Thursday, July 24, 2014

Adios Andes

  • 3 countries, 34 days
  • 14 different hotel rooms and 8 camp locations
  • 57,693 feet in altitude climbed, and...
  • 1 amazing photo of our new amigo Marcelo, racing in the wheelchair that we were privileged to deliver to him:

Marcelo Mansueto, Lima, Peru - competing with determination in his first race in his new chair!

The last five weeks have certainly been an exciting whirlwind journey that has very much lived up to its label: Ambitious Adventure to the Andes. After spending 14 days over 13,000 feet and at an average elevation of 10,900 feet for the duration of our South American trip, we are now home, happy to be back at sea level again. We are also once again enjoying the many comforts and conveniences we left behind, and taking stock of the many photos and memories we brought back. ...along with a few bruises that Denise brought back as souvenirs from Chimborazo!  She is healing very nicely by the way, and thank you all for your interest, comments and concerns.

It's times like these that we appreciate what we have, the functionality of our bodies and the amazing things they can do and places they can take us. Sometimes we take our bodies for granted and forget the miraculous gift we were given. The Challenged Athletes Foundation and its inspirational athletes who overcome disability or loss of limb, serve as a wonderful reminder to the rest of us to use the gifts we were given. And for all of you who have given the gift of sport and mobility by supporting the CAF and its mission, we thank you. And we also thank you for following along on our journey through this blog.

Until the next adventure, we wish you all the best in the continued climb to your S.U.M.M.I.T. ! 
Buena Suerte!
- Paul & Denise
Base Camp below Nevado Sajama, Bolivia
One of our llama friends at Machu Picchu

Monday, July 21, 2014

Chimborazo Bruise'n

Chimborazo view with Vicuña in foreground - Sat. July 19 before storm
What started out as a perfect summit night with a star-filled sky and no wind, turned out to be the calm before the STORM. At 11:07pm after a few hours rest and "breakfast" we walked out of the refugio at 15,748 feet behind our guide Fausto, with all of our gear and enthusiasm in tact. 

As we steadily gained altitude we actually commented to one another how lucky we were to finally have ideal climbing weather. ...not long after the wind appeared. We were climbing the Castillo Route and by the time we reached the ridge line around 18,500 feet above the "castle" shaped rock tower, the wind had intensified into a full-force winter storm. 

We decided to continue on a bit in hopes of the wind abating but it only grew stronger. Around 2:30am, after Denise was almost knocked over by a powerful gust, we decided it was too dangerous to continue. 

The wind persisted as we descended back down the route and we estimated the gusts at 70-80+MPH. About halfway to the refugio and shortly after we unroped and removed our crampons, it happened. A strong gust blowing from behind, combined with a mixture of downhill rock and ice illuminated only by a headlamp, caused Denise to slip and fall! She tumbled forward letting out a scream and rolled downhill! Since we just untied ourselves from the climbing rope there wasn't much I could do other than watch from behind in pure terror. 

Fortunately, the rocks prevented her from rolling too far, but they also inflicted quite a bit of pain to multiple places on her body.  After assessing the damage and realizing nothing was broken, she regained her composure and we continued the downhill march slowly.  By 5am we finally reached the refugio and took shelter as the storm raged on. A few other groups were also on the mountain, all of them retreated as well, including two Germans whose tent was ripped and flattened by the wind. 

After daylight, we gathered our gear, took this photo of the mountain, and headed down to pamper Denise's bruised body in the comfort of a nice hotel, leaving Chimborazo to be climbed another day...  

Friday, July 18, 2014

Chimborazo Challenge

The climb up the third and final mountain of our "Ambitious Adventure to the Andes" is about to begin!  We arrived in Ecuador's capital city Quito on Wednesday and were treated to our first home-cooked meal in over a month courtesy of family friends, the Galarza/Segovia's. It was a welcomed change from eating in either a restaurant or a tent, and we enjoyed the Ecuadorian hospitality immensely! 

We now find ourselves four hours south of Quito in Riobamba, a bit tired yet ready to tackle the highest mountain in Ecuador: Volcan Chimborazo at 6,310 meters or 20,703 feet!  Our summit day will be a long one, climbing 5,000 vertical feet, so we plan to start before midnight and hope to reach the top by sunrise Sunday morninng. 
View of Chimborazo along road to Riobamba
Fun fact: Chimborazo is taller than Mt. Everest!? ¿Que? Well, apparently when measured from Earth's center, Chimborazo's close proximity to the equator and the fact that our planet bulges at the equator, makes the summit approximately 2 kilometers farther from the center than the top of Mt. Everest!

