Written by: Kylie Fly
It was October and we’d been climbing together for a few months by then. After taking several summer trips to climb in Utah, Idaho, Nevada, and California, Adam and I spent enough time together on the wall that it’s safe to say we trusted each other. Summer leaked into fall and we camped in high places, lived on avocados and sardines, drank from fresh springs and had many alpine starts with very little sleep in between. Miles were collecting on my vehicle, as well as sand and dust on the dash from all the travel. We had gotten to know each other pretty well come October, and our strengths and weaknesses were becoming apparent. Adam was woven into my adventures and he had plans to make them even bigger.
That’s the thing about old friends. Sometimes they walk back into your life when you’d least expect it. A familiar but faded face, one you really hadn’t expected to ever see again, resurfaces. After years of walking different paths that even crossed but never quite met, our paths eventually converged. It was almost Halloween when I was officially invited on the expedition. I had just about six weeks to prepare and train for one of the hardest things I’d ever do in my entire life. It wasn’t enough time. And that made me nervous.
The boys (Adam, his best friend Chance and father Myron) had been planning and preparing to climb Aconcagua for years. They’d been training for it: mentally, physically, spiritually, emotionally, and financially. Adam dreamed of climbing this mountain since he was 15 years old and finally, 15 years later, plane tickets were purchased and permits arranged. Aconcagua is the highest mountain outside Asia, topping out at 22,837 feet, and the highest point in both the Western and Southern hemispheres. Located in the Andes mountain range, Aconcagua calls Argentina home.
For weeks, I stewed over whether or not I would be able to succeed. Maybe even survive? What did I know? I’d never been at such a high altitude before, and after learning about the dangers of climbing at high elevations and the risks involved, I knew I was in for a lot. But I was ready for it. Success is completely self-defined, and I was open to creating my own definition of what that would look like. I knew I wanted to do hard things. I wanted to push my body and mind to its limits (safely) to see what I was capable of. I wanted to see what I had to learn about myself and my soul. I felt like I needed it—so I said yes. And I’ll continue to say yes because doing hard things is actually really super fun.
And so it began, the calm before the storm. We arrived in Argentina a week before our planned start date for the climb and spent our days basking lazily in the 100+ degree sweltering heat of Mendoza and collection permits, permissions and any last minute expedition provisions. As the days ticked by, we finally hopped on a bus to begin our Aconcagua ascent and push our personal limits. The moment my feet hit the trail, my thoughts became: you want to be here. You’re not going to die. There’s a Domino’s around the corner. You got this. Look! Your feet and legs work! And even though your lungs feel like they’ll explode, what a view!
Aconcagua is a very long, very hard walk—putting it casually. Long walks have not always been my favorite. I’ve been known to stop and smell too many flowers, point out all the pretty colors I see and forage for cool looking pine cones and rocks. Sometimes this self-exploration makes it so I take a little longer to get places. The name of the game in mountaineering is speed and safety. Time becomes extremely sensitive as weather shifts and storm systems make all the rules, and one needs to be prepared for anything. Plan for the best, prepare for the worst—and safety first, always.
Early on, I gave myself the nickname Tortuga, which is Spanish for turtle. Due to my slowness in comparison to my speedy-Gonzales friends, I had to claim the nickname before someone else gave it to me. I then proceeded to assign everyone on the team a nickname. Adam was jefe, meaning boss, because he dreamed and schemed and planned everything about the expedition. He made final decisions and it was in him we invested a lot of trust. Chance, our long-legged companion, became known as conejo, which means rabbit in Spanish because he was speedy and if you weren’t paying attention, he’d disappear.
Days on the trail blurred together. We moved from one camp to another, shuttling gear and carrying loads back and forth. Our days were spent waking up, brewing some mate while trying to stay warm, hiking all day to higher elevations to acclimatize, and returning to camp to sleep. Let’s not forget the one million rehydrated meals every day. When we were feeling especially indulgent, we’d stick our fingers in a little cup of dulce de leche to-go containers we managed to finagle from the guided groups at base camp.
We quickly became friends with those who shared the trail with us; spending a few weeks together on the mountain, it was only natural to become Aconcagua family. We were all in this together. For those who climbed with a guided group and befriended us, they’d receive all kinds of yummy snacks and prepared meals and it wasn’t long before their generosity kicked in and we’d find leftover empanadas wrapped up by our tent, a bag of dried oats and even a few Snickers bars. It was an absolute lifesaver. After eating rehydrated meals for days on end, you begin to forget what actual food tastes like and start to become what you eat. I was so hungry for anything other than what I packed, I even had a dream about my favorite chips, Takis.
It wasn’t too far along into the expedition when I started to get sick. On day three, diarrhea kicked in, and I had miles and miles and miles still ahead. I spent every day hiking through it, stopping every 20-30 min on the trail to relieve myself and feel the wave of extreme nausea and pain wash over me. I felt weak, slow, and sick. In general, it was disappointing. I quickly decided that I wasn’t going to let a little poo problem stop me from having the time of my life so I walked through it and continued on anyway. At the end of it all, I hit about two weeks of diarrhea. Somewhere around day six, altitude sickness began to settle in and I’d never experienced such misery. My head was pounding something unfathomable that denied sleep and felt like someone was squeezing my head with a giant clamp. The tent was spinning and my stomach was in knots. I spent a few sleepless nights in the tent, completely restless and unable to settle my legs with fire in every joint and the need to release unmerited energy throughout my body. Restless was an understatement. Combined with drinking 6-7 liters of water a day and peeing your brains out at altitude (I even used a pee funnel into a bottle for the midnight freeze, ladies)—it was quickly becoming quite the party and I just had to laugh it all off. My sister told me before the trip, “Kylie, your optimism fuels your strength.” I repeated this in my head until I believed it.
