Generally I've found that writing down things I plan to do is helpful, making them more concrete and spurring me on to carry then out. Telling someone what I plan is the next step: the more people I tell, the harder it is to back out without losing face.
I've already said the following to a number of people and now the time has come to write it on the blog. I am making plans to climb Argentina's Cerro Aconcagua, the world's highest peak outside Asia, in the summer of 2011. The idea has gradually become more concrete ever since my older sister Terri made it to the summit in January 2008.
That was a fantastic effort, but Terri has won competitive road cycling races in the United States, run a marathon under 3 hrs 30, and likes nothing better than to cycle 60 km before breakfast. By contrast, I am a slob who sleeps in until 10am where possible. I admired my sister's achievement but didn't think it realistic for me. Yet over the last twelve months or so the possibility has kept nagging away at me until I eventually said: "why not?".
Now I've put a stake in the ground, this is likely to become a new narrative arc on this blog. In the past I've written about my struggles with fitness and inadequate gear. I've begun to address both of those issues recently and will discuss them more in future posts. I also hope that readers will contribute to those posts, as there's a number of things I'm unsure about and would be happy to get some feedback on.
But to be honest, I'm not even wholly confident of even making it on the expedition (health, finances and a master's thesis are all capable of throwing a spanner in the works), let alone to the summit. So to to start with, I'm going to take a look at my chances by summarizing the advantages and disadvantages I have. Again, writing them down makes them more tangible and easier to tackle.
I have reasonably good physical endurance. I have reached a summit over 6,000 metres before (Nevado Chachani). I've climbed 1,900 vertical metres in a single day (Andagua trek) and trekked for around 10 hours for three consecutive days while carrying a pack (also the Andagua trek).
Importantly, I also understand that none of this adds up to much compared with the task ahead. When I climbed El Misti, it was a two-day trek of around 2,600 vertical metres to the summit at 5,825. Yet the last 150 of those metres, from volcano's crater to the true summit, felt about as hard as the preceding 2,450. I was in a group of six climbers and two guides. I, one other American climber and a guide, reached the crater a little ahead of the rest. I recall the final stretch, winding up a narrow ridge with the summit always in view, as being pretty agonising. The other four climbers reached the crater and decided that they couldn't go any further, despite being little more than a stone's throw from the summit. That was about the same altitude as the high camp on Aconcagua -- where the long trek to the summit starts.
Add to this the fact that my 6,000-ish summits have been in Peru, less than 15 degress south of the equator, with daytime temperatures creeping near 0 degrees Celsius in a gentle zephyr. Aconcagua is more than 30 degrees south, and I understand that temperatures on the summit can be around -30 Celsius in summer with vicious winds.
It might look like I'm just citing difficulties here, but the fact that I understand these things very clearly is actually an advantage.
Physically, I deteriorate rapidly when I don't have enough to eat or drink. I also struggle to maintain a steady pace. I tend to go too rapidly when I have energy and tire myself out.
However, my biggest drawback is probably mental weakness. Deep down, I'm a bit of a wimp and a coward and I instinctively look for a quick payoff. The longest treks I've ever gone on have been around four days, and by day two or three, my mind is already shifting to the prospect of a nice hot shower, good coffee, and sitting back in a comfortable chair reviewing photos of the trip. Unlike true outdoors people, I don't really thrive in the back country. When I'm there, I usually start to fixate on little discomforts and dream about being back in civilization.
I also don't have very good interpersonal skills: I like my personal space and usually find it hard to fit in with groups. When I lack the skills to contribute much to practical things like preparing food, putting up tents and packing gear, I feel like I don't have any control and can get disengaged and grumpy. The likelihood of becoming bored, anxious and disprited on the long tramp in, and in particular during days spent waiting around in bad weather, is one of my biggest risks. From previous experience and from what I'm read, I expect this challenge to be as much mental as physical. Being in as positive a frame of mind as possible during the tough bits will be important.
So, that's probably something to train for over the next 12 months just as much as carrying a 25-kilo pack in low oxygen.