Aconcagua the Long Walk Home


2/26: The hike from Camp 3 to Base Camp is warm and windless. I delayer and trek in my ninja suit and boots. I feel like a badass walking on the moon. The international team that helped evacuate Henry is reascending the mountain. I chat with them for a bit and give them a big thank you. I also pass the porters that will retrieve our gear from High Camp and Camp 3. I explain where everything is and they proceed up while I continue down. Everyone is supportive and kind. I take my time descending, cherishing the terrain and memories along the way. When I come into view of Base Camp, I see a group of people playing frisbee and I hear my teammates cheer. I pump my trekking poles above my head and smile. We come together for a group hug and I ask, “How’s Henry?”

“Good. A helicopter came this morning. He’s safe,” Justin reassures.

I nod and my cheeks dampen with tears. The guys squeeze my shoulders and we move into the gear dome. Because our tents are still at Camp 3, we’ve been granted permission to stay here. We’re surrounded by stacks of large dusty duffel bags and it’s rather comforting to lean against them. Paul makes me a hot chocolate and hands me a small basket of cookies. I dunk the cookies into the beverage and the combination is delicious. We begin to verbally and mentally process the evacuation.

“It all happened so fast,” I say.

We’re a bit shell shocked and sometimes we catch one other with a thousand-yard stare. In the late afternoon, I suggest we go for a walk and I guide Spencer, Jason and Justin to the rocks that Henry and I walked to on our Base Camp rest day. They attempt some boulder problems while I lay on a flat rock and look up at the sky. That night we share food and conversation with two members of the international team. After dinner, we go to our dome and pull out ground pads and sleeping bags. We arrange them in a circle and Justin sets his phone in the center of our gathering. While enjoying a solid playlist of classic rock, we tell stories and laugh. I feel like I’m a teenager at a sleep over. It’s really good to be back with teammates and I sleep well.

Layover in the gear dome

2/27: Paul wakes us up a little before seven and gets us moving. The porters delivered our gear around midnight and now it’s time to sort it. We pack and weigh the duffel bags, then set them aside for the mulers to fasten up. We say our goodbyes and begin the eighteen mile hike to our campsite for the night.

It feels strange walking away from the mountain. Every now and then I glance over my shoulder and stare at its jagged contours. We descend through the canyon and cross the river. At midday, it doesn’t feel as cold. We eat lunch at the camp we spent our second night on trail. The staff have packed up for the season and the small ranger station is locked. Jason shares a bag of trail mix. I crunch on a few espresso beans and stretch. After lunch, we continue on and come to the vista where we first saw Aconcagua. Now, it will be our last view. I stop and let the others hike forward. I squat down, take a few photos and grin.

“I’ll be back.”

Paul gets to camp first and begins a conversation with Hugo the ranger. The rest of us stumble in and we gather by the fire. It’s soothing to smell and watch the flames. Hugo brings out a recently slaughtered chicken and places it on a grate. He moves hot coals underneath it and prepares us a feast. We eat the chicken with our bare hands and flavor it with salt, pepper and lemon. After nearly two weeks of dehydrated, sodium-rich food preserved in plastic casing, this is hands down the best chicken I’ve ever tasted and instantly I feel nourished. Bellies full, we lay out our sleeping mats and bags and watch the sky fill with stars. Jason tells us the story of Cassiopeia and what a high maintenance diva she was. Justin sees a shooting star. And sometime in the middle of talking about the universe, I fall asleep under it.

2/28: “Morning’s here, the morning’s here, sunshine is here, the sky is clear, the morning’s here!” Spencer, Jason and Justin sing me awake. Their voices blend and it’s the sweetest wake up call I’ve ever gotten in the back country (Want to know where they got the tune? Friends). I stretch in my sleeping bag and roll over to see a vacant patch of earth. Everyone’s packed up and Paul’s already on trail. I get moving and stuff the few belongings I have into my pack. I grab a Clif bar from my food bag and stash it in my fleece pocket. The guys have some leftover water they boiled for oatmeal and I make a hot electrolyte drink. The morning is cool and we’re eager to get the remaining eight miles done in the canyon’s shadow. Along the river, I notice a patch of yellow flowers and pick some for Henry.