Sunday, July 13, 2014

P.S. Post-Sajama Report

The wind violently shook our tent hour after unrelenting hour since the time of our last post at High Camp. In fact it had intensified with gusts over 70MPH, making a summit attempt foolish and unrealistic. Around 7pm on Thursday evening we discussed with our guide Eloy that if the winds do not die down by 1:00am we would not go up. This was yet again a difficult decision because although we had extra contingency days built into our schedule, we learned Eloy had another climb booked and wouldn't be able to wait out the weather, so we would have to go back.

With this weighing on our minds (and that fact that Eloy told us about tents being blown off Sajama just last week) we hoped that our own tent would remain tied down, and attempted to get a few hours of sleep.

A few minutes before the 1:00am alarm was set to go off, we awoke and listened for the familiar thunderous noise of the nylon walls of our tent being thrashed by the wind. Much to our pleasant surprise, the sound was not there! With great excitement (and a bit of dread for the long ordeal of a summit day) we began the process of emerging from our sleeping bags and putting on all of our climbing gear. At 2:33am with ice axes in hand and headlamps lighting our way, we left our tents at High Camp at ~19,000 feet and followed Eloy up the mountain.
The wind remained with us but at a more manageable rate, and we wore every layer of clothing we had to keep warm. The climb was steeper and more challenging that we thought with one section in particular at ~45 degrees for several hundred vertical feet with rock solid glass-like ice that deflected the sharp end of our ice axes like it was Kevlar.

Next was about 20 minutes of rock climbing (always interesting while wearing crampons) and then into the penitentes. 

Around 6:00am and nearing 21,000 feet the dark began to turn to dawn and the climb became much easier (notwithstanding the thin air at this altitude of course!) But there were no more technical obstacles to overcome, just a steady climb, albeit with significantly labored breathing considering the last time we were at this altitude was on Everest four years ago.

The sun finally began showing its rays and cast an amazing pyramid-shaped shadow of Nevado Sajama across the valley below and projecting the image adjacent to the neighboring volcano Parinacota straddling the Chilean border. 

By 8:40am, just over six hours after leaving High Camp, we were relieved that the winds did not stop us, and we were able to reach our goal! We stood atop the highest mountain in Bolivia at 21,463 feet, and proudly raised the Challenged Athletes Foundation letters in honor of our mission. 

The rounded top and large flat area was unlike any other summit we had experienced. An interesting first-ever event took place here in August of 2001, and given the Argentina vs Germany World Cup Finals taking place today, we figured it was worth mentioning. A football (soccer) match as actually played here on the summit by two teams of Sajama villagers and Bolivian mountain guides in an effort to protest against the FIFA decision to discontinue the use of La Paz as a location to hold international football matches because of its high elevation. Adios, for now, time to watch FOOTBALL!!

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Saludos from Sajama High Camp

Our climb of Nevado Sajama is well underway and we have reached High Camp at apprx. 19,000 feet! We flew to La Paz on Tuesday, and at ~4,000 meters (~13,000 feet) it's the highest capital city in the world.
Early Wednesday morning we drove apprx 5 hours south to the trailhead at apprx. 14,500 feet (that's like driving to the top of Mt. Whitney and starting your hike up from there!)  Next it was a short 1.5 hour hike to Base Camp at ~15,700 feet where we spent a chilly night. The warming sun finally hit our camp by 8:30 and we were packed and hiking by 9:15 heading for High Camp where we are now.  We're taking shelter in our tent from the fierce wind that started blowing on our way up at 40-50 mph with gusts at least 60 mph!

Now for a few factoids: Nevado Sajama is an extinct stratovolcano and at 6,542 meters (21,463 feet) it is the highest peak in Bolivia.  The mountain is located ~ 10 miles from the border with Chile and it's located in the Cordillera Occidental range of the Andes.

We've enjoyed spectacular scenery along the way, including this group of alpacas and llamas that was kind enough to stop and pose for this photo near the base of the mountain.  Adios, it's time for us to rest and hope the wind dies down, otherwise, sadly our chances of reaching the summit may be slim. :(

Monday, July 7, 2014

Planes, Trains, Automobiles & Incas

Since we last left you we have been on the move and also had an opportunity for some R&R (& getting some laundry done) after our time up on Huascaran.  Before leaving Huaraz we had our last chance to take in the beauty of the Cordillera Blanca by hiking high above Yungay (the town completely buried by the landslide of 1970) and seeing some pristine glacial lakes. 

