Hi there. I’m the internet’s Jim Hodgson. You may know me from such Tripleblaze articles as Harrisonburg, VA: Hiking and Intransitive Verb Paradise and North Georgia is Tallulah Gorgeous.
I went to Argentina recently to attempt to summit Aconcagua, the tallest mountain outside the Himalayas, and when I got back I wrote a little book about the experience. It’s an efficient day-to-day account of the climb itself, with helpful tips and a lot of humor mixed in. You can grab a copy for just $5.99 for paper or $4.99 for Kindle.
I love the outdoors almost as much as I love writing humor about the outdoors, and I can’t thank you, the Tripleblaze readers, enough for giving me an outlet to do that.
By way of thanks, here for your reading enjoyment is the first chapter of my book. If you like it, head on over to Amazon.com and order yourself a copy. I’d sure appreciate it.
Here we go!
1. Why Aconcagua?
Geography lies. For example, a continent is defined by Webster’s dictionary as “…great divisions of land on the globe,” and there are seven of them: Asia, Europe, Australia, North America, South America, Africa, and Antarctica. But geographers and scientists say there are only six continents, because calling Europe and Asia separate just because mountains run between them is like a married man calling himself single merely because he’s sick of his wife. Let’s face it, though—Europe can be like that sometimes.
As long as we’re getting technical, North America and South America were also a continuous expanse of land until a French diplomat named Ferdinand de Lesseps came along in 1881 and began digging a canal across the thinnest part, called an “isthmus.” De Lesseps was flush with success, having recently dug the Suez Canal in Egypt, and spirits were high. The idea of the Panama project had been floating around for quite some time—even advocated by Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson—but the French project sputtered and failed. Nearly 100 years later, the United States assumed and completed work on the Panama Canal, taking much of that time to compose palindromes about it.
I explain this about the continents because mountaineers, in defiance of their geographer and scientist counterparts, agree that there are seven continents, even though a strong case could be made for six, or even five. They do this thanks partly to a man named Richard Bass, who was born in an ancient time (1929) when being called “Dick” was not a judgment of any kind on one’s demeanor. Bass, himself a Yale University geology graduate, opened a ski resort in 1971. The resort prospered. According to an oft-repeated but ill-cited quote from Bass, that prosperity was due to his own “blanket curiosity, nonstop verbosity, and hyperenthusiasm.”
“I’m thinking about going skiing today,” one of his resort guests may very well have said.
“You’d better damn well get out there and ski like your life depends on it! Rarrrgh!” Dick Bass may very well have exclaimed, leaping onto a nearby table and hyperenthusiastically tearing open his shirt.
Prosperous and enthusiastic Dick Bass, along with his buddy Frank Wells, who was himself a prosperous president of Warner Brothers Studios at the time, concocted a plan to summit the highest peaks on each of the seven continents. According to their book about the adventure, The Seven Summits, Bass had the idea to climb all seven peaks while descending Alaska’s Denali after a successful summit.
Actually, in The Seven Summits, Bass called the mountain by its more commonly known name, “Mount McKinley,” which it acquired when miner William Dickey wrote a newspaper article in the New York Sun describing how he “discovered” the peak in 1897. He chose the name McKinley after then-presidential-hopeful William McKinley of Ohio. Dickey chose this name for no reason other than he was himself a conservative who wanted McKinley to win. I don’t personally have any mountains, but I wonder how I would like it if someone came along and renamed one of my little nieces after some presidential candidate. Dickey was not at all bothered that presidential hopeful McKinley never even set foot in Alaska in his life, let alone laid eyes on Denali. Also problematic is that the mountain had already long since been discovered centuries ago by the native Alaskans who lived nearby. They called it “Denali,” which means “the high one” in their language. Things get a bit complicated from there, because McKinley was shot and killed in Buffalo in 1901 while president. That’s a tragedy in anyone’s book, one that should be remembered forever—just not as a mountain’s name.
