Mila Marlina is the unlikeliest of mountaineers. At 4’9” and 82 pounds, she is about the size of a large backpack. The 42-year-old is from coastal Indonesia, where the climate is tropical and the culture doesn’t encourage a wife and mother to disappear for weeks into the mountains.
Yet this season, Marlina was one of thousands of climbers from around the world to travel to Aconcagua, the tallest summit in the Western Hemisphere, located in Argentina near the Andean border with Chile. For Marlina, accomplishing this feat also meant missing her older daughter’s 14th birthday in late December and skipping Christmas with her entire family.
“I already said sorry to my daughter for missing her birthday,” Marlina, who is Catholic, told me as we sat in a tent at base camp of the 22,837-foot-tall mountain. “She said, ‘It’s okay. We all have our dreams.’”
Aconcagua is the second-tallest of the Seven Summits—the biggest mountains on each continent—and considered a test of a climbers’ ability to handle high altitude and severe cold before attempting the big daddy, Everest. Every climbing season, which runs during Argentina’s summer months of December to February, Aconcagua draws around 5,500 people from around the world. Most are unable to reach the summit.
Marlina had already climbed Kilimanjaro—the tallest mountain in Africa—a few months earlier, and in December she wanted to tick off her second of the Seven Summits. But she also had a more personal reason to be far away from her family and home. A year earlier, she lost her father to cancer. He had been one of her closest friends, beside her during the birth of both her daughters. Shaken from his death, Marlina found solace in the mountains. “Anything to distract my thinking,” she said. She also found that, because of her size, she could be an inspiration to others, both on and off the mountain.
“I asked my daughters what they thought of me doing this,” said Marlina. “They said, ‘We didn’t expect you to be able to do this. You’re so small!’”
Marlina was not the only Aconcagua climber in December 2014 who was challenging preconceptions about what’s possible in mountaineering. Camping nearby her was a Spaniard by the name of Kílian Jornet Burgada, widely regarded as the world’s fastest mountain runner competing today. The 27-year-old has recorded the fastest known time (F.K.T.) on the tallest mountains of Africa (Kilimanjaro), Western Europe (Mont Blanc), and North America (Denali), and in mid-December, he was preparing to also claim the F.K.T. on the tallest peak in South America.
“It’s the highest mountain in the Americas and the highest outside the Himalayas,” Jornet told me when I spoke with him at base camp. “It’s a unique place with a long tradition.”
Jornet, at 5’6” and about 130 pounds, is a pair of oxygen-tank lungs atop two huge piston-like legs. Yet as different as he looked from petite Marlina, they shared something in common. In many ways, both are a product of the booming popularity of climbing and mountaineering worldwide, which is pushing climbers of all abilities to new heights—as also seen when two Americans in January conquered the world’s toughest rock climb in Yosemite National Park, or in the speed-climbing feats of “the Swiss machine” Ueli Steck. Aconcagua is no longer just the tallest peak of the Western Hemisphere; it has turned into something of a Summit of the Americas, a meeting place for people from around the world, which brings new risks and challenges.
Aconcagua saw climbers from 61 nations in the 2009-2010 season, a 50 percent increase in the number of nationalities from a decade earlier, according to the last available government data, made available by Inka Expediciones. Marlina’s 15-person summit expedition with the Mendoza-based agency Inka Expediciones, for example, included paying customers from 10 countries (Argentina, Australia, Brazil, France, India, Indonesia, Kuwait, Spain, Sweden, and the United States), ranging in age from 20 to 55, with varying degrees of experience and training; I was also a fully paying client. Our group included a bus driver and two young bankers, a Brazilian couple marking their wedding anniversary, two French brothers on an annual adventure getaway, and an Argentine who was celebrating her university graduation.
The growth in tourism is thanks to better equipment, cheaper travel, and the push by guiding companies to expand amenities for a wider base of customers, according to Sebastián Angel Tetilla, the founder and director of Inka Expediciones, which has seen its annual clientele quadruple to 800 people over the past decade. Inka’s price of a summit expedition has also doubled over the past decade to $3,200—not including the cost of gear, travel, and a park entry fee costing as much as $945. That money is now covering the costs of three-course meals, bunk beds with mattresses, Internet and phone services, and a fleet of porters from Argentina and other Andean nations—all unimaginable in the 1990s.
“It’s needed not by the climbers, but by the tourists,” Tetilla told me. “The mountain is more tame, but not just Aconcagua, also the Himalayas and other destinations that look more like adventure tourism.”
With increased accessibility come increased risks. Novice climbers are now arriving with false expectations about what’s doable, according to Heber Orona, a guide with Inka who has worked on Aconcagua for more than two decades. “People today are less prepared for Aconcagua,” he told me.
