The Day a Ghost Saved My Life

My son just recently got interested in mountaineering and was looking through some of my old photographs of when I climbed South America’s highest mountain. I hadn’t thought about that trip to Aconcagua in a long time. We talked for a while about technical mountaineering, but what really threw him was when I said, “have I ever told you about the day a ghost saved my life?”

The Day a Ghost Saved My Life
The Day a Ghost Saved My Life
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A long, long, long time ago in the days before the internet and smartphones, me and my two friends decided we would meet up in Argentina to go and climb Aconcagua, the highest peak in South America. I would be traveling from England, and my friends would be traveling from the United States and Antarctica respectively. 

Now, because my friend was on a ship coming from the Antarctic, this meant that we would actually be climbing Aconcagua out of season. We would be rushing to try and summit ahead of the fast approaching winter snowfall.

Aconcagua sits between Chile and Argentina along the spine of the Andes mountain range. It isn’t a hard technical mountain climb, but it is almost 23,000 ft (22,837) with a 9 mile hike in before you get to the basecamp.

Because the internet wasn’t really a thing yet, the guidebook we were using said that we would be able to hire mules to carry all our food and provisions for the trip up to basecamp. But what the guidebook didn’t mention, was that, those only operate during the summer months. So by the time we arrived, there was not a mule to be found anywhere. This meant we had to carry 2 weeks of food, fuel, high altitude clothing and mountaineering gear ourselves. The initial weight was about 80 lbs. And as a tall skinny guy, that’s almost half my own body weight.

Heavy packs on the walk in to Aconcagua
80lb backpacks on the walk in, and not a mule to be found anywhere

The hike in to the basecamp took 2 days, but the views of the mountains were spectacular. The rock formations in that region are made up of many different layers of varying colors of rock, reminiscent of those sand art bottles you usually find at seaside resorts and desert towns. 

Aconcagua reminiscent of sand art
The spectacular hike in – reminiscent of sand art
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A Deserted Basecamp

Upon arriving at the basecamp, we were already pretty exhausted from carrying all the gear. It also soon became very apparent that we were the only people on the mountain.

The next few days were spent resting and making short hikes up the steep slopes to acclimatize and take some of our provisions up to where we would be camping. The lack of oxygen, even at basecamp made some of those trips difficult, and recovery took longer than we were used to. But we were young and British, so we did what our grandparents taught us. We stopped complaining and just got on with it.

The next day, we decided we would start pushing up the mountain, so we enthusiastically packed everything else we needed, and started the long climb up to the first camp. It was much harder with heavy packs, but we we’re full of youthful enthusiasm and just kept plodding along. Did I mention already, that smartphones weren’t invented yet, so just before we got to our first camp, a snowstorm moved in unannounced and quickly deposited a lot of snow at the place we were going to camp.

Fresh Snow on Aconcagua
Fresh Snow on Aconcagua

One of the things that the Andes Mountain Range is known for is the extremely strong winds. This made putting up a tent incredibly difficult in the freezing temperatures and heavy snowfall. But we were able to do it and quickly found ourselves inside and thankfully out of the wind. 

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An Unexpected Visitor

To our complete surprise, not long after we got settled into the tent, there was a proverbial knock at the door or at least a call for help right outside the tent. Apparently there was one other person on the mountain with us who also got caught out by the storm. But thankfully he was able to find our tent in the Darkness.

When we were planning the trip, one of the things we decided to compromise on, was using a two-man tent for the three of us. We figured we’d only really be sleeping and not hanging out in the tent for long periods. But with four of us in the tent, let’s just say it was a little cozy. We had just enough room for each of us to curl up in our sleeping bags in our own corner of the tent.

One thing that I quickly learned was that your body doesn’t just naturally breathe quicker to compensate for the lack of oxygen, it still breathes at its usual sedate pace. This means that each time you fall asleep you keep waking up feeling like you’re suffocating and have to take a few deep breaths until your body re-oxygenates and you gently fall back asleep again.

In all my years of camping and backpacking, that is one of the most claustrophobic nights sleeping in a tent I’ve ever had. None of us really got much sleep, And the 100 mile per hour winds that night certainly didn’t help to calm our minds.

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Digging Out

When we woke up the next morning, the tent was no longer on the surface of the mountain. We were now buried by about 4 ft of snow. But the sky was blue and the sun was shining down on us. We were so happy to finally come out of our compact cocoon and just lay out on some exposed rocks close to where the tent was pitched. Just enjoying the natural warmth and being able to breathe easily, oh and stretch your arms and legs out too. 

Relaxing after digging out the tent.
Relaxing after digging out the tent – aided by the wind and the warm sun

From there, we had a short days hike up to a hut that sits at around 19,000 ft. When I say hut, it’s more like a wooden tent. A little bit more room for four people, but still pretty cramped.

