Seven Summits Project: Aconcagua Part Two

Disclaimer: This is a brutally honest and vulgar reflection of my time spent climbing Aconcagua. It is the longest one to date. Brace yourself.

Part Two
Jan 25: Dirtbag

I could tell David was nervous. Trekking in wasn’t a big deal, but now we were about to climb. Altitude and this type of terrain can be daunting —your first time is literally just like walking into the unknown. I made myself play the quiet game so as to not stress anyone out, but I was chomping at the bit to start moving.

As you can imagine, three-week long expeditions require a lot of food, fuel, supplies, and personal gear. You guessed it: at least three weeks worth of it. When you get into the triple digits for group gear weight (not counting the personal gear each person is carrying), it’s nearly impossible to move everything at once. So, teams do carries. Today, we distributed the food, fuel, and non-mission critical gear for down low to be carried up (i.e. ice axes, helmets, and crampons). The plan would be: carry up to Camp One, make our cache, then come back down to Base Camp to rest.

Quite frankly, I was just ready to stretch my legs. The first section was everything I had imagined. Steep, loose rock, and scree. I am sure none of you are surprised by that. About two hours into the climb, we hit a gulley where the “trail” was extremely steep, but the ground was soft. I had no traction. I decided to do what I do best… chew my way up. I threw my bag back to Christopher, threw my belly onto the dirt, and started to part boulder/part dig my way up. Being covered in dirt was definitely a way to start the day — but it did make me miss rock climbing.

The rest of the way to Camp One was fairly straight forward. It was just long and monotonous trails, small lakes from time to time, a practically nonexistent view of the summit due to the clouds, and a lot of dirt and rocks. Visually, it was nothing special. Then, I could clearly see the orange windsock floating in the breeze marking the next camp — now, that’s always special. We had a lot more to gain, at least 500 meters and I was staring at what I would call a snowfield, and what locals would call the Penitentes (severely windblown snow).

Great news! I ate more snow moving through the Penitentes than I drank water on the entire trek in. My Merrell hiking shoes just weren’t cutting it. You know that really cool spikey foot we made, and I wear in snow or traveling on ice? Yea… me too… and it wasn’t with me because we left it at base camp. For what seemed like hours I took one step forward, took two steps back, and at least every ten steps, I face planted.

When the slushy snow finally turned to brown scree — I did the unimaginable. I thanked God…for scree. For fucking scree.

Though I was in an interesting mood, I watched David. Sounds creepy, but in a good way. Today, David hit his “high” point. I watched him stare off in awe. Then cry. Then journal. Then make videos for his daughter. All of my pain, discomfort, and frustration seemed to dissipate. I worked really hard for months to make this happen for me. And then worked really hard to make it happen for David. Sharing this moment made the blood, sweat, tears, countless hours of training, fundraising, networking, and hustling all worth it.

Jan 26: Where the Sun Don’t Shine
Oh, a day of rest. I really hope you can feel my enthusiasm. While rest days are my most difficult days, I needed this one. Even if it was against my will. All day yesterday, my prosthetic dug into me and ultimately made a pretty significant cut. We all know how high my prosthetic goes, so as you may have assumed… I had a cut in my crack. *I really wish you could see my face as I wrote that, I even cringed.

It was best I stay off of my leg as much as possible. I resorted to my usual, lots of music and audio books. If you’ve never read Girl, Wash Your Face, then you should.

Jan 27: “Movin’ on Up”
Since we already knew what we were getting ourselves into, the tension and mood at breakfast was much better today than two days ago. We threw on our packs, which in theory should have been lighter than the carry day, but they weren’t — and got ready to move. As we started slowly, we met our local guide, Colo. He is a smaller-framed man, with a red beard, and a massive pack. I actually really enjoyed deciphering his broken English as he explained to me that Colo was his nickname meaning “Ginger”. We swapped stories back and forth for a couple of hours. Maybe he was just as curious about us as we were him.

