Disclaimer: This is a brutally honest and vulgar reflection of my time spent climbing Aconcagua. It is the longest one to date. Brace yourself.
Jan 17: Hell-A
Bags. Half a dozen heavy duffel bags. Son of a bitch. The airport shuffle never gets easier. It’s hot. It’s LA. I’m sweating; my leg’s falling off. David is waiting on me at the other side — being responsible and a few hours early before an international departure. Then, there’s me. Yep, still pissed off with an hour before departure.
As I work my way through security (still carrying more bags than any other traveler at the godforsaken LAX), I see David sitting at the Hard Rock restaurant. The look on his face when he saw me was almost as if he realized that is was REALLY happening — we were BOTH now in the airport and actually getting on a plane for Argentina.
While I remained hyper fixated on the fact that my friend was traveling in Dad Crocs, I was finally at ease. David’s smile and tears reminded me that this was not my climb. Actually, that the climb wasn’t the most important thing. That it was David’s experience that would impact me the most. The growth that comes when we are willing to try something new — or from doing something that makes us uncomfortable is beautiful. In that moment, I realized that David and I were both going to come out of this as better people.
Jan 18: “Friends With Benefits”
We made it to Mendoza. “See, there are perks to hanging out with me, David. The cripple thing lets me cut lines and park close to the front of stores. So, to the front of the customs line we will go,” I explained.
Fast forward. Bags. Back to the damn bags. I fumbled my way through getting the bags and carts. Then, we rounded the corner to greet Christopher and head to the hotel. In these moments, sitting on a van and fairly jet lagged — it’s almost like rolling in to the Twilight Zone. I realize the undertaking that’s about to happen; that all of our hard work is about to be put to the test, but I am strangely calm. I just want to fucking do it already. This is my new norm — a sense of controlled chaos.
After we made it back to the hotel (thank God for inviting David who is fluent in Spanish), we dumped the bags to run through gear. I go light. Insanely light. Running hot is a perk of being an amputee, but I also don’t mind being an absolute dirt bag on the mountain. If I can’t muster the weight myself, then that means some poor local will have to. So, a stripped gear list it is.
Jan 20: Give ‘Em Hell
Gear’s good, climbers are solid, and after a day of regrouping from travel, we are ready to head to Penitentes. As we loaded into a small van pulling a trailer with all of our gear, the heat and humidity made my shirt stick to me and instantly made my blood boil. This was possibly my first realization that this was not going to be my favorite climb; that any summer climb will never make it to the top of my list. I rubbed the charm of the necklace that my best friend gave to me for Christmas to comfort myself — it says, “Give ‘Em Hell.”
Heat and sweat complicate everything in my life. If I am constantly hot, we need more (already nonexistent) water. My leg sweats off. My liner permeates. And from there, it creates the mental battle of if the climb is even possible. Once we make it to Grajales, the local expedition company, and get checked in, it’s time to start weighing our bags for the mules. Three bags per mule, 20 kg each. First of all, watching three Americans decipher the conversion from pounds to kilograms is always entertaining (you’re welcome, Grajales). Second of all, bags.
Jan 21: The Calm Before the Storm
No one seems nervous yet. I am relieved. We have a planned late start (9 AM breakfast) and leave the Grajales office for the park entrance. Once there, the rangers welcome us and are elated that we are all veterans, and that I am actually crazy enough to try this on a prosthetic. Everyone is always fascinated by the technology and the tools I use to make my climbs a reality. As we stepped off, I looked up, and noticed the vibrant colors… not a cloud in the sky.
An hour goes by. Still not a cloud in the sky. By this point, all I want is a damn cloud for some shade. Every ten minutes I am stopping to take my leg off, if it hasn’t already fallen off. I am moving slow and we have 9 miles to go today in order to make it to our first camp. I am destroying myself internally — “is this how this is really going to start?” I’m losing more water than I even have time to replenish. The heats made me unbearable to be around, but now I am adding time to the clock every time I stop. I am the weak link.
