Posts Tagged ‘mountaineering’

Climb every mountain…

Tuesday, February 23rd, 2016

Every now and then I take a little wander down memory lane, and it’s quite possible I may do it more than once this year, looking at what I managed to pack into 1996. As Technical Editor of Country Walking and Trail magazines, I could have had my hands full just writing about outdoors equipment, but after several years of ad hoc contributions to the Daily Telegraph, they gave me my own column “Talking Walking” in the Telegraph Weekend section. And then I was producing a monthly syndicated radio travel programme, which nicely synced with my many trips abroad doing travel features for national newspapers.

This month 20 years ago saw me doing one of my more strenuous trips – guest leading a Trail magazine reader offer holiday to climb Mount Aconcagua in Argentina. At just under 7,000 metres, it’s the highest mountain in the world outside the Himalaya, and while the “tourist” route to the top is a long non-technical slog, the effects of altitude are exacerbated by the latitude. Air pressure at the summit is just 40% of that at sea level, and people die as a result. Most worryingly, while at base camp at 4,370 metres, my group heard of someone who had previously climbed Everest dying of a pulmonary oedema at Confluencia, a camp site below us on the trek in at 3,380 metres. Then there was the guy who was blown off the mountain not far from the summit. I saw his body being recovered by a National Park ranger a couple of days later, the victim’s arms frozen outstretched, making for a somewhat ungainly package strapped to the side of a mule.

But for all that, our trek organisers were good. Everybody reacted to the altitude in varying degrees. Two of our group didn’t even manage to acclimatise to base camp, and were sent back down to enjoy an unscheduled week across the border in nearby Santiago in Chile. For the rest of us, it was ferrying stores up to a couple of camps, then coming down again before starting the climb in earnest. We’d been sleeping two to a reasonably spacious dome tent on the trek in and at base camp, but to save weight, we switched to three to a tent on the climb. This proved to be my undoing. I found myself sleeping in the middle of an established pair, getting elbows and knees in me from both sides.

By the time we got to the mid-camp at Nido de Cóndores, at 5,570 metres, the altitude was getting to me. You never sleep well anyway, and with cramped and restless sleeping conditions I ended up with two nights of zero sleep. I was getting splitting headaches, and I got out of breath just lacing up my boots. There is a plus side to all these hardships, of course, and that is seeing the incredible beauty of the mountains, even if it does come with a price tag. Climbing groups normally spend just one night at Nido before going up to the last camp at Berlin Huts at 5,940 metres, but bad weather had kept us an extra night. It was really windy, and incredibly cold. I remember standing outside with a mug of tea in my hand, and without my hand moving an inch, a gust of wind emptied the mug. It was as though the tea simply vapourised!

Even at this altitude, your body starts to deteriorate, and our guide had to make a decision the next morning – we had to either go up or down. Staying put another night wasn’t an option. The weather had improved, so he chose to push on, but I was so exhausted I decided to bail out at this point, thinking I would just make myself a problem for others if I struggled on.

My solo descent turned into an epic in its own right. I managed to lose the path, and ended up descending a very steep and icy gully strewn with gravelly stones which added a ball-bearing effect to what was already dangerous enough. I nearly managed to wipe myself out in full view of base camp, but somehow managed to get down with just a few rips in my trousers! Back at base camp, they had some hot soup waiting for me, along with the depressing news that the IRA had set off a truck bomb in London’s docklands.

The next day, some of our group made it to the summit, and I was able to speak to them on the radio while they were there. They sounded exhilarated – when they returned two days later, they looked as though they’d aged 10 years! Before we headed home, we had a day or so in Buenos Aires, where I managed to spend a couple of hours celebrating my birthday at a milonga in a genuine tango hall. Here I managed to prove I had two left feet, but at least I wasn’t wearing crampons at the time!