Everything was going so well. Any obstacle we encountered two days ago, we cruised over like they didn’t exist. We all moved well together. There was no rush. Blue skies, sunny, slight breeze… all we had to do was go to Camp One and eat. Learning from our previous mistake, I threw on my crampon foot and was back to my old self. It’s crazy how that foot can make me feel so invincible. I plowed through the Penitentes and felt strong.

We made it into camp with plenty of time, threw up the tents, and started on water and dinner. A gentleman around the age of 50, apparently a legend on Aconcagua, named Lito came up. While I appreciated all of the kisses on my cheek, it was evident this was not his first time trying to flatter a woman on the mountain. We all ate and laughed. These are the moments that make the climb so special to each person. We learned a dice game called ten thousand. Lito had the best rolling technique, Colo could barely get on the board, David and Christopher spent more time pooping than playing the game, but most importantly… I made it to ten thousand first. It pays to be a winner, my friends.

Jan 28: “Now is the Time to Listen…”
Climb high, sleep low. It’s another carry day. Luckily, we’ve at least eaten some of the food and used up some of the fuel. Our packs should be a bit lighter. This section of the climb towers over us. It is almost annoying that you can see exactly where we are going — and can watch all of the other people looking like ants meandering their way to the first of the two traverses.

My leg gave me some grief today. As it swelled inside of my socket, it cut off circulation to my residual limb and caused a ton of nerve pain. My nonexistent left calf was cramping unbearably. I would stop from time to time to let blood back into my “nub,” shake my head, then keep walking. I opted for the steeper, more direct routes because I was quickly becoming over it all.

The first traverse was easy, not much to it. The high winds kept me cool and the terrain was flat. We crossed a stream a couple of times, and a smaller snow field. When we approached the second traverse, I honestly didn’t think much of it. Sure, the high side was my left side, and it was far steeper than the last section, but it didn’t really phase me.

Until I made it halfway through. The wind was catching me a bit and with my back having to be away from the mountain and into the valley, I was off balance. Falling backwards to my death was really not on my to do list today. The rocks made me stumble on the less than foot-wide trail. I finally spoke up, “Christopher, it’s time I go on a short rope.” Mentally, it is more work than physically; focusing on where my feet and stix were going to go. My confidence dwindled with my balance. Colo dug a rope out of his bag and tied it around his waist, and then mine. For the rest of the traverse, I would be tethered to the man in front of me. Should I fall, it would be Colo to self-arrest and catch us.

We made it through the traverse. I was in an extreme amount of pain. My nub was now bloody and cut up around the top of my socket and I had a pressure cyst. I looked at the boys and simply said, “Now is the time to listen to what I am saying to understand, not to figure out what you will say next. I gain nothing by moving this weight higher and cutting my leg open more. There is no more gain, and we run the risk of blowing our move day if I pop this pressure cyst. I am going to sit here.”

I felt bad for how I voiced my decision, but I needed to say it and be heard. Initially, I thought the boys were arguing against it, but really, they all agreed. The next camp was only 15 minutes away (for two-leggers or bipeds as I call them) but putting more pressure on the already damaged area wasn’t worth it. Colo and Christopher dropped a stove and fuel so we could start melting snow for water and lunch, grabbed the contents of mine and David’s packs, then continued to Camp Two.

Honestly, the time sitting there with David was nice. Again, he soaked in the surroundings and I played onlooker. Was I in a suffer-fest? Absolutely. But again, my heart distracted me from the pain.

Once Colo and Christopher returned, we made our way down. We were light and we were quick. It only took us two and a half hours — because I was leading, and the last two hours and twenty-eight minutes, I had to pee. Once we laid eyes on camp, we realized we were no longer alone. It was like tent city! Several teams had moved up. Entering camp always feels like I am on parade. Some yell, some clap, some hug, but most just stare with their heads cocked to the side.

