Disclaimer: This is a brutally honest and vulgar reflection of my time spent climbing Aconcagua. It is the longest one to date. Brace yourself.
Feb 1: Summits Aren’t Just for Mountains
Two locals peered down at us from the top. They were so close that I felt like I could reach up and take one of their hands. Five more feet up, that’s it. I beluga whale-rolled over on top of the scramble section. David and I walked slowly towards the prayer flags marking the summit and I listened to the change in his breathing. Looking up from my feet, I saw Christopher wearing a massive smile, but all I could really think about was how I was ready to be off of this short rope and more than three feet away from Colo.
When we made it to the marker, I was overwhelmed with a sense of relief. The realization that we were successful washed over me; we were apart of the less than 1% of the population who has ever been to this altitude. I didn’t shed a tear initially, which was bizarre to me at first. On all of my other peaks, tears rolled down my face almost instantaneously. Instead, I observed.
For me, Aconcagua was a necessity for my Seven Summits project, but it was also the mountain that was going to determine if I was ready to undertake the extreme altitude of Everest. It was going to give me the opportunity to double-check systems and create solutions with prosthetic issues and put me on a new kind of terrain to strengthen my understanding of how I move.
Sure, I was elated that I made it to the top, but MY true summit was watching David summit. I watched someone change from being excited, to nervous, to frustrated, and then to being on the verge of quitting, to be the most appreciative person for a royal suffer-fest. David was different. His whole mentality changed, his perspective changed, it’s as if everything melted away; almost like he shed his past and became a new person.
He was proud. He was wearing this as a badge of honor, as he should. And I was proud of him.
We were stretched for time now, though. We hurried through our picture taking and a few more hugs and high fives before it was time to race the sun down.
Once the sun is gone in mountaineering, you are playing a totally different ball game. For me, going downhill is worse than going uphill. Over uneven and loose terrain, there is no technique, just forward momentum. I struggled my way down for over an hour to the caves where we ditched our bags for the final push. The sun was setting by this point and while I admired the colors bringing a new and vibrant life to the mountains around me, I knew we were about to be faced with a different set of challenges.
As we maneuvered the traverse, I wasn’t moving as quickly as I would have liked, but Colo and I had a fair amount of distance between us and Christopher & David. I wanted to get down to Camp Three before the brutal cold got to my residual limb. I didn’t talk much, just moved.
The sun disappeared shortly after reaching the landmark called “The Finger” on the traverse. “God damnit,” I thought to myself. Mentally, I was already exhausted. My brain was fried. My eyes were strained, and my reaction time was severely decreased. Using so much hand-eye coordination for simple tasks sucks the life out of you.
Descending into the saddle, where I had to warm my leg up earlier that morning, a surge of pain came over me. My nub was fucking cold. With a shake in my voice, I asked Colo if he had the JetBoil to get warm water on my leg, and he replied, “We can’t stop.”
The only reason I stayed warm is because I was madder than Hell. Colo didn’t understand, but he also didn’t care to listen. I watched two head lamps bounce around far off in the distance, and for a split second probably felt the way David did. “Why weren’t they with me? Where is my team? Who was going to help defend that my leg health determines everything?” I walked any way. If I stopped and made no heat and had no heat, I would do nothing but make it worse.
I stomped on, throwing a tantrum internally. Another hour passed, and for the first time on this mountain, I was scared. “I need a short rope!” I screamed out to Colo and he replied, “Just walk closer to me.” Fuck it. I’m over it. That was NOT the answer I needed nor wanted to hear. I was no longer angry, I was livid. I am going to go at whatever pace and take my sweet-ass time regardless of my cold or pain.
Failed. My reverse psychology doesn’t work on a dude wanting to get to the warmth of a tent and boiling water. Shortly after, I could hear Christopher calling back to David to just keep walking… and something about chocolate ice cream? “Whatever works,” I thought to myself as my head lamp flickered. Christopher caught me and told me that he was concerned for David and the random things he was mumbling.
David was exhausted. I am certain this was the most he has put his body through in a twenty-four-hour period. Colo’s headlamp disappeared into camp a long way off. It was midnight. My headlamp was dead. I have no fucking clue where I am, and David wants to go to sleep on the trail. I actually can’t help but laugh to myself. Our expedition had gone nearly flawlessly, but it isn’t an expedition until shit hits the fan at some point. Shit meet fan.
