News 2012

Title: Beanna Seacht - Aconcogua
Type: 
Date: 22/02/2012
Beanna Seacht - Aconcogua

22 February 2012

Philip Byrne, an individual member of MI, gives an account of a recent attempt by Beanna Seacht (beannaseacht.ie) on Aconcogua.

Sat Dec 31 2011

I'm all packed and ready to fly to Argentina to conquer Aconcagua, the tallest mountain in the world outside the Himalayas. We fly at 17.30 on New Year's Eve. We have five climbers, we had seven but unfortunately two had to pull out in recent weeks for personal reasons.

At 07.00 my phone rings. I answer expecting to hear Tom, Mike or Feilim on the other end with a problem but to my surprise it's Banjo. A couple of hours earlier his nephew (a little boy just 5 weeks old who was also a twin) had died suddenly at his home in Wexford. Lorna (Banjos wife) and family from the US along with Banjos 2 children were all in Wexford at the time. Banjo was about to leave Newry to join them. I met him just off the M1, took some team kit; tents, stoves and the like. I already knew I had to take an extra bag.

I decided not to tell the others until we got to the airport in the hope that Banjo might somehow make it, but the events proved too distressing for him and the whole family and he phoned to confirm he wouldn't be travelling. The rest of the team take the news well but deep down everyone is devastated for Banjo and the family. Although between us we have the skills and knowledge to make this climb a success, a group meeting over pizza before departure does little to elevate individual fears. We board on time and head for Argentina.

Mon Jan 02 2012

On arrival in Mendoza after three flights we set about planning the climb. Original plans made with Banjo get shredded - some for logistical reasons and some for costs. We hire 2 mules to take 4 x 20kg bags to Base Camp 1. This still leaves us with backpacks weighting up to 26kg.

There are three base camps on the climb. From Base Camp 3 you make your break for the summit.

Wed 04 Jan

Finally on the road to the mountain and a 3 hour bus ride in sweltering heat brings us to Las Penitents, just 30 minutes from the Aconcagua mountain official starting point. Permits were purchased back in Mendoza and tomorrow morning at 09.00 we begin.

Thurs 05 Jan

It’s a 3-4 hr trek to the first camp (Camp Confluence) with full kit. As it’s another 8 hours min to Base Camp 1 (Plaza Des Mules) we put up the tents and settle in for the night. The back packs were very heavy on the trek in, despite sending 120kg to base camp on the mules. It’s already becoming obvious we have taken too much kit (food, gas, clothes). It’s cold and wet at Confluence. No one sleeps.

The journey begins

Fri 06 Jan

We leave Confluence and head for Base Camp 1 (Plaza Des Mules). Some 8 hrs later I arrived. Probably the hardest 8 hour trek I have ever done. Mike (nicknamed the Goat) belted ahead as usual but I struggled. Only fit for bed when I arrive but we have to erect the tents first. Didn't sleep well. Felt cold and uncomfortable. My new “Down” sleeping bag feels claustrophobic when I’m properly wrapped up. Think I was just over tired as well.

Sat 7 Jan

Acclimatisation day at Base Camp 1. Blood Oxygen levels 94. Blood pressure perfect. No major altitude sickness just poor appetite and odd headache. Mike and Feilim are similar. Tom feeling lousy. Doctors a bit concerned but he got the ok to proceed. He is talking a lot about quitting so I won't be surprised if he jacks it in. Altitude is really affecting him. Doctors at Base Camp 1 advised against diamox due to extra water required. I stopped taking them today. Went for short stroll earlier. Weather is very changeable. Can get as high as 30+ during day yet I clocked -3 on during the night in the tent. I have Sunburn on my face which is very sore. Wind and cold air not helping.

Sun 8th Jan

In bed at 21.00. Skipped dinner. Tired, sunburn on face infected, heat rash on groin. We climbed to Base Camp 2 (Camp Canada) today and made a stash in our spare tent. Climb took 4.5 hrs up and 2 down. Tough going at that altitude with a full load. My knees held out well today surprisingly. The slightest twist and chances are I'm out of here by helicopter due to previous injuries. There will be no going on. It would be too dangerous. Will see how they hold out and wait until I am at Base Camp 3 (Camp Berlin) before deciding if strong enough for a summit bid. Tomorrow we return to Base Camp 2.

Mon 9 Jan

Tom bailed 30 min into our second climb to Base Camp 2. I doubt we will see him again until we descend. He was suffering badly from altitude sickness and the climb was very tough second time round. I also struggled with my kit which seemed ridiculously heavy. We got to Base Camp 2 at 6pm. Altitude was effecting me now more than Mike and Feilim. I felt ill, had headaches and no appetite. Two cups of soup then straight to bed. Didn't sleep a wink. Winds howled all night. Ear plugs were no defence and my iPod died from the cold. My water for the night froze despite being in a thermas cover!! I took some aspirin to thin blood which I hoped would help with the headache. I tossed and turned all night, afraid tent would be blown off the side of the mountain.

