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As luck would have it, many teams had given up or had realised they had surplus equipment, including food. Matt and Jim, two friendly American climbers, passed us some freeze-dried meals. By lunchtime, I was gleefully returning to our tent like Santa Claus.

“Wow – cider drinks, freeze-dried chicken, oats… more oats. Boy, we’ve got enough for days,” said Wilfred, his spirits lifted. Together with a couple of canisters of gas, we had fuel and food for two more days.

Up high we watched Keil with one client climbing up for the summit. Of all his clients, only one remained in good condition to make the summit push. It was a pretty bold move too, since none of them had spent more than one night acclimatising at the 5900m camp.

Wilfred watched them with some envy, going on about how this was a great summit day, and that we had missed a great chance to go for the top. I gently mentioned how we were pretty wasted ourselves from the day before, and would probably not make a good attempt.

My watch alarm went off with an annoying beeping cadence at about 4am the next day. Wilfred, cocooned in his down sleeping bag, didn’t stir. Outside in the darkness, winds slapped and whipped our tent.

“Oi! It’s pretty windy out there… what do you think?”
“Mnnffft? Aiya – go back to sleep for while, OK?”
I lay there, unable to sleep but closed my eyes and tried to maximise the time I had left to rest my body. At 5:30, I nudged Wilfred again.

“Hey, it’s still damn windy. Should we go?”
“I dunno, let’s wait a while longer, wind might slow down,” he trailed off.

At 6:30am, I was really awake. Dawn had broken and the sliver of light creeping up signalled the start of the day, the big day. The wind was still there, albeit less vicious.

“Hey Beng!” I called out loudly, using Wilfred’s Chinese name. “If we don’t get going now, we won’t ever go!”
Our tent became the scene of a terrific commotion as we hastily made a brew for breakfast and struggled to don our layers of clothing. It was a much colder day than the 16th, our first summit day. We both piled out of the tent into the first light, squinting at the bright rays of the awakening sun.

Finding some shelter, we both took a dump to get our bowels out of the way for the day. My zipper got stuck and there was a colourful round of swearing as I fiddled with straps, buckles and zippers. On television, serious mountaineering often looks dramatic and glamourous. In reality, it is hard work, squalid and you are sometimes reduced to a laughable caricature as you struggle to keep your bare buttocks from being scoured by a merciless wind; hopping about madly to get a zip to close. I collapsed back into the tent to warm up my frozen fingers. Since GBS, I found that my fingers, especially both my thumbs failed to work in the cold. This may have been both a neurological and muscular issue. My left hand was already pretty screwed up with many fingers only partially functioning. I could compensate at times, using my teeth as a third hand. But when faced with non-functioning thumbs, it was frustrating to do the simplest tasks like tying boot laces.

To my horror, we only got going at 8:30am, about three hours later than most parties who go for the summit. That day, we were one of the few groups making that climb from the Polish Glacier side. Wilfred trailed behind me a little. But he had a look that made me think he was very far away. Later he told me he was just conserving energy and keeping an eye on me, a harder task to do if he had been ahead of me.

We made very good time, overtaking a number of climbers. The traverse over the icefield was straightforward but I had to keep telling myself not to screw up here. Unroped, we were climbing without any form of protection. Our only connection was the occasional wave or nod of the head. Far away to my right, the sun was already up on Mercedario, a beautiful and distant snow-capped 6000m peak.

It was beginning to look like our acclimatisation and patience was paying dividends. We reached the Independencia Hut after four hours, climbing at a rate of about 150 verticalm an hour, which was encouraging. Above the hut, we climbed up and began a traverse to the summit pyramid block. The trail wound its way through much ice, and a finger-shaped rock provided vestiges of shelter. Below to my right, the Gran Accareo swept downwards hundreds of metres. This was a huge scree field with no cover whatsoever. Many climbers, caught in a blinding storm, have wandered into this featureless zone, and perished looking for the route back to their campsites. We struggled a bit, pulling the hoods of our jackets over our chilled skulls and pressed on into the infamous Canaleta.

The Caneleta or Gully is probably the best known mountaineering feature on Aconcagua. A broad, loose gully, it starts at around 6600m and ends below the 6962m summit. The 400m of dangerously loose rock and scree at a 40-degree angle have defeated many climbers choosing this route. Much care needs to be taken not to dislodge loose rocks that could cause a small rockslide to wipe out parties below.

I picked my way up, Wilfred doggedly following. There was no marked route up the gully. Sometimes I would take three steps up only to slide down four steps. It was heart breaking. Some advice I had earlier suggested keeping to the right wall of the gully. This was marginally easier. The only relief was that once in the Canaleta, we were sheltered from the winds raking the Gran Accareo, and the exposed slope below.

My diary recounts the climb:
“Hopes of an early summit are dashed. There is a feeling of exhaustion as no rhythm can be kept in the sliding, unstable scree. I slowly reel in some climbers ahead. Matt the American, begins to slowly come into view. I pass a guided American team at 3:30pm. At 6800m, they are turning around, having spent more than 11 hours from their last camp on the normal route. Neither guide wants to be benighted with so many struggling clients. Up high parties search for the short traverse across two small snowfields that will bring them to the North summit, the top of the mountain. A sense of desperation sets in as the summit gets no closer and much energy is used just zigzagging. 50m below me, Wilfred looks really tired. At 4:30 in the afternoon, he catches up. He beckons to me, motioning at his watch. I know it is late.”
“We’re so close,” I said, “Let’s push this one a bit.”
I realised this meant a descent through the night.
At 5pm, we reached the final traverse. I met a grinning Matt who was descending after climbing to the top alone. Jim didn’t make it out of his tent and was waiting down at the Polish Glacier camp.

“I’ll watch out for you guys when you get down,” he said.
I turned back to look at the top of the gully. To the south is the lower south summit. I caught a fleeting glimpse of the enormous 3000m south face of Aconcagua; falling dizzily into the clouds below. We were the last climbers of the day to go for the top. There were no others descending from above. An unexpected rock scramble had me panting slightly. Suddenly, and without warning, I pulled on a large rock to bring my eye level to a large and flat plateau. It was about 5:30pm. Barely a stone’s throw away was an aluminium cross, no higher than a small boy. It was festooned with all manner of stickers and a few small flags.

It was the summit.

I sat on a rock nearby for a moment as the dipping sun threw long shadows. The peaks below were very distant in the deepening glow and clouds came and went. I began sobbing like a blubbering child, overwhelmed by the pent-up emotion and stress of the past two weeks. My face felt wet and there was a salty taste on my lips. After a couple of minutes, I wandered to the far end of the summit plateau, easily the size of several basketball courts. At one end was the brass plaque dedicated to 80 or so names of climbers who did not make it home. I recovered my tracks. Wilfred began to crest the final rocks. He looked bushwhacked.

“Hey, the summit,” he said, breaking into a smile at last.
“Ya, the summit.”
We shook hands, a bit awkwardly, and shared some precious moments on the top of the Americas. My eyes had dried up and we took several summit pictures, including one with the large banner that the Society for the Physically Disabled gave to us. We took a bit of video footage as well and I mumbled something into the camera. I think both of us were a bit stunned that we had actually pulled it off. My hands were bare, for it was unusually warm on top, possibly owing to the heat being given off from the summit rocks that had baked for eons under the Andean sun.

