You won’t find me partying in Ibiza any time soon, or spending a week lying on a beach improving my sun tan, or taking a city break to look around museums. That’s because I enjoy those types of holiday about as much as I enjoy tucking into a portion of boiled pig manure with Brussels sprouts.
But that’s fine. We’re all different, and most people I know find my own method of spending a holiday by walking all day up a steep hill and going to sleep in a tent quite eccentric too. Luckily the world is big enough to accommodate all of us, and there’s plenty of opportunity for us to indulge in the sorts of holiday we enjoy. Yet in spite of this there seems to be a surprisingly large number of people who climb big mountains when they’re really not enjoying themselves.
I reflected on this the other day when I read a piece by the esteemed travel writer and journalist Simon Calder, who has just climbed Aconcagua in Argentina and written about it in the Independent. If you read Simon’s piece you would be forgiven for thinking climbing the highest mountain in South America compares somewhat unfavourably with descending through the nine circles of hell. But I disagree entirely. The five weeks I have spent on Aconcagua have been among my happiest times. There were moments of pain and disappointment, but these were overshadowed by the good times, the enjoyment and the overwhelmingly happy memories.
How could we feel so differently? Well, let’s compare our experiences.
It’s clear the camping experience (or rather “living in a tent for three weeks on a series of desolate plateaux and a diet of reconstituted cardboard”) isn’t really Simon’s cup of tea. Colera Camp, which as he helpfully points out is similar to the word cholera, was apparently “contender for world’s worst campsite”, and even at base camp he was dismayed to find that “water does not emerge on demand from a tap; you painstakingly harvest snow to melt. Human waste has to be collected and saved throughout the climb.”
On the experience of life at high altitude he was similarly forthright:
“Night at altitude crushes the spirit, smothering you beneath a blanket of cold, rare air that makes every gasp both painful and inadequate. The contrast between this long, slow suffocation and daytime is as sharp as the shards of ice that scar Aconcagua’s face … Gales rip at the tents. They destroy sleep, and eventually climbers’ dreams.”
But then again, he wasn’t really expecting to enjoy it after his travelling companion, the author and climber Graham Hoyland, told him: “You feel rubbish. It’s cold, it’s windy. I can’t imagine getting to the summit.”
The terrain wasn’t much to his liking, either:
“Imagine tramping uphill through an industrial quantity of cat litter from before dawn to mid-afternoon, in a world in which half the oxygen has been eliminated.”
Mind you, he did climb Aconcagua by the Normal Route, which is legendary for its tedious scree slopes.
Aconcagua is an expedition peak, which means you have to be patient while you acclimatise, and climb slowly. Simon explains:
“Summiting may be the theoretical aim, but the vast majority of time is spent not ascending. Even when you do climb, the chances are you will descend immediately, thanks to the convergence of two principles: ‘climb high, sleep low’ and ‘carry and cache’ … Of the 1,400 people who tackle the peak during the brief summer window between December and March, between two-thirds and three-quarters fail. And an average of nine of them die.”
But he must have enjoyed the summit experience, surely?
“Almost every day of your life is going to be better than this one,” Graham Hoyland said to him as he woke up in his tent on summit day. In case you’re wondering, Graham Hoyland isn’t currently available for bookings as a motivational speaker.
Remarkably, Simon made it to the summit, but he didn’t even enjoy the view from the top. Here’s how he described his summit day:
“If you can inure yourself to the brutal surroundings, overcome the morale- and energy-sapping scree, accept that the mountain has squeezed every ounce of joy from your heart and yet still plod ever upwards, eventually the pain stops. As does the ascent … The world’s highest walk ends on a barren plateau that feels strangely like a modest viewpoint in a European municipal park.”
But at least his ordeal was over:
“We were led down through an Andean blizzard from the worst of times to the best: to soap and salad and traffic and plumbing and art and beer and laughter and the rest of the human race.”
We found a sheltered spot at Colera Camp on the night before our summit day. It was a fabulous location, looking out across a horizon of high peaks far below us. Our camp site was surrounded by unusual jagged white rock formations, which looked like strange natural sculptures. I felt so privileged to be in that lofty eyrie high above almost everything else in the southern hemisphere. The world’s worst campsite? I couldn’t agree less if he’d said Ant and Dec are two of the world’s great thinkers.
As for the general camping experience, cranking up a stove in the porch of my tent to melt snow for water is something I’ve done often and don’t mind in the slightest. There aren’t many places you can wake up, roll over and brew up a piping hot cup of tea while still lying in bed, but a tent’s one of them. As for crapping into a bag and carrying it down with you, well that’s something that’s not so bad once you’re used to it. When I first started trekking I used to find squatting over a hole to crap somewhat awkward, but it’s something we’ve evolved to do, and with practice it’s as easy as sitting down on a toilet. The poo bags have comedy value as well.
As for life at high altitude, nights up high are not something to fear, but if you’ve never been to 6000m they will probably be agonising. I remember my first night at our 5800m high camp on Mera Peak, Nepal, in 2004. I had a splitting headache and didn’t sleep well because I was nervous about my summit attempt the following day. When I returned there five years later I was much more experienced. I had spent so much time at high altitude that I acclimatised much more quickly. I had no concerns about my summit attempt the following day because I knew it was well within my abilities. I slept well, as I usually do at altitude. There’s something I enjoy about snuggling up in my 5-seasons sleeping bag, and tightening up the drawstrings around the neck and hood to keep out the cold while I listen to the wind howling outside. I feel safe and secure, and sleep as well as I can in any 5 star hotel bed (not that I do that very often).
