Wow. It's a dreary late February morning and I am sitting in Boston, all warm and comfortable and well-fed. What a contrast to three weeks ago when I was in the middle of running around and up and over Aconcagua... three weeks ago to this day I had just finished pushing through the night, the first of two consecutive nights that I spent out on the trail, and I was in the process of tackling the crux of my Aconcagua 360 speed mission: going from Camp III to the summit, a two mile stretch that is so high up and such a hard cardio effort that it took me more than seven hours - that's right, seven hours for two miles during a speed mission ;)
Well. If you are reading this blog you probably already know that I in fact managed to complete the mission, and succeeded in becoming the first-ever woman to circumnavigate and summit 22,838ft Aconcagua via the 360 Route in a single push. It took me ~47 hours and 30 minutes, including a few nail-biter hours of permit trouble that had me stopped cold in my tracks at the Punta de Vacas ranger station only ninety minutes into the attempt. But in the end I did it, and it's hands-down the hardest I have ever had to work for a non-technical summit.
Today I want to share some unfiltered reflections that I wrote down for Seth Heller and National Geographic in the twenty-four hours immediately following the mission, when it was all still raw and my brain under the fog of exhaustion after two consecutive all-nighters and more than 50 hours without sleep. If you want a shorter read check out Seth's NatGeo article; for the full-length unedited version of the interview read on below.
NatGeo: What inspired you to try for this record?
I love mountains, altitude and endurance - so why not put them together! What grabbed me about this particular project was a combination of curiosity and a challenge to feminism: First, I hadn’t been on the 360 route before this season, and had always wanted to check it out since it’s supposed to be the prettier side of the mountain. Second, no woman had even attempted to do the 360 in a push. And only one single man - Nicolas Miranda in 2017 - had managed to succeed on the 360 in a push, though several have been known to try.
[NB: I have since learned that there are in fact two men who have completed the 360 in a push: Willie Benegas was the original trailblazer. And over the weekend Matías Sergo just became the third male and holder of the new men's speed record on the 360!!]
NatGeo: How many times had you climbed Aconcagua / practiced this route ahead of time?
I had three season and a total of seven 20-day climbing permits on Aconcagua under my belt. I had summited three times via the Normal Route, but I had never yet been on the Vacas Valley side (where the 360 starts) when I decided to try for the record - so part of my strategy was to spend time in the Vacas valley before my record attempt and get acquainted with the trails and rivers there.
NatGeo: How long have you been training for this?
For this specific record - not very long. Initially the plan was for me and Libby Sauter to take care of some unfinished business on the Normal Route, but Libby unexpectedly had to bow out of the project at the last minute and I pivoted to the 360 mission in mid-January. I then spent a week at Camp II (18,300ft) to acclimatize some more after I had already guided a team on the mountain, and tagged the summit once during that time. That said... I like to think that my current lifestyle is training towards any and all mountain endurance projects: I climb, I guide, I spend time at altitude, and if a particular project grabs my imagination I go for it - like I did with the Annapurna Circuit Speed Record this past November.
NatGeo: What was it about your style that made this possible?
- Patience with acclimatization. Combining guiding and high altitude endurance projects is a great way to spend time at altitude and get to know any particular area without breaking the bank.
- A mindset of self-sufficiency. I ran solo and didn’t have a support crew on the mountain (though I know many of the local guides and porters on the mountain by now, which was a comforting thought), and I was ready to succeed or fail by my own devices.
- A tendency to consider hurdles an opportunity for problem-solving rather than as a shutdown. Don’t have water on the upper mountain? Figure out what to do. Looking at day-old unstable mudslides that have destroyed the trail? Find a way to get across them.
NatGeo: What was your training process like?
The key elements of my training process were to spend time at altitude and acclimatize the best I could, to learn the trails so I could safely and strategically navigate them by myself at any time of day, and to try and stay healthy - which is something that I failed to do in the previous season. For me, a big mountain endurance project like Aconcagua is less about pure speed and physical fitness than it is about having your strategy dialed and having confidence in your ability to manage and self-extricate from whatever the mountain may throw at you.
