Tough Call (Part 1)

Tonight, or at best tomorrow, I'll have to call and tell the whole world I blew it.

I moved toward the roof of South America with the tiny, shuffling steps of an old man, looking down at the bootprints my so-called friends had left in the snow. The sight filled me with gloom. Yet it was more appetizing than what loomed above: an old volcano about 100 stories tall, the summit of Mt. Aconcagua, the object of my sweaty desire for the last two weeks, a brutal thumb of rock that was my only hope of saving face.

The only sound was the uneven rasping of my breath and a faint, chilly breeze off the Andes. Then, clank! The steel crampons of my right boot hit stone. I had reached the rock. For an hour I’d aimed for this resting spot as I staggered across the snowfield. I unslung my backpack, sat, and stared out at the Andes. Days ago the peaks had risen above me, but now they spread below, sharp and jagged and innumerable, a continent of shark’s teeth. I took another gulp of ultrathin air and tried to inventory my situation.

Dmitri and the Frenchman and the rest of them are at the peak now, or nearly so, having abandoned me here; I don’t quite remember the way back; my fingers are getting numb, even under three layers of gloves; I can barely walk. A terrible thought popped into my head – you’ve climbed for two weeks to the top of the world, only to stop in sight of the summit – and was trumped by another that was even worse because it was so petty.

Tonight, or at best tomorrow, I’ll have to call and tell the whole world I blew it.

Stupid satellite phone. Back in the States, fit and full of swagger, I had rented it so I could give everyone – my girlfriend, my friends, my parents, the clients who looked up to me as their personal trainer – a daily update on the big climb. Every night on the mountain I had pulled out the chunky tool and made a call that appeared as an audio clip on my blog. It worked beyond all expectations.

A week ago, on a scratchy phone call, my girlfriend had told me, “Do you know hundreds of people are following you?”

At the time I’d rejoiced. It hadn’t quite occurred to me until now, slumped exhausted near the top of the world, that my story might be something other than triumphant.

* * * *

The ten members of our party met for the first time on January 11, 2007, over a steak dinner in Puente del Inca, a tiny ski town on Aconcagua’s flank. At the table sat two Argentinean guides and the eight climbers, including five endurance athletes who could outdistance just about anyone on the planet, and three mortals who could not.

Someone asked Marshall Ulrich how cold it would be up on Aconcagua, and Ulrich took a thoughtful bite of beet salad before answering. Ulrich was a Coloradoan in his fifties with a sad, lined face and a wry sense of humor. He had assembled the climbers and guides and had the most illustrious resume: He had won the Badwater Ultramarathon four times and had stood atop all of the Seven Summits, the highest peak on each of the continents, including Aconcagua. Ulrich put down his fork. Cold, he said. Cold and dusty and windy, but not nearly as cold as Mt. Everest or God forbid Mt. Vinson, the highest mountain in Antarctica. On Vinson you wear every shred of clothing and you still can’t feel your hands, he said.

This bleak piece of information left the table unfazed. Louise Cooper, a former pro triathlete and a second-grade teacher in L.A, smiled and turned to her friend Nancy Bristow. Remember that race in Morocco when the kayak almost sank in those big waves? she asked with a laugh in her voice, as if she were recalling a fender-bender at the mall. She told the whole story, about the foundering boat and the hours of wet misery that followed, and after all of the protagonists had safely pulled themselves to shore, a guy across the table named Frank launched into a story of his own, about this especially amusing sandstorm he experienced during a footrace across the Sahara.

Then my friend Terri Schneider, with whom I’d share a tent on Aconcagua, looked across the table and said to Marshall: Remember Nepal? Remember mountain biking that Himalayan pass for 17 hours and then swimming for miles down that icy river? Ha ha. What a day that was.

The two Europeans, Dmitri and Fabrice, followed this banter like spectators on Center Court. The guiding company had tacked them on to our group at the last minute after two of Marshall’s friends had dropped out. Dmitri had a firm jawline and eyes the color of dishwater and revealed a thick Russian accent when he spoke, which was rarely. Back in real life he was a Silicon Valley software engineer. Fabrice, a pudgy and bald Frenchman, ran a travel company in New York and conducted a passionate affair with his Blackberry until the signal dropped in the Andean foothills. At first the two Europeans listened to the uber-athletes with admiration. But as the war stories piled on through the main course and on into dessert, the Europeans’ expressions became more and more dejected, and at the end they stared down at their plates without looking up.

After dinner I found them outside lounging in the evening sun. “So, what did you guys do for training?” I asked with all the innocence I could muster.

They shot glances at each other. “I did not have time to do much,” Fabrice admitted in his Gallic lilt. “I cut back on my cigarettes?”

I gave the Frenchman a wrinkled little smile. I offered no hint of the months I’d spent humping up and down the California foothills with a 50-pound pack on the steepest trails I could find, or the hours I’d logged lifting weights in the gym. You see, the year before I had joined Marshall and Terri and their super-duper friends to climb three big volcanoes in Mexico, and though it was difficult to keep up, I summited each one, just as I’d made it to the top of every peak I’d tried, from Mt. Kilimanjaro to Mt. Whitney. I knew Aconcagua would be no different.

What I told the nervous Europeans: “Oh, I’m sure you’ll be fine.”

What I told myself: At least I won’t be in last place.

