“There will be no lying down above basecamp,” Sunny said matter-of-factly, as we trotted single-file up the barren trail. My headlamp beam cut the darkness in half, perpetually exposing our path 30 feet into the future. “Only once we’re off the upper mountain will it be safe to take a few seconds to close our eyes.”
Now, several hours later, I think back to Sunny’s advice and give a weary internal chuckle as I get up from my fifth micro-sleep above basecamp. Sunny had begrudgingly relented on the forbidden rests, after watching me stumble half asleep on my feet as we navigated an exposed rock band at 16,000 feet. I had started taking the 90-second snoozes only 10 hours into what we anticipated would be a 36-hour effort. We both quietly knew it was a bad sign that I was so inexplicably, so narcoleptically exhausted so early on into our run, but we said nothing. Having already failed on a previous attempt to summit, Sunny and I were determined to make our last push a success.
Aconcagua. The highest mountain in the world outside of the Himalaya tops out at 22,838 feet above sea level and ranks as the second highest of the Seven Summits. Its most popular path of ascent, The Normal Route, is non-technical—no ropes needed, no glacier or crevasse risk. Just 22 miles (one way) in a lunar landscape from the trailhead to the summit. Of course, the extreme temperature variations, high-altitude storms and serious lack of oxygen necessitate considerable caution and preparation. At the time, only one woman (Fernanda Maciel of Brazil) had ever completed the route in a non-stop push.
My partners for this six-week adventure were Sunny Stroeer, a 32-year-old German-born nomad and our indefatigable photographer friend, John Evans, 54, of Salt Lake City, Utah. Sunny and I had originally intended to break Fernanda’s record with John along to capture the effort, but I quickly realized that my months of working 80-hour weeks for a small medical NGO in a war torn region of Northern Africa leading up to our trip had made that goal downright impossible. We revised our goal. We wanted to summit for the natural beauty, the partnership and the personal challenge, not just for an ephemeral record. We’d be stoked to just complete the trail out and back, regardless of how long it would take.
Four weeks into our endeavor to trail run up Aconcagua, Sunny and I recuperated from one of our acclimatization missions, by lounging and poaching internet in the lone hotel near the trailhead, which sits at around 9,000 feet between steep, scree-covered mountains. The outer façade of cracked cement and decaying paint belied an elegant interior. A roaring cough erupted from Sunny, causing everyone in the vaulted lobby to turn and stare. Her long blonde hair fought to escape a skirmish of dreadlock and braid, her eyes sunken as she plopped another menthol lozenge into her mouth. The minty candy clicked between her pearly blue-tinged teeth.
“I don’t think I’ll be able to do the whole trail,” she said, panting. “I still can’t breathe right … and this damn cough!”
She didn’t have to tell me. On a separate solo “acclimatization” run from basecamp (14,500 feet) to the summit in 8:47 a few days prior (in which she set a new female FKT), she had exacerbated her once-dwindling chest infection and exercise-induced asthma, turning the 5’ 11” bounding Bavarian into a wheezing, hacking, mouth breather. Neither of us had slept well since.
But I was resolute—I wanted to complete the objective of going trailhead to summit with every ounce of my being. Again, we revised our goals and made a new plan. Sunny and I would start at the trailhead and go as far as possible together. Once her compromised lungs and fatigue would inevitably catch up, she would slow to a more comfortable pace as I pushed on. That would mean I would likely run alone through the night until I met up with John, who would be perched expectantly at 18,300 feet at Camp 2.
“I’m not sure where I am!” I whine pathetically to my headlamp-cast shadow.
It’s a new moon and so dark I can’t even make out the cliffs right next to me. I had reluctantly left Sunny behind (she would descend on her own) over three miles ago and now deeply regret our new goal. I regret my solitude, my desire to run long distances … my entire trip to Argentina.
The river at night flows at a higher volume than during the day, causing it to carve unpredictable nocturnal paths that flood the hiking trail in the broad approach valley.
“I’m lost and alone and fucking gripped!”
At this point I’m talking to my GoPro, taking a page out of the Tom Hanks/volleyball playbook in the movie “Castaway.” Its blinking red light warmly encourages me to continue like a friend nodding her head. The rocks of the ever-changing landslide I’ve been tentatively traversing suddenly give way, and I sink up to my knees in fast-running snowmelt.
“FUCK!” I whimper as a knot catches in my throat. Frantically dog paddling up the crumbling scree slope and out of the water, I continue my soliloquy. “Where is the damn trail!?”
My tights, socks and shoes are now soaked, and I have a little cry. With such limited visibility, the valley feels claustrophobic and infinite all at once. Onward, upward. Resolute.
Under the moonless blanket of night, I follow the reliable signs of pack-mule manure, guiding myself the remaining five miles into basecamp at 14,500 feet. I find the boots I had abandoned days before. Dry feet! I put on more layers and mutter, “Eat to summit,” as I choke down a bite of an energy bar and begin to climb the mountain proper.