Christopher calls back to me that we have about an hour to go. I gave up listening on day two when it came to the boys and their estimates. David mumbled to himself, thanked me, and continued to tell me that he needed to sleep. “Put your head lamp down and watch my feet,” I told him over and over. I partially needed his light, but I also wanted him to find a cadence and be amused by my crazy ass doing this on a mechanical leg.
It was nearly 1:30 AM when we rolled into camp. I was wrecked. Actually, wrecked is an understatement. Colo yelled to us to come in for soup and hot water. There wasn’t a chance in Hell. I was going to my tent, taking off my leg, and crawling in my bag.
Christopher later brought me a couple of hot water bottles to thaw out my leg. After drinking the small one, I was out. I woke up a couple of times to a stale smell and my face drenched in drool — only to wipe it off and go right back to it.
Every night since I can remember, my mom has said, “Good night, sweet dreams, God bless, and I love you.” The boys typically got a version of that at night during the climb.
They weren’t getting shit tonight.
Feb 2: Path of Least Resistance
I hear Colo rummaging around and forced myself to open my eyes. It felt like someone was trying to scratch my eyeballs out of my skull while I slept (after they found the truck to hit me with). I wasn’t sore, just stiff. I forced myself to move.
When I finally made it to the “kitchen” tent… “Fuck Mountain House,” I thought to myself. No way. Tea, some water, and maybe some peanuts were all I could even fathom. Honestly, I just wanted to put something in my pack and go down — even though my body wanted the farthest thing from that. I was pained by the idea of packing my bag and throwing it on my back.
After we loaded up, the boys looked at me and asked, “Switchbacks, or straight down?” I am not sure that I looked up when I responded, “Straight down.” At this point, I just wanted whatever would get me to base camp. We passed porters left and right; I still can’t believe the weight that they carry — people my size carrying the packs that giants wouldn’t even consider.
Hours passed. Honestly, this was just as shit as the way up. But this time, there was mud. Thick, heavy mud that stuck to everything. We passed Camp Two, and then Camp One. When passersby asked if we summited, I sassily rolled my eyes like it was a personal attack on me.
We saw yellow and red tents off in the distance. However, it took another two hours for them to actually feel real as our tents. To pour salt in Christopher’s wounds, we had to cross another river, and then were home free. As we rolled into camp, I was beat. I was thankful, but exhausted and ready to crawl into a sleeping bag. We had a lovely dinner of pork and potatoes — if the boys didn’t have thirds, I am surprised.
We made it back into the dome that Grajales was going to let us sleep in. Shortly after arriving, David & Christopher gave me grief…, “But you told Lito, you’d drink a beer with him,” followed by, “Well, I’m at least going to have a beer with that legend.”
Son of a bitch. Guess where I found myself? The kitchen tent at the Grajales camp drinking beer with Lito.
Feb 3: One for the Road
It’s early. Actually, not that early. I just feel like I could sleep for an eternity and that the struggle bus hit me, then backed over me. I crawled out of my (still ridiculous) -40-degree bag and simply put, I hurt. I told the boys to leave so I could pee in my collapsible Nalgene for the last time. Yes, that’s why I do pistol squats, ladies and gentlemen. It’s an art form and there should be an award for it.
I stumbled out of the dome, bags were reorganized for the mules, and we lightened our load to trek out. Just an easy 20 miles out. After breakfast we worked our way through tent city and checked out of the ranger station — I have a pretty rad stamp in my passport to prove it.
Dirt. Dirt. Scree. Desert. Narrow gulley. Dirt.
Fuck. It’s awful. For the first time, I was actually thankful for going up the Polish Traverse route — and not the Normal Route. Our initial plan was to make it from base camp to the final check point and the road. Several groups passed me from the get-go; I grumbled to myself and rolled my eyes. “They have no clue how good they’ve got it,” I thought to myself. I try my damndest to be grateful for my life and the limbs I have, but in moments like this, I battle being bitter.
Dirt. Dirt. Dirt. Desert. Where the fuck am I? Afghanistan? Dirt. Dirt. Donkey.
My nearly-healed cuts (yea, the ones in the crack) opened again. I was moving painfully slow and can’t even tell you how many times I apologized. I want to be done — and I know the boys want to be done. They’re good sports and I am so grateful. They’re hard on me, but in a good way; they snap at me to shut up, but only to tell me that there’s no rush.