Laguna Llaganuco in Huascaran National Park
Next was an 8-hour bus ride south to Lima during which I managed to get some meaningful work completed on one of my oilfield service M&A deals back home along with the help of my colleague Jason Orr.  Thanks Jason!  We stayed 2 nights at a fabulously unique B&B called Second Home Peru which is the personal residence of Peruvian artist Victor Delfin who converted part of his property to a handful of guest rooms. It's perched above the Pacific Ocean high on the cliff side in the Barranco District of Lima, to us it seemed somewhat reminiscent of Santa Monica. 
In the wee hours of Saturday morning we flew to Cusco then boarded a train for a scenic 3.5 hour ride to Aguas Calientes on the banks of the Urubamba River. For those who haven't been to Machu Picchu this is the last town for visitors to stay before boarding a bus for the steep, windy road that crawls up the 2,000 foot vertical feet to the entrance of the Inca Ruins. We opted for the convenience of the train/bus rather than hiking the Inca Trail from Cusco to Machu Picchu as some do, figuring we will be hiking enough during our entire lengthy adventure. The ruins and their improbable location atop steep mountains were, simply put, AMAZING!  Watching the sunrise illuminate this fascinating creation of an ancient civilization was even more impressive. 

However, staying at the only hotel located RIGHT AT Machu Picchu, the 5-Star luxury Belmond Sanctuary Lodge, was equally impressive. We decided staying here ourselves was an important prerequisite for inspection of the property for the benefit of executives who may join us on future STEP Outdoor Adventures trips we may plan. Yes, this is a tough job but somebody has to do it. To ease the burden of this type of work, somehow we were upgraded to the Presidential Suite, the only room of its kind in the hotel with views of the ruins from the bedroom, sitting room, and the expansive private patio & lounge area. 
Jacuzzi at Sanctuary Lodge - with views of Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu
This is definitely going to make it more difficult to return to our more typical accommodation - inside a 3-person North Face tent!

Next stop and next mountain, Bolivia and Nevado Sajama.....

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Difficult Decisions

Summit attempt aborted, here are the details:
At 2:57 AM on Sunday June 29, we woke up and crawled out our warm sleeping bags and tent at Camp 1 and into the cold and dark of night.  By 4:30 AM we had our climbing harnesses, helmets, and headlamps on and we roped together and followed Nacho into the infamous and feared "Canaletta."  It was particularly daunting given the fact that the storms of the past few days left no trace of a logical path through this labyrinth of building-sized seracs and deep crevasses, but Nacho navigated our way through the dark like trailblazing pro. The waist-deep snow also presented a challenge but the three of us were strong and persevered despite a disconcerting reality: so far there has only been one successful summit of Huascaran this year. It was in May, and Nacho has estimated that 10 other expeditions have tried but failed for various reasons.

Phil Crampton from US-based Altitude Junkies was among this group and we spoke with him when we arrived at Base Camp last Wednesday (we first met Phil on Everest in 2010).  Phil told us about another team that just left the mountain as well without reaching the top, it was a Czech team on their way to Pakistan to climb K2, so he felt pretty confident of their skills and abilities, plus he said they were just tough Czechs!

Nonetheless we tried not to think of these long odds as we continued to trudge through the deep snow that was also very light and of a non-compacting, sugary consistency (i.e. avalanche-prone). Meanwhile the weather once again began to turn from good to bad and the wind picked up blowing cold snow onto our faces. All three of us independently began contemplating the decision whether we should turn around. About that time, now 6:30 AM at an altitude of approximately 18,000 feet Nacho turned to us and asked, "What do you guys think?" It was pretty obvious to all three of us that the only smart decision was to turn around, so we did.

Nacho leading us up through Canaletta near our turnaround point

Only once before in the past 12 years of climbing big mountains, have we not been able to reach the summit on an expedition. Given the conditions, it may seem to an observer that it was an easy decision to make, but from our perspective it would have been far easier to minimize the risks in our mind or hope the conditions would improve, and just keep climbing. However, it was a valuable lesson for us and reinforced the fact that we love life, and our friends and family back home far more than to take undue risk for the sake of reaching a summit.  There are many more S.U.M.M.I.T.s to reach in life!  ...couldn't resist the reference to the acronym in chapter 10 of :-)  Plus we have two more peaks to attempt in Bolivia and Ecuador as our Ambitious Adventure to the Andes continues!

 Late afternoon at C1 while weather was still nice, Canaletta in background

 Nacho and Denise plowing through snow in Canaletta with crevasses in background

 Storm clouds engulfing Huascaran several hours after turning back, confirming the right decision was made