I gathered a few shards of rock as souvenirs and made my way down, Wilfred following as I staggered unsteadily over the broken ground. The descent was both scary and fun. Long stretches of fist-sized scree allowed a sliding descent which, at top speed, usually ended with us on our butts. Occasional boulders trundling by added to the fear factor. We knew we had to make the rocky notch that marked the end of the Polish Traverse by nightfall. Reversing our route from this point would then be straightforward. But trying to find it in the dark would be difficult and dangerously slow.

At the Independencia Hut, I finished what little water I had left, gagging at the icy slush and spilling half of it on my jacket. The sun was fading fast and we pelted down as fast as we could, stopping occasionally to catch our breath. As the skies turned a deep blue, and the red glow of twilight’s gleaming disappeared, we found the notch. Wilfred, who had been carrying our one and only rucksack all day, produced from its depths our headtorches. But the batteries were dead by then, exsanguinated by the sub-zero temperatures. Then the sky became lighter once more as a rising moon cast an anaemic, wan light onto us. I had experienced this phenomenon only once before in the Himalaya. It was in India in 1995. The darkness of night that came with the sun’s passing was only momentary, as a full moon threw light onto us almost immediately after the sun went down.

Tossing the useless torch back into the pack, we descended, slowly picking our way down the icefield. Far below, I thought I saw lights of a small campsite. After an hour I realised that they were not lights, but rather the reflection of dazzling bits of reflective fabric built into several tents to give them extra visibility.

With the camp less than 1km away, Wilfred suddenly left the trail and began to take a short cut across a pitch black scree field. I yelled at him but with no reply, I followed him down. He had picked up some speed and was soon swallowed by the darkness. I stumbled twice, falling heavily. By the time I gathered myself, there was no sign of him. Alone and in the dark, I began to make my way back to the glacier we had crossed in the morning. Apart from a few broken slots and trenches, the glacier did not have any man-eating crevasses. A bit disoriented, I began to look around for our tent. I stumbled once and looked rather stupidly at my crampons, still attached to my boots. Somehow, my stubby steel crampons gave extra purchase on a lot of the scrabbly stuff. But now, it was time to take the damn things off. But that could wait. I had to find the tent. Everyone else in the campsite had gone to sleep and darkness reigned. Finally, a small wedge-shaped tent appeared. I approached it slowly. It was the yellow and blue Macpac.

At his speed, Wilfred should have reached it way ahead of me. Yet there was no sign of life or the comforting quiet roar of a stove going. I unzipped the tent and fell into the jumbled mess of sleeping bags and equipment. It took five minutes to find a spare headtorch that worked. I flicked it on. The bulb glowed yellow for a moment and then died. I scrabbled around in the darkness, looking for some spare batteries. Once loaded, I lay there, my mind spinning and my breath a little ragged. It was 10:30pm and I had been on the go for nearly 15 hours with just a litre of water and a couple of cereal bars to drink and eat. I was badly dehydrated and running on empty. The woozy feeling took a while to dissipate. I had to find Wilfred.

Bursting out of the tent, I began to comb the area immediately around the campsite; beginning with the route we took to join the main summit route. Some clouds had come in and none of the moonlight that had been such a help earlier was there to make things easier. I looked and looked. From a distance, a shape that seemed to move could be Wilfred. I yelled his name several times. It was just a rock. My mind was playing tricks on me. I kept at this for twenty minutes or more. I made it back to my tent and emerged again, this time armed with the emergency strobe light.

Twenty more minutes, I thought, then I’ll start waking people to form a search party.
I began to comb an area northeast of the campsite, shouting Wilfred’s name; swearing every now and then. Suddenly, from some distance below me, I heard a shout. I squinted into the darkness and made out another shape. This time it was really moving. There was the steady clink of metal and crunching of gravel. It was not the sound made by a desperate person or one struggling to survive. The steady noise came closer. I shone my headtorch and looked into a very tired face.

“Where the hell have you been? I’ve been worried sick – about to call out the others to look for you.”
“Ya, I overshot the campsite in the dark, went all the way down and then realised I had missed it. Been spending all this time zig-zagging up to look for the camp. Damn tired, boy, what a day.”

“For God’s sake, don’t ever do that again; splitting up without discussing it first. Jeez, I hope never to have to look for you like this again,” I said, delighted he was safe and yet annoyed to have been given such a scare.

We plodded back to our tent and got cleaned up by midnight. Wilfred had to have some soup so we got the stove going. I do not remember what we ate, not much probably and I soon fell asleep in between the brews. The elation of the previous hour had changed and the slight scare I had from the search had taken some gloss off the quiet happiness of having succeeded. But all was well, and I dozed solidly until morning.

We slept through the dawn and awoke to bright sunshine the next day. I got out of my down bag and unzipped the tent. The nylon fabric was fast warming to the sun. In the vestibule were about four or five clear plastic bags of food. From the packaging, the manna must have been deposited by Jim and Matt who had chosen not to wake us before departing themselves. I was so dehydrated I didn’t have a pee for almost a day and what did come out was like brandy – only darker and sharp to the nose.

As we slowly pottered around packing for the descent, another climber came up and offered to trade a pack of ready-to-eat king salmon for half a roll of toilet paper. Alas, we were short ourselves, and could not find the extra paper. It would have been a fantastic trade.

Staggering under loads in excess of 20kg, we retraced our path, waving goodbye to our new friends and wishing them luck. I took another butt-slide on the hardpacked slopes below the camp and Wilfred’s swift action in grabbing my pack prevented me from hurtling down any further. Later I gave quiet thanks that that would be the last of the tricky sections.
At our ABC, we packed up the burnt tent and shouldered our loads slowly down the rest of the route. The trail went on and on, each cairn representing a marker we would not pass again. Far below, coloured specks began to appear. It was ‘Plaza Argentina’, our base camp. We got in just as the light began to go at 9pm and settled in to a large dinner with just about all the food we had left.

John and Clarke, the two professors who had helped us after the tent fire, came in very late themselves the next day. They hadn’t been successful in reaching the top. We took a look at them and thought our last eggs would benefit them more, so our eggs welcomed them for breakfast on the 22nd.

At noon, we left ‘Plaza Argentina’. We had had a long wait to make sure the mule carrying our heavier equipment was rigged properly. Bombing down, I realised that we had a very long walk to Las Lenas, the campsite on our very first night on the inward trek. Reversing two days’ walking in a single day meant we would likely only make Las Lenas after dark. The first problem we encountered was the junction of the Relinchos and Vacas rivers. We reached this point at 3pm, with the river in full flood. Doffing our boots, and in bare feet, we linked arms and slowly crossed. I gasped as the icy cold grey waters rushed past, at times up to my mid-thigh level. My emaciated and crippled ankle struggled to play a useful part. The foot itself was also atrophied with no muscle tissue to cushion the bones from the rocks below. With a ski-pole each, we hobbled across like a six-legged creature.

“It’s like extreme reflexology,” I exclaimed after we had finished the crossing.
The rest of the merciless afternoon was spent traversing one grassy hummock after another. I quickened my pace from 8pm when the light began to go. By 9:30pm, it was completely dark and I began to trace my path by looking out for fresh mule droppings. Every now and then the path fanned out into several smaller paths – presenting difficult choices. I kept yelling for Wilfred who was well ahead of me. I could no longer see his headtorch but I was sure he was planning ahead.
As I dropped down towards the river, my heart sank. We would have to cross the Vacas one more time and the river was thundering away. The fast flow created many whitecaps and these glinted malevolently as I got closer. Finally, on a sandy shore, I found Wilfred. He had been yelling to the ranger station across from the river. Some gauchos eventually saddled up and came to the river’s edge. One was leading a mule. As he crossed, the ranger shouted at us to switch off our headtorches so as to not spook the mules. In the darkness, I could see the rushing waters were nearly as high as the bellies of the mules.