NatGeo: What was your strategy for ensuring you completed it and did so in a good time? Did you tweak your strategy during practice?
The biggest strategy elements for this run came down to two questions: which sections of the route did I feel comfortable navigating in the dark / when did I most want the extra energy that sunrise tends to provide on multi-day efforts, and how could I time the required river-crossings in such a way that they wouldn’t be dangerous. Having heard a lot about the fast-flowing Vacas river that has to be forded on the approach of the 360 route, I initially thought that the river crossing was going to dictate my timing (as the flow of the river is noticeably lower early in the morning after the snow melt that feeds it has frozen over night); since this season was mostly dry, though, it turned out that the timing of the sunrise was much more important. I chose to approach the 360 in such a way that I would greet daylight right near Camp III at 19,200ft before starting the final and hardest 3,700ft of of the summit push.
NatGeo: When did you know you were ready to go for it?
NatGeo: Why did you decide on doing it that day? How many days in advance did you know you were going to go for it?
There were a few different forces at play: Each climbing permit on Aconcagua is valid for twenty days, and I wanted to max out my time acclimatizing and learning the trails before the run - so I knew I was looking at the final 3-6 days of my permit. Within those boundaries it all came down to weather; the forecast is only reliable some 4-5 days into the future, which makes it hard to plan strategically. Just looking at the calendar, I was always hoping that I would have a weather window on Jan 31 or Feb 1 - but I didn’t know that I was actually going to be able to go for it until ~Jan 28.
NatGeo: What made you think you could accomplish this feat?
I really wasn’t sure if I could accomplish it. Knowing the mountain well and having done lots of long ultra events, including a near-40-hour 100 miler and a multi-day record around Annapurna, and having set the speed record from basecamp to Aconcagua’s summit on the Normal Route in 2017, certainly all helped... but I was still very skeptical if I’d be able to pull it off. Reason being: there were a lot of women in recent years who tried to run from the (Normal Route) Horcones park entrance to the summit and back - a much shorter and arguably much easier task than completing the 360 route in a push - and all but Fernanda Maciel and now Dani Sandoval failed in their efforts. Fernanda needed three times to succeed in her attempt, Dani had to try twice... and others who tried and failed included not just me and Libby, but also Polish ultra runner Anna Figure and the Swedish queen of mountain running Emelie Forsberg. In other words: seeing all these crusher ladies try and fail on an “easier” project (while being supported by crews on the mountain btw!!) seriously made me question my ability to pull off the harder, longer 360 all by myself and without a support crew. Seeing Dani Sandoval succeed in her quest of breaking Fernanda’s record on the Normal Route just 48 hours before I started on the 360 record certainly helped inspire me and boost my confidence that what I was trying to do might in fact be possible!
NatGeo: Did you tell anyone beforehand that day?
Yes, of course! My close friends and my boyfriend who was supporting me from at home in Colorado. The Ultra List (North America’s ultra-running mailing list) to abide by the ultra community’s rules of announcing FKT attempts ahead of time and giving people the ability to follow along live via GPS tracker. And my friends on the mountain - most notably the staff of Inka Expediciones, the premier logistics provider on the mountain.
NatGeo: Where/what time did you wake up and what did you eat?
I woke up in Penitentes (the sleepy little ski resort on the road right between the two Aconcagua park entrances: the Punta de Vacas entrance is ~9km east of Penitentes, Horcones is ~11km west) at the Hotel Ayelen, which had generously offered me a free room for the days around my speed attempt. I had planned on sleeping until 6am and starting my run at 8am but I woke up and couldn’t go back to sleep right around 4am... which made me pull up the start time of my mission to 7:30am.
I didn't eat very much that morning. I was heading out before the Ayelen starts their breakfast service so I made an apple and two PowerBars my breakfast. 500 calories right there! I also got some pre-service coffee from Steve, the manager of the Ayelen, which was lovely.
NatGeo: How long did prep take?
