Saturday, November 22, 2008

Before the Climb

As many of you know, I'm about to depart (this Friday!) to attempt Aconcagua, the highest peak outside of Asia at 6960meters/22,840feet. We'll see how I feel afterwards, but right now, I'm thinking that some of the hardest part of the climb has been done/is being done, now, before the climb even begins. Or, I suppose, the other way of looking at it is that the climb has already begun, and started way back in May.

For me, the first time I ever heard of Aconcagua was in 2000, when one of my running buddies, Monty, headed out to climb it. He'd climbed all over the Northwest, but was about to do this big mountain. I went to his slideshow about it when he returned, and the climb, itself, gave plenty of stories for many runs to come. At the time, I liked the idea of it, because it was a mountain, but it didn't look particularly pretty to me, and, well, I just wasn't ready for doing such a climb. By then, I'd climbed Mt. Hood, once. I knew that I enjoyed climbing, and I remembering feeling jealous that someone was about to do this sort of climb, but other than that, there were no thoughts in my mind of doing the climb, myself.

Now, with probably over 70 attempts and 52 successful climbs of Cascade peaks, I have a different viewpoint. And now that I've actually been to Mendoza, and hiked in the hills very near where we'll be, I see that there is beauty there, in the many colors of the mountains, if not in the snow covered peaks that are part of the Andes. I *am* interested and ready, psychologically, to do the climb. We'll see if I'm ready, in other ways, if I successfully summit and return, safely!

So, back in May, a couple of guys asked me if I were interested in joining them on Aconcagua. As I prepare to go next Friday, those 2 guys are NOT going this year, so I'll be going with 2 other guys, Wim and Aaron. Just agreeing on WHEN to climb turned out to be a multi-month discussion, honed when Wim joined the team and was limited in timeframe by his work, and finalized only when Aaron joined the team, and was limited by when he could get flights using his frequent flier miles. If he couldn't change his itinerary from his previously planned Vietnam trip using frequent flier miles to this itinerary, he wouldn't be able to go. So Wim and I waited for him to get his flights, and then we got our flights to match, fortunately, also using frequent flier miles, saving somewhere between $1200 and $2000 dollars, each, in airfare (airfare was soaring due to the soaring price of fuel at the time). Our flights were booked by mid-August.

With tickets to get to South America bought, the climb started to become a reality. We spent some time trying to decide what route we should do, since route would change logistics, and potentially the equipment list. Neither Aaron nor I have climbed higher than 14,400 ft (~4400meters), before (the height of Mt. Rainier in Washington state), so for us, going to 22,840ft should be a challenge in and of itself. Base camp for Aconcagua is similar to being on top of Mt. Rainier. Cold and wind are expected to be our other major challenges. I've never done an expedition, before. Doing one of the "walk up" routes definitely sounded like a good plan, as it would reduce the weight we needed to get up and down the mountain, enormously, if we didn't have to worry about ropes, harnesses, and all of the other gear associated with doing a technical climb. Having decided on a walkup route, we then had to decide WHICH of the walk-up routes we'd do. One is longer and less traveled, which was immediately appealing to us, but that also meant that we had to plan more time to get up the mountain, and, since we are going early on in the season, might mean that river-crossings would be challenging due to snow-melt. We finally elected to do it the absolutely easiest way, by taking the Normal Route, and stick to merely the cold, wind, and altitude challenges.

Having chosen the route, we moved on to the other planning. We talked to a whole bunch of people who have done the climb, before - in-depth discussions about logistics, experiences, trials, pitfalls, and highlights. We created a "to do" list, as well as equipment, food, schedule, and "conditioning" lists. We talked to more people. We obtained other people's lists. Wim and I attended Monty's latest slideshow on his Everest attempt. We went out and bought the same gloves that Monty used. We bought new boots - everything that I was reading was saying that I should be using plastic boots, but my new last-boots-I-will-ever-have-to-buy mountaineering boots that I bought earlier this year, were not plastic. Wim bought a new backpack. We lucked into a huge discount on a specific brand of gear, so I bought my second expedition tent, this one for 3 people (my other expedition tent is a 2 person tent), and a 40 degree below sleeping bag (-40 is the same in both Celsius and Fahrenheit temperature systems!) that actually fits into my backpack! We went on conditioning hikes to test out our new backpacks and boots, and to get our backs used to carrying large loads (although each hike, we've successively *reduced* our loads - not the normal training), as well as for trying out various snack foods. Since getting enough calories in high altitude is an issue, we were trying out various granola bars/candies to find out which were absolutely delicious. If they aren't delicious at sea level, they won't be palatable at altitude.

