A Visit to the Mountain Doctor and a Day Off ~ A Journey to the Top of Aconcagua

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Plaza Argentina (Base Camp) – Rest Day

Hiking Time: 0 hours

Altitude: 4200m

This morning I was rudely awakened, along with everyone else in Base Camp, by the slicing through the air of rotor blades and the frenzied flapping of our tent. It sounded like the end of the world outside and it took me a few seconds to register where I was and what was happening. Judi was rousing next to me too and it dawned on us a helicopter was about to land, practically on top of us! We unzipped our tent flap and peeked outside. Just meters away from us a helicopter was getting ready to land. As we peaked out of our tent flap, that same feeling of dread rose up inside of me. Was this an early morning rescue, how are our two team-mate who weren’t well last night, the thoughts race through my mind. But the helicopter landed and the rotor blades slowed as the engine died. There didn’t seem to be an emergency, probably more dropping off or collecting loads. Maybe my 2nd duffel bag that hadn’t arrived on the mules yesterday was in amongst this load. The feeling of dread slipped away again. All appears well. We lay back on our half deflated mattresses and pulled our sleeping back up over ourselves. It feels good to be able to sleep in this morning. Today we have a rest day for acclimatization and to prepare for our load carry to Camp 1 tomorrow.

Coming in for landing.

Coming in for landing.

A rescue helicopter preparing to land at Base Camp and in the process waking us all up.

A rescue helicopter preparing to land at Base Camp and in the process waking us all up.

It practically sounded like it was going to land on top of us, what a way to wake up!

It practically sounded like it was going to land on top of us, what a way to wake up!

At 9am everyone met in the mess tent for breakfast. Our two team members were feeling stronger and joined us for breakfast and the spirit of the team in general was high. If felt so good to know that today was one at leisure except for our visit to the doctor. We were all eager to get the doctor’s visit out of the way so as soon as breakfast was done, we headed out to the doctor’s office. Another team had beaten us to it and we had a bit of a wait before it was our turn.

Despite feeling strong and fit, I was feeling a tiny bit nervous for this visit with the doctor. The doc would check all our vitals and ensure we were strong enough to continue climbing higher. My dream lay firmly in his hands now and I could only hope I’d get the stamp of approval to keep moving forward. As we waited some of us read, others chatted and some of us wrote in our journals.

Jake, Hans and Judi patiently waiting their turn with the doc.

Jake, Hans and Judi patiently waiting their turn with the doc.

Views from Base Camp.

Views from Base Camp.

As we waited outside the doc's room, Judi snapped this photo of me looking rather pensive. *Photo By Judi Kurgan*

As we waited outside the doc’s room, Judi snapped this photo of me looking rather pensive. *Photo By Judi Kurgan*

It took quite a while but eventually the team ahead of us were done and it was our turn. A few of my team members went first, with Angel going in with each team member in case translation was needed. As each team member exited the room, cheers erupted upon hearing they got the all clear. I was up next, my hands began to feel clammy and my heart started beating a little louder. It was ridiculous I felt so nervous but so much was riding on this. As I entered with Angel, I found a young Argentinian doctor who was full of smiles. The atmosphere was relaxed with jokes being made and soon I was feeling so much calmer. My pulse was checked, he listened to my lungs to make sure no fluid was building up on them and then he checked how much oxygen was still left in my blood. He wrote a few things down, and as he did so I widened my eyes to Angel sitting opposite me. Then with the stamp on my papers I had gotten the all clear to keep climbing.

Oh my, happiness is!

So nervous, hoping for the all clear with the doc!

So nervous, hoping for the all clear with the doc!

The doc testing my oxygen levels making sure I still have some reserves for the remainder of my climb.

The doc testing my oxygen levels making sure I still have some reserves for the remainder of my climb.

All clear to keep climbing. Happy Lara!

All clear to keep climbing. Happy Lara!

