My third of the Seven Summits, Aconcagua is the highest point in the southern hemisphere, the highest point in the Americas, and the highest point outside of Asia. Many mountaineers refer to the peak as the "Slag Heap," due to the fact that much of the mountain is covered by talus: bowling ball sized rocks all jumbled on top of each other. Even more difficult than the talus are the penitentes, formed when the sun melts deep holes in the snow and cold winds scour the surface into frozen icy pinnacles, from six inches to six feet tall. Although much of the mountain isn't too technically difficult, the talus and penitents are a "blind person's worst nightmare" since there is no consistency when I take a step.
Aconcagua is famous for its relentless winds because of its elevation and proximity to the jet stream. On my first attempt, just 1,800 feet from the top, the gale-force winds were knocking us off our feet, and we could no longer hear each other shouting. So Chris Morris, our team leader, made a painful decision to turn us back. A little more than a year later, we tried again.
Excerpt from Touch the Top of the World:
By the fourth day at Piedras Blancas, the wind had not abated. We were out of food and fuel. “The latest we can leave for the summit is noon. We’ll wait until then.”
But when the weather had not changed and Chris made the decision to try, we all knew the attempt would only serve to satisfy our need to learn firsthand the mountain’s limitless power. Three hours later, we stumbled into Independencia at twenty-one thousand feet, acclaimed as the highest man-made structure in the world. In reality it was the remnants of a rock wall protruding from a deep pile of snow. We hunkered behind it.
One hundred feet above me it sounded like a thousand freight trains or a fleet of jets taking off. Protected by four layers of fleeceand a GoreTex shell, I was still cold. My fingers were losing sensation through my mittens. “It’s over,” Chris yelled. He was only a few feet away but I could barely hear him. His words seemed to be swept away as soon as they left his mouth. “Above us is an exposed ridge. It’s the windiest part of the mountain. There’s no way. It would be suicide.” We all reluctantly agreed. I respected Chris’s ability to know when we were outmatched.
I was intensely sad, but also relieved. I stood facing the deafening sound one last time, still feeling a remnant of my desire to go on, and as if to answer my urge, the wind gusted hard against me, almost knocking me off my feet. “Next year,” I said, and my heart felt heavy and cold as I forced my body to turn around toward camp.
Later in the tent, the disappointment of the climb swept over me like a river of scree. I escaped outside, pretending to organize my pack, so Jeff and Hans wouldn’t see the tears that were spilling out in scorching waves. Jeff followed me out into the whipping wind. “When you try big things,” he said, “you gotta expect to fail sometimes.” The thought was so simple, yet, at the same time, profound, and I knew he was right. His words took the edge off my sadness and gave my brain something to hang on to throughout the long hike down.
Read more about this adventure in Chapters 17 and 19 in Touch the Top of the World.
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