Aconcagua is the tallest mountain in the Western Hemisphere and the highest peak in the world outside of the Himalayas. I went there with my childhood friend-turned professional mountain guide, Jim Williams. He’d suggested that I attempt to climb all Seven Summits; when I demurred (mostly on the grounds that the risks of climbing Everest might be more than I was willing to take on, with an eight-year old son at home), he convinced me to make Aconcagua a trial run. This is now considered typical: Aconcagua is a great peak on which to assess how your body performs at high altitude. Seven Summits fever had not yet caught on (Dick Bass, the first person to climb all seven, finished in the spring of 1985, and his book about the adventure [Dick Bass – Seven Summits] came out late in 1988). At the time, only about a dozen people had climbed all seven, and the dispute about the eighth (and, later, the ninth) summits had not been (widely) raised. When we arrived on Aconcagua, during summer in the Southern Hemisphere—a season known as estival—relatively few other people were climbing it. The day Jim and I summited, we met just one other person on top: an Argentine man sitting on a rock playing Spanish guitar. He lingered for a while and strummed a few songs for us. When he left, we were alone, likely standing higher than anyone else in the world that day.


Aconcagua
March 1992

The wind came in gusts, rolling down the narrow valley. Each fresh blast announced itself, like the New York City subway does to those who wait for it on the platform—beginning as a low-pitched hum, faint at first, swelling steadily to a bone-beating rumble. Seconds before arriving, the pitch jumped up four octaves which, if it really were the subway, would be the screeching of the brakes, signaling the stop. But I was thousands of miles from New York, and the wind would not halt. With the gale force of a freight train, it ran right over me.

I lay in a bright-yellow two-man tent strung between eight boulders in the Plaza Argentina, the base camp on the eastern flank of Aconcagua, which, at 22,835′ (6960m) above sea level, is the highest mountain in the hemisphere. I’d been inside for 72 hours, counting the time between the gusts—five, seven, ten minutes apart, but never more than fifteen—as though I might discover a pattern. I was helpless to prevent the wind from mangling the tent’s arched poles. It was only the weight of me and my gear which kept the tent from blowing off the mountain altogether.

Hasty mealtime meetings provided little opportunity to get to know the strangers with whom I traveled, but we bonded fast, as people sometimes do when they face a common foe. Our group numbered twelve in all: three professional mountain guides and nine climbers, with little more in common than a passion for mountaineering and similar previous experience in our pursuit of it. We came from different places and professions, running the gamut from a General Motors plant foreman to a neurosurgeon, and ranging in age from 27 to 65 years. The only other woman in the group was a nurse in her early 30s named Pam, from Salt Lake City.

Phil Ershler, a forty-something Senior Guide with Rainier Mountaineering from Seattle, was the expedition leader and the organizer of the trip. “Ersh” is a throwback to an earlier generation of mountain man, a hard-boiled Hemingway hero, whose ascents under the most grueling circumstances, of Everest, K2 and Kanchenjunga, are legendary among mountaineers. He forged his fame as a guide leading Dick Bass and Frank Wells, two men with little climbing experience who were the first to climb the highest mountain on every continent and wrote a book about it, called Seven Summits.

“Ersh” was assisted by a fellow guide from Rainier, named Dave Carter. He hadn’t logged as many impressive climbs because he spends most of the year helping run the family lumber business in Indianapolis. With his winning smile, gentle drawl, and kind manner, Carter plays the perfect foil to Phil.

At Base Camp, we met up with the twelfth member of our party, Jim Williams, a childhood climbing buddy of mine, who is now a senior member of the Exum Mountain Guides in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. When he’s not on the Tetons, he leads private expeditions up mountains in Asia and other parts of the world. Coincidentally, he had scheduled a climb up Aconcagua earlier in the month, and planned to stay on and attempt a second summit with our group.

The tales Jim told of his own recent trials with Aconcagua were our introduction to its immoderate force. He had tried the summit twice within the previous three weeks. His first attempt was aborted at 19,000′ when sudden heavy snowfall prevented him and his two clients from moving up or down the slope. The three of them bivouacked in a two-man tent pitched at the foot of an avalanche-proof vertical rock wall and existed on three days worth of rations they stretched over the five days they were stranded up there. During that time, they rescued an Austrian climber who had been abandoned by his companions near the summit when the weather forced a change in the group strategy to “every man for himself.”