The rest of our day was at leisure except of course for some repacking once again. My absolute least favourite mountain task. Today we need to sort and pack our equipment carefully and to ensure we take up the bare minimum for our load carry up to Camp 1 tomorrow. From Base Camp we can see the trail we’ll take up. We’ll climb 800 metres tomorrow and it will take us approximately 7 – 8 hours to do the round trip, with the down taking much quicker than the up. I, along with most of my team mates will be carrying 20kg’s in our backpacks. Once our load carry is done we will return to Base Camp where we will spend the night before doing a move up to Camp 1 with another load of 20kg’s each.

After lunch food packs have been divided up in the mess tent for each of us to pack into our bags. Other items that will go are our extreme cold gear and all the items we will need for our climb to the summit. I pack my bag and then repack it again after I have found something I left out. My backpack doesn’t feel too bad and I’m ready to carry the load. I know it’s going to be hard carrying the weight at altitude but I’ve trained for this as best as I could. By training outdoors back home in South Africa it has kept me physically fit and it has also kept me mentally in shape. Living at sea level doesn’t help me with the altitude but I knew taking a slow and steady pace would continue to help my body acclimatise and so far I was feeling good. I repack my bag again trying to distribute the weight more evenly and I ensure that nothing is digging into my back. I am ready for the carry tomorrow.

Exhausted, I lay down for a short while as a thunder-storm began to rumble outside the tent. At altitude the slightest of tasks renders you out of breath and exhausted. But it is our day off and today I have the luxury of having an early afternoon nap and that is exactly what I did.

Looking past Base Camp, we would take the trail leading up between the two mountain peaks.

Looking past Base Camp, we would take the trail leading up between the two mountain peaks.

The trail we'd take to do our load carry up to Camp 1 tomorrow leading up between the two mountain peaks.

The trail we’d take to do our load carry up to Camp 1 tomorrow leading up between the two mountain peaks.

In the late afternoon we headed into the mess tent where a few of our team members were sitting around chatting. I loved the relaxed atmosphere of today and everyone was laughing and smiling. It felt good. As we sat chatting, sipping on tea, the monopoly card game came out and we lazed the rest of the afternoon away as played until dinner. As you can see I didn’t take many photos today, I was taking our day off quite literally!

The Inka team, who were looking after us at Base Camp, served up a feast once again for dinner. Portions were huge and always included soup for starters with meat or chicken and veggies for the main course. With my eyes bigger than my stomach, I once again couldn’t finish what was dished up to me. At dinner we did the highlight and lowlight of the day again and needless to say almost everyone’s highlight was our day off. One thing tonight was niggling me. As the evening went on, I noticed a tingle in my nose and it was beginning to feel more and more blocked. I can only hope it is an irritation from all the dust and I hope that it’s nothing that another good night’s sleep can’t cure.

After dinner we played some more monopoly before retiring for the night. The night air at Base Camp is cold and I have started wearing my down jacket around the dinner table to keep warm and cosy, which thankfully arrived safely in my missing 2nd duffel bag earlier today. I knew my down jacket was going to work wonders higher up the mountain.

Tomorrow is going to be a big day.

Tomorrow the hard work and the climb really starts.

I’ve trained really hard for this.

I’m ready.

~ All Photos By Me, Except the One of Me, Thanks Judi Kurgan! ~

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Call Me Crazy

Denali, rising 20,320 feet (6,194m) above sea level, is one of the coldest places on earth and it is the mountain that draws me in the most (Mt Vincent is not far behind and that is found in one of the most inhospitable places on earth!)

I don’t know what it is about Denali that makes the pull so strong, but out of the Seven Summits, this is the one that gets my heart racing and me longing to get out onto the mountains again.

It might not be the highest of the Seven Summits but it is certainly one of the challenging ones. Dropped off in a propeller plane in the middle of a glacier, the plane doesn’t bother switching off its engines. They merely drop you off and head out into the sky again, leaving you and your team standing alone, desolate in the Alaskan Mountain Range. Because of the arctic conditions you are hiking in, the weather is extreme and severe and as the plane fades away into the blue sky, it’s just your team, you and your heavy backpack and the sled you will be pulling behind you as you make your way towards the summit.

