Attempting Aconcagua: my first experience with extreme altitude
It was summit day. I woke up feeling depleted, in an ice-lined tent nestled 6000 metres up the side of the highest mountain outside of the Himalayas. Every ounce of my being questioned if I had the energy left for the 14-hour day I faced. As I struggled even to put my boots on, I …
28 February 2019
It was summit day. I woke up feeling depleted, in an ice-lined tent nestled 6000 metres up the side of the highest mountain outside of the Himalayas. Every ounce of my being questioned if I had the energy left for the 14-hour day I faced. As I struggled even to put my boots on, I wondered how this novice mountaineer had got here, and why I’d gone to such extremes.
From hero to zero, and back again
To find out, I need to go back to the start. I’ve never been shy of a challenge – I’ve been a competitive mountain biker since 2007. But on the 18th of January 2011, everything changed when I was hit by a 3.5 tonne truck as I cycled to work. The impact left me with multiple back breaks, a lacerated kidney and liver, and a severed inner gluteal nerve. The latter left me without a right glute max (often called the ‘cyclist muscle’), effectively leaving me half-arsed.
I was flat on my back for months. I’d lost my identity, my invincibility, my ability to race and provide for my family. I’d gone from hero to zero in the blink of an eye. As a result, I had my first experience with anxiety and depression. I could just about handle the physical side of my injuries, but the mental side? That was harder to deal with. My wife, Jane, called these the ‘dark days’, though they stretched to weeks, months, even years.
Now fast-forward to 2018, when this half-arsed racer successfully completed the Mont Blanc Race, said to be the world’s toughest mountain bike race. How did I go from there to here?
Everything started to improve thanks to these four things:
- Talking about my anxiety and depression, and the fact I wasn’t coping
- Having people like my wife, daughters and family listen and care
- Getting active again – the first time I pedalled a stationary bike bought by my brothers was a transformational moment
- Regaining my confidence and self-esteem by taking on new challenges, despite my injuries
The birth of Mind Over Mountain
As someone who’s competitive and belligerent by nature, I wanted to see whether I could get back to where I was before my accident, when I was a competitive mountain biker. To help me along, I called on the UK’s top mountain bike coach, Jon Fearne. As well as becoming fast friends, Jon, like me, cared deeply about the positive effects of activity on mental health. I mentioned to Jon that I was looking for a big challenge. Jon went away and came back with the idea to do the World Record attempt, which is how Mind Over Mountain was born.
Working with Mind Charity, our aim is to improve mental health by getting more people active. To raise awareness of our efforts, we’ve decided to attempt a Guinness World Record by cycling the highest elevation ever. Hence finding myself waking up on of the world’s highest mountains – this training expedition was designed to give us the mountaineering skills we’d need for our World Record attempt. Imagine climbing into the freezing, oxygen-starved realms, reassuringly termed ‘the death zone’? Your body is shutting down. You’re moving in slow motion. Now imagine doing it all while carrying a bike. We need the training.
Why are we putting ourselves through this? It’s simple – to get the most media attention to help shine a light on what we’re trying to achieve through Mind Over Mountain; to get mental health moving.
We had help. Our friends at Lap of My Mind ran an epic challenge to complete a non-stop, coastal lap of the UK by 10 riders in just 20 day, finishing on the 21st, the day before I flew to South America. The event fundraised for Mind and Calm, but also for Mind Over Mountain. We also had our sponsors, Lara Morgan, Scentered and Kitbrix. We’re forever grateful to all who helped and supported us!
So how high is Aconcagua?
At 6962 metres (or 22,840 ft), it’s the highest mountain outside of the Himalayas. On a difficulty scale of 1 to 9, where 1 means uphill hiking and 9 means climbing ice (think Everest), Aconcagua sits at a 5. For context, Kilimanjaro is a 2, and Mont Blanc a 3, so it’s up there for a first attempt.
What makes Aconcagua especially difficult is the severe weather conditions, usually a combination of high wind and snow. To try and ensure we made it out alive, I enlisted the help of professional mountain guide, Grajales, and UK-based adventure company Jagged Globe, who both offered local knowledge, professional guides, language, logistics and supplies.
I also planned to carry my bike to the summit, something which has been done just once before. Unfortunately, just before setting off I found out the park wouldn’t allow the bike on the mountain. After training for many months with my bike on my back, this was a disappointing blow. In hindsight, I think it turned out for the best.