This is not entirely illogical: After all, if a nine-year-old American boy could summit Aconcagua last season, one might reasonably question how tough it could really be. But climbers and tourists alike should not underestimate the mountain’s risks, Orona said. That was highlighted by the deaths of two Americans last year, which added to the tally of 33 fatalities on Aconcagua between 2001 and 2012 and made it one of the more deadly mountains in the Americas.
“Aconcagua is not a very dangerous mountain,” added Tetilla, “but big storms happen and mountain sickness happens, and this is when the mountain becomes dangerous.”
When we arrived on December 10 to the colorful tent village of base camp (elevation 14,100 feet), the kitchen staff was blasting Guns N’ Roses’ “Paradise City” on a boom box. To get here, we had trekked through 14 miles of wind-swept valleys (the backdrop for the film Seven Years in Tibet) and gained 4,600 feet in altitude. From here, it was only another five miles to the summit—which looked deceptively close—but the elevation gain of 9,000 feet forces most climbers to do it over another four to six days. In total, it was a two-week expedition for us—from December 8 until December 21. Meanwhile, Jornet, the seven-time world champion sky runner, intended to do the same 38-mile roundtrip journey in less than 15 hours (which was the old F.K.T.).
Our head guide was Orona, 44, who was marking his 30th summit expedition. Somewhat of a local climbing celebrity, Orona was the first Argentine to complete all Seven Summits, and during our expedition, he shared some of his mountain tales—perhaps to help remind us of the real dangers ahead. One day, as we ate lunch far below the south face of Aconcagua, one the world’s tallest walls, Orona pointed to where he had ascended it in six days—he and his Peruvian climbing partner initially slept in a tent on ledges, then they ditched the heavy tent and slept on the face of the mountain with only a rope tied around their waists to stop from falling into the void. A week later on the same route, a Polish climber fell, his body never found.
Our route up the mountain’s north face was far less precarious, but we still had only a one-in-three chance of reaching the summit, by historical measure. Marlina said she first heard of Aconcagua because of two famous Indonesian climbers who died here in 1992. “You can’t just stay home because you’re afraid to die,” she said.
On December 16, Orona led us from base camp up to 16,500 feet, where we pitched tents for the night and then continued up to 18,000 feet. But the following morning, December 18, Marlina and several others woke with low oxygen counts and alarmingly high blood pressure levels. Orona told Marlina it was too dangerous for her to continue. She refused to turn back. “[Orona] doesn’t think I’m strong enough to make the summit, but I asked him to give me the chance, because I feel okay,” she told me that morning. “I will give everything I have.” Not until three rangers from the nearby police camp surrounded her and insisted that she turn back for her own safety did she agree. She vowed to return.
The remaining 10 of us continued to camp three, at about 19,500 feet elevation. We woke at 4:00 a.m. on December 19 to prepare for the final eight-hour climb to the summit. In the numbing pre-dawn cold, my headlamp died and my boot-lace broke; one of the French brothers vomited; a burly Swede lost his mitten and began to cry. (“To prepare for a year and then not go up because you can’t find one mitten?” he said.) In the darkness, Orona exclaimed: “Ok guys, this is our summit day! Concentrate. Focus on your feet. The sun will be up in a few hours, I promise.” At that same moment, about 20 miles away and 10,000 feet below us, Jornet was starting out from the park’s entrance gate at Horcones in an attempt to set the F.K.T.
As our group continued, wind speeds of 55 mph dropped the temperature well below freezing. An Indian climber developed frostbite on his nose and cheeks; a young American could not feel her feet; others were debilitated from altitude sickness. Each time I looked back, another climber had turned back, until three of us remained—an American, a Frenchman, and the Swede who had managed to find his misplaced mitten—led by our Argentine and Peruvian guides. Toward the summit, we passed climbers from Canada and Japan. The fierce wind and cold had limited the number of people on the summit to eight people (a figure that can reach above 100 in high season). Yet we still represented seven nationalities and four continents.
But there was no sign of Jornet. He, like Marlina, had been forced to turn back because of the cold and the onset of altitude sickness. And he, like Marlina, refused to leave without giving the summit another shot.
Four days later, after several days of rest in a motel and on a day with low winds, Jornet set a new F.K.T. in about 13 hours. On the way, he ran past Marlina, who by now had also climbed back up the mountain with a private guide. On Christmas Eve day, she ascended to nearly 21,000 feet—less than two thousand feet shy of the summit—when she had to turn back for the second time because of the onset of hypoxia.
“It was beautiful up there when the sun was up,” she wrote to me by e-mail afterward. “The color of the sky, the shadow of Aconcagua… It was indescribable.”
She added: “I will come again next year.”
All photos courtesy of the author.
Stephen Kurczy is a Latin America correspondent for Fusion and The Christian Science Monitor‘s new business publication, Monitor Global Outlook. He also wrote on Jornet’s F.K.T. on Aconcagua for The New Yorker.