A Female Perspective From the Tallest Peak Outside of the Himalayas: Part I

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I couldn’t possibly.

There’s no way.

I can’t do this.

All of these thoughts went through my head multiple times a day from the moment I decided I wanted to attempt to trek up the tallest peak outside of the Himalayas. I would stare in the mirror as if my face, my eyes, had the answers to questions I wasn’t really sure I was asking. Is there something wrong with me? Am I really behaving in a crazy, reckless manor? Or was I simply doing things that so many others want to do, but for whatever reason, are deciding that they can’t? The few bits of negativity that I received from people about my travels were always the loudest things in my head, but I refused to let it stop me from doing something I was so passionate about.

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I only had a few months to train for Aconcagua, but it became my religion. I was dedicated and driven to prove to the doubters, which included myself, that I was physically and mentally capable of doing this expedition style trek and getting as high as fate would allow. I really wanted to get all the way to 22,841 feet, but that wouldn’t make or break the trip. Nothing was guaranteed, and it was very possible that I wouldn’t get to the top, but I knew it wouldn’t be because I didn’t give it everything I had. Almost every single day I trained for 2-3 hours with low impact exercise (typically a hike) making sure to keep my pulse around 110 to 120 bpm. I didn’t need to kill myself in a workout, but rather work on my stamina and getting my body used to exerting itself for long periods of time using as little energy as possible. I was also carrying a loaded pack so I could get used to at least 20 lbs. worth of gear, water, and snacks being on my back. At this point I was still in Michigan, so I got some good cold weather training. Michigan gave me everything it had with a good stretch of temperatures in the negative degrees fahrenheit and some good amount of snow. I was at least going to be in my element with the cold on Aconcagua. I was pretty sure of that.

In addition to training, I also needed to talk with my doctor about my trip to make sure I was up-to-date on my shots and to get a prescription for Cipro (antibiotic) and Diamox (for altitude sickness). I also went to see a cardiologist to undergo a stress echo (treadmill test) to make sure I was at an acceptable level of fitness and my heart was in good health. I was nervous about being able to get an appointment on such short notice and having favorable results, but in the end I was told I was good to go with all the tests showing my heart was healthy! It was such a relief to know more trekking and mountaineering was in my future.

A lot of preparation was going on and I had a lot of packages coming from REI. I was able to find some things at local outfitters, but most was ordered online. I already had a lot of the gear I needed from my trek to Everest Base Camp, but there were things that I still needed to buy, and a few things I decided to rent from an outfitter once down in Argentina. Loving to adventure in the outdoors doesn’t come cheap if you want your gear to be reliable and last, but once you’re past the initial purchase, it will be with you for a very long time as long as you take care of it. The gear I was renting were things I wasn’t ready to sink $500-$1000 each into (expedition parka, mountaineering boots, -40 degrees sleeping bag). I can’t wait to get my dividend back for next year from REI…it should be a good amount!

The last thing that needed to be taken care of before I left was the issue of my emergency passport (if you’re in the dark about what I’m talking about, see my blog on Poland to catch up). It needed to be exchanged for a regular passport, but it also needed to be done quickly. I sucked it up and paid a service to expedite it in a 12-14 day time frame. I was less than thrilled with the service I received, lots of differing answers from multiple people increased my anxiety of receiving it on time. The service wasn’t cheap, so to be paying a good chunk of money and then receiving poor service was fairly frustrating. In the end, I got it in time and that finally meant there was nothing stopping me from going to  Argentina to trek up a mountain!

For most of the two months leading up to the trip, it was just going to be my guide, Karl, and I. Yes! Karl from Anywhere+ is back! A week before leaving, our friend, Josh (he was on the Everest Base Camp Trek I did last year), messaged me to see if he could join in on our epic adventure. I was worried about only having a week to make arrangements, but Karl assured me adding one person wouldn’t make much difference. Josh was able to get everything figured out and it was now a three person expedition!

