First ascent of Aconcagua: a story of self-inflicted altitude sickness

When the Swiss guide Matthias Zurbriggen stood on the highest point in South America in 1897, as far as anyone knew it was the highest place man had ever been, but he stood there alone. His expedition leader Edward Fitzgerald had been left behind with altitude sickness at 6000m. When a month later two more members of the expedition, Stuart Vines and Nicola Lanti repeated the ascent, Fitzgerald was left behind again, in more or less the same place and suffering from the same symptoms. The expedition which he personally financed and wrote about in his book The Highest Andes, was extremely successful in many respects. It mapped the mountains and valleys of the high desert regions of Argentina and Chile, made many scientific discoveries, and achieved first ascents of both Aconcagua (6959m) and nearby Tupungato (6570m), but Fitzgerald never reached the summit of either mountain. It wasn’t through want of trying: he made eight attempts to climb Aconcagua. Each time he felt strong until he crossed the magic line of 20,000 feet, at which point he became ill and could climb no higher.

Looking up the Gran Acarreo from camp at Nido de Condores. Those summit rocks look close, but in fact they're 1000m above.
Looking up the Gran Acarreo from camp at Nido de Condores. Those summit rocks look close, but in fact they’re 1000m above.

The story of their expedition is a good lesson to anyone who thinks because there are no technical difficulties then climbing Aconcagua is easy. They endured many hardships from the difficult terrain, extreme cold and frequent blizzards. Zurbriggen nearly died when the mule he was riding across a deep river was swept off its feet and pinned him against a rock. While the perilous river crossings can now be avoided by using bridges, the other hazards remain. And the one which prevented Fitzgerald from reaching the summit remains the principal cause of many inexperienced climbers on Aconcagua failing to climb high – psychologically-induced altitude sickness.

On their first attempt the whole team suffered because they were still acclimatising. They were demoralised by the terrain of the Gran Acarreo (literally The Great Haul), the vast scree slope on Aconcagua’s western side, which caused their feet to slide backwards with every step, and they didn’t yet appreciate the vast scale of the mountain. Features which they thought were nearby turned out to be huge distances away, and Zurbriggen walked for two or three hours, apparently making no progress at all. Their second attempt was thwarted when Zurbriggen looked like getting frostbite, which Fitzgerald was able to prevent by using some novel methods of warming his feet up. He first tried rubbing them with brandy (a waste of the expedition’s essential medicine supplies), and then with snow (which is a bit like trying to cure chronic diarrhoea with hot curry). Their third attempt was cut short by Aconcagua’s favourite weapon – the wind.

The Highest Andes by Edward Fitzgerald, a classic work of mountaineering and exploration
The Highest Andes by Edward Fitzgerald, a classic work of mountaineering and exploration

By the time they returned for their fourth attempt, two of the guides, Nicola Lanti and Joseph Pollinger, had been hard at work stocking the higher camps with wood, provisions and blankets. This attempt was curtailed when Fitzgerald felt nauseous at around 6000 metres. He sent Zurbriggen ahead to prospect for a good route, which his trusty Swiss guide did by climbing all the way to the saddle now known as Cresta del Guanaco at 6800m. They decided to have another go the following day, but this time they all started out nauseous after drinking a tin of sour milk for breakfast. Fitzgerald made it all the way up to 6400 metres, but then he tripped and fell, and was violently sick. They turned back again, but after lunch at high camp Fitzgerald felt better and the weather was fine, so he went for a little stroll back up the mountain to get “hardened and habituated to the conditions”. He reached the point where he turned back earlier in the morning without much difficulty. With renewed hope he returned to camp and ordered an immediate sixth attempt the following day.