Tue 10th Jan

Awake all night. Cold and windy. Even my wee bottle froze. Headache still there. More tiredness than altitude I’m guessing. I’m taking a total rest/acclimatisation day today at Base Camp 1. Mike and Feilim are going on to Base Camp 2 (Camp Nido) to deposit a stash. The stash includes a tent so if they need to stay for weather or any other reason they can do so. If they both come back it's 3 to my tent which will be an unbearable squeeze.

Wed 11th Jan

The two lads made it back safely but were exhausted. I had a hot dinner ready for them. I never slept a wink on Wednesday night. Three grown men in a two man tent (tops and tails) is not exactly a good idea. We have one tent at Plaza Del Mules, one here at Base Camp 1 and the third is now at Base Camp 2. Thumping headaches all night. I could feel the veins in my head bulging and could even feel my heart beat in my eyes. I decided to descend to take an extra acclimatisation day if I didn’t improve by lunchtime.

Otherwise the plan was to break camp and head for Base Camp 2. We will acclimatise there for one or two days before heading to Base Camp 3 (Berlin) from where we would make the summit bid.

This will involve taking one tent to Camp Berlin at 6pm, rest till midnight then break for the summit. Weather permitting and how we were coping with latitude, summit day will be 8 - 12 hrs up and 6 down. We shall see. I hope Tom is OK and I am guessing that by now he is back in Mendoza by the pool. We gave him till 2pm today to get back to Base Camp 1.

Tom never showed so we headed for Base Camp 2. My headache was still there but not as bad. However after four hours, steep traversing with a heavy load on our backs my headache bursting by time we got to camp. The lads already had their tent up so I pitched mine tent in heavy snow then went to bed with a couple of paracetamol. I awoke at 8pm to find the place and tents covered in snow. I melted enough snow for 1 litre then went straight back to bed. Despite all the layers, thermals and down sleeping bags my toes were cold as I tried to sleep. I tried lobbing a handwamer into my bag liner, but to no avail. At one point I even tried squeezing my feet into my summit mits. Eventually they warmed (after I wrapped myself up tight like a cocoon) and I had actually had a few good hours sleep. Unfortunately I awoke to a headache. On its own it wasn’t serious enough to descend.

Thurs 12 Jan

Acclimatisation day today. Climbed to get a bag of snow to melt for drinking water. It’s a slow process but the white gas burner we brought is the business. Headaches not going but once again them alone are not enough to descend. Spent most of the day melting snow and resting. Three Swedish guys we befriended on day one have descended due to one of them deteriorating rapidly with severe altitude sickness. We told them to use our tent we have left at Plaza Des Mules if they need to. Another early night for us all with temperatures expected to beat last night which I clocked in my tent at -15. Everything that wasn't shoved into the bottom of my sleeping froze including my baby wipes which renders them pretty damn useless until the sun comes up.

Fri 13 Jan

The plan for today. Leave Base Camp 2 at midday. Travel light with one tent. Head to Base Camp 3 (Berlin) and aim to get there around 4-6pm. Rest in one tent till midnight them break for summit on Sat 14th in the early hours of the morning. Its 8-10 hrs to the summit then 4-6 back to Berlin. We will ideally rest for few hours once back at Berlin, then descent to Base Camp 2 or even 1 if feeling fit and strong enough, plus if weather permits. My eyes are throbbing in my head. Can feel my heartbeat in my eyes. Despite drinking 4 litres a day minimum I’m dehydrated – my tongue feels like it is going to split.

We head for Base camp 3 and on the way a snow storm kicks in. At this time we are having to use crampons and ice axe. Any trail has long been covered and we struggle not to get completely lost. We arrived at an abandoned emergency hut just below Base Camp 3. The tent is erected in heavy snow and after melting snow and trying to eat (absolutely no appetite at this altitude) we bed down for the night.

Sat 14 Jan

I awoke during the night in Base Camp 3. Cornea in right eye has split. Pain is horrendous. Recurring Cornea Abrasion Syndrome. Used all the emergency eye drops before dawn. Three in a tent at Berlin was not very comfortable. There was heavy snow outside and - 16c. Ice formed inside tent.

I can’t see through my right eye and the left is at less than 50% now. The sun, wind, cold, open, closed my eye hurts and is too serious to even try to go on to attempt the summit. Can’t describe the horrendous pain I am in but the lads can see from my actions that I am done and need to descend. The heavy snow has covered any tracks from yesterday, not that I could see them clearly anyway. To go down on my own would be suicidal.

We radioed emergency services. No chopper available today. Due to our location we are requested to make our way to the nearest Ranger station. For us, this is back at Base Camp 2. A quick meeting and its decided. Feilim will take me to the Rangers station and come back up. Mike will stay and plan the final ascent from Berlin. Feilim leads me down the mountain in heavy snow, crampons gripping the frozen ice below making our descent a speedy operation. I fall regularly though as I can’t see. The pain, frustration and disappointment of having to quit when I was probably only 8 hours from the summit leave me silent. I can’t speak. Choked with despair. I know it will take at least a week for my eye to heal enough to see properly and to expose it to this type of torrain. My 2012 attempt at summating Aconcagua is over. My journey to hospital is far from over.

