A Quarter-Inch of Metal Broke my Heart (and nearly killed me) - Aconcagua
Tyler Andrews is a pro runner for HOKA and a coach for and founder of Chaski. Over the past few years, Ty has established himself as one of the best high mountain trail-runners in the world, with records on the Everest Base Camp Trail, Cotopaxi Volcano, Ojos del Salado Volcano, and many more 20,000+ ft (6000m+) peaks. In 2021, he began the “Los 10” Project - an attempt to set 10 records on mountains and trails in the Andes. He planned to finish the project with the 10th record on Mt. Aconcagua, the tallest mountain in the Americas at 6,962m, and the most competitive record he’d ever attempted.
Note: This is a two-part essay, covering events on both Ojos del Salado (part 1 - click here) and Aconcagua (part 2 - you are here).
Fast forward eighteen days. As the condor flies, we’re only about 400 miles away, but the journey here has required a jeep, a plane, a COVID PCR test, another plane, another car, and finally hoofing it on foot as two mules schlepped our two-week supply of food, fuel, and housing up to Plaza de Mulas, Aconcagua Base Camp, at 4,350m (14,271ft) above sea level. We’ve been here, tossing and turning at night, pissing into a 6L water jug in our tent, and waiting for the 100 mph winds to abate, for nearly two weeks. And, finally, we see a window on the forecast.
A window means it’s time to go. It’s time to pack up everything I’ll need for the record attempt and make the two day hike out to the park entrance, from where I’ll start the 45-mile journey on Saturday. Scott will stay at Plaza de Mulas and meet me on record day at the Nido de Condores (“Condors’ Nest”) campsite at 5,600m (18,372ft) where I’ll essentially change from running gear into climbing gear.
“I think I want to bring both of these pairs,” I say to Scott, holding up both the minimalist hiking crampons (which had failed me on Ojos) and the “one-step-up” model, a semi-technical crampon by Kahtoola, with longer spikes and an overall more robust design.
“I’ve got plenty of margin for time on the way up, so I think I’d rather use the slightly heavier, beefier crampons and not have to worry about trusting my feet as much.”
The margin I’m talking about is my virtual race with the legendary Karl Egloff, the current record holder of the ascent and round-trip marks on Aconcagua (as well as a dozen or so other high-profile mountain-running and speed-climbing records). This mark has been on my mind for years, really rising to the forefront after I set the Ojos record in 2021. That day, I had finally convinced myself that it was doable. The past two weeks in the park have only further cemented my confidence. I’ve meticulously logged each training day, comparing those efforts to how Karl had covered similar segments on the mountain, and mapping out the splits for what I think I might run.
I’m nervous, but, hell, even Eliud Kipchoge gets nervous. I worry mostly about the factors outside of my control: Will I get harassed by the guardaparques (park rangers)? Will the weather match the forecast or will we still get hammered by insane winds up high? Will I freak out if I have some kind of (even minor) slide or fall on the mountain? Will the dozens if not hundreds of other climbers who are probably also planning to summit this day, the only good-weather day in the past week, create too dense of a log-jam and slow me down?
These are the questions running through my head as I descend to Confluencia camp (3,400m or 11,154ft) and finally down to Horcones, the park entrance, where I reunite with our new Argentinian friend, Gustavo, and his little yellow taxi hauls us to the ghost-town of Penitentes where we hole-up in an old ski lodge for the eighteen hours or so until the attempt is due to start.
I manage to crawl into bed around 5 or 6pm -- hours before sunset -- and dream deeply and vividly, waking before my alarm in the predawn darkness.
THE DAY - LOS PENITENTES - 2650m (8,694ft)
At 5:00am, Gustavo drives me the nine miles back up the road to the park entrance. The moon illuminates the ground so well that I don’t even need my headlamp as I walk the mile or so from the road to the trail-head, the official start of the route. It’s perfectly silent, warmer than I’d expected. I roll my snow-pants into a tight ball and tuck them in my pack, starting in just light half-tights and a long sleeved shirt, my wind-breaker tied around my waist like a 90s cartoon teen.
Scott had asked a few days ago if the whole FKT thing felt weird after so many years of “real racing” (i.e. does a “Fastest Known Time” an individual record attempt feel different from an actual race). I think the running itself can feel very similar, but the start and finish are definitely anti-climactic. Thousands of miles and hundreds of summits have led to this moment, this dark, empty parking lot where I stand alone, Scott some 25 miles up the valley, Gustavo probably already back at the lodge, in bed. With no starting gun and no announcer, I start my GPS tracker and two watches (you can never be too safe) and trot off uphill into the dark night.