Meeting the team
My journey started at Heathrow, where I met most of the team. Our group consisted of Brian and Desi from London, Alan (another one) from Hull, David from Edinburgh (who runs an amazing Scottish charity, Venture Scotland and Adey, an all action, military man. Taking care of us were Lucas, our local guide, and John, our leader.
On the journey, I had a transformative conversation with John, our leader. He pointed out that endurance athletes like me aren’t well suited to expedition life – many of the attributes I usually rely on, like competitiveness, high energy and speed, need to be flipped to work in high altitude. To succeed, I needed to put my competitive spirit to one side and focus on holding back, not pushing forward. It wouldn’t be easy.
After a lengthy journey, we arrived in the beautiful city of Mendoza, from where we embarked on a 3-hour bus ride through some spectacular scenery to Penitentes. Waking up on Christmas morning in a run-down town in Argentina, without my wife and daughters, was strange. Despite a lack of mobile reception, I was able to use John’s phone to ring home and hear their voices, which made it feel a little more like Christmas.
The importance of acclimatising
Because oxygen levels decrease the higher you go, you can’t just head straight for the summit. You need to let your body acclimatise, which involves gradually getting used to the lack of oxygen. Patience is key. Below you can see our acclimatisation schedule, which explains why our climb took three weeks. The dotted lines show where we trekked to, while the flat lines show where we slept.
The first step
At 3395 metres, Confluencia is the first step in acclimatisation. I’d been told to drink five litres of water a day to try and stave off the effects of altitude. Despite the difficult climb, I spent the whole walk in awe of where I was. The Andes are breathtaking. I also got my first glimpse of Aconcagua – the snow-capped mountain looked forbidding and impossibly far away.
Up here, the night sky was beautiful – the stars shined so brightly they looked almost 3D. Over the next few days, I slowly got used to sharing a tent and peeing in a bottle, and I experienced my first altitude headache.
Whilst in Confluencia, we trekked 4000 metres to see the spectacular view of Aconcagua’s south face. The view was captivating – no photo can do it justice or capture how humbling and awe-inspiring it was to just stand there and take it all in.
The trek to Plaza de Mulas, or basecamp, is about 10 miles, – taking around 8 hours – through a long windy valley. When we arrived, our first task was to visit the doctor for a mandatory health check. Whilst my heart rate was higher than normal, my blood pressure was spot on at 120/80. My oxygen saturation level was 84, which was deemed good enough.
Basecamp was four times the size of Confluencia and at 3465 metres was much colder at night. Facilities were better than expected, although it took a bit of time and skill to use the ‘poo shack’ effectively. We’d hear stories from other climbers – some of success, many of failure – which reminded us how changeable the conditions were. As a group, we spoke a lot about whether we’d make it to the summit. There was a lot of self-doubt. My doubt, however, centered on the unknown – how cold it would be, and whether I’d be able to handle it.
Peaks and troughs
The subsequent days were filled with trekking, climbing, sleeping under the stars, and getting used to the challenging environment. Rather than break it down day-by-day, I’ll share some of the key moments (good and bad) that stood out for me along the way.
Watching the sun set on 2018
We arrived in Camp 1 on New Year’s Eve. At 5000 metres, the views were incredible. Although many people opted for an early night, Adey and I stayed up to enjoy the spectacular sunset.
Summit before the summit
One of our acclimatisation treks took us to Bonette Peak which, at 5004 metres, was the highest I’d ever been. The trek was challenging, with overhanging rock, scree and snow. But the view made it all worthwhile – we could see all the way into Chile. And there was something special about a summit and being higher than I’d ever been.
Losing sleep (and inhibitions)
Thanks to altitude-induced headaches, the freezing cold and losing my sleeping mat to an ill-fated gust of wind, sleep became increasingly elusive. As we ascended, both the facilities and my body degraded. Showering became a distant memory and we gradually moved from dirty to filthy, but didn’t care – it was oddly liberating.
Food for thought
As a vegetarian Coeliac, I’d packed a lot of my own food. Although this meant more to carry, it also ensured, unlike my fellow teammates, I didn’t lose too much weight. Before setting off, I’d introduced chicken into my diet to get my body used to digesting meat. Of course, being in Argentina meant eating beef, which my body was less used to, leading to an upset stomach and (you guessed it) more problems sleeping.