I thought, if one of those mules loses its balance with me on it, we’re both goners.
Wilfred went first, getting astride the rider-less mule. When my turn came, the crossing must have lasted no more than a minute. But it seemed like eternity. Splashes of water soaked my boots and legs, and then we were across.
We tried to make a meal after we settled down, but it turned out awful. Huddling around a fire, one of the rough-looking gauchos came over and, with unmistakable hospitality, thrust two roughly hewn sandwiches towards us. Inside the fresh bread were two chunks of chorizo, grilled over their fire. Lightly seasoned with salt, the crispy outer was matched with a tender, well-done inner. We scoffed these, swearing that they were the best sandwiches we had ever tasted. I still haven’t found any better.

A day later we were in Los Penitentes and found lodging in a cheap hostel. My first shower in 17 days was a marvel. The water gurgling down the sinkhole was a murky grey Color but the feeling of getting clean again was indescribable.Daydreaming of the enormous buffet eateries, cold beers and warm sheets, we caught a ride into Mendoza the next day. It rained all the way back.



I thwacked the ice axe into the glassy surface. Slowly, a small gurgle of water emerged, clear and numbing to the touch. With pale hands, I lowered the nylon water bag, coaxing the reluctant stream to fill it to the brim. High above me the winds raked the cliff sides. Remarkably there was a bushy tailed red fox, el zorro. It was lurking in the rocks above and sniffing here and there; looking for human leftovers, no doubt. Otherwise, there would be some mice for sure for the fox. Later in the afternoon when the winds had abated, I watched as a guided American team made their way up. The assistant guide came up first, and began to erect a two-man tent. We waved and said hello. Wilfred and I watched from a distance as he struggled to figure out where the poles went on the tent. Try as he did, the tent somehow always came out looking distorted with the longer poles being inserted in the tent sleeves meant for shorter poles or vice versa. This went on for about 20 minutes.

The beauty of modern, computer-aided designed tents mean that you can always be assured of a drum-tight fit as the nylon fabric is always cut to maximise space inside the tent while keeping the overall tent in as wind-shedding a shape as possible. The problem is that tent designs can become complex and setting them up in the dark or when tired can be a real epic.

“Think we should help him?” I said.
“Nah, might be a bit embarrassing – he’s s’posed to be guide, right?”
“Umm… OK, we can check later.”

Later was when the rest of his team arrived. Thankfully, he was spared a few blushes as he had the tent up by then and was making a brew. There were a variety of Americans on the team, mostly friendly, chatty and helpful. One was a lady from Texas who hadn’t been very high before, but was hoping to make this her first big climb. Keil, the chief guide, happened to share a few mutual friends with me, and we chatted for a while.

I got up groggily the next morning and got the MSR stove going. These complex, pocket-sized stoves needed to be primed with a small flame before going. Once hot, a steady stream of pressurised fuel would flow from a tank to a hot metal pipe which would vaporise the fuel into a much more volatile gas. When going, they sounded like small, roaring fires – in essence, a stove was controlled explosion. I propped it up on a flat rock in the tent vestibule, the postage stamp sized area just near the entrance. Keeping our boots and gear well to the side. I pumped the fuel tank plunger a few times to increase the pressure inside the tank, and then set the stove alight. A flat rock formed a neat platform.

By my side Wilfred was just stirring, mornings not being his strong point.

A nice, hot, blue flame soon sprang from the tiny bowels of the stove, and a steady quiet roar told me all was well. A bag of water was nearby and I crushed the ice that had built up overnight inside it. A pot full of the ice and water was quickly warming up on top of the stove. After a few minutes, I decided to increase the heat and turned the control knob about a quarter turn. By then Wilfred was already sitting cross-legged near the entrance rummaging through some items at the opposite end of our tent. I smelled something odd. A strong smell of fuel was wafting through the tent.

That can’t be right, I thought.
I turned back, half on my knees; bumping my head against the cloying ceiling of the low-profile tent. Then there was a sudden “whooomph”, followed instantly by a blinding explosion. I inhaled instinctively, and felt my lungs on fire. My shins, ankles and arms were being rapidly scorched. A shimmering view of my world told me instantly the fireball was nearly invisible and of high intensity.
I’m on fire!

A fierce grip seemed to seize my throat, and I was unable to breathe. Waving my arms and slapping at the flames, I thrust my head out of the rear vestibule, coughing violently. The cold air was like a slap in the face. Seconds later, I turned back to see that Wilfred had grabbed the fuel tank and had hurled it together with the stove a body length out of the vestibule.
We lay there for a while, stunned by the explosion. Then we quickly surveyed our nylon home. Wilfred grimaced as he felt his face. It was already reddening from the burns. Both our eyebrows were singed badly and I was still coughing from inhaling the volatile gases. The entire front of the tent had been incinerated by the fireball. The flames had dissolved, almost instantly, both the inner and outer layers of the double-skinned tent. Our synthetic underwear, which we had worn to sleep had partially melted.

Within half a minute, Keil had bounced down from his campsite above ours to check on what had happened.
“Hey, guys… are you OK? Man, When I heard that ‘whoomph’, I just knew what it was.”
“I can’t figure it out,” I said, “we’ve be using that stove for two weeks so far with
no problems.”

“It’s probably a cracked rubber O-ring or something like that.”
“I think I can drop back to base camp to carry up the base camp tent,” Wilfred said, already thinking of the steps we needed to take to continue the climb.
The stoves had a complex pressurisation system, guarded with a number of O-shaped rubber rings. As they aged, they had a tendency to accumulate small, hairline cracks. Under pressure, these might have allowed a cloud of hot fuel vapour to be ignited by the naked flame.

It was a warm morning and we spent it licking our wounds, checking the damage. We were grateful to be alive. Keil and I dismantled the offending stove but could not pin-point any obvious defect. The two American professors ambled over later and gave Wilfred some special antibiotic cream for his face which was already blistering in a spectacular way. I thought it best to stay another night at camp before going higher. It would help our acclimatisation and also allow us to descend if the burning gases had actually caused some damage to my lungs. Getting inflamed lungs would mean some fluids leaking into my lungs from the damaged tissues. This would not be good at all. The North Face tent had survived a wild windstorm only to be destroyed by a campfire.

After a slow start, we evacuated all our belongings and set up our back-up Macpac tent.
“We’ll need it higher up,” I said to Wilfred.

“What to do? We need it here and it’s too much work to go down and up again with our base camp tent.”
We re-arranged ourselves and squeezed into the three-pound tent.
“Boy, it’s really tight in here,” I said. “This isn’t a two-man tent. The tent brochure should say it’s only right for ‘two really good friends’.”

The weather kept on improving and we made the haul up to our summit camp the following day. We alternated leads with Keil’s guided group, zigzagging up the steepening scree. Occasional patches of snow gave some respite, and I could enjoy gaining uphill distance with positive edging on the firm snow instead of the scrabbly scree. To my left, the sun shone brightly on Aconcagua’s satellite peak, Cerro Ameghino, more than a thousand metres lower than its big brother. I let my mind wander, dreaming of other possible climbs in the area, admiring the clean lines up some steep icy gullies. Anything to take my mind off the hard breathing which was taking to get us up to 5900m. At around 5700m, we overtook Keil’s team once more and did not see them until much later. The Texan lady was having some difficulty and was sitting with her head down, looking teary. Keil walked over to have a private talk with her. We pressed on.
The final problem was a 10m hard-packed slope with the same lethal dusting of fine gravel – the same kind of slope that sent me sprawling on our little adventure in the Cordon del Plata. Laden with pigs on our backs, we inched up the slope, minimising the inevitable small slips from turning into full-scale slides down into a rocky trench.