Even now, in the year 2013, Alaskans such as Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-AK, are fighting Ohioans over the right to let their mountain go back to the name it had before white people showed up and started “discovering” things natives already knew about. Congressman Ralph Regula, R-OH, led opposition to the name change until he retired in 2009, but the pressure to keep Denali McKinley is still alive and well. Recently, Rep. Tim Ryan, D-OH, said that the name McKinley must be retained “in order to honor the legacy of this great American President and patriot.” Of course, Rep. Ryan is right that we should remember the legacy of President McKinley. He was, after all, our 25th president, which I believe makes him the silver president, but is he really in any danger of being forgotten? I mean, he did lead the United States to victory in the Spanish-American war. He did get elected president. It’s not as though having his name slapped on Denali is the only thing keeping his memory alive. In fact, I think keeping his name on Denali is pretty dumb, so I call that particular mountain Denali.
Richard Bass and Frank Wells weren’t troubled by any of these disputes, however, living as they were in the halcyon days of the early 1980s. Their list of seven summits included Kosciuszko (2228 meters) in Australia, Elbrus (5,642 meters) in Russia, Vinson Massif (4,892 meters) in Antarctica, Everest (8,848 meters) in Nepal and China, Denali (6,194 meters) in the United States, Kilimanjaro (5,895 meters) in Tanzania, and Aconcagua (6961 meters) in Argentina.
There is another list, called the Messner list after its creator, famed alpinist Reinhold Messner. An “alpinist” is another word for mountaineer, and Messner is certainly one of those. In 1980 he was the first to summit Everest without the use of supplementary oxygen. The Independent, a newspaper in the United Kingdom, called him “the greatest climber in history” in 2006. He’s climbed everything worth climbing, and was the first to summit many of the world’s highest peaks. He’s crossed deserts, trekked across Greenland, and spent time tracking the yeti, or abominable snowman. He even claims to have seen a yeti in his book, My Quest for the Yeti, though he was not able to produce any solid proof of the encounter. Yetis aside, he’s unquestionably a mountaineer’s mountaineer.
The Messner list includes the Carstensz Pyramid (4,884m) in Indonesia instead of Kosciuszko. Messner felt that the Carstensz Pyramid should be on the list instead of Kosciuszko simply because it is taller. To get to the top, a climber has to actually climb, whereas summiting Kosciuszko, with its very low altitude and nicely paved path to the top, is within the capabilities of a determined house cat. Still, Bass and Wells preferred the slightly more geographically correct Kosciuszko.
I should say at this point that I will be expressing height in meters because that’s how it’s done in mountaineering. If you want to convert to feet, multiply the meters by 3.3, or 3.2808399 if you want to be super technical about it. Realize, however, that if you must make any conversion from metric to imperial units and there are people from countries other than America around, they are likely to huff at you. For example, a few days into our trip I wondered aloud what the temperature would be at the summit. “Negative tree or four,” responded Irishman Darragh, fellow climbing party member. He was a professional guide himself, climbing Aconcagua on vacation from his usual gig in the Alps. Apparently, years ago, Darragh left the military and decided that civilian life wasn’t for him, so he set about trying to keep clients from tumbling off Europe’s peaks instead.
“Three or four C?” I asked. “What’s that in F?”
“Fookin Americans,” he responded.
My friend Mark and I climbed Kilimanjaro together in 2010 via the Lemosho route. That trip remains far and away the most enjoyment I have ever received for dollars spent in my life. Since we enjoyed Kili so much — once you’ve summited a mountain you’re allowed to address it by a nickname — and since it’s on both the Bass and Messner lists, we thought we might like to try another of the seven: Aconcagua. It has many similar qualities to Kilimanjaro without being nearly as expensive, time-consuming, or lethal as some of the more challenging peaks.
All of the other summits have troublesome challenges. For example, Denali is known to be very, very cold. Climbers who attempt to summit Denali wear 50- to 60-pound packs in addition to a 30-pound sled that they drag behind themselves. I say Rudolph the red-nosed no thanks. Elbrus is in Russia, and while it isn’t very tall, I am told that the support structure for climbing parties is iffy at best. I’ve also heard that they have some very enthusiastic local gangs. Everest is prohibitively expensive and time-consuming. Expeditions can run upwards of $60,000 and can take months, plus climbers are in constant danger of being shoved off the mountain by a yak. I am not making that up about the yaks, by the way. Vinson Massif isn’t terribly tall, but it is in the middle of Antarctica, which is our planet’s impenetrable icy underpants. The Carstensz Pyramid requires a lot of ropes and scrambling over jagged rocks. Sounds to me like a great way to skin a knee.