Source: adventure.nationalgeographic.com

Credit: adventure.nationalgeographic.com

A year ago, after climbing Aconcagua, I was already dreaming of this mountain. It’s not my next mountain to climb but it is on my list of seven that I’m climbing for a cure for Cystic Fibrosis. Like most other high altitude mountains to climb, it is an expensive extreme sport and as always I have to factor in leave from work. But I have no limits to the dreams I have. All that matters is that it is my dream and without any doubt in my mind, I know one day, whether it is in two years’ time or ten years’ time, I will climb her slopes. That’s the amazing thing about dreams. You can dream as big and expansive as you want and by believing in your dreams, that is how they become possible.

A year ago, I already started researching to find the perfect training I could do to prepare myself for a mountain like this. Training that will strengthen my body, not only to carry 20 kg’s on my back as I climb at altitude, but to pull a 40 kg sled behind me at the same time.
Since my climbing expedition began, I have become the fittest I have ever been in my life and this mountain will be no different, my fitness level will probably be at its highest by the time I head out to her slopes. I am not delusional in any way, it will be hard and probably one of the toughest mountains I have yet to climb but the dream of one day waking up to the news that a cure has been found for Cystic Fibrosis spurs me on. When the air near the top gets thin and the slopes get steep and my breathing becomes laboured, I am reminded of what each and every person with Cystic Fibrosis will at some time of their encounter; shortness of breath and difficulty just doing the simplest of things like getting dressed in the morning or even just getting up. The higher I climb at altitude the harder it gets to breathe and to do even the simplest of tasks.

This has always been my mission: To climb for a cure.

I have climbed two of the Seven Summits already. One will be a redo as we had to turn back 400 metres shy of the summit due to the high risk of avalanches due to the severe weather that had hit us on summit night/morning. This is life on the mountain, there are no guarantees.

Mountain climbing has always been a love for me and now climbing at altitude has become a passion. This morning as I woke long before my alarm sounded, I lay in bed reading Will Cockrell’s account of his journey to summit Denali. Reading the words of his experience, my heart raced a little faster as I read faster, taking in his experience. When I read of others experiences on the mountain, I am transported back to mountains slopes I have walked myself. It’s hard to explain completely what happens on a mountain to those who haven’t been before, it’s a shared experience with those who have had the privilege of being out there too. Words can hardly ever describe the extreme mental and physical things you endure while out on the mountain and yet the pure ecstasy of what you are doing makes it worth every single step.

Want to know more of what Denali holds for me in the future? Keep reading…

Denali, also known as Mt McKinley, is North America’s highest mountain. The Denali climb begins deep in the heart of the Alaska Mountain Range on the Kahiltna Glacier. The climb takes approximately 17-18 days round trip from Base and usually additional days (about four) are added to allow for inclement weather, acclimatization and optimal summit attempts.

Located just two degrees south of the Arctic Circle, Denali’s environment is an eternal winter. It is a mountain of extreme conditions where a climber may encounter 100-mph (160km) winds and temperatures can range anywhere from-30F to -70F (-36 to -56˚C). Alternately, some days on the lower slopes are quite hot with sunshine lasting up to 20 hours. The best snow and weather conditions for climbing in the Alaskan Range are usually best from May through July. Colder minimum temperatures and strong northwest winds commonly occur in May. Late June and July are warmer but more unsettled. By late July, travel on the lower glaciers is made difficult by melting snow bridges over crevasses and by more inclement weather with heavier snowfall and increased avalanche danger. The highest success rates occur in June. April is an excellent month for many of the lower peaks with conditions often cold and clear while the winter extremes still linger on Denali. The coldest weather on Denali is found from November through April with average temperatures ranging from -30F to -70F (-36 to -56˚C). It is not uncommon to find it -50F (-56˚C) at the 17,200 foot camp in early May.

