Moving down to Plaza de Mules Base Camp (4 300 m) - 19 Jan 2012

plaza de mules 1 sIn the morning Jay and I were groggy and didn't want to get out of the tent. We also knew it was very cold outside. Eventually Sibu got us up and we started packing up the camp. After emerging from our tent, we noticed that two team members were missing, namely Phokwane and Frank. Apparently Frank had been advised to head down to base camp immediately yesterday, as he had felt sick. Phokwane's oxygen levels had dropped dramatically, so she had left the high camp early in the morning. Later we learned that she had a type of bronchitis, and was airlifted off the mountain. We would join up with the whole team again in Plaza de Mules base camp.

Going down the mountain was quite fun for me, as we could slide down ice slopes using our crampons for control.  Later the snow line ended and we were disappointed that we had to take our crampons off.

Half way down, we came upon a mule carcass. Apparently there are several on the mountain, dating back many years, to times when they needed to carry building materials to the high camps. At these freezing temperatures, nothing decays.

As the Plaza de Mules base camp came into view about 1 000 m below us, we could see that it had been sited at the foot of a great mountain glacier. The view from up there was spectacular. But by now we were getting very thirsty and hungry and were looking forward to getting down. Jay and I had been too tired to melt water for the long trip to base camp and now we were suffering as there was no water on route.

plaza de mules 2 sWe arrived in base camp at 6pm, and immediately enquired about Satellite phone facility. We quickly found an art gallery (crazy idea) with full facilities including live web cam. So Jay and I got to call home and send news to Lynne and, at the same time, pose in front of the web camera, sitting comfortably on deck chairs.

We met up with the rest of the team in the large mess tent and enjoyed a delicious chicken meal together, and toasted with sparkling wine. Guides Sibu and Juam shared some words to summarize the success of the expedition and we couldn't agree more. It had been a life changing experience for all of us. Juam also shared that Jayson is the youngest that he had taken up the mountain and that it was his 30th summit.

Aconcagua Summit Attempt (6 972 m) - 18 Jan 2012

summit attempt 18 jan
The weather forecast had been good for a summit attempt today, so we were woken just after 3am to start preparing our kit. At this altitude even simple tasks like putting on your boots is exhausting and leaves you out of breath. Jay and I ate some oats porridge and tried to drink as much fluids as we could, as we were worried that we had not brought adequate number of insulated water bottles for the summit attempt. Later, we were to realize what a big mistake this was.

We were not quite sure what kit to wear, because everyone perceives the cold differently. I eventually decided to go the safe route and wear a really warm combination of clothing, including down jacket, thermal underwear and windbreaker over pants. This turned out to be fine for the start of the climb, before sunrise, but later I was found it difficult to control my temperature and was far too hot.

By 5:30am there was a long line of lights heading up the ice slopes from our camp. Phokwane and Bob decided that they had achieved enough and remained in the high camp. The rest of us nine SA team members, and the two local guides, fitted our crampons and joined the line of lights. Our aim was to reach the summit in 8 hours and return in 4 hours, so we were expecting to get back into camp by 5:30pm. In the end, as the events unfolded, the last of us were only to get back into camp at 9:30pm.

None of us had fully prepared our body and minds for today’s task. A thick layer of snow had made conditions difficult, slow and energy sapping. But we couldn't turn back, because you must take the opportunity of the good weather.

The crampons worked really well, and gave us good grip until we hit the steeper sections which required a special technique. This section was very frustrating for me and I fell several times, on one occasion my right ice boot came off and nearly slid down the slope. Carlos and Sibu did their best to give me on the spot training, which did help, but already I was quite tired.

All the team members that set out managed to climb to 6 400 m with the most difficult sections still awaiting us near the summit. This news was shattering, as we had already been climbing continuously for hours and thought we were much further.

There was an opportunity to turn back at this point as there was another guide from the same tour company that would take any members of our team down. Frank and Phil decided to go for this option. From what I heard, Phil's camera battery had died and this added to his motivation. I had an important mission to complete, which could save lives (blood and bone marrow donors), that I wanted to give it a go and press on towards the summit and see how high I could go!!

The reality is that I was already tired and had nearly finished all my water. Frank kindly gave me a litre of his water, so that would help.

