Great news! The highest mountain in the American continents and the highest point out of Asia has been summited. 6 out of my team of 8, including myself, summited Mt Acongagua, 6962m on the 13th of Jan at 1500h. There was equal south east asian representation on the summit with 2 Singaporeans, 2 Malaysians and 2 Thais and it was an incredible moment when each of the countries’ flags was held up high and proud on the summit by their respective country men.
I’m glad i’m finally able to share this piece of news and update my blog after having gone without internet and phone reception for more than 2 weeks. I think this has been the longest period of time that I’ve been absolutely not in contact with the outside world. Even money could not buy this connectivity cos that was how remote this mountain was. We’re finally back in the hotel in Mendoza with the most basic of human rights, which is readily accessible communication with family and friends.
This was the mountain that started it all. Claudia, my rock climbing team mate and exchange PhD student from Romania during my days in NUS climbed Aconcagua with her Romanian mountaineering friends in 2008. My eyes grew wide and my jaw dropped when I saw her expedition photos on flicker. That was when I decided, if someone that I knew could experience all this beauty and excitement 1st hand, I could try doing it too. With that, my Kilimanjaro trip was organized and the rest was history (or maybe still in the making). It was one heck of an experience setting foot on the mountain that inspired it all. I could only imagine how Claudia was feeling at her moment of glory as I was retracing her steps to the summit. One never realizes how much even their smallest of actions can affect someone else in tremendous ways. Unknowingly, Claudia’s passion ignited something within me and made me want to do something with my life. If you’re reading this Claudia, thank you so much for your inspiration which has changed my life forever. And for all the others who reading this, I hope that I could be of some inspiration to at least a couple of you.
Our team of 8; 3 singaporeans, 3 Malaysians and 2 Thais, led by our very own south east asian climbing and adventure veteran, Khoo Swee Chiow started off the journey to the other side of the world on the 31st of Dec 2011. Below is a brief description of how we got to the base camp of Acongagua. It took us nearly 1 week of flying, bus rides and trekking to finally reach the base camp on the 5th of Jan.
We departed singapore changi terminal 2 at 2120h on 31st dec 2011. Flew to KL and had a 3h transit there. Then it was a 11.5h flight to cape town. Stop over for 1.5h. Followed by a 8h50min flight to boeunos aires. Landed at 1300h local time (11h time difference bet sin). Then it was a 1.5h bus ride to the domestic airport. We took the 1720h flight to the city of Mendoza for another 1.5h and finally another half hour bus ride to reach the hotel at about 8pm.
The very next day, we took a 4 h bus journey to Puente Del Inca (2725m). A half hour bus ride on the 3rd of Jan to entrance to the Vacas valley. Then a 6h trek to Pampa De Lenas (2800m) in an extremely hot 44deg celcius which made all of us sick in one way or another. On the 4th, another 6h trek took us to Casa De Piedra (3200m). On the 5th, a final 7h trek took us to the base camp of the Vacas Valley route, Plaza Argentina (4200m).
Phew, technical details are over. Now, I continue with the more interesting descriptions of what happened. Never under estimate a mountain no matter how easy it may seem. This was something I took away from my experience on my 1st mountain, Kilimanjaro. Although Aconcagua is deemed the highest ‘trekking’ peak in the world, it sure posed a lot of challenges when we were there.
Winds were terrible. A Canadian female team of 2 had to return to base camp as their tent got blown away due to the wind. We saw alot of shredded tents at camp 1 as well. The whole night at camp 1 was filled with noise of tent flaps hitting hard against the tent. We just hoped that the fly sheet wouldn’t take off in the middle of the night.
Cold and snow. It was summer in Argentina but night temperatures were way below zero every night and it would snow almost certainly every afternoon. As we got higher, it got colder and it seemed that no matter what I wore, I was still struggling to fall asleep in the cold.
Old injuries. Somehow, I tend to fall sick each time I am about to depart for a trip. I caught a flu just 2 days before departing. The flu disappeared soon after the hike began but my torn left meniscus problem flared up and I couldn’t straighten or bend my knee fully and it was a truly painful affair squatting for the toilet or even when sleeping, when the inflammation was the greatest. My previously dislocated right acromioclavicular (the joint between the collar bone and the shoulder) also gave problems as we had to carry heavy loads from camp to camp as there was a tight restriction on the load that the porters would carry.
