I grew up in a country where the highest point was less than 550 feet. As a child I was barely interested in walking to the nearest bus stop. While I have always been athletic, the concept of hiking through snow-capped mountains was an activity that only existed in inspirational posters and blockbuster movies.
My first hike in the wilderness came about through naivety and youthful optimism. I was 25 years old travelling through South America. My fellow backpackers were experienced hikers, but deceived by my sporty physique they allowed me to tag along a 3-day hike in Torres del Paine. A 19-year old English girl who grew up in Malawi was my tent mate. She wasn’t nearly as clueless but she was a little less than hiking fit. Together, we made a magnificent ‘dumb and dumber’ pair. We got lost but with an ignorant confidence we powered through and completed the walk with only damage to our pride. Despite the hardship I found the hiking enjoyable and took it up as a hobby.
Fast-forward 11 years. I have climbed Mount Kinabalu (Malaysia) and Roraima (Venezuela). I have ventured into Everest base camp, Machu Picchu, Mount Cook National Park and ambled through the Tien-shan ranges in Kazakhstan. While I wasn’t prepared to become a technical climber, I yearned for greater heights and to push my capacity to its limit. One day, a colleague mentioned ‘Aconcagua’, one of the highest trek-able mountains in the world that was accessible to mere mortals like me. I knew immediately that the 22,840 feet summit of the Aconcagua would become the greatest climbing goal of my life.
I devised a training plan based on suggestions of seasoned climbers. Twice a month, I would ascend 3,300 feet carrying a progressively heavy backpack, starting at 26 lbs. In my last practise run, I was lugging a 45 lbs. pack in an 8-hour hike. I ran 9.5 miles and cycled 65 miles a week; on top of that I was continuing my full time job and my thrice-weekly kickboxing regime. By the time I arrive in Mendoza the meeting point the expedition, I was exhausted.
My first team was small; there were only 4 of us including the guide. The walk to Plaza Argentina base camp was thankfully uneventful. However, the other 2 climbers acclimatized faster then I did. In the few days I spent in base camp, my oxygen saturation level increased insignificantly. I struggled getting up to the first high camp. The guide realised I was the weakest link and sent me packing.
It was devastating. It wasn’t simply the notion of failure coupled with the months of manic training that crippled me with sadness. I felt that my guide was pushing for a speedy ascend and did not allow due opportunity for me to better acclimate before making such a harsh decision. My turnaround point was barely past 16,400 feet, a thousand feet shy of my personal best.
2 years later, I returned for my second summit endeavour. This time round, scarred by the previous hectic training plan, I did little more than an occasional run and ride. On the plus side, my odds were better with a larger group of 13 climbers and 4 guides so the team could be split up in accordance to our abilities.
The walk to Plaza Argentina was again pleasantly uneventful. I tread cautiously, staying calm yet the threat of altitude sickness concerned me daily. Nonetheless I was sufficiently happy to break my personal record and focused on having a good time in the mountain.
Summit day was a treacherous 15-hour hike. Bad weather had demanded we leave the park a day earlier hence we had to cover the same distance with less time. That morning, we were yanked out of bed in the dark and spent the better part of the morning putting on the layers of clothing before peeling ourselves away from the tent. My memory of the first moments of the climb was hazy due to sleep deprivation, but I did remember people shouting from one end of our single file to the other. By the time we reach 19,600 feet, 3-4 people had given up and returned to camp. In my delirious mode I gritted my teeth and egged myself on.
In the chaos of fierce winds I could hear nothing by my own shortness of breathe. When we arrived at a bottom of an enormous slope, I felt myself shaking with cold and my extremities devoid of feeling. It was around -4°F with wind chill. In spite of 5-6 layers of merino and fleeces, a down jacket plus a raincoat, heat was seeping out too quickly. I asked a guide how high we were. He yelled through the wind, “6,100 metres!” (20,013 feet). All well, that’s good enough for me, I thought. I gave him a hand gesture that could only mean “That’s all folks”. He then gave me instructions to the nearest safety point where I would wait for help.
Even though my second effort was still unfruitful I was pleased with having reached a personal record height. Furthermore I made friends in perilous circumstances. The best takeaway for me was the opportunity to experience the life of a high altitude climber. I do not envisage ever attempting Mount Everest or the likes, but through vivid imagination I can understand what it must be like for people clawing their way up to the impossible. The vista of endless white peaks was a beauty that is forever imprinted in my soul because I had earned it. The knowledge that I was stretch close to the limits of my physical and mental capacity became the ultimate reward for my life as a mountaineer. With these thoughts in mind, I dream on as I make plans for a third summit bid of Aconcagua.