We had been moving for nearly nine hours when the sun started to go down. There was no way that I would make it to the road. In mountaineering, being prepared means the best possibility. Guess who was fucked? Me. Christopher was kind enough to take my (self-proclaimed) necessities at the start of our trek out, so that I could go pack-less. I had no sleeping system and very few layers. Don’t worry, my disgusting, melted, two-week-old snickers made it into the kit though.
I truly believed I could make it to the road in one day. I was sadly mistaken. I can smoke any biped on an incline, but on flat terrain — and God forbid that there’s river rocks — I stand no chance. As the sun started to set, we toyed with the idea of riding mules and staying at the next camp. David, like a champ, ran ahead to check out our options.
Christopher and I crept into the next camp and were greeted by concerned park rangers. I was fine, I was just slow. Step by step we made it into camp. I was impressed with what seemed to be our temporary refugee camp. It wasn’t anything like the other Grajales inhabited areas… at all. Still clean and full of impressive (and quite lovely) locals, but it was like a ghost town.
Flushable toilets!? Scratch all that. This was the BEST. PLACE. EVER. It had a seat. Toilet paper. A sink!? Soap (even if it’s the weird kind that never actually washes off)! After a brief visit to the urination station, I strutted into the dining tent. While it was the smallest camp we had been to, it certainly had the best food. Endless bread and beef, at least I think it was beef. Christopher and I devoured my weight in olive oil and balsamic. It’s safe to say that we ate, we drank, and were merry.
Then, I stood up. I had no sleeping bag and WE had no tent — still had that Snickers though. The boys and I ended up sleeping in the Grajales comms dome alongside two local guides, and in sleeping bags that didn’t belong to us — yes, I imagined all of the skin cells of dirtbag trekkers — emergency blankets, and whatever other layers we could find. Christopher, being the MVP that he is, brought in four cans of beer.
Half of one was finished. Road sodas it is.
Feb 4: I Want Out
It wasn’t going to be bad. Honestly, it seemed like the miles flew — all three of them today. Sure, there was a hiccup a time or two, but it was cool, and I was semi well-rested. Cruise-control set in; probably just because I knew it was almost over. Christopher asked David to call in to Grajales HQ and tell them we were crossing the bridge. It was a real bridge – with real, SAFE suspension followed by CAR beaten paths. Civilization, could it be?
We passed the day-hikers and families crowded around the park’s signs, and then hit pavement. David and I prematurely threw down our poles and crutches, but it was all worth it. Looking back to Aconcagua and seeing where we’ve been… it was surreal.
While not a different day, the afternoon of February 4th was something special.
Afternoon, Feb 4th: BITE OFF MORE THAN YOU CAN CHEW, AND CHEW LIKE HELL
Since we started our descent, all of the park rangers on the mountain told me, “Do not leave without meeting Nancy.” With us coming in a day later than we had anticipated, I was sure I missed her. We cruised up to the final ranger station, when a tiny woman came running up to me. “I saw you in Russia! You were climbing Elbrus when I was!” She and I had been climbing the highest point in Europe at the same time, and now she was going up the highest point in South America, when I was coming down.
My morale was instantly boosted, and I couldn’t help but wear a smile. Upon entering the ranger station, an amputee park ranger came up to me and instantly started sobbing. This was the Nancy I needed to meet; I was shocked she waited on me. After a warm embrace, she let me know that I was the first woman amputee, amongst the many men amputees, to stand on top of Aconcagua. Better yet, that I had inspired her to make a summit attempt shortly thereafter.
My best friend gave me a necklace for Christmas that had the words, “Give ‘Em Hell,” etched on it. While I squirmed in my seat fighting an internal battle about letting it go, I took off my necklace, and put it around Nancy’s neck. I know what it takes to get up that mountain, and she is going to have to give it all she has and never look back. She will have to quite literally, like me, chew her way up that mountain.
Aconcagua didn’t start off as a mountain that I had an emotional connection to. Honestly, it was a check in the box and a means to make sure that I (and my prosthetics) could tolerate Everest. My summit was not standing on the top of the highest point in South America. My summit was the look on David’s face when he first saw Aconcagua and the growth in him after he summited his first big mountain. My summit was meetings strangers that are now friends because of climbing. My summit was Nancy being so proud of me that she could barely talk. My summit is knowing that there’s another woman amputee on that mountain right now.
This was for far more than writing history. This was to inspire the next generation.
This was my Aconcagua.