They had constructed toilets at base camps so that wasn’t really a problem. But up in the high camps, what I feared most was indeed true. We had to do our number 2s inside plastic bags. But the greatest relief was that there were porters to consolidate these plastic bags and carry it on our behalf. Literally shitty work. As we got to camp 3,the procedure changed and were asked to use newspapers instead of plastic bags. Hmmm… Wondering how? Drop on the newspaper and then clear into the trash bag. Of my greatest heaven luck, the diarrhea that I was hoping would not return had to come back with vengeance when I was at camp 3. So you can just imagine how messy everything was. But I wasn’t complaining as I said earlier. I just began to pity the porter a lot more then.
After our cash and carry and our 1st acclimatisation cycle to camp 1, we set off for our summit push to camp 1 on the 9th. We had been extremely lucky with the weather even though it had not been too favorable for the other climbers. On the summit day, we left in the bitter cold of the morning at 5.30am. White rocks, black rocks, the destroyed independica hut, the finger, the cave and finally the canalata. After a grueling and extremely tiring 9.5h climb, we finally reached the summit. However the moment on the summit was short lived as heavy winds and snow forced us down the mountain as quickly as we got up. We struggled back to camp 3 in a white out for another 4h. No views on the summit due to the thick snow. Extremely cold, wet and miserable when the summit day ended.
Somehow I tend to leave a part of myself on the summit of each mountain by puking, either due to exhaustion on Mt Chola or due to coughing too much on Mt Ama Dablam. I was trying terribly to resist this trend on this mountain but unfortunately I circummed to my legacy once again, but this time due to a rather strange reason. I was extremely exhausted but elated on reaching the summit – no nausea yet. Then there was this Chillean couple who came up to the summit around the same time as us and they started crying in joy upon the completion of the ordeal. I saw them and started getting emotional myself and somehow the vomit centre in my brain was activated and there I was uncontrollably leaving a part of myself on the summit once again. Emotion and nausea?? New area for research perhaps.
Unfortunately 2 of my team members couldn’t summit. For the very 1st time with my very own eyes, I had witnessed someone getting HAPE (High Altitude Pulmonary Edema) in my own team. Siang Beng eventually got evacuated by helicopter to a lower altitude. The other, Andrew, started developing breathing difficulties and mild confusion and was lagging behind from the main team quite significantly on summit day and was turned around before anything major could happen. The oldest of the lot, 58 year old Yee Choi who has ran 45 marathons and 3 ultra marathons (1 of them being 100km long) also did not escape the wrath of the mountain. He had coordination difficulties upon walking and using crampons on the summit. He also lost consciousness for brief moments towards the last leg of the summit. The guides really wanted to turn him back but somehow he dangerously persisted and reached the summit; something which he claims was the hardest thing he had ever done in his life. Himself and another team mate, Lucas, had to be cautiously escorted down to camp 3 by the ends of ropes with the help of the guides so that they would not fall off the ridge of the mountain due to exhaustion as they descended.
Luckily, the only thing I took back from the mountain was becoming darker and thinner. We’re resting at Mendoza now for a day. After which, the 2 Thais and 2 Singaporeans, Natapol, Benz, Swee Chiow and myself will be leaving to Chille via a long round about route to climb Ojos Del Salado, the highest volcano in the world and also the 2nd highest mountain in the American continent. The rest will be flying back home.
Ojos isn’t going to be any easier than Aconcagua even though it’s about 100m shorter than its counterpart. As i dread now on why I am doing this to myself, I hope that this feeling will soon turn to eagerness from the fact that I’m going to a new country and that this is extremely good training for Everest. I don’t know if I’m getting too burned out from climbing too much but i’m loving every moment of it!
If everything goes well or not well for that matter, we’ll be climbing Pissis, the 3rd highest mountain in South America. Looking at things, our schedule is looking very tight after the cancellation of the South American service of Malaysian airlines from Feb which is forcing us to return home earlier. We’ll see how things go. Either way, I couldn’t be happier than the way things are turning out. I’ll keep updates coming in as and when I’ve connectivity although I’m afraid I’m going to a more ‘ulu’ mountain in a more ‘ulu’ town.