"Keep going. Seriously... you totally got this. The summit is SO close!"
Role reversal. For the last ten hours, all through the night, I was repeating a variation of these lines to encourage Libby - but now it's Libby telling me that I need to keep moving. We are just shy of 20,000ft; the air is thin, the cold brutal, and we have been moving for nineteen hours and change. The summit is maybe a mile away, another 3,000ft higher up; we can almost see it from where we are - spitting distance. Yet at this altitude and with our exhaustion level, spitting distance will translate into another 6-7 hours of strenuous climbing.
"Sunny - do NOT turn around. Just go and get it done for us both." Libby is doubled over on her poles, fighting to catch her breath. The moment I start walking towards her she lays down in the snow, her body an expression of fatigue and defeat. I am struggling for air, too; my eyes are burning from a long sleepless night and climbing by the narrow beam of my headlamp for hour after hour. Today, like on every other day, Aconcagua is refusing to go down easy.
We've been here before. Literally, and figuratively. This is Week Six on the mountain for Libby and me. We are on our third 20-day climbing permit. We have both summited once already, and today is our second go at climbing Aconcagua in a single push from the Horcones trailhead - some 20 miles down valley from here. Many women have tried this endeavor; to date, only one has succeeded. Fernanda Maciel, the Brazilian TNF & Red Bull ultra runner, took three attempts to become the first woman to complete the roundtrip in a single push not even a year ago.
Libby and I are at a crossroad. We’ve pushed so hard, and poured so much into this project. A high altitude ultra run, that’s what it was supposed to be. Libby, always tongue-in-cheek and self-deprecating, dubbed our effort the Cardiocrawl. When a “fast” ascent means that you’re taking over an hour per mile, it seems like a fitting moniker. Now here we are, at 20,000ft, and it looks like the final curtain is falling on Project Cardiocrawl. We have tried and failed once already, and now we’re trying again… and failing, again.
I walk back towards Libby and sit down in the snow next to her. She’s been an inspiration to watch, pushing herself to continue on past exercise-induced narcolepsy and nausea that started early last night. I know she has been fighting a monumental fight, and up until two hours ago I thought we would make it. But now… now things are looking different.
Decision time at 20,000ft. At the time of the video, we still had plenty of daylight left to continue moving up and attempt the final mile that separated us from the summit. Upper mountain wind speeds on this day were somewhere between 20 to 30mph; temps with wind chill were in the negative teens (Fahrenheit; negative twenties Celsius).
So, yeah: we’re going to call it again. We’re going to call it, because no mountain is worth risking life and limb. We fought for as long as it was safe to fight, and we got farther than last time. But no matter how badly we want this summit or how close we are to getting it done, the mountain doesn’t make exceptions; we need to, like everyone else, make good decisions. The summit is not the ultimate goal - getting down safely is. And if getting down safely means to turn around after we have covered 95% of the distance and 81% of the ascent from trailhead to summit… so be it. The mountain will always be there; if Libby and I keep our health and our stoke, we’ll be back one day too. But first it's time get down and off this mountain, for this season anyway.
Thanks everybody for all your support and encouragement along the way - I hope you’ve enjoyed this journey as much (and at certain times more, ha!) than Libby and I did. We of course did get safely off the mountain, and we even had enough stoke (stubbornness?) left after bailing that we pushed all the way back to the trailhead twenty miles down-valley, turning the roundtrip attempt into a mad 35 hour mission.
There’ll be another field notes post soon to talk about the gear I used in setting the new Aconcagua basecamp-to-summit women’s record, as well as how Libby and I designed our kit to try for the full roundtrip; after that, this series will come to a close. If you’re enjoying following along on the adventure, subscribe to my main blog to have stories about non-Aconcagua outdoor pursuits delivered to your inbox.