Less than a week before leaving, I was out with my loaded pack hiking through snow and had a great 3 hours in the outdoors by myself. I was loading my gear into my van after I had finished and as I bent over to take my rain pants off, I was struck with sharp lower back pain that almost knocked me off my feet. I gasped and muffled my scream into my arm. I wasn’t sure what I should do. I slowly stood up and moved very cautiously, managing to carefully kick my rain pants off and slide into my van. I sat there for a bit letting my body adjust and then drove home. I knew instantly that it was a pinched nerve as my bag had been rubbing and compressing the spot where the pain originated from recently. I was terrified that I wouldn’t recover fast enough and had to take a few days of rest and load up with lots of fluids, bananas, ginger pills. I also alternated a heating pad with a cold compress and continued with low impact exercise (minus the pack) to keep the blood flowing in order to promote healing. Within a few days I was feeling like my old self, but it was always in the back of my head that the wrong movement could take me out of the trekking game very easily. I later figured out it was the pack I was using and the weight I was carrying in it that caused the compression issue. From then on, I stuck to using my 50L pack and loading that up. I haven’t had any issues with my back since all the while increasing the weight.

The night before I left, I got to go out with one of my dearest friends and her family (the lady side). We had some good food, wine, and lots of laughs. Over the years that we’ve known each other, her family became mine especially after my parents passed away. Her mother was especially important to me, so supportive and always reminding me my parents would be proud of me. It was a great send off and a night I won’t forget. The next day I triple checked my bags to make sure I had everything and then it was off to the airport! I dressed comfortably and had a change of clothes and some toiletries to freshen up the next day. I had 26 hours worth of travel: Grand Rapids, MI to Houston, TX. Houston, TX to Santiago, Chile. Santiago, Chile to Mendoza, Argentina. It was a long day with very little sleep on the plane (mostly watched movies), but somehow I made it to Mendoza (2,493 ft.) without any problems or delays!

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I arrived, went through customs pretty quickly since I was in the front row of the plane, and then collected my bags. I rolled through the doors to find Karlos waiting for me with a smile and a personalized bottle of Malbec Reserva. After three months I had another date with the mountains and it couldn’t have come at a better time!

We arrived to the 5-star Diplomatic Hotel, which was insanely swankified with its marble walls and floors, large chandeliers that hung in the entrance way, mahogany furniture, and decadent decor. I knew to savor this day in luxury because it would soon be a distant memory. I had time to rest a bit, and Karlos ran some errands. We then got a bite to eat and had some Karlos and Cella talk time. Once we arrived back to the hotel, we went through gear and the things I brought for him, and before we knew it, it was time to pick Josh up. I continued to organize and repack my things. I overpack so this is always a necessary step.

The boys arrived to the hotel and we then made our way to the gear shop to rent what we still needed. Trying on mountaineering gear in the summertime isn’t my idea of fun. There was a lot of sweat and of course, Karlos wanted to make Instagram stories. I tried to hide as much as possible, lol.

It was so great to be in the company of these guys again! It blew my mind that it had been a little over three months since our trek to Everest Base Camp, and now here we were in Argentina! Karlos took us to dinner at Azafran where I got butternut squash, goat cheese, and bacon risotto. It was a beautiful medley of flavors complimented with a wine I picked out from Azafran’s cellar called DiamAndes’ de Uco Malbec. Argentina’s Malbec is world famous. Mendoza has a perfect combination of conditions to make a seriously amazing wine. It was a very successful night where three people’s tummies were very happy. I think we all became wine snobs that night, too.

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After living in luxury for a day, we set out (after a very lovely and dessert driven continental breakfast) to get our permits and make the drive to Penitentes (8,853 ft.). We would have a one night stay there before making the short drive to the trail head the next day. Before arriving to Penitentes, we stopped for lunch where we had steaks larger than my face! They are all about the meat down in Argentina and it basically came with every meal. Once we arrived to Penitentes, we got our day packs and duffles ready, and left the luggage we didn’t need in storage. Our night ended early after a bit of a nap, dinner, and dessert. We had an early morning again, and I also wanted to make sure I had enough time with my shower and to say goodbye to my bathroom amenities. The rest of our “needs” would be taken outside, in a make shift portable baño, or in a bag. Yes. A bag. This was the real deal. You carry out what you carry in, and that includes your poo.

