Hemisphere High: Climbing in the Andes

My mind drifts to more pleasant times. I think about home and family. I hunger for a steak, salad and a hot shower. I long to share warmth and wine with my wife. I vow that next year’s vacation will involve palm trees and sand, not ice and snow. Then, like a locked up computer, my consciousness goes blank.

At the end of the Gran Acarreo, we turn into the mouth of a talus- and scree-filled gully where the trail abruptly ends. At 22,000 feet above sea level, we will have to scramble up a rocky slope greased by four inches of powder snow. The plodding becomes painful.

If a plane lost air pressure at this altitude, oxygen masks would drop from overhead compartments. We have to breathe on our own. With every step upward, I stop and gasp for air. Then I take another step and repeat the process. Boulders and outcroppings only yards away become distant goals taking minutes to reach.

A functioning brain would ask, “Why am I doing this?” Mine never inquires. I just numbly toil on.

We reach the saddle at the top of the gully. Ahead, the mountain plunges in a two-mile drop of rock and ice. To the right, along a knife-edge ridge, stands the lower south summit. The true top of Aconcagua rises to the left, perhaps a hundred yards beyond.

One of our party, devoured by fatigue, elects to go no farther. While he waits, the rest of us lumber over boulders along a snow-covered ridge. Finally, we reach a flat piece of ground. There is no more up to be found. We stand atop the highest point of land in both the Southern and Western Hemispheres.

The mountain’s face drops away. In every direction lies a montage of snow-dappled peaks and ridges separated by dusty green-tinted valleys. These are views reserved for climbers and condors.

For years, I’ve longed to reach this summit. I acquired skills, trained hard, bought equipment and paid a bundle in air fares, and trip fees. I’ve slept in cramped tents, ate marginal food and went weeks without bathing. Finally, it’s all paid off. Here I stand on the top of Aconcagua – my personal Super Bowl, Stanley Cup or Big Enchilada. I should be hoisting my ice-axe in triumph.

But, something is missing.

On lesser peaks, I’ve experienced euphoria, but not here. I feel no elation. No jubilation. No happiness. Nothing. Rarefied air and physical exhaustion have combined to dull any realization of achievement. I sense only the relief that there was no more uphill.

After five minutes on the summit, we start back down. The reality of the accomplishment will come days later when I look back at the peak and realize I’ve made it.

Yes, this is what I do for fun.

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