On paper, Aconcagua is an irresistible summit—the highest point in both the Western and Southern Hemispheres, it is the monarch of the Cordillera de los Andes, a mountain range that runs virtually unbroken in a sinuous line which traces the Western coast of South America over 4500 miles from the Panama Canal to Cape Horn. The first ascent, in 1896, marked the highest peak that had ever been reached by man at the time. It offers a small but sufficient variety of routes that range in difficulty from easy to near-impossible, with some routes still unclimbed. We hoped to climb a moderately difficult technical route on the Polish Glacier.

However, Aconcagua is really a colossal ruin. It is still often incorrectly described as a volcano, even though the first European who stood on its top saw that the massif contained no crater and recognized that it was, in fact, formed by the phenomenon geologists refer to as folding. It is the oversized, ugly sister among its South American siblings, and an awkward lifeless lump compared to its classically stylish Alpine cousins, the tallest of which (Mont Blanc), stands less than two-thirds its height.

Before I decided to go, I unearthed several Aconcagua primers (unlike the Alps and other “poetic” mountains, Aconcagua hasn’t spawned a large body of literature), including a videotape that opened with shots of weather victims being carried off in body bags to the Climbers Cemetery at its base (cheaper to inter them here rather than pay for the flight home and, after all, a climber who fails to make the summit would always want to stick around and keep trying, if only in spirit). This treacherous mountain has claimed more climbers’ lives than Everest and K2 combined, and only 30 to 40 percent who attempt it will succeed. Every first-person account of an ascent on Aconcagua that I read dwelt upon its fierce wind and weather in awesome detail. Still, I had to go and see it for myself.


We began the three-day march to base camp through the inhospitable valley formed by the Rio de Vacas. Cows who once watered there may have earned the river its name, but now only an occasional carcass remains on its banks. Even in the dead heat of summer, silt gray waters run stone cold. Occasional blades of grass and stunted shrubs, whose talon-like thorns possessed a special affinity for grabbing my socks, subsist among the scree that has fallen from the towering cliffs that rise like tombstones from the narrow valley floor. Volcanic rubble is nasty stuff. Round rocks varying in diameter won’t hold a step, so a sure stride is never possible.

We carried light loads in backpacks: trail essentials like water, Snickers bars, cameras and rain gear. A string of ten pack mules, led by a bell mare, carried our heavy expedition gear and supplies to Plaza Argentina at the foot of the glacier where the climb would begin.

The first days on the trail everyone keeps up a quick pace to tell the team they’re tough—no one wants to get pegged early on as unfit for the challenge. We managed to beat the mules to camp by nearly two hours on the first day. When they finally arrived with the tents, we were too tired to pitch them.

On the morning of the second day, the mules got a head start, which gave us more free time in camp that night. It was there that Phil began serving his nightly ration of food for thought. He has a passion for poetry, in particular heroic verse, which he has committed to memory and recites with great drama. Some of his favorites, which he recited for us, included “If…,” by Rudyard Kipling,“Evolution,” by Langdon Hughes, and “The Shooting of Dan McGrew,” by Robert Service:

When out of the night, which was fifty below,
and into the din and glare,
There stumbled a miner fresh from the creeks,
dog-dirty and loaded for bear.
He looked like a man with a foot in the grave
and scarcely the strength of a louse,”…
“There’s men that somehow just grip your eyes,
and hold them hard like a spell;
And such was he, and he looked to me
like a man who had lived in hell;…

Halfway through Phil’s masterful performance, I noticed four figures on foot, crossing the Vacas River. One lone figure stumbled down valley in the middle of the riverbed, and eventually the other three made their way across to our poetry circle. They were Austrians who spoke little English, but their appearance indicated they had just come from a summit attempt, and their expression told us it had not been successful.

Taking seats on the larger rocks, they silently began removing layers of high altitude expedition gear. The mittens came off first, and their condition became frighteningly clear. Each had fingers which had already turned black. Under glacier glasses were hollow, heavy lidded eyes; lips were cracked and bleeding; their faces were pitted with open sores. As they unlaced their plastic mountaineering boots, water poured out. The lucky one had just one black toe. Another was charred to his knee. The third had feet that looked like macerated milkfed veal. They rested without speaking for only a few minutes, then put their full gear back on and continued their way down the valley.