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The boys couldn’t help but sleep while I couldn’t stop looking at the scenery going by.
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Totally for show, this man never gets full especially when cake is involved!

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As the title states, my perspective comes from being a woman in a world of men. I’m not going to lie, it’s intimidating. In general, men are intimidating anyway, even more so when I come up with the commentary that goes on in their head about me and yes, it’s always negative. It’s usually about my looks, or my weight, but in this setting it was all about my weight and my perceived fitness level. I didn’t look as though I should be there. I didn’t look as though I was ready for the sufferfest that was about to commence. I’m a curvy woman. I am not the skinny blonde athlete that so many brands portray as the type of woman that is adventurous and active. I have never been that and will never be that. Even as an up-and-coming elite gymnast in my childhood, my body was thick and muscular. I’m overweight, but I love being outside and active. I’m stubborn and don’t often let things I start go unfinished. I love a challenge and attempting to summit one of the Seven Summits was so outside of the realm of what I could ever imagine doing, and there I was. Doing it. Deep down, I guess I unconsciously knew I could do it OR I was just so completely naive to what it took to do something like that (even though my guide explained it in detail many times). Whatever the reason, it got me all the way to Argentina and on the trail.

So, yes. I am not the kind of woman you imagine trekking 16.5 miles into Base Camp, to then trek up the tallest mountain in the southern and western hemispheres. I have always noticed that there are few women who are featured in a sport/outdoor activity when it’s dominated by men, and even less so when they don’t fit the model that the commercial athletic world has set forth. I’ve seen things start to change in recent times, women being featured more and more, women becoming the best in a field, and companies realizing the weight women carry in the outdoor consumer world. They’re realizing it’s smart to invest in researching and development, creating products for women even if they aren’t pink. It’s a very exciting change in attitude and I am thrilled to see lots of companies I like embracing a new way of thinking. However, there is still room to grow and improve. Featuring women of different ethnicities, religions, and body types/sizes would be another step in the right direction. Again, I am not skinny. I am not blonde. I am not white. I am curvy. I am a brunette. I have brown skin. I was also told that I was in better shape than most my age by my cardiologist. One of my guides said I was the fittest in the group. Of men. That gave me a lot of confidence and made the two months of training 2-3 hours a day worth it. So, moral of the story, things aren’t always as they appear.

Note: I am in no way trying to bash men, skinny athletic women, blonde women, white women. I am merely saying that seeing all kinds of people outdoors, challenging themselves, working hard, overcoming mental hurdles, etc. etc. etc. is an important visual for people to be used to seeing. I am also continuously working on myself. I can be better and healthier, but my goals have nothing to do with how others will see me. It has to do with me being able to answer, “YES!” to these questions:  Do I feel good in my own skin? Do I feel confident? Am I taking care of myself? Am I challenging myself? Am I getting stronger? Am I improving? Am I HAPPY??? My ‘no’s have started turning into yes’s.

Sorry for getting off track a bit, but these are important issues that I have been giving a lot of thought to. I want to be an advocate for people doing things they thought were impossibilities, no matter what they look like or regardless of what their skin color is. For too long I let other’s opinions dictate my life by creating fear within myself. I let the negativity and fear grow and become a part of my daily life and of course I was very unhappy living this way. One day I woke up and decided I was done with that, and I haven’t looked back. BEST DECISION OF MY LIFE.

Anyway, after a night in Penitentes, we loaded our bags into our driver’s truck and he took us to the trail head where we had to go into the Ranger’s station, register, and get our poo bags. That was it. We set out for a 3-4 hour hike and just like that, our Aconcagua expedition was underway! This first day was pretty simple with smaller ups and downs. It was warm, but not too terrible. It of course felt more difficult than my training due to elevation, and the fact that you just have to learn to find your breathing, your rhythm, and your pace initially. The scenery was overwhelmingly beautiful at all times. It felt good to get the first day under my belt and sit down to enjoy pear flavored Tang, cookies, cheese, meats, and fruit salad. Our first few nights in Confluencia (11,049 ft) was spent in a dome tent we all shared. It would be our roomiest accommodation while trekking.