From basecamp, the mostly gentle uphill slope of the approach valley abruptly gives way to miles of steep, delicate scree laced with a spider’s web of trails and the occasional rock band or snowfield. This side of Aconcagua is not known for its aesthetics, affectionately earning the moniker “dump heap.” Head down in the dark night, I don’t even notice. My world is confined to the bubble my headlamp illuminates on the ground. The wind howls. My breath comes quickly, my steps slowly. The crinkle of my Gore-Tex layer pulled tight over my head to combat the night’s chill fills my ears with white noise.
Five slow and demoralizing hours later, I’m lost again, behind schedule and totally bonked. I can’t find the landmarks we had identified on our earlier recon to efficiently cross the snowfield. The four-to-six-foot-tall knife blades of frozen snow, called penitents, conspire with the darkness to completely block my visibility. Forward progress feels like trying to make my way through a stubborn concert crowd.
Also, my feet are numb. I’m stumbling. I can’t eat without vomiting. My will to continue flickers out, even though the sun will soon be rising and my solitude ending.
I kneel between two unyielding penitents and pull out the radio.
“John? John, are you there?” I plead, trying to raise some support from our photographer at Camp 2, just a little under a very far mile away.
John’s sleepy voice crackles over the radio, and I dejectedly ask, “Do you wanna be big spoon or little? I quit.”
The next day, John and I spend a half day resting at Camp 2, before descending the mountain. Once down, we rendezvous with Sunny and all retreat back to the mountain port city of Mendoza. John flies home. Having caught a virus, I lay in the hostel bed. Sunny still coughs occasionally.
But a small flame of inspiration still burns. We are acclimated; we know the trail inside and out. Against friends’ advice, we make a pact to give Aconcagua another go, and rebook our tickets home.
But, for the next week and a half, the mountain was pounded with high winds and precipitation daily. Finally, with time running out, we made the call to give it our last-ditch effort.
Setting out from the trailhead, the evening sun sent long shadows that filled the valley with a preemptive darkness. Armed with each others company, the nightfall felt reassuring. Snuggled into the comfortable routine, we perfectly stuck the trail, navigating the capricious riverbed without incident. We were on schedule and arrived at the glowing, lighted basecamp feeling strong. We briefly recuperated in our stashed tent then headed up to negotiate the myriad of upper-mountain trails.
And that’s when fatigue draped over me. Sunny’s initially forbidden 90-second naps every 30 minutes became my obsession. We continued doggedly through the night and welcomed the warmth of the sun as we approached Camp 3 at 19,600 feet. The rising sun lifted our spirits, but I hadn’t eaten much since basecamp over 5,000 vertical feet below.
I popped an Oreo into my mouth, thinking a change of flavor would be well received by my fickle gut. Wrong. As we toddled above 20,000 feet, my stomach wrenched and ejected everything, peppering the freshly fallen snow with flakes of black. Sunny blazed ahead.
“You’ve got this!” she said. “We’re making the times we need too.”
We had agreed to a turn-around time, and it was getting tight. The afternoon forecast called for winds of 30mph and several inches of snow. Temperatures were forecasted to drop to minus-18 F.
“There’s no reason we couldn’t summit at 6 p.m., despite what everyone says,” reasoned Sunny as I sat with my head resting on my trekking poles, eyes closed. “We know the way down. We have a GPS. I don’t understand the typical 3 p.m. turn-around time up here. It’s not like there is crevasse or serac danger.”
She was bargaining, and I wasn’t buying.
After another few feet, I laid down again and watched as Sunny charged on 50 feet ahead. Incapable of catching my breath and summoning energy to properly shout up to her, I meekly croaked, “Sunny ….”
She powered on, unable hear my feeble attempts at a yell. Resigned, I laid my head back down in the snow, eyes closed and breathing fast, hoping she would eventually turn around. Disappointment washed over me, indistinguishable from the cold that began to soak through my clothes from lying in the snow.
At 21,500 feet, I was officially done. In the past hour we had progressed only 200 yards. With the summit literally in view just over 1,000 vertical feet above, I gave into failure—again.
After a few moments, Sunny turned and noticed me, prostrate in the snow. Hustling back to my side, she consoled, “Sometimes you just have to make smart decisions.”
The late afternoon sun broke through the swirling clouds, casting a warming glow over us. “At this pace, we won’t summit till well after 6. We’d be losing daylight. We’d be the only ones still up there after having been on the go for over 24 hours. We’re gonna call it because in the end, no mountain is worth risking life and limb.”
In the months that followed our failure to summit Aconcagua, I have watched the mountain community lose so many bright young lives. Avalanches, crevasse falls, rappelling accidents and more have extinguished some of our most brilliant members in the places we typically go to seek joy, refuge, enlightenment.
The ridge-like fine line between heroically completing a goal and tragically dying in its pursuit accompany us every time we set off on the trail. So while Sunny and I did not make it to the summit that day, we did make it down. We made it home. We lived to try again. And that is the ultimate beacon of success.
Libby Sauter is part international, pediatric-cardiac nurse, part professional rock climber who has begun to dabble in trail running.
This article originally appeared in the June 2018 issue of Trail Runner.