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Project “Diabetes-8000”

Dinner (stuffed aubergines, vegetable soup, a roast) was a wonderful time. We went through the scenes of Monty Python’s Holy Grail and had a good laugh. At 8 p.m. there was another storm with strong winds and we had to secure the lines of our tents with rocks. At five in the morning the storm began to ease a little bit. I slept about two hours that night.

Snow Storm

On January 19, under a clear blue sky but facing a strong wind, we went up to Camp Canada (4860m) to install a depot with food, kerosene and our climbing equipment. We wanted to spend the first night of our definite ascent there. Martin Docherty couldn’t come with us because he had the first symptoms of altitude sickness and the camp doctor advised him to stay behind. As of the base camp the path went through so-called ‘Penitentes’ (Séracs) before it led straight up to the Conway Rocks, from where we had to walk over innumerable serpentines to get to the windswept Camp Canada. The whole walk took us three and a half hours. From here we had our first glimpse of the surrounding Andes. My blood sugar still did not react quite like I wanted or expected it to. Because of the strenuous stage that lay ahead for the next day I injected ‘Basalinsulin’ before we got back down again.

We climbed down in the rubble in a more or less straight line so I was back in the group tent at the base camp after just 50 minutes. Because I had a headache I lay down in my warm tent for a while. We had to rest as much as possible because we wanted to install another depot in camp Nido de Condores (5350m) the next day.

Patrick at Nido

So, we left at 9 in the morning, the sky was cloudy and it was windy. We had to carry about 15 kilos in our rucksacks. I should have known that it would be extremely cold high up on the mountain. However, I only wore light underwear under my Gore-Tex jacket and a pair of light gloves. This would prove to be a bad misjudgement on my part. I had to fight against the biting cold the whole day, which was further accentuated by the chilly wind. I was wondering how one could possible get it so completely wrong when you have all the equipment that is needed to comfortably face temperatures as low as minus 35°C. The wind got stronger all through the morning, and after we reached the Conway Rocks, it started to snow. We met several people who came down from Nido because the wind was getting too strong there. I climbed up behind Khalil and fixed my eyes on his heels trying to keep a regular breathing rhythm. Chris and Richard were very slow and gave their loads to Khalil and Ricardo, the second guide. The wind and snow became so strong that we had to abandon our aim Nido de Condores. At 2.15 p.m. we installed a depot in Camp Alaska and climbed back down as fast as possible. When we arrived the weather had developed into an outright snowstorm. I secured the tent that I shared with Richard. It continued to snow long into the night.

We didn’t worry about the success of the expedition yet, because the next day was a rest day. According to our plan it would take five days from base camp to the summit, passing camps Canada, Nido de Condores and Berlin on our way. We wanted to spend two days in Nido de Condores to get used to the altitude and we were going to install another depot in Camp Berlin.

On January 21 I slept until 9 o’clock in the morning. The weather had improved but there was a huge lenticular cloud over the summit, which was a definite sign for a coming storm. A French team decided to abandon their expedition after the wind had forced them to leave Nido de Condores. One of their team members had to be taken away with a pulmonary oedema. Martin Docherty was still ill and decided to give up. I waited until the afternoon sun heated up the water pipes to enjoy the luxury of a hot shower and fresh, clean clothes. We also went to the camp doctor to check our oxygen levels. I had a degree of saturation of 86% which was excellent and similar to what I had on Denali. Khalil told us that the jet stream which normally exists at an altitude of 8 to 12 kilometres was much lower, and that El Nino had an effect on the unstable weather situation as well.