We reach Base Camp 2 and the rangers inform us there is still no chopper available. They discuss options by two way radio with the doctors at Base Camp 1. They advised my evacuation immediately to Base Camp 1. Feilim heads off back up to Base Camp 3. Meanwhile three rangers - one in front, one at back and one at side escort me down to Base Camp 1. Five hours later we arrived. I had my head down all the time we were descending and all I saw (well barely say) for those five hours were my toes and the leading rangers heels. The longest 5 hours of my life. All the way I was in agony. We eventually got to Base Camp 1 just as a blizzard started. The doctors took over and the rangers returned to Base Camp 2!! A long day for them also and I can't praise them enough. The Doctor had little equipment at Base Camp 1 so he treated both eyes for snow glare as he had no way of inspecting it and didn’t listen or understand what I was telling relating to previous injuries and recurring cornea abrasions. Some people from the company we hired the mules from (Lanko) took me to their group tent and fed me and tried to take care of me. At this stage I had treatment in both eyes and could only see with 20% in my left eye and nothing in right. I retired to bed very early and I’m ashamed to say I took enough heavy duty pain killers and valium (which I had stashed in FA kit for such emergencies) to overdose. At 9pm there was still no sign of the chopper.

Sun 15 Jan

I was awoken (actually managed to sleep thanks to the valium) next morning at 09.00 to be told that the chopper is leaving in 10 mins. I scrambled a bag together with my eye still agonisingly painful. I thanked those folks that had looked after me and gave them a few items from my kit for their help and kindness. The chopper had me down in no time; however it took another 5 hrs to finally get to the hospital. The hospital doctor treated and patched the right eye and told me to come back tomorrow to see a specialist at 09.00. The doctor had little English so we communicated via Google translate :-)

I hooked up with Tom who was still in the hotel which happened to be close by. I helped myself again to the painkillers and Valium and thankfully had a good night sleep.

Mon 16 Jan

Back at hospital at 09.00 but today it's like a cattle market. The receptionist says I will be seen within an hour and despite the madness and the crowds I was seen within the hour. The eye specialist examined the eye and confirmed the cornea has/is damaged. He can't say whether it's an old injury that split open or a new one. This is a huge problem for me in terms of the Beannaseacht plans. I will be visiting my English speaking eye specialist as soon as I get home. Laser surgery is what's probably on the cards. I will need to carry better eye treatments and patches for all future climbs regardless of what treatment I get. I tried in vain to pay for the services at hospital and eventually I just walked out. They were too busy to try and assist me. Tom picked up my medication and my patches which I then had to apply for 3-5 days or until eye healed sufficiently to go about my business without a patch. I can feel the scar when I blink which is not good news.

Monday was depressing day for me as it really hit home that I wouldn't be summating Aconcagua on this trip. After all the preparation and planning. I phoned Banjo to update him and he cheered me up somewhat by saying he would come with me on the return trip, whenever that was.

I immediately started planning my return to Mendoza, at the earliest it will be Dec 2012. Possibly straight after Puncak Jaya, Indonesia; the next of our seven peak challenges.

Tue 17 Jan

By now myself and Tom were anxious for news from Mike and Feilim, who would be making their summit attempt from about 05.00 Tues morning. At bed time Tues we had no word from them. I did get a message to Base Camp 1 to inform the lads to travel light from there on the way down and to hire an extra donkey if required (as both Tom and I had left our kits behind).

All we can do is wait and hope their attempt was a safe and successful one. We spent the day planning our trip to Chile. We will head as soon as the boys get down.

Wed 18 Jan

The lads arrived back at 02.00. They got to within 300m from the summit when they decided that snow, avalanche risk and rock fall (reported to them by a group ahead of them who had turned back) made their summit bid too dangerous and they bailed. Everyone was glad that we were now all safely back at ground level but the mood is sombre…

We pack into the car and head for Chilean border where we queue for hours to be seen by officials. After everyone getting individual clearance a problem arises with the paperwork for the hired car and we are refused entry. It’s a long drive back to Mendoza. When we get there the hotel is booked out so we spend a little while driving around looking for alternatives. Finally decide to take a room in a hostel. What a dump that place was.

Thur 19 Jan

We left the hostel we stayed in last night and moved to another one. A fabulous old building but not very well maintained. Still, the staff were super friendly and it was very centralised plus they sold beer. I returned the car and got half my money back after they acknowledged the issue with border crossing. Not enough time now to visit Chile. Next time.

We stayed in the hostel until Saturday morning then checked back into the original hotel for a decent rest to prepare for our departure Sunday morning at 10.00. Already getting mails from the airline about possible delays. With the luck encountered in recent weeks we don't expect to have an uneventful trip home.

Next mountain later this year – Cartenezs Pyramid (Puncak Jaya) in Indonesia ... If all goes well we will come back to conquer Aconcagua on the same trip.........................

For more photographs of the journey visit their facebook page, link below.

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