1st February 2016. (Grab a cuppa, this is a long post!)
I fell asleep quickly only waking up at 2am to use the wagbag. It was a very mild night with absolutely no wind. I felt a flutter of excitement that I was ‘just’ 1000m shy of the summit and here I was outside at 2am with just a light jacket on. Needless to say I was optimistic about getting up two hours later at 4am ready to start walking at 5am. I couldn’t get back to sleep so cosily dozed. Bruce and I had been organised the night before so when we woke up all we had to do was eat and avoid knocking ice crystals from the tent walls onto our sleeping bags.
Johnny came by with hot drinking water, porridge oats and a snack bar around 4:45am. There had been a problem with the stove so the start was delayed. No matter, we both felt good. We felt ready. We started hiking at 5:30am and the temperature was amazingly warm and calm. It was -16C (3.2f) and the wind was around 10-15kph. We couldn’t have asked for better conditions. Tincho commented that he’d never seen such a warm and calm summit night in all his experience.
After 5 minutes walking I had to take off my down jacket to avoid overheating. It quickly became clear that I don’t do well eating then immediately exerting myself. The nausea I’d had the past few mornings was back but I didn’t want to let it ruin my day so spoke to Johnny who gave some sound advice and within an hour I was feeling better. Over the past few days I realised I wasn’t able to keep the same pace as the boys. It really bothered me that I kept falling behind, although I was comfortable with my non-stop pace. I guess I just wanted to make sure we completed the climb as a team. I had a word with myself and said ‘you might be a few steps behind but it doesn’t make you weak, or have less of a right to be here.’
It wasn’t long after we set off that the sun started to rise and the majestic views started to unfold all around us. I’ll try to avoid a superlative overdose but suffice it to say that I’d never seen views like it. The inky star-studded sky took on a new hue as the fiery sun crept up over the horizon, gilding the distant mountains. As we approached Piedras Blancas, our first rest stop, I turned around to see how far we’d come. The sun was casting a shadow of Aconcagua right in front of me. I had never been so excited. Seeing the shadow of this peak was almost as much a goal for the expedition as reaching the top for me. Tincho took a photo of me and although my mouth and nose was covered you can see the smile in my eyes.
After the break at Piedras Blancas it was apparent I would not be able to maintain Johnny, Bruce and Rick’s pace. It’s hard to put it in words how it feels hiking at high altitudes. My body felt strong, and apart from a little intermittent calf discomfort, I felt very fit. Despite this your body just doesn’t let you function how you think it should. Each step lifting my plastic-clad foot felt like someone had ripped out my lungs and was using them as punch bags. I found myself breathing heavily, with reprieves only coming when we were faced with steep snow slopes I could get into a rhythm with. The slow pace meant my hands and feet had started to go numb but Tincho saved the day with the ‘hands under the armpits’ trick and I was good to go again.
As each step became increasingly challenging I slipped further behind the boys. It was only a gap of around maybe 10 minutes so I didn’t let it get to me. As we reached crampon point at the old refuge, Independencia, I was pretty exhausted. Johnny helped me tie my crampon, which I was having trouble knotting. The next section was the beautiful traverse along Portezuelo del Viento. After constantly looking at a steep hill it was nice to see the landscape unfold ahead again. As we approached La Cueva (6650m), a rocky outcrop at the base of the Canaleta, I could see the boys ahead getting ready to leave. I gave them a wave and they set off up the Canaleta.
As we turned the corner a little snow started falling. Knowing a storm was forecast I suddenly became particularly conscious of the time; we had to make the summit by 3pm else we’d have to turn back empty-handed. Johnny and Tincho were communicating regularly on the radio and as we started tackling the Canaleta, we heard that the boys were taking a rest stop at the top. A quick note on the Canaleta. Everyone says this is the hardest part of the climb due to the steepness and the scree. We were fortunate to have had tons of snow underfoot and the Canaleta was actually one of my favourite parts of the summit push. A good steep snow slope means you can just plod up, one step at a time. We nestled closely into the rocks on the right, and Tincho let me lead the way up at my own pace. I had a burst of energy and felt strong.