My first expedition to Aconcagua was also my first experience of expedition-style mountaineering, where you spend many rest days at base camp acclimatising and waiting for a weather window, gradually making your way up the mountain establishing camps in a series of load carries, then coming back down again. I wondered how I would take to it, but I didn’t have a problem with it at all. I’ve been on expeditions when the weather has forced a week or more of inactivity at base camp, and although you sometimes get a little stir crazy and eager to move, I usually enjoy the downtime as long as I have plenty of good books to read. The easy pace of expedition life away from the stresses of the modern world is something to relish.
On the other hand, my first expedition to Aconcagua was my first experience of “failure” – in other words, not reaching the summit. That was a shock and it took me a long time to get over it. I had invested a great deal of time, money, preparation, training and emotional energy in Aconcagua, and turning back short of our goal was a bitter blow, but every cloud has a silver lining. On that first occasion I was attempting the dull old Normal Route, up those giant scree slopes. I left thinking Aconcagua was a boring mountain, and had I reached the summit on that occasion I would never have returned five years later to climb it by the Vacas/Falsh Polish Route. It was much more picturesque and an altogether happier experience. I’ve now lost count of the number of mountains where I’ve failed to reach the summit. It’s always been due to circumstances beyond my control, and I don’t look upon it as failure any more. It’s part and parcel of mountaineering, and the important thing is to enjoy the whole experience. The summit is a bonus, but what a bonus when it happens!
How could Simon Calder not enjoy the view from the summit of Aconcagua? I think I understand: it was his first big mountain and he was probably too exhausted to appreciate where he was. I’ve done it many times too, as I’ve gradually worked my way up higher and higher mountains, pushing myself a little harder each time. I edged my way up 500m at a time, and before my first attempt on 6959m Aconcagua my highest was 6476m Mera Peak. To make the jump to Aconcagua from 224m Box Hill in Surrey, the only other “mountain” Simon Calder climbed last year, is inconceivable. He would have been more tired than a rutting stag defending a herd of randy hinds, and could probably remember little of his surroundings.
When I finally reached the summit of Aconcagua at the second attempt I was tired for sure, it’s not an easy climb, but I had already been higher, and I remember my summit day clearly. It’s an interesting one from Colera Camp, full of variety, passing between rocky outcrops in a series of zigzags before emerging onto a long traverse above the Gran Acarreo (literally the Great Haul), a huge 1000m scree slope overlooking the Horcones Valley and base camp on the Normal Route. The crux of the route is the Canaleta, a rocky gully that climbs steeply to a col between the south and main summits. The path traverses beneath a ridge above the Canaleta, and just before you reach the top it’s possible to look back along it to the South Summit, with the vast snow-clad slopes of the South Face falling away to the left. The summit is not “like a modest viewpoint in a European municipal park” any more than Mahatma Gandhi once played right back for Accrington Stanley.
Why the big difference?
Simon Calder and I climbed the same mountain, but really we were in different worlds. I have to take my hat off to him for persevering and making it to the summit; it’s a great achievement. But frankly, if he hated it that much, why bother?
It’s not difficult to read between the lines of the two accounts above and see the reasons. While I was doing something I enjoy, he made himself out to be a fish out of water. I’ve been up Box Hill a few times, and quite often I nip out of London to go walking in the North Downs, but that wasn’t the limit of my experience when I attempted Aconcagua. I expect Simon Calder has done a variety of strenuous activities he’s not telling us about, or he’s unlikely to have made it to the top, but they’re important to mention. It’s never a good idea to make a giant leap before you’ve tested the fabric of your trousers. Personally I have worked my way up gradually from hill walking to high altitude trekking, then climbing higher and higher mountains. I did some low level treks in Nepal, 3210m Poon Hill for a view of the Annapurnas, 3800m Tengboche in the Everest region, then the more strenuous Huayhuash Circuit in Peru, whose highest point is the high pass of Punta Cuyoc at 5030m. I climbed 5895m Kilimanjaro and 6476m Mera Peak in Nepal. By the time I went to Aconcagua I knew what I was letting myself in for.
A great myth surrounds the highest mountain in South America, explicitly referred to by Simon Calder in his article.
“Graham explained that Aconcagua is the highest walk in the world, with no head for heights needed – just an aptitude for altitude.”
Well he’s right about the aptitude for altitude, but Aconcagua is not a walk; it’s a mountaineering expedition. It’s one that doesn’t require technical climbing skills, but then you don’t need to know how to execute an uppercut to take on Mike Tyson in a fight either. Several people die on Aconcagua every year, but it’s not an especially dangerous mountain if you know what you’re doing.
Quite a lot of people are attracted to mountains like Kilimanjaro, Aconcagua and Everest because they see them as an extreme physical challenge. They can also be a fantastic, incredibly enjoyable and fulfilling experience. I have so many great memories of climbing all of them, but they’re not everybody’s cup of tea.
I don’t begrudge Simon Calder for writing his piece; it’s well-written, as you would expect from such an illustrious travel writer, and in many ways it’s probably quite accurate. It’s just that it’s aimed at an audience of couch potatoes, and if you’re reading this blog then perhaps you didn’t recognise his description of climbing Aconcagua either.