Thankfully the team are now safely off the mountain having survived some of the worst weather seen in this part of Argentina in decades. With feeling returning to their extremities and the snow brushed off their kit, the team are in Mendoza looking forward to returning home. Adaptive Grand Slam trustee Mark Slatter logged his experience of that difficult and dangerous attempt at the summit.
By Mark Slatter
Ok so this is the rest of the story culminating in some of the most harrowing weather conditions possible that surpassed that which even multi Everest summiteers, Dinali and North Pole conquers had experienced. Conditions that have not been experienced here at this time of year for over 60 years.
Summit Bid Day 1: Saturday
So we started off up to Camp 1. Loads were slightly less than the day before but still quite heavy carrying all our own personal kit including sleeping bags and mats. It started as another beautiful day but as we reached Camp 1 I realised my worst possible fears had come true. I had been teamed up with two other guys who were slightly slower than me up the mountain so there I was, stood in a little cleared area with two bright orange canvas bags. Yes I was faced with putting up our tent by myself. Nightmare.
With activity all around me I had to at least make out I was doing something so I emptied the bags , put rocks on the tent things so they didn't fly away in the wind (I remembered that there were lots of rocks involved in this tent putting up thing) and tried my hardest to remember in what order I had to do what. Rocks, big heavy rocks, I need lots of those but after you have lifted and moved a few of these, forgetting you are at some 16, 000ft , 5,000m, you get a massive head swim followed by a severe pain in the temples.
Ok so how do we get some help. I notice Andy the chief guide is helping a group of three guys next to me, so I swallow my pride and bleat. "Oi there are three of them already" He says he will help me shortly. I move the tenty type material thing into what I think is the right place and slowly put the strings attached to the tenty material thing around the rocks in the manner we were taught.
Once the tent was up our meal was a boil in the bag chicken with potatoes described by one of my tent mates as "body parts" in a broad Aberdeenshire accent! Almost put me off my meal but not quite.
Summit Bid Day 2: Sunday
Three big guys in one tent and a very cold night means massive condensation on the inside of the tent. Snow forms from the condensation and during the night falls off periodically, due to the constant battering of tent from the incessant wind, onto our sleeping bags and melts. At times you are woken up as great lumps hit you in the face and your sleeping bag is completely sodden wet by the morning. Not a great start.
We have breakfast served in our sleeping bags by our amazing guides Andy, Nico and Damien (Damien is French and was in big business but at 29 decided to come to Argentina to do his mountain guide course, met and married an Argentine girl and has stayed ever since). They wander around in sub-zero temperatures with plates of steaming porridge and nuts, dried fruit and cinnamon, offering to fill up flasks with hot water. No egos, just lovely helpful very happy people. In fact I have found all Argentines incredibly friendly lovely folk. I do think I have fallen in love with this place. The people and the geography.
Summit Bid Day 3: Monday
We move to camp 3 with all our kit. We have decided to hire some porters to lighten the load for the four injured guys to improve their chances of getting to the summit. But not for us.
We had planned to go for the summit anytime sometime between 5-8 December allowing us time to acclimatise fully first. However the long term weather forecast is so dire (this has been the worst weather for this time of year for 60 years) and we have a small window of good weather forecast for Tuesday so the decision has been made by the guides and team leader to go for the summit on Tuesday rather than have a much needed rest day and go for the summit on Wednesday or one of the planned later dates. So for this plan we will have had only one day off in 9 days, which for a 6,976m peak is a really tall order but is seemingly our only option.
It's a hard slog with full heavy packs up to Camp 3. My back gives up half way up. It's a worn disc I have lived with since my late 20's and I haven't carried this heavy a load since my days as a Royal Marine. I was worried about my hips but it's my back that means I will be breaking out the 400mg Ibuprofen tonight.
Summit Bid Day 4: Tuesday
Up at 3am. Porridge spilt all over my sleeping bag, not a great start. It's so cold and the wind is up. It's below -15C. I normally climb in one layer and a gortex jacket but today I choose 3 layers and jacket. I never feel cold on my legs so just have a pair of windproof gortex trousers. I have boots designed for the summit of Everest. I have a pair of gloves and a pair of heavy duty mittens. I have a spare down jacket on my day sack, a pair of thermals thermal long-johns and another pair of gloves and a balaclava which I leave behind in the tent. I should have worn the lot.