Around 11 am were sitting at the park entrance waiting for a van to Penitentes. Thirty minutes later, the van arrives and we stack our duffel bags in the back. We’re dropped off at the Grajales Expedition headquarters and we retrieve our valuables. Spencer and Jason go in search of cervaza and bring back tall cans of local brew. After our gear is sorted we discuss what we want more: Food or showers. Food. Showers can wait. We walk next door and devour amazing burgers with egg and ham on thick rolls. We sip on wine and beer and I’m buzzed by the time we check into the hotel.

Burgers, beer and wine

At the end of the climbing season the area has a ghost town vibe and the hotel is spacious with a few occupants. I chat with the desk clerk and get a key for 214. A breeze filters through the hallway and I unlock my room. I remove my sandals and wiggle my toes against the blue carpet. The room smells clean. Too clean. The sheets are white. Too white. I look at myself in the mirror. I’ve lost a few pounds and my cheek bones are more defined. I step in the shower with my clothes on and begin the process of washing.

That night, I borrow Justin’s phone and call my parents. It’s heartening to talk to them. There’s something about the sound of their voices that neutralizes any situation I’m in and brings me back to the walls of the farmhouse I was raised. Their voices were the first sounds I heard. Those voices taught me to speak and encouraged me to become the person I did.

“Love you mom. Love you dad.”

“Love you Beth.”

“Good night.”

“Sweet dreams.”

I dream of the mountain. And it’s sweet.

3/1: We toss around my hacky sack while waiting for the bus to Santiago, Chile. Today we’re crossing the mountainous border and reuniting with Tim and Henry. When the bus arrives, the driver is animatedly upset by the size of our luggage and gestures widely while talking with the woman who sold us our tickets. The bus is more like a large van and packed with other passengers. It’s quite comical to watch the driver and assistant load and unload our duffel bags, trying to solve the “how to make it fit” puzzle. I giggle even harder when Spencer sits shotgun with our angry driver and he gets shunned and reprimanded to the back of the bus. Oh, God just get us to Chile. Por favor.

We cross the border and come out of the mountains on winding switchbacks. Chile reminds me of southern California. Three hours later, my bladder pushes against my pants and I’m thinking how I could discreetly pee in my water bottle. Thankfully we arrive at the bus station and I run to a bathroom. But there’s an entrance fee and I have no currency. Justin to the rescue! He hands me an extra bathroom ticket and I’m granted access. Paul gets us two taxis and we head to the apartment complex. Santiago is beautiful and lively with lots of parks and green space. Our taxis pull over and we look across the street to see Tim and Henry. It feels good to have our team all in one place. I give Henry a big hug and a wilted bouquet of flowers. We settle in and call loved ones. Beverages are purchased and a celebratory night follows with music, fire, meat, drink and games. We’ve misplaced our playing cards, so after dinner, Jason, Spencer, Henry and I push the living room furniture to the side and break out the hacky sack to play a round of pelt, a game which includes throwing the hacky sack at one another and running. We duck behind duffel bags and after a loud crash, Tim kindly suggests we play in the park. It makes sense, but it isn’t as exciting. So, I tuck the hacky sack away and we share dance and yoga moves. Henry does the floss. I do a head stand. Jason and Spencer wrestle. Paul, Tim and Justin watch from the porch, amused and a little concerned about the glass furniture. Eventually we settle down and miraculously nothing is broken.

The last part of the night for me is philosophical and reflective. Sometimes I feel guilty about the amount of time I spend in the mountains. Sometimes I feel guilty because I don’t feel guilty. But, regardless it comes back to this thought that I’m not a “good” wife, daughter or sister because this is where I want to be and this is what I want to do. That is my Achilles’ heal: Doubt. Before I left for Aconcagua, I copied Mary Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese” in the back of my journal. The line I read and reread the most, “Let the soft animal of your body love what it loves. Tell me your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine. Meanwhile, the world goes on.”

And that’s what the mountains teach us too.

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