We reached the top of the Canaleta at 12:45pm and I had at least two hours to go, based on my current pace. Tincho kept positive, saying I would definitely summit but deep down I was very worried. We got the awesome news over the radio that the boys had summited and were heading back our way. We crossed paths on the trail at 2:30pm and I congratulated them. Johnny and Tincho had a discussion, which I assume included whether I could continue or not. I told Bruce I didn’t think they would let me continue and asked him how long it was from there to the top. He estimated 45 mins and my heart sank. Johnny turned to me and said, “Lexi, you have 30 minutes… go get that summit”. I was elated.
I downed some energy gel Clif Bar Shot Bloks and we set off again. It felt like we had zoomed off but it was painfully slow. I remember Tincho stopping and making me rest and thinking to myself, ‘why are we stopping, we’re so close’. I said to him “I’m going to make it, I’m going to make it“. He gently reminded me, “WE’RE going to make it“. We set off once again and I just concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other. It felt like seconds later that Tincho pointed to a big lump of rock ahead and said “that’s it!“. Those last 20 meters felt like one of those dreams where you’re running but you can’t make progress. It was 2:59pm and I had to clamber up a few boulders to reach the very top. At exactly 3pm Argentina time, 1st February 2016, I stood on the summit of Aconcagua; a dream that I had trained, saved and planned for over the past 5 years.
The snow which had been falling eased and the sun illuminated the summit through the clouds. Although there were no views from the top, the light was ethereal and it was incredibly still, quiet and warm. A wind-free summit was another first for Tincho. It was just the two of us standing there on the highest peak outside of the Himalaya at that moment. Tincho took some photos for me as my camera was frozen and we briefly celebrated. It was soon time to descend.
The snow suddenly started falling fast and heavily. It was soon a total white out. Tincho asked if I wanted to get roped up and given the conditions I agreed this was the best course. I led us down the Canaleta and back to La Cueva without a single slip or fall. Upon arrival I was startled by a guy sat on the ground looking a bit helpless. I initially didn’t understand what was going on but you could tell by the sombre mood it seemed serious. He was with two guides and they all seemed to be debating something. Tincho and I had a break, removed the rope and continued down. It transpired that the guy in the cave had a knee injury and they were trying to figure out how to get him down. Apparently he was kicking up a fuss about not needing rescue. Although it was a pretty minor situation it really brought home the reality of this peak. People die here.
Tincho and I carried on down through the white out conditions and all I could think was that if Tincho wasn’t there I’d be a dead woman. From departing La Cueva I had literally no concept of where we were and put my complete trust in him to find the way. The snow was 12” or deeper in places and we both kept stumbling. At one point we gave up walking and glissaded down which was a lot of fun. I stopped for a pee break at Independencia and looking at the snow beneath me I was glad for all the pre-hydration the previous days. My urine was so dark; I was very dehydrated. I wondered how bad it would have been had I not started well hydrated. I chugged half a litre and we sped downhill once again.
As we reached Piedras Blancas, we took our final rest before the push into camp. A tiny gap emerged in the thick clouds above and a patch of pure blue peeked through, with the surrounding cloud lined with silver. In my exhausted and elated state it felt magical and was just the pick me up we needed. The last 30 minutes or so into camp felt long but we finally made it. The boys had only arrived about an hour ahead of us and it was amazing to reach camp and celebrate our success together. What a day! We relaxed for the rest of the evening and Bruce and I exchanged stories. Johnny came by with some ramen noodles covered with cheese which I couldn’t really stomach, but I forced myself to eat as much as I could. We fell asleep quickly after dinner. It had been exactly a 13 hour round-trip for Tincho and I. Not a bad day walking!
From the IMG blog: “Just off the sat phone with Jonathan Schrock and team. 100% on the top. Great conditions this morning but snowing with minimal visibility for the descent. No matter, the entire team reached the summit and all are back safely now at high camp. A big congratulations to Jonathan, Martin, Lexi, Bruce and Rick. Nice job.“ https://www.mountainguides.com/wordpress/2016/02/01/aconcagua/summit-of-aconcagua
This post is dedicated to Bruce who, at the time of writing, is one day away from flying to Alaska to attempt Denali. Good luck Bruce!