“Day 10: I walked for maybe an hour up to Camp 3 (19,258’/5870 m) from Camp 2 (18,200’/5547 m). I became the slowest person. I had tunnel vision. It was bad. It took a lot of willpower. I do a good job of not telling people how bad I really feel. After about a mile, I told them I had to stop, and me and Logan turned around. We had that conversation,
‘I don’t think I should go up anymore. It’s not safe for me, and it’s not safe for the group.’
“The others didn’t go all the way to Camp 3, but continue on a bit more. Angela said she got a headache really bad and couldn’t see out of her right eye. I had already pretty much decided — I was devastated — after two nights and two days of not acclimating. Alejo had a stethoscope and said my left lung was crackling. We thought I might develop some really serious pulmonary edema.”
Keshari Thakali, PhD is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock, AR. She is a cardiovascular pharmacologist by training and her research laboratory studies how maternal obesity during pregnancy programs cardiovascular disease in offspring. When not at work, you can find her mountain biking, rock climbing, hiking or paddling somewhere in The Natural State. She has a long-term career goal of merging her interests in mountaineering with studying cardiovascular adaptations at high altitude. She has climbed to some of the most extreme elevations in the Rocky Mountains, Andes and Himalayas. Last December, she flew down to Mendoza in Argentina for an ascent up Aconcagua.
Sacred in ancient and contemporary Incan culture, and the highest peak in the Americas, Aconcagua summits at 22,837′ (6960 m). Current statistics show only 30 – 40% of attempted climbs reach the top of this massive mountain in the Andes, in Principal Cordillera in the Mendoza Province of Argentina.
The day following Keshari’s decision not to summit, she hiked back down to Plaza de Mulas (14,337’/4370 m) from Camp 2, carrying some of her colleague’s gear that he didn’t want to take up to the summit as he continued to ascend. Plaza de Mulas is a large base camp area with plenty of room for tents, available water, and large rocks that provide some protection from the wind as climbers take time to acclimate before continuing their ascent.
“Even though my oxygen [saturation] was low, I was functional. As you go down, everything gets better. The others continued up to Camp 3. They spent one night there, then summited the next day. It took them 12 hours.
“The day the others came back to Plaza de Mulas, I think that’s when everything hit me. I felt like a zombie. I did some bouldering and got so tired I had to sit down and catch my breath often, probably because I had been hypoxic and we were at over 14,000′.
“[The next day] we did the really long hike from Plaza de Mulas all the way to the entrance of the park. It probably took about 8 hours to walk all the way to the park entrance.
“We drove to Mendoza that night. I felt like my body was tired, but my muscles were functioning just fine. It’s hard to describe.”
They had done everything right and had taken every precaution. Each of Keshari’s colleagues boasted significant backgrounds in climbing and mountaineering, their cumulative accomplishments including Mt. Elbrus (18,510’/5642 m), Cotopaxi (19,347’/5897 m) and Denali (20,335’/6198 m), their ages 30 to 65. They weren’t initially planning to hire porters, “but they ended up carrying a lot of our stuff. In the end, it just makes sense to hire these porters to increase your chance of success.”
They gave themselves about two weeks to make the ascent and return. There was ample time for them to stop at each camp and spend time acclimatizing, including day hikes to the nearby peaks of Bonete and Mirador.
“Day 4 [we did an] acclimatization hike to Bonete (16,647’/5074 m), pretty much the same elevation of Camp 1. You look at the mountain and it looks pretty close, but … in mountaineering, you don’t do distances, you do time. Did the hike in mountaineering boots, which were heavy and clunky, but I learned how my boots actually work. You walk differently in these than a shoe with a flexible sole. The last part of the mountain is pretty rocky and it looks like you’re almost to the top, but you still have to walk an hour to the summit. It took about five hours to go up. We were walking slow, I felt fine. From the top of that mountain, looking away from Aconcagua, you can really see Chile and the Chilean Andes.”
All the way through their first week of climbing, including a day of resting and eating after their hike up Bonete, Keshari was feeling fine.
“Day 8, we made the push to Camp 2 (18,200’/5547 m). None of these hikes made me tired. I was plenty trained. We were carrying packs, but they were still pretty light, packed with stuff for the day. We spent the night at Camp 2, took oxygen mostly at night. [My] first reading at Camp 2 was low. We were at over 18,000′. I thought maybe I’ll just go to sleep and it’ll get better.
“Day 9 was a rest day at Camp 2 because the weather was really bad. All I did was sleep that day. If you’re gonna go to Camp 3, that means you’re gonna do a summit push the next day, because Camp 3 is so high. You’re just struggling to stay healthy. I felt really bad in the tent, but if I went outside to pee or walk around, I felt better. My pulse ox was still pretty low that day. That night, a snow storm blew in and it snowed a lot.” And it was the following day of their ascent to Camp 3 that Keshari made the decision not to summit.
Since returning from her expedition, she’s reflected on some other variables. “I swear I was hyponatremic (an abnormally low concentration of sodium in the blood). We went through four liters of water a day with no salt in the food. I was having these crazy cramps in my abs and my lats and places I don’t typically get them. To me, that has to do with electrolyte imbalance. Next time, I’m taking electrolyte tablets, not just stuff to mix in my water.
“I’m not very structured in my diet. In general I eat pretty clean, but I don’t count calories. I eat vegetables, but I also hate going grocery shopping. I feel like I eat a pretty balanced diet. If I buy meat, I’ll buy a pack of chicken and that’s my meat for a week or two.
“On the mountain, in general, I felt like they fed us way more fiber. In Argentina, they eat a lot of meat. They’re meat-eaters. They didn’t feed us steak on the mountain, but … at Base Camp, I felt like they were overfeeding us. We had pork chops one night, but on the mountain, I felt like it was mainly lentils and noodles. Even though you’re burning calories, how your body absorbs them is different. They really try to limit your salt intake because they’re concerned about having too high blood pressure. At Base Camp, breakfast was always scrambled eggs with bacon and toast. Lunch and dinner were always three course meals starting with a veggie broth soup. They fed us like kings … I brought Clif blocks with caffeine in them for hiking snacks, Lara bars.”
I ask about her main takeaway from it all:
“I think I need more time to acclimate. I don’t know how much more time, but maybe more time at about 16,000′. Maybe take Diamox. Someone suggested I should have been on an inhaled steroid, especially because my asthma is worse in the cold. If I were to go next time, I would want a couple more days at 15,000 – 16,000′. Maybe the Diamox is something I would need to use next time.
“The nerd in me wants to measure pulmonary wedge pressures (via very invasive catheters; you could go through the jugular), nothing practical,” she laughs. “The pulse oximeter is the easiest tool.”
One last thing she’d do differently? One of her colleagues bought a hypoxic generating system from Hypoxico, “which I think puts CO2 back into your system; sleeping high, training low. That might have been the best thing.”
Keshari went sky-diving back in Mendoza the day after returning from their descent. “I was expecting a lot of adrenaline jumping out of an airplane, but there was none. I enjoyed the freefall, but when the parachute went up, I got really nauseous. Maybe I had just been stressed for so long, there was no more adrenaline left. I was like, ‘Where’s the risk involved in this?'”
Keshari also summited Cotopaxi earlier the same year. Read her own account here.
Roberto Santos is from the remote island of Saipan, in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. He has since lived in Japan and the Hawaiian Islands, and has made Colorado his current home, where he is a web developer, musician, avid outdoorsman and prolific reader. When he is not developing applications and graphics, you can find him performing with the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra, snowboarding Vail or Keystone, soaking in hot springs, or reading non-fiction at a brewery.