To climb or not to climb? Those last 50 metres

Above the crags guarding Plaza de Mulas on the giant featureless scree slope at the foot of Aconcagua’s Normal Route, only a narrow sliver of rock breaks the surface of the scree below Plaza Canada, the first campsite above Base Camp. These are the Conway Rocks, an island of sharks’ fins pausing the monotony of the trail above base camp. They are a regular sandwich stopping-off point for climbers trudging their weary way up the mountain with their heavy packs.

Lunch at Conway Rocks on Aconcagua's Normal Route
Lunch at Conway Rocks on Aconcagua’s Normal Route

The rocks are named after Martin Conway, a British explorer better known for his travels in the Pakistan Karakoram, who made one of the rare early ascents of South America’s highest mountain in 1899. I say ascent, but Conway and his Swiss guide Antoine Maquignaz turned around just 50m short of the summit in what can be seen as a classic example of wimping out, a trait that continues to this day in some guided expeditions to Aconcagua.

Most early mountaineering expeditions concerned themselves with science and mapping as much as climbing, including the expedition led by Edward Fitzgerald, which made the first ascent of Aconcagua two years earlier. Conway made no pretence that his expedition was purely for pleasure, a refreshing and unusual attitude in the late 19th century.

Like many adventurers, Conway knew how to big up his achievements. For example, he made the following slightly audacious claim that the scree slope effectively made Aconcagua one and half times higher:

“Of the six or eight inches that the body had been raised, three or four were lost. Thus to climb a thousand feet up such a slope is equivalent to raising the body fifteen hundred feet.”
Martin Conway, Aconcagua and Tierra del Fuego

This is an interesting theory, and makes me wonder whether it’s possible to get off a drink driving charge by telling the police officer you’ve effectively only drunk half as much as he thinks you have because you brought quite a lot of it back up again.

I’ve talked a little about Edward Fitzgerald’s hapless efforts to climb Aconcagua in a previous post. Although his team was successful, he himself made numerous attempts to reach the summit, but each time he had to turn back at around 6000m, on one memorable occasion after stopping for a bottle of champagne which turned out to be frozen.

Conway’s ascent was more straightforward, but like Fitzgerald he didn’t reach the summit either. He chose a different line beside the rocks on the right hand side of the vast upper scree slope known as the Gran Acarreo, rather than keeping to the left of it on what is now the Normal Route. When he reached the foot of the Canaleta, a rocky gully that is the crux of the ascent, he chose to ascend a parallel gully to the right of it in the hope of getting some respite from the endless scree.

Looking up the Canaleta, a rocky gully leading to Aconcagua's summit ridge
Looking up the Canaleta, a rocky gully leading to Aconcagua’s summit ridge

While his body remained warm he suffered severely from cold in his extremities, as every climber on Aconcagua does. He described how every finger produced torture as acute as toothache, despite wearing the thickest pair of gloves he had ever seen, made from wolf fur lined with lamb’s wool.

When dawn arrived one of his alpine guides, Louis Pelissier, decided to turn back because he could no longer feel his feet. Meanwhile his other guide, Maquignaz, was having second thoughts.

“We shall never get there. Never, never, never!”

“Oh yes, we shall,” Conway replied, “if we have to stay and live on the mountain.”

This shows admirable determination, but they were not far from the summit, and what followed was inexplicable.

Their gully rejoined the Canaleta just below Cresta del Guanaco, the ridge between Aconcagua’s two main summits, and they continued up to it until they found themselves looking down the South Face. They were now on the summit ridge, not far from the summit itself, and they turned left along it.

Maquignaz had to cut steps in the snow. Conway had left his ice axe in the gully and followed behind, attached by a rope, but with no means of stopping himself if he fell. He appeared to be completely lucid, and stopped to take many photographs. He described the view around him in great detail, and even put a name to some of the peaks he could see.

They were so close to the summit, but the wind whipped up. Maquignaz turned around and voiced his doubts.