A rocky slope led to the flat campsite and a spectacular and direct view of the huge Polish Glacier above. Patches of dense blue ice peeked out from below swathes of snow and ice. This was a committing route attempted by few parties although it was a fine mountaineering route.

My diary records:
“We got to the windswept plateau below the incredible Polish Glacier – steep, icy and forbidding. Here until we summit – or lose.”
About a month before, four young Argentines had been roped together on the 40-degree face. The account I read was not detailed, but it seemed they were not very experienced, and had poor equipment. Someone fell, and a single ice-screw that had provided some means of intermediate protection was yanked out. The falling climber’s slide pulled the rest of his team down to their deaths. Aconcagua was to claim, by the end of that summer season, a total of eight lives. That figure would match that of the infamous 1996 Everest tragedy but would never get the same kind of publicity. Few climbing teams here had web-broadcasting equipment and when people died, they often died in ones or twos. And Aconcagua wasn’t quite as famous Everest.

We looked quickly for the best available site, nabbing a flat spot which also had the bonus of an old wind-shield of rocks built around it. I looked at the Macpac as we tied off every available guyline to a rock; distributing the tension throughout the tent. Could this little tent survive up here when bigger and stronger tents had perished?
Then, the hard part was carrying boulders to reinforce the windshield. At nearly 6000m, any physical effort was tough. When the last rock was laid, we sat on our butts, smiling and pointing at various geographical features. Above the campsite, we could see a path of steps through a small icefield. This was about 400m on a 30-degree slope – the Traverse. Eventually, it would cut across the path of the normal route. Just below us at some distance, we could see White Rocks, yet another landmark on the normal route. Finding water was our next job. A small frozen pond not far away yielded some water but only after hacking through a foot of ice. There was another problem. The hole was not large enough to scoop water into our water bags. I improvised by pushing down a one litre water bottle; using the end of a ski pole. Once the lip of the bottle met the water level, it would fill quickly. I then fished the filled bottle out, transferred the icy liquid into our water bags and repeated the cold process. I then looked at the lay of the land.

Almost all our water seemed to drain from the foot of the Polish Glacier. I thought about all the bodies of climbers who had not been recovered from the Polish Glacier, in particular the recent Argentines.

Keeping hydrated is a major task for any mountaineer. There are challenges in finding water (best) or snow (worst) to heat in a pot to make drinks. Snow contains so much air, it takes a lot of precious fuel to produce a litre of boiling water. In conditions of extreme aridity and altitude you need to drink between 2l – 4l a day just to keep healthy. Checking on your pee colour is a sure way of assessing your level of hydration. Pee ’til it’s clear’ is a popular saying.
There’s a well-known tale of a novice climber who was warned that if his pee was a dark brown, it meant that he was suffering from internal bleeding and that he was at great risk. Dropping his pack after reaching high camp, he proceeded to take a pee. The stream of pee was a deep brown, sending the climber crying out for his life. A mountain guide went over; looked at his pee and then looked at the climber.

“You’re OK,” he said. “Just take off your dark goggles.”

As climbers popped over the rocky ridge below the campsite, the site soon sprouted a number of tents. We had a small pressure stove that our American friends had surplus to their needs and our canisters of a butane-propane mix we bought in Mendoza. Calculating our fuel and food, we reckoned we could stay up long enough for a summit push plus extra days to rest. Indeed rest was the order of the following day as we let our bodies re-hydrate and acclimatise. We felt good, and the pre-Aconcagua climb on Vallecitos was a great boost to the acclimatisation curve.

That day, the 16th, we sorted out our summit gear.

“We need a breakfast of champions!” declared Wilfred.
Since our malnourished approach hike, we had re-adjusted our food intake and rations. We set aside a large bag of oats and cereal plus some drink to this end.


When climbing in alpine-style, one of the great rewards is the planning and judgement needed to execute such a climb, not to mention having to carry all the gear, sans guides or high altitude porters. The sense of achievement is palpable even if the final summit is not attained. This sort of style does not appeal to the less-serious climber who wants to stack the odds in his favour. In short, the sense of achievement to such climbers is in getting to the summit, and not the process. The beauty of climbing, which has always appealed to me is that people are free to climb in whatever style they choose. But almost certainly, doing harder routes in a harder style is the only way to move the sport forward. On a world scale, we were just bumblies. But I didn’t really care. We had set ourselves some ambitious goals in the context of who we were, and where we had come from, and this was acceptable by my standards.

So far, Wilfred’s strength and skill had been indispensable. Now, at the eve of our summit push, I hoped my greater altitude experience would count on helping give us the confidence to get to the summit. Most importantly, I made sure my disabled leg, brace and boot would marry harmoniously. There would be no chance to fiddle with the components once we started. For extra warmth, we would wear a heavy down jacket with a windproof shell. Underneath, we would wear thermal underwear and a one-piece, sleeveless stretchy suit, sometimes referred to as ‘Farmer John’ suit. Most critically, the seat of the suit had to zip open flawlessly if one needed to take a dump on the climb. On our boots would be insulated gaiters. These would keep out snow and pebbles as well. The gaiters did not wrap themselves below the boot; allowing the boots’ rubber sole to make contact with the surface; mostly rock and scree. For crampons, I relied on a lightweight set of steel fangs. They were rather battered, but still serviceable. I also had my aluminium alloy ice-axe which had been loaned to my friend Edwin Siew for his summit day on Everest two years previously. I hoped some luck would rub off.

One of the big problems about high altitude is gas – the human sort. It might be the combination freeze-dried foods, or a distended bowel, or the simple fact that the low oxygen levels do not encourage good digestion. My own production of foul smelling vapours was well known to me but Wilfred outclassed me completely. His gas was so incredibly toxic that only hysterical laughing about our situation in the small tent alleviated the situation. It is little wonder Australian climbers call sleeping bags ‘fart bags’. The sudden opening of a bag after a long spell of farts would be tantamount to war. Wilfred’s gas warfare was as effective as Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s, and I banished him to the far end of the tent. Getting ‘Saddam-ised’ was not fun. Not that it mattered – since the tent was tiny. In consideration, Wilfred would sometimes go on his hands and knees and back out of the tent butt first, if he needed to let some bombs go. God knows what would have happened if the flames of the stove had ignited his emanations.

Our plan was to rise about 4:30am and get going by 6:30am. We breakfasted like champions, wolfing down mugs full of muesli, freeze-dried cheesecake mix and sugared, milky tea. Then it was time to dress.

“Your elbow is in my ear.”
“Oops… sorry. Let me get my leg out of your way too.”
“Umph. Gimme some space here, OK?”
“Gawd – it’s dark in here – where’s my old sock?”
“Here, dangling over my face.”
“Ah – thanks.”
Only one person could do anything at a time inside our small home. Add darkness, cold and 20kg of scattered gear and you get an interesting recipe for stories afterwards.

