, the mind carries on an interesting self-interrogation: Am I still sane? Can I still make a rational climb or descend decision? Is that my sixth-grade math teacher over there in a tuxedo wrestling a giant ostrich?

I hit that point at around 20,000 feet. I was mining what I thought were my last reserves of energy when I passed between two boulders shortly before the high traverse that led to the Canaleta. Those two boulders literally formed the gateway to another world. No sooner had I passed through when all perspective changed, and I was in another realm.

I had hoped that my head would rage with profundity. Opera. Poetry.

But alas, for the rest of the day my brain insisted on playing over and over a particularly irritating song from Sesame Street.

Rubber Ducky, youre the one. (Inhale. Step.)

You make bathtime so much fun. (Inhale. Step.)

Rubber Ducky, Im so in love with you. (Inhale. Step.)

Next time Im bringing a Walkman.

We reached the Canaleta at four p.m. The weather was clear. We started making good progress up the glacier. The Canaleta seemed like a giant spider web of ice, stretched against rock buttresses and the abyss, on which I could move vertically and laterally on Zen-like threads to heaven. Soon the surrounding peaks fell away and we were within sight of the summit. We had 700 feet to go at the most. I was exhausted, but I knew I was going to make it. I glanced behind at Paul and was shocked to see him hobbling up with one crampon undone. He babbled incoherently in an altitude-induced delirium. This was the exact spot where the Japanese climber had slipped.



Dont move an inch, I yelled to him. I crept over and found that his crampon straps were so frozen they could not be properly attached to his boot again. If he continued to move unsupported, he would soon slip and join the Cimetario Alpinista.

Gingerly, I grabbed him under his left arm and told him to start descending exactly in sync with me.

Left foot. Right foot. Left foot. Right foot. Just like that. All the way down to Nido. He slipped a few times, and once managed to drag me with him until I self-arrested with the ice ax. This was a thoroughly bad way of descending, and for future reference I recommend killing anyone before letting them do this to you.

I have run marathons. I have pulled all-nighters. I have shared bedrooms with siblings. No experience in my entire life has ever instilled the same sense of exhaustion as my descent to Nido while hauling Paul. It was almost dark when we reached camp. I was so cold that I didnt even start shaking until long after I had zipped myself into my sleeping bag.

Two rest days later, we moved the tent up another 2,000 feet to Camp Berlin, an icy exposed plateau about the size of a tennis court with a couple of tiny ruined wooden shelters.

At Camp Berlin, I met my old pal, Seven Summits George. He and a porter had clamored up with a bewildering array of gear, including solar panels, a small gasoline-driven generator and even a satellite-linked telephone. He now possessed the worlds highest phone link. At $20 a minute, it was probably also the most expensive. Nevertheless, George spent hours every day phoning his pals around the world and excoriating the usual array of companies that refused to sponsor him.

I dont think George paid much attention to more mundane, low-tech equipment. Like maps. When I told him about our adventures on the Canaleta, George looked at me in bewilderment and asked, What the hell is the Canaleta? Amazing. The Canaleta is the most prominent feature on the whole mountain. His asking me that would be like a Scandinavian asking, What are taxes? or a Frenchman asking, What are strikes?

But George had made it up there. And he was determined to go all the way once the weather cleared.

That night in Berlin was by far the coldest, windiest night I have ever endured. The sound of the bomb-proof tents tightly anchored outer sheet flapping wildly in the wind kept me awake until dawn. The wind was tearing apart everything on the surface of Berlin.

This is the last day Im going to spend up here, I announced the next morning. But first Im going to get as far up to the summit as I can. I wasnt expecting to get very far in these stormy conditions.

But I wanted to try.

I put on my gear, strapped on my crampons, pocketed my few remaining candy bars and headed into the whiteout. I was reluctant to share another save-or-summit moment with Paul, and to my relief he didnt accompany me.

The wind hit me like a brick wall for the next hour until I had climbed around to the other side of the mountain ridge. Then it abruptly ceased. At that point I was prepared to turn around and descend at the slightest menace in the weather, but there was no longer any need. Soon I had passed through the two boulders that had previously been my gate to high-altitude intoxication. This time I felt well within my senses.

I crossed over the snowy ridge that forms the shoulder of the summit massif, and completed the exhausting high traverse to the Canaleta. I hadnt seen a soul since leaving Berlin. The weather had apparently kept everyone in their tents that day. But at the base of the Canaleta I turned around and saw that Paul was now about an hour behind me.

I continued hacking my way up the Canaleta to the point where it petered out against the craggy summit ridge. I clamored onto the ridge and traversed below the snow cornices overhanging the 10,000-foot precipice on Aconcaguas South Face. I spiraled up a narrow rocky tower and suddenly found myself on the summit platform, a surprisingly flat area about the size of a swimming pool.

Dominating the scene was a cross made of two aluminum I-beams. The surrounding mountaintops were shining hazily through light clouds below me.

It was getting colder, and I hurriedly snapped some photos, yelled banal victory whoops into the void and waved at Paul, who was coming into sight on the Canaleta below. Then I started a rapid descent from the summit, as I was eager to lose altitude as quickly as possible while it was still light and I still had water in my canteen.

Paul and I passed each other on the cornice traverse and agreed to meet back at Camp Berlin.

Once I had clamored back to camp, however, I found that the bomb- proof tent had been shredded to ribbons by wind. We now had two lousy choices: bivouacking in the shelter or descending to Plaza de Mulas in darkness.

Pauls zombie-like arrival into camp with his ice ax hanging limply from his wrists quickly decided things: Something bad has happened to my hands, he said as he took off his gloves.

Gloves! At this altitude and in this kind of weather, mortals need double mitts. The three outer fingers on each hand were colored gray to black.

His right pinkie and ring finger had already begun to swell grotesquely. Severe frostbite had set in. We were not going anywhere that night.

I patched up the ruined bivouac hut with the tattered tent, our thermal mattresses and knapsacks. I melted snow for hot drinking water and we huddled in our sleeping bags in the darkness. We were both so exhausted that we soon fell asleep with the wind howling around us.

At dawn we plodded down the mountain. We were starved, tired and freezing, but the relief of descending and the unmistakable feeling of victory at the summit kept us energized for the rest of the descent to Plaza de Mulas.

Our timing had been lucky. Looking up during the descent, we saw that the long white plume had reappeared on the summit; no one would be going up there again for a while. The lull in the storm had been a gift.

At Plaza de Mulas, I located my last crate of food. Paul lumbered off to find a medic to wash and bandage his infected fingers. Id eaten nothing but a few candy bars for the past two days and my clothes had a markedly loose fit.

I hung around Plaza de Mulas for two days before descending to Puente del Inca.The last night, I gathered with some of my base-camp acquaintances for a farewell dinner.

Paul kept clanking his mug of tea against mine.

We did it. We made it, he kept repeating.

We sure did, I said with forlorn cheerfulness, eyeing his bandaged hands. The camp medic said Paul stood a good chance of losing at least one finger and possibly three.

And what did I get out of it? I got enough exercise, high-altitude scenery and wonderfully foolish adventure to last me another year behind a desk.

This is FINN-OLAF JONES first article for Forbes



   
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