May 26th, 2020
Climbing Mt. Aconcagua in Argentina
Wednesday January 24th, 2007
For those of you who don't have the time to read a long winded account to learn if I made it....I won't tease you by leaving the outcome for the last sentence....so on January 24th and about 3:15 PM, I reached the summit of Mt. Aconcagua....the highest mountain in the world outside of the Himalayas.!!!
Climbing Mt. Aconcagua in Argentina - Frank Fumich
It was certainly by far, the most mentally challenging thing I've done in my life. And although most of the daily climbs were very hard, the summit day climb itself was the most physically overwhelming experience I've ever had.
Our expedition began with 3 days worth of hiking where we gained roughly about 6,000 feet of elevation. We hiked with light day packs while the local help (donkeys) carried the brunt of our loads on their backs. I watched the donkeys with envy as they allowed themselves to be loaded up to the hilt with all our gear.....never complaining, never seeming to strain, just doing what they do, day after day, and asking little but for some grass grazing and a sip of water here and there.....Wow, if only I could hope to behave and perform as our trusted four legged friends would do!!
Throughout our 20-some mile hike towards the mountain, we were surrounded by incredible vistas....beautiful mountains on all sides, a picturesque river, and incredible blue sky and warm weather. It was hard to believe that what we were embarking on was anything other than just a nice scenic hike! On about our 3rd day of hiking, we finally got our first glimpse of Mt. Aconcagua and it was only then that I realized all the pictures I had researched, had done nothing to show the magnitude of this rocky beast that was unfolding before my eyes....and the first thing....well second thing that came to my mind (the 1st being....holy shit, how can I get out of this) was WOW, how in the hell are we going to get to the top of THAT!!
We made the base camp at about 13,700 feet and settled in for our first rest day. The plan on climbing a mountain of this size is to SLOWLY gain in altitude and allow your body to react to it (acclimatization). It was during these "rest" days that I found it especially challenging. The physical days I liked because time passed so easily as we sweat and struggled up the mountain. But it was during the slow rest days that I struggled to rid my mind of those nagging feelings of self-doubt and instead fill it with positive thoughts. It's during this time that most members of my team seemed to really relax and rest, and enjoy our surroundings. Most of them though, are the hardest of the hardcore.....myself excluded, they had dozens of Ironmans under their belts, well over one hundred 100 mile ultra marathons, dozens of adventure races all over the world over the last 20 years, and many other mountain climbs including Mt. Everest by our leader. You KNOW you're in a serious group when more members than not, have their own athletic web sites....scary.... (here's a couple) www.marshallulrich.com , www.terrischneider.net My stories at home that usually invoke wonder and awe, elicited little more than yawns in this circle. I learned quickly to keep my mouth shut for fear of having to live up to my stories somewhere high on the mountain. I started to wish I had never mentioned ANY athletic pursuits before I had arrived at the base of this THING!!
So during these rest days that were so nice for my body, my mind was totally occupied with worry and self doubt....with uncertainty and homesickness....with "can I do this" and "what am I doing here!!!!" As it snowed and my teammates wondered at its beauty saying "look how incredible the snow looks"....I would say things like "oh no, how are we going to climb in THIS" and when they described going to the bathroom outside in the freezing temperatures as "becoming one with nature"....I called my same forays, "a pain in the ass". One of the woman would go out in -20 degrees and actually enjoy the experience....while I would pee in my pee cup in the tent if it was 40 degrees...haha
I real punch in the stomach came when my tent mate Rich, a 57 year old shoe salesman and ultra-runner from New York, walked out of our mess tent one day and approached me and said "Frank, I really hate to do this to you, but I'm done!!" He had expressed the same feelings of doubt and home sickness as me, but the difference was he was actually throwing in the towel. We had really bonded over our mutual fear and discomfort, had laughed together about our lack of camping experience, and had even broken out a few shots of whiskey in our tent to calm our nerves and toast to what lay ahead. I felt like the one person on MY level whom I had come to rely on, was leaving me and although I understood his decision and would miss him, I knew I had to continue on without him and even use his memory as motivation for me to get to the top for both of us. I actually ended up using his hiking poles and told him I would take them to the summit for him....and fortunately I actually filmed them with me on the summit to show him that I didn't forget my promise.