Almost everyone was shaken by the visitors, except Phil. “They have nothing to blame but their own inexperience. No mountain top is worth losing a toe over,” he said.

My own feet were already blistered and bruised after two days of walking. The two big toes had swelled to the size of chicken eggs. I soaked them in the cold river, hoping they’d shrink, but that night even the feather-weight of my down sleeping bag was more than they could bear. They were still engorged the next morning, so with John’s help, I punctured each big toenail with a red-hot sharp end of a safety pin which released the fluid underneath. After tying each toe with sterile gauze and upholstering the rest of my feet with moleskin, I completed the march to base camp wearing a borrowed pair of Nike Airs that Carter had brought to use as “bedroom” slippers.


We got an early start on the third day, leaving the Vacas valley, turning west into the canyon cut by the Relinchos River. Because the canyon is so narrow and the scree so steep, the trail zig-zags across the river several times. Relinchos means “snorting mad” in Spanish. It’s glacier-fed; like a rattlesnake napping on a desert rock, the warmth of the sun raises its temper, so crossing in the morning minimizes risk. Nearly 100 years ago, Aconcagua’s first summiteer nearly met his maker here and, to this day, river crossings remain the most dangerous part of the trip. Some parties rope up to cross. We made a human chain, and crossed hand in hand.

Just below where the glaciers terminate their downhill run lies a transition zone, where the ground is neither frozen nor thawed and the landscape is shaped by the forces from both above and below. Gently rolling, sandy ground supports patches of plant life that may be kindly interpreted as a meadow. It is a most forgiving place to walk. And so, by late afternoon, my stride began to take on a comfortable and predictable rhythm. The peak lay in full view of the trail, dead ahead. At some point, while gazing up at its snow-capped summit, I saw an Andean Condor fly overhead, his 15-foot wings outstretched to capture the rising thermals.

We arrived at the Plaza Argentina, a landscape of dense grey stone floating on a river of ice. Jim was there as we’d planned, among eight or ten other small groups. We were now at 13,500’, and puna, the high altitude sickness unique to the Andes, began claiming victims. Some attribute the particular qualities of puna to the high mineral content of Andean rock, saying it robs more than its share of the oxygen. The stone smells foul up close, like sulphur, and at night, while asleep on the ground, aggravates nausea and exacerbates a headache. About half of our group suffered from those symptoms. Carter had something else. A later diagnosis pointed to cholera, but at the time, thinking it was a bad flu, he lay motionless in his tent when not in search of a secluded spot to relieve his great discomfort.

That night, the first gusts of wind thundered forth from the mountaintop. In my sleepy stupor, I was certain that the tent had been torn from the ground and was hurling through the heavens between Kansas and Oz. Although the summit remained cloaked at sunrise, sufficient calm had been restored along with the general health of the group (except for Carter), and we set off on the first carry to a high camp—without the mules, we needed to carry our supplies for the final ascent up first. Our loads contained ice-climbing gear—crampons, ropes, ice axes—and other items we expected to use up high, closest to the summit.

We stopped for lunch (Snickers and water) before crossing the nieves penitentes. Hundreds of man-sized snow blocks form a crowd of white-robed monks standing in haunting penitence, a vision particular to this latitude in summer, created by the combined action of the sun and the wind upon the frozen mass of the snowfield.

A light snow began to fall. I put on another layer of clothes and used my ice axe like a blind man’s cane to help me see in the flat light. Owing to our differing abilities on the unfamiliar terrain, at altitude, and in the cold and wind, our group of eleven (Carter was still tentbound) became strung out along the route. I was the second of our group through the nieves penitentes (Jim had gone ahead without stopping for lunch), and I started up the steep path, through a narrow stone-walled canyon, on the steps he had kicked just an hour before. The wind drove the snow sideways, and howled so loud that communication between me and the others below was impossible, but everyone continued to make forward progress. The higher I climbed, the more fiercely the wind blew down the canyon, and even though Jim had just been there without crampons, I stopped and put on mine. Before long, I began hacking out steps with my axe in the crusty snow. All but an outline of Jim’s footprints had been wiped away.