My diary records the climb:
“We leave at 6:45am, only to rid ourselves of our head torches at 7am – sun’s up! A
traverse over a hill and then across through glacier to the start of the rising traverse. It takes three hours of climbing; taking in scree, snow and then 200m of exposed ice with a long drop off. There I do some tricky rock scrambling at a notch to gain a rocky slope. We are traversing around the mountain. 20 minutes later, we hit the normal route. Lots of climbers are heading up and some are coming down. We hear ominous humming winds behind the Independencia Hut.”
Climbers were coming down, laced with fine snow and icicles on their beards.

“No summit, no summit!” shouted one Japanese climber.
“Dangerous! Too much wind,” mumbled another shell-shocked mountaineer.
We took what shelter we could by the hut. The ‘hut’ was nothing more than an A-frame wooden shelter with many holes, missing planks and in a state of great disrepair. In better times, it was big enough for two to three climbers to huddle inside for shelter. It was a wonder how anyone could have constructed it at 6500m, surely the highest, permanent man-made structure in the world.

My diary continues:
“At 6500m, we reassess the day. Sounds of jetliners far above come to our ears – as does the loud humming sound of the winds further up. A lone climber on a ridge above the hut does a strange pirouette-twisting and being tossed about by the strong winds. It’s time to go down. Dejectedly, we descend the switchbacks we had spent so much effort toiling up. We are tired but not exhausted. We had done good time to the hut. Only the winds have made us fail. Back in the tent, we re-assess our food – very little. Wilfred wants to pack up and go down the next day.”

That night we discussed the events of the day. Wilfred’s resolve began to waver somewhat. Eating like kings we finished a lot of the remaining food. What was left was too little for another three nights at 5900m.

“Even if we go down now, I don’t feel that the trip is a failure,” I said seriously.
“Considering my disability, the style in which we climbed and the overall difficulty of the route, what we have done so far has been beyond my expectations.”
Wilfred nodded. I could see the rigours of the trip were having an effect on his resolve. If we could rest, and get some extra food, we could give the summit another go.

A day and a half in Mendoza was a godsend. After lancing a biscuit-sized blister right at the bottom of my heel, I hobbled into town and replenished our food supplies for the main event. At a local climbing equipment store, we picked up another 4l of white gas for our stoves, as well as some compressed gas canisters as a back-up. We celebrated with one final meal at Las Tinajas, an enormous buffet restaurant where US$10 buys you as much as you can eat. There were seats to cater for several hundred diners, and the tables creaked under the weight of some great-looking food.

Cheeses and many different hams were laid out in slices, like oriental fans, black olives winked at us from the crispy green depths of the salads. The main courses sat silently, exuding steam and a mixture of aromas – pungent, piquant sauces, earthy odours of braised mushrooms in olive oil and the caramelised desserts, all combined to send some nutritionally-deprived climber into nirvana. In one corner, a spread-eagled pig carcass was slowly being roasted, its part crispy, part juicy meat to be devoured at some later stage. The grill section had a comprehensive selection of chicken joints, blood sausages, lamb chops and various cuts of beef. From the sooty slats, tongues of flames would dart out, licking their way around browning chunks of meat.

Singaporeans are famous for their love of buffet restaurants. Not only are these viewed as good value, it also indulges the generally greedy side of our natures. Unfortunately, this reputation of piling plates high with the choicest portions is an uglier side of Singaporeans’ nature as well. It was ironical that Las Tinajas is owned and run by Chinese immigrants, the kind of people you would least expect to meet in the heart of a small provincial South American city.

“Bife el chorizo – uno porcion poquito, por favor”, I said, in broken Spanish. I used my hands to demonstrate to the grill master that I only wanted a small version of the steak. Somehow, small portions are decidedly wimpy in Argentina and I almost dropped my plate when the chef peeled the slab of meat off the fire and dropped it, like soft brick, onto the plate.
That night, our rigours of the past week were forgotten as we packed in the calories for the big climb ahead. I surrendered after five rounds at the buffet tables. Despite his reed-thin frame, Wilfred appeared to have a bottomless stomach. He only waved the white flag after seven rounds at the tables. At ten, we staggered out into the cool night, gently patting our drum-tight stomachs and swearing to return to do battle with the buffet tables again.

We stood alone in patch of baking sand. Up high, the fiery orb of the sun shone bright. The cornflower blue of the sky and a slight breeze in the poplars brought a rustling sound to my ears. A good time for a lunchtime nap I thought.
“Oi! Time to go!” said Wilfred waking me from my daydream.

The minivan we had hired had dropped us off at Punta de Vacas (Bridge of the Cows). The tanned, sullen-looking boy with the mule we hired was taking his time tying our two duffels to the animal. They were packed with two weeks of food, fuel and gear. Even then, we had rucksacks weighing around 12kg to carry for the three-day hike into base camp. I made one more adjustment to the velcro straps of my leg brace and began.

There is some video footage of me leaving for the climb from this patch of sand, lurching from side to side. It remains an informal record of my progress in my comeback and normally triggers off laughs from all those who have watched it.
The High Andes, in which Aconcagua is located, is an extremely arid zone with humidity around 10%, much drier than the contents of any camera drybox. The Vacas valley is dominated by numerous hills and the Rio Vacas, a fast flowing river, grey with silt and mud. By 6pm, we were both pretty tired and dehydrated. As the sun crept down, I spied a crude wooden cross by some rocks. A hand-painted note said ‘Last Place for Water’. True to the sign, a short distance away, a small stream volunteered a trickle of water. Filling up, I plodded the last kilometre to the first campsite, Pampas Las Lenas. Next to the dusty patch was a stone hut. Inside, Wilfred had been getting acquainted with Martin, a cheerful Guardia Parque, or park ranger. After checking our permits, we sat around drinking some mate and wondered what had happened to our mule and gear. This turned up at 8:30pm and we scrambled to set up a tent and fix dinner before it got too dark. A can of mixed vegetables has burst open inside a duffel, and that required some mopping up. It can be hard on tempers when you are tired, hungry and rather cold and have to get on with setting up home. I gave silent thanks that both of us had been through this kind of situation many times before.

The following day, we made a crossing early in the morning of Vacas when the level of the river was manageable. A ‘security’ rope was stretched just above the surface of the water, but I had some advice never to grab it. There’s a story of a pack-laden climber who lost his footing there, and he grabbed the line with two hands. The force of the flowing current against his pack pushed his head below the water, and he hung there for a while, like someone doing some belly-first water skiing. I didn’t find out what eventually happened to him.

By the end of the next day, I had figured out why we were feeling rather drained. We had underestimated our energy requirements in trying to reduce the overall weight of all our gear. Breakfast was half a mug of muesli and some tea with lunch being two or three cereal bars. It was patently clear that this kind of rabbit food would not do if we were expecting to march for eight hours a day at altitude. By far, the last day was the hardest.

We made a 7:30am river crossing, splashing through ankle deep water. From here, our northwards path would make a sharp left, making a beeline east along the banks of another river, the Relinchos. All day, mule trains trotted by. Some were fully laden with climbers’ gear going up, and some were coming down empty. The rugged mule drivers or arrieros, would sometimes wave. The views for most of the walk had been interesting, though I missed the wildlife at Cordon del Plata. True, there were herds of wild horses, but the quirky guanacos were up high on the hill slopes, an inevitable reaction to the human traffic in these busier parts.