I finally get to the point where my leg is off. Entirely. Refuses to go on. So, I crutch. I crutch on the loose terrain wearing a pack. I am faster as a tripod, than wearing my leg. Oh, the irony.
I mutter, “I’m sorry.” The boys yell at me to stop apologizing as the hours drag on… one foot in front of the other kicking through the dry, dusty trails. It’s déjà vu as we go around each corner; nothing changes, we hike up just to hike back down over the miles. This shit is for the BIRDS… to fly over because no human should ever even consider wanting to hike/walk this route.
We finally drop down. Once we are by the river, I have the idea to dunk my leg and liner to cool it down in hopes of being able to keep it on so we can finally cover somer actual distance. As I bend down into the river, I am just happy to have the freezing water on my skin. Game changer. The small things make the biggest differences. Once I was cool — once my leg was cool and staying on — my attitude changed. Let’s just get through today.
We walked. And walked. I cursed the sand, but even more so, the river rocks. I was finally feeling better and then the river rocks decided to bring me back into 4 LOW. I was practically crawling over the rocks to make progress. As the sun started to creep past the mountains to set, I just remember thinking how grateful I was for shade – never mind if it got dark. In the horizon, I could see tents. “Hallelujah, finally. Nearly 8 hours of trekking, and I finally see the end in sight.”
One hour later, I thought to myself, “Where the fuck are the tents?” And that’s when I realized I was scammed by rocks. Tent-like rocks. Not only did I demotivate myself, but Christopher and David also. Another hour later and the real tents appear. I don’t care. I am just ready to be there. Being a bag on a mule sounds great right about now.
As we rolled into camp, the sun had already completely hidden itself. Greeted by friendly faces, it was hard for me to stay in a funk with myself. A Canadian, a Brit, and an Australian bombarded me with questions, said that they had seen my posts about starting the Aconcagua climb, and had hoped to run into me on the mountain. Strangers who were happy to see me? It felt good. It reminded me, that even when I can’t climb for myself, I will climb for others.
Jan 22: Soggy Bottom Boys (and Girl)
We woke up early — the plan was to break down camp, eat quickly, pack my bag, and start walking. Christopher would tend to the mules and gear and later catch up to David and I. I was so happy to catch an early start. The crisp air and cool temperatures inspired me to move. Even though David and I were on the river rocks, it didn’t phase me. We moved efficiently.
Earlier Christopher made the comment that he didn’t think we would make it to the bridge before he caught up to us. Well, lets just say we were well past it when he did. Then, the sun came up. Let me just tell you folks, history does in fact repeat itself. I bitched the moment the sun hit me. In the valley, it was like being in an oven — no breeze and no shade. You just can’t escape the harshness of the sun here.
After several hours, we finally hit river crossings. For once, I wasn’t the pissed off one. Christopher absolutely hates crossing water — which I actually found some comic relief in. Back and forth, over and over, we balanced across rocks to make it to the opposite side of the river. Then, the dilemma came. We made it to the final river crossing… it was too deep, and too powerful. We tried several times for me to walk across, but the water kept pulling my legs from underneath me.
Problem solving is one of my favorite parts of climbing. But solving this problem, may be my favorite one to date. The plan was to ditch my pack and stix, then David carried them across. Then, Christopher would piggy back me across the river. That 30 seconds was the most I laughed all trip. He cursed before, during, and after as he dried his boots and socks out. I sat quietly with a smug little smile.
Once dry, we moved. I actually felt good today. The sun drained me, but thanks to great company and good conversation, nothing really mattered — it was just another 9 mile day through a wide variety of terrain. At camp, I was put in charge of cooking where I looked to make a random smattering of flavors and get creative with our very limited resources. Let’s just say that David loved my 4 ingredient Mac and Cheese with Tuna, and my soup mix topped cucumbers and carrots were a hit.