However tough I was finding it, it was nothing compared to Brian. He’d had a high heart rate when we arrived in basecamp. Since then, he’d bravely and doggedly made it to Camp 1 and even onto Camp 2 for the summit bid. He’d been on the altitude drug Diamox, or Acetazolamide, for some days by then, but wasn’t bouncing back. He wisely and bravely decided not to tackle the trek to Camp 3. When Brian decided to descend, David decided his expedition was also over. It was sad to see them leave, but a pleasure to have got this far in their company.
The final push
As I woke up on that final morning, 6000 metres high in the ice-lined tent, all that lay between me and the summit was a 14-hour day and the final 1000 metres. I wasn’t sure I could do it. But I hauled my half-ass out of the tent and faced the day’s briefing. John, our leader, felt unwell and wouldn’t be joining us – we were now three men down. But the rest of us ploughed on through the deep snow, guided by Lucas and our headtorches. Our spirits and energy rose with the sun – I can’t even begin to describe the beauty of the scenery at this elevation.
After 90 minutes of walking, it was clear these were not the forecasted conditions. The wind was picking up quickly. I had to stop, rest, compose and try again. Two hours later, the summit was in sight, but increasingly out of reach. The snow was knee deep now and the wind buffeting me about. People were stopping more often, and resting had turned to collapsing. And there were harder sections still to climb. I dug deep, thought of my girls, and put one foot in front of the other. There were so many reasons to keep going. Mentally I was ok, I wanted to carry on, but physically, the conditions were taking their toll – the wind was driving me back.
Minutes later, Lucas turned and shouted the words I wasn’t sure I wanted to hear – “we go back”. I felt both relieved and devastated. That was it. I wouldn’t make the summit. For the first time, I felt like I was in danger. Getting down wouldn’t be easy, but it was no longer safe to be on the mountain.
Usually, descending takes about half the time of ascending. Not under these conditions. After a 2-hour struggle, we made it back to Camp 3, where we fell into our tents, exhausted, dehydrated and disappointed. It would have been sensible to eat and drink, but I needed rest. After a few hours, we were told we must descend back to basecamp due to the inhospitable conditions.
The 1700 metre descent was tough. The mountain had changed colour from vibrant red to pure white. By the time we arrived, we’d done a 12-hour day. I was exhausted, but not deflated. My spirits were lifted even further by the welcome we got from Brian and David, who were very relieved to see us. Finally, I had my first night’s sleep without a headache. It was bliss.
You might think I’d be devastated at not reaching the summit. I wasn’t. I’d had my shot, experienced harsh conditions and tested my mettle. And that, ultimately, was my goal. Summiting was just the icing on the cake.
What did I learn from my experience?
I’m an endurance cyclist without a glute – I had no idea how I’d react in these extreme conditions. Weighing in at 56 kgs, I’m hardly built for strength or insulated against the cold. And with this being my first high-altitude endeavour, I had no experience to fall back on. But I gave it my best shot. I’m proud of what I achieved, and I have a newfound respect for people who attempt this sort of thing regularly. There’s a reason so few plants and animals survive at those heights.
Whilst it sounds like a penance, being up there, at that altitude, was a privilege. There are so many reasons not to try it – discomfort, lack of oxygen, inexperience, expense, time away from family. But these are all temporary. The reasons to do it last much longer – experiencing nature in the extreme, disconnecting from modern life, unparalleled time for reflection, the ability to slow down, live moment to moment and take it all in. I gained confidence, self-esteem and friendship. I also learned to ask for help, how to be patient, to listen, to celebrate the little victories, to be adaptable, to face my fears and to be grateful for the opportunity.
Having been up there, I can see what makes it so compelling. There’s a universal need to go beyond our limits, and do something that can’t logically be explained in words. By doing these crazy challenges, we become somehow more ourselves. On Aconcagua, I’ve never felt more myself. That’s my ‘why’ and I love it.
Will I do high altitude again? I’d like to. And next time, I’ll be better prepared for this terrible beauty.
I missed my wife Jane and daughters Amy and Esme chronically while away over Christmas and New Years. It was a first. I’m eternally grateful for their love and unwavering support.
To Matt Jones, Alex Watts and all the riders and support crews on Lap of Mind Mind. Truly inspirational.
And of course, to my partner in adventure Jon Fearne. Thanks buddy!