Summit day came early. What is usually on day 12 or 13, became a push for day 9. A terrible storm system was moving in, heavy snow and extreme winds would make it unsafe to continue up. We opted to make a big push for the summit and revised our plans accordingly. I didn’t feel ready for it. I’d been sick and weak but hopeful that a little rest and continual daily treks would help me to regain some lost strength, both physically and mentally. Alas, the team decided to go for it and we camped at a lower elevation to increase our odds of getting a better night’s sleep, but it would add about four hours to our summit-day push. Just the thought of that made me cringe. But the decision was made, and we went to sleep at 7 pm while helicopter after helicopter flew in until the sun finally set, picking off sick and injured climbers on rescue calls. Every time we heard a chopper fly overhead, tired faces peaked out of their tents to the sound of zippers and tent flies flapping in the wind filling the camp with an eerie silence. We’d quietly watch and wonder what happened this time, and sent out healing vibes to those who were taken away. Eventually, nerves settled and we drifted off to sleep awaiting our 1 am alpine start.
The alarm went off and we all jumped out of our sleeping bags. I can’t say I really slept that night. I was anxious and my head had been pounding all night long, a symptom of altitude sickness. I had begun taking Diamox earlier (a medication to help offset altitude symptoms), which led to complete numbness and tingling of my entire face. We grabbed all our pre-packed gear, I shoved some hand warmers into my gloves and boots and lit by only our headlamps, walked into the darkness to make our way up the trail.
It wasn’t long before I knew I was holding back the team. Some may think it’s an easy decision to give up. You’re tired, you’re hungry, you’re in pain, you can’t even breathe very well. Your vision is impaired, head is pounding and you’re beginning to question whether or not you even like climbing mountains after all! Is this even worth it? In your heart, you know it is, but your body is telling you otherwise. I watched as the boy’s headlamps disappeared in front of me, getting smaller and smaller as they climbed faster and further. I couldn’t keep up. My pace was just too slow, and my nickname Tortuga began to feel like a cross I had to bare. My mental game took a nose dive as I began to negative self-talk in my head, and as each foot moved like lead in molasses below me, I watched as my boots dragged on and listened to my ragged and shallow breathing.
I was disappointed in myself. I didn’t feel I could do it. I was already telling myself I couldn’t. I couldn’t keep up, I was holding back the team, and I began to feel like an actual liability to the overall safety and enjoyment of my team. All at once, in my head, I decided I’d turn back. After a few more switchbacks, I surprised myself in the darkness with the sound of my own voice, the air hanging in silence and Adam steadily pacing in front of me, when I declared “I’m going to turn around.” I told him to go on, summit, and don’t let me hold them back. I didn’t want to be the one to slow everyone down. I didn’t want to feel the pressure to maintain something I didn’t physically feel able to maintain. “With more training,” I said to myself, “with more training—I could do this.” And maybe there’s more to that than I yet realize, but the decision was made.
It wasn’t easy to say that out loud. It’s not easy to turn around, but I knew it was the smarter decision. It wasn’t what I wanted, but I knew I had to do it. Adam respected my decision, thanked me for my honesty, willingness and commitment to the team—and for listening to my body. Without any more words exchanged, I turned around and made my way back to camp below. Feeling defeated, my heart a little sunken and my self-esteem a little damaged, I felt I’d failed. I’d given up. But with each step I took towards the tent below, I also felt a strange relief. Relief that I wouldn’t hold anyone back. Relief that I did my absolute best with the time and effort I’d given. Relief that I’d made it this far…that I was here. Eventually, my feet led me to my tent, where I sheepishly crawled in and plopped myself in my bag and zipped over my face, letting my body fall back into a delirious slumber. This time, deep and filled with weird dreams.
As it turns out, I climbed to somewhere around 19,700 feet. It took me some time to come to peace with my decision to turn around. I won’t say that it came easily, or quickly. As my friends came back later that day, celebrating their summit and swapping hilarious altitude-induced stories, I quietly settled back and listened. Pangs of defeat shot through me as I watched their faces, aglow with excitement and the thrill of doing something incredibly hard. “No summit for me,” was my initial thought. “I didn’t make it like the rest of you did. I came back down and slept and ate a chocolate bar and moped for a few hours.” That’s when I remembered my own advice: I define my own success. I celebrate my own summit. And it doesn’t have to look like everyone else’s because I came here for me and only I could get myself up that mountain.
The expedition was a challenge to myself: to expand my mind and soul and get really used to being tired, all the while, falling in love with the process. I can’t say Aconcagua taught me to love long hard walks, but I can say that it taught me to love my own summit. For me, the greater purpose and beauty of climbing mountains is to go somewhere I haven’t gone before. Celebrate the victories. Embrace discomfort. Suffer a little, laugh a lot. Strive for your personal best. The mountain is not going anywhere, and I will definitely be back.