The violent 80 km/hour wind that relentlessly beat against my face for the last 14 hours was starting to mix it up a bit.
Like a highly skilled boxer, bobbing and weaving, looking for a moment’s weakness in its fledgling opponent, a gush of force walloped the left side of my body like a monster truck at high speed. I toppled over to the right and used every bit of my degenerating strength to stay upright with aid of the ski pole in my right hand.
It was at this point I noticed I could not see a single thing out of my right eye. I quickly adapted, using my left eye and cocking my head to the side to compensate for my rapidly declining eyesight.
The left eye had roughly 50% vision but I didn’t need any more than that to know what would happen if I allowed myself to fall to the right – imminent death.
The traverse towards “the cave” – an important milestone on Aconcagua for those attempting a summit – was long and brutal, with zero shelter from the unapologetic gale-force winds. We had been walking along a narrow path for what seemed an eternity. To the right the path was completely unprotected and a long, long way down – one of those that gives even someone like me who has no fear of heights an intense feeling of butterflies in the stomach.
“The Mountain of Death” is one of Aconcagua’s well-earned nicknames, with 3 people a year on average perishing on South America’s tallest mountain. I was well aware of this but had pushed it deep into my subconscious. I had no time for such statistics, and I wasn’t planning on becoming one of them.
I distinctly remember forcing a wry smile as best as my frostbitten, pursed lips could allow: “Fuck you, Aconcagua”, I whimpered into the oblivion, the intended menacing, Spartanesque war cry more akin to the pathetic wail of a wounded kitten.
I have no concept of time regarding what happened next; it could have been half an hour and it could well have been 5 hours, but after relying solely on my less-than-stellar left eye to navigate up the gradual incline at -31 degrees Celsius while buffeted by the famously merciless winds of Aconcagua, the eyesight in my left eye dropped to around 10%. I could just about see silhouettes and moving blurs.
I knew the cave was roughly to the north. “One foot in front of the other”, I told myself, with an incredibly naive contingency plan of resting up at the cave and smashing a couple of Cliff Bars so I’d be good to go again!
Later on, as I sauntered towards the cave, a guy approached me in the hurling snow and asked if I was OK. “I’ve lost my team,” I answered. “I AM your team, I am Dimitri. You are very tired. Can I help you?” he replied. I looked at Dimitri, our porter, and at this point I could not see him. Or anything else. Complete, pitch blackness.
The last thing that I remember is another man asking if I was ok further along the path and telling me that I was nearly there. “Are you Bryan”, I asked him after a confusing dialogue. “Aye, I’m Bryan, mate”, confirmed my Irish friend as I fell to the ground, exhausted, grinding my teeth so hard with anxiety that I felt my top veneer snap off. I spat it out and put my head between my legs as I sat on a rock.
An intense shooting pain started in my right eye. My sombre heartache of a potential (and probable) second Aconcagua failure, so close to the top, mixed in with grave concern for my health.
With a cruel 350m to go to get to the summit, I made it to the cave. Friends say I arrived, emerging from the mist, like a zombie refusing to be killed. I can’t remember the details of what happened next, but I am told that upon being informed that I was being sent back down the mountain I admitted I couldn’t see a damn thing, a tear ran down my cheek as I collapsed to the ground again, and was given emergency hormonal injections in my bum.
When I came around, my mate Paul, who had selflessly sacrificed a summit in order to guide me safely down to high base camp, was roped up in front of me. Much like myself, he’s not the most patient man in the world, so I very much appreciated his calm demeanour as he instructed me on where to place my feet.
Roped in behind me was one of our guides, Viktor, whose fall from grace since the heroic actions on Elbrus was more like an unseasonable cascade. With the aggressive, constant shooting pains in my right eye and an inability to see, he showcased the empathy levels of Ivan Drago huffing and puffing when I, heaven forbid, took rests as my completely spent body stayed down every time I fell on my arse, throwing in a few complaints at my moving too slowly.
When we got back to high camp the doctor put me on an IV drip, checked my eyes, and made the call for an emergency helicopter evacuation.
The guided, blind run to the helicopter was pretty freaky, as were the next few days as I received medical attention and still had no vision. With my 6/10 Spanish and severe anxiety, the best I could make out is that I had severe altitude sickness, which can manifest in many ways through several organs.
I’ve had it before while on Mount Elbrus but was able to get by. I just acted like a very drunk person, wobbling up to the summit, and was so exhausted afterwards that I slept for 18 hours that night.
Some people have it worse and get pulmonary oedema – where they slowly drown in fluid that accumulates in their lungs. Just as bad is cerebral oedema, where the brain swells with fluid, and in the worst cases end up in a coma or die.
My body decided to shut down via my eyes, which is as rare as rocking horse shit, but considering I can now see well enough to at least write this blog post, I’d take this out of the three mentioned, even with the awful pain.
Where did it all go wrong?
You know how this ends already, but let’s do a Pulp Fiction time loop and go back in time so we can see where the warning signs were. Hopefully this will help anyone who is about to climb a high-altitude mountain to make better decisions than me.
