On March 3, at 7.15 PM, TV host and actor Julian Weich and rugbier Ezequiel Baraja stood at the highest point in the continent and waved the Olympic flag. With them were our guides Ulises Corvalán and Guillermo Fuentes, and photographer Pablo Betancourt.
They reached the 6,960m summit after a last push of three epic days. “We climbed in less than ideal conditions. We had to use crampons since Camp II (Nido de Cóndores), because of the snow. On summit day we had to break trail in deep snow”, pointed out Ulises, who was the leading guide of the group. He himself was enduring a persistent pain in the back during the last stage of the climb.
“Summit Aconcagua 2018” is an initiative created by Matías Gutiérrez Moyano, an entrepreneur from Buenos Aires. He put together a team of 11 athletes and personalities, all of them with personal stories of resilience and hardships, and set the challenge of climbing Aconcagua.
The team had the goal of taking the flag of the Buenos Aires 2018 Youth Olympic Games to the summit, as a way to promote sports and healthy lifestyle. Also, TV star Julián Weich was rising money for a NGO with every meter he climbed.
They met every one of these challenges.
But it took them 15 days in the harsh environment of Aconcagua, and the mountain took its toll. By the time they completed the acclimatization stage and left base camp (Plaza de Mulas, 14,500ft/ 4.350m), the group was down to five team members, four staff members and four guides.
The only Argentinian female athlete to win Olympic gold, judoka Paula Pareto, was not going for the summit in the original plan, but only hiking to base camp.
Fabricio Oberto, basketball star in the NBA and also Olympic champ, preferred not to push his heart too much (he has a cardiac condition) and also left the group. Pablo Gieselow, a lawyer who lost both legs in a car accident and runs long distances with prosthesis, decided to head back too. Elisa Forti and Fernando Mariño didn’t join the altitude group either.
On February 27 -day 9 in the mountain- the remaining team members folded the Olympic flag and stored it in a backpack. Then they left Plaza de Mulas with some anxiety about the weather for the next days.
Ulises Corvalán led the single file heading to Plaza Canadá, the first camp. With him was Guillermo Fuentes, who was a personal guide for Silvio Velo, the brave captain of the blind soccer National team. Herman Kneeteman and Gilda Isoardi completed the guiding crew.
What followed was a tremendous team effort in a mountain that had turned hostile. Silvio Velo; the Spaniard Alvaro Casillas (a former bull fighter); Peter Czanyo (a former heavy smoker that lost a lung); the swimmer María del Pilar Pereyra; Julián Weich and Ezequiel Baraja were the team members who made it to the 6.000m high camp.
Nutritionist Pinky Zuberbuhler, doctor Santiago Arce and photographer Pablo Betancourt completed the group.
The climb from Nido de Cóndores (5,560m/ 18,241ft) to Colera Camp (5.970 m/ 19.586 ft) was slow and demanding, with fresh snow covering the steep slopes. It took 8 hours for the last ones to reach the tents, more than twice the average time.
As a result, they were exhausted, but there weren’t many choices; the next day (March 3) was the summit day.
María del Pilar, Peter and Santiago decided that they weren’t joining the summit push. Silvio spent a bad night and also stayed at camp.
Before the first rays of light, the rest of the team left the shelter of the tents and lined up to give their best. Not against the mountain, but with her. Not “conquering”, but becoming one with the slopes.
After some hours of struggling to break trail in the snow, at more than 6.000m, Alvaro and then Pinky turned around. Gilda and Herman led them back.
It was getting late. Ulises (one of the guides with more Aconcagua summits in the World) decided that the weather was ok to keep going, so they pressed on. Until a cross wrapped in flags told them there was no higher place to go; at least in this half of the planet.
And out went the Olympic flag (and some tears, and hugs).
It wasn’t until past midnight, though, when the last headlamp was turned off and everyone was safe in their sleeping bags at high camp, that they could say to themselves: mission accomplished.
Congratulations to the entire “Summit Aconcagua 2018” team, and to our guides and staff.
[ Nicolás García ]