We set off. It's quite a steep slope to start with. I am feeling good but a bit flustered as we were served breakfast late and due to the cold it was hard to put my crampons on and I needed help. It also meant I set off with cold hands which I was trying hard to rewarm. My feet were also a bit cold because whilst I slept with my inner-boots in my sleeping bag the outers were too big and had to be left in the tent flap. Not only were they cold but filled with snow as the wind was so strong it blew the snow up underneath the tent opening.
After the first hour of what is due to be a 7 to 8 hour climb to the summit I realise I am not in such great shape. I am still not warm. My fingers and toes are cold. At the first stop I work on my feet and toes, wiggling toes and rubbing hands frantically.
After two hours I am still with the lead group. Two others have dropped off this group. Dawn is starting to appear on the horizon. I pin my hopes on the warming rays of the sun to get me to the summit.
To date I have little or no effects of altitude but now I can feel an odd pressure from behind my left eyeball and on the really steep bits am feeling a bit dizzy. I mention this to Woody, a kiwi guide who I was on Everest with in 2012 and who has summited that peak 9 times. He says this might be the onset of a cerebral edema especially if I start to get blurred vision.
I am now truly scared. A cerebral edema is the thing climbers fear the most. Basically it is a haemorrhage in the brain which incapacitates and kills. There can be little chance of rescue at this altitude as we are at some 6,200m, well over 20,000ft and this mountain rescue helicopter can only get to Base Camp so I would have to be carried down so would probably be dead by that time. I go on with significant trepidation.
I get another bout of dizziness on the next steep part. I stop. The sun is still some 30 minutes away. I am cold and frightened. I think of Annabelle and Alfie. I really don't want to die just yet but I don't want to give in, yet I feel I have to make a sensible decision. I don't need to climb this mountain. I don't have anything to prove to anyone yet all my life has been spent not giving up. I wrestle with what to do.
I call to Woody who is at the back of the leading group and is about 20m away as I have stopped. I mean to tell him I am thinking about turning back when my crampons get stuck together so I can't move. He comes back and we have to take off both crampons to free them. During that time Andy, the ex-Royal Marine amputee who is now with one of the guides, catches up and I forget to tell Woody of my intentions. Andy is in a worse state than me. I share some energy bar and water with him.
I pull myself together. I don't have blurred vision so I work on my breathing. I go from two breaths a step to three. This works. There is no more giddiness and the pain behind my left eyeball decreases. I don't have the symptoms of a cerebral edema. I now also have Andy to look after and dawn starts to break. I know it's going to be hard but I know I can make it.
We press on, we can see the light of the sun. behind us putting the climbers below us in sunlight. The leading group are some 15 mins ahead of us. We reach a small col where we are finally in the rays of the morning sun but the expected warmth is totally counteracted by the force of the wind as we come out from behind the lee. There is a windswept half derelict A-frame refuge we climb into to seek relief from the 50kmh wind blowing sub zero air into our chilled bones.
Up ahead some 30m the lead group have stopped clearly conversing. We have six international guides in our team. They have decided that conditions are too bad. We are turning around. We are some 400m in height and 3 hours from the summit it's pretty hard to take but some relief as well. We will later learn that almost all of the team are suffering from various forms of frost bite and frost nip and the amputees have their own problems of cuts and wear on their stumps.
We reach Base Camp just after 1700. Going down is especially tough on all the amputees, they have been on the move for around 12 hours. We have had one rest day in 9 days and come within 400m of summiting the highest peak outside the Himalayas in 9-days with four injured veterans.
This has been the most inspirational of trips I have been lucky enough to have been on. Nothing was left in the tank but a sensible decision was made and everyone else on the mountain that day took our lead and turned back. We discussed having another try on Saturday but various factors led Martin Hewitt to rule it out. The conditions on the route beyond our turnaround point are so bad that extra equipment would be required to ensure everyone's safety. Equipment that is never normally used. Also it would mean going straight to Camp 2 tomorrow with a double load carry and finally the weather forecast for Saturday is only 50/50. The group's health and strength has been degraded and some of our equipment is a little worse for wear.
Thanks for reading this. This charity, of which I am a trustee, aims to help any injured persons, military or non-military to attempt any extreme endeavour to act as an inspiration to other injured or disabled persons. For example the two girls injured in the Alton Towers accident have been in touch and are meeting with Andy and Martin as part of their rehabilitation. I hope in due course, once our bank account is open, to call on you to help in any way you can.