Throughout the whole expedition (with the exception of one day when I wore too many layers) I made a conscious effort to be at the front of the pack. I was either 1st, 2nd or 3rd man behind our main guide, Micha, at all times. A tough guy but a gentleman, incredibly articulate in his second language, he is an intellectual man of many interests who when not on a mountain is a doting husband and self-taught artisanal bread maker…
He is also a massive anti-vegan. Actually, that’s not fair; he’s just old-school and he doesn’t understand it, so he was constantly worrying that my eschewing animal products was going to affect my health. Instead of wasting my time trying to convince him I was fine, I figured I’d just show him. Even an aggressive cough and a heavy dose of the shits (that everyone had due to a higher than average mineral content in the water from the lake) wasn’t enough to set me back at this point.
On summit night we woke up at 2 am. I hadn’t slept, but I rarely do on summit nights. A battered copy of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” got me through my restlessness after attempts to get any decent shuteye had failed.
At this stage I felt fine, and it wasn’t until dawn started creeping in that I noticed my vision was substandard. On one of the few occasions that we stopped for a break, I tried to drink my water, take a few long breaths, and close my eyes in an attempt to calm down and not panic over the blurred vision, but even my hot water in its high-quality thermos was frozen. So, dehydration got added to the list.
On the next break, hours later, my energy was waning, so I tried to eat a Cliff Bar which turned out to be frozen solid. I shoved a handful of dates in my mouth and looked up and from this moment I felt I was in big trouble. Friends were engaging me in conversation, but their faces were just obscure shapes and cognitively I was struggling.
I wanted to tell a few chosen friends about my situation, but when I opened my mouth, words would either come out in incomputable slurs or I couldn’t speak at all.
I decided I needed a point of reference to follow, opting for Johnny’s bright blue jacket as I tried to fasten the buckles of my backpack. Failing miserably, I threw it on my back regardless, determined to stay at the front.
A couple of hours later I heard the C word.
There were whispers that we might not need them on Aconcagua, but as we had one of the worst weather windows in a season that had been like a glorious spring for other climbers only a week earlier, we had to get the crampons out of our bags and put them on.
I hate crampons at the best of times, but in that state it felt like a monumental task. I couldn’t see them in my bag, let alone put them on with my big gloves, pulling straps through the smallest of holes and making sure they were on properly.
I felt sorry for Micha as he helped me out; I made it a lot harder for him as I couldn’t see my feet to adjust them to sit perfectly and I couldn’t keep up with his advice as I had severe mountain brain.
As we walked into the most viciously windy part of the mountain, where this blog post began, Johnny’s bright blue jacket faded from my sight and all I could focus on was part of the logo, which soon disappeared too.
This was, of course, the beginning of the end of my Aconcagua story.
Was it stupid of me not to turn around earlier, when my eyesight started to go?
Of course it was. There is no defence against that, but for what it’s worth, in the moment, I was in a “this too shall pass” and “nothing worth having comes easy” mood.
Climbing high-altitude mountains is difficult and one must often suffer for the glory. There were even moments when I second-guessed myself. Maybe it’s just misty because of the wind and everyone else is in the same situation as me?
“Just crack on Anthony, you’ll be fine”, I told myself, remembering similar feelings of doubt at times of despair during the Marathon des Sables.
Maybe there was a bit of ego thrown into the mix too? Probably, but at least I’m aware of mine. Most people (especially those who don’t think they have one) are not. Ignorance is not bliss. It’s just selective delusion.
Will I ever try and climb Aconcagua again? Johnny suggested it to me, hypothetically, two days later and I thought he was insane. But since returning to Thailand I have found myself fantasising about it. It definitely won’t be next year and probably not any time soon, but don’t be surprised if one day I sneak offline for a few weeks and attempt to get the last laugh with Aconcagua.
It’s completely heartbreaking to fail to summit this mountain for the second time, especially when I came so close. It’s hard for people who don’t think like me to conceptualise this and some think I’m being dramatic.
You can tell people what you think but it’s very hard, or even impossible to get people to feel what you feel.
It’s also incredibly difficult having to cancel the Denali climb whilst I heal. Two other friends and I wanted to climb the Seven Summits together; they will now go on without me. This was my purpose, that which us humans crave so much and live a sub-standard life without.
But I have reinvented myself before and I will reinvent myself again.
The most important thing right now is my health. My three frostbitten fingers have gone from black to purple, the 17 burst blood vessels in my eyes are healing, as is the ulcer over my right pupil (apparently that’s what was causing the shooting pain), so my left eye is almost perfect again. My right eye is making a comeback too, and the three veneers that I grinded out in my angst have now been replaced too – so, yaaaay for vanity.
I’m often being told not to feel sad about the situation, that I should feel grateful for the lessons learned and my blindness not being permanent.
I don’t see why I can’t feel both.
Bittersweet emotions are beautiful. They’re a constant reminder of the complexities of life and how lucky we are to be in it, and for as long as my heart beats, I’ll live for the moments that light up, break my heart, or do both at the same time.
For now, I have to rest up, slow down and when I am ready, I’ll be back with other crazy Man vs Clock challenges. Maybe I’ll take up extreme knitting or something while I heal, or go through yet another; “No, seriously. This year I’m totally going to learn the guitar” phase.
Further thoughts on this and more to follow in my next blog post: “My 2019 in review.”