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2018-04-01 / Go Pink Boots

Sometimes You Get What You Need

Jill Gleeson




Was I heartbroken when I came down from Aconcagua just two days after I went up it? Yes, I suppose I was. I’d set my goal to summit it, the highest mountain outside of Asia, 18 months before and trained since that time for the challenge. If I hadn’t exactly zoomed up Kilimanjaro, the first of the Seven Summits I climbed, I’d still made it to the top. I have the photo of me at the peak, hair frozen white, arms outstretched triumphantly. I’d thought Argentina’s Aconcagua, the tallest mountain in South America, would be much the same experience as climbing Tanzania’s Kilimanjaro, the tallest mountain in Africa.

I was wrong. Aconcagua is to Kili what a linebacker is to a water boy.

I think the trouble started my second night, which my expedition spent at a lodge not far from the entrance to Aconcagua Provincial Park. I couldn’t sleep at all. But when we set out the next morning toward the approach camp I felt fine — at first. The elevation at the park gates is 9,678 feet, more than high enough for unlucky climbers to get mountain sickness, a potentially deadly condition which can kill swiftly if you’re stubborn, like I’ve been known to be, and refuse to descend.


Or so I’ve heard, because other than sleeplessness during a New Mexico ski trip and a little nausea and dizziness on the second day of the Kili ascent, I’ve never had it. So I couldn’t understand why I was breathing like a serial killer in a horror movie as soon as we began to gain altitude. After a few miles, I also found I was having trouble getting my legs to do what I wanted. I could barely walk. I was more exhausted than I’d been on Kili’s summit, which is almost 10,000 feet higher than where I was.

To my humiliation, one of our guides had to stay behind with me as I nearly crawled to the approach camp while the other zoomed ahead with the rest of the expedition — all more capable, apparently, than me. After we’d made it to the camp and I had downed a few liters of water, I was sent to the doctor, who worked out of a little tin hut and told me she suspected I was dehydrated. I was to continue drinking, get plenty of sleep, and the next day I should be ready for the climb to Plaza Francis.

As it turns out, I wasn’t. After a few hours, the bright Argentinian sun hot on my skin, the broken vistas unrelentingly beautiful, daubed in shades of red and orange, green and yellow, I began to fail. Soon I was staggering, barely able to keep my feet under me. I think I made it as high as 13,000 feet, a not-inconsiderable altitude, but eventually we had to turn around. I probably could have reached Plaza Francis, but I would not have been able to trek back down.


Later that day the doc took my vital signs. They were worsening. My blood pressure had risen to 165/110, my heart rate was now 130, and my oxygen saturation level had fallen to 84 percent. I was in danger, said the doctor. The extreme exhaustion I experienced on the treks combined with the way my vitals were continuing to degrade looked like acute mountain sickness. She told the guides that they had to take me down in the morning. I saw the way she looked at them when she said it, to make sure they knew how grave the situation was. It was futile to protest, although I didn’t have the energy anyway. And I knew she was right. I was sick.

It’s been a couple weeks since I was sent down from Aconcagua. If my heart was broken by my failure, it seems to have healed quickly. I think it’s because the mountain somehow taught me I don’t need to be anything I’m not to survive life’s tragedies. I may not have summited Aconcagua — yet — but I’m damn strong anyway. •SCM

For more information, visit Inka Expediciones at inka.com.ar.


Jill Gleeson is on the biggest adventure of her life. Follow her journey on her blog at gleesonreboots.com and via her column at womansday.com.

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