Spending a night at 6,000m is an opposite of being in a spa floatation tank. One feels undermined by gravity, thin air and gravity of thoughts. Any rapid movement sends one’s heart racing. Appetite goes. Mouth is constantly dry. And sleep apnea punctuates the night with regular rapid gasping air attacks.
It’s 7pm on January 30th. Ossy and I sit in a tent protected from wind and cold, melting snow to make some ramen noodles. That’s about all you can contemplate putting in your mouth the night before the summit bid. The radio cracks and transmits weather news – it will be a dry, cold and windless day. I set an alarm on the SUUNTO watch for 4am. We drift to sleep only to be awakened a few hours later by the Mountain Trip group that finally makes it back from the summit. It must have been a 16 hour day for them.
I count sheep and try to sleep only to be awaken by apnea. Experience allays my anxiety – I know this is normal and the best remedy is to stuff another puffy under one’s head to keep it elevated. I take a look at my watch that now says ‘battery needs replacement’ – I think to myself ‘great timing’. 6,000m many times over in the past 12 months may have exhausted my trusty SUUNTO.
We hear noises with multiple groups passing by our tent. It’s time to wake up. I slowly peel myself out of the -40 degrees Inferno cocoon to start melting snow for a quick tea with dry cereal. We leave the high camp at 5:30am. The first few steps at this altitude are always hard – one rapid movement and you find your heart sink to your stomach. You need to find a pace that allows you to forget the fact you are actually walking.
I find my rhythm and soon enough with our steady pace we start taking over a group after group after group. Mentally, it helps to know the landmarks of the landscape. We pass by the White Rocks, the Independencia camp and two hours in we find ourselves on the famous windy Traverse. I remember the tough time I had a year ago when for every step I had to exhale twice to keep moving. Today I move confidently and we make steady progress getting ahead of all the climbers. We take a brief rest at the Canaletto cave, an hour away from the summit. My friend and Everest climbing partner Colin O’Brady who is climbing this peak solo with a summit bid from lower altitude catches up with us and goes on for the final summit push. We follow shortly. The last 100 meters hurt like hell as the thin air finally takes toll on my windpipes. I see Colin disappear on the summit ridge. Another 20 minutes on and Ossy and I emerge on the summit of the highest mountain of South America… I am overcome with feelings. Seeing the cross second time in one year does not take away from the emotional high of the moment. The views are as ever breath-taking and the three of us sit on stone ledge silently taking in the moment. We feel a bit smug being the first to summit and having this amazing balcony in thin air to ourselves. I am too cold to speak or to take much interest in documenting the summit attempt. I stare at the menacingly steep South Face and think of the Everest expedition, now just 3 months away.
Half an hour on, we start our descent back to the Base Camp. A year ago the summit day took me some 12 hours and came on the 13th day of the expedition.. Today, the same round trip back to the high camp takes 6 and comes 5 days after the park entry. The marker irrelevant for others, yet very meaningful for me… We pack our camp at Cholera and head down to Mulas. It’s another 3 hour journey. My windpipes get shuttered by the Khumbu cough – too much breathing of the cold high altitude cold air. With the sight of the base camp, I start feeling numb, hobbling from tiredness and emerging blisters yet overcome with the sense of accomplishment.
Next morning we hike 30km down the Horcones valley on a beautiful day. Blisters and tired limbs remind me of the summit day effort but I enjoy moving fast in this landscape.
Landslides and washed away bridge sabotage our quick return back to Mendoza. We spent night in Uspallata that has feel of the Last Day on Earth. Next day we get on a bus for a 10 hour detour. Lost phone means no distraction from the ‘real’ world. I go through loops of music and watch in silence the Wild West scenery of the San Juan province. Time becomes elastic, hours go by with no anxiety of having to be somewhere. Another expedition is over, a short and kind one on my body with just 2 nights in a tent. I am looking forward to the reentry into the world but for now I am grateful for the rest on this stupefyingly long bus journey that should have taken an hour and is taking 10, a a metaphor on how many degrees of separation lie between this wonder world of high altitude climbing and our lives…