“I get high with a little help from my friends”. Joe Cocker
Camp Colera 20,300 ft
I started the day with a helicopter hovering 10 feet over my tent, shaking ice loose on us. I hear one of our guides yelling that he is going to crash, which gets my attention and I get out quickly in the cold without my outer layers. I got up too fast and moved before my heart rate got up to carry oxygen to my brain and almost blacked out. Nido de Condores Camp 2 is the highest point someone can be rescued, and at 18600 ft., the helicopter was struggling to maintain control touching down – sliding and then taking back off, ending up unable to land. The body of a climber is in a red tent just outside of ours, and the park rangers were trying to get the body down. This was the reason for the early morning wake up call.
Starting our last three-day summit push. My knee is still tightly wrapped and very stiff. I have bruising all of the way down to my ankle. At this altitude, nothing heals and everything is difficult – getting dressed, packing, and even getting to your feet has to be done slowly. Max has four bottles of oxygen, but will only use it in case of emergency. We climbed to the high Camp Colera above 20,000 ft. the highest I have ever been.
While packing this morning I am dragging my bag from my tent, doing my three leg crawl and my back goes into a spasm – which was one of my biggest fears. It happened on Kilimanjaro, and with the boys’ help I made it. I struggle getting into Colera; the altitude, the dehydration, bad knee, and now my back is further restricting my mobility. It is starting to take its toll. There is a small wooden structure, maybe 8X10, all eight of us crawl in to get out of the wind and cold. We crash in one big pile while the tents get made.
I am now only carrying fifteen pounds… water, food, emergency gear and pack. I am wearing most of my gear. My double plastic boots are very uncomfortable, but came in useful in the steep rocky part of the climb. I could hang a toe in a rock and step up. I have a few blisters, but my feet are in good shape.
The porters are badass. They carried 50 pounds, and when we get to camp they set up the tents and start melting snow for drinking water. The porter I hired made it from base camp here, dropped off my gear, and then walked all of the way back down to base camp. We get settled and boiled water to make our dehydrated meals. I had spaghetti, and Roi had a 4-cheese pasta. We ended up trading and ate part of our 1200 calorie meal, which would be it for the day.
Roi has chocolate and I eat some of it, but nothing tastes good and I don’t trust my stomach or colon. The climbing starts at 3 a.m., and I try to sleep; waking every 15 minutes with apnea. I have to pressure breathe for a few minutes until breathing gets normal and I can go back to sleep and start the cycle over. I maybe sleep 15 minutes every hour. I don’t get out – it’s cold, although there is no wind.
We get our wake up call. My back is very stiff. Everyone is struggling. It takes thirty minutes to dress. I ask for another rest day. Max tells me today is as good as I will see it with the weather. Everyone feels bad, but I have plenty of days left on my permit, plus it’s not the altitude sickness as much as my back that needs a rest day. He agrees. He has had his hands full with a film crew, equipment, and Jan’s second push. It will be just my guide, Jorge, and me on my summit day.
In my tent as sun comes up, we are so close to the top. I unzip my window and can see the summit. I can see people turning around and returning. I get out and start moving around. It’s unusually sunny, but still below zero, and without the wind it feels comfortable. The last few days I haven’t been able to spend much time out of the tent. We climb in the tent and prepare for the next day, just getting out for the bathroom, which is done quickly. Roi has every episode of Breaking Bad on his iPad and we have a solar charger to keep it up, and use my clothesline as a holder so we can watch. It helps pass the time. Funny nothing works above 20,000 ft. I am now using a pencil to write with because ink freezes and doesn’t work but not the Ipad…it’s still working!
As I wait I drink a gallon of water and eat a piece of cake with hot tea that Max left. The tea they drink is called mate, and it looks like the stuff you scrape from under your mower deck. They drink it from a gourd with a straw with a screen to keep you from sucking in the chunks. It is a ritual. One guy makes it and hands you the gourd with the straw pointing at you and you have to drink it all and pass it back. He then adds more mower deck grass and passes it to the next guy. I hope I don’t get a random drug test when I return because after a gourd of tea, I am so jacked up I can’t sit still. I feel better than I have in days, but now I am second-guessing my choice to take a rest day. I walk up to look at the hard part of the summit day, the traverse, and the canaletta, 300 meters from the top.
I meet Roi coming down. I first think he was on his way from the summit. He has been the strongest climber – first to camp, carrying all of his gear, but then I see him stumbling and can tell he was in trouble. Without going into detail, he was bleeding internally and exiting in the form of #2 . He has been taking 900 mg of ibuprofen for headache, and that evening Max tells him “dude, you’re fucked”, kind of joking. Max has every medicine in the book, and is the most knowledgeable guide on the mountain, so if we did get bad I have confidence he would get us off the mountain.
A Norwegian climber dies on the summit. I meet two rangers sliding the body down. He is on a metal gurney with snow packed around him. I am not sure what team he was with or if he was on his own, but the two rangers ended up getting him down to base camp and eventually get him off the mountain. I met them in the med tent at base camp a few days later and Max was impressed with their effort. The cause of death was high altitude cerebral embolism, or HACE.
I watch our group return scattered and spent. They go straight to the tent and crash in their clothes. I eat my last dehydrated meal and prep for my attempt in a few hours. I feel good. Roi is better, but tomorrow is a long walk to base camp and will test everyone. Max comes to my tent at 9 p.m. and tells me we have a bad forecast for summit and I need to return to base camp with the rest of the team. He said since I am acclimatized, I can bypass lower camps and climb back, plus I will have my own guide. The weather hits in waves where snow and strong wind blow, and then a calm sunny day follows. I have been above 18000 ft. for five days injured and now out of food. I don’t like the call, but not thinking clearly and looking back it was the right move. I can see it in my rambling journal that I wrote the past five days.
The next morning we load gear and walk down from summit camp to base camp at Plaza de Mulas, 14600 ft. It took us five days to get here from base camp and now we return downhill in one day with a plan to spend another rest day and then return to high camp for summit bid making it the third trip up to 20,000 ft. I pack my bag. I’m not happy and don’t pack enough water or get my gear right for the descent. I send my heavy down gloves and jacket with porter and start without enough layers on. I get very cold and lose feeling in my fingers. My heavy double plastic boots are warm, but quickly cause blisters on both feet. I have to stop often and take care of hot spots. As we pass the 2 lower camps we pick up gear we left, the body of the Polish climber is still there. I am getting top heavy and I fall with the weight a lot. The worst job of the group is the porters, who load the now frozen poop bags to carry them down for disposal.
I arrive in base camp. It is Sunday ,which is steak night. They grill steaks and serve Malbec wine. It is wonderful, especially after a week of camp food. Max buys everyone hot showers and we are met with hot pizza in a dome tent. It is the first time we get to talk to each other about the events.
Roi and I go to doctor. Roi’s bleeding has stopped, and the doctor said it was a ruptured polyps in his colon. He unwrapped my leg, gave me another shot, and told me I can continue on. We return to the dome and wait for the steaks. For the last 3 months I have steered clear of alcohol but, the Malbec and steak were calling my name.