Another Mountain to Climb (Part 1)
In late November 2021, I had a tough decision to make: Was I ready to hike Mt. Aconcagua, the tallest mountain in the Americas? I wanted to do this climb for many years, but it was now or never. At 65 years old, the window for an endurance adventure like this was closing. Back and forth came the questions, as they do before signing up for a big adventure — the main concern being will my father in assisted living need me while I’m away? And the other big unknown: It has been six years since I hiked above 11,000 feet.
The Aconcagua attempt would be my greatest challenge to date. All the training and learning accumulated over the past 16 years. This included approximately 60 Mt. Washington trips, four Mt. Katahdin winter climbs, hiking many of New Hampshire’s 4,000 mountains, running Cape Cod dune stairs with a weighted pack, miles of bicycling, hours in the gym, countless laps in the pool, and many hot yoga classes.
When I was a kid, I preferred to be outdoors exploring rather than doing homework. The best part of summer camp were the hiking and camping trips. My love of hiking grew as a teenager when my father and I hiked all over new England together. Back at home, when I was outside too long, my mother would ring a loud bell on our property signaling it was time to come home. I learned to climb with ropes in the mid-70s while working for my fathers’ landscaping company. In those days, you pruned trees tethered by ropes and a harness.
I discovered my passion for big mountains when I hiked up Mt. Kilimanjaro in 1975. I was 16 years old. The experience solidified my love to get above the tree line and breathe in the views of vast beautiful landscapes. The story of this trip is packed away in a diary somewhere revealing a lot about my parents and their decision to send me away with a group of older strangers to climb the tallest mountain in Africa, which I am ultimately grateful for.
In my late teens, I was focused on building boats and sailing. I spent many years learning the skills, which, over time, would become my career. When adventures came along for a hike or climb, I seized the opportunity if time away from family and work allowed for it. It was not until I was in my late 40s that I focused on the big peaks. I figured it was better to start now if I was going to get back to the heights of mountains like Kilimanjaro. So, I started with Mt. Rainier. When my wife Robin had to travel for work, I would tag along and find a mountain. Peaks like the walls in the Dolomites, Ecuador, Mexico, Cascades, Colorado, Hawaii. These adventures were where I often had to push myself physically to the edge. These experiences are what fed my passion to try something like Aconcagua, a climb that required two or three camps before the summit — a climb similar to Kilimanjaro.
On the morning of November 10th, 2021, 17 days to my 64th birthday, my head was about to explode with the decision of whether to go to Argentina or not. I asked my daughter, Brooke, and my nephew, Julian, for their input. They both said to go for it and gave sound reasons. I went to my office and contemplated sending the completed forms and deposit to a guide service in Mendoza, Argentina. All I had to do was press send. I held my breath, exhaled, and then walked away from my desk, still conflicted. This was a big decision. Contemplating 23,000 feet is serious, in addition to the time away from my wife, Robin, my family and my dog, Bleize.
When I am stressed and need to relax, I often take some deep breaths and turn to my bow and arrow. I decided before I pressed send, I would shoot some arrows. If I could manage one bull’s-eye within five arrows, I would go. For context, I am not a marksman with a bow and arrow by any stretch. I have a handmade Ash bow and some cheap arrows. The target is about 40 feet away, and it’s not often I hit the mark. My very first arrow was as close to a dead-on bull’s eye as you can get. I headed back into my office and pressed send.
The decision was made. Now it was the hard part. Finding the time to get in peak physical shape is difficult when working full time. I had a good base to work from, but I had 2.5 months to push harder. Also travel logistics, which Brooke was a big help with, were made especially difficult due to strict COVID-19 protocols for getting in and out of Argentina.
My workout regimen included a minimum of an hour a day of cardio. On average, I managed to get in about 30 miles of fast walking during the week. On Sundays, I would block out four hours of biking, swimming, and hiking. Most hikes were with a weighted pack, finding as many hills and beach dunes as possible on flat Cape Cod. It was also important to use this time to break in a new pair of Sportiva G5 Evo alpine hiking boots; my go-to Lowas were 20 years old, heavy to today’s standards, and worn down, which could lead to frostbite on the mountain. I also included a daily yoga practice and dose of resistance training.
