I can’t think of a better way to put a fitness level to the test than climbing a mountain. Different mountains present different challenges. This year the field of play would be a mountain high in the Andes of Argentina.
Last week the HOTWORX Hiking Team including myself-CEO, Victoria Price-Director of Project Management, Amanda Gianelloni-Marketing Director, and Jeremy Harwell, my training partner, the original GM of HOTWORX and now one of our Franchise Performance Coaches, ascended the iconic Mt. Aconcagua in the Mendoza region of Argentina. Aconcagua is the tallest mountain in the western hemisphere, highest in the Andes and the second tallest of the 7 Summits. This climb was a beast and the mountain was incredibly volatile and challenging in many ways including obstacles that we had not prepared for.
Sacred Mountain Retreat Center provided the inspiration for this climb. The work that they do in providing therapy and support for injured Veterans, First Responders, & Gold Star families is life changing for those who have been through the program. Sacred Mountain is “a catalyst for positive change in the lives of these heroes.” SMRC helps to “eliminate the noise of everyday life and encourage healing through exposure to nature, alternative healing methods, and open communication with our brothers and sisters in arms.”
Months prior to the climb, we used an oxygen restriction mask to simulate high altitude breathing. This was helpful, but what we did not know until we got to the mountain is the oxygen pressure on Aconcagua is 7% compared to 30% on Everest. What that means is that the pressure on Aconcagua is over 4X less favorable than that of even Everest. The result of that environment is headaches to the point of being unbearable at times the higher up you go. Lack of oxygen, and disorientation from unusual oxygen pressures diminishes the body’s ability to perform, or to do work. My blood oxygen at sea level is usually around 98% in the extreme altitudes of Aconcagua it was in the low 70’s.
Oxygen conditions vary from mountain to mountain due to latitude and other factors. This quote from 8kpeak.com helps to clarify:
“Of the three main necessities of life (air, water, and food), oxygen is the most critical. It is air pressure, not air density, that forces air into the lungs and allows it to assimilate into the blood stream. So from a mountaineer's perspective, we will focus on what has been termed "Pressure Altitude" as opposed to "Physical Altitude.” (1)
Aside from the oxygen obstacle, there were many other twists and turns, literally, to contend with on Aconcagua. The first two days of the climb reminded me of Kilimanjaro with favorable weather and somewhat easy terrain, but when we got to base camp on day 2, that’s where the favorable terrain stopped. We wound up stalled at base camp for 4 days waiting on the weather at the upper camps to clear and to try and time our window for the summit day. This did give us a pause to acclimatize our bodies at 14,000 ft., and prepare our minds for the 9,000 ft. vertical to come.
And with that vertical, the push to the limit would ensue and all of the fitness variables for cardio, endurance, muscle strength, balance, durability, pliability, flexibility, and mental toughness would be tested.
All of the fitness factors are brought to bear on a massive, unpredictable mountain like Aconcagua.
In addition to the oxygen pressure variable, there are terrain variables with ice, snow, falling rocks, and loose gravel known as scree. Then there is the wind, and the temperature. The mountain weather can quickly turn from a blinding sun to a snowstorm and gale force winds.
The most dangerous factor during the climb, though was sleep, or the lack thereof actually. We did not anticipate extreme exhaustion from lack of sleep. We knew it would be hard to sleep well, but had no idea of the compounding effect of no sleep over a period of two weeks with a summit day, the most difficult day at the very end.
Everything is a HIIT workout when performed at extreme altitude on Aconcagua from rolling out the sleeping bag, to getting up to pee, your heart rate is going up with everything you do! My son is a really good wrestler who has won two state championships in Louisiana. Climbing Aconcagua reminds me of the wrestling quote on some of Landon’s t-shirts. The iconic Dan Gable quote is, “Once you've wrestled, everything else in life is easy.” I think that quote works well for climbing Aconcagua too. After Aconcagua, everything else in life must be easy, right?
The two days of approach climbing from the entrance of the national park to the first camp and then the second day 8.5 hour hike to base camp was accomplished with the same hiking boot that I wore to scale to the summit of Kilimanjaro in ’21. It’s pictured as the smallest boot on the left in the photo. Below you will see the three boots that were necessary for Aconcagua. The middle boot was used for the acclimatization hike at base camp and the big “double” mountaineering boot with crampons (the metal teeth) had to be used for the ascent from base camp to the peak and back to base camp. As you can tell by the boots, Aconcagua is quite a step up from Kilimanjaro from an equipment standpoint.
Those double boots and crampons added quite a bit a weight to each step. More weight of course means more energy expended for each step as an added fitness challenge.
I noticed at base camp, as expected, that there were no unfit people on the mountain, which comes as no surprise. Obviously, any excess weight is a drag on performance, so everyone appeared to be in excellent shape.