Jan 29: Time is of the Essence
I am not sure that this team has made a timeline once on this trip. While I am certainly not complaining (it sucks to crawl out of a sleeping bag to freezing cold temperatures), I do find it hilarious. After the tents are packed up, an hour after the agreed-on time, we finally start to move. We say goodbye to the friends we’ve made at Base Camp who made it to Camp One last night and stepped off.

I felt good, I was moving well, and I found my rhythm. My thoughts run wild when I am in this mode. All things business, education, media, sponsorships, and life run through my mind. I don’t even notice the suck any more when I get into this zone; I wish that were the case for all of us though. I made it to our break point and just watched everyone move along the trail.

David was really struggling. I could see it by the way he hung his head. He was dragging his toes and his shoulders sunk. Christopher moved ahead of him, and shortly after threw himself down next to me. He said, “This may require good cop, bad cop. I’ve already been the bad cop.” Though Christopher was trying to coach David, it wasn’t helping.

When David made it up to the break point, I gave him space. Told Christopher to turn off the GoPro and not say a word. Five minutes passed, I walked over, and propped myself up on the rocks next to him. He told me he was in his head and owed Christopher an apology. “No, David. This is a team, but more importantly, we are friends. We are doing this together. I had my moment yesterday, and today it is yours. We understand — it’s not easy, and we will get through this.”

We all shook it off and worked our way through the traverses. We short roped me early, and I reluctantly passed my pack off to Christopher in order to keep the winds from catching me or from being pushed off balance. It was a breeze. Funny how the smallest changes can make the biggest differences. David and I moved into the final section that we missed the previous day. It was beautiful, absolutely unreal. The views were unlike anything I had ever seen with brilliant contrasts of color. I turned to David and said, “Make sure to look up and take this in, too,” but he beat me to it and already had tears in his eyes.

As we rolled into Camp Two, I could tell David was proud. He overcame his pain, but more so the mental battle that can get to us so quickly. Camp Two was a special place with views many will never come close to witnessing.

To me, the expedition actually started today. The battles followed by the victories set the tone for our rapidly approaching summit bid.

January 30: “Kudos…but RBF to You…”
Rest day. I don’t even think I rest this much in my sleep…
Wake up. Breakfast: Mountain House (187th time). Stare at each other.

I throw a hot water bottle under my neck to help with the excruciating amount of pain I am in — I thought I slept poorly last night due to high winds… but the noise was apparently David finding out his sleeping bag zipper had separated and Colo coming to the rescue. While David thawed out in the sun, I dozed off on hot water bottles.

I wake up to Christopher and Colo saying they are going to do the last small carry up to Camp Three — an assumed four-hour trip up. They loaded up and were back by the time my half-ass nap was over. Kudos to you boys for crushing it. But, resting bitch face to you Christopher for crawling into our tent while I was sleeping and cutting logs after your return.

I listened to Kevin Hart’s book a while, messaged my Momma, and really just people watched a while. What a bizarre thing — people from ALL over the world chasing this summit — all awkwardly clothed, peeing in front of each other, telling secrets to each other, and choosing to be miserable with one another. At least I am not the only crazy one.

Christopher and I talked about the plan several times. I knew what I wanted. I was confident in David. He is super strong and excels in altitude as long as he stays out of his head. Easy fix — no more quiet game for Ms. Talks-A-Lot. After consulting with David on his comfort level, we decided to move to Camp Three the next day, to not take a rest day, and start our summit day at 3 AM on February 1st, 2019.

YEW! Let’s go boys!

My excitement partly stems from me just being ready to move, and partly because I finally got my way on this trip.

Jan 31: Ring the Alarm
We’re late.

I weirdly opened my eyes at 7:30 AM to Christopher sitting awake. Since I couldn’t find my $9.88 Timex from Walmart, I asked him what time it was… he replied, “7:33, but you were out cold.” To which I replied, “That’s funny. Breakfast was at 7 AM.” We scramble out of the tent, and see the porter Fernando, and our guide Colo.