During the two months leading up to the January 28th departure, I was able to fit in three trips to Mt. Washington in New Hampshire. The first midweek trip, I was able to summit Mt. Washington in ideal conditions, snow packed and mild. My next two trips included a cold overnight with friends, setting tents and going through the routine I would expect to have on Aconcagua. The last trip, the weather was not inviting for a summit, so I hiked up and down the Tuckerman Ravine with a 30-pound pack until my watch showed I had achieved 4,000-feet in uphill climbing.
Between work and workouts, the gear list was the third priority in my preparation. This was a fun project and made it real when I had to organize so much stuff. I brought everything I needed other than a -25-degree sleeping bag, which I rented from the guide service. As the gear was coming together, my departure date loomed.
When I could find time, I studied the routes to the top of Aconcagua and watched videos. I learned it was not going to be a technical climb, it was going to be a tough hike. The biggest obstacles were going to be altitude and temperatures — potentially, very, very cold. So, the challenges I faced, based on my experience, was acclimating to the altitude, and being prepared if it were to get really cold and windy.
When I pressed send, I signed up for a 12-day guided trip, which does not allow a lot of time to acclimate, especially coming from sea level. It would be better to have more time to hike surrounding peaks near base camp, which is offered on the 15-day guided trip. But I was short on time and money, so I decided to rent a Hypoxic oxygen machine in preparation. I set it up in our home 30 days before heading out. I averaged about eight to six hours a night sleeping at 14,000’. I later learned during the trip that, despite the instructions saying six to 12 hours per night would provide the benefits, a minimum of 12 hours would be needed.
Departure day arrived and Brooke drove me to Logan Airport on a beautiful winter day. Unfortunately, the rest of the East Coast was not experiencing the same great weather. A major winter storm was working its way up. As recommended, I sent my expedition duffle bag, with all my gear, straight through to Mendoza. I boarded my Delta flight and enjoyed a very smooth first leg to Atlanta, then navigated my way through the massive airport to my next assigned gate, where I would wait to board my red-eye flight to Santiago, Chile, on Delta Airlines. I was feeling great and super excited.
While waiting at the gate to board the overnight flight, I looked forward to a meal, a night’s sleep on the flight, a quick connection to Mendoza in the morning and then a full day of rest. As I was finishing those thoughts, the Delta app pinged on my phone. I looked at the notice, and at that moment, I knew the expedition had officially begun. The alert told me the flight had been delayed 5 hours. Which meant we would be leaving around midnight. This still left time for me to catch my connection from Santiago to Mendoza, but my head was now moving into plan B mode, and I was no longer relaxed. While I waited for the midnight flight, a couple of hours passed and then another notice pinged that the midnight Delta flight had been cancelled and we were told to come back the next day for an 8am flight. These delays were caused by the winter storm that was now smothering the coast. A Delta employee gave all the passengers vouchers for an airport hotel and off I went to find the shuttle to try to get some sleep.
It was a mob scene outside; we were not the only flight that had been canceled. People everywhere, waiting in the cold, looking for their bus, snow flurries in the dark Atlanta night. I was navigating a sea of very desperate travelers, who were underdressed having planned to already be in warmer climates. As each hotel shuttle drove through and loaded, I waited patiently.
Approximately forty minutes went by and eventually an empty bus arrived, I waited until everyone who needed the warmth were aboard. Another guy and I were the last two to get on the standing-room-only bus, some people wearing masks, some not. During the drive, the man I was jammed against had a boat jacket that read a familiar boat name, we started to talk, he had come from the Hinkley Boatyard in Rhode Island. He was headed to a racing yacht in Italy, I think his first name was Bob?
We arrived at the hotel well after midnight and the reception area was buzzing. Bob and I were both at the counter working on our room assignment. I handed over my voucher and in return, I was handed a key (no paperwork, no issues). Bob, on the other hand, had made a reservation a day or two earlier, but because of the storm, the hotel gave his room to pilots and crew, and he was told he was out of luck. I had an extra bed in my room, so I suggested he take the extra bed. Which, smartly, he agreed. As we went to the elevator, I noticed that he was not wearing a mask. Per due diligence and wanting to assure I could hike with my guided team, I asked whether he was vaccinated — I did not hear his response over the elevator doorbell ringing and doors opening. However, I did some quick figuring and Bob had to have been tested within the last 72 hours since he was traveling to Italy and would be under the same strict protocols I was. By the time we had settled, it was about 1:30 a.m., I wore my mask to bed, set my alarm for 5 a.m., and fell asleep while listening to Bob tell yacht racing stories.
