“I am curled up in the fetal position on bare rock behind a two foot boulder that I spotted minutes ago just steps off the trail; barely protected from the bone-penetrating wind, my eyes are closing on me. I am alone, surrounded by foreboding darkness. The forecast is predicting a punishing -22 degrees Celsius for the summit over night; shivering, I wrap my paper-thin emergency bivouac bag tighter around my legs and adjust the hood of my parka in the vain attempt to bury my nose and forehead in it.
I know I can’t win the fight against the laden sleepiness that has been circling in on me for hours but I fight to stay awake for just a minute longer, to take off my gloves and set the alarm on my phone for half an hour from now. As soon as I allow my eyes to close I rapidly drift off into the sleep of exhaustion. It is freezing cold.”
I wrote these words in February 2018, a few days after I became the first woman to circumnavigate and summit 22,838ft Aconcagua in a single push. My experience on the so-called 360 Route was one of extremes: scorching temperatures and dark trail-side naps in subzero temperatures; a raging river in the day, dangerously unsettled recent mudslides at night. Rangers who first denied me permission to enter the park on my existing permit only to later became proactive supporters.
The 360 record has been in the news again recently thanks to the efforts of Sonia Procopio, a 39-year-old Argentinian woman who embarked on her own 360 record run just a few short days ago. Sonia faced great difficulties in her mission yet completed a circumnavigation of the mountain in 45 hours and 45 minutes, a little less than two hours faster than I had been the year prior.
Sadly, controversy erupted shortly after - the lack of a summit photo and some other factors have caused critics to question the veracity of Sonia’s accounts. In the wake of the debate, I’d like to offer a few reflections.
I firmly believe that the act of breaking a speed record, or the state of being in possession of one, has very little significance. The inspiring part is not where you succeed - it’s the fact that you’re willing to try.
Simply taking on a challenge of the magnitude of running the Aconcagua 360 is something that I find incredibly impressive, and it’s sad to see that what should have been a time celebrating a woman’s achievement has turned into great controversy instead.
The current situation and high emotions drive home why it is helpful to have agreement around a strong set of community ethics when it comes to speed records, just as they exist in the United States among the Fastest Known Time (FKT) community. Thanks to FKT pioneers Peter Bawkin and Buzz Burrell, the rules in the US are clear - advance notification, real-time GPS tracking and complete records are expected for major record attempts. It seems time that the verification prerequisites for Aconcagua records should move beyond the token summit photo and start to require real-time GPS allowing third parties to observe progress while a record attempt is under way.
Unfortunately, Sonia did not have a GPS device. But she does have independent witnesses who attest to the fact that she made it to the Cueva (~150 hard meters below the summit), at which point the evidence gap and inconsistencies begin. I have no first-hand insight into whether Sonia reached the summit or not, but I do know this: even in the case that she did not complete the final meters of the climb, her physical accomplishment is tremendous - circumnavigating the mountain and getting to within spitting distance (mileage-wise, not time-wise) of the summit requires an incredible amount of mental and physical perseverance, and to do so without having been to this altitude before (as in Sonia’s case) is even more mind-boggling. In the end, without photos or GPS or independent eye witnesses for the summit, Sonia alone knows the true extent of her achievement and I hope that she takes pride in what she was able to do.
Regardless of what happened in Sonia’s summit bid above the Cueva, there is a new time to beat for any record hopefuls in order to put the controversy to bed once and for all: 45 hours and 45 minutes is the time it took Sonia to complete the circumnavigation, even though vision problems forced her to rest at high camp for eight hours while on the descent. I can imagine that Sonia would agree with the statement that both her and my posted times (I took 47 hours and thirty minutes) include a lot of slack and have ample room for improvement. Sonia had to sleep for eight hours in Nido de Condores; I was stalled out for two hours resolving permit issues early on, and later I spent two and a half hours at Plaza de Mulas celebrating my summit and eating pizza with friends. I then encountered several major mudslides in the Horcones Valley which slowed me down, and finally I did not run a single step on the final outbound leg as there was no need, meaning no prior time for me to beat.
To any woman who would like to attempt the 360 record I say this: the record is achievable but it takes more than simple speed and perseverance. To be able to complete the upper mountain safely, knowledge of the route and weeks of acclimatization are required prior to any speed attempt. To succeed on an endeavor like the 360 in a push we must combine the best of the trail running and the high altitude mountaineering world, and possess the skills and experience of both.
“I have been here before. I have climbed this mountain before, I have reached this summit before - three times to be precise. But this time is different. I am alone in the middle of the night, on a mad mission to become the first woman to circumnavigate and summit the mountain in a single push. Why am I here?
I left basecamp four hours ago. Basecamp, with its friendly faces and warmth and food and even bunk beds. At 11pm, when everyone else on the mountain is just burrowing deeper into their sleeping bags to shut out the chill of yet another high altitude night, I pushed open the kitchen tent’s door to step into the cold dark, leaving behind a group of warmly smiling friends; friends with an equal mix of worries and well-wishes on their lips. The basecamp manager’s radio starts to crackle; the park rangers are checking in. “Does she have a team on the upper mountain? Is there somebody waiting for her at Camp 1 and Camp 2 or at least at Camp Colera?”
The answer is no, I do not have anybody waiting for me in the three camps on the upper mountain. I am by myself. And so I walk off into the night - all by myself. I know that the next twelve to eighteen hours will be the hardest challenge of my life to date.”