Poor Fitzgerald. The altitude problems he experienced were clearly psychological rather than physical. With no pressure on him to reach the summit that afternoon because he knew there wasn’t time, he reached 6400 metres without any difficulty, but he was unable to reach the same altitude on any of their summit attempts without feeling sick. I’ve witnessed this curious psychological altitude sickness a number of times. When I climbed 7546m Muztag Ata in the Chinese Pamirs, the strongest person in the team suddenly experienced breathing difficulties at 7000m on summit day having acclimatised well up until then. His wife, who was climbing with us and also far stronger than we were, said this happened to him on nearly every mountain they climbed together. On 8201m Cho Oyu, somebody else who was strong and acclimatising well became ill after listening to a talk on altitude sickness from the team doctor. He was already nervous about the following day’s climb because he had never been to that altitude before, and hearing about all the things that could go wrong blew his confidence and probably brought altitude sickness on.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of psychological factors in the acclimatisation process. For most people symptoms such as nausea, headaches and appetite loss are perfectly normal – they’re part of the acclimatisation process and nothing to worry about, but confidence about them only comes with experience. In Fitzgerald’s case it wasn’t just that he hadn’t been to that altitude before: nobody had. Edward Whymper and his Italian guides Jean-Antoine and Louis Carrel climbed 6270m Chimborazo in Ecuador in 1880, but nobody had ever climbed a mountain as high as Aconcagua. It’s entirely possible Fitzgerald worried whether human beings would be able to survive up there.

Plaza de Mulas, Aconcagua, home of the dreaded base camp doctors
Plaza de Mulas, Aconcagua, home of the dreaded base camp doctors

These days the Aconcagua National Park authorities have their own way of maintaining tradition by trying to recreate Fitzgerald’s self-inflicted altitude sickness on anyone who passes through base camp – the dreaded base camp doctors. A climber’s first duty upon arriving at Plaza de Mulas or Plaza Argentina is to go for a mandatory health check. While a base camp doctor to treat people who are genuinely ill would be useful, having one there to administer check ups to people who are perfectly healthy appears to be about as helpful as giving Viagra to a man about to stand up and deliver a speech in tight trousers. The health check involves having your blood oxygen level, heart rate, pulse and blood pressure taken to see whether you are fit to climb, but the sheer pointlessness of taking these readings after climbers have just arrived in base camp, 4000 metres higher than Mendoza where they were relaxing comfortably a few days earlier, is hard to exaggerate. The problem is that while you’re acclimatising your heart rate, pulse and blood pressure all go up sharply as your heart works harder to pump oxygen around the body. This is perfectly normal. People acclimatise at different speeds, and slow acclimatisers are going to have readings at the high end of the scale, suggesting they are less healthy than fast acclimatisers, but this doesn’t mean they’re going to perform poorly once they’re fully acclimatised. I’ve discussed how fear of altitude sickness can help to bring it on. If an inexperienced climber who is perfectly healthy but suffering from mild altitude headaches sees a doctor’s reading which might indicate a dying person at sea level, they are likely to have the living shit scared out of them, increasing their chances of making themselves ill.

Many guides on Aconcagua are as resentful of the health checks as their clients. On one of my expeditions to the mountain a very experienced guide told me of how one client had been strong and confident during the trek into base camp, but emerged from his health check utterly downcast. With little experience of high altitude and how his body would adapt over time, his confidence was sapped. He became sick with worry over the next couple of days and eventually had to be taken down. And the base camp medical checks don’t just pose a hazard to inexperienced climbers – they can hinder experienced ones as well. You might assume most doctors deployed to Aconcagua base camp are specialists at high altitude who take acclimatisation into consideration, but this isn’t always the case. I have a friend Bunter I climbed to the North Col of Everest with, which at 7060m is higher than the summit of Aconcagua. The following year he reached the fore-summit of Manaslu, over 8000m, and he is clearly someone who is strong at very high altitudes. Between the two expeditions he went to Aconcagua, where the base camp doctor put him on medication and told him he should climb no higher than Nido de Condores at 5600m. Surprisingly he decided to take the doctor’s advice, but when you have paid thousands of dollars for an expedition and taken a month off work, and you are much more familiar with your medical history and performance at altitude than a random doctor who has never met you before, few would argue had he chosen to ignore them and climb anyway,

Fitzgerald and Zurbriggen took the slightly rockier ground of the North Ridge to the left of the Gran Acarreo
Fitzgerald and Zurbriggen took the slightly rockier ground of the North Ridge to the left of the Gran Acarreo