I have drunk Mate (a local tea-based beverage here in Argentina) many times. But this morning was different. Fernando, young guy who was actually on Denali with me last year with a different team, looked at me with a crooked smile and said, “What is your motivation number?” I replied, “9.” To which he said, “No, Colo is 9 he woke up at 5. You are up at 7:30.” I just rolled my eyes. I think we all needed a laugh to make ourselves move — being lethargic is easy when you’re at this altitude.

Fernando was brought on to help out as a porter at the higher altitudes. We packed up the gear and passed off the tents for Fernando to carry. After getting ourselves situated, it was time to move. Again, we were the first team leaving the camp. I didn’t make it thirty yards until a Polish climbing team stopped me and asked for a photo. We snapped the photo, hugged, and off we went. Everyone moved slowly and I instantly felt the need to be short roped on the very steep section right outside of camp. Watching me navigate the rocks is often like watching a choreographed dance; it’s all so methodical, hopping from one rock to the next.

Once out of the steep section, it was simply a long trek and mild traverse. David looked GOOD! He found that rhythm, his cadence was spot on, and he was in the zone. It was so awesome to watch. I was catching a little grief from the swelling and nerves in my leg, but really, we were in no rush. It would only take us 5 hours to get to camp, and from there we had nothing to do but eat, drink water, and eventually rest.

The sun kissed my skin, while the breeze washed over me. Again, we couldn’t have asked for a better day. Once up the final stretch of switchbacks, we came over the crest to Camp Three. Juan, a guide who had worked on the mountain for 25 years, and also the guide for our Canadian Sri Lankan friend Shiv, greeted us as he cried. They had just finished their carry to Camp Three. Honestly, the entire time on the mountain I thought Juan had it out for me. He was always stern and telling me to do this or do that, but never cracked a smile. He never once implied he was amused with me, let alone impressed.

Juan approached me and said over and over, “I am so proud of you.” After a warm embrace, he looked at me and asked for a picture with me so that he could show his two daughters. He gave me the ultimate compliment. Every time a parent lets me know that they are going to share my story with their kids — it solidifies what I am doing and gives me purpose. This isn’t about me any more. It’s for the younger generation who’s watching; it’s for any generation, for anyone who needs the reminder to keep fighting.

The Grajales camp was the furthest away — sucked in the moment, but at 3 AM (12 short hours away!) it would be nice to start higher; not to mention end higher. I barely stomach my Mountain House Mac n Cheese. I am not sure that I could have picked a worse last supper. I crawled into my tent, drank a Nalgene of water, and tried to calm my racing thoughts. It was go time.

“David,” I said, “will you make sure that I am awake by 3 AM?” … Since Christopher can’t be trusted with the alarm…

Feb 1: Moment of Truth

3 AM: “You up, sis?” David asks. ARE YOU KIDDING ME? Of course, I am awake. Actually, I doubt I ever slept. You can never predict what kind of dreams you will have at high altitude; they won’t make sense and they often times have people you haven’t seen in years in them. Between the dreams and my excitement, I had been up for quite some time. Now, that does NOT mean I was ready to get out of my sleeping bag. While it was freezing, the wind was strangely calm.

We piled into the kitchen dome to have some tea and put something light in our stomachs. I really just went in there hoping to find a little heat. Everyone looked like shit; puffy faces with bags under our eyes. “This is just so much fun…” I thought to myself. It still blows my mind that I actually choose to do this.

4:15 AM: Not quite the 4 AM step off we were looking for, but closer than we have been all trip. I am not sure if moving in the dark helps me or hurts me. It almost settles my mind not being able to see or get distracted by what’s going on around me. I just stare at my feet and let my head lamp light up the trail ahead of me. I must have bounced my head off of Colo’s pack at least fifteen times this morning.