Aconcagua, on the other hand, is high, but non-technical. When I use the term “technical,” it is to denote the use of equipment and techniques which require skills to safely employ. Skills, to be perfectly honest, that Mark and I did not have at the time. Aconcagua is also located in Argentina, in the Andes mountain range, which was formed as the South American Tectonic Plate shifted into the Pacific Plate. Situated as it is in Argentina, it is very close to the famous wine-drinking and beef-chorizo-eating city of Mendoza. Good luck getting yourself a decent latte in Antarctica or the high Himalayas, let alone a delicious Malbec. I mean, we’re interested in adventure, but there are limits.
Thus, the choice was made. Aconcagua it would be. We decided too late for the nearest climbing season, though, in the fall of 2011, so we had to wait a full year until December 2012 to set off. In that time we read books, web pages, and message boards and used the knowledge gained there to purchase a truly staggering amount of cold weather gear. We also “trained” for the climb. I use quotes because while we did walk many times up local mountains with weighted packs on our backs, physical effort at sea level and at altitude are very different propositions. Our home in Atlanta, Georgia has two mountains close by, Kennesaw Mountain (551 meters) and Stone Mountain (251 meters), but if either were in the Andes near Aconcagua they would surely not have names. They’d just be “that hill over there” and “that other one.” Still, we walked up and down Kennesaw and Stone Mountain quite a lot with weighted packs and pouring sweat.
Fitness is important, but altitude sickness is the biggest obstacle facing any would-be Aconcagua climber. It is impossible to predict how severe altitude sickness will be from person to person, or even from trip to trip for the same person. It’s kind of like being in a room with a very temperamental yeti. It might take a nap, or it might leap on you and tear you to ribbons. There’s no way to know until it’s too late.
Now you know some hard details about why we chose Aconcagua, but why, in a philosophical sense, would anyone want to go to high altitude in the first place? Why do any of this? Aconcagua is tall and there’s very little oxygen at the top of it. It’s a lot of work. Maybe too much, but then, a lot of things are hard. Being alone is hard. Losing someone is hard. What am I going to think with my last thought, I wonder? Will it be something like “Oh shit, this is it,” or something self-conscious like “Augh! My socks don’t match and the EMTs are judging me”? If I’m honest, it’ll probably be more like “I wish I’d done more.” When I think about life ending, I think it might be a lot like leaving a party early.
I am lucky. My legs work. My lungs work. Don’t I have a duty, given that I have those resources, to use them? Don’t I have a duty to the people who are no longer with us to run as far and climb as high as I can? I think so. I mean, like I said before, there are limits. I tend to stay away from some more dangerous pastimes, even though they are seriously fun, because I know that I will go wrong at some point. I have good balance, but going wrong is a statistical eventuality in my view. That’s why I have to be careful not to spend too much time on motorcycles. It’s a shame, because they are pretty much the most fun things ever, but I’ve got a number of permanent injuries just from bicycle wrecks. I can’t ride a bike anywhere nearly as fast as I can drive a motorcycle. You won’t catch me base jumping or in a wingsuit either, though I’m sure those activities are mind-blowing.
Being uncomfortable on a mountain has benefits. It puts daily life into perspective. I look around at my nice warm apartment with the sun angling through the blinds and I feel lucky to be here. Would I ever have that thought if I didn’t spend at least a little time each year being profoundly uncomfortable? I think probably not. Mind you, Aconcagua is not the tallest or the toughest mountain in the world. It isn’t very technical, either, but then, I am not a mountaineer. I am a writer who likes going outside and then making jokes about it.
Well, that’s my first chapter. Thanks for reading!
If you want to read more, and I hope you do, head on over to Amazon.com and order yourself a copy.