I may not have summited the mountain, but I did discover the amazing wonders of the pee bottle.
I would not have thought it possible for women. I’ve long heard about men peeing in
bottles while on the road and I was always envious. With years of camping, hiking, and cycling under my belt, I had become accustomed to the quick squat behind a bush and getting my business done. When I set up my tent on a campground, I always made certain it wasn’t too far away from the toilets. I’m the type that gets up at least twice during the night to pee; more during the winter when I’m cold. It’s a bother getting up, getting dressed, unzipping the tent, going to the toilet, coming back, unzipping then rezipping the tent, undressing, then getting into my sleeping bag. But what was I to do? If you have to pee you have to pee.
But on Aconcagua, Latin America’s highest mountain, I learned that it is very possible for a woman to pee in the comfort of her own tent into a wide-mouthed Nalgene water bottle with perfect aim. Of course, this means peeing in the same tiny confined space that your tent mate is sleeping in; that same tent mate that you only met for the first time three days ago. But does that matter? No! Not one single bit. Not when you don’t have to go outside into the freezing cold to pee in a dark, smelly toilet. Not when you can get your business done in seconds and quickly snuggle back into your warm sleeping bag. Besides, who wants to watch someone else pee? No one. So all you really need to worry about is others hearing the sound of a water bottle filling up with liquid. Actually, your real concern is peeing in your actual water bottle instead of your designated pee bottle. That is why the pee bottle gets taped up with duct tape that you can clearly feel in the dark to distinguish it from your other bottles.
The pee bottle is one of my most important takeaways from an extravagantly expensive trip up part of a mountain.
Aconcagua beat the crap out of me. It really did. I got sick within an hour of reaching our first camp at 3,400 meters. Getting there was perfectly fine. But once we started setting up our tent, the sickness hit me. My brain felt like it was about to explode, and my stomach actually did explode, blasting all its contents out—twice—onto the dusty mountain ground just outside our tent. It took me a few hours to stop feeling disastrously ill. And it took me a whole day to recover some of my energy. I was told not to join the rest of the group on an acclimatization trek the following day. Recovering was more important. Instead, I was taken on a shorter acclimatization trek on our third day on the mountain, which went perfectly fine.
Then came the day we headed up to basecamp at about 4,300 meters. I was fine as we
made the long six-hour trek through the valley. But that was followed by two hours of hellish climbing up to basecamp. I started getting a headache, which got worse every time we stopped to drink and eat. I was losing my appetite. I could barely get anything into my mouth. My legs began feeling very heavy and weak. I was sure it was because I hadn’t eaten enough. I kept asking the local Argentinian guide for sugar, which he provided in the form of chewable candies. And I had begun getting a very strange dizzy sensation I had never experienced before. As I was walking, it seemed like some sort of a time warp was closing in my head, making me feel like I was on the verge of blacking out. It was as if I was seeing the world through a very narrow tunnel for a few milliseconds. Then, BAM! It would open up again. I was finding it extremely difficult to breathe as well. Gianni, the head local Argentinian guide, directed me to follow his every step and taught me how to breathe. I followed his every word and action. I put every last bit of energy into imitating his slow and precise movements. After a long eight-hour day, I made it to basecamp with Gianni’s motivating guidance.
It wasn’t long before I was ill again. But this time it didn’t last as long. I threw up, again just outside my tent, once. But within an hour of throwing up I was feeling moderately better and I was able to join the rest of the group to eat a portion of my dinner.
I never fully recovered afterwards. I was able to keep the nausea, vomiting and intense
headaches at bay. But my movements and breathing were laborious, even walking from my tent to the toilet during the day. Even so, I joined the rest of the group two days after arriving into basecamp to hike up to 5,000 meters for further acclimatization. It was on this climb that I realized that there was no way I could possibly proceed further. It felt like I had a single fiber in place of each of my leg and arm muscles. There was nothing there. It didn’t feel like a lack of energy. It felt like what I imagine muscle atrophy must be like. Lifting my feet felt like the most difficult task in the world. And there was nothing I could do to get in enough air so I could breathe semi-normally. Nothing.
Many thoughts went through my head. I hadn’t prepared enough for this trip. I simply wasn’t strong enough. I was burnt out from all the Ironman training. Training for one sport can’t spill into another.
Regardless of the reason why I was feeling so weak, I knew I was not going to be able to hike much further. There would come a time when I would need to decide to cut my losses, keep myself safe, and just go back down the mountain.
