Everything is Different
“Put your goggles on,” Todd yells in my ear. I nod my head and pass the word to Jim who’s climbing behind me. I don’t really want to stop and let the cold get to me, but my eyes are watering from the wind and goggles seem like a good idea.
The wind howls up the mountain as we stand exposed on a vast section of steep terrain that traverses the mountain at 21,000 feet. Already over six hours into our summit day, the traverse seems to go on forever. Engulfed in a down parka and puffy pants, I put on my goggles and feel even more claustrophobic.
“Another hour and we should reach the cave at the bottom of the Canaletta,” Geoff, one of our guides, tells us.
I tighten down my straps, grab my poles, and keep climbing. Every step seems to get more difficult as I dig my crampons into the crusty snow. The tail end of the Grand Traverse ascends toward our last pit-stop before starting the final 800-foot climb to the summit. For the first time today our twelve-man team is starting to stretch out. One of us will pause to take an extra breath or two while the man in front keeps methodically moving uphill. It happens just often enough to force a slinky effect. The starting and stopping is taking its toll. Now I’ve become part of the problem.
By the time I can see the Canaletta cave, I have to take three breaths for every step I take. I try to will my body to go faster, force my legs to take more than one step, but it’s not working. The team steams ahead of me. Eventually, without anyone in front of me I get into a rhythm, but no matter how much I pressure breathe I can’t seem to get enough oxygen. Everything in my body screams “stop moving!”
Finally, I reach our rest stop and most of the team is already sitting underneath a large overhang nicknamed the cave. Stumbling over rocks, barely staying upright as I zone in on a place to finally sit down, I look like a late-night drunk bouncing off the walls trying to make it to his bed.
“Get your pack off, sit down and rest.” JJ, our lead guide advises. He seems concerned. “Are you OK?”
“I’m fine,” I tell him in a calm, reassuring voice, “I am just fine.” But we both know that’s not completely true.
I plunk down in the snow and fumble to find some food. Nothing looks good. I force down some trail mix and squeeze a few more drops of water out of my mostly frozen bottle, taking stock of my situation.
We’re at the bottom of the infamous Canaletta: 800 feet of thirty plus degree rock and ice leading up to the highest peak on earth outside of the Himalayas. I’ve trained and planned for a year, traveled 8,000 miles, and climbed over 14,000 feet to get to this spot. I’m exhausted, almost out of water, and can’t seem to make my legs do what I want them to. Looking around I can see everyone starting to prepare for the final push. I’m trying to imagine just standing up.
“Bare down, Matt,” I tell myself, “you’ve got to get this done.”
My adventure started over a year ago when I finally decided to take the plunge. J.R. and I had talked about a long expedition-style climb for a while, and Aconcagua seemed exactly the right fit. After acquiring our gear and doing some gear tests in Alaska, we focused on ensuring our bodies were ready. We even took a trip to Colorado so that we could get some experience above 14,000 feet and practice some techniques for dealing with high-altitude climbing. So after a year of preparation, we finally headed to Mendoza, Argentina to begin our epic climb.
Aconcagua stands deep in the Andes on the border of Argentina and Chile. Standing 22,841 feet high, it is South America’s representative to the Seven Summits. As such, it’s a an oft-climbed mountain with a reputation for luring climbers up its flanks who haven’t acclimatized correctly, and spitting them out by helicopter with varying levels of Acute Mountain Sickness.
With just one day in country to take care of climbing permits and last minute supplies, our twelve-man climbing team loaded hundreds of pounds of gear into dusty Land Rovers and headed for the mountain.
“Just think, next time we get in these trucks we will have conquered one of the Seven Summits,” Jeff, a sailor-turned-climber from Minnesota announced as we unloaded at the trailhead.
“And nothing will be different,” J.R. retorted. “Nothing at all will be different.”