We made several more river crossings; wasting time as I tried to figure out the easiest sections to get across. Many crossing points were marked with small piles of stones or cairns. What intimidated me were the boulder-hopping that was required. Crossing the river sections demanded the hiker jump across to one of these smooth and wet intermediate boulders before making a second jump to the other side. With my bad leg and lack of dynamic stability, it was psychologically and physically scary stuff. The icy cold waters that flowed past the boulder at high speed were not for falling into. Ultimately, to save time, Wilfred would cross first and double back without his pack. He would take my pack and cross again. Once safely on the other side, he would extend his ski-pole. I would make the jump, grabbing the ski-pole as he yanked it (and me) across, providing an artificial boost to my jumping stride. When your calves are non-functional, you simply aren’t able to ‘jump’. At noon, Wilfred had stopped at a corner on the trail. He waved me on.

“C’mon up here,” he urged.
“What do you see?”
I turned the corner.
“Woah! Aconcagua – at last!” I said.
Some afternoon clouds covered the summit, but the sweep of the Polish Glacier on the peak’s slopes was unmistakable, as was the large bulk of the peak. Emotionally, I could only react with a feeling of awe, and a sense of the task ahead.

The mountain dominates the entire region, and being so big, has an effect on the micro-climate there. As the mountain warms-up in the summer sun, the hot air rising from it sucks in cold air from the adjoining valleys. A common occurrence that starts in the early afternoon is a sometimes unpleasant wind that sweeps in against your back as you march towards the mountain. More serious is when the Viento Blanco (white wind) strikes. A result of a cold front coming in from the Pacific Ocean, the Viento Blanco produces terrifying lenticular shaped clouds over the mountain, and hurricane force winds.

At about 6:45pm with the light beginning to fade, I sat down by a dry stream bed. There was no sign of ‘Plaza Argentina’, the base camp. Wilfred had trekked on ahead and must have arrived an hour or more ahead of me. I felt my pockets and found my last energy gel, popped it and sucked its contents out. I had either underestimated my stamina, or the guide book was grossly inaccurate in terms of hours needed to cover the distance. I stood up and plodded just 15m up a rise. At the crest, the whole of ‘Plaza Argentina’ lay before me. Tucked in the lee slopes of the mountain, it was not visible at all throughout the day. My spirits lifted, I marched the remaining distance and made for our tent that Wilfred had erected by himself much earlier. Spreading out an old, quarter-inch thick foam mat, I fell asleep soon after dinner.

‘Plaza Argentina’ was a collection of about thirty tents spread over several thousand squarem. At 4200m, some extra acclimatisation is no bad thing. We spent the next day resting, eating, and strengthening the guy-lines which anchored our tent to the ground. We built a high windbreak with as many large boulders as we could find. Clean water was obtained from a small pipe the rangers had jammed into a glacier. To get to the water, we had to hop and jump rocks across a stream and walk about 300m from our tents. Returning with filled water bags was trickier. Since my balance sucked, this was Wilfred’s job. I did chores around our tent.

For those more used to Himalayan expeditions, all these mundane and energy-sapping tasks are usually fulfilled by cheerful and eager local staff and cook-boys. Here, none existed, and our plans to climb the mountain would be wholly on our own efforts – including water carries. I quickly made acquaintances with some teams around base camp. A pair of American college professors proved to be helpful and friendly. I dropped in on them as they were drying off some gear and sorting a load carry. I looked at their supplies. A huge mess of freeze-dried food mingled with door-wedge blocks of cheese, meat and packets of biscuits. Inside their tents (they had one each), they slept on a combination of inflatable mattresses and closed-cell foam mats. John and Denis were chatting whilst sorting out their stuff.

“Hey John! You want this cheese?”
“Naw, we got enough, And those olives can stay, we don’t need that.”
“You going to eat all that?” I asked hopefully.
“Naw… if you want some you can take it. We just didn’t want to run short, y’know. That’s why we had two mules to carry our stuff up. How ’bout you?”
“We had one mule,” I replied, gratefully stuffing my jacket with the half loaf of excellent Argentine bread, cheese and olives.

One thing was certain, Wilfred and I wouldn’t be hungry for long.
That afternoon, we divided our supplies based on the number of nights we expected to stay high. The plan was to make one carry to an Advance Base Camp (ABC) at 5100m, and from there make a push to 5900m, and then to the summit. Getting to ABC was a meandering hike that offered a choice at the final slopes – a loose, scree path or a field of penitentes.
The ‘penitent ones’ were named after their resemblance to people in prayer. To us, they were unusual snow formations comprising a field of snow which had melted to form tightly packed rows of ice shafts. You could not walk on them, only around and between them. We chose the scree field. But the higher we got, the looser the ball-bearing like gravel became. On many occasions I had to take six steps to get a step higher. Then at about noon, the wind from Aconcagua hammered us. Each blast sent fine grit into our clothing and eyes. I stopped, and dropped my head each time until the gust petered out. Near the top, an enormous gust barrelled in and slammed into me. I could hardly believe it as I was, in my stationary position on the loose sand, physically pushed a metre down the path by the sheer force of the wind.
The only water source at the 5100m camp, a tiny stream, was frozen solid. The winds persisted, making the setting up of a tent a miserable task. I threw myself into the tent and went into a spreadeagled position so it would not go airborne as Wilfred staked out the corners. Once secure, we left some rocks inside to weight it and scrambled back down to base camp.

Strong winds slapped our tents from 5am the next morning, I peered out to see base camp dusted with some light snow. Worse of all was the wind. It thundered down the glacier like a freight train and rattled our tent, making further sleep impossible. We could anticipate the gusts, grabbing the tent pole from inside the tent to stabilise the thin nylon walls as the wind pounded us.

Despite the wind and Wilfred protests, I thought we could make a trip to ABC. We left at seven and slowly leaned into the wind. Twenty minutes later, we were hit from various directions with strong gusts. I was carrying a full load for our summit bid and had the aid of two skipoles. And yet, these were for nothing. In a space of five minutes, I was bum-rushed twice by the wind. My sore bottom and amazement were sufficient signs that it would be suicide to continue. We returned, very sober, from failed trip. Till this day, I have no idea exactly how fast the winds were, but they were stronger than any I had encountered in my ten years of climbing, even stronger than any I had experienced on Everest.
“This mountain eats tents for breakfast,” I said.


All through the day, the winds rattled and pummelled our small nylon shelter. Nearby, a strong expedition tent was in shreds, the wind having slowly picked it apart. Further towards the river, a poorly reinforced tent whose owners were absent was also a goner. The winds had ripped the outer shell almost completely off, making the dome-shaped structure looked like a freshly skinned creature. Snow drifts whipped around the miserable campsite. Occasionally a streamer of toilet paper whipped about in the winds.
“Hope I don’t run into one of those,” I said, taking a snapshot of the ruins around us.
That night, we finished packing all that we needed for our summit push. We carried about a week of food that included noodles, potato mash, energy bars, powdered drinks, four gas canisters, a litre of benzine for the pressure stove, a camera each and the small back up tent. This was a Macpac tent made from just one layer of a windproof, breathable fabric and just two poles. The floor space inside did not exceed the size of a queen-sized bed. And there was only one entry and exit point. It was so small, if you smiled, your teeth touched the walls.
“Damn! We shouldn’t have set up the North Face tent up there,” Wilfred said.
“Well, we guyed it well. I’m only worried that there aren’t enough things inside to weigh it down. Those small boulders aren’t that heavy.”
“Ya, but what if we go up and find it has gone to Chile?”
“There’s always the Macpac.”
We slept well, troubled only by the fact that tents as strong as our North Face tent were being decimated at base camp.
If I was carrying about 20kg, Wilfred was easily heaving 30. We set off again on the 13th and made good time, taking half and hour off our previous time by mid-morning. Soon, we were grabbing hold of, and squirming our way past the dense forest of chest high ice shafts – the penitentes.
My diary says:
“Instead of the yucky scree, we chose to ascend by the penitentes on the left. Hard going with feet sliding off many sections of glassy ice overlaid with a dusting of gravel. Still, better than the scree in moving upwards. Also, no wind in our faces!
We got to the top (ABC) after about four and a half hours, tired but OK. Biting cold. Stream frozen. But best of all, the North Face is 100% OK – almost unbelievable considering the ferocity of the winds. Piling in, our cocoon of comfort makes us happy.”