I was up before my alarm and out of the room in minutes. The shuttle drove me and others to the Delta terminal. I was glad to be out of the room, but I could have slept longer if I had looked at the Delta notices. The flight was now delayed until 10 a.m. Now, the trip was really getting tough. I was going to miss my connection in Chile, as well as lose my day off to prep and rest. Another concern, would I even make it in time for the guides van to the trailhead? The Delta help desk informed me all connections to Mendoza on Delta were booked and I would have to wait another day, which meant missing the van. I figured the guide service had some experience with such delays and might have a backup plan. Then, I remembered the park was closing for the season the day we went in. So, would they not let me in if I missed the group vans? Calculating all this, I decided to try another airline. I bought another ticket with a completely different airline out of Santiago, called Sky Air, they had a seat available. I felt confident that I would likely get refunded for my cancelled flight. This new flight would get me to Mendoza in time to get some sleep before loading the team and gear into the vans for an early morning departure. It also meant I would have to sleep in Santiago.
I texted the guide service my issue, they insisted I do not clear customs to find a hotel in Santiago — the COVID rules would make it unlikely I would get back into the airport, since my PSA test would be expired. So, this meant I was looking forward to a night sleeping on a bench in the airport.
After the days-long flight to Santiago, I found my bench/bunk and settled in for the night. It was around midnight when I fell asleep, my eye mask helped drown out the light and my headphones tuned to classical music helped drown out the noise.
I am not sure if I ever really slept, but daylight arrived, people were bustling all over as I cleaned up and went to my gate. I had a long wait, it was 7 a.m. and my flight was not until 3 p.m. I found some coffee, a muffin, but that was it. The food that was offered at the airport was not for me. I could not risk stomach issues, so I did not eat anything all day or the previous evening.
Before boarding, I wanted to confirm with the attendant at the gate that my bag would be on board this new flight. I explained the luggage ticket had a different bar code from a different airline. She said it would be on my new flight with Sky Airlines, I was not convinced, I pushed hard for a confirmation, but never received one.
The plane boarded on time, it was an easy one-hour flight over the mountains and landed smoothly in Mendoza. I had no issues going through customs, they did not ask for any proof of a COVID test; it was a breeze. After so much work getting all the COVID tests and paperwork in order, all they wanted to see was my passport and immigration papers. They could not have been nicer. I got a boost of energy and was ready to get rolling. It was now around 5:30 p.m. I had the evening to relax and prepare for an early start to the mountain. A taxi was waiting at the airport for me and three Chilean climbers from my group to take us all to the downtown hotel.
I headed to baggage and waited and waited, then came the thought of no bag, no gear, no trip. I started to fight off the bad karma that was entering my mind. The trip started smoothly from home to Logan Airport, the planning went well, training went well. What was the message here?
I fought off the negative thoughts and focused on the goal to get my bag. I was beginning to lose my excitement and hunger. Exhaustion from the past 52 hours was setting in. The taxi left for the hotel without me, and I worked with the airline’s baggage representatives. They were as helpful as they could be. I left them tips and my contact info, I stayed until the last flight from Santiago arrived, no bag, the Airport was closing soon. I took a taxi to the hotel, with the plan being they would get my bag to me on the first flight from Santiago in the morning. I arrived at the hotel and was met by Heather, who worked for the guide company. She would help with my bag. She said it happens and they have done this drill before. So, a new plan was set in motion, I would head out in the morning for the climb with rental gear, which I would pick up early in the morning and be loaded up for an 8 a.m. departure. I met the lead guides that evening around 11 p.m. at the bar restaurant where I was devouring a huge meal and water, lots of water. In their best English, the guides assured me it would all work out. They spoke English well, but despite their positive energy, I was not feeling great; I was wishing I had learned to speak Spanish in school. A dark cloud was forming in my mind. By midnight, I was sound asleep in a very nice room with a very comfortable bed. Once my eyes closed, in an instant, the alarm went off and it was 6 a.m.
Day 1: I slept so soundly; I had no idea where I was when I awoke, it took a minute to get my bearings. I grabbed my Osprey 35-day backpack and headed with Michael, our head guide, to the rental store that opened at 6 a.m. for us; fortunately, it was within walking distance of the hotel. We packed a rented duffle bag with everything needed, Michael was great, super helpful, lots of Spanish back and forth, although it was all rushed and hasty, we did not have a lot of time. In my mind, I was thinking there is no way this is going to work; Michael had a lot more important things on his mind. Proper gear for fit and warmth are so important at 23,000’ — I couldn’t shake the feeling of how this used gear was going to keep me warm and safe. .. awkward boots that could blister my feet, an expedition backpack that is not fitted, jackets and fleece that were too big. Fortunately, I did have my day pack in my carry on, so I did have a pack for the hike to base camp, the mules would carry my duffle bag.