lenticular cloud over the summit

We didn’t know that things would turn out to be even worse during the following night. At 9.30 p.m., when I had to leave the tent again, I looked up at a beautiful sky and I clearly saw the Milky Way. On top of the summit there was a gloomy atmosphere. The huge lenticular cloud was dimly lit by the fading light of the moon, and it seemed to oppress everything. Half an hour later a new storm set in and it lasted for 22 hours. In the morning the snow was already pushing against the tent’s walls. It became clear very quickly that we couldn’t go up that day. We had planned for two extra stages, one of which was now used up. Unfortunately I had taken my climbing boots to Camp Canada so that I had to use my trekking shoes to walk through the knee-deep snow. Visibility was reduced to about 20 metres and the wind pushed the stinging snow into our faces. In the afternoon we heard some disturbing news which Khlail received by radio. The road between Los Penitentes and Mendoza was closed due to  avalanches and the entire Horcones Valley was also at risk. Later we learned that the Nido de Condores camp had been destroyed. We were in a bad mood. Then we heard of two deaths, one due to a fall and one due to a cerebral oedema, as well as of two mountaineers who had suffered from severe hypothermia. Apparently, there was another climber whose face was frostbitten. All of these events made us consider putting an end to our expedition. Khlail warned us because we couldn’t climb down the following day due to the risk of avalanches, and we also had to fetch our material in Camp Canada. So, we were almost agreed to descend in two days.

At 8 p.m., after 22 hours of snowstorm, the situation took a u-turn. The storm stopped from one moment to the next, and when we left the big team tent, we could see a clear blue sky, and the west wall of the Aconcagua was shining in the bright red light of the setting sun. After we had rid the tents of the snow we went to bed with mixed feelings. I had a sleepless night during which I thought a lot about continuing the expedition. I didn’t want to give up just yet, and I wanted to complete the ascent if Khalil agreed to guide me.

I told the other members of the expedition about my decision the next morning, and there was no audible reaction. Only Khalil thought that we could try, but that we had to wait another day because he, Ricardo and Max had to salvage the equipment in Camp Canada. They started out at 10 a.m.  The wind blew huge sheets of snow from the summit, which would have been an encouraging sign were it not for the numerous weather reports that only agreed on one point: there was going to be another storm. I stuck to my decision, but the four Brits were still undecided. In the late afternoon, after our material had been recovered, things became rather chaotic. Max, who was in an excellent physical condition, reported that it was relatively easy to climb up through the snow, but that he wanted to go down, because he was fed up living in tents. For Martin there was only one way, and that way lead down, because he had been suffering from headaches for five days. The other four then decided to descent. Khalil had to prepare the ascent, and the descent of the others. At 6.30 p.m. David Rhodes talked to Daniel Alessio by radio, and David returned to the group tent to let us know that he was now motivated as well to go to the top. This led Julius Rosa to join in, too. The ensuing 90-minute discussion didn’t concern me so I left. After everything had been said, the result was that the others had decided to climb down after all.

Because we didn’t know what kind of surprises the weather still had for us, Khalil and I decided to get to the top in three days without acclimatisation. On January 24 I waved goodbye to the rest of team and began the ascent at 9.30 a.m. Khalil and Ricardo would follow carrying the tents. The passage through the Penitentes took my breath away straight away, as it had done the previous times. After I passed the Séracs, I had to take off one layer of clothes because I felt very warm. Before breakfast I had a blood sugar level of 175 mg/dl and added to it with carbohydrate-rich food. After 75 minutes I reached the Conway Rocks. As I had planned to go without a break for as long as possible I had another muesli-bar and some of my electrolyte drink. I continued but after a short while I realised that it started to be quite difficult. My legs felt heavy and I started to have cramps in my thighs, despite all the magnesium that I had had. After a while I was all but pulling myself up that mountain, wondering whether I had taken the right decision, only to immediately forbid myself to have these thoughts. Because of all the snow it was very difficult to find the easier serpentine path, and the way was only visible in a straight upward line. Just before the Séracs, below Camp Canada, I got stuck in the snow up to my waist. When I tried t get out I had terrible cramps in my thighs and lower legs. I didn’t know why. After three hours Khalil and Ricardo caught up with me and thought that I was moving too slowly. Both laid traces to make the ascent less tiring. We cut across the slope to get to Camp Canada where we had a break. The way I felt I thought that my blood sugar level would be too low, so I was shocked when I saw the result of my test: 475 mg/dl. A second test confirmed the high level and I really didn’t know what was going on anymore. I didn’t inject any insulin because I thought that the continued effort would reduce the level, and I didn’t feel like eating anyway. The following four and a half hours were a pain, and I kept thinking about my insulin which, I was afraid, had lost its effect. Furthermore, I kept doubting whether I could make it to the top under these circumstances, and I simply could not see why everything would be so different from when I was on Denali. Nevertheless, I forced myself to concentrate on moving on. At 6.30 p.m. I finally reached Nido de Condores (5345m). I was completely dehydrated because I didn’t dare drink more of my electrolyte – it contains sugar. My blood sugar level got down to 232 mg/dl, not exactly the level I expected after such efforts. When I arrived Khalil had already molten some snow and I drank as much as possible. I couldn’t eat anything but soup. I injected ten units of insulin. After a beautiful sunset over an awe-inspiring landscape I put myself to rest in my sleeping bag.

