When we last heard from Simon Wallis, Jason Harvey and Mark Thomson (aka the “Three Amigos”) last week, they had finally reached the top of Mount Aconcagua, the highest peak in the Andes. However, their three-week saga to conquer one of the toughest mountains in the “Seven Summits” challenge wasn’t over. In fact, the drama was just beginning. Read on to learn how dire their situation became as they began their descent…
“17th Feb - Just after midnight, the mountain decided to remind us who was boss and an almighty storm hit us. Snow and wind gusting over 100mph made it feel like the tents were going to be lifted off the mountain. The way the storm rolled across the mountain was really scary, and you could hear the constant sound of rocks falling around you. The camp below us, Berlin, had all but been destroyed, forcing climbers to take shelter in the emergency refuge. During the night, one of our guide’s tents was completely destroyed and poles and ropes from our tents were broken and shredded. Mauri was working outside in the wind to shore up what was left of our tents and prevent them from being blown over the cliff. However, having to work without gloves left his hands frozen and in serious pain. Inside the tents it was so scary as the entire shell was being violently shaken in all directions, slamming into the sides of our faces and bodies. It was impossible to sleep through it.
When the sun finally came up around 8:00am, Mauri crawled around to our tents to tell us to pack up what we could inside but to not leave the tents. Soon after, he dropped some hot water off to help us warm up. The storm was still raging. At 9:30am, Micky made the decision that we had to get down off camp three and could not remain longer. We finished sorting out our last bits in the tents and then crawled out into what felt like Armageddon to pack down. At 6000m, it's already hard enough doing anything. But, to have to battle in the wind and snow to try and dismantle tents when we were spent from the day before and had barely slept was another challenge. Yet, we had no option other than to face it head on as team. By around 11am, we had secured and packed down all tents. We then put on our heavy packs with all remaining gear in them and, wearing our summit clothes, started making our way down. Our target was the south-side base camp, Plaza de Mules. The wind was still strong and our first challenge was to get off the rocky cliff of camp three, which – the way we were heading – meant clinging to a wire on a very steep rocky face and winding our way downwards. Not easy in the wind, wearing summit boots and being tired.
After that, we descended the slopes quickly and, in about 40 minutes, had made camp two. There was a welcome shelter there for us and the temperature was already noticeably warmer. We took off our outer layers, had food and drink and headed downwards. We made such good speed that we didn't even stop at camp one. But we did have a rest stop slightly beyond that point where we were overlooking the sprawling Plaza de Mules base camp far below. This place is actually the second largest base camp in the world next to Everest with all sorts of facilities.
Even though it looked close, because of the terrain, it took us another 1.5 hours to finally reach base camp after stopping a few places for water and to take pictures of the amazing scenery. When we arrived in base camp, we were greeted with fantastic hospitality. We sent messages to loved ones to check in to let them know we were safe.
18th Feb - Our last day on the mountain! We all woke early this morning around 7am because the tents we were using were tiny for two people to share – and because the night was relatively wind-free, we all had more than 5-6 hours of sleep, which is much more than we'd been used to. Because Plaza de Mules is on the south side of Aconcagua, it stays in the shadows until around 10am and is freezing while it does. We got hot water from the kitchen delivered to our dome and sorted a few last-minute things while we waited for breakfast at 9am. When the sun finally touched the valley, it was lovely changing almost instantly from below zero to around 10c.
The plan today is for each of us to take a light day pack with enough water and basic provisions to last the day. The rest of our kit would be packed on mules and we'd see it at the bottom. Being it was our last day, we were all in high spirits. After packing up the last remaining items, we ended up setting off just before midday at a good marching pace. We only stopped the first time to let the mules pass on the steep sections. After about 2 hours, we ended up walking through a wide dried-up river known as “the beach” with incredible mountains rising up either side of the valley. There were occasional breathtaking views of Aconcagua in the background between peaks.
The going was relentless and our first target was Camp Confluencia, where we knew there were refreshments waiting. The walk there seemed never ending. We finally spotted the camp on the opposite side of a valley after about 5 hours of walking, during which time we'd already covered about 14 miles. We were given a warm welcome at this odd little camp, the only one up the normal route to the summit. The staff had prepared various fruit smoothies, water, fruit and olives, which was perfect to refuel us.
After about 30 minutes, we were on our way again down the valley, assured we had walked the majority of the way already. But the terrain got steeper and more dramatic, and we still had over 2 hours of walking to do. We were all exhausted again and finally stumbled out of the park at about 7:30pm after covering around 20 miles. As we were leaving the park, a solitary condor soared overhead, possibly the same one that greeted us in the Vacas valley over two weeks earlier. It’s almost like someone was watching over us!
At the car park, we were picked up by a crazy-enthusiastic heavy metal fan. Together, we headed down to Penetentes one last time to collect our mule bags. At this stop, we weighed ourselves to compare with our initial stats and, in these 18 days of effort and despite consuming a huge amount of food, we'd lost a combined 23lbs! Now it’s time for the 3-hour journey back to our hotel and warm showers, beds and flushing toilets. It's been an amazing adventure!
Thanks to all who have contributed to the Red Cross fundraising efforts and have continued to read the blog!
Before signing off, we decided to put together a few of our key learnings from our trip along with some stats for those who like numbers…
- The importance of setting goals - Without setting a goal, however ambitious, you will never achieve it.
- Teamwork - It's rare that you'll be able to achieve great things on your own, so build a team around you that will complement you and help you move forward in your chosen direction.
- Diversity - Never judge a book by its cover! Our team consisted of three Zebras (the Three Amigos), along with a 27-year-old trainee guide from Seattle (Deanne), a 65-ish (he wouldn't tell us his actual age) surgeon from Germany and two Argentinian guides. While, at the outset, we seemed an unlikely team, every person contributed uniquely to the group and experience. We wouldn't have been as successful without any individual.
- Whilst the summit is the clear and obvious goal, growth comes from taking each challenge day by day and conquering the doubts within ourselves!
- Average calorie burn per Amigo on our summit day, taking into account wind chill factor = 17,000
- Total height gained per Amigo (and Zippy) through the entire climb, including carry = 21,285ft
- Total water consumed by the Three Amigos during the expedition = 265 litres, supplied via rivers, melting ice and snow
- Total combined distance walked by the Three Amigos = 276 miles
- Total cost = Don't ask...and don't tell our wives! But, no great achievement comes without a price.
Signing off one last time.... The Three Amigos!"
If you’re just now catching up with the Three Amigos, read these blog posts from the past three weeks from the beginning to see what the three courageous Zebras experienced on their “journey to the top of the world”: