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The basic rule on a mountain like Aconcagua is: don't fall. On a normal rock climb you have the freedom to be daring. Falling is part of the game, and you have equipment to save you in case you do. Besides, friends are near, so you can shout for help. You're not likely to get stuck overnight and freeze. There's no ice running down the cracks. There isn't a 50-pound pack on your back. You're not breathing air so thin it feels like sandpaper in your throat. But at 18,000 feet, the luxury of a mistake is gone, particularly in a small group. On a big climb you simply must not fall.
The party made far less progress the second day than on the first. At the base of the Sandstone Band, a steep cliff more than 1,000 feet high, they carved out a ledge in an ice field and spent the night. From there they could see the summit.
How can it be 4,000 to 4,500 feet above us? My altimeter reads only 17,000 feet. It has to be I wrong or we'd have 5,800 feet to go. Nothing makes sense at this altitude.... Surely we must be on Mars or at least the Moon. I feel mountain lassitude today. Dull, insipid thought patterns.
The Austrians have a dramatic term for the part of a mountain above 18,000 feet: The Death Zone. At approximately 18,000 feet the effects of altitude become pronounced. Hypoxia, or oxygen starvation, can lead to the three major manifestations of altitude illness: acute mountain sickness, high-altitude pulmonary edema and cerebral edema. Of the three, acute mountain sickness is the most common. It is characterized by headaches, nausea and vomiting, weakness, shortness of breath and impaired judgment, all thought to be the result of the swelling of the brain and the thickening of the blood. Acute mountain sickness is rarely fatal, though; like a bad hangover, its victims sometimes wish it was. Pulmonary edema is characterized by coughing blood, and cerebral edema by blindness and hallucinations; both can lead to coma and death.
Although acute mountain sickness is the least lethal manifestation of altitude illness, it is potentially the most serious when it comes to mountaineering. Climbers worry most about impaired judgment. They can tolerate the discomfort of headaches and nausea, but an inability to make simple decisions may threaten their lives.
"You first begin to notice the brain fade in your reactions," says Connor. "Everything is slowed down, mentally as well as physically. If you saw a crevasse suddenly break open in front of you, it would take you three seconds to react as opposed to half a second when you're down lower. Above 18,000, you're in a race with time. You're trying to get your objective accomplished and get back down while you can still function."
We do four hard pitches [rope lengths] in the Sandstone Band, very hard with packs. Chuck does two hero leads. Then a fairly substantial afternoon storm closes in & it looks like a repeat of the previous epic bivvy. I grab the rope, drop my pack & start scooting up some narrow rock fingers until they run into water ice. It's about 6:00 pm & no bivvy ledge in sight. Where the H———do you sleep around here? I lead up to the base of the ramp leading to the Ice Balcony (I think; by now I'm not sure of anything on this mountain!) then back down to a powder arête. I promised Guy a Hat place to lay down & so it shall be. I stamp out a platform in the snow & bring the boys up. Both near hypothermia. We get settled about 9:00 pm dead tired & needing 'liquid & food badly. Force ourselves to cook & melt snow. Without liquid we will be wasted for the next day. The [freezedried] shrimp Creole just stuck in my gullet. Each bite had to be forced down with numbing fingers and a growing nausea. I'm near nodding off at each bite but I grind it out to within the last couple of bites. Guy develops a bad headache & numb feet. Chuck got snowblind sometime this afternoon so we have to watch him. He is in great pain. Evening views from this space platform over the Central Andes are incredible. Unfortunately we were too concerned with survival to fully appreciate them.
I lead off heading for [a] snow ramp & boom! My right leg disappears into a void. I look down into an evil hole about 10 ft. wide with no bottom. I'm suspended by a rotten snow bridge. With Guy pulling mc backward & a frantic ice axe arrest I'm able to roll back out of it. It does block the path to the ramp however so I'm forced to do some rather desperate moves over a steep ice wall to get back onto the ramp. Very hard with pack on! Ramp leads to a notch above a small ice nose. (Great climbing at last!)