Some people believe Zurbriggen made the first ascent of Aconcagua by climbing straight up the scree of the Gran Acarreo, but in fact they had already decided much earlier in the expedition that route was about as sensible as filling their water bottles downstream of a dead mule being eaten by an army of skunks with dysentery. On their sixth attempt they kept to the east side of the North Ridge in order to shelter from the wind, climbing between the boulders above the plateau of Nido de Condores on a route which must have been very similar to the one climbers on the Normal Route use today. Some distance above this they stopped for another rest to light a fire and have something to eat. During the rest Fitzgerald, who had been feeling fine until then, gradually became nauseous again. By now he realised his bouts of nausea were getting a bit silly and in danger of jeopardising the main purpose of the expedition, so he sent Zurbriggen on alone to complete the first ascent of Aconcagua on 14th January 1897.

Still Fitzgerald wasn’t finished. A few days later he made another attempt, but spent two days at high camp in a blizzard which billowed snow into their tents and covered their sleeping bags. The snow continued for nearly a month, and it wasn’t until the middle of February they were able to make another attempt, this time with Stuart Vines, one of the British scientists accompanying the expedition, instead of Zurbriggen. On the 12th February they left for Fitzgerald’s eighth and final attempt. This time he found himself in a state of complete collapse after only an hour and a half, but Vines and Lanti were able to continue and became Aconcagua’s 2nd and 3rd summiteers.

The moral of the story is this – build your altitude experience up gradually and don’t panic. Oh, and try to avoid the base camp health check for as long as possible. This gives you more time to acclimatise, and your medical readings will be much healthier.

Edward Fitzgerald’s book The Highest Andes is a mountaineering classic, and well worth a read.

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5 thoughts on “First ascent of Aconcagua: a story of self-inflicted altitude sickness

  • February 28, 2013 at 11:48 pm
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    The psychology discussed in this interesting mountaineering story can be found in any walk of life. If one has a slightly fearful experience the brain is ready to bring that fear back into play in subsequent repeats of the activity. I know because I have experienced it when there is no rational explanation for the panic that can be felt. It has to be mind over body and it’s not easy to achieve if ever.

  • February 28, 2013 at 11:57 pm
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    I didn’t miss it but every time I see it I panic!

  • April 4, 2013 at 6:46 am
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    Interesting, Mark. I visited Aconcagua Jan 2013 and turned back from Plaza de Mulaz after spending there two days. The day we trekked to Mulaz was brutal and left me truly exhausted, and in the end I never really recovered. I hadn’t considered the mental strain of the medical checks until reading your posting. Having been to e.g. Elbrus, Cotopaxi, Chopicalqui and Mera Peak I’ve always had problems at around 4-5k altitude but then bounce back strong. With only three years of mountaineering I’m still fairly inexperienced so it was a new situation to turn around while rest of our group was heading up, but at that moment I trusted the docs and our fantastic guide. To me the medical checks seem like a good idea after seeing people in awful condition on various mountains still walking up towards the summit. Perhaps in my case the physical problems were real and wouldn’t have gone away – who knows.

    Anyway, I loved the people (and food & wine) in Mendoza so I’m definitely going back there to give Aconcagua another try. Soon, I hope.

    Br,
    Hannu

  • April 4, 2013 at 9:29 pm
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    Hi Hannu, it would be wrong of me to make any assumptions about your case, and if you were exhibiting serious symptoms of cerebral or pulmonary edema, for instance, then the doctor would have been quite right to send you down.

    I’m sure a doctor would disagree with me, but my argument is that in most cases prior experience at high altitude is a better indicator than medical readings. If you were merely experiencing the same symptoms that you suffered on previous occasions, then you would have been much better staying at base camp, and there would be no reason to suppose you wouldn’t recover like you had before.

    Good luck with your next attempt – I recommend the Vacas/False Polish Route this time, instead of the less interesting Horcones/Normal Route!

  • Pingback: To climb or not to climb? Those last 50 metres | Mark Horrell

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