The Man-Eating Mountain: What 6,088 m (20,000 ft) of Mountain Has to Say About Life

My ankle ached in the large ice climbing boots. Each crampon-weighted step up the icy incline pressed on my bruised and swollen ankle. I ignored the pain and continued. This was just a short practice session to learn how to ice climb. I can handle that. 

My mountaineering expedition up Huayna Potosi was one of the hardest things I had ever done in my life. My struggle at altitude, tossed with inadequate fitness, and sprinkled with an injured ankle showed me what it was like to hit the limits of my abilities. However, while the challenge physically devastated me, it also gave me a new perspective on the challenges in life.

The first day, we practiced mountaineering techniques by base camp. It was necessary preparation for the big summit up Huayna Potosi, the “easiest” 6000+ m (19,685+ ft) summit in Bolivia. The next day would be the serious hike. The next day, we would hike up, and only up, to high camp. There, we would get a few hours’ rest before waking up at midnight to hike up to the snow-clad peak by sunrise.

After 2 hours of practice with crampons and ice picks, we marched back towards the snowy base camp at 4,700 m. My right leg limped along with each step. In the silence, I thought to myself, Maybe I shouldn’t go up tomorrow. I don’t want to have a permanent injury if this is actually sprained. But after we arrived in base camp and relaxed for a few hours, I reconsidered. I’ll just see how it feels tomorrow, I thought.

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The route by base camp. 

The next day greeted us with a leisurely morning followed by an early lunch. After lunch, I put on my regular hiking boots and walked around the nearby area, testing my injured foot. Surprisingly, it felt okay. In my regular hiking boots, I did not have the issue of heavy, hard plastic pressing on my bruised and swollen ankle with each step. Not wanting to miss out on my first 6,000+ meter mountain attempt, I decided to forge ahead. I was going to high camp that afternoon. 

Even disregarding the injured ankle, the hike was tough as hell. At 5000 meters, the air was thin. Oxygen was scarce and our bodies were not accustomed to it. They rebelled in the form of headaches, stomach aches, shortness of breath, and the feeling of the heart exploding out of the chest. I struggled up the ascent only trail, dragged down by a backpack filled with heavy gear for the technical climb. 

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Stopping to breathe and enjoy the view with a pack full of gear.

At the halfway point, I thought to myself, No turning back now. I would have to walk the same distance to go up or down. Propelled forward by thought of reaching high camp after almost foregoing the hike, I placed one foot in front of the other and snailed on. 

We reached high camp exhausted, but elated to experience sunset surrounded by  snow-capped mountains. After a quick dinner, we headed off to bed at 7 PM in preparation for our early wake up at midnight. 

The night flew by too quickly and my vibrating alarm jerked me out of sleep. My group dragged ourselves out of bed and geared up for the big day  with layers and layers of clothing, snow boots, crampons, helmet, and ice pick.  After eating a quick, small breakfast, we set off. 

The hike was so much worse than I had imagined. Starting at 5,200 m, the altitude was already beating us down. At -10° C (14° F), the cold nipped at us even through layers of clothing and the company-provided snow coats. On top of that, the climb was a relentless, steep ascent up to the summit for the following 5 hours. With nothing but our headlights to pierce the night, we were enveloped in a demotivating darkness.

I started withering. A blaring headache, stomach pains, an aching ankle, and the feeling of nausea hammered at me, but I forced myself to keep going. One foot in front of the other. Weight heavily placed on my ice pick. Sleepiness blanketing my every move.

Slowly, but surely, my strength and speed faded. Before long, the rope attaching me to my partner and the guide began tugging me forward. After a few more moments like this, I gasped out for a break. “Can we stop for a minute?” I managed. “Just a little more,” responded the guide in Spanish. “We’re stopping up ahead there,” he said, pointing vaguely at the homogenous slope. So I continued on, forcing my feet in front and up, focusing on singing the chorus of Despacito over and over again in my mind. 

At 5,600 m (18,370 ft), the rest stop finally arrived. I collapsed to the ground. I had spent the past however many minutes fighting nausea, on the verge of throwing up with every few steps. As I laid there in the relief of the soft, snow-covered ground, I knew I would not make it up. If I continued, I would barely manage a snail’s pace. And inevitably paint my vomit across the pure, untrodden snow. With great sadness, I told the guide that I wanted to turn around. He consented, unclipping my partner from our rope and tying him to the other team’s rope. As we left the group to return down to high camp, tears slowly escaped my eyes and soon ran rivers down my face. I felt like I had failed, even though I knew it was the right decision. 