So it was obvious that I was in sort of my own league here, well under the experienced and adventurous group members that I had found myself with. Now don't get my wrong, I knew I didn't sign up for an all-inclusive 5 star beach resort weekend, with waiters bringing me fruit on the pool deck (not sure why I hadn't signed up for that) and I knew it would be rough and tumble and that's what I was ready for....but didn't really enjoy it by any means. I kept most of my thoughts to myself and gutted it out just as well as the next guy....or gal. Hell, I've done my share of uncomfortable things....and down right painful and brutal ones too...but I'm just saying that I don't actually enjoy that type of thing as much as they do. I signed up to climb this mountain not because I thought I'd necessarily enjoy it, but because it was as great a challenge as I could think of and I did NOT know that I'd be able to do it. If you asked other members of our group if they expected to summit, and most (at least out in the open) would say they certainly had no doubts of the outcome. I, on the other hand, would readily admit doubts as to my outcome, and THAT was why I was there.....to find out if in fact I could make it. I knew that I would give it my all, but would that be enough....would that get me to the summit...well that I wasn't so sure....but THAT was exactly what I sure as hell intended to find out. Hell, if I knew for sure I could do it, than I certainly would have spent my hard earned money on that 5 star vacation where I would be more concerned with whether I was tanning evenly on both sides or not!!
Our plan of acclimatization included climbing up to our next camps and then dropping supplies off there, and immediately returning down to spend the night lower. These "carries" they are called, get you in shape by lugging heavy loads (1st carry was about 50 pounds) and breathing the thinner air, only to return down and sleep lower where the air is thicker. We'd then take another "rest" day or in my case "mental worry" day, and then finally move up to the higher camp for good the following day. Our base camp was just under 14,000 feet, camp 1 was about 16,200 feet, and our high camp was at 19,000 feet. Now many of you have probably read about the effects of altitude on the body and mind but I can tell you now for sure since I've read just about every mountaineering book at there, that there's a big difference between knowing and understanding what it's like, and to have actually experienced it. I've read how exhausting everything gets the higher one goes up, but to actually be out of breath and really gasping for air because you just leaned over to tie your shoes, is quite different....and SCARY. To realize that you are in fact totally out of breath from doing something as mundane as brushing you teeth or putting your jacket on, is quite a wake up call when you consider that you're there to spend about 10-14 hrs climbing to the summit....not gasping for air because you just rearranged your clothing! And then there's the constant feeling in your body that something's just not quite right. Maybe it's the little headaches or the slight nausea, or just general feeling of blah. It's sort of like having a hangover and if you felt this way on a Sunday at home, you probably wouldn't walk out of your house, or get off the couch for that matter. But up here you don't have that luxury, and it's really a struggle to stop this feeling from creeping into your mind and affecting your confidence.
So gradually...up we went, and each day that I kept up with the group and actually felt strong, I gained confidence. I even started mentally positioning myself in the pecking order in relation to our group as a whole. I sure as hell didn't have myself in the front of the group, but I was feeling much better knowing that I probably wasn't in the back either. Of course as far as our actual real physical positions went in our daily climbs, I DID place myself in the back generally, because I felt more comfortable there without the pressure and all the eyes on me. Plus I know the human mind and what can happen when you put yourself up front, and that you tend to go harder and faster than you normally would. And I had no intention of turning this into some sort of a race....one that I would probably lose. I was here to FINISH the race, not to win it by any means...and here, believe me, finishing IS winning!!
Well I'll fast forward to reaching and staying at our high camp at 19,000 feet on January 21. By this time I felt physically ready to go for the top the next morning of the 22nd. Of course probably most of your summit success comes from Mother Nature and at this height, it's always a roll of the dice and we were soon to start our first losing streak. Not soon after reaching camp and setting up our tents (which by the way I had never once actually done in my life....little embarrassing but true) did the wind begin to blast and the temperature drop. I laid awake most of the night knowing we probably weren't going at 5AM the next morning because of the freight train wind that was trying to destroy our tents. But it wasn't until our guide Tincho actually stuck his head in our tent around 3:30 and officially told us so, that I was able to finally let me guard down and relax. We had winds at around 50 mph and temps about 30 degrees below zero.....BRRRRR!
So the waiting game began.....tick...tock...tick...tock...at this altitude, the body starts kind of shutting down and one of the first things to go is the appetite. I was already getting quite sick of our food, even though our cooks did a great job of trying to keep it varied, and our stomachs interested...but at 19,000 feet there's only so many ways you can make freakin noodles and frankly I was just "sick" and "tired" (figuratively and literally) of the food, and the water, then of the waiting, and the staring at the inside of the tent, and the peeing in my pee bottle.....well, you get the picture. But the not eating is something that can really cause a problem because you HAVE to eat, and you have to drink as much water as you can. The trouble was that I was just OVER it and only had about 3 bowls of soup during the 2 and a half days we were stuck at high camp....and I was over drinking too. I had drank about 4-8 LITERS of water a day up to this.....and that's A LOT of water....I was so tired in the tent, and sick of having to get up to pee, that I just pretty much stopped. I rationalized to myself that I had done enough of it and would be able to slide through ok...and maybe I just barely did!!!!