We figured because the weather was so good, that we would push for the summit the next day. In hindsight this might have been a mistake given how exhausted we were and how little sleep we got the night before. But we were pushing the winter snows any day now and we weren’t sure how many more good weather days we’d have.

High camp - wooden huts
High camp – wooden huts

We filled our bellies with all the food we brought up the mountain and settled down for a good night’s sleep, with our alarms set for 5:00 a.m..

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Too Many Errors

5:00 a.m. rolled around far too quickly and none of us really felt like getting out of our cozy sleeping bags and heading out into the frigid mountain air. So we definitely missed our early morning start time, further compounding our errors of judgment.

The climb up to the summit from the high camp follows a ridge before crossing a snowfield and one final scree slope up to the summit. The thing about the ridge though is that the path keeps switching sides to follow the easy snow alongside the ridge rather than going over the top of the treacherous rocks. It’s steep but fairly easy going and our crampons bit into the crunchy surface without any effort.

The snow field that skirts underneath the summit buttress was a little tougher. The morning sun was now melting the crunchy surface, so every second or third step would break through and leave you standing in thigh deep snow. Anyone that has ever had to break trail through fresh snow will tell you, moving through this terrain saps your strength quickly. And at this altitude, your legs are on fire so you are forced to move slowly.

The scree slope, even according to the guidebook explains how it feels like quicksand. The slope is steep. So each Boulder you step on slides backwards as you put weight on it. For each step forward you only make a quarter of a step of progress. Even large Boulders the size of a car seem to move when you put your hand on them. You have to go right up the center of this bolder field because on each side are towering rock faces that just continually drop new rocks onto the slope below.

Final scree slope to the summit
Final scree slope to the summit

The weather on the day that we chose to go to the summit couldn’t have been better. The sun was out, and the wind was negligible considering where we were climbing.

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Seeing Faces Everywhere

One thing that captivated me throughout the day was that, due to the lack of oxygen, that part of your mind that does pattern recognition and object identification seems to see things that aren’t there. Especially faces. It’s just like when you see a shadow or maybe a pile of clothes just carelessly dumped on the floor that when the light hits it just right, you see a face or an animal that isn’t really there. But on the mountain this seem to be almost constant . Each rock that I passed on the hike seemed to have a face in it staring back at me. It captivated me continuously. It was very surreal.

Pareidolia: The Phenomenon of Seeing Faces Everywhere
Pareidolia: The Phenomenon of Seeing Faces Everywhere

I knew what was happening. My mind still seems to be able to process what was going on in my body, but just the part of the mind that does this very basic function for us seemed to be misfiring due to the lack of oxygen.

In mountaineering, every climber sets a turnaround time. If you’re not on the summit by the turnaround time, you have to abandon the attempt and go back down to safety. Mountains can seem quite hospitable when the sun is out, but as nighttime approaches, so does the extreme temperature. It’s not like down at sea level where the temperature just gradually falls. Up at altitude, the air is so thin that even if you put your hand in a shadow, it is instantly freezing. So as soon as the sun drops over the horizon, the temperatures instantly fall to potentially fatal levels.

The other members of my party had already decided to go back due to fatigue from the previous day’s efforts, but as my turnaround time approached, I was so close to the summit, I could literally reach out and touch it. Or at least that’s what it looked like.

Like all youthful endeavors, done on a super tight student budget, I was damned if I was going to turn back at this point. I’d flown half way around the world for this adventure.

I estimated about 20 minutes to get to the top, and that seemed like an acceptable deviation from the plan. I ditched as much gear as I could to save weight. I left my crampons, ropes and any unnecessary gear sitting on a rock, so I can move faster. However, three hallucinatory hours later, I finally touched the summit and turned around just in time to see the sun going over the horizon.

The summit just as the sun was setting
The summit just as the sun was setting

The seriousness of the situation sank in instantly. I’d made a huge mistake.

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A Hasty Retreat

I hurriedly put all of my remaining cold weather clothing on and started to descend the slippery scree slope as quickly as I could. I’ve always had incredibly good balance, and running down scree slopes was something I was comfortable with. But in the back of my mind was the thought that, if I did slip and break something, that nobody was going to be able to rescue me up there.

The timeline gets a bit vague at this point, because I was more concerned with descending than I was tracking the time. But by the time I finally reached my gear that I had ditched earlier in the climb, it was almost pitch black. Thankfully, my headlamp was one of the first pieces of gear to greet me.

I quickly put everything back in my pack and continued descending. I wanted to get off the screen slope as quickly as possible and back down to the snow field that would offer a chance to rest, away from the falling rocks.

