The most common question I get about my climbs is, “Why?” I haven’t always had a coherent or exceptionally unique response to this question, but I think I found it on this climb.
Towards the end of the third day of the long, three-day walk down, I found my feet dragging, legs unable to hold much coordination, and knees and ankles as wobbly as a newborn’s! Add to this miles and miles of “softball”-sized rocks we were walking over, and I was barely able to stay upright.
At this late point of the expedition and on this specific day, I had, with each step, resorted to mustering as much strength as I could in my upper leg, kind of throwing my knee-down out in front of me, and hoping for the best - this worked, until it didn’t!
On a steep and loose, rocky slope, with an eighty foot drop off to the fast flowing river at the bottom of the valley we were walking out of, I felt the terra-not-so-firma give way beneath my right foot. At once, I knew I was falling.
As they say it does, everything slowed down. Without need for thought, I instinctively knew the only way to prevent myself from tumbling down what would certainly be a injury if not death-inducing fall, was to shift all of my weight from the unsupported right side of my body to my left. What followed was something of a mix between a pirouette and a breakdance move, in which every remaining bit of my core strength was used, and the hiking poles in my hands became like the arms of a Den-Den drum, beating on anything and everything around me.
Somehow, miraculously, it worked. The end result was that I ended up turned 180-degrees on the trail facing my assistant guide, Nick, who was the only person behind me at the time, and the primary witness to my folly.
His simple, deadpan response was, “good save!” Which was his enthusiastic, yet punctuated way of saying, “thanks for not falling down there, hurting yourself, causing us to have to coordinate a rescue, adding hours onto this already long day, and possibly making us miss the asado bbq and beers at the end of the trail!” Yet, what I heard him say through the cloud of adrenalyn was, “God saves!”
Don’t jump to conclusions… I’m not going to go off on a super-preachy, “ya gotta accept Jesus as your personal savior”-style rant! That’s just not me. But, in that moment, I found my answer of “why”...why I climb mountains.
It was nearly ten years ago that I began down this road of high-up adventures. It was then that I found myself at the tail-end of another decade (my 20’s), during which I had pursued a career path that I believed would lead to my life’s work and committed to a relationship that I thought would lead me to the sense of family I had been lucky enough to know as a child. However, through a thousand small choices of self-sacrifice and a series of seemingly insignificant acquiescences - I lost myself.
The needs of the career gave way to the priorities of the relationship, turning my future into a revolving door of jobs and projects. One bad decision lead to another, and normal stresses became life altering as the “Great Recession” hit its low. And, having already laid my career - my purpose and motivation - at the altar of a flawed-from-the-start relationship, my marriage became simply two resentful people, cohabitating. I was thirty, divorced, penneless, sleepless, purposeless, and hopeless.
A few things I took with me at the dissolution of my first marriage were a cheap mountain bike I was given as a Christmas gift instead of the road bike I had really wanted, and a little bit of rock climbing and camping equipment I had from college days. My best friend from growing up was getting married in Colorado that Summer, and with much encouragement and support, both emotionally and financially, from my parents, I decided to take my bike and equipment, borrow a bit more, and drive out to camp a few days in The Rocky Mountain National Forest and then be a part of the festivities.
I wouldn’t say I was suicidal, but as I purchased my backcountry camping permit at the entrance to the RMNP I had the distinct sense that I was woefully unprepared for the adventure that laid ahead of me. I had neither the equipment nor the training to wander off by myself in to the Rocky Mountains, that were still dark, gray, and cold as the break of winter had not yet reached their peaks.
Being hopeless and having nothing to lose can sometimes be a liberating feeling, but that’s not where I was. I still carried a heavy load of guilt and regret from feeling that I had failed myself, my family, and others over those preceding years. I walked onto that first trail ready to carry all of those emotions as far as I could, confident that somewhere along the way they, or I, would drop.
Being a contrarian and one of the most stubborn men I know, has saved my life more than once. This occasion was no exception. Three days into the climb, my hiking shoes were soaked from trudging through thigh-high snow, my food had been ransacked and mostly consumed by an eager bear, my nights sleepless due to my lack of a sleeping pad, only having a +30-degree sleeping bag, and a tent made for Missouri summers. Yet, the higher I went, the more determined I became.
Two days later I reached my and the mountain’s limit. I had not seen the sun once since having left the park entrance, and I now climbed out onto the highest overhanging ledge of the highest mountain in the area the path I had stumble off of a day and a half ago had lead me to. I wasn’t sure exactly why I climbed out onto that ledge. I was starving, freezing, and exhausted. But I felt pulled, curious to see my first, clear view of the vast Western expanse of the Rockies. I reached the edge after some scrambling and light bouldering, dropped my pack, and sat with my legs dangling in space over a five hundred foot drop.
I was done, dead-tired, yet still did not feeling unburdened by the emotions that had driven me into the woods and up that mountain. I laid back into the snow that surrounded my rocky perch, and feel asleep.
I do not know how much time passed, but I was awoken by the feeling of extreme warmth. My eyes cracked open and what laid out before me was a vista of the most incredible sun-soaked mountain peaks in the far off distance I had ever seen, with a late afternoon streak of light peeking through thick clouds to illuminate the small perch I sat upon.