In some ways, years... I started learning the mountain and ultra endurance ways in 2011! But acutely, in the moment, not very long at all: I had pre-stashed supplies along the way at Plaza Argentina (basecamp on the Vacas Valley side, ~50km from my starting point), Camp Colera at 19,300ft and the point where the 360 route and the normal route converge for the last 3km stretch up to the summit, and Plaza de Mulas (basecamp on the Horcones or Normal Route side), so the big picture preparation was all done. The morning of the start of my mission I simply took a shower, tried to get as many calories in as as possible, and got dressed with clothes laid out the prior night before shouldering my Mountain Hardwear Fluid pack which weighed no more than maybe 10lbs fully loaded with all the supplies that would take me to basecamp.
NatGeo: Anyone see you off in the beginning?
Yes and no. My boyfriend (Metolius and 5.10 climber Paul Gagner) was always with me via text and Garmin InReach GPS messages, though from afar. More tangibly though, Steve - the manger of Hotel Ayelen in Penitentes - was the kind soul who not only offered me a place to stay but also made me some early morning coffee and wished me good luck right as I set off on my run.
NatGeo: What were your emotions and thoughts during the approach?
I was terrified. Having turned around on the Horcones-Summit-Horcones Normal Route mission with Libby last year, and having experienced an asthma attack high up on the mountain on my way down from the basecamp-summit Normal Route speed record I set in January 2017, I halfway felt like there was no way in hell I’d be able to pull off the 360 in a push by myself. I was questioning my motivation and my reasons for attempting a seemingly insane project like this solo. I thought I’m possibly sinking a ton of time, money, and emotions into something that I may not be able to finish.
NatGeo: Where did you start from?
I started at the Hotel Ayelen in Penitentes, which is half way between the Horcones and the Vacas entrance to the Aconcagua Provincial Park.
NatGeo: Any “last words” or rituals before you started the timer?
Not really.. but I’m pretty sure I muttered “wish me luck!” to Steve, the Ayelen hotel manager.
NatGeo: What was the hardest bit for you? Why?
Oh god. Count the ways. Probably going from Colera (Camp III, where the 360 and the normal route converge) to the summit. I had been to the summit three times prior to my 360 record attempt, and I know well how hard it is to climb from Colera’s 19,300ft to the summit at 22,848ft. When I arrived in Colera during the speed record, I had already been on the go for ~24 hours and I was exhausted. I didn’t trust that I had it in me to safely proceed to the summit - another 5-9 hours from Colera - and return. Thankfully there was a friendly local guide who was planning to summit with his clients on the same day, though I didn’t know this ahead of time. He saw me when I arrived at Colera and told me that he was headed for the summit as well - which was the deciding factor for me to continue on to the summit even though I felt in borderline shape.
NatGeo: What were the biggest challenges during the record?
Not giving up on the upper mountain. Making myself go for it even though I already knew the summit push - and how hard it is! - from three prior climbs. I was ready to turn around (and in fact once started down the mountain for a few paces) on at least six separate occasions above Camp III... yet somehow I mustered the willpower and energy to keep climbing.
NatGeo: What was your technique to deal with those challenges?
I am a believer in mantras. The two that I used on Aconcagua are: “No stress, just training.” (I use this one for a lot of different scenarios) and “Remember... even if every step feels ridiculously hard, doesn’t mean that you aren’t moving at a good pace.” - the second one is important because yes, I struggled majorly on the upper mountain, but I was still moving faster than your average guided client on a standard expedition - so how bad could it be!
NatGeo: Any scares or setbacks or mishaps? If so, when and why and how’d you overcome them?
Oh, yes. To list a few:
- At Punta de Vacas, about 1h20mins into the mission, the rangers wouldn’t accept my permit for me to re-enter the park. I ended up having to call upon my logistics provider Inka Expediciones who somehow managed to obtain a last-minute special permit for me in Mendoza. This cost me almost three hours of time, and over $700 in unplanned permit fees!