Well summit day was quite an insane experience and it was certainly the hardest, and most brutal thing I've done..... truly almost inconceivably hard. Not to mention not eating much, I had stomach problems waiting at 19,000 feet (that I don't think I need to describe) So when the morning came to start on the 24th, I really didn't have any energy and was feeling very sluggish....not what you want before climbing almost 4,000 feet to the summit. Our plan (that we actually all sat down together to come up with) was to all start together and then eventually we planned to naturally fall into different groups with one of 3 guides watching over, and staying with each group at all times. Of course all good plans can fall apart, and this one seemed to get screwed up before it even started. About 2/3s of the team just basically left before myself or David (and Demetri) were ready. I had woken up on time, and was slowly and methodically preparing everything, but time seemed to be flying by already, and our start time seemed to be spinning closer on my watch like some kind of crazy episode on the Twilight Show...I was in a slight panic....ok, maybe more than slight, when I finally emerged from the tent just before we were due to leave....because I couldn't get my crampons on my feet since my hands were frozen in the balmy minus 20 degrees with 15 mph winds. It's virtually impossible to do ANYTHING with the big gloves on, let alone something so intricate as getting those damn crampons on the bottom of my boots. So I took my gloves off to try and get them on, and then in about 30 seconds I had 2 frozen claws attached to my wrists. It's amazing how useless fingers and hands can become when frozen. I would just stare at them trying to power them to accomplish what I wanted, but they just looked back at me. So when I finally managed to somehow secure my boots, I hunched over gasping for air, clutching my hands under my arm pits.....looking up only to see the others were already moving ahead. I think I yelled a "hey, wait for me" in vain as it seemed my words just drifted off in the wind....and I saw the headlamps slowly shuffle off in front of me. The funny thing I remember thinking, was that everything was happening so fast, yet it seemed in slow motion, and everyone was unrecognizable in all our gear. It was impossible to single out who anyone was, in order to single any particular person out and make a more personable plea to wait for my panicked and unorganized self. We all had on so many layers, with gloves, huge down jackets, and hoods, that the only thing you could see was a light beam being shown out from some astronaut looking head. I felt like I was on another planet, encountering beings whom I knew were friendly, but couldn't seem to communicate with. I noticed to my amazement though, that there were two other "beings" who seemed to have been left behind as well, and it was only about a few seconds before I latched on to their sense of being left behind as well.
I knew I was in trouble when not 5 minutes into clanking over the rocks in our crampons, trying to even FIND the snow route, our guide Gwoody told us we needed to "hurry up". Jesus, I was still hyperventilating from GETTING FREAKIN DRESSED, everyone has thrown our game plan out the window, and now this prick is telling me to hurry. If I hadn't spend so much energy putting those damn crampons on, I would have taken them off and hit him over the head with them. The first 3 hrs were SOOOO incredibly miserable....I had no energy, was scared, and couldn't believe that I was feeling THIS bad THIS fast. The other problem was that I had put my gels on the outside of my down jacket and so had pretty much frozen so I couldn't use them for energy. Well, as I staggered along so early in the climb, my confidence hit an all time low. It took everything I had to keep going and I wanted to turn back. I managed to switch them to the inside of my pocket so they would thaw. And BTW, while all this was happening, we were ALONE without a guide. Don't ask me where, why, or how...but after being left by our group, it seems we had also been abandoned by our wonderfully supportive (NOT) Gwoody...whose only departing words were "hurry up". This latest setback actually might have done some good for me, because I think the anger of him leaving us alone in the pitch dark, on a snow traverse on Mt. Aconcagua, in minus 20 degrees, on our summit push....actually began to fuel my steps so I could ring somebody's neck when I found out what the hell was going on. Those first 3 hrs were one of the darkest and most alone moments I've ever felt. I was SO tired that every 20 minutes I'd fall to my knees and say God, I can't believe I feel this way...and gasp for air. It was all I could do to just barely place one foot in front of the other. Throughout this period, it was David who encouraged and waited for me. It was truly a moment when I felt a strong connection in misery and thanked him over and over for sticking with me. Demetri was also there but being the silent type, he simply provided silent comfort in his presence and the feeling of comfort in numbers.
