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Aconcagua

Why I Love to Climb with Women

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Why I Love to Climb with Women

22,838ft.  That’s the summit elevation of Aconcagua, the second highest of the Seven Summits and the highest mountain not just in Argentina but in all of the Americas - in fact the highest mountain anywhere in the western and southern hemispheres.

I’ve summited Aconcagua not once, not twice, but four times by now - and still the mountain keeps calling me back: a few weeks after Christmas I am going to embark on on yet another big mountain season in Argentina. I first climbed Aconcagua when I was still a weekend warrior, an eager high-altitude rookie wanting to cut her teeth above 20,000ft.  Back then I was one of just a handful of women on the mountain that season, and one of only a handful of women ever to climb the White Sentinel solo and without mules or porters.  

Happiness is only real when shared - particularly during a sufferfest mission in the mountains.  (Aconcagua Ruta Normal, Camp I)

Happiness is only real when shared - particularly during a sufferfest mission in the mountains. (Aconcagua Ruta Normal, Camp I)

It’s a pattern that I was well familiar with from my professional life, having spent my twenties working in investment management and as a strategy consultant.  Yes, there are plenty of women in business just as there are ever more women in mountaineering. And yet - just think of the numbers that have become familiar over the last several years (the career progression gender gapwomen in C-suite roles, or pay statistics); the short story is the same across disciplines: women end up doing less.  We end up doing less not necessarily because of systematic discrimination but because of a subtle but pervasive gap in (self-)perceived capabilities and confidence. 

Aconcagua team photo

Aconcagua team photo

I have been lucky to experience first-hand the confidence that outdoor adventures can build.  You know that feeling when you’ve completed a big hike or finished a trail race or descended a canyon or climbed a mountain - the moment you start thinking “Wait a second; if I could do THIS, what else might I be able to do?” This is the kind of confidence-building and and tangible empowerment that sticks.  When we go out and try hard on big adventures, we walk away stronger and with a more refined sense of self than we had before.  And it’s these kind of experiences that transcend boundaries; they carry over from the mountains to the cubicle and eventually to the boardroom. 

That’s why I resolved to do my part in bringing more women into the high mountains.  I want to see more women out and up there - both because it’s just plain FUN to have kickass women partners on a mountaineering expedition and also because I believe that more women mountaineers and the advancement of gender equality more broadly go hand in hand. Creating opportunities for women to adventure and explore - and have fun! - in the backcountry without feeling scrutinized or judged by men can go a long way in counteracting those engrained perceptions, be it others’ or our own perceptions, that tell us that women should or can do less than men.  

By now I have led all-female teams on Aconcagua’s Normal Route and on Mera Peak in Nepal; I am excited to have more Andean climbs on the on the schedule for 2019 and 2020 (with both mixed-gender and all-women teams), as well as bigger long-term plans in the 8000m realm. It may be a long journey towards shattering what Masha Gordon calls the ice ceiling, but every step of the way counts. 

Acclimatization hike on the approach to Aconcagua’s basecamp

Acclimatization hike on the approach to Aconcagua’s basecamp

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Hasta Luego Bobby - Nos Vemos!

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Hasta Luego Bobby - Nos Vemos!

One more update from basecamp before we move onto the upper mountain.  Yesterday was a bit of a team change-up, and not of the kind that we like: Bobby woke up in the morning feeling off after a night of coughing and low blood oxygen saturation.  A pre-breakfast visit to the basecamp doc confirmed what we were fearing: Bobby was in the early stages of pulmonary edema.  Altitude sickness can strike anybody at any time, and the cure is simple: descent.  So within a matter of hours Bobby was on a helicopter down to the road, covering the 15 mile trek from the trailhead to basecamp (which had taken us about twelve hours of walking on the way up) in a mere eight minutes. 

Bobby on his way out.

At this point Bobby is back in Mendoza and has been given a certificate of clear health from the local doctor, but sadly won’t be able to rejoin us on the mountain due to the team’s climbing schedule.  He is slated to return to the US at the end of the week and is hopefully enjoying beautiful Mendoza between now and then.  We miss you Bobby! 

Bobby, we miss you!

With Bobby back in the lowlands the team is now only chicas - which wasn't the intent of this particular expedition, but it sure is becoming a familiar dynamic on the heels of all-women climbs on this mountain and in Nepal over the last twelve months.  

Libby and Walker on their way to Camp I on our first carry above basecamp. 

We have great weather and are moving up to Camp I in a few hours; most of our supplies are already up there.  From here on out there’ll be very little connectivity - you’ll still be able to see where we are on the GPS, and find updates on the occasional Instagram post, but that’s it until we return in (hopefully) a little over a week.  Our summit window is January 8/9/10, with Tuesday January 9 being the ideal date - weather and acclimatization permitting.  Wish us luck! 