7 AM: A mountaineer’s battle is often, summit or sunrise? Today I am shooting for both. The sun coming up was a relief because I knew the sun’s rays would give us all a bit of a break, but the fire that lights up the sky always fascinates me. The colors of the clouds mixing with the sky are now what distract me.

My nub is cold. Brutally fucking cold. I begin to stress and it’s obvious. I am not talking any more and my small chuckles were long gone. When my leg moves past extreme pain and in to numbness again, that means it’s now turning from purple to white inside of my socket. I am not afraid of dying on the mountain, but I am petrified of frost bite on my residual limb. I do not have much leg left to risk. I express my concerns and decide I am going to move as quickly as possible to the saddle of the mountain where the incline I was on meets the traverse so that I can get my leg off, my puffy down pants on, start boiling water, and get the sun on my body.

I rip off my socket and liner to put my hands on the end of my leg. I can’t even feel my warm hands. My stomach turns. We finally drop hot water bottles into the end of my pant leg to put heat on my nub — I could puke. It feels like being outside with no gloves on playing as a kid, then running inside to wash your hands for dinner, and the warm water just driving needles through your fingers.

As I lean against the rocks, I watch David move into the saddle and throw his poles down. He is not happy. I am sure he is in pain, and he probably isn’t excited that I mobbed it out of where we were. But health and safety take precedence over perspective — if we’re not healthy, we don’t summit.

After a break that felt like eternity, but was really only thirty minutes, we started to move again. It’s an interesting feeling to be mentally, emotionally, and physically sound — but your body not willing to move. I guess this is what altitude actually feels like. I have no headaches, no nausea, no pain… but my brain is fighting my body to move. I am moving at a snail’s pace. But I’m not special, so is everyone else.

~1 PM: So Close, We Can Taste It
I battled myself for hours through the long traverse, but I counted my blessings — there was no wind, which is unheard of. We finally make it to a rock overhang where Colo tells us we will take a longer break, then move; at this point we are roughly three hours from the summit. We all eat a bit, and I snooze. We ditch our packs and get ready to move.

Finally, some snow. I can comfortably go into cruise control for a little bit. I can vaguely hear voices behind me going back and forth. Colo and I turn around to see where David and Christopher are. David is hanging his head and Christopher is looking at us while turning his pointer finger in the air (implying that David wants to spin).

Staring at Christopher I shake my head from left to right. “Ain’t fucking happening,” I thought to myself. It’s like Christopher can read my mind sometimes. He tells David, “You are going to walk until 5:30 PM, then you can turn around.” They slog onward and I can feel the tension from 50 feet away. I am not sure what exactly the exchange was, but heard Christopher finally tell David, “Either way, you have to make it up to Kirstie so that we can swap gear if you are going to turn around.”

When they finally made it up to me, I could tell David was tired, but more so I could tell he was in his head. “What’s going on?” I asked. “I feel like I am just slowing you down,” he replied. I look him in the eyes and explain that’s not the case, it will never be the case. I move faster on snow and ice, and as soon as we are off of it, I am going to be the one struggling; that until we make it to the summit, David and I are going to play leap-frog, determined by the terrain. There is no way in Hell that I was going to let him be two hours from the top and turn around.

We stood up and shook it off.

~5 PM: Quitting Doesn’t Speed Things Up
It’s almost 5:30. The 5:30 threat that Christopher made was actually our turn around time. I could see the summit, but the rock scramble to get there was slowing me way down. I began to panic internally and shortly after started to mutter, “I work so fucking hard for this. So. Fucking. Hard.” I try to tell David to go around me so he can make the deadline, and he told me, “No.” David gets it now — he gets why we wouldn’t let him stop, and now he won’t entertain my request — we’re going to the top together. I wasn’t going to quit, but I was fighting an internal battle that was making the final push that much worse. On these mountains, you are your own worst enemy.

“Fuck it. Sorry, Christopher. I’m here now, it’s three minutes past 5:30. I’m not stopping. I’m summiting this mountain…”

Part Three… Coming Soon!

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