- At Camp III, Colera (19,200ft). Given the frigid temperatures, the only way to obtain water on the upper mountain is by melting snow, which is time consuming particularly if you factor in the time required to iodize the water to make it safe for drinking. Since I was unsupported I had stashed a stove and a pot of previously-boiled/iodized-but-now-frozen-water with the rest of my cache, intending to fire up the stove and melt the ice for water as soon as I got there. When I arrived, the stove and the rest of my cache were in place - but the pot filled with clean ice had been stolen! Meaning I had no way to refill my water or melt new snow. I still had ~700ml left from the prior section of the trail and decided to continue on to the summit with just that even though it meant severe dehydration for the next ~10 hours.
- When I descended from Normal Route basecamp Plaza de Mulas to the Horcones trailhead, I was warned that there had been recent mudslide activity... and I soon found out that this wasn’t a joke. There were about half a dozen mudslides that had occurred within the 24hrs before my hike out, that had taken out parts of the trail - and these weren’t little slides, but big ones that would swallow you alive (or crush you with the boulders that they had already swallowed). I lost almost an hour trying to figure out safe ways to cross the bigger slides between Plaza de Mulas and the trailhead.
NatGeo: What was the point at which you knew you had it in the bag?
At the summit. At that point it was just a question of getting back down to basecamp (which I had to do for safety anyway, regardless of any record attempt), and from basecamp it was just a matter of getting back out to the road - a hike that I had done exhausted and in the dark before while trying for the Normal Route speed record with Libby. And after that, 11km of road to close the loop to my starting point in Penitentes - but anybody could do that with their eyes closed, right?
NatGeo: Was there anyone waiting for you at the end?
Yes but no. My boyfriend Paul was following closely via my Garmin InReach GPS tracker. In person, Ayelen manager Steve was there when I stumbled back through the door after almost 48 hours on the move!
NatGeo: What did you do immediately afterward? What were your emotions thoughts?
I charged up and switched on my phone which had been dead since ~hour fifteen on the mission, jumped in the shower, and ate a big breakfast of eggs and bacon and fresh fruit. At that point I was mostly relieved to be done moving and to have completed the mission. I already knew that I had it in the bag on Friday afternoon (when I summited), so the time between Friday afternoon and Saturday morning (when I officially finished) was mostly just hard work and slogging towards a shower and bed!
NatGeo: Were you expecting this to be the record-breaking attempt, or were you surprised?
I had no idea what I was in for. Since there wasn’t another woman yet who had tried the 360 in a push I knew that I didn’t have a time to beat - though I did set myself a mental limit of 48 hours to legitimately call it a “single push” effort - but I also had no idea if I would be physically and mentally capable of pulling off a big run like this, especially all by myself.
NatGeo: What does it mean to you to be a part of this epic piece of Aconcagua history?
In my mind, Aconcagua doesn’t quite hold the prominence that it probably should as the second-highest of the Seven Summits. Don’t get me wrong, I love that I managed to become the first woman to do the 360 in a push - and it feels like a huge personal accomplishment, but not like a momentous milestone in the broader scheme. I am mostly stoked that I managed to pull it off in a single attempt, and I hope that there will be other women who look at this run and think to themselves “Wait a second.... I should be able to do this. And faster!”.
NatGeo: Do you think you’ll try and break this record?
Hell no. Why would I? I do hope that there will be others who will go after it, though I would encourage them to only look at the Punta de Vacas - Horcones segment (skipping the ugly 20km road run that connects the two trailheads), which is the segment that the Aconcagua rangers certified for me anyway with a time of 41 hours and 3 minutes.
NatGeo: What’s next for you this season?
I am working on a speedy through-hike of the 812 Hayduke trail, and on more women’s high-altitude expeditions (check out the calendar here if you think you might want to join me!).
NatGeo: Long term goals?
Encourage women to dream and do bigger. Work with my sponsor Mountain Hardwear to get more women's outdoor projects off the ground. Become a National Geographic Photographer. And maybe embark on a solo mission towards the South Pole, too!