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The group waddling back from the mountain in full gear.

I did not make it to the top that day, but I had no regrets. I pushed myself to the brink of my perceived limits and then some. That difficulty, that hard hike, set the foundation for all my future hikes and endeavors to come. The next hike I did, which ended at 5,200 m, was incredibly difficult, but felt easy by comparison. By then, I knew what it felt like to have your heart and lungs scream from effort. And until I reached that point, I knew I had more in me.

This applies not only to hiking goals, but to goals in general. From traveling the world to learning new skills to writing a book, I will work until I feel like I cannot go on any further. I plan on summiting, but even if I don’t, I would sure as hell be proud of reaching that 5,600 meters.

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How I Survived the High Mountains Despite Unfortunate Events and (Perhaps) Dumb Decisions

I was nervous about the trip even as I was planning it throughout the week. I’d experienced issues with altitude twice before and ascending to 9,000 ft after starting the day at 700 ft in Mendoza seemed like a recipe for disaster. But this was Aconcagua Provincial Park, home to tallest mountain in the Americas. I was already living in the sole city that dispensed permits for hiking and camping in the park. If I didn’t do it, I knew I would regret it. So despite the uneasiness and nervousness of me hiking and camping alone in the mountains a hemisphere away from friends and family, at high altitude after having experienced problems with altitude before, carrying more weight than I might have ever carried camping in a bag not meant for camping, I was resolved to forge ahead.

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Ready to camp with my not-made-for-camping backpack.

Five AM greeted me too soon, but luckily, a bus equipped with almost fully reclining armchairs meant a few more hours of sleep to add to my puny 4-5 hours. In the few moments I was awake, I looked out the windows and saw mountains surrounding us on all sides. I was pumped.

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A mountain-lined drive towards Aconcagua Provincial Park.

Upon arrival at Aconcagua Provincial Park, I quickly checked in at the visitor center and started off on a quick pace towards camp. Or so I thought. Before too long, all the other visitors had passed me on the path. Yes, I was carrying a ton of weight from my camping gear, 4.5 L of water and probably 4 days worth of food, but I’m in relatively good shape; I shouldn’t be lagging behind that much if at all. My second clue to my altitude impaired state came when I reached an area of continuous ascent. Every step felt laden with lead. I started using mantras to encourage each effort. I made myself take baby steps when I otherwise would have stopped. I told myself that I could only take a break once I reached the top of an ascent.

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Fully loaded and ready to take on Aconcagua Provincial Park.

It was while following that rule that it happened. Exhausted after climbing to the top of a hill, I dropped my backpacks on the ground. Unfortunately, my sleeping bag was attached by a carabiner to the hip belt of my larger pack, so when I unclipped the buckle and dropped my pack, the sleeping bag came loose. I watched, mesmerized, as the bag tumbled down the cliff side of the hill I had just climbed. Shocked, but hopeful that it caught on something on the way down, I quickly checked to make sure my two bags were secured enough before jumping into action down the hill. Perhaps too quickly. I immediately slipped on the steep downward slope and fell hard on my ass. Shaken, maybe even on the verge of tears, I picked myself off the ground and made my way down the untrodden slope more carefully.

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Where the sleeping bag went overboard.

By the point where I last saw the bag, I stopped to look around for it. Just my luck… The bag had fallen down the steep slope into the river, where the current was just beginning to pick it up. I didn’t think to stop my search; I just knew that I had to at least try to retrieve the bag. So I veered my trajectory more downstream and hurried down the hill, picking up scratches and scrapes along the way. By the time I reached the river, the sleeping bag was nowhere in sight. The current was stronger than it looked from the top and after walking along the river for a bit, I knew it was futile to continue my search. Disappointed, but not surprised, I forged my own path through the vegetation and made my way back to my bags, which, thankfully, were exactly where I had left them.

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The malicious river that swept away my sleeping bag. At least it’s a nice view.