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Think you've got what it takes? Training for Aconcagua

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Think you've got what it takes? Training for Aconcagua

Aconcagua is the second highest of the Seven Summits, and at 22,838ft it is a formidable peak: even if you choose the easiest way up the mountain, you are looking at a one way trip of ~35km / 22 miles with 4000 meters (13,120ft) of ascent. The typical climber takes about two weeks to get to the summit, allowing time to both acclimatize and wait for the somewhat elusive weather window.  

OK - if you do the math it doesn't actually sound that bad, does it? Fourteen days for 22 miles and 13,000 feet elevation gain should translate to an average of just a little under 2 miles and 1,000ft of ascent each day.  Of course it's not that easy: there are acclimatization days, load carries, rest days.  And most of the action happens above 14,000ft ASL where the air is thin and every step is a battle.  

Where every step is a battle...

Where every step is a battle...

So how do you prepare for a climb like this?  Here's what I told the team as they signed on to the mission: 

The better your cardio base is, the better your chances of acclimatizing and making it all the way to the summit.  A huge part of the battle is mental, but you have to be working off a super strong cardio base to even be in position to fight that mental battle. What I mean by that: being in marathon shape is a great benchmark; short of actually running a marathon, you ought to be able to knock out a twenty mile run/walk over the course of 5-7 hours without feeling like you’re going to collapse at the end of it.

In addition to an excellent cardio base, the ability to suffer is key.  Climbing at altitude and in the extreme cold that characterizes Aconcagua means that there will be plenty of suffering, even under the most favorable conditions; the outcome of the climb depends majorly on the question of how badly you want it (while respecting physical limits and objective hazards, of course). 

Did I mention there'll be suffering?  I was definitely suffering here... sick from bad water at Camp II in 2014

Did I mention there'll be suffering?  I was definitely suffering here... sick from bad water at Camp II in 2014

My Suunto's take on summit day... almost 9000 calories, mmh

My Suunto's take on summit day... almost 9000 calories, mmh

If you're not already an ultra endurance athlete with a first-hand idea of what this suffering talk is all about, I'm a big fan of overnight training sessions: start at dusk and hike all night until the sun comes up again; ideally up a local hill or mountain and carrying weight.  When a 12 hours overnight hike like that doesn't faze you anymore, chances are you'd handle the physical demands of Aconcagua just fine. 

Now this is all preparation for a "typical" climb.  You may know that I (together with Libby) am planning to head back up on the mountain for a one-day speed ascent in January, after the team expedition is complete.  Here's where the need for specialized training kicks in.

I was lucky to be able to use Globetrotter's hypoxic chamber at their Munich, Germany, store for several weeks of altitude training; the altitude chamber helped me further build my mountain running base after I had already spent time training in the Himalayas and on Kilimanjaro in October and November. 

And even though I have plenty of experience running big mountain trails, I will be the first to profess that my training tends to be largely unstructured and from the hip; for this project, tailored coaching from an elite triathlete and experienced ultra runner brought discipline into my approach and was just what I needed to optimize my time in the Globetrotter altitude chamber - thank you Stefani for sharing your expertise with me and holding me accountable! 

Interval sessions and tempo runs, core and quad exercises as well as lots of cross training; some of it at a simulated 17,000ft, and other parts near sea level. I'm excited to have seen major improvements over the course of my training and feel better prepared than ever to push hard.  But first I can't wait to get out there with the team and climb the mountain in proper style, and in the company of not one but three badass ladies. Wish us luck!!


PS - If you want more concrete tips on how to train for the kind of non-technical endurofest that Aconcagua is just holler at me. I've got the original team welcome & training emails saved and am always happy to share :) I'm also available for coaching and guiding. 

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T - 2 Weeks: NOT Dreaming of a White Christmas

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T - 2 Weeks: NOT Dreaming of a White Christmas

It's the middle of December and I'll be arriving in Mendoza exactly two weeks from today - a couple days ahead of the rest of the team so that I have time to put the finishing touches on our logistics. 

Thanks to regular updates from our Argentinian logistics provider Inka Expediciones we already have a good picture of what the mountain looks like this year, and it ain't all that pretty... okay, well - it's pretty to look at, but promises to be challenging as far as the climbing conditions go.  Take a look for yourself.  

To put these photos into context here's what basecamp looked like when I was there two seasons ago, which is much more typical for this side of the mountain. 

Plaza de Mulas in December 2014 - almost the exact same vantage point as photo #1 above

Plaza de Mulas in December 2014 - almost the exact same vantage point as photo #1 above

The current snow conditions should make for an interesting climb; where two years ago I could have tagged the summit entirely without crampons or ice axe (though I did carry them, as is required by the park administration) there won't be much of a question about gear requirements this time around.  And the ramifications extend below basecamp, too: the 25km approach to Plaza de Mulas follows the Horcones Valley which has a river flowing along it - in low snow years it is possible to crisscross back and forth without having to get your feet wet; in a season like the current one we are certain to have multiple river crossings that'll get us soaked.  

At least we won't have to worry about procuring drinking water above basecamp; there's plenty of snow to melt everywhere! 

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