Well I finally started forcing the gels into my body and PRAYING. David even got the 1st one out for me since even taking my gloves off again was way too traumatizing and energy consuming for me to bear. They then began to thaw a bit and I also started forcing myself to drink, and amazingly I started to rebound. At first it seemed that I wasn't really getting better, just finally not getting any WORSE...maybe it was just because I couldn't get ANY worse. And then I just thought it was a fleeting feeling that I certainly couldn't put any faith behind. But then sure enough, I started getting the faintest feelings of energy, and the earliest and most incredible faint hope and optimism started to seep into my being. I was actually began to step in rhythm and climbing steadily without thoughts of giving up at every step....oh my God...I began to think I might be able to do this!!!
Well just like in my race last summer in Morocco, when I met up with a friend when we were all in trouble and ended up staying with him even after I felt better.....I felt that David helped me so much, I would stay with him as well, and repay him in kind. Just because I seemed to have miraculously recovered, I wasn't about to just say "well, thanks Dave for your help, but I'm feeling great now so I'll just catch you later". He had previously had a bit of trouble on other days and so I knew that now I was the one who had to be the strong one and push him and encourage him....and I sure did. I felt so good to help him and I even physically pushed him on more than a few occasions when he was falling back.... and I don't believe he even knows that today....I never told him.. Demetri, the other making up our 3 person desperado, finally decided that our pace was too slow and he bailed out on us. David didn't know how well I was feeling all of a sudden, and it wasn't until our guide finally showed up and started giving us really dire time ultimatums instead of encouragement, that I first entertained the idea of leaving Dave behind. Ol' Gwoody showed up again, but instead of offering encouragement, help, and guiding steps....he would pop up out of nowhere, give us some kind of ridiculously depressing time constraint, and then fly off ahead only to sit on a rock and wait for us way up on the trail. We'd make it up to him in a slow but steady fashion, and instead of him giving us any kind of positive words, he's offer up another negative comment on how slow we were and then trot off again.
Meanwhile, David and I had undergone a complete role reversal. I would encourage him, make him eat, and he would improve for a short time.... but only to laps back into another slump. I would tell him that it didn't matter if we were going slow, we'd sure as hell make it to the top. Off course, these were indeed optimistic projections, many of which I didn't really believe myself, but as I tried to convince him with limited success, I was actually starting to believe these words that my optimistic, alto-ego was coming up with. We got to one section where it was barely even an incline, and he was taking the slowest steps.....I wanted to jump over him and run....that's how much I was ready to go.....of course I didn't....but it was THEN that I realized in all it's finality, that David wasn't going to make it and neither was I if I stayed there any longer.
When our guide told us we would have to turn around if we couldn't speed up, I told David to keep pushing forward, but that I had to go ahead or it was over for me. Our guide didn't really want us to go on because HE didn't really want to go on and up all the way, we think.....and so I was so afraid and down right paranoid that he was going to try and turn me around. So I decided I was going to stay right on his ass as he went up the mountain to show him I was strong and capable. Every step he took, my boot was right in the spot his foot had left...when his right foot took a step, my right foot filled the void, when his other foot stepped, so did mine....when he turned around to see where I was, he almost bumped into to me because I was right THERE. I noticed Gwoody was actually taking breaks because HE needed them, not because I did. I felt like every time we stopped, I was auditioning for the right to continue. I kept saying "See...me bueno" and pointing to myself and them at the top of the mountain. I kept saying "Vamos"!! It was like a really bad Spanish class and I was the eager student who didn't speak very well but was excited to prove to the teacher that I was ready to learn anyway!!
Finally Gwoody must have decided that if one of us had better be left alone, I was sure in better condition to move on by myself that David, so he decided to go back for David and ushered me off on my own .....and they called another guide to come back for me. So during my 10 hour ascent, I basically was without any guide for about 5 hours of it including the 1.5 to 2 hours completely alone and climbing at over 21,300 feet. I wasn't scared then because I had energy and I was damn determined, and because it was a bright, sunny day and the trail was obvious with many others on it....plus I was passing up all the people that passed me earlier and was feeling pretty damn impressed with myself, and thanking God for giving me the strength. Instead of taking longer breaks like I knew my team was up ahead, I was taking 5 to 10 min breaks, or no breaks at all, to make the summit before it was too late. The way the guide made it seem was that our team would be coming back down sometime rather soon, but in reality, they were not even there yet and I was actually gaining on them. It was during this time that I looked around and realized what I was accomplishing and how far I had come....from that scared and frozen rooky starting out in the dark frozen mountain.....to the confident, energy filled soul who was streaking up the mountain on his own, on a beautiful day, and feeling confident that success was waiting for me on top!!!!