By the time I finally made it down to the snow field I was so exhausted, I was barely stumbling along at this point. I just needed to sit down eat something and rest for a few minutes before the relatively easy snow field and ridge down to the high camp. But at least I felt safe now.

As I sat there, the tiredness became overwhelming, and against all logic, I decided to dig a small snow hole and lay down to rest. This is often like digging your own grave in the Mountaineering world because your body just can’t function properly at altitude and you literally slip into a coma and die.

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Today is NOT a good day to die

Again, I’m not sure of the timeline, but at some point I woke up abruptly to the most amazing sight I’d ever seen. The wind had stopped completely, and I was greeted by a full moon that lit up the entire landscape. I could see all the mountain ranges spread out before me. The snow looked pure white and the rocks had a dark blue and purple look about them. Not monotone, but a blue tone landscape. It was so stunning. So silent and still.

Moonlit mountain
Moonlit mountain – recreation, not actual photograph

I decided I should get moving again. Crossing the snow field was easy now, because the snow had frozen into a hard crispy shell, so my crampons bit into it easily and I could stay on the surface rather than sinking in. I was able to reach the ridge fairly quickly and I felt good.

Descending the ridge line also seemed easy, despite being incredibly fatigued, and my legs feeling like lead at this point.

However, things didn’t stay that way for long.

Throughout the day, the wind had been blowing quite strongly, and any tracks that we made earlier in the day through the snow we’re now completely covered over and indistinguishable. I got to a point on the ridge, where I couldn’t remember which side we’d come up that morning.

There was a snow chute (couloir) down either side of the ridge, and both of them looked like reasonable options. The moon despite being very bright, left the ridge in a heavy shadow, and I couldn’t see what was at the bottom of each shoot. Even with my 1980s vintage headlamp, I couldn’t see far enough down to see what was at the bottom of each chute. I knew that if I went down the wrong one, I could easily step off a cliff and fall to my death, and I definitely wouldn’t have enough energy to drag myself back up if I did take the wrong one.

That realization sent a shiver down my spine. Either that or I was starting to succumb to the cold.

Nearby, there was a large rock that I decided I would just sit on while I contemplated my choices and also contemplate my life decisions up to this point.

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Meeting the Ghost that Saved my Life

As I sat there drinking the last of my water, I actually asked myself out loud, which way should I go? Then a thought occurred to me. Maybe if I turn around and look back up the mountain I might be able to figure out from the landscape which way we’d gone in the morning on the way up. And to my surprise, sitting on another rock about 10 ft away from me was a little boy wearing traditional Inca clothing. Nothing strange about that, I thought as my oxygen deprived brain tried to struggle with my situation. But nevertheless, I found myself asking the little boy which way to go. The little boy didn’t speak, but he did turn his head and gesture using his chin.

The day a ghost saved my life
Depiction of the little boy that saved my life

Without any hesitation, I grabbed my backpack and set off in the direction the boy had motioned. And sure enough right at the bottom of that couloir, was the little shelter where all my friends were already fast asleep.

I remember crawling inside and getting straight into my sleeping bag, barely acknowledging my friends from sheer exhaustion.

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An Interesting Twist

The next morning we woke once again to a sunny day with clear blue skies and no wind. My friends were already outside making hot tea and eating the last of our supplies. Of course we had the usual chit chat about how hard the mountain was, and congrats on summiting, but also the how stupid it was talks. And how lucky I was to get away with it. And how lucky we all were to get away with what we had done.

As we were talking, I suddenly remembered the experience I had with the little boy.

I excitedly started to tell my friends . I said,” you won’t believe what happened to me last night.” I was on the ridge and I couldn’t figure out which way to come down , and before I finished my sentence , my friend said, “did you see a little boy ?”

At that point there hairs on the back of my neck were definitely standing up straight, and not because of the cold, but because of the realization that we had both experienced the same thing. As he described the boy to me, it was clear that we both saw exactly the same thing , and also got directions and help from the boy.

I had rationalized to myself that it was just my mind trying to figure out a way to give me the information I needed in a way that I could understand. Lack of oxygen really does mess with your ability to process information, but I believe your mind is clever enough to figure out ways to tell you what you need even if it’s unconventional. However, as soon as my friend completed my sentence for me and described exactly the same thing, we both knew that something unusual had happened and that a friendly ghost had saved both our lives.

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Whether it was a real ghost, or merely a coincidentally similar hallucination brought about by a lack of oxygen, we shall never really know for certain.

I’d love to know more about him, and how he happened to be up there on that mountain that day. Was he a benevolent spirit who lost his own life on the mountain in that very same spot a long time ago, or possibly an Inca sacrifice? I guess I’ll have to wait a few more years to get the answers, but one thing I am certain about, is how thankful I am to that little boy who saved my life.

Thanks for reading.

Warm regards,

~The gregarious Hermit

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