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8 Things I Learned At 22,841 feet on the Summit of Aconcagua

Sweat, sunburns, pride, and patience - a recipe for success.

By: Rachel Davidson + Save to a List

I kicked off my New Year by spending three weeks climbing the tallest mountain in the Western Hemisphere: Cerro Aconcagua in Argentina. At a towering 22,841 feet, almost 7,000 meters, its summit only contains 40% of the oxygen found at sea level. This altitude was new territory for me, and every step of the way, I felt my strength challenged.

Extended mountaineering expeditions teach you more than just what it’s like to reach a big summit: They help you overcome the substantial mental and physical hurdles that accompany sky-soaring elevations.

This article is a compilation of the thoughts, fears, and lessons I came to learn from high, high above the clouds.

1) Mountaineering is seriously hard work.

The very first thing I learned from this trip was from before it even began. My training regimen for Aconcagua included 15-mile runs and hours of lugging a weighted backpack up and down sets of stairs. Since climbing demands so much out of your back, core, and leg muscles, building endurance beforehand is key.

My preparation for our mountain expedition was just as difficult as climbing the mountain itself. Of course, there’s a lot more that goes into the physical strain that mountaineering inflicts on your body. A lot of it is unseen.

2) Altitude feels different on different mountains.

Before this trip, I didn’t realize how much influence that temperature, barometric pressure, and latitude has on the body’s reaction to thin air. Because the troposphere layer of Earth’s atmosphere is wider at the equator than at the poles, the farther away from the equator, the lower the air pressure will be at any given altitude. That means that 19,000 feet on Aconcagua is going to feel very different than the same altitude on Kilimanjaro, which sits next to the equator.

This all just reinforces the importance in allowing your body to adjust as slow as possible to higher elevations. Acclimatization may be a process that you can’t see, but it’s one that you can’t succeed without.

3) Altitude doesn’t discriminate.

Young, old, man, woman, ultra marathoner, or casual 5k jogger – you’re just as likely to experience some form of altitude sickness when you venture above 8,000 feet. In fact, it was some of the youngest and strongest people in our group who ended up sick because they went too fast without realizing it.

Check out the article 7 Tips for High Altitude Hiking for a breakdown of the risks, ailments, and symptoms climbers may encounter up high.

4) Your mind may play tricks on you.

Altitude does funny things to the brain. It can distort distance and time, fatigue or hunger. It can make you feel high as a kite, and it can make you feel sick as a dog. On our summit day, I could’ve sworn we were half an hour from the top – for more than two hours. Another night in camp, everyone was stunned to realize we’d stayed in the mess tent much longer than we’d expected, laughing and joking for hours after sunset

That’s another thing altitude tricks you into: Everything seems unbelievably, hilariously funny. Let the good times and the bad jokes roll.

5) Weather is predictably unpredictable.

Even with today’s meteorological technology, it’s still nearly impossible to accurately forecast weather in an alpine environment. We watched for lenticular clouds, paid attention to the tint of the sunset, and detected the direction of the wind… and still ended up surprised.

This worked in our favor on summit day. We were expecting to trudge through 50 mph winds up to the top, and were greeted by clear, windless bluebird skies. But not everyone can expect to get as lucky as us.

6) Being tent-bound can be really boring.

I couldn’t believe that I was the only one out of three groups who’d had the foresight to bring a deck of cards to the high-altitude camps. In any alpine environment, climbers should expect inevitably bad weather – and this means waiting out storms for days on end, trapped in a tent, with only company and playing cards in your favor.

This is one of the countless reasons as to why half of the challenges a climber faces up high are all in their head.

7) Patience goes a long way.

Forget the physical challenge; the toughest part of our expedition came from the mental battles each of us faced every day. Fighting through the internal protests of: “I’m too cold,” “I’m too tired,” “I’m not cut out for this.” Breaking the opposing mental walls of agony and boredom, seeing past the easy way off the mountain and silently suffering through the discomfort.

When all is said and done, I credit our success to patience. We wouldn’t have shown up if we weren’t physically fit enough for the task at hand, but we wouldn’t have succeeded if our mental and emotional strength didn’t stand up to the challenge.

8) It’s all worth it.

The freezing temperatures, the howling wind, the uncertainty and fear and stress that plagued me below… they were all worth it in the end. Because when I was standing on the top, all I could feel was pride, gratefulness, and joy.

The answer to “why?” is a tough one, and something that climbers can only answer once they’ve reached their first summit. Whether it’s a local hill or a far-off peak, get out there and try it for yourself – so you can find your own answer.

For more on my experiences up high, read the blog post I wrote about Finding Patience and Pride at 22,841 feet.

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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