As we pressed on there was an exposed traverse section that you had to cross, where the wind showed us no mercy and left us freezing cold. Once we had passed that bit, it was back to steep, snow covered slopes, for which I had little experience and I could only manage slow progress.

ray at 6700m sThe rest of the team seemed to be coping better and had managed to get to our lunch rest point in an exposed cave at 6 700 m. It was now already 1:30pm. Our guide explained that we should leave our packs here and travel light as the route to the summit (the remaining 262 m) and back will be difficult and could take 3 hours. I looked at the steep ice slope leading up to the summit and realized that I didn't have enough energy to tackle it safely and I only had one litre of water left. But at this altitude every decision can literally be life and death. But still, I couldn't believe that I had got this far only to be beaten at the last hurdle! Then I felt a moment of incredible pride that I had climbed 850 m higher than my previous record, and under difficult conditions. This had been a great personal achievement and will go a long way towards inspiring other cancer survivors to Never Lose Your Dream!!!

Jayson was also not in good shape but he had been able to keep up the pace and wanted to carry on. We had previously agreed that if one of us could reach the summit then they should carry on. So, although I had carried the Sunflower Fund / SANBS banner and Chris Corlett's photo from 2 600 m up to 6 700 m, it will be up to Jayson to carry it the remaining vital 262 m. This was a proud moment for me, handing over the banner and photo to Jayson, at only 15 years age, to complete the mission. I wanted to cry with pride but at the same time I was very concerned that he will be alright.

It would be a 5 hours wait before Jayson and the rest of the team returned to the meeting point, where I had been waiting. During that time I had seen about 5 climbers being rescued who had pushed beyond their limits or the altitude had caught up with them.

henk jay and johan at summit sI gave Jayson a great big hug when he emerged from the steep Canaleta ice slope. The tired faces of the team told the story of what they had all endured to reach the summit 262 m above. In all, 6 members of our SA team reached the summit that afternoon. Congratulations to Sibu, Henk, Johan, Jayson, Rodney and Mike. You guys are awesome!!! They proudly flew the Sunflower Fund / SANBS banner together with Henk's Round Table banner (that also supports the Sunflower Fund). Hooray!!!
Thanks Jayson for taking Chris Corlett's photo to the summit and leaving it neatly under two rocks!!  
Jayson also took his school flag to the highest point in South America.

jay with kes flag at summit sOf course, reaching the summit is only the half way point and the team still needed to get off the mountain before it gets dark or before the weather turns. It was now 6:30pm and our team was the only team left high on the mountain. Between us, we didn't have any water left, so we were heavily dehydrated. Rod and Jayson were suffering from leg muscle cramps, so it was going to be a long trip down. We followed the same route down the steep ice slopes, and it took a lot of encouragement to get everyone down safely. Sibu kept telling Jayson that he could not stop, because it was getting colder and visibility had been reduced to 20 m as the clouds had closed in. We eventually all got back to camp at 9:30pm after an 18 hour ordeal to conquer the summit.

It was a magical day that each team member will remember for a long time. The views from the top were stunning, as we were looking down on all the surrounding mountain peaks. I'm sure there will be many photos that we will bring back to share with all.
And thanks to Jayson for completing the mission, and I also look forward to reading Jayson's story as he conquered the last 262 m to the summit. Sibu described him as a Lion. Johan says he was amazed at his achievement.
Tomorrow morning we will pack up the high camp and head down to base camp where, hopefully, we can have a hot shower and get a good meal. And, most importantly, make a Satellite phone call to home, as I'm sure Lynne is freaking out by now.

Tomorrow is SUMMIT DAY. Life Saving message to all Blood Donors

ray in hospital during treatment sMany of you know that I wouldn´t be alive if it wasn´t for a stem cell transplant and more than 50 blood transfusions during my treatment for Leukemia. My message to everyone who is willing and able, is to please donate blood, as every pint literally saves a life!! We have a great banner promoting the SA National Blood Service and Sunflower Fund that we hope to fly at the summit and promote this cause.

chrisPhoto of Chris Corlett  (Sunflowers of Hope) at the summit
It is my dear hope to honor Chris Corlett by leaving his photo at the summit of Aconcagua. Chris was a brave and remarkable young man that endured three bone marrow transplants in his long battle with Leukemia. In the end, his body could not take any more treatment and he sadly passed away. It was his wish that South Africans would join the SA Bone Marrow Registry, as this act of kindness brings real hope to Leukemia patients!!  You too can honor Chris by joining the SA Bone Marrow Registry!! The registry is supported by the Sunflower Fund (his mom, Tina Botha, is the founder and CEO). All it takes is a teaspoon of blood to join the registry. Donating stem cells is a relatively simple and elegant procedure. For more info on how to become a donor, refer to the Sunflower Fund website, or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. , as she recently joined.

We have a great banner promoting the SA National Blood Service and Sunflower Fund that we hope to fly at the summit and promote this cause. Henk will be flying the Round Table 158 Banner, which is one of the sponsors for the Sunflower Fund.

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