I got to the last and most notorious section of the mountain because of it's steepness and the irregular steps needed, called the Canaletta ....where it seemed like every single step required 5 breaths. I was working so hard and expending so much energy that steam was rising off my body like a steam engine. Well, every good thing must come to an end and here so did my energy finally fail. There is only so many calories you can get in up there, before the amount you are withdrawing from your bank, exceeds your deposits and that was the point that I just ran head first into....HARD!!! One minute I was feeling full of energy and optimistic, and a second later I felt the world had just dropped out from under me. I was SOOOO DONE and had 2 hrs left and about 1,200 feet to go of the hardest yet....dear God did I struggle...I was working so hard that I actually was sweating and even took off my jacket and had ONLY one single base layer shirt on and that was IT. I would take a step and lean over on a rock and gasp and gasp for air and energy. The other guide finally met me about 30 minutes into it and I gave him my jacket and water bottle to hold. I was sooooo tired and he would say in his accent "Franko, you have climbed for 15 days my friend...you MUST NOT give up now that you're so close" I would say "OK Pinky (his nickname) I will not give up"! Boy, it was then that I talked a lot to all my relatives that had passed away and that I knew were watching me...I told my dad that I knew he were watching me and that I needed his and all their help, but that I wasn't ready to see them again yet. But my body was telling me other things however. I had become incredibly dizzy like I had never felt before and would have to rub snow on my face to keep from spinning. If I closed my eyes for more than a second, I felt myself going....and would have to shake my head like you do when you}'re falling asleep in the car or something. My vision in the right eye was becoming faded and my lower back was aching like from the kidneys when you're severely dehydrated...so basically, I was scared shitless that at any moment I was going to drop and then be in a whole lot of trouble. But I kept praying and telling myself to keep it together....I kept taking one step,then another step, then another step. The route seemed to be coming to and end, and then when you got close, you'd see it veered further away and higher to the left....it was SOOO excruciating. But I kept at it...and I said "son-of-a-bitch....I'm not stopping until I make it, I'm not stopping, not stopping...." Then I heard someone call my name from the top and it made me feel so good to know that they saw me and were cheering for me. Even with about 30 ft left, I almost sat down in sheer exhaustion and said "This is it, I've gone as far as I can go".....but I didn't....I walked the last few steps....I made it and into the arms of my our guide Tincho and a couple of the women in my group and sobbed the most relieved, exhausted, and tired tears!!!! Thank God....and then of course I looked and saw and damn dog sitting up there next to the cross and said "what the hell"...yes, and dog had just trotted up there and I was so delirious and freaked out that I thought for sure I was seeing things. I went over to the famous cross on the summit and knelt down and said some prayers.... and then hell, as soon as I had gotten there, it was time to leave. They had all been there for a while and so I had only about 10 minutes and of course I wasn't going to stay longer by myself....I had enough of that.....
Throughout most of the climb up the Canaletta, I was convinced that I was already physically way past overdue...and still kept going. I was so damn determined to make it...and I did! I'm really proud of my accomplishment, but getting down was a nightmare and I´ve learned that what I always tell my family isn´t necessarily true....that if I feel in danger, or I've gone beyond my limit, I´ll turn around. I believe I thought that in the back of my head, that I'd be safe and conservative, but now I know the reality is that my determination and stubbornness are too much to overcome, and that I´m not quite mature enough to make the logical decision under those circumstance. I was literally apologizing to my wife and family in my head, and thinking that as soon as I passed out, I was really in BIG trouble. It seems I was relying on God or fate to determine my future and almost tossing a coin and waiting to see which side of the lifeline it would land on.....not relying on myself and MY "plan". I had actually said to myself, "well if I'm meant to survive, I guess I will, and if I don't, then it was meant to be." But that's not exactly what I had planned on and I never thought I'd feel like I came so close. Now maybe the severity of it all was in my head and I wasn't THAT close to real trouble, but the fact is.....I'll never REALLY know....but I sure felt like I was!!! So, of course getting to the top was the greatest thing and I´m so proud of myself for digging so deep, but I´m afraid the misery and danger of the sport might have to keep me grounded either for a long time or permanently!!...and keep events closer to sea level!!
So for the forceable future, I'm hanging up the climbing boots (or actually sending them back to my friend whom I borrowed them from ...haha) and keeping my ass down closer to the ground!!! Thanks again to everyone for their emails and support!!!
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Before the summit.
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At the summit
Photo © Frank Fumich
May 26th, 2020 9:24 am
Image Id: 946
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