We didn’t hear from the team until this morning, which is not unusual as yesterday was a busy day in which they made a carry of gear up to Camp 1 at 16,400′. The call that came through in the wee hours of the morning was definitely out of the ordinary.
Apparently, our lead guide, Drew, was feeling off yesterday morning and felt even worse during the course of their hike up to Camp 1. He plugged away, but felt weak and ill, with an increasing cough, which he attributed to an upper respiratory infection. During the night, the cough became increasingly persistent and it became evident that he had developed High Altitude Pulmonary Edema, a form of altitude sickness that has only one cure- descent.
Drew flew off the mountain and is feeling much, much better, in the relatively thicker air of Mendoza. Eliana and Neil are continuing with their climb, with the added assistance of some Argentine friends of ours. This is Eli’s 10th year of working on Aconcagua and with over 15 summits of the peak, she and Neil are going to have a great time, although the loss of Drew’s energy and enthusiasm will be sorely missed.
The plan for tomorrow is to head up to establish themselves on the bench at Camp 1, where they will spend at least two nights before moving higher up onto the east flank of the mountain. Drew will remain in Mendoza for a few days to assist us with some other logistics, but it isn’t prudent for him to return to the mountain in any fashion that would let him catch back up with Neil and Eliana.
Altitude illness is something that we do our best to mitigate against with a deliberate and conservative rate of ascent. The jump in altitude from the camp at Casa de Piedra (10.200′) to the Base Camp at Plaza Argentina (13,800′) is the biggest between any of the camps on our route, and we try to mitigate against that increase by spending the following day resting and acclimatizing. The presentation of HAPE in someone who lives at 8500′ at such a relatively low altitude is an example of the randomness of altitude sickness. It is conceivable that a climber can go high time and time again, but have a rough go on their next trip. It’s disappointing, because Neil and Drew have become great friends over the year they have been climbing together, but it is something that is beyond anyone’s control in this instance.
Feel better, Drew- and best of luck to Neil and Eliana as you move up onto the mountain tomorrow!