The decision wasn’t easy, mainly because I needed to be certain that I was making it for the right reasons. I was feeling that I was holding back the rest of the group. And I was under the impression that one or possibly two of our four guides were getting fed up with me. I needed to be certain that those perceptions of mine weren’t going to be behind my decision. If I was going to go down the mountain, it needed to be because I knew that I simply couldn’t safely and reliably continue to go up. Period.
It took me a night of intense thinking, but by the morning I had arrived at my decision. Regardless of the reasons why I was so weak, which I had no way to be certain of, I knew that I could not possibly take myself up to 5,500 meters for the next acclimatization trek. I needed to descend. I spoke with the main guide. She said she thought that I could get to 5,500 meters but that I wouldn’t be able to make it to the summit. “Your ability is here,” she said, motioning with her hand just above the table we were sitting at. “Aconcagua is here,” she continued, raising her hand several more inches above the table.
I will not forget those words or the hand signals. I can lose confidence in myself sometimes. It happens to everyone. But those words were wrong and uncalled for. I was definitely the weakest link of our group of 15 climbers. But that was not because I was the weakest generally or the least prepared. It was simply because altitude beat the living daylights out of me much earlier than it started affecting anyone else.
This became glaringly obvious during my eventual descent off the mountain. The eight-
hour trek down from basecamp was brutal. My legs were wobbly on the steep bits, breathing was difficult, and I was still getting the weird dizzy episodes. But this was very slowly improving the further we got; until we reached 3400 meters, the altitude at which I got sick the first time. Then, almost suddenly, I turned back into a normal human being. I had just been walking for six hours but I was suddenly injected with loads of almost boundless energy. I was feeling my muscles again and not only could I lift my feet, I could practically run and jump. I was breathing normally through my nose. I was no longer feeling dizzy. My mood lifted tremendously and after spending days of not taking many pictures, my camera was out and I was snapping away.
Being able to breathe felt almost miraculous. I was so relieved and grateful for the blessing of taking in oxygen and releasing carbon dioxide. What an amazing feeling! I was ecstatic to be off the mountain and to feel strong and healthy again. Within 24 hours of arriving into Mendoza, an Argentinian city near Aconcagua, I had signed myself up for a duathlon back in England for the weekend after I get back home. I wasn’t burnt out on the mountain. My abilities weren’t “here” while Aconcagua was “here”. I had acute mountain sickness, two of the symptoms of which are weakness and fatigue. It was that simple. My guide should have been able to explain that to me without implying that I was not prepared for a mountain like Aconcagua.
I didn’t travel to Aconcagua with the goal of reaching its summit. I’ve long learned that
that is a silly goal to have for mountains. My goal was to experience the mountain. That goal was accomplished. The experience helped me learn a lot about myself and others. One thing I’ve learned is that I need to figure out my relationship with altitude. I am guessing that, in the future, I need to do a pre-acclimatization trip a week or two before doing a serious mountain climb. Previous experience tells me that this could be successful. Despite staying at altitude in Cuzco, Peru, before hiking the Inca Trail about four years ago, I got sick for a brief period of time when I reached about 4,500 meters on the trail. After reaching Machu Picchu, we descended and then travelled to a different part of the country to go on a second weeklong trek. Even though that trek took us up to about 4,700 meters, I felt great and strong the whole time. I think that formula works for me best: go up, get sick, come down, then go back up again. I will try it in the future.
I also met many interesting and inspirational people. Our team was composed mainly of
Brits, but also included an Irishman, two Australians, a Czech, a couple from France, and a Canadian-American. They all had amazing life stories and diverse backgrounds and experiences. It was wonderful spending time with them and learning from them. Seven of our fifteen-member team made it to Aconcagua’s summit. The bits and pieces I have heard about their summit stories are inspiring. It took a significant amount of mental strength for them to achieve what they did.
I had an extra week to spend in Mendoza, which allowed me to learn a little bit more
about Argentinian culture and food. What a lovely, laid-back, friendly city! It’s one of those cities that make you think: I could happily live here.
And I learned that I can now camp without having to get up in the middle of the night and leave my tent to pee. If I had to take one lesson from this trip, that would be the one. What a revelation!
I’ll make sure this isn’t the last of my experiences on high-altitude mountains. I’ll use the words “You are here. Aconcagua is here” to drive me to go back and discover what my personal needs are to be able to safely and healthily climb higher and higher. We all experience moments of weakness. That does not mean we are weak. This does not mean I am weak. I have done many amazing things in my life. And I am certain there are many amazing experiences to come.
I loved the small part of Argentina I was able to experience, so much so that I thought how amazing it must be to be Argentinian. Latin America, I’ll do whatever it takes to get back to you as soon as I can.