“If this wind rises any higher we shall not be able to return along this arête, and so you will lose your ice-axe.”

And so they abandoned their attempt, just 50 vertical metres and perhaps 100 horizontal metres of straightforward if exhausting walking from the summit, for an ice axe which he hadn’t needed.

Knowing when to turn back is an important part of mountaineering, and there are many instances where those 50 vertical metres make all the difference.

Slogging through snow close to the place where Conway and Maquignaz turned around
Slogging through snow close to the place where Conway and Maquignaz turned around

When the Australian Andy Henderson made the first ascent of Everest’s North Face by the Norton Couloir in 1984, he turned around just 50 metres short of the top, but it was becoming dark and he had left the regular prescription glasses he needed to descend in his pack some distance below. He had taken his gloves off to fix a crampon during the ascent, and his hands were cooler than a snowman in a tuxedo. His two companions, Tim Macartney-Snape and Greg Mortimer, had reached the summit and were already on their way down. His decision to turn back was a wise one, and arguably should have been made sooner. He lost all eight fingers and the joint of one thumb to frostbite, but at least he was still alive.

In 1975 Pete Boardman and Pertemba Sherpa had just completed the first ascent of Everest’s Southwest Face a day after their team mates Doug Scott and Dougal Haston. They were descending a short distance below the summit when they passed Mick Burke on the way up. They agreed to wait at the South Summit while Burke completed his ascent. But this great icon of British mountaineering was to live up to his name in tragic fashion, and somewhere during those last few metres he disappeared, probably after falling through a cornice. His body has never been found.

Rather less famously than these two historic ascents, when I attempted Gasherbrum II in Pakistan in 2009, the last 50 metres below the summit thwarted many climbers because of the dangerous snow conditions and some slightly more technical climbing. There were only two ascents that year, one of whom was the Swiss Machine Ueli Steck. The only fatality was a Spanish climber Luis Barbero, who attempted to climb those last 50 metres against the advice of his companions. They turned back and waited for him in camp, but he never returned.

We don’t know for certain what conditions were like for Conway and Maquignaz on Aconcagua, though Conway’s account tells us it was very windy and there was enough snow to warrant step cutting. We do know a great deal about the route and distance they needed to follow to the summit. They literally had only a few metres of straightforward plodding, and Conway even knew this from the descriptions of Matthias Zurbriggen and Stuart Vines, who both reached the summit during Fitzgerald’s expedition.

We also know that it wasn’t necessary for them to climb along the knife edge of the ridge to retrieve Conway’s ice axe, as Maquignaz had implied (“return along this arête”). It’s perfectly possible to traverse beneath the ridge and get some shelter from the wind. To give up at that point for the sake of an ice axe, so close to their goal after weeks of effort to get there, is a bit like Neil Armstrong abandoning the first ever moon walk after years of planning because he’s worried his shoes might fall apart when he jumps out of the lunar landing pod.

A pained expression on my face after being turned back at El Dedo, still 500m short of the summit
A pained expression on my face after being turned back at El Dedo, still 500m short of the summit

When I made my own first attempt on Aconcagua in 2005, our guide turned us around on summit day at a place called El Dedo, on the traverse to the Canaleta above the giant scree slope of the Gran Acarreo. It was a beautifully clear morning, but it was extremely cold and windy.

Several members of our team had already turned back because of the cold, but I was well-equipped with warm boots and thick down mitts. Although we had other guides to escort team members down, our head guide reasoned that there were still another five hours’ climbing to reach the summit and El Dedo, a narrow finger of rock jutting out of the scree, was the last place we would get any shelter from the wind. Even if we continued, he said, we would still have to turn round higher up.

At the time I was gutted we were denied a chance at the summit, and I still believe the decision to turn back so early was too timid. But I look back at the incident fondly now. I’m much more experienced and I know that summit disappointment, for whatever reason, is part and parcel of mountaineering. The incident also had a silver lining.

Because I didn’t reach the summit in 2005, I returned five years later to climb Aconcagua by a different route, the False Polish Glacier. This misleadingly-named route is Aconcagua’s second most popular after the Normal Route, Like the Normal Route it is a walk-up rather than a climb, but it is far more interesting. It involves approaching the mountain from the opposite site and traversing around the back to rejoin the Normal Route for summit day. The giant scree slope, which climbers on the Normal Route spend days plodding up and down, is avoided, and the scenery is much more interesting.

My expedition in 2010 was one of those happy ones where everything seems to go right, and it was chiefly thanks to my guide, a Peruvian called Augusto Ortega who was far more determined. Augusto holds the record for most ascents of Aconcagua (over 60), and you don’t get a record like that without knowing when to push on.

My summit day in 2010 was warmer and much less windy than it had been in 2005, but in every other respect conditions were much worse. There were four days of heavy snow in the run up to our attempt, which had seen no summits. The day before we left high camp climbers had turned back at Cresta del Guanaco after deciding there was too much snow to traverse across to the summit (although unlike Conway I’m guessing they still had their ice axes).

We reached El Dedo in a white-out. Figures were emerging from the mist ahead of us and coming back down, having decided these weren’t summit conditions. Augusto paused briefly behind the rock, asked us how we were feeling, then continued on. He was right to do so, because as we climbed higher the weather cleared, and by now there were only a few of us still going upwards. I later learned we passed the same guide who turned me back in 2005 as we climbed the Canaleta, and his group never joined us on the summit.

In the same place five years later, with figures descending behind us. This time we continued.
In the same place five years later, with figures descending behind us. This time we continued.

When we reached Cresta del Guanaco another guide was waiting with his client, dithering about whether to continue, but Augusto didn’t hesitate. He broke trail all the way to the top, through snow close to thigh deep in places. We were exhausted, but he knew exactly how close we were and how much effort we had put in to get there. We were the first people to reach the summit in four days, and below us many people were returning to high camp disappointed.

When you have invested a great deal of time, money, and physical and emotional commitment in a climb, it’s never easy to turn around just 50 metres from the top. It’s a decision that requires experience, and sometimes knowledge of the conditions on those last few steps.

Even though there was a happy ending for me, our guide made the wrong decision in 2005, and turned us back far too early. The time to retreat is when you no longer consider it safe to continue. Until that moment comes, you can keep going. Martin Conway also made the wrong decision, but Andy Henderson made the right one.

Those last 50 metres: the difference between elation and disappointment, and sometimes the difference between life and death.

If you’re interested in the history of Aconcagua and own a Kindle, then Martin Conway’s Aconcagua and Tierra del Fuego, and Edward Fitzgerald’s The Highest Andes are both well worth a read for a budget price.

My joys and sorrows on Aconcagua are covered in depth in the book I will be publishing later this year about my ten year journey to climb Everest. You can read a sneak preview in this blog post.

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One thought on “To climb or not to climb? Those last 50 metres

  • May 12, 2020 at 6:41 pm

    My father was a close and dear friend to Mick Burkes uncle (I think that was the relationship) his uncle was named Mick Burke, Mick was very proud and loved his namesake, from what I can remember and never recovered from his grief at the loss of Mick and died of a heart attack but my father called in heartbreak. This was a long time ago and I was just a school girl but remember the heartbreak over these two losses. I know it is sad but I dip into websites like yours now and again to pay homage to men my father considered brave, kind and loyal. I like to think that Mick saw a gap to try for on that mountain and took it regardless of cost as his focus must have been intense, bit wreckless and brave – what a way to live your life-amazing. Thanks for just the mention of him and your respect, I wish I had known him but I certainly knew of him and recall the huge smile my father had when he rarely recalled him, I remember the sadness in our home but also found it uplifting and full of mystery. Regards Jane Southwell.

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