The hour-long flight from Buenos Aires to Mendoza was uneventful. Below, the consistent, dull brown landscape was a reminder we were in the middle of scorching summer. The heat shimmered off the tarmac as we made our way off the runway and caught a taxi into Mendoza.

Mendoza was born when settlers used irrigation techniques to turn what was a desert into a thriving provincial centre. Today, the million inhabitants of Mendoza are in the heart of the agricultural centre of Argentina. Often known as the bread basket of Argentina, Mendoza is also famous for its tangy, bitter-sweet oranges, marmalade, and stupendously heady wines. Most striking are its streets, almost all lined with enormous, mature poplar trees. These provide excellent shade in the summer, and enhance the charm of this small city. But they are also a product of a clever underground irrigation system where street drains provide water to the trees’ root systems. However, missing steel grates that cover many drainage points also make falling headfirst into these dark holes really easy, especially since most of them are right by the side of the pavements.

Permits for climbing Aconcagua had to be obtained in person, and this, with some shopping for cheap groceries, took up most of a day. The Argentinians obviously prefer their meat fresh and there was a poor selection of meats, canned or otherwise. Some dried sausages got thrown into our basket with some fresher stuff for the following day’s lunch. We could not find any instant noodles, nor could we find any peanut butter for the climb ahead. They did, however, have about a half dozen brands of dulce de leche. This concoction deserves a mention as probably one of the most unctuously sweet stuff you might ever encounter, and might almost turn you into a diabetic overnight. It comes as a thick paste and is made from a 50:50 mixture of the freshest, creamiest milk and sugar. The two come together like conspirators and are slowly cooked until a sticky condensed milk is produced. Some versions are flavoured with caramel and some are au naturel. Spread on biscuits, bread or slathered over desserts, you are unlikely to find this delightfully sinful stuff anywhere else outside Argentina and, maybe, Chile.

As recommended by Gil, we booked a small but cosy room at a one-star hotel that cost us about US$20 a night. The rooftop of the ‘Internationale’ was a hotplate during the day, so drying off any handwashed clothing took only an hour – a useful feature for any hotel housing hygiene-challenged mountaineers. Gil turned up on the evening of the second day, smiling rather awkwardly as we met each other for the first time. He had twinkling blue eyes and thinning white hair; cut close to his scalp. So after three years of correspondence, we now had a face to the name. Over fugazza, a type of pizza without the tomato sauce base, we planned the following week’s climbs.

Gil knew of a small range about 100km from Mendoza called Cordon del Plata or the Silver Thread. Few foreign climbers ever ventured there; preferring to go direct to Aconcagua. There were several 5000m peaks which would be ideal as a warmup for Aconcagua. Unfortunately, Gil had only enough vacation time for this part of the trip, and would not join us for Aconcagua. He did, however warn us about the Cordon.

“So, why is it tricky to do the climbs in the Cordon before going to Aconcagua?”
I asked, knocking back some Quilmes, a refreshing local lager.
“Some people, they go to the Cordon. They climb Plata and then Vallecitos, then they come back to Mendoza. Then they go home.”

“Why? Why didn’t they continue their climb on Aconcagua?”
“They too tired.”
A day later saw us scrambling up the slope to the Refugio CUDA. Turning back, we waved to our mini-van driver and watched, as he zig-zagged his way down the switchbacks. He would be back to a beer in Mendoza within two hours. The refugio, or alpine hut, was a lovely stone building with wooden floors and bunks, and was owned by a local university’s climbing club. Pepe, the young guardian gave us some more pertinent information of the terrain ahead, in between his sessions of practicing sempoyan, a kind of pan pipe from Bolivia. Our goal was to acclimatise by climbing Cerro Vallecitos (5770m). It was here that Wilfred and I began to get to grips with a few more aspects of Latin American culture. Gil and Pepe were big on drinking mate (ma-tay), a kind of green tea. This is a common tea in the area around northern Argentina, Paraguay and southern Brazil though its popularity is widespread.

Unlike leaf-based Oriental green teas, both the stems and the leaves for mate are dried or processed together. Tea blends containing a higher proportion of leaves give a more distinctly stimulating drink. A handful of the pale beige-green powdered mixture would be put into a traditional, tear-drop shaped vessel. Hot water would be added, after which a bomba would be inserted. The bomba is, by tradition, a pure silver straw with a small cloth bag filter at one end. A few sips are taken and then when empty of tea, more hot water added and the vessel passed around.

“You first David, and then Wilfred drinks,” said Gil, grinning at our curious looks. I held the smooth cup and instinctively agitated the contents with the bomba.

“No! No! No!” said Gil, his palms held outwards in mild horror.
“No stir, just drink,” he finished.

Over the next two days, we hauled our loads up the trail towards Salto, our final campsite, laden with a week of supplies. The loads Beng and I carried also included an extra 4kg from the double-layer, insulated plastic mountaineering boots. Gil was travelling lighter, taking a risk by trekking up and climbing in a pair of uninsulated leather boots. We passed some charming gurgling streams and alpine meadows high with the smell of flowers. In fine weather we camped for two nights and acclimatised at the Grande Piendente (Big Rock) campsite. On the first evening, just before the sun went down, I heard a screeching bark that I had never heard before fill the air. I looked up and spotted several slim-legged animals.
“Guanacos!” said Gil.

The llama-like animals came within 15m of our campsite. They sniffed around a bit, lifted their elegant heads, and checked us out before scampering up the nearby scree slopes in effortless fashion. Although protected by law, Beng and I wondered, in true Singaporean style, if they tasted good. At a distant, a scurrying shape was later identified as a chinchilla , and I noted that their fur coats looked better on them than on humans. Another friendlier visitor was a mountain mouse that enjoyed our leftovers. It would dart out of its hole to grab some food we left in a very small pile by a rock, and then scuttle back to eat it before repeating the process. I delighted in these sights and sounds. Often, they remained enduring memories of a climb.

The evening before we left Grande Piendente, we were joined by three climbers. They all looked like they were in their 50s. They were planning to do a steep, technical route on the south face of Cerro Plata, the only 6000m peak in that cirque of mountains. The white-haired leader excused himself as he ran off to a river nearby to fetch two large
containers of water for his tired team mates. When he returned, we began chatting, my Spanish improving on a daily basis. He was an Italian-Argentine, and had emigrated to Argentina after the war. He proudly yanked out his old Italian army regimental flag, announcing how he hoped to carry it to the summit. Gil and I shot each other a quick look, and decided, out of politeness, not to ask him whether he had fought for Mussolini or the Allies in the last war. The friendly chap also related how he had only been climbing for a few years, and had how he met his fifty-something year old climbing partners.

