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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.

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