It was quite the year following Holly Page’s 2019 adventures so here’s the last chapter of the mountain runner’s Fast10 escapades.
We’re now well into January but festive frolics and general life got in the way of me writing up my December antics. Last time I wrote, I was on my way to Argentina to run “El Cruce”, a 100km stage race over three days.
With 2,400 competitors, it must be a logistical nightmare for the organisers, but I had a wonderful time and really enjoyed running through pristine Patagonian landscapes and given that I had the Argentine champion hot on my heels I even progressed from running in my waterproof hiking boots to running in real trail shoes on days two and three…and the not so fractured any more foot seemed to survive!
Post race “rest”
Straight after the race I made my way up to Mendoza, the closest town to Aconcagua, which at 6,962m is the highest mountain outside of Asia. It’s a peak which has been on my radar for a long time now, probably ever since my dad was stuck up there in a blizzard back in 2001 and couldn’t get to the summit.
Over the years I’d looked at going up, as well as attempting a speed record to the top, and now seemed as good a time as any. In terms of climbing technicality, the mountain is straightforward, particularly if conditions are good. This has however led to its increasing popularity, with many viewing Aconcagua as the next big guided challenge after “ticking off” Kilimanjaro. I felt confident in my own abilities to be on the mountain without a guide and so chose to go it alone.
I filled my rucksacks with 2 weeks’ worth of food and all my mountain cold weather gear and hitch-hiked the four hours to the park entrance in a huge lorry, and then with a friendly couple who fed me croissants.
By this time it was mid-afternoon and my hopes of persuading a passing mule to carry at least one of my bags were very much dashed. The park rangers thought I was truly bonkers to attempt to carry all my things but duly helped me get the rucksacks onto my back and wished me luck.
Holly the pack mule!
It was 32 km to base camp, a monotonous and exhausting uphill journey. It took a tremendous amount of willpower to keep plodding on through the scorching desert sun with such a heavy bag (approx.35kg); everything hurt, particularly my hips where the bag was bruising them.
Arriving at base camp, framed by a glacier and with views up to Aconcagua, I decided that the next day would be a well-earned rest day, eating instant noodles, rehydrating and reading my book.
With most people being part of an organised group, or at least having a mule to carry in their bags, I was a bit of an anomaly [No need to change the habits of a lifetime Holly. Ha! – Robbie]. However, this rogue status, and being able to speak fluent Spanish, certainly helped in endearing me to people who could keep me company and feed me tea and biscuits.
I was astounded at how much food was being thrown away in base camp; half-eaten bowls of porridge and apples with one bite out of them discarded into the “organic waste” bags. Given I’d painstakingly lugged all mine and not had it helicoptered or muled in and then cooked for me, every oat was sacred and not to be wasted!
The portering continues
There are three camps on the way up to the summit; but I decided just to use one of them, camp 2 at 5,500m. Given the arid landscape, water is hard to come by and the thought of hacking at a glacier with an axe to get some drinkable liquid was not enticing, so I had a day “portering” 17litres and a week’s worth of food up to this second camp.
Here I received my first welcome from the infamous Aconcagua winds; the guys in the mountain rescue hut were quite bemused to see me with bare legs “we’ve never seen anyone up here in shorts before!” At least this meant they were happy to befriend me, so we drank tea, ate biscuits and played Yahtzee until it was time for me to “scree ski” my way back down to base camp.
The next day I carried the rest of my things up to camp two. It was tricky getting my tent up in the gale force winds but eventually I got inside only to hear a couple of porters arrive and start putting tents up for their imminently arriving group. The group of Americans duly appeared, complaining about how hard the climb up to Camp Two had been (without carrying anything!!), they got into their pre-erected tents and were promptly told to rest whilst they were served tea.
Does five-star service have a place on the mountain?
I can by no means class myself as a proper mountaineer and many people probably disagree with me, but my view is that if someone is doing everything for you in the mountains it somewhat takes away from the achievement. Aconcagua has become a battleground for different agencies offering all-inclusive expedition packages.
Of course, throwing money at a mountain takes out the logistical and many of the physical challenges, but it also means that if something goes wrong, many of the people being guided would not know how to get themselves out of / avoid a dangerous situation e.g. navigating off the mountain after the death of a guide on summit day / reassembling cairns around the tent if it is destroyed by wind.
Anyway. Having been in Nepal in November, I was feeling well-acclimatised and keen to go up to the summit before heading back to base camp to attempt the speed record.
The weather unfortunately had other ideas. Having befriended the next set of mountain rescue guys, I was resigned to spend a few days in their walk-in-freezer disguised as a hut, hoping that the wind would abate at some point. But it was not to be. Each day we radioed down to base camp for a forecast, only for the news to be the same, the wind would be 90kph+ and a snow storm was on its way.
Testing the storm
By the third day of either claustrophobic reading in my tent, discussing the legalisation of abortion in Argentina over tea and biscuits and sampling the dubious dehydrated food packages left behind by previous climbers (dehydrated cheese fondue and nachos were voted as my top 2), I’d had enough and decided to go for a little walk to camp three and back.