The path curved broadly to the left, then made its way through a notch on top of the left-hand wall. The wind, forced into this narrow passage, burst out on the other side with even greater velocity, the Venturi effect in action. Recalling the “Seventh Wave Theory” (the seventh one is always the biggest), which my sea-loving grandmother used to swear by, I lay on my stomach with the pick of my axe and the points of my crampons piercing the ice, counting. The gusts were coming fast. Sure I’d figured out nature’s rhythm, I sprinted uphill for all I was worth during the first four beats, then hit the deck for the final three. Finally, no longer able to stand even in the lighter gusts, I slithered on my belly the final 250 feet through the notch. Over a crest of terminal moraine, I saw a half-dozen or more tents stacked in a line up the hill. The doors were open to the downhill side, and inside, the inhabitants sat motionless. No one spoke because the wind only scrambled the words. One by one, members of our party crawled through the notch, dropped the bundle they carried into one pile, and descended without uttering a word.

We practically flew back to Base Camp, propelled by the wind at our backs. It was blowing hard down there, too, and in our absence, the wind had powerfully reorganized our camp. Only two tents were left standing. The rest had blown down, but, luckily, not away. Half were broken and now useless, so good parts were merged to make others whole. I had a nagging cough, common in cold, dry air, and swollen uncomfortable fingers and hands, but my main malady was cabin fever. A driving snow beat on the thin walls of the tent. Going outside meant getting shredded by the glassy shards of ice.

“WhatamIdoinghere?” I chanted for three full days.

The weather finally backed off a bit. And when a steady barometric pressure reading sufficiently convinced them of a lull in the storm, Phil and Jim determined that we needed to make a fast break move that day to Camp One, if we hoped to get any higher at all. While Base Camp was more comfortable, we had already eaten up time and supplies there which had been budgeted for up high. Furthermore, Phil said, Carter was weak but improving, but now Phil was getting whatever ailed Carter. Both thought they could make it to Camp One, if they moved quickly. And so the rest of us, fearing the imminent arrival of the next front, kept pace. On our way up, we met everyone from Camp One, coming down. Some of them had been stranded up there for more than five days, and not one had summited.

 


We passed with more skill the second time through the nieves penitentes. The snow came again on the final steep stretch in the canyon, but this time it was driven by only half the wind. Actually, snow had been falling steadily up high for the four days we’d been down at Base Camp so, more accurately, we came to it. Tempered by the wind, the icy ground was steel hard. Shoveling level tent platforms was like trying to garden on an aircraft carrier. Once assembled, we scrambled to tether each tent to big stones (staking into the ground is impossible here) before a gust would send it flying. We sought further protection behind three-foot high stone walls positioned on the uphill side of each tent. Thanks to the recent evacuation of Camp One, we were able to pick sites which already had been so fortified, and we restored those instead of building from scratch.

Phil was really sick after the move, and couldn’t come out of his tent. Carter was still recovering, and most everyone else was feeling the effect of the rapid gain in altitude. Jim, Pam and I became tentmates at Camp One, and, finding ourselves with sufficient strength and a stove in our possession, began melting snow for hot drinks inside the vestibule of our tent fly. Outside we heard the plastic surgeon from Houston, another Dave, pass by, shouting offers of mashed potatoes. Our reply was lost in the wind, so with a Snickers bar and a few cups of hot tea, I fell asleep.

By dawn, the winds of Aconcagua stopped their assault on us. We spent that whole day working at two jobs: “tanking up” and drying out. Making water at altitude requires tedious effort: to make just one cup of water, you have to shovel a large bag of clean snow, then melt it in a tiny pot over an oxygen-starved flame on a stove outside the tent. With our damp gear lying all around us in the sunshine, those of us who weren’t too sick to speak warmed up to conversation, glad for the chance to air some of our fears. In whispers, we talked around the inevitable: the carry to Camp Two was bound to reduce our number. The next morning, I was sorry but not surprised when one climber, the slowest in the group, didn’t even make it out of his tent. However, I was stunned when an ashen-faced Phil Ershler could barely stand upright to announce that he was also too sick to go any farther up the mountain.