The conditioning hikes proved to ourselves that we have a good team as far as talking goes - we chatter at each other constantly, which makes the miles melt away. And our climbing philosophy as far as climbing this mountain goes, is the same, which is VERY important. Tensions can soar if one person thinks that the climb should be done in a week, while others want to take more time, for example.

Wim and I have climbed some difficult routes, together, multiple times, and Aaron and Wim have climbed difficult routes, together, multiple times. The three of us, however, have only gone ice-climbing together, and not really as a team - Aaron and Wim were climbing together, and I was sort of wandering around from one team to another. So, the conditioning hikes were important to get us all synced, discussing climbing philosophies, in general, and for Aconcagua, in particular, and finding out how we three got along together, as a team. Do we watch out for each other? Do we even *like* each other? 20 days straight on a mountain can be a really, really long time, so it's best if we all get along with each other!

I went on my previously planned 3-1/2 week trip to Argentina. I was lucky - my fellow travelers were also interested in Mendoza (the starting place of the expedition, where the climbing permits have to be obtained), hence, we went there, and I was able to contact a company that organizes muleteers and mules to carry equipment to base camp, and find out about how to get fuel for the stoves (since we can't take that onto the airplane!). I got experience with the bus system and even got to see one of the trailheads for one of the routes up Aconcagua. I reserved a couple of hotel rooms in the same hotel in which Ed, Rebecca and I stayed. I learned where the permit office is, the best way to get money and where the ATMs were located, and where Carrefour (the big supermarket) is located, should we need to make any last minute food purchases once we are down there.

Meanwhile, Wim and Aaron dealt with the drugs. They visited a doctor who is quite knowledgeable about high altitude climbing (being a doctor, a climber, and interested in high altitude climbing, himself), and got us perscriptions to deal with the various maladies we hope that we will never get, and were taught about the symptoms and what is actually going on, and what the drugs actually do to the body. They talked to more people, and set up a private slideshow for when I returned to the US, with another climber who successfully climbed Aconcagua starting with a 3 person team. That slideshow turned up other topics of discussion (When is it ok to leave someone from the team alone on the mountain? What should we take for reading material, if anything?).

We've created a schedule that is extremely generous with acclimatization, and still leaves time to wait out storms, and wait for a good weather window to summit, yet only spend the 20 days maximum allowed by the park service. We hope that through this extremely generous acclimatization schedule (3 to 4 days at each camp!), that there will be no need to dip into the drug supply. . .

I've spent hours making up ziplock bags of dinner and breakfast foods. Lunches, in general, are expected to be cold snacks, so I have set those aside, too. The ramen-type noodles that my friends from Taiwan have been religiously supplying to me whenever they come to the US is a staple in my dinners. I love the taste of these noodles, and the flavor packets are strong enough that I can add bulgar wheat, rice, or couscous to the soup, some soy protein, and still think that the whole thing is yummy! Since drinking 4 to 5 liters a day is difficult, but necessary in the dry high altitude air, I've also brought along a lot of soup mixes, and drink mixes. My problem is that I have too much food set aside, (I'm at about 2.5 pounds per day, whereas I think that 2 pounds should be the max, and Wim is even thinking 1.5 pounds per day should be plenty) and will have to get rid of some stuff before we head out. Not sure, yet, what will be removed. . .

Tomorrow, we'll be meeting at Wim's to actually pack everything - make sure that we have proper bags for balancing loads for the mules, and also for getting everything onto the airplane. And, to double check everything against our equipment lists. We're expecting this to be an almost 1 day activity.

And, maybe, just maybe, I'll be able to get in another climb before heading out, early Friday!

(I'm enclosing our schedule, in case it is of interest to people. . .)

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