Saturday, December 05, 2009

The Road to Aconcagua

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.


soph said...

Do it now. you never know what the future holds and when you will have responsibilities that mean you can't go and climb mountains. i sometimes wish i had done something like that before the arrival of T and A.
in your favour, you are as strong as an ox and have no major health problems.
From my experience being stuck with others on longish treks, being moody and quiet is reasonably acceptable - it was the nattering women that pissed everyone off.

Tony said...

If you beleive you will fail . . . you probably will (that has certianly been my experience).

I am sure you can succeed. You may have weaknesses but the key to large goals in planning, preparation and commitment.

I look forward to the pictures on the blog in a couple of years :)

Simon Bidwell said...

Thanks for the encouragement, Sophia and Tony. I'm hoping the no major health problems holds true to 2011, and other variables like finance and timing of thesis writing don't throw a spanner in the works.

I agree that the key is planning, preparation and commitment, which is why I'm starting to think in detail about it now. I figure there's many difficulties and obstacles, and the best thing is to work through them or at least acknowledge them, in advance.

Susan said...

Go Simon! I have total confidence that you can get there. You are physically strong and have lots more perseverance than most people, and are more tolerant than you believe yourself to be. Being cold is horrible but Terri feels the cold badly and coped well by making sure she had the right gear and going with a competent and experienced guide.

LaTonya Bynum said...

What would be even more interested would be if you taped the entire experience and posted it on your blog. Anything is possible, you can do it SIMON!

Simon Bidwell said...

Wow, thanks for all the encouragement. Looks like I've got myself a commitment there. I'm not sure about filming the whole thing -- but I could do the more traditional thing and try to keep a diary in an old battered notebook, then serialize it on the blog afterwards...