||...continued from Part 3...
Summit day, January 26th, dawned bright and clear...and COLD! One of our team had a thermometer hanging off their tent in the night, and the temperature at 6am touched 40 below...without windchill! Luckily the morning was mostly calm as we all slowly struggled into our down gear and stuffed high-energy snack food into our summit packs. Even as we puttered around camp at 7am, other climbing teams approached from lower camps. Our Camp IV is considered a rest-stop by most other outfitters, who begin their summit-days from our Camp III. Having this camp not only gave us an extra day of acclimitizing, but cut down on the length of summit-day dramatically. Rather than a 16-18 hour, leave-at-midnight marathon, our summit day would only be 7-9 hours, and we were able to leave in full daylight.
And it was somewhere around 8:00am when we headed out of camp for the summit. One member of our team, Tony (a fellow Coloradan) opted not to join us for summit day. He woke up feeling sick, dizzy and disoriented, and knew at once that a summit bid wasn't to be. As much as we were all disappointed he couldn't come, we were also all impressed and proud of him for making that kind of a call.
The summit day pace was incredibly slow and deliberate...everyone pressure breathing and rest-stepping to maximize the efficiency and minimize the exertion on the body. By 9:30am we had switchbacked along a moderate trail several times and climbed past 21,000'. We stopped and took a rest at the remains of the site known as Independencia - an old A-frame hut, slowly disintegrating over time. The hut itself is never used, but the area is occasionally used for an extra high camp by some.
From Independencia, the trail climbs steeply for 100' or so up a snowy slope to a long traversing ridge that leads to the base of a steep gulley known as the Canaleta. The traverse begins very mellowly, but steepens into tight switchbacks as it approaches the Canaleta. What makes it truly challenging is the wind...it blows over this ridge almost constantly, adding to the overall difficulty of the climb. We had it blowing across our path right-to-left at a consistent 20-25mph all morning long, with gusts hard enough to make a person stumble every now and then. Any exposed skin got frostbitten or frost-nipped within minutes here, and several of us ended up with that very thing on small patches of face not covered by goggles or balaclavas.
At the base of the Canaleta (about 21,900') is a small overhang that is mostly out of the wind, and an ideal place for a prolonged break. The summit is somewhere around 2 hours from this spot, and we dropped our packs to lighten the load a bit, stuffing water bottles and snackfoods in the pockets of our down parkas. The climb up the Canaleta was easily the most physically grueling part of summit day, as 800' of altitude is gained via steep switchbacks and rocky steps. At this point it takes 3-4 breaths for every step. Thankfully the wind was actually lighter higher up, and the noontime sun was enough to take the edge off the chill above 22,000'.
Finally, the last obstacle was the Guanaco ridge...a mostly mellow ascending traverse for the last couple hundred feet to the summit. While the views up here are spectacular, most of us were far too focused on the task at hand to notice the forever-views, the abnormally dark-blue sky (the kind you only get at this altitude) or the spectacular ridge we were climbing on. I, too, was focused on just climbing and breathing, but having the presence of mind to pull out my camera from time to time and letting it marvel at the scenery around me.
At about 2:30pm I turned a small corner of the ridge and...there wasn't any more ridge. I had made the summit and was suprised by how fast it seemed to come up. With the rush of adrenaline at the realization, I was finally able to look around and truly absorb this place, as the Andes stretched out as far as I could see to the north and I could see the hazy Pacific Ocean off to the west. Nearby was the huge South Face, dropping 9000 feet at crazy angles. The summit was a huge, flat expanse...kind of reminding me of Longs Peak in that regard. An old iron cross had been brought up somewhere in the past, and it was now wrapped in prayer flags. Beyond that was a battered weather station that I couldn't figure out if it was working or not.
For about a half hour we relaxed, hugged, took picture after picture and generally celebrated our achievement...and I personally did feel a BIG sense of achievement. A new personal altitude record, including highest camp and the fact that I'd been carrying 40-50 lb loads up to 20,600'. And here on summit day, I felt great! So yeah, I indulged myself in a few minutes of pride up there.
By 3:00pm, it was time to head down. A gave myself a mental kick or two to get focused again...the mantra "the climb is optional, the descent is mandatory" is never far away when I climb. So, a few more hours of focus to get back to camp. And the descent to camp was very uneventful. The afternoon was warm and mostly calm. We all hiked down at our own pace, and a couple of us were the first ones back to camp, where we were grateful for a warm sleeping back, some hot soup and the knowledge that we'd made it.
Now, we just had to gut out a couple more days to get back to civilization.
...on to Part 5 - Descent