In that moment I had the strongest feeling of the presence of God I have ever had in my life, and we had a long overdue conversation.
When I stood, I felt renewed, alive, with a heightened sense of awareness, whole again, and like me again. I stumbled back down that summit, ran into my camp seemingly by accident, and followed the sound of snow melt and running water to where I had noticed on the way up that the river intersected with the path. Back at my car 18 hours later, I stripped down, threw on some fresh cloths and blasted the heat until my hands were ablitory enough to steer. I drove into Breckenridge, found the nearest bar & grill, and had a bacon cheeseburger with fries and a beer - it turned out to be the best tasting Communion I have ever taken!
Checking the clock and calendar on my phone for the first time in days, I realized I still had another 10 hours before I could check into the hotel for my friends wedding. So I walked around checking out the town, freshened up in a public bathroom, and then slept in my car the bulk of the remaining time. It was a sound sleep that felt ten years in the making.
Awake and refreshed, a new realization had washed over me… I was at the start of something new, at the beginning of what would be a long, winding journey to create the life I dreamed of living.
Ten years on from that moment, I can say the journey has been filled with excitement, travel, adventure, plenty of challenges, much success, new friendships, reconnections, love, beauty and joy. But I have never lost sight of the feeling of anticipation and excitement about starting something new. Everytime I beginning preparing for a new expedition, pitch new business, start a new venture, give a speech, begin writing a new story, or decide to learn something new… I remind myself that every long journey begins with a single step, often followed by a thousand more mostly boring, tedious, and uneventful steps. But, some steps are eventful, are life changing, and if handled properly, and with a little “outside guidance”, can help you find your way onto a path that leads to a destination better than anything you could have imagined.
The steps of this journey were just that… better than anything I imagined. I cannot say I had preconceived notions of how the Andes Mountains would be, but their beauty exceeded whatever they were. The whole of the mountains had a red hue that reminded me of the Southeastern United States, with deep valleys cut by fast-flowing snow and glacier melt, snaking off in every direction.
Aconcagua, the tallest mountain in the world outside of the Himalaya, lay hidden three days deep into the surrounding Mendoza region.
The people here are warm, helpful, and operate in a semi-permanent state of siesta. Wine and food are two of the people’s greatest passions, 2nd and 3rd of course to futbol (soccer)!
The climb itself was harder than described. It is the first, multiple week expedition that many people do. But, if you come here expecting a “trek”, you’ll likely end up having to take an expensive helicopter ride down from basecamp (a cottage industry that seems to be booming)! At 22,840’ in elevation, it is not to be underestimated. Both the elevation and 3 weeks required to climb successfully can send some people into physical and emotional tailspins by the time summit day rolls around. And summit day itself involves typically 14-18 hours of intense up and down, done on a mix of rock, snow, and ice. And, the weather can be the coldest, windiest, and most unpredictable on all of the seven summits.
By the end of our summit day, our group of 6 climbers and two guides was but 3 climbers and 1 guide. We started at 4:30am and pushed through several hours of dark, sub-zero temperatures, and winds in excess of 30-mph. It was exhausting, and several times I had to internally talk myself into making the next 15-20 feet of climbing. And, when it was all said and done we had scaled 3,000’ of elevation change and 8 hours of climbing to go from high camp to summit. And, the final ten feet were of course the hardest - a rock fall had knocked out the typical path up onto the top of the peak, leaving us to scramble over boulders larger than ourselves for our final goal.
When we left camp in the dark, heard and saw many others hours behind us on their summit attempts, we wondered if we had pushed to eagerly. But, when we topped out to a beautiful, clear day with not another soul in sight, we knew our guide Mike King had led us true! My climbing partners and I hugged, high-fived, and promptly feel to our butts for much needed food and water before taking pictures. An hour later we were off, down the path we had just ascended, feeling lighter by virtue of our success.
Ten days days have now passed since our summit, and Emily has joined me to celebrate, explore, and enjoy the warmth of this corner of the world. The lessons of this climb for me have been as profound as any I have experienced in the mountains - with each new opportunity comes the chance for healing; with each new adventure comes the opportunity for growth; and, with each new journey comes the opportunity for the connection between all things and all people.
Everywhere I looked on this trip were signs of kindness, joy, eagerness, excitement, passion, and optimism. There were no discussions of politics, religion, or money. There was simply the shared enthusiasm over the challenge that lied ahead, the interest in where each of us where from and how we ended up here, and what the future held for all of us.
I once read a quote that I’ll paraphrase as, “mountains make men of us all.” Based upon this and frankly all of my experiences, I would edit that a bit and restate it as, “mountains make humble men of us all”. The once predominant feature of Aconcagua was snow spires know as Penitentes, now almost nonexistent due to global warming. Penitentes are snow formations created at high altitude by deep snow, wind, loose rock, and uneven melting caused by their mix.
Early Spanish explorers thought the formations looked like rows and rows of people kneeling in prayer, hence the spanish word for penitent - one who repents their sins and seeks forgiveness from God. Though nearly gone, I felt lucky to have seen and walked amongst them as I have always felt the mountains are where I go to give penance, for as the great John Muir said: “keep close to Nature’s (God’s) heart... and break clear away, once in awhile… and wash your spirit clean.”