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Christmas climb up Mount Aconcagua in Argentina

During the Christmas holidays Vicky Burford, Housemistress of Nugent House, took on the monumental task of climbing Mount Aconcagua in Argentina, the highest mountain in the world outside of the Himalayas. This is an account of her trip – in her own words:

‘Isn’t that the highest mountain you can walk up in trainers?’ a colleague remarked to me when I told him of my Christmas plans to climb Aconcagua in Argentina. At 6962 metres, Aconcagua is the highest mountain in the world outside of the Himalayas and the second highest of the ‘Seven Summits’, and although a largely non-technical climb, the success rate is rarely above 40% due to the altitude and the extreme weather. At 6000 metres there is less than half of the oxygen in the air than at sea – level temperatures at night can get as low as -30 – trainers would mean definite frostbite – this is no ordinary walk in the park!

Within minutes of closing down Nugent House for the Christmas holidays, my 23 kg kit bag, 15 kg rucksack and I boarded the train to Gatwick airport, and with Christmas carols still resonating in my ears, I finally arrived into a sunny Mendoza via Madrid and Buenos Aires some 24 hours later. The whole expedition would take three weeks with the majority of that time load carrying and acclimatising above Base Camp and three days for a potential summit bid.

Our three day journey by foot to base camp was quite a challenge – light rain as we set out soon transformed to snow which then became a full blown blizzard. We arrived somewhat bedraggled into a base camp with a mess tent whose floor resembled an ice rink, where there was snow both inside and outside of the tents and where a simple trip to the drop toilet necessitated full down gear and goggles (best not to dwell too much on the brown and yellow icicles). At this point the worried looks of the guides and talk of high winds really did put our expedition in jeopardy. However, as the days progressed there was talk of a tiny summit window towards the end of the month, so once we had had our oxygen saturation levels and blood pressure checked by the high altitude doctors stationed there for the season, it was all systems go for a summit push.

The summit was attained by a series of three camps at 5000, 5,400 and 5,900 metres. During these camps we had to carry our own gear plus group food, which I personally found to be very challenging. An 18kg rucksack (more than one third of my body weight)at these altitudes was like extreme Duke of Edinburgh! On the plus side some of the group food was pizza base, which promised Dominos (or the Argentinian makeshift equivalent) higher up. Once we had arrived at Camps 1, 2 and 3 and set up camp and melted snow for cooking, there was plenty of time to rest and recuperate. In a job where I am constantly pressed for time and a society where we are bombarded with iPods, iPads and similar devices, it was a rare pleasure to spend afternoons and even a full day at Camp 2 doing absolutely nothing except the bare essentials for survival.

Summit day was always going to be the biggest challenge. We were blessed with excellent weather as we set off just before dawn was breaking at 6am. We were informed that it was a comparatively warm day for an Aconcagua summit, but that didn’t stop all water and energy gels from freezing. It was a battle to eat enough during this day during which we were told that we would burn off in excess of 5000 calories. The final hour to the summit was probably the hardest climb I have ever done in my life with legs reduced to jelly and lungs obstinately refusing to work to their full capacity. However, reaching the summit at 3am was an indescribable feeling (and my memory has now thankfully obliterated the nastiest bits), and since the Himalayan season is largely over, there is a high chance that we were the highest people on the earth at that time. This was an incredible feeling! The next morning we broke camp in Arctic conditions and descended 1500 metres to return to Base Camp – with clothes and rucksacks which stank but did not seem to be getting any lighter. Once at Base Camp though, the New Years Eve celebrations were able to begin in earnest, and for me, in spite of the lack of glitz and glamour, it was easily the best place on earth to celebrate that night – a starry sky, red wine and cheap champagne flowing freely, a massive BBQ, but more importantly, the satisfaction of a mission accomplished. The final day’s walk out (20 miles) was spent in contemplative spirit, and in full sunshine was a complete contrast to our walk in as Mother Nature decided that we had worked hard enough for her to reveal to us her raw beauty of the valley.

It all seems quite surreal now as I sit in Nugent surrounded by iPods, iPads and other 21st century shackles, enjoying the relative warmth of a British winter, where the walls don’t flap and I can wash freely. However, at certain times of the day I cannot help but be drawn back in spirit to that beautifully bleak sentinel, a place where life was both so easy and so hard, at times freezing cold and at times blisteringly hot where my emotions oscillated between tears of joy and fatigue almost instantaneously. Like all mountains, it is an immensely special place. It is the challenge, the sweat, the tears and the toil which make it so. The first man to climb Everest, Sir Edmund Hillary famously said ‘It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.’ I would encourage all Eastbournians to always seek to live out this legacy.