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We had a bit of time to rest and listen to some NPR podcasts, and later that night we met the other Inka Expedition group that would be sharing our meal tent/dome. There was Andy and Mariana (Argentinian guides), Jimmy (Aussie), Liam (Irish), Larry (Aussie), Peru (Indian), and Liz (American). Lovely people that liked to laugh, so my kind of people. It was reassuring to have a few other females in the group. I fiercely admired and respected Mariana. I loved seeing her in her element and leading the way. It definitely fanned the flames for wanting to get into mountaineering.

We went on an acclimatizing hike to Plaza Francia (13,779 ft.) the next day. It was a long day. I had a horrible nights rest and felt depleted by the time we were up for breakfast. There were a few spots that felt pretty brutal, but that’s when your mental toughness and your team members come in. We rested and I decided to snack, hoping that would give me the energy I didn’t get with sleep. The landscape was insane and other worldly. It felt as if we were on Mars. The colors were spectacular and mesmerizing. Once again we made good time to Plaza Francia, where we got to admire Aconcagua in a blanket of clouds, giving us a bit of a peep show and teasing us with brief glimpses of the summit. My excitement grew with each glance and my heart raced in anticipation. It all felt so surreal. We didn’t stay long, as I was getting chilled. I sweat a lot, and although I brought things to layer up with, I was ready to get going again since my sweat soaked clothing quickly turned cold once we stopped. When we got back to Confluencia, we had to visit with the doctor to get our blood pressure, pulse, oxygen saturation, and lungs checked. Josh and I both had elevated blood pressure, but that can be attributed to altitude and a salty diet. Eating olives, cheese, soup, crackers, meats…basically all the things that we were being fed can cause that. I got a pass, but Josh’s was high enough where he had to have his rechecked. It kept coming out higher and higher, to the point where he would have been experiencing some major problems if it was actually that high. Karl went to talk to the medical professionals a few times as they insisted that their equipment was working properly. As we set out for base camp the next day, Josh had his BP checked once more before moving on. It had come down a bit, but was still high. He would  continue to be monitored, but it certainly wasn’t taking him out of the game. We later found out that the equipment was malfunctioning as many other trekkers were having to be retested over and over because of high BP readings. Of course we’d never say, “We told you so.”

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The next day’s trek was a long one. It was 11.5 miles to Plaza de Mulas a.k.a. Base Camp (13,943 ft.). It was a warmer day, and surprisingly there wasn’t much wind like usual. The views took my breath away once again. I had music buzzing in my ears for a while, and the combination of the two things brought tears to my eyes. How lucky was I to be doing this??? I was so thankful for being allowed to travel and witness the colors, the isolation, and the beauty. I will never truly be able to describe all that this experience was. It’s impossible to do that with words or photographs. I love that I don’t need to explain it to Josh or Karl. Those two guys are the absolute best. I am so grateful to have them in my life to go on adventures with.

I ended up leading us for a good portion of the trek and setting a nice brisk pace. It was a pretty easy day, in the scheme of things, until the very end. We started to have to go up, but it was mainly this one “hill” in particular that was…there’s no getting around it…a complete and total bitch. Although it was an easy day, we still covered a lot of distance. My training typically took me around seven to ten miles each day. Eleven and a half was a bit more and my body felt tired. Once we got to the hill which was very steep and basically like walking on sand, it became a mental game. Josh and I would switch who was leading over and over again. At that point, Karl was long gone, lol. He was waiting at the top with encouraging words of, “It’s just over that hill, ” or, “Ten more minutes,” or, “You’re almost there.” Josh and I would reply under our breath to each other, “Which hill???” or, “A regular 10 minutes or a Karl 10 minutes?” or simply with a bit of a chuckle. Mr. Everest (Karl’s new nickname because he just summited Everest a month ago-amazing, right?) often has a different interpretation of what degree of difficulty something is and past clients of his often rate treks/hikes with their own rating and then a Karl rating.