Pretty much everyone else who had been there to attempt the summit had gone back down to base camp / Mendoza as there was no sign of a weather window opening any time soon.
I packed everything I could possibly need and set off up the mountain. Arriving at camp three I felt good and decided I might as well carry on a bit further; if I felt cold or conditions became dangerous, I would head back the way I’d come.
The camp was completely deserted so I sheltered from the wind in an empty dome tent whilst I checked the map, ate some of my supplies and layered up. Because I’d been away for so long, I didn’t have my mountaineering boots, but rather the Adidas Terrex Freehiker I’d been wearing for the last few months.
Custom mountaineering boots
Although the mountain rescue guys said it was impossible to go beyond 6,000m in these, I had a masterplan of wearing three pairs of socks, hand warmers in the shoes, neoprene cycling overshoes, and crampons on top of that. I knew I was not conventionally equipped in the footwear department and frostbite was one of my greatest fears, but I had told myself that if I was cold, I would go down. Toes are more important than a summit.
I set off up the mountain, feeling rather toasty with my many layers on. After about an hour, the forecast storm was in full flow, battering me with the wind and blizzarding snow. But I pushed on, still feeling fine temperature and energy-wise. It was decidedly miserable once I got to the final push to the summit; the last 350m involve a pretty vertical ascent and by this time any trace of a path had been covered by the rapidly falling snow, but I could make out a line up towards the summit.
Of course, I could feel the lack of oxygen affecting my breathing, but I didn’t have a headache at all and knew I had plenty left in the tank.
Once I turned the corner to scramble up onto the summit plateau all hell broke loose as I was exposed to the full brunt of the storm. I touched the cross on the top and forced myself to remove my gloves for 10 secs for a summit photo, otherwise I thought nobody would believe I’d been up there! In just those few seconds my fingers were freezing; it was no place to hang out and do a celebratory dance, so I focused on getting back down safely.
I’d made sure to remember the way I’d come up as summits can be disorientating in zero-visibility, and I took extreme care on the way down. I knew that if I were to injure myself there would be no rescue party, so it was important to go slowly and make sure that nothing untoward happened (other than a few inadvertent nose-dives into snow drifts).
My goggles had filled with ice, so I resigned myself to having my eyes open to the elements; thoughts of snow-blindness filled my mind as I bashed the mini-icicles off my eyelashes which were freezing my eyes shut.
Returning to Camp Three, in my semi-blind state I took a poor line back down the mountain and ended up much further down the valley than camp two where my tent was. Fortunately, I had the route on my watch and could flounder my way through the snow to the camp. I’d never seen so much snow fall in such a short space of time. There had been no snow when I had left 5,500m at midday, and now, just seven hours later it was chest deep in places.
On top of the world
I’d just been the highest person in the world for the afternoon*, but I was in no mood for a celebration as a crawled into my tent, filling it with snow, and lay on my mattress, waiting for the morning to come.
The next day the storm had subsided, and the mountains looked beautiful, painted in white. I agonised over whether I still had time to do the speed ascent, and although I could potentially have returned to base camp and done it the next day, I would really have been pushing my luck.
Despite the hellish conditions, everything had gone well with my ascent. Seeing who is the fastest person to the top of Aconcagua isn’t all that important in the greater scheme of the world; mountains will always be there, but health and happiness may not. I’d packed so much into the last few months (and years!) that I told myself I should be content with everything I’ve done.
*As the highest mountain outside of Asia, and December being outside the Himalayan climbing period, and 5pm in Argentina being around 2am in Asia, it was fairly improbable that anyone else would be above 7,000m at that time.
Back to civilisation with a thud
There were times sat in the mountain rescue hut when I wondered whether I would even summit at all, so to have reached the top when it was deemed to be impossible, the only person up there for five days, should be something to celebrate, not bemoan the fact that I ran out of time to go for some pointless record.
Of course, I still had to get myself back to Mendoza; as I sweated my way back through the desert to the park entrance, my bag still seeming to weigh not much less than on the way out (I ate too many of the rangers’ biscuits and not enough of my own!), it was strange to think of the climatic contrasts I’d experienced in the last 36 hours.
Back in the UK just before Christmas, my body finally succumbed to a couple of weeks of deep fatigue. I tried pushing on through the tiredness and lack of energy, but was sleeping for 12+hours a night, trying to run but managing only to shuffle, incapable of summoning the necessary energy to ride my bike even slowly up Yorkshire’s steep hills.
A tried reminder
On Christmas day we organised a family handicap run, and it was only when 60-year-old Mamapage caught me up calling “adios amiga” as she jogged, gazelle-like past me that I realised that something was really awry.
Instead of moaning, I embraced the lack of energy and ability to only jog very very slowly and allowed my body to start to rebuild; the views of the Pennines are better enjoyed at a steady pace anyway.
Here’s to 2020 and building back to some energy, a touch of speed and hopefully no more broken feet!