I recently returned from what, on paper, was an expensive adventure debacle. Despite a “fail” in my original quest – reaching the summit of one of the world’s seven summits – I learned a much more important lesson on the value of friendship and compassion, as well as the importance of good old face-to-face conversation. For the first time in years, my laptop, iPhone and all things wi-fi and social media were totally useless and irrelevant.
Here’s my travel story. This past December I was on a climbing expedition to Aconcagua, Argentina’s mammoth mountain, which was highlighted by an almost comical series of physical misadventures, travel snafus and unexpected twists. At the heart of my story is the small problem of getting altitude sickness (I’m totally fine now) and having to get off the mountain, pronto, from Camp 3…located at 18,200 feet elevation. My quest to get off the mountain and back to civilization (Santiago airport) was similar in detours and frustration to the John Hughes classic “Planes, Trains and Automobiles.” (FYI – in the interest of brevity I will omit details regarding the 24-hour flight delay from my home to start my voyage, caused by a plane malfunction, causing me to arrive in Mendoza, Argentina one day late and having to scramble by mini-bus and then foot, assisted by pack mules, to join my expedition mates.)
Getting back to Base Camp, or Plaza Argentina, went well enough considering my wobbly legs and altitude-induced exhaustion. That’s where the real problems started. The camp doctor confirmed what my guides and I knew – I would quickly feel much better at a relative “low” elevation of 14,500 feet – but should get off the mountain as quickly as possible. That made sense, but it quickly became clear that would be as difficult to get off Aconcagua as it was to get to and up the mountain.
Here were my choices:
- Book a flight on the Aconcagua Park helicopters. The advantage here is speed (15 minutes flight time to logistics center and hotel at base of mountain) with negatives being high cost (don’t ask) and total unpredictability of timing due to the notorious mountain winds.
- Book a “carry” mule to take you back to park entrance. Advantage is you don’t have to hike, or carry your massive pack, but negatives are timing; 3-4 days delay to get a carry mule up to Base Camp and then 2 days or so to hike/ride back down. Also not cheap.
- Book a mule to carry our packs to park entrance. Advantage is we can guarantee departure in 1-2 days, but cost is mixed (need to pay for mule and time spent in Base Camp) and this would require my guide to return to Camp 3 to retrieve his gear, and then hike back down to accompany me to the park entrance. Did I mention this is a grueling 12-hour hike, even accounting for the lighter daypacks and downhill grade.
- Stay at Base Camp for perpetuity drinking $20 dollar beers and avoiding showers.
I chose the helicopter option. But not so fast…things happen on their own time on the mountain. The timing of the helicopter flights is totally unpredictable; the notorious, screaming winds on Aconcagua often make it too dangerous to fly. As it happens I was on stand-by, fully packed and ready to go, for about 30 hours. That delay was costly, since Plaza Argentina is like most mountain base camps – a global village where costs for limited services are often astronomical (e.g. $40 cash for a meal, $10 for a Pepsi.) Finally, the weather broke and I was able to leave Base Camp with a park helicopter almost 32 hours after I arrived. I was too happy to realize I was petrified during the ride, but let me say I now know what it feels like to fly a helicopter in bumpy, fierce cross-winds mere feet from mountain peaks. (I can take that one off my bucket list.) Finally, back to civilization…sort of.
The helicopter and a quick car ride by a local support team got me as far as a small hamlet of hiker hotels and restaurants on the main highway, roughly halfway between Santiago and Mendoza. Though this area is a staging area for many expeditions, it’s a desolate and isolated place. Thankfully, I found a hotel that served as unofficial home to climbers – and a great place for a hot meal and shower. My challenge, despite the new comforts, was to try to get a bus ride to Santiago to catch my flight home – a seemingly simple proposition since I was on a the main highway crossing between Argentina and Chile. But things are not so simple in Argentina. Due to the Christmas holiday timing, nothing moved (and no phones were answered) for roughly 24 hours. Then the hotel staff discovered that very few of the bus lines stop at this particular spot on the highway.
Well, thanks to the help of the friendly staff at my hotel, I eventually booked a seat on a small, stuffy mini-bus and made my way to Santiago. I thought I was in business when I noted the very loud, very old video players booming old Guns & Roses videos in the bus. But then the smoking started. And little did I know the route would actually go right over the spine of the Andes. Let me say that I have never, that I recall, been more afraid for my life than during the roller-coaster drive through the steep, sinewy ravines they consider a highway. The area around Portillo (a ski resort for hard-core skiers wanting snow during the North American summer) was something like a scene out of Lord of the Rings, with gigantic, jagged peaks looming (precariously) over the highway road. Local drivers shifted lanes with abandon, apparently not concerned about either gravity or the hundreds of rickety trucks coming from the opposite direction. Other passengers informed me calmly that this stretch was notorious for rock falls and traffic fatalities.
After my white knuckle ride, I found myself in a Santiago bus depot about 20 miles from the airport…and with a very tight window to catch my flight back to the U.S. Thankfully, a Chilean version of a guardian angel – an honest taxi driver who claimed to be a former auto racer – helped me get my luggage and got me to the airport in 15 minutes. Many rules of the road were ignored and broken during this harrowing drive, but I made it safely. Once at the airport, things began to fall back into place: check-in, security, coffee, boarding and the relative security and comfort of a flight home.
As noted, the best part of this story is not that I eventually got home safely – though not in the time or fashion that I expected – but that every step of the way was due to the effort, ingenuity and support of people along the way. My tools of the trade were conversation – often in broken Spanish or variations on tourist mime – and reliance on the incredible friendship and assistance of strangers along the way. I did use technology a couple of times – notably a fax/phone at the hotel – but that’s about it in terms of my usual communication tools. And I think it was good for me. The lesson: communication is about people, not the technology or tool.
Here’s a list of those I need to thank for helping me get home:
- Tom and Jonathan – my excellent guides – and the rest of the staff at Mountain Guides International
- The rest of the “Happy Endings” expedition team
- Veronica and others (including Base Camp cooks) at Grajales Expeditions
- Steve, Julie and staff of the Ayelen Hotel de Montana in Penitentes
- My Russian helicopter pilot (too scared to remember his name)
- My Santiago taxi driver (never got his name)