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We made good time again and we each ended up having our own tents at base camp. We again shared a dome where we had our snacks and meals. After one day, we started sharing our friend’s dining dome for the rest of our meals. We had a rest day the next day, and Karl was going up to cache some of our things at Plaza Canada (C1). Josh and I hung out and charged electronics of ours. This was the day I received some absolutely devastating news. I learned that one of my best friend’s mom had passed away. Her family had become my family over the years. Laurie was a beautiful and giving soul that made me feel special, loved, and taken care of. I miss her smile, her laugh, and her funny faces. I was broken inside and I couldn’t control the tears. As I mentioned earlier, I got to see her the night before I left for Argentina. I made sure to tell her I loved her because I had this feeling that it was going to be my last opportunity. I don’t know why I felt that way, but I’m so glad I listened to my intuition and in a way had a ‘goodbye’ with her.

So here I was on a mountain and I didn’t know what to do. Should I try to go home? Should I stay? If I stay, how do I get up a mountain with a broken heart? Josh and I had lunch together and talked a bit. I was in shock. Guilt started setting in and after going for a walk to the Highest Contemporary Art Gallery in the World, I walked for a bit by myself and stopped at the edge of base camp. I took a few moments to stare at the beauty before me and to talk to her. After taking some time to remember the wonderful mother, grandma, wife, aunt, sister, and friend she was to so many people, I decided to do my best for her. She always had encouraging words for me. She always told me she was proud of me and would always read my blogs and comment supporting words. I needed to stick it out and finish what I started.

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By the time I got back from my walk, Karl had returned. He and Josh were super supportive. They told me to not hold my emotions in and to let it out. They let me know they were there for me with hugs, a squeeze of my shoulder, a rub of my back, or just allowing me to crumble and break down in tears when I needed to. I could have never continued on without their support. It meant so much to me.

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Infamous poo bag.
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Trekkers line up to see the doctor with Aconcagua in the background.
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Karl (left) and Josh (right) looking too cool for school!
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The pack that just keeps getting bigger. Contents going up to be cached at Plaza Canada (C1).

We did an acclimatizing hike to C1 (16,076 ft.) the next day. I had a lot of trouble. My mind was not on the mountain. It was instead with my friend and her family. I so wanted to be there for them in the way they had been there for me when my parents passed away. I wanted to hug them, cry with them, bake cookies or send dinner to them (’cause that’s how I deal with most things). But I wasn’t there. I couldn’t be there. I was so far away and that guilt will stay with me for the rest of my life. So, I struggled. I struggled to find my rhythm, especially in the beginning when I was slipping and sliding in the mud on a steep section. I was immediately frustrated and that didn’t help things. I had a good cry on one of our breaks and then let it go to push past my emotions. We made it to C1 as a storm was moving in. It was bitterly cold with the wind and we all moved quickly to set the tents up and place our things inside. We finished just as snow really started to come down and the thunder rumbled.

I hate going down mountains. It terrifies me. It’s really rough on my body. It doesn’t feel good. I think I may actually prefer the suffering of going up than the sometimes uncontrollable feeling of descending. We basically “skied” down the mountain of loose rock and I fell six or seven times. One of those falls scraped and bruised my knee up as well as gave me a decent little gash on my pointer finger. It instilled fear and that would have to be overcome the next time we came down.

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Yes, that is a dog leading trekkers up a mountain, and it’s not his first rodeo!

We had a few more rest days than we thought at Base Camp as I had some tummy issues for a few days and the rest sounded like a good idea to all of us. One of those days was a Sunday, a day in which there is always an Argentinian Bar-B-Q! It was delicious! We also made a little hike to what use to be a hotel that was now abandoned. I still had a poor attitude and was frustrated easily when I couldn’t control my breathing. Karl was so patient and reassuring. I don’t know how he puts up with me sometimes, but he’s really good at mediating that kind of attitude and turning the frown upside down. One of the more memorable days at BC was the day I got a warm shower! It was the best thing in the world leaving me feeling like a brand new woman. My only complaint was that the “door” wouldn’t velcro together and if someone really wanted to, they could have seen me in all my glory, but I was at the point where I didn’t care too much. I was just happy to be cleaned by something other than a baby wipe!

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This is the look of a very happy man.

So much more to talk about, so I think I will divide it into a few posts! Stay tuned to learn the rest of the story in too much detail!

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