Something to keep in mind when choosing the month to climb, going really late in the season will probably mean that you won’t be able to get picked up again as the planes won’t be able to land on the exposed glaciers; this means a 10 day walk through the forest! *Grin* Well I do like a challenge!

To add more of a challenge while climbing Denali, there are no porters available to cut some slack for us climbers. All expedition members carry their own gear and a month’s worth of food, usually around 300lbs (136kg’s) between a climber and his/her partner. The gear is split up between your backpack and a sled is pulled behind you.

While climbing Denali, the low camps are by far the warmest parts of the mountain. Deep snow and climbing gentle slopes, but with lots of distance to cover can be expected. No doubt the sled pulling combined with heavy backpacks will help balance the challenge while on this expedition! Reaching Advanced Base Camp is similar to travel through the low camps. Heavy backpacks combined with the use of sleds is still the method of travel. Although the distance between the camps is shorter, the terrain becomes much steeper. Advanced Base Camp is where climbers will spend the majority of their time, hoping they get that window of opportunity to move on the high camp and later summit.

Credit: alaskamountaineeringschool.blogspot.com -  16K ridge, moving to high camp

Credit: alaskamountaineeringschool.blogspot.com –
16K ridge, moving to high camp

Due to the troposphere being thinner around the arctic, the barometric pressure on the mountain is significantly low, making it “feel like” you are at a higher altitude. This is said to be a major reason why an unusual amount of climbers succumb to altitude problems.
With spectacular views and intense weather, high camp is said to be beautiful but brutal. Reaching high camp is apparently the most technical part of climbing Denali. The ascent begins with fixed ropes up 50 degrees of ice right outside Advanced Base Camp. Then the wait begins for the perfect weather break to head out to the summit.

Credit: www.alpineinstitute.com - Climbers approaching the summit of Denali

Credit: http://www.alpineinstitute.com – Climbers approaching the summit of Denali

Reaching Denali’s summit includes several technical challenges and difficult terrain and it is likely to be the coldest and riskiest day of the entire climb. But I can only imagine, after weeks of excitement and boredom, hard work and anxiety, the final push to the summit is what makes it all worthwhile. For me, on summit day, my body finds new strength with my goal and dream at the forefront of my mind. I become more focused that I have ever been. While it may be true that the Alaska Range has a reputation for poor weather and brutal storms, I know from past experience, when the weather is good, the rewards of being there are immeasurable and on a mountain like Denali I can already imagine that the expansive glaciers and the rugged summits will be forever impressed in my memory.

Alpine Ascents describes Denali like this “There are certain mountains that need no explanation as to why climb. Denali is such a mountain. Its tremendous size and beauty generate a magnetism that continually draws climbers from around the world. An ascent of Denali touches the psyche of all Alpinist, and for those who have undertaken its challenges, it rewards them with an unforgettable, once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

In 2015 I will begin training for my third of the Seven mountain summit I hope to climb, which will be in Russia. I’m excited at what lies ahead. I’m excited at the thought that Denali lies beyond my Russian climb. The call is the strongest one yet and as I journey every day closer to my dreams, my heart continues to beat a little faster as I rub my hands in glee at all that lies ahead.

Call me crazy but I dream of sitting in the vestibule of my tent, breathing hard as I try to take in as much air into my lungs as humanly possible. I long to struggle with ice-cold fingers to snap on my crampons over my big and bulky snow boots, something that is impossible to do with thick gloves on, hence the ice-cold fingers. It may not be everyone’s idea of a cool way to spend a holiday, but this is my dream. I long to glance out at the mountain ranges before me as the snow crunches beneath my boots and to breathe in the crisp, ice-cold air. I long for the struggle, the agony and ultimately the ecstasy of realising another dream and once again to be a part of the elite few that get to experience the true magic of life on the mountain. The mountains will always call, and I will always go.

I am a simple girl with BIG dreams.

I say, bring it on!

~ Walking 4 Air for all those with Cystic Fibrosis and in memory of my best friend, Emma. ~

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