We returned to the hotel by 8 a.m. I tossed my stuff into the van, and it was then that I met the team of nine others for the first time. We were loading in two vans; everyone already knew each other from the previous day trips and evening dinner that I missed. I set myself up in the back of the van where I could stretch out, drink water and maybe sleep for the three-hour bumpy ride to the trail head. Everyone began to learn of my travel story, and I probably unfairly sensed what they were all thinking … that guy has no chance at the summit. With no sleep, no fit gear, a ton of stress, he will have a tough time. In my experiences with group climbs, clients instinctively size each other up to get a sense of how strong the team is. I am sure it was my mind playing games with me but why wouldn’t a teammate think these thoughts? It is ego and human nature to assess everyone’s skill level when a team of strangers assembles for an endurance event. It happens in climbing, nothing is said, it is only in the climbers’ minds as they predict who might make it and who might not. I am sure I was at the bottom of the list of who might make it. Especially when they asked if I had done any acclimating, which had been the Hypoxic tent. Everyone on the team had done some form of acclimating. The Chileans, Eduardo, Martin and Nikki had each hiked and camped at 20,000’ on a mountain in Chile the week before. Another couple had recently been training at high altitudes in Colorado. Others used the Hypoxic tent properly or been to altitude recently. The team included five Americans, three Chilean’s, one Canadian, and one German. So, as I bounced around on the rough road in the back of the van, I was not feeling confident about anything. I was doubting my decision to do this, I was concerned I would never catch up on sleep. Everyone in the van was speaking Spanish, so as I was dozing off, in and out of sleep, I was not learning anything about what was happening because everything was in Spanish. I was not connecting with anyone. I was feeling very much alone.
This was not my first trip with obstacles right from the get-go. On my first Rainier trip in 2006, a tooth became impacted; this was my very first big climb over 10,000’ since Kilimanjaro in 1974, and just as I was getting off the plane and renting a car to head to meet the team, my tooth started to ache. By the time I got to Paradise, Washington, I had a fully impacted tooth. I detoured and went to a dentist about 40 minutes away, just hours before heading to the trailhead. The dentist was very kind to take me in with no appointment and found an infected tooth that needed to come out. There was no time for that, so they prescribed me pain medication. I summited Rainier a day later on painkillers. The higher I climbed, the less pressure on my tooth. It all worked out. Mt. Blanc in 2010, terrorist times, I summited on no sleep. I had two sleepless nights prior to the alpine ascent at 3 a.m.
The night before the climb, I was running late and driving too fast in a rented car from Florence to a climber’s inn in Chamonix, France. I was stopped and arrested at a roadblock on the French side of the Mont Blanc tunnel for speeding, guns drawn. I had no cash (only traveler’s checks) to pay the fine. The cash I needed for the tunnel toll was given to me out of sympathy by the toll taker on the Italian side (I did pay her back when I left). After pleading with the officers in charge at the Chamonix police station, they did (finally, after a lot of background checking), let me go but kept my passport. It was after midnight when I arrived at the hiker’s lodge. The lodge had told me by email my room key would be on the counter with my name on it. It was not — someone had taken my room key. So, I tried to sleep on the bench in the lobby under a light that I could not figure out how to turn off, so no sleep was had. At 5:30 a.m., hikers were up and about for breakfast. The front desk opened and saw my bunk setup. They felt terrible and promised me a room at no charge when I returned from the climb. My Italian guide, Walter, met me for breakfast and we were off. There was weather coming, so we had to move fast to get a chance at the summit. We hiked all day, had dinner and a four-hour sleep at the mountain lodge, Refuse De Tete Rousse, set in a stunning location at 3,165m (or 10,383ft).
We set off for the summit at 3:30 a.m. and, remarkably, we were the first climbers to summit Mt Blanc at sunrise, just ahead of a French team. Walter later admitted while we were having a celebratory beer back at the hiker’s lodge that he had his doubts we would summit after hearing my arrival story at breakfast the day before.
Stay tuned for part 2, coming soon.