I know this post is written about a month later than intended, but sometimes it's difficult to be able to reflect well on experiences after they've just happened. Some time, distance, and space allow us to understand and more importantly justify our decisions. As I'm sure you've guessed, we did not summit Aconcagua or else I probably would have posted (bragged) about it sooner. But does a summit mean success?
That question epitomizes the feelings I've felt since our return to the US on Christmas day. Here are some thoughts I reported to the folks at Asolo after just getting back...
"We ended up not even getting above base camp unfortunately. One of my friends had never been mountaineering at altitude before (he had been mountaineering, and at altitude, but not together) and he was doing fine until our acclimatization hike up to Plaza Franzia. He's super strong/fit and just wasn't able to go slow enough and wasn't breathing often enough. Anyways, he started to get a headache which was fine. I assumed that overnight he would drink more water and continue to breathe so that it would go away. However, he also was having a hard time getting his O2 sat to where it needed to be. The medica that signed our permits at Confluencia was kinda iffy with his number (84-88) for being so low down.
The next day - our move to base camp should have only taken 6-8 hours, but his headache hadn't gone away and hiking uphill certainly wasn't helping. The rest of us ended up splitting up the belongings in his back pack and letting him carry practically nothing at all. As it was nearing dark, the 2 other group members went ahead to set up camp and I stayed back with him. Finally, 11.5 hours later we got to Plaza de Mulas (base camp). Luckily the next day was our rest day and we hoped that he would start to feel some what better.
The following afternoon we had another doctor's appointment and his O2 was in the low 70s compared to our low 90s reading so he wasn't allowed to carry to Camp Canada the next day like we had planned. I decided that another rest day wouldn't be the worst thing for us so we could spend some more time scouting the route and trying to get as acclimatized to 14.5k as possible. However, Jordan wasn't getting any better. In fact he started to feel nauseous and was unable to get up without a throbbing head even after taking ibuprofen. Another concerning problem was that he was starting to develop some fluid in his lungs on the lower right side. The whole next day the doctors kept monitoring him, but his breathing at night was terrible - rasping shallow breaths with intermittent rales.
Since he had a history of asthma, they tried to give him lots of albuterol with his inhaler at 15 min intervals for several hours but it unfortunately had no effect.The doctors kept saying that we could probably keep waiting to see if he would get any better, but I felt it seemed unlikely and really his best option was to head down and this is where we hit a dilemma. The rest of us were doing very well and were eager to keep going, but I wasn't ok with letting him go down on his own especially in a country where he didn't speak any spanish, he didn't have a phone, and had limited funds. Now in the WFR handbook it explicitly says that someone with AMS should NOT go down alone, and I definitely agreed. Although he wasn't doing terribly, it still was a 20 mile walk in the hot sun and at significant altitude to go down.
After a lot of discussion I decided to turn us around. I know that lots of people climb Aconcagua solo all the time, and if one person went home with Jordan two could keep going, when I planned this trip I wanted 4 people as the bare minimum number. That way if anything went wrong we could still keep the buddy system. Since we were only at base camp and hadn't started any of the harder stuff I didn't want to have such a small group. We could have waited longer, but poor Jordan was miserable - having a headache for 5 days would not be fun, not to mention he had to sleep at a 45 degree angle so that his rales didn't get any worse. And if we had waited one more day at base camp then there was supposed to be three days of bad weather with el viente blanco with significantly colder temps higher on the mountain which could limit our movements or even keep us at base camp. Then we would have only had 1 day to summit assuming that we could descend from high camp all the way to the park entrance.
I think my trying to justify it. To reassure myself that I made the right decision. I know the mountain will always be there and I'll probably have another chance to go down there but I was the one who made the call to go down. I'd been working on saving up for this trip for 14 months and it's crazy that it ended so abruptly and not at all in the way I anticipated. It was especially difficult because I could see the summit, the trail up to camp 2, and the Canaleta from my tent at base camp. It was so close and so feasible but I keep replaying the situation over and over and I know I'd made the same decision again without hesitation."
The more I look back on that experience the more I realize how I absolutely made the right decision to turn us around. There is no sense in trying to push any higher when the safety of the team could be compromised. It's just not worth it. I also realized that part of why this is so difficult for me is that there is no one I can "blame" for this. As the leader of this expedition and the one who decided to turn us around I can't put this on anyone else. When I've done other mountains that were guided and we didn't reach the summit, even though I knew it was weather, I also put the responsibility of the turn around on the guides. But this trip was different. This one is on me.
So the question still remains, how was I successful? Well, everyone returned home in one piece, which is the most important thing so that was a success. But looking back on WHY I decided to attempt Aconcagua in the first place helped me really solidify my success. In an email I sent to a friend about my decision to head south and tackle this mountain was for the following reasons:
1. organize and do all the logistics of a complicated and lengthy expedition
2. plan a route and research the best way to attempt a mountain
3. push my comfort limits to try a mountain that is on the cusp of what I'm comfortable with
4. experience another culture and see another part of the world that I'd never even considered before
Reaching the summit was never my first priority. Sure it would have been awesome, and my school would probably have loved the publicity, AND I would have had a sweet profile picture on Facebook, but I accomplished all of the goals that I set for myself. Therefore I was successful.
This was an interesting learning opportunity for me to really think about how I define success and how the traditional definition of success is not something that I should compare myself to. I am capable of creating my own idea of what it is and then acting upon it accordingly. I don't need anyone else to tell me what success is and that is probably the most important thing I've taken away from this experience, and for that I'm grateful.
So thank you to my family, friends, Asolo, and Patagonia for not only supporting me with the trip preparations but for providing me with this wisdom and insight that will help me to be a more independent and self-defining individual.