BY TARA MIRANDA
It’s mid-morning on Feb 18th. I’m alone at 22,410 feet huddled in the “Cueva,” a rather poor excuse for a cave that provides almost no protection from the relentless, biting wind. I take shelter behind a rock and hunch in on myself trying to preserve body heat while I attend to my hands. My poor frozen endlessly painful hands. By far the most painful and difficult part of climbing Aconcagua was keeping my hands warm. I pull them out of my gloves and shove them into my armpits and try not to cry as the numbness fades into a burning searing pain.
“The pain is good- it means blood flow and circulation.”
The pain is good- it means blood flow and circulation. I wait for several minutes and look out at the vista of peaks bathed in the sunlight. The sun has risen hours ago but I am on the shadowed side of the mountain and will remain without the warmth of the sun until I reach the summit. I can see it from here- so tantalizing. So close but still a couple hours of hard effort away. I wait as long as I can for my hands to warm up and then when my core temperature drops enough to make hypothermia a real possibility, I pull my hands out, shove my gloves on, and grab my pack. Time to get moving.
“I haven’t felt my feet in several hours, my hands are still only marginally functional, I’m alone and windblown…. and ecstatic.”
A couple hours later I am on the summit. I haven’t felt my feet in several hours, my hands are still only marginally functional, I’m alone and windblown…. and ecstatic. There is something about that summit feeling- there is nothing else like it on earth. Similar to the finish line of any grueling race or athletic event- you’re tired and proud and accomplished. And something more…. There is something humbling about being among the big mountains. If I finish a triathlon, I know it’s because I worked hard. If I make it to the top of Aconcagua, I know that it is because she granted me passage. I see why native peoples deify the mountains- they are so grand, so monumental in comparison to us. At any moment I could have been turned back by weather, or altitude, or injury. An environment so harsh I could never belong here- but I am allowed to visit. And on our summit day the lady Aconcagua deigned to let us reach her heights.
“Temperature, thirst, hunger, must all be managed with precision.”
People ask me which is harder- running a 100 mile race or climbing a mountain? It’s a hard question to answer. Much is the same- the grueling nature of each endeavor, the physical and mental endurance required. In some ways racing is much harder. Even in long races you feel the grind of continuous effort and the pain of perceived exertion in a way I did not feel at Aconcagua. The physical efforts are necessarily measured due to the extreme altitude. Each day on the mountain was only a few hours of hard effort followed by a generous amount of rest. But even just trying to exist in such extreme environments is hard. The wind never stops blowing. Blizzards may come in at Camp 1 and you must set up your tents in 80 mph winds and blowing snow (true story). You’re cold ALL the time. Temperature, thirst, hunger, must all be managed with precision. It’s often, or maybe even mostly, an uncomfortable experience. But it is also transcendent, and inspiring, and beautiful in a way that makes you feel very small. And that is feeling worth chasing.