Nick Swinhart compiled the following facts about his Aconcagua climb in a blog, www.aconcagua16.wordpress.com/aconcagua-info/:
Aconcagua is not a mountain that is likely very familiar to most people not involved in climbing or hiking. At just under 7,000 meters (23,000 feet), it is the highest mountain in the world outside of Asia.
Located near the border of Argentina and Chile, Aconcagua draws thousands of climbers from around the world every year. While the most popular routes on the mountain are safe from a technical standpoint, the mountain can still be very dangerous.
Aconcagua is one of the most easily accessible high altitude mountains in the world. However, the extreme elevation and sudden storms can test climbers’ limits. “When I was on the mountain in 1999, I recall waking up one morning in base camp to what sounded like a freight train from up high on the mountain. I unzipped my tent to look out and saw a “wall” of white clouds racing down the mountain like an ocean wave. This was the fabled “viento blanco,” and when it hit camp with high winds a few minutes later, tents were shredded and uprooted from their anchors (sometimes with people still in them). I’m hopeful this trip will be more uneventful.”
For more information on Aconcagua, visit www.aconcagua.com.
“I’m not trying to prove I’m tough. I just want to prove I’m here for the right reasons.”
Nick Swinhart posted this quote to his blog on Jan. 3, the same day he left to finish an uncompleted task: Summit Aconcagua, a daunting 23,000 foot high mountain in Argentina. The 45-year-old Camas-Washougal Fire Department chief is an experienced climber, but had not been to Aconcagua since he was 28. He had failed to reach the summit due to encountering severe weather and a dwindling supply of food.
Although continuously active, Swinhart stopped climbing in 2005, when he met his future wife, got married and started a family.
When he was in his 20s and 30s, Swinhart climbed every mountain in the Cascade range, including Mt. Shasta, as well as Mt. Kilimanjaro, Mt. Elbrus in Russia, Mauna Kea in Hawaii, and Mt. Cotopaxi in Ecuador.
On a warm day this past summer, watching his girls, Anastasia, 5, and Karina, 2, run around the living room, an odd moment came over him.
“I just realized that this was the time,” he said. “If I was ever going to attempt Aconcagua again, it should be now. I realized that I wasn’t getting any younger, and the girls were old enough so I would feel comfortable enough to leave them for a few weeks, and my wife would also be comfortable enough with it.”
Once the decision had been made, the details began falling into place.
The trip initially began as a plan to return to the mountain with the climbing partner Swinhart was there with in 1999, who had to be evacuated due to illness.
“He decided he couldn’t go, so I continued with plans for a solo climb,” Swinhart said. “I began training for it on my own, but nothing too extreme. I did my normal running routine, and also wore a heavy weight vest and a hypoxic training mask.”
The masks are touted as a way to prepare for high altitude, but Swinhart primarily used his for the purpose of forcing himself to work harder to breathe, which strengthens muscles and helps improve volume, essential at high altitudes.
On his blog about the journey, Swinhart said his wife, Anna, struggled to understand the purpose for his return.
“I don’t have any ready-made answer for this question, except some vague internal understanding that I like challenges,” he said. “It’s quite possible it’s less of a challenge than it is that the climb is a means to an end for an objective I set long ago.”
It turned out the first challenge was getting all of his luggage to Mendoza: One bag, containing all of his climbing gear, didn’t make it out of Dallas with his plane. Thankfully, however, it arrived before he was due to leave for Aconcagua, about 70 miles away from the city.
After a three-day hike, he arrived at the Plaza de Mulas basecamp, carrying a 70 pound backpack. The elevation at the site is approximately 14,000 feet, similar to Mt. Rainier. However, there are modern conveniences, such as Wi-Fi.
“It was pretty funny to see these climbers running around with their iPhones,” Swinhart said. “Technology has definitely changed a lot since I was here last.”
However, one thing that hadn’t changed was Swinhart’s comfort with the altitude.
“I have done it enough, and spent enough time at altitude over the years, that the body adjusts.”
Although Swinhart made his climb solo, he hired a local outfitter to provide logistical services. After two days of figuring out final details, using camp Internet to post to his blog and adjusting to the altitude, Swinhart prepared to begin his trek to the summit of Cumbre.
Temperatures varied wildly, sometimes up to 50 degrees, but dropping to 10 or 15 at night.
“That doesn’t seem to too bad, but when you factor in the high winds, it can get pretty chilly,” Swinhart said.
When he attempted the climb at the age of 28, Swinhart made it to Camp Berlin, approximately 19,000 feet. This time, he was determined to reach the summit, provided it was safe.
However, when he got to 21,000 feet, the winds became so strong that some climbers were blown off their feet and one was even abandoned by a guide. It was a harrowing situation. Swinhart gazed at the summit, just 2,000 feet above him, and made a decision.
“It was really hard to look at it and know I was so close, but before I left on this trip, the one thing I promised my wife is that I wouldn’t take any unnecessary risks,” he said. “This was more about dipping my toes back in, and seeing how it went.”
Ultimately, Swinhart was happy he made the choice to turn back.
“I didn’t get hurt or sick, I still felt good afterward and had all of my fingers and toes,” he said.
He spent the final days of his trip enjoying the city of Mendoza and going on wine tasting tours.
Reflecting on his trek to South America, Swinhart is pleased with the overall experience.
“I enjoyed going back to something like that after a decade away, with minimal preparation, and still performing physically well,” he said. “There’s usually always something that goes wrong: A nasty headache, stomach troubles, muscle strains. But this time, everything gelled nicely. I felt really in the zone.”
Future plans include taking Anna to climb Mount Adams this summer and exploring other parts of the world.
“She’s very physically fit, and I think would love a challenge like that,” he said.
As far as Aconcagua goes, Swinhart has laid that to rest.
“I just wanted to go back, give it my best and see how it went,” he said. “The goal was in coming into an understanding of what it means to set personal goals. My goal was to be there, to have the journey.”