* * * *

In 1928, James Ramsey Ullman became the first American to summit Mt. Aconcagua. Afterwards he wrote: “The reports of the various parties who have battled their way to its summit are unanimous in declaring that, from the point of view of climbing, it is one of the most unattractive mountains imaginable. Its altitude is so great, its cold so bitter, its storms so frequent and savage, that the ascent ranks among the most grueling ordeals known to climbers.”

During the first days on the Polish Glacier Route I would have dismissed such talk with a cheerful wave of my trekking pole. Mt. Aconcagua is the highest mountain in the world that one can walk to the top of, and the journey started most pleasantly with a hike in our daypacks to a camp called Pampa de Lenas. We walked alongside the muddy glacial meltwater of the Vacas River and the tiny yellow flowers on its bank. That night, after a dinner of grilled steak and a trip to the toilet (a real flushing one, out here in the wilderness!) I placed my daily satellite-phone call. I rhapsodized about the sunset glowing red on the walls of the Vacas Valley and how our caravan of 17 mules, loaded with backpacks and cooking pots, had swept into camp that afternoon in a cloud of dust, driven by shouting muleteers in orange berets.

The next day we meandered up the Vacas River to our second camp, Casa de Piedra. The headline of that night’s dispatch was the first sighting of Mt. Aconcagua. The foothills lowered and revealed it to the west, rearing more than two vertical miles into the sky, dripping with black palisades and icy cirques. This fearsome visage didn’t dampen my spirits, though, because I was simply too excited at the novelty of a mountain and a country I had never laid eyes on before. I didn’t tell my blog listeners that the clean toilet of last night had been replaced with a filthy, fly-spattered one. I was too exhilarated for such things to matter.

On Day Three we turned west up the Relinchos Valley and started a steep, strenuous ascent, removing our shoes several times to cross the icy Relinchos River. So buoyant was my mood that the day’s blog feed omitted any mention of the biting horseflies, or the mule carcass we spotted frozen in the snow. Up and up I climbed – watching from the corner of my eye to see if Fabrice would falter – and saw the plant life shrink, from man-size bushes, to scrubby ground cover, to a desperate layer of spiky succulents that clung to a few rocks. By the time we huffed into Base Camp, at 13,700 feet, even these were gone. Nothing survives for long up here.

We would ascend the Polish Glacier Route using the strange stutter-step of modern alpinism that makes little sense until one has tried it. Only two waystations, Camp One and Camp Two, separated Base Camp from the summit. We had lots to carry: Our mules turned back at Base Camp and left us with food, cooking gear and tents, about 90 pounds per person. All of it had to be transported as high as 19,000 feet for a week-long stay in a freezing and windy alpine desert. We would take three full rest days, even five if the weather was bad, to accustom our lungs to the ever-thinning air. Other days we would trek hard as we made the round trip to the next higher camp not once, but twice. This shuttled our armaments in two loads, and besides, these spikes into higher altitudes help a climber acclimate. Or at least they’re supposed to.

On the morning of Day Nine, the day of the first carry from Camp One to Camp Two, I stood next to my enormous backpack and contemplated the scene above. The backpack held a jumbo steel coffee urn, of all things, and my mind carried a heavy thought: Maybe this mountain, this blog, would turn out to be a big mistake. I noticed for the first time how ugly Aconcagua really was. The battlements above weren’t crisp or grand or Himalayan, but stumpy and rusty and covered with broken rock. The entire mountain seemed to be rotting away. I looked around at Camp One.

It consisted of 20 or so pup tents strewn across a boulder field, and I could see the occasional climber tinkering with a crampon or brushing his teeth. On the far side, overlooking the valley, stood a purple tent that served as latrine. We wiped ourselves with newspaper, if there was any. Two days earlier we had bid goodbye to Base Camp and its sparkling-clean aluminum bathroom. We played cards in a big blue mess tent where our lovely, 20-year-old cook, Sunjaya, served delicious and improbable dishes like pizza and quiches. We had waved goodbye to Sunjaya and climbed straight into a battalion of Aconcagua’s strangest obstacles – the ice formations known as penitentes. Man-sized and conical, penitentes are named after penitents, the Spanish Catholics in white smocks who worship God by whipping themselves. The comparison seemed to fit. We heaved ourselves through the penitentes, each step icy and uneven, our backpacks tugging and trying to fling us backward. The next day, for the first time, I woke up fatigued.

That morning, instead of our usual hot cooked breakfast, the guides handed each of us a sack of crackers, candies and dired soup that would serve as breakfast and lunch for the next week. I looked up the mountain again and felt a shiver of fear, or desolation, or hopelessness or … something I didn’t want to talk about on a satellite phone.

“Are you ready?” asked Martín, our lead guide. This question was directed at me. Over the last days the team had established a rough order of climb, and amazingly I was at the front. Louise and Nancy liked my steady pace, and no one else seemed to mind, so before we headed out everyone waited for me to take the first step. I was the Great Pacesetter, prudent and wise, the Gandalf of the Andes. I gave Martin a sage nod and kicked into the snow that had fallen the night before. We settled into the familiar rhythm of high-altitude hiking – one step, one breath; one step, one breath – and ascended switchbacks up a steep snowfield. As we neared the crest, I heard an accented voice say, “On your left.”

It was none other than Fabrice, the Frenchman whose fitness program consisted of curling fewer cigarettes. He did not look at me as he pushed by. He was haughty and relaxed as Pepé le Pew.

The Great Pacesetter gritted his teeth and leaned harder into the mountain, focused on one goal: Beat the Frenchman. ("Tough Call" continues here:


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