Jan 23: The Fun Part
I was warned about the third day and final day of trekking up to base camp. The terrain varies and it’s steep. We would gain nearly 1000 meters and start with Christopher hating me with a river crossing. Once everyone was dry, we moved. The soft, beach-like sand slipped under my feet. My arms ached; they had been thrashed the last two days with stabilizing me. I just tried to keep my head clear and remind myself that the next day was a rest day.
Another scorcher. The sun gave no mercy. I fell time and time again, as the steep grades of scree turned into side hills. My nemesis on a mountain are the traverses where the high side is my left side. I can’t make the small adjustments with a stiff prosthetic to be able to accommodate the change. Going over these sections, I find myself holding my breath or shushing those around me. It’s almost more mentally exhausting having to watch my feet and sticks to figure out where they will go. There’s no room for error on these sections.
Seven hours later, my lower back starts to seize. Five minutes go by and I need to bend over. I do not move like a normal human. I over compensate and wreck my body to do the simple tasks that any other person can do with ease. In these moments, I actually feel disabled. In these moments, I realize how hard this is… why there are few other above knee amputees doing these things. Nothing about this is easy for me.
People see the pretty pictures at the summit. They don’t see my pain and agony; my struggle to put one foot in front of the other. I work so god damn hard for this. Luckily, I am too dumb to quit.
We are all dragging our feet by this point, but we see the wind sock and the tents. Plaza Argentina, Aconcagua Base Camp is so close. I am moving at a snail’s pace, but it will have to do. Once in base camp, we are greeted by more employees of Grajales, and again, I cannot be upset. The smiles, the congratulations, and most importantly, the food — were all reason to stop and reflect on the last few days.
I am slow, but I am strong. And by God, I won’t fucking stop.
Jan 24: The Day That God Decided He So Loved The World
Because A: You’re welcome; my birthday. B: Holy shit, a much needed rest day.
I woke up to a birthday message that seemingly enough made nothing else matter. My heart was so full and sleeping in no longer amused me. As I sat in my tent, my mind wandered, as if it doesn’t do that enough. I started asking myself questions like, “How did I end up here?” and “would I change anything?” Then, I answered myself. Further confirming, that I am, in fact, crazy.
I could hear the boys fighting their sleeping bags and shortly after received, “Happy Birthday, Kirstie!” from them both. I just smiled. Crawling out of the tent and accepting that there is simply nothing to do means there is no rush at all. I am the WORST at tent time and at rest days. I become antsy and can’t sit still to save my life. Breakfast comes and goes and only an hour has passed. Luckily, there is no shortage of people from all over the world to talk to. Sometimes we laugh, sometimes we cry, and sometimes they just stare at me and my leg. It’s all the same.
As I was sitting in my tent, just staring off into the rest of base camp and questioning why I was opting to roast in my oven of a tent, a man comes up and says, “Hey, can I see that?”, gesturing to my leg. Awkward way to start a conversation, but I agreed. He was curious about my prosthetic as he had just had extensive leg surgery. We started chatting about all things recovery, alternative treatments to traditional medicine, and I showed off my crampon foot.
In the midst of comparing scars with Mark* (the asterisk means I forgot his name ), my new Canadian friend strolls up with one of his team mates, and hands me what looks to be a wad of toilet paper. In chicken scratch on the top piece, it read, “Happy Birthday! See you at the top! From: Shiv (the Canadian) P.S. this gift is garbage.” As I unwrapped this toilet paper that actually feels like sand paper, inside was: a hair tie – smart man, a can of tuna salad (with vegetables), and energy chews. It was his left over lunch from yesterday.
Later, while I was laying in the “recreation tent,” which is really just a dome with a couple of bean bags in it, the nearly 70 year old Norwegian man who had been at the table next to us for our meals silently enters the dome, hands me a *cold* beer, says nothing, and walks away. BEST BIRTHDAY BEER EVER.
C: Beer on Aconcagua.
28 feels damn good. Cheers to new friends, new adventures, and making peace with your pain.
To be continued… Part Two.