It was Ben’s idea. To climb Aconcagua in Argentina. In the 30 years we have been friends, some of his ideas for adventure had been pure brilliance. Others complete lunacy. But what crowned this as a particularly good idea, and not simply some excess of middle-aged fancy, was that it was to be a trip with our sons: Ben’s two boys and my son Tristan. A small team of five, we would set out from our home in Zimbabwe to climb the highest peak in the world outside of the Himalayas.
With an average summit success rate of one in every three climbers, the mountain was to be taken seriously. We knew that each short, summer climbing season, people succumb to altitude, cold and exhaustion in their attempts to reach the top, keeping rescue services busy. Some lose fingers or toes to the cold. Some die. Was I right to expose my own son, who would turn 14 just before the climb, to three weeks of this kind of hardship? I knew he was never going to say no to the opportunity, inspired as he always has been by Ben’s older boys, Joshua and Steven.
At just over 40 kilograms, Tristan is small and young-looking for his age. However, it was no pushy over-ambition that led me to encourage him to join the expedition. In the last two years, with the privilege of being a child of Africa, he had ridden horses through the Bale Mountains of Ethiopia, walked for several days through the Zambezi Valley while sleeping rough among big game, dealt with a crocodile jumping into his canoe in a remote part of the Runde River and relocated a number of deadly snakes from people’s gardens. I felt he had proven himself capable.
We arrived in Argentina in early December and set about applying for climbing permits. Noticing our papers were being met with disconcerting expressions of puzzlement by the friendly permitting staff, we realised that ours was not going to be a simple case. Two fathers and three children from Zimbabwe, climbing solo without guides or part of a package tour? We had some explaining to do.
The decision to climb Aconcagua by ourselves had been easy. It was in our DNA to be independent. In the 1990s, Ben and I had explored some of the most remote corners of Africa together, revelling in a taste of adventure gleaned from searching out the unknown. Subsequent travels with our families were similarly exciting and often unpredictable. Exasperated wives and forgiving children had tolerated being lost, stuck, hungry and uncomfortable, but all in the spirit of freedom and discovery. We wanted the same in the Andes. And it was not the case that heading into the mountains unguided was irresponsible. Ben had been schooled in the Alps and had spent years going feral with his school mates in the mountains, developing a skill set that saw him to the top of many of the most challenging Alpine peaks.
But our Argentinian gatekeepers did not initially see eye-to-eye. Legal advice was sought and our case debated behind closed doors. The kids fooled around outside the office on borrowed bicycles. Ben and I maintained seriousness and attempted to look like reliable mountaineers. It worked. We had the blessing of the Aconcagua authorities to take the kids up the 6,962m mountain.
We chose to approach Aconcagua via the Vacas valley, a lesser travelled route requiring three days hike to base camp. The walk was delightful. The energetic Vacas stream, brown with glacial meltwater from mountains far upstream, is framed by a harsh desert of scree and rock stretching high on each side. Together with our colorful team of laden pack mules, we walked under perfect blue skies and a glaring sun.
Arrival at Base Camp ‘Plaza Argentina’ at 4,200m saw the beginning of our essential acclimatisation process. We had planned to spend plenty of time adapting to the altitude, allocating a number of spare days on the mountain for the slow business of headaches or nausea to subside. We quickly made friends with fellow climbers and camp staff, many of whom were drawn to the novelty of seeing children on the mountain. But time spent at the base camp also afforded regular reminders of the challenge ahead. Helicopters paid daily visits to rescue those in need of evacuation. We spoke to many who had been forced to turn back through altitude complications, going home without summiting. Disconcerting as this was, we seemed to be adapting pretty well and continued to focus on our next step: Camp 1. We climbed high stashing supplies during the day returning to sleep at lower altitudes at night. We kept well hydrated and ate as best as we could. Soon we were ready for life at 5,000m.
Leaving the base camp committed us to the upper mountain. Temperatures dropped and winds increased. We were now becoming used to the routine of camp life, each of us with our particular role or responsibility – securing tents against the wind, making water from snow, preparing loads to be stashed at higher camps, making sweet tea, or cooking bland noodles.
