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My toes hated me, I still love (and have) them

January 31, 2013 by

wind ColeraAfter 3 days of ascent in the snow to Camp 1 Canada and Camp 2 Berlin, we had finally arrived to at the high camp (Camp Colera, 6,000 mt/19,690 ft ). We spent 2 nights there to allow a full acclimatization and the best weather conditions. Since we left base camp, we experienced worsening conditions with snow and stronger wind. We regularly check the forecasts, even if for Aconcagua they have to be taken with a grain of salt:differently from the Himalayas for example, the relative proximity of the ocean causes very sudden weather changes and very strong winds.

January 24 is finally summit day and we spend the whole day before pretty much in the tent (the temperature and the wind, plus the fact that there is really nowhere to go keep us inside counting the hours to go and prepping our gear).

“Morning guys, let’s get ready!” it is our guide Ulysses who runs the trumpet in swiss-like style at 5am. We immediately realize that the strong wind that kept banging (literally) on our tent all night long is probably on a different time zone and has no intention to go rest. We decide not to look at the temperature, yet tacitly acknowledging that the -10c we registered in the tent the night before would be a happy occurrence.

A good buzz (or a frozen mumble) arises from around the camp and as greek warriors getting ready to march into the field (wow that is a strong one!), we wear our high-altitude weapons (heavy-duty boots, triple or quadruple layers, headlamps, crampons) and after a couple of sips of hot tea, we jump out of our tents and congregate outside.

The sun is still hiding behind the horizon, with a very feeble orange light emerging. The wind is already painfully strong (we estimate it blowing at 50-60kph) and the cold bites every inch of the body it can reach – In absence of any espresso, it quickly boosts my alertness. These few extra minutes waiting outside to fine tune the preparation and get the troops ready, will eventually prove to be that famous extra drop.

“ok, let’s go” and our disciplined upward march begins. The wind is so strong that at times I must stop and anchor myself well to the steep ground not to be thrown down (and i am not really a tiny person). We know that the next 2 hours will be a silent proof of mental strength and we march on step after step.

Suddenly I Realize that my feet are pretty cold. It’s normal at this elevation, i’ve lived it before. The best remedy is to start moving and stretching as i move up to improve the blood circulation and make them warmer.

I work meticulously for the next 30minutes to get everybody moving and to regain a comfortable temperature. When it seems to be working on one foot, it is short lived or the other goes sideways. It is really frustrating, because i feel really good physically and mentally. It is still damn cold, but the rest of the body is very responsive.

I know that i am very soon getting to the undesirable decision: at this elevation and under these conditions the obvious danger is represented by frostbites.

Frostbites happens at very cold temperatures (starting at or below 0C/32F), and is caused by a reduction of blood circulation to the exposed areas (typically extremities). The most severe case of frostbite involves the death of the tissue and the need to amputate the toe or finger. To be taken seriously.

After consulting with Tendi Sherpa, one of our two guides, i decide to give it a few more minutes & meters to regain control of my toes. I frantically keep moving and stretching my toes and feet, in the hope that I will overcome this moment.
Unfortunately, it seems a lost battle as the temperature gets at best stable (that means cold).

“Ok, i will turn back” I communicate and with no further hesitation I make my way back to camp.

My obvious immediate focus is not to lose control of my toes and reactivate the circulation as soon a possible. I keep moving my toes, feet (now out of the boots) and leg, in the warmth of the tent, while drinking liters of hot water.

After a good 30minutes of work, the sensitivity if finally restored and I am out of the danger zone. Fiuuu. That was creepy. I know it will takes a few days to get my toes back to normal, but the worst is over.

Obviously, This also means that my summit bid is over and that slowly sinks in.
It is really disappointing: after all the time, preparations and efforts and being overall in very good shape, having to turn back few hours away from the summit, which is in sight, is really hard. It’s that difficult decision that every mountaineer has to face once or several times in their career.
Even if hard and mind-crushing, there is no doubt in my mind that it was the right decision.

Well, the game is still open, Mr Aconcagua, I will see you at the end of the year! Time to find or invent a solution for this toe inconvenience.

By the way, the rest of the summit day was about other frostbites episodes, a full white-out, attempted and successful rescues, some dramatic news… This is the topic of another post.