“And how old are you now?” asked Gil.
“Seventy seven.”
Next morning, Mr. Seventy Seven and all of us began the slow trudge up to Salto at 4100m, the final campsite before we made a summit push on Vallecitos. We soon left behind what little grass there was, and were now truly in the alpine zone. Clouds swirling about partly obscured Cerro Rincon, a pretty 5000m peak. Not having carried 25kg up a mountain for a long time made the going a bit harder for me. As I tired, I noticed how I would rock my pelvis more and more with each step. What I was instinctively doing as my legs tired was to hitch my pelvis up with each stride; ‘throwing’ my leg forward with my hips instead of lifting it as a normal person would do.

Halfway up the dusty trail, I met Mr. Seventy Seven who was alone and taking a
short break.

“Where are your other friends?” I asked, in halting Spanish.
“Somewhere down there”, he said, waving in the general direction of where we had trekked up. They were a long way from us.

Soon after, he caught up with me and passed me. It seems age is never a barrier for climbers.
There were about six tents at Salto when we arrived. From the other climbers, we learned that about a metre of snow had fallen about a week ago, but most of this had melted away. Gil gave a sigh of relief, and the summit was planned the next day. Despite our concerns about the rapid ascent from Salto, it was felt the risk worth taking as the good weather would not last. I looked up at the steep south face of Vallecitos. It was laced with delicate ribbons of ice and snow. To the left from my view, a less intimidating route wound its way up a pass before taking a more direct line to the rounded nub that was the summit.

We got started just before 6:30am. We left our plastic boots behind since the route was supposed to be clear of much ice and snow.

“Additional training weight!” said Wilfred, laughing at how we had carried up an additional 4kg of ‘useless’ gear for three days.

Zig-zagging up the path, the faint trail eventually took us up a spiny ridge with a couple of scrambling sections. At a distance, the edge of the sky turned a bright egg-yolk as streaks of orange heralded the new day. By the time I got to the pass at about noon, the winds were gusting south at about 100km/h. Despite the blue skies and sunshine, I shivered, the icy fingers of the wind exploring and exploiting any chink of weakness in my nylon jacket. Occasionally, a plastic toggle at the end of a small cord on my jacket would whip around, stinging my cheek with irreverence.
Moisture and clouds coming in from the north were pummelled back, and there was a strange atmospheric condition where the clouds from the north could be seen swirling and curling around the edge of the southwest ridge, but never being able to flow over it because of the strong winds in the opposite direction. What made up for the bitter cold was the first view all of us had of the enormous bulk of Aconcagua at a distance. The 2000m south face plunged straight down, and a growing lenticular or mushroom-shaped cloud over it suggested high winds over there as well. Which ever way you looked at it, it was big.

I reached for my water bottle. I shook the container, cocooned inside a half-inch of insulating foam. There was no familiar and welcoming sloshing sounds.

Instead, a raspy noise from inside told me that the water had turned into slush. It was difficult to chug down the icy mess without my throat clenching involuntarily from the cold grip of the drink. I was miles way from the humid shores of Singapore, and a slushy was not welcome here.

I plodded on, placing one foot in front of the other. I was wearing only a couple of thin layers underneath my Gore-Tex jacket and began to suffer from cold exhaustion. This vicious cycle can happen when you get tired and slow down. As your body loses heat from the cold, you are unable to exert yourself further. Then you get colder, and the cycle continues.

Ahead, I could see two dark specks – Gil and Wilfred who were about 300m ahead of me. A faint trail through the rock and fine scree snaked downwards to me. Above, the summit block beckoned. I reached them at about 1pm, and took a deep breath, stripping off the jacket to add another, warmer layer underneath. I needed more fire in my furnace and sucked down an energy gel for good measure. The sticky, sickly sweet stuff oozed into my mouth reluctantly. Though freeze-resistant, in extreme cold, just about anything with moisture would solidify. I felt better after about 15 minutes. Soundlessly, Gil, Wilfred and I shook hands. It had been a relatively easy climb, but it was our first summit together, and that was important. 2nd February, 2000 marked yet another milestone in my comeback.

Descending, we met our Argentinian friends who had decided to camp a bit higher than at Salto. They offered us fully charged bottles of Tang and took photos with us. Long after the moments on a summit are forgotten, the simple kindness of strangers and friendships made on the hill will always stay with me.

At Salto, we celebrated the Chinese New Year. After a slap-up dinner of reconstituted potato mash and corned beef, we munched on some chocolate. The cold brown slabs took a while to snap into smaller pieces but they soon warmed inside our hungry mouths. Then it was time to immerse Gil in some Chinese culture. As it was impossible to carry all the traditional delicacies from Singapore, we had packed a small selection of dried mango slices (stained red for luck), salted peanuts, and the de rigeur ‘bak kwa’ – honey roasted pork slices. In the New Year, there is also a tradition of giving away
red packets (hong bao) or envelopes containing cash, usually to children or young, unmarried adults.

“What are these?” Gil asked, pointing at the small red envelopes we had brought up.
“Well,” I said, barely suppressing a smirk. “The tradition is like this… I give you a red packet. You put some money into it and give it back to me.”

Gil raised his eyebrows and proceeded to fish around the tent for some cash.
Wilfred and I had by then collapsed in a heap somewhere, laughing hysterically.
“We could get rich this way,” Wilfred said, grinning from ear-to-ear.

We decided to spend an extra day at Salto to further acclimatise, while Gil was to make his way back on his own down the trail. We would re-unite at Mendoza. When we did descend, I faced one of my biggest fears – the steep, hard-packed scree slopes just before Salto. Descending was much harder than scrambling up. The packed earth was covered with an ultra-fine dusting of gravel. Like tiny ball-bearings, it made the down-climbing part tricky, especially with a pig strapped between your shoulder blades. Inevitably, I was to suffer a number of bum slides and minor falls; including one which snapped my left ski-pole. Wilfred generously offered me his own, making do with the shortened stump of my broken pole.
Worse, the descent and unavoidable toe-jamming led to black toenails and a few nasty blisters. Mendoza was a pretty sight, but not as good as an ice-cold Quilmes.

David Lim’s comeback climb from total paralysis and disability

Located in South America, Aconcagua stands tall in the Andes Mountain range.

David Lim and Tok Beng Cheong summited the highest peak in the American continent on 19 Febuary 2000. This was the second summit attempt, the first was two days earlier which failed because of strong winds. The route they took is known as the Polish Traverse.

David says, “On Aconcagua, you’re on your own, you have to do everything and it’s a harder route than a normal route. And overall, I found it physically harder than any other expedition I’ve done.And to raise the bar for SIngapore climbing, we opted not to use guides, porters, or choose the easiest route”

The duo climbed alpine style, carrying a 25kg load and climbing with no support except for a mule who helped carried food and equipment to the base camp of the mountain. It was a 50km hike across a beautiful terrain and four river crossings before reaching the base camp. In the journey, David has literally worn out a heel-support orthotic for his right foot. David recounts that while he has recovered from his nervous-system disorder, the mountain remains a significant challenge.

For David, Aconcagua, “…is a return to the big mountains of the world …it has given me great confidence for the future in terms of getting back into the business of serious mountaineering.”

Beng Cheong packing food for the final summit attempt.

Having scrambled eggs is a special treat for David, especially after carrying these eggs for over 50km to base camp.

Dave’s orthoses taking a beating on the climb


David with the flag of the Society for the Physically Disabled. A Singaporean charity, the society seeks to provide meaningful lives for the disabled in Singapore.The duo summitted at 530pm, Feb 19th , 2000

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