On the morning of January 25 I still had a level of 220 mg/dl. The insulin didn’t show any effect. I injected 4 units of fast insulin and checked again 75 minutes later: 226 mg/dl. I had another ten units of NOVORAPID before I tackled the short stage to Camp Berlin (two and a half hours). It was another beautiful day, but I was too concerned about my medical situation to feel like taking any photos. An hour after the last injection I controlled my level again and I finally saw a result: 153 mg/dl. Throughout the afternoon the level remained stable at a normal level. At 1 p.m. I reached Camp Berlin at 5880m and took advantage of the warm afternoon to rest myself. At night there was some fog and clouds slipped by in the north east. There was almost no wind, so there was no need to be concerned. I had some soup with crackers, but I didn’t inject any insulin.

Guanaco ridge

I slept until one in the morning and then I couldn’t get back to sleep because I was too nervous. I kept turning this way and that way until 4.50 a.m. when I started to prepare my rucksack for the day’s climb. It was not very cold outside so I put my down jacket into my rucksack in case it got colder later. My blood sugar level in the morning was 230 mg/dl, which is OK. I tried to force down some soup but it made me feel sick. At 5.45 a.m. we got on our way, a way that would prove to be extremely painful for me. It took just one hour, when we had passed White Rocks, for me to realize that I was not in a condition to succeed in my attempt to get to the top. Still, I kept going. A little later we saw a wonderful sunrise which projected a pyramid-like shadow down the west of the Aconcagua. I checked my levels, which had gone up again, and injected some NOVORAPID. I almost couldn’t bear the fact that my levels kept rising, and told myself that it would be safer to go down again. Still, I kept going. I started to set myself a task: the number of paces I would have to make before I could have another break. Once I really managed to make the projected one hundred, but then it became fewer and fewer steps, down to twenty. Then I drove my ski sticks into the snow and leant over them to take a rest, thinking all the time: Stop! Climb down. After three hours we reached the ruins of the Independenzia hut. My level had gone up again and I injected insulin. As I could see that the weather would stay fine I left some of my equipment behind to lighten my load. The Caneletta is the only technically demanding part of the ascent. It consists of about 400 very steep and chimney-like altitude meters. The snow still lay knee-deep over the loose scree here, but there was no track. Before the Caneletta we had to put on our climbing irons. Because I felt like the insulin had finally had an effect I took a Power Gel but I was sick straight away. For the first time Khalil asked if I had enough energy left. Instead of answering ‘No’ and turning around I said ‘Yes.’ We started with the Caneletta and the frequency of my paces was between five and ten. Surprisingly I overtook a Dutch couple who were also on their way to the summit. After Khalil gave me some sweetened herbal tea, I felt better and my level was down to 111 mg/dl. I took that test at 6600m. After two hours I saw the end of the Caneletta and I was able to perceive the way along the Guanaco ridge that leads to the summit. There were five mountaineers who were trying to get to the top. At 1 p.m. we had passed the Caneletta and I realized that I was going to make it. This feeling after all the strain was more than sweet. Now I was so motivated that there were no longer any negative thoughts.



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