Day 14 – Summit day!! We were awoken at 3:30 am by the guides and the sound of our tents flapping in the wind. Soon we were greeted with hot water as well as meat, cookies and oatmeal for breakfast. We were due to leave at 5 am sharp, not 5:05, not 4:55. They were very adamant about this. At first, I was wondering why we were awake so early but I soon remembered how slow you move at 6000m. The simple things like getting out of your sleeping bag and tying your boot laces required rest breaks. It was -10°C, windy and they didn’t want anyone standing around in the cold waiting, hence the punctuality. We were outside the tent and ready to go with crampons on right at 5 am. We hiked for an hour and a half in the dark with our headlamps shining on our feet. This was probably the most challenging part for Shannon. Not being about to see where you are going and seemingly endless switchbacks. As we gazed over the mountain side we could see other climbers headlights in all directions. Eventually, the sun began to rise and we felt a bit more positive about our situation. After three hours of climbing, we had made it to Plaza Indepencia at 6400m. At this point the guides informed us that we still had a further five hours before the summit. Four people from our group made the tough choice to turn around and return to the tents.
We just kept the positive thoughts running through our heads and pushed on as best we could. The dreaded traverse was next to pass. A one kilometre long section cutting across the face with wind blowing hard, at times almost knocking us off our feet. Our right side was pelted with snow and even bits of rock as the wind smashed us for the hours climb. Eventually we reached the far side and made it to a sheltered area known as the cave, at 6660m. For the next 45 minutes we focused on eating, drinking and resting while we stayed in place. This was just the recharge we needed to push the next two and a half hours to the summit. The weather was warming and the wind had calmed now so we changed our layers and stashed some gear here to lighten our load for the next section.
Up and up and up we went. Our steps got slower and closer together. We started to see others coming down from the top now, however, progress felt like an eternity. I gave up staring at the summit as it never seemed to get any closer. I forced myself to pick a series of milestones only meters ahead of me and reward myself with a sense of accomplishment when I reached them. The strong wind had blown most of the snow away now and we were left climbing over rocks and boulders as we gained altitude. I would look down at my boots and was amazed that many of my strides could easily be measured in inches rather than feet. I noticed Shannon had stopped at one point. She was not moving any more but staring at me and smiling. She was waiting.l, waiting for us to take the last 10 steps and arrive at the top of the mountain together. It was the most amazing feeling, so hard to describe. Tears of pure joy rushed to our eyes! We did it, we actually did it! It took eight and a half hours to climb the five kilometres and 1000 vertical meters to arrive at 6962 metres; our top of the world.
Out of our combined group of 19, there were 10 of us that summited on this day. Once leaving the cave It was the perfect weather day! By now it was partly cloudy with no wind and the thermometer on my pack was reading +8°C. We relaxed there for just over an hour taking it all in. But like every summit, we were only half complete and it was time to go down. Retracing our steps, we skirted around the boulders and scree and tried to keep our footing while fumbling around the rocks, ice and snow, then plugged away back down to Camp 3 in around three hours. We were both mentally and physically drained at this point and it took everything to concentrate on our footing to get us safely back to the tents. A 13-hour round trip and back at 6000m now, we were congratulated by the guides and other climbers awaiting our arrival. We were both so exhausted and relieved when our other climbing partners offered to help take our crampons off as Shannon was so zoned out at this point she was just ready to lay down. This outside welcoming was short lived as the winds were starting to pick up so we quickly tucked ourselves away back in our tent. The amazing guides brought us water, hot soup and noodles for dinner. Then the wind started blowing really fierce. The defining noise of the tent flapping was no match for our level of fatigue as we settled in for the night and fell asleep just before dark.
Time to leave Camp 3 (6000m) and head down to basecamp (4300m). This took us about 3.5 hours, completely downhill. The wind was blowing so hard that morning we couldn’t even take down our tent. Anything not bolted down was flying away. Shannon and I sent our gear down with porters as we felt we wanted to save our knees on the big descent. With crampons on again we made our way to camp 2. We had stashed our hiking boots in a gear tent here, so we quickly swapped over foot wear and continue on. Skirting around camp 1 we boot skied the scree slope and made our way to the comfort of Plaza de Mules. Once safely back down at basecamp we were greeted with warm welcomes, wonderful snacks and beer! The sun was shining, but the wind was still present, just on a lesser scale. We relaxed in the dining tent, shared stories and tips with the next expedition making their way up the mountain, and even took a rewarding hot shower. We finished the day with a dome tent party complete with Argentinean wine and celebrations. We were all still rather exhausted from the previous two days that we didn’t make it much past sunset before resigning to our shelters and the warmth of our sleeping bags.
Day 16 – The final day had come to hike out and get back to Mendoza. This hike would prove to be another challenging one, 27 km to be exact. Our gear was being sent down on mules so our day packs were pretty light containing only water with snacks and lunch in it. We started with the decent down the steep glacial moraine then the dreaded four hours of river walk was upon us. This time however we were passing through here later in the day which made the river crossings a bit more challenging. Unlike others, we had Gore-Tex hiking boots so our feet stayed dry as we tiptoed through the amplified water levels. The wind had also started to increase down the valley. Thankfully was at our backs but the sandstorms that came with it were less than pleasant. Just as the first time we crossed this section, it seemed to go on forever, but eventually we arrived at Confluencia camp. A warm greeting from the camp host was a pleasant surprise as we enjoyed their juice and snacks and took a short but relaxing break. Once back on our feet we continued down hill. Now we were starting to see the foliage come back and enjoyed green, yellow and purple colours that had been eliminated from our colour spectrum over the past couple weeks. Even spotted a guanaco walking the ridgeline as it peered down over us.
The remaining seven kilometers back to the parking lot and the awaiting shuttle was nothing but rewarding and the perfect completion for our expedition. With mule bags loaded up we made one last stop in Penitentes where we grabbed the last of our things, had a drink, and were presented with our Aconcagua Summit certificates.
Then our remaining team members all piled back into the shuttle and made the 3-hour drive to Mendoza. Once arriving at the Diplomatic Hotel we all settled, around midnight, into our rooms. We ordered a well-deserved burger, fries and Coca-Cola through room service, enjoyed a long hot shower and tried to get some sleep as we re-lived the past 16 exciting days in our minds. Just as everyone had always warned us, the climb was the hardest thing we had ever done in our lives, but I would not have changed it for the world. The emotions, memories and relationships we encountered is why we do what we do and nothing will ever take that away from us.