Despite our thinned ranks, I interpreted the clear blue sky at daybreak as an auspicious symbol. I convinced myself that the mountain had finished testing us. The trail up the Ameghino Col to Camp Two was steep and the air was thin, but each step yielded its reward—grand views of the Andes, hundreds of hills whose backs, hued like deadly reptiles, coiled about our feet. Thrilled to possess each new moment, I quickly forgot the trials of the previous two weeks. With an enthusiasm that exceeded my abilities, I raced ahead, only to fall behind during the lengthy recoveries which followed each sprint. Despite my own frustrating, erratic pace, I could hardly wait to move even higher up the mountain the next day. That night as I lay spent but content, snug in my mummy bag, I wrote in my journal, “It’s amazing how comfortable we can get up here when the wind’s not blowing…” and so began the first entirely pleasant entry I had yet logged on the trip.

 


We moved to Camp Two at 19,000’, carrying everything we’d need to climb to the summit on the Polish Glacier. But there, camped at its foot, we could see that the winds of the previous week had glazed it into a gleaming blue monolith. It was unsafe to climb in the best of circumstances, and even more so without Phil, and with Carter operating at only half speed. Jim functioned as the leader of a dwindling team. So, by default, we shifted our priority from the route to the summit. We would traverse the glacier counterclockwise toward the west, where we would be able to intersect the easier Ruta Normal path to the top.

The sunset that evening was remarkable. Great cottony banks of clouds unfurled below us, dyed crimson by the sinking sun. As night fell, their tops formed flaming plumes lapping at an indigo sky, punctuated by a full moon. Its light in the thin atmosphere shone brighter and bluer, flooding the landscape for hundreds of miles in its pale wash.

The night passed slowly. I spent most of it watching ice crystals grow on the ceiling of the tent. I was also beginning to feel the effects of the thin air. I wore all of my clothes to bed and cradled my mountaineering boots like a teddy bear inside my sleeping bag. At 3:00 AM, when Jim arose to begin the two-hour task of melting enough snow for breakfast and water bottles, I started threading my shoelaces. The trick to avoiding frostbite is wearing them loose so circulation is not impeded. Knee-high nylon canvas super-gaitors with Velcro seals keep out the snow and moisture. Maybe I fell back to sleep, because it couldn’t have taken me two full hours to put on my shoes. Or could it?

It was still dark when eight of us marched single file out of camp at 5:00 AM. My plodding gait was so sluggish and my stops became so frequent that I offered Pam, who walked nearby, the lame claim that my halts were made simply in the interest of admiring the view. I summoned my rapidly waning powers of concentration to wiggle my battered toes in my boots for the next few thousand steps in the hope of warding off frostbite.

Our first sanctioned stop lay four hours away, at the Independencia Hut, the highest refuge in the world, near where we’d meet the normal route, at 21,000’. In my delirium, I envisioned it would be a cozy stone cottage, with wooden tables and benches inside. Perhaps it would have a little hearth where we might warm up as we shared a cup of hot tea and camaraderie with other climbers coming up the Ruta Normal. I walked faster. When I made out the shape of a peaked roof over the ridgeline, I practically loped up the final fifty steps.

My heart sank when the hut turned out to be nothing but a wooden lean-to. I crawled under and promptly fell asleep. Some time later, I was awakened by Jim, who presented me with a cup of hot, orange-flavored Kool Aid. He had found the packaged drink mix on the ground, and wisely reasoned that it would give us more energy than the black tea we carried. As the sweet and sour brew partially restored my senses, I noticed that our number had been further reduced by two. Jim said they’d turned back about an hour out of camp. One had cold feet, a complaint to be taken seriously up here. The other feared that his slow progress would impede our chance for success. Jim also took the opportunity to reproach me for having run to the hut, explaining that the stunt probably cost me half the energy I had for the whole day. And it’s true that I never bounced back after that.

 


As we cleared the Pasa de Vientos and entered the Grand Acarrio, I spent more time resting than advancing. I lacked the strength to make any more excuses. The others gained a little distance ahead, but measured in terms of time, they were leading by an hour when we turned the corner to climb the Canaleta, a narrow gully, pitched at a 45-degree angle, filled with loose talus, the final 800 feet to the summit. With his keen sense of timing, Jim chose that moment to reveal that on his last climb, he helped rescue an injured climber from the Canaleta who had inadvertently pulled a boulder down, hitting him on the head and knocking him out cold. When he came to, Jim said, the guy couldn’t even remember where he was or how he got there. I was beginning to feel the same way.

