January 2004: I actually woke up at 11:58pm, desperately
needing to urinate. But I had already given Matt my
only water bottle, so I tried to rest for the next hour,
eyes closed, bladder clenched, until my watch alarm
sounded from the ceiling of the tent.
1:00am at Nido de Condores, 17552 feet (5350 meters).
We had dressed almost completely the night before, and I
only needed to pull on my boot shells and my parka to
step outside and take care of the first order of
business. I returned and fired up the XGK stove in the
vestibule. It was my job for the next two hours to pass
hot drinks and instant oatmeal back to Andy and Matt,
while they rested as much as possible.
During our rest day on the
17th at Condores, we had discussed the pros and cons of moving our camp to a
high point at Camp Berlin. But Berlin was only at 18963 feet (5780 meters),
and the effort of breaking down, packing up, moving, and reestablishing camp
seemed greater than the benefit of only a 1300 foot gain. Our conversations
with guides who had more experience on Aconcagua had given us a bold idea.
Since we were moving strong, feeling good with the altitude, we decided to
make a summit bid directly from Condores. To help Matt out, who has less
experience at altitude, Andy and I decided to split his food, water, and
clothes between us, so that he didn't need a pack.
So there I was, watching the
pot boil at 1:10am. Rounds of hot water for coffee, hot chocolate, and
instant oatmeal go round and round. I know that coffee contributes to
dehydration. I also know I am an addict. I drank coffee. By 2:30am, Matt
and Andy have had enough, and started to get dressed. I "bonb-proof" the
vestibule kitchen area to keep things from blowing away, check in with Matt
and Andy, and leave the tent.
It was completely clear out,
with a light breeze touching my cheeks. The storm that had dropped 20
centimeters of snow in the last 36 hours is gone, just like the forecasts had
predicted. I started to kick steps across the Nido, towards the spot I know
the Ruta Normal begins towards Camp Berlin. Alone in my own space, I listened
to my breath as I step forward, careful to pace myself. I wanted Matt and
Andy to catch up with me, but I also wanted to move fast enough to keep warm.
Soon I saw two more headlamps, moving faster than my deliberate pace. They
reached my "spot" before I do, and soon I was no longer breaking trail, just
improving the steps in front of me for those behind me. This also forced me
to move a little faster, since now I was working less. Looking up, those two
headlamps continued to move farther ahead. Looking back, I saw two large
groups of lights behind me, with Matt and Andy gaining.
When they caught up with me
after my first hour, we realized a big mistake. When I had left, we forgot
to put some of Matt's gear in my pack. Andy was carrying close to 50 pounds!
We quickly moved a bundle of heavy gloves, water, food, and parka into my
pack. Since Andy was carrying a video camera, I tried to make sure I was
carrying a little more of Matt's things.
We moved up through the
switchbacks to Berlin, where it became light enough that we could turn off our
headlights at 5:15am. After a good break to eat and drink, we moved on. Just
above White Rock at 20,505 feet (6250 meters), Andy started feeling lethargic,
saying that he just wanted to sleep. I had fought my own battle with sleeping
about a thousand feet earlier. So we took a long break and decided to cache
Andy's pack there. In my pack we put a combined layer of clothes so that we
all had enough for the summit, plus a little extra if one of us were cold.
One of the most challenging
moments was just above the remains of the Refugio Independencia, where a Grand
Traverse starts at 20,997 feet (6400 meters), to the base of the Canaleta at
21,541 feet (6562 meters). This traverse was long. Matt began to tire, and I
worked hard to kicked good steps into the trail. I started to tire too. I
grew frustrated as I watched a Swedish team slip and slide over the trail in
front of me. Why could't they put out the effort to kick steps? Matt started
to demand for a break. But there really wasn't anywhere suitable on the 50
degree slope to stop. He finally just sat down in the snow, feet in the
trail. He was obviously getting worked. I walked back and said we had gone
so far in nine hours, I only needed three more hours of work from him. I
didn't want explanations or excuses, just three more hours. I kept kicking in
steps. My left foot, the uphill leg, took the brunt of the work and I could
feel two of my toes bleeding from the effort as I hit ice and rocks over and
We took a long break at the
base of the Canaleta. While Andy spoke to Matt about turning around, I took a
moment to talk with another RMI Guide, Mike Hamill. Mike was leading a team
for Adventuras Patagonicas, and had just come down from the summit. Then Andy
gave me the high sign - we were going for it!
But the excitement didn't
last for long. After saying goodbye to Mike and his team, we moved up through
the Canaleta. It was in better condition than normal, as the new snow froze
together the infamously loose scree, and a kicked in path lead to the summit
ridge. But it wasn't working. Matt called for a break, sat down, and made
the call. He said he was absolutely spent, and was nervous about descending.
The head cold that bothered him all week seemed to keep him down.
I have to say I argued. I
begged. We were so damn close! But Matt had enough, and I could tell. But
he wanted Andy and I to summit, while he waited in the sun at the base of the
Canaleta. Andy decided instead to descend as well, so that he and Matt could
start descending immediately. They would pick up Andy's pack.
A lot of my energy left with
Matt and Andy. It took an immensurable amount of time to climb up to the top
of the Canaleta. I cached my pack, dressed warm for the cold wind blowing
over the South Face, grabbed a few things, and headed for the summit. It was
4:45pm when I stood by myself at the small metal cross at 22,841 feet (6962
meters). I had climbed 800 feet in an hour and a half since saying goodbye to
my team. An Italian woman had reached the summit some time before me, and we
traded photographs of each other. Then, I convinced her to take an extra one
of me holding a flag. It was Matt's flag, made in the kitchen the day we left
Cincinnati, for his autistic son, Blake. I'll let Matt explain why he climbs
and what these flags mean. All I knew is that I was holding that flag by
myself instead of with Matt and Andy to hug and slap backs and celebrate with.
The descent was seemed longer
than I ever expected. The new snow made it easier than it should have been.
The threatening thunderclouds nearby convinced me to move as fast as I could,
but I simply couln't move too fast without having to stop and catch my
breath. I was able to plunge-step down the Canaleta, then continue down the
Directo, a 4000+ foot descent leading to Nido de Condores. The snow was too
shallow to glissade, but perfect for plunge stepping. At 7:30pm, I walked up
to our tent, with the familiar sound of the stove growling. Chris Simmons
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