By Seth Webb
When I committed to co-leading a group of seven Warner College of Natural Resources students and alumni to climb a mountain in Argentina over winter break, I bid farewell to easy, trading in a relaxing vacation with my family and friends for a dose of expedition suffering – near constant wind, intense solar exposure, no shower for over 2 weeks, occasional mild headaches and heavy packs. Our summit goal was Cerro Mercedario (21,981 ft. / 6700 m), the eighth highest peak in the Andes, located 50 miles north of the more popular Cerro Aconcagua.
My co-leader, Pat Rastall (Director Pingree Park Mountain Campus, WCNR Affiliate Faculty) and I have co-led three previous expeditions to the mountains of Argentina. This time, it was a new summit, a new adventure, and new challenges that intrigued us most about attempting this remote, uncrowded giant. Like many big peaks in the Andes, Mercedario is known for its high winds and ever changing weather patterns. But unlike its counterpart Aconcagua, which I’ve climbed twice previously in 2007 and 2011, Mercedario’s basecamp has an amazing abundance of Guanacos (wild llamas) that made us feel like we were immersed in the middle of an Animal Planet episode.
The climbing, though non-technical, was demanding due to the high altitude and aforementioned expedition realities. One day at a time, take what the mountain gives us – that was our mantra. During my moments of doubt I asked myself questions like “And why exactly am I doing this?”, but our group grew stronger through the challenges the mountain presented us with. As recorded in the group journal by student member Dennis Wegienek, “When one of us had a sore knee, we all had a sore knee, we were a team in the truest sense…this is the most powerful group of individuals I have ever been a part of”. That’s right, that’s why I’m here, to teach and mentor a group of students in the craft of high altitude mountaineering expeditions in the Andes; and a big part of that is building a strong team with a shared vision, that works together to reach a common goal. Despite my moments of doubt, I never lost sight of this motivation.
With strong winds up to 50+ miles per hour a constant companion for the first 10 days on the mountain, and reports of very few summit successes above us, we decided to go for the top from a lower than usual camp at 17,000 ft.; typically for a mountain like this in the Andes we would establish our high camp at about 19,000 ft. This would mean a single day push of nearly 5,000 vertical feet to reach our goal. On January 9, 2015 six of our nine members made it to the summit and were treated to a windless, rare view of the Andes. It took us over twelve hours to climb from our high camp to the summit and back, and while getting to the top is always optional, getting down is mandatory; our group was tired, dehydrated and nearly out of energy before reaching the safety of our tents and stoves as dusk approached, but we made it.
Climbing a big mountain in the Andes isn’t easy, it requires each of us to reach into the depths of our physical, emotional, and mental selves yet unknown and untapped. Perhaps we have wells of strength and resolve that will prove enough to see us up the mountain? So we dig deep, discover new parts of ourselves and hopefully, in the end, are the better for it. And if we are lucky, we celebrate the gifts the mountain gives us; ones reserved only for those willing to match their efforts with the grandness of the scale they are surrounded by.
As I reflect on another expedition, I’m reminded of how fortunate I am to have had the opportunities to teach and learn with students on adventures like these. When we return to the lower regions of our daily lives, we can only hope that part of our experiences up high stays with us.