Each day at base camp our head guide Rolando, or “Rolo” as he is known on the mountain, would update us on the weather conditions at the upper camps and the summit. We finally determined that we should head out after four days at base camp, so that next morning at 11 a.m. we headed to Camp Canada, the next stop on the way up. That hike was more challenging, by far, than the two days of climbing to get to base camp. When we got to Canada the views were absolutely stunning. That night, though, the wind was relentless to the point that I wondered would we have to abort. That next morning I learned from Rolo that those winds were normal for that camp.
The most successful people on the planet have a coach, such as a business coach for a franchisee like that of HOTWORX. A third party teacher and motivator is always a good idea. In our case, on this mountain, we had a guide that has 38 Aconcagua summits under his belt, Rolo, along with his assistant Jose who had 3 successful summits to his credit.
Next up from Camp Canada was Camp Nido with an extreme altitude level of over 18,000 ft. Nido was well outside of our comfort zone. No pain, no gain, right?!. In order to access potential that you never knew you had you have to go somewhere you have never been and/or do something you have never done!
When we got to Nido, we had another weather issue with super high winds so we had to postpone our ascent by another day. At this time the altitude became a factor. It was at Nido where Amanda and Victoria were experiencing Acute Mountain Sickness with migraines that became unbearable for them to continue. From Nido it became necessary for them to descend back to base camp. Jeremy and I would continue to try for the summit.
There at Nido I met a gentleman by the name of Rafah. Rafah is a mountaineer from Russia who has no legs. He climbs with welding gloves and and an ice axe in each hand. He was super positive and had a continual smile on his face. On my next ascent I remember stating his name in my mind through the toughest parts to get to the high camp at near the 20,000 ft. level. When I think of Rafah, I question why any of us with all of our limbs would ever be in a bad mood. And, Rafah scaled from Camp Canada to Nido in four hours which is the same amount of time it took our team. Thank you Rafah for the motivation to keep going!
Next up, after another sleepless night in the tent, Jeremy and I made our ascent to High Camp aka Camp Colera at 19,600 ft., an altitude higher than the summit of Kilimanjaro that we scaled a year earlier. Colera is the final camp before the Aconcagua summit attempt. Upon the final approach to Colera, there was an “L” turn to the left going up over a set of boulders with a fixed cable on our left side that made for a very gnarly welcome to high camp. I will never forget having the thought that this is probably the most dangerous part of any climb that I have ever made on any mountain, and hoping that it wouldn’t be my last! Then suddenly there was Colera. What a relief it was to see the tents of that last camp.
I thought about my new friend Rafah a lot on that climb to the final camp. When the grind got hard I would say his name in my mind to inspire the next step. If Rafah can climb with no legs, I can certainly make the next step.
We spent our final sleepless night on Aconcagua on the evening of the 20th. At 4 a.m. we would put the double hiking boots on one more time and head up to attempt the summit on the 21st. We did indeed begin our summit ascent for what I would estimate to be another 500 feet in elevation in darkness with headlamps on. I can remember going over and over in my head, “go at your best pace, go at your best pace…” The problem was clearly one of endurance. Our endurance was shot as a result of lack of sleep. Of course, neither Jeremy or myself was going to tap out. Rolo finally stopped the ascent and told us that we had to make a decision due to our slowing pace. He was worried about our ability to summit and get back down to camp in a reasonable amount of time. There had been several people rescued by helivac due to frostbite, and this was no doubt weighing on his mind. It was a hard pill to swallow, to get that close to the top and be forced to turn back. It was a gut punch, but it was the right decision at that moment in time. You can see how close we were in the photo below.
What we managed to accomplish, though, was an elevation much higher than before. Kilimanjaro was 19,341 feet. This year we ascended past 20,000 ft., a record for the team. As Tony Robbins would say, the key to happiness is “progress.”
Progress requires stepping outside of your comfort zone mentally, and physically if it is a higher level of fitness that you seek. I think I can speak for the entire hiking team to say that Aconcagua was the most challenging fitness quest of our lives.
The final hike on Aconcagua was the brutal descent all the way back to base camp more than 6,000 vertical feet below. At this point I was dreaming of that base camp known as the Plaza De Mulas. We arrived there at around 1 p.m. just in time for a late lunch. We were done, finally, with our fitness quest in Argentina.
We will continue our fund raise for the heroes of Sacred Mountain until we surpass our objective in the next few weeks. With our sponsors and with the corporate match we should surpass our goal of over $46,000 very soon. Thanks for all of you guys who have donated and to those who continue to raise awareness for this cause! Once we have achieved this goal then we will announce our HIKING for HEROES mission 2024.
Namaslay it y’all!