Our next altitude gain was tough. A day of equipment carrying to stash at 5,500m saw us battle storm winds and plunging temperatures. We were all feeling the fatigue of carrying loads up the mountain and the additional buffeting and wrenching of the wind was draining. An icefall – blocks as big as cars – hurtled down the valley across our path, adding to our sense of exposure. Tristan plodded on behind me, visibly struggling to stay on his feet in the face of gusts that roared between the peaks all about us. Our steps were becoming very slow now, lungs heaving with the lack of oxygen. Step by step, was our simple mantra.
Our camp at 5,500m overlooked a vista of peaks and glaciers stretching north the length of the Andes. We were now tantalisingly close to our final camp (at 5,900m) from which we would launch a summit attempt. Weather windows were of crucial importance and we extracted all the information we could from other climbing teams. Winds were forecast to drop in two days and we needed to press on to Camp 3 without delay.
Arrival at 5,900m was anything but windless. The walk up had required a huge effort and Tristan had been blown off his feet on a number of occasions. I waited for him to join me in the lee of a large rock. When he arrived he was visibly exhausted and fighting back tears. It was brutally cold and all movement took significant effort.
At Camp 3, with tents being ravaged by wind, we attempted to melt snow to rehydrate and cook another unappetising meal. It was almost impossible. Jet stream-fuelled gusts were flattening tents in an alarming way. As we attempted to sleep, we all felt ill-prepared for a summit bid, proposed for 6am.
Tristan’s plaintive cries stirred me in the dead of night amid the clamour of a phenomenal storm. His high-pitched voice cut through the roar and crack of wind ripping through nylon and we knew there was trouble. It was 3am and the boys were outside their buckled and ripped tent in an attempt to salvage it. Tossed around like puppets in the pitch-black tempest, all efforts were futile and we had no choice but to abandon the wreckage, heaping rocks onto the flattened tent shells to avoid losing their contents of equipment entirely. Knowing there to be an emergency refuge hut nearby, the five of us scrambled for cover, instinctively aware that any summit attempt was now very unlikely.
Weather forecasts had got it wrong. We had to recover our stricken equipment and descend. Other teams were doing the same. The mountain had given us all a serious roughing up and at close to 6,000m we were not in the right place to recover. Morale was low. The two younger boys had had enough. Body language was that of fatigue and frustration. We were all in need of something to give us a boost. Without functional tents, we were forced to appeal to the hospitality of others and found shelter with a handful of other climbers in a large dome tent. The absurdity of the night’s distress was retold in gory detail to our new friends and we ate, laughed, slept and revived. A strange optimism gripped us as we discussed attempting the summit one final time. We had survived a storm at 6,000m and felt somehow that we might just have earned our passage.
Two days later and we were back at 6,000m for the dawn of a summit weather window that saw energetic gusts blowing fresh snowfall across the mountain’s upper reaches. It looked forbidding, but we were compelled to climb. Strangely, I felt no preoccupation with reaching the summit as we set out. I simply felt we should get as high as we could. And so began the day’s slow, plodding, step-by-step progress that is peculiar to high altitude movement. We got into our rhythm and felt good, almost enjoying life over 6,000m. The mountain was white and magnificent all around us. Ben and his boys were setting a decent pace just above us and conditions were improving.
It was as we reached the vast scree slope the leads to the infamous and grueling canaleta section of the ascent that I realised we might actually make the summit. An enormous, sweeping expanse suddenly appeared as we crested a ridge, revealing a huge, plunging descent to valleys 3,000m below. It was inspiring. I turned to Tristan and was suddenly filled with enormous pride; we were actually within striking distance of the summit of Aconcagua and my son, probably the smallest boy to have got this far in years, was looking strong and confident. We shared a few words of encouragement, buoyed by a discreet sense of belief. Two hours later we were just 200m below the summit. We’d donned crampons to navigate sections of ice and snow, but then ditched them to make better progress among loose, energy-sapping scree.
We took the final few steps onto the summit at 3.30 that afternoon. As his small frame appeared into view, I wrapped Tristan in my arms and the tears flowed, overwhelmed by an array of hypoxic emotions. Fathers and sons united in the uniqueness of an extraordinary moment.
This was published in the April 2018 edition of Geographical magazine.
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