Standing Atop The Andes: A Successful Summit of Aconcagua
With a resume that includes Kala Patthar, Imja Tse, North Annapurna Base Camp and Everest Base Camp in the Himalayas, Australian adventurer Claire Mackay is far from an amateur mountaineer. But with aspirations to stand on top of the world at over 8,000 metres, Claire wanted to continue to build her experience and skills with a 'bridging' climb that would test her in every way. That stepping stone, for lack of a better expression, was in the form of Aconcagua in the Andean mountain ranges of Argentina. A 6,962-metre challenge not to be underestimated, read on to hear about Claire's recent attempt to tick off this famed South American summit.
Welcome To Another World
Mountaintops dominate every direction you turn, with steep summits of jagged rock piercing through the clouds. The land is dry, and dislodged boulders the size of cars litter the dusty valleys where great rivers once flowed.Cold streams of glacial water run like veins, cutting through the mud and pebbles, and the sun beams down upon the barren land, the heat inescapable. It's silent and it's still, apart from the wind echoing off the surrounding slopes and your breathless gasps as you climb higher. Perhaps a trail of freight mules are kicking up some dust in the distance ahead.
As you march closer to base camp, with your hiking poles and heavy pack, the anticipation starts to creep in: nerves, excitement, fear of the unknown. 'We must be on Mars?' you think, as you become more and more bewildered by this foreign place. This is the Aconcagua. This harsh and arid desert land is spectacular, completely arresting in its vast uniqueness and beauty.
The breathtakingly beautiful south face of Aconcagua, the world's highest mountain outside of the Himalayan Ranges. (Image courtesy of Claire Mackay)
Understanding The Challenge Ahead
Aconcagua, located in the Principal Cordillera of the Andes mountain range in Mendoza Province, Argentina, stands at 6,962 metres. It is the highest peak outside of the Himalayan ranges in Asia. Despite its appeal to amateur climbers, this mountain should never be underestimated due to its significant altitude intervals and unpredictable, hostile weather. Professional equipment and a high level of fitness will get you only so far - it is your mindset that will be put to the real test. Extreme temperatures, altitude effects, lack of hygiene, and fatigue are constant mental obstacles, but if you tackle them with resilience, strategy, perseverance and positivity, then that summit is within your reach.
So why Aconcagua? This mountain is the perfect gateway into extreme altitude mountaineering, and is often dubbed the 'training peak' for Everest and other notable 8,000-metre peaks. You can also tick off one of the Seven Summits if you successfully reach the top. However, reaching the top does not come easily, and surprisingly, Aconcagua has an average summit success rate of only 40%.
A spectacular view of Aconcagua Base Camp. (Image courtesy of Claire Mackay)
The lead up to an expedition is an intense time for any mountaineer. For months prior to my Aconcagua climb, I trained as hard as I could. As an Australian virtually living at sea level, naturally acclimatising beforehand for a high-altitude adventure is almost impossible. You must customise your training techniques to best prepare for what awaits - altitude. It is hugely beneficial to already understand how your body copes at significant altitude, without the use of medication such as Diamox. Training strategies will vary for everyone, but the main focus point should be endurance. I built my endurance through steady-state cardio routines, such as cycling, low-intensity jogging, and long inclined walks carrying weight. I would also swim long distances at a maintained pace, which helped to regulate my breathing patterns. Big muscles have little benefit at high altitude so I focused more on building lean muscle mass and weight loss.
And then comes the gear preparation. Checking and re-checking your gear is paramount when climbing at such altitudes. It becomes your survival kit. You can't go on an expedition poorly prepared, and you need elite, trustworthy clothing and equipment. As a long term fan of the Mountain Designs brand, I partnered up with their team this summer and used a range of their products on my Aconcagua climb. Their range is durable, comfortable but most importantly, tested to endure the extremes. I love their entire range, and the following items are my absolute 'cannot-live-without' favourites: UltraTek 900 down sleeping bag, 40th Anniversary Pro-Elite 800 expedition down jacket, 100% Merino thermals, the Pioneer 60L technical hiking pack and the Alola CORDURA® pants.
Well kitted out in my Mountain Designs gear, and alongside my good friend and mountaineering world record holder Nirmal 'Nims' Purja. (Images from left to right, courtesy of Sofia Jin (1 & 2), Mingma David Sherpa and Andrew Morgan)
What was it like to climb almost 7,000m? It was equal parts phenomenal, painful, liberating, exhausting and enlightening. When your alarm goes off at 11:30pm at 5,500m in subzero temperatures, finding the motivation to crawl out of your warm sleeping bag is almost too much to bear. Let's hope you organised your expedition pack during the day, because it's too cold to take your hands out of your mitts to be organising anything last minute. You try desperately to avoid bumping the tent walls, because a shower of ice shavings is the last thing you want.
Climbing through the night seems to go on forever. You can just make out the intimidating silhouettes of the giant mountains against the starry sky and you plead with yourself to stay focused. You coordinate your steps over large rocks and loose gravel in your heavy double boots with the little glow coming from your head torch. Each step upwards is a challenge and the air is so thin, but no matter how much you want to stop and catch your breath, you can't pause in the penetrating cold.
But as you climb higher and higher, you will never forget the moment when you see the sun peaking over the cliffs ahead. You'll smile with complete relief and thank the heavens above for the warmth on your body. Your mood completely U-turns and everything seems a little more manageable. And despite the pain and fatigue, you become so intently fuelled by the desire to reach the top!
The various sides of mountaineering, including backpack selfies, Plaza de Mulas Base Camp celebrations, and sleeping off altitude headaches at Camp Nido. (Images from left to right, courtesy of Claire Mackay (1-3, & 6), Pema Chinyam and Sofia Jin)
Mountaineering isn't just cool outfits and pretty views. If you ask any mountaineer, they'll most likely tell you they have a love/hate relationship with the mountains. My good friend and climbing inspiration, Canadian mountaineer Don Bowie, says:
'Suffer long enough at high altitude, and you'll yearn for the comfort of the valley. Dwell too long in the valley and you'll crave the suffering of high altitude. So goes the unquenchable lifecycle of the high altitude climber'.
The challenge becomes addictive in a humbling way. You are thrown into the deep end of solitude and simplicity, and your perspective towards life and gratitude is rescued and restored.
Standing on the summit of any mountain is an achievement, but when you've battled the elements and pushed through the pain to reach the top of a high-altitude peak, it's euphoric. The discipline, the training, the months of preparation are all justified and you are exactly where you once dreamed you'd be.
The sun starts to rise as we push towards the 6,962-metre summit (left), and a very proud moment as I finally stood atop Aconcagua. (Images from left to right, courtesy of Mingma David Sherpa and Sofia Jin)
Images supplied by:
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Mingma David Sherpa
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