At this point I had a choice to make. I am short a sleeping bag and the camp at 9000 ft often experiences subzero temperatures at night – do I continue? It was an easy choice. I was only 2 hours into a two-three day hike in the park home to Mount Aconcagua. I knew that if I stopped here, I would regret it. I was determined to make it to Confluencia camp and stay the night. With this newfound resolve, I took 500 mg Acetazolamide for my altitude sickness and I continued along the path. The next two hours were the hardest two hours of my hike in Aconcagua Provincial Park. The constant uphill, combined with the altitude, my two previous hours of exertion, and my inadequate backpack all hit me like a brick. Knowing from my research that I should take it slow when experiencing altitude sickness, I gave myself breaks when needed. The last mile, while technically less difficult than the legs before it, was excruciating. The camp felt like a mirage oasis in the desert that never got closer.

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The camp felt like a mirage oasis in the desert that never got any closer.

When I finally arrived at camp, I checked in with the park rangers and quickly set up my tent. Once finished, I crawled inside the tent, unrolled my sleeping pad, which, thankfully, the clerk at the store I rented my equipment from insisted I bring, and laid down on top of it. After a bit of rest, I went back out to explain my sleeping bag-less state to the park ranger and ask if he had extra blankets. After searching a cabin, the park ranger handed me the only thing he found – a dirty, moth-eaten blanket with patches of interesting colors here and there. “Better than nothing,” I said and took it. The ranger then told me he would prefer that I did not hike to Plaza Francia the next day if I still do not feel well. “It is a more difficult hike than from the entrance to here and we do not have medical staff here at this time in the season, so medical evacuations will not be available. On top of that, you will be the only one going up that route tomorrow” he explained to me in Spanish. “Okay,” I responded. “I’ll see how I feel in the morning and decide then.”

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My campsite, equipped with the raggedly blanket that was my sleeping bag for the night.

As I walked back to my tent, I ran over options for the next day in my head. The hike is traditionally a 3-day hike and I was ambitious to try to attempt it in 2 days. To finish the entire hike by the following day, I would spend 11-13 hours of hiking alone. And that’s assuming I followed a normal pace. I could spend an extra night at camp like everyone else does for this hike and return Monday afternoon, but that would mean staying another night without a sleeping bag. While I told myself that I’ll see I how I felt in the morning, I knew it was very unlikely that I would complete this next hike.

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At least I picked a gorgeous day to camp.

That night, despite having the blanket and all but one of my layers on, the last of which I used to cover part of my leg, I was still cold throughout the night. It was a long night of sleeplessness and experimentation (a cocoon method is the best way to keep warm, it turned out), but my occasional trips to the public latrine made it almost worth it. No, not the bathroom experience itself. The first time I looked up at the sky on my way back, I literally said, “wow” aloud; I saw more stars than I had ever seen in my life. Not only stars, I saw the Milky Way. It was a spectacular sight and I stood out in the cold, in the middle of the night, staring at the sky in awe.

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Isn’t the Milky Way gorgeous? What, you can’t see it?

The next morning, when my alarm went off at 6 AM, I thought to myself, There’s no fucking way I’m hiking in this cold, and huddled under the what I assumed to be a moldy blanket until 9 AM. By then, despite the still frigid temperatures, I started my hike toward Plaza Francia with all of my layers on. With only 2 liters of water and a few snacks, I felt much better than the day before. However, after much effort ascending, accompanied with the feeling that my heart was about to explode out of my chest, I knew it was the right decision to forgo the full hike.

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The altitude bloated my trail mix bag.

As I made my way back toward camp and then towards the entrance, I really took in the scenery, perhaps for the first time since I started. It was gorgeous. I was surrounded by mountains every step of the way with not a soul in sight. I took full advantage of the isolation and much more forgiving downhill hike to sing Disney (and other) songs at the top of my lungs. By the time I made it back to the entrance, I felt both elated that I had a chance to just enjoy the scenery at a lower intensity and ready for a warm night in my apartment in Mendoza. From the bus area (there was no sign, just a vague area where hikers waited), I stared back at the park and notice that dark clouds had started rolling in. Half an hour later on the bus, my suspicions were confirmed as rain beat against the windows. More than ever, I was grateful for my decision to leave when I did to avoid a snowy night in camp.

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My departure was met with ominous clouds blown in by fierce winds.