In the light air above 22,000 feet, my near-empty pack became too heavy to carry. I stuffed my camera into a pocket and stashed the pack behind a rock. The others—Carter, Pam, Ken, a geologist, and Dave, the plastic surgeon—were almost half way up the Canaleta when I began. Unable to fight my desire to fall asleep, but believing I possessed the strength to summit, I struck a deal with myself to walk 30 steps, then stop for 30 breaths. I convinced Jim to stay close by and enforce those terms. At each stop, I snoozed, standing with my legs apart, bent over my ski poles which, with the handles lodged in my ears, supported my head. When I started to cheat (walk 25 / stop 35), I lowered my yardstick to 10 and 10.

Carter and Pam climbed far above Dave and Ken. The two pairs remained within earshot of each other but not us. So I couldn’t make out what they said before the two men finally stopped and sat down. They shouted between themselves, until Pam turned downhill and began to retreat. What would convince her to give up her ground after she’d gotten so far, I wondered. More shouting followed, but still I could not make out what they said, then suddenly Pam turned uphill again, walking back toward Carter. Once again she stopped and shouted some more, first to Carter, then something else down to the men, as she stood roughly half the distance between them. For the second time, she came down 25 steps or so, then stopped and turned again, and started climbing back up. Each step commanded my full strength; where had she found the force to indulge her indecision? Jim and I continued climbing. Dave and Ken hadn’t moved in either direction. After two hours, we reached their spot, and still, they remained sitting on the rocks. Lacking the energy to speak, I passed them without a word, and hoped they would follow. But when Jim approached, Dave explained that he thought we were here too late, and he wanted to go down. Ken retreated with Dave. What time was it? I continued to walk like an old work mule, counting my way up the Canaleta.

When Carter and Pam disappeared over the crest, their cries of joy buoyed me along. I walked the last stretch without a stop. Minutes later, they were already coming down the opposite end of the summit ridge as Jim and I waved our congratulations and took our own final steps to the top.

As mountaineers have often marveled, the exhilaration of being there obliterates the fatigue of getting there. With determination and a lot of luck, we had arrived on the 225 square foot plateau which is the summit of the highest mountain in the hemisphere. There’s no spot higher for 10,000 miles, and we later concluded that probably no one else stood higher on Earth that day, since February is too early to reach the Himalayan summits. From Aconcagua’s sacred peak, we could see 80,000 square miles of mountain, land and sea. The mountain, for reasons I’ll never know, had let its guard down for us. I had, for the moment, made peace with the mountain, and at last I seemed to know exactly what I was doing there. It was late afternoon on a clear and windless day. Jim and I spent over an hour on top, then, reluctantly, made our way down, without incident, back to the high camp.




Mont Blanc
Picture 1: Independencia Refuge at 6400m, on 17th February around 9 a.m., Photographer: Mark Hallam
Picture 2: Map of my route to the summit
Picture 3: The view from the summit, Photographer: Sandy Hill
Picture 4: Me and Jim Williams on the summit, Photographer: Sandy Hill
Picture 5: Our tents on the moraine, Photographer: Sandy Hill
Picture 6: Mate tea cup with siphon straw
Picture 7: Vintage pen and ink drawing of a llama
Picture 8: Polaroid of my summit rock
Picture 9: A carved wooden cross I bought in an antique shop in Mendoza, Argentina
Picture 10: View of the Andes across vineyards in Mendoza, taken in 2014, Photographer: Sandy Hill
Picture 11: Aconcagua, Photographer: Sandy Hill
Picture 12: Pen and ink drawing of a spider
Picture 13: Vintage textile fragment from the Andes
Picture 14: Pages from the book Mountain Sickness: Prevention, Recognition and Treatment, by Peter Hackett (1980, American Alpine Club)
Picture 15: Pen and ink sketch of a condor by Sandy Hill
Picture 16: Vintage textile fragment from the Andes