HORCONES TO CONFLUENCIA - 2,900m to 3,400m (9,514ft to 11,154ft)
One of my mental tricks has always been to divide seemingly impossible tasks into manageable chunks. You can, unfortunately, see the summit of Aconcagua from the start of the route and as you look up at that desolate expanse of ice and snow on the horizon some 14,000 ft. above you, making your way up there on foot in less than 8 hours seems about as feasible as running to the moon.
But I know not to think about that. Just look at the lovely, brutal south face of the mountain and don’t worry about how you’ll get up there. No, instead, just get to Confluencia.
This first campsite is only 7km away and (if all goes well) will be the only stretch I run in the dark, so my main focus is not to trip or sprain my ankle on the fairly technical stretch of single-track that leads up to the plateau where camp sits.
I’m enjoying myself as I pass the little bridge and begin the real climbing up towards camp. It’s warm and I can feel how much more oxygen there is in the air than my body is used to. Dawn breaks as I make the final climb up and across a deep moraine and jog past the little tent city in 48 minutes. One chunk down.
CONFLUENCIA TO MULAS - 3,400m to 4,350m
From Confluencia, the trail crosses a steep, sandy canyon, rising up until reaching an interminable floodplain which leads to what we call “The Big Rock” after about 18km and 500m net uphill. This section is one which -- on both the ascent and descent -- should be fairly quick, as the grade is gentle and the footing decent.
I make good time. I’m in an excellent rhythm as I trot through empty valley after empty valley. Finally, I see the big rock in the distance and split my watch as I pass at 2 hours, 1 minute.
After the Big Rock, the trail climbs steeply up the hillside and across a handful of loose, rocky moraines. It’s another one of the more technical sections of the trail, though still low enough that it’s mostly runnable. I still haven’t seen a single other human (or mule, thankfully) as I navigate the final switchbacks and pop out in front of the largest campsite I’ve ever been to, a few hundred climbers hustling and bustling in the frigid morning air.
Scott and I have dubbed “Gringo Dawn” as the moment when the direct sunlight hit camp (and thus raised the temperature about 20 degrees). Gringo Dawn is currently around 09:36, so most of Plaza de Mulas is still tucked away in sleeping bags as I roll through just before 09:00. I peel off quickly to the left into the tent where Scott has stashed a bag with a few extra water bottles, layers, and my climbing helmet. I grab everything I need frenetically, almost frantically, and jog out of town, up and right and onto the start of the real climb.
As I leave town, my watch reads 3 hours, 4 minutes. I’m more than 20 minutes ahead of Karl already.
MULAS TO NIDO - 4,350m to 5,600m
The stretch from Plaza de Mulas to Nido de Condores has become my de-facto training route for much of the past two weeks, and so I’ve created my own little points of reference on the climb: the rock step at 4,550m (14,927ft), the “Little Schmenzer” at 4,750m (15,583ft), then Canada Camp at 5,060m (16,601ft), the boulder pile at 5,300m (17,388ft), and finally the orange wind-sock at Nido de Condores at 5,560m (18,241ft), where I’ll meet Scott. I know down to the second how long each of these little stretches should take and so I smile as I glance at my watch as I pass each landmark, knowing I’m right on schedule.
Amazingly, I’m still not wearing pants. Scott and I are in radio contact now and I ask him if he sees me.
“I’m wearing my blue Hoka jacket and I’m the only idiot gringo not wearing pants,” I say.
So far, the weatherman has proved himself prescient and I roll up to camp feeling fantastic in 4 hours, 24 minutes, now 37 minutes ahead of Karl.
Like a NASCAR pit-stop, it’s time to quickly change the tires and refuel. In this case, my tires are my shoes (and pants), as I switch from my Hoka EVO Speedgoats to a GTX Speedgoat, a significantly heavier but warmer and waterproof version of the same shoe, and my fuel is a handful of ritz crackers, to give myself something salty and chewable amidst a day of pounding Gu gels and drink mix.
This is also the moment of truth in which Scott helps me strap on the Kahtoola crampons (the medium-weight pair) and I take my first steps of the trip in them. There’s actually remarkably little snow at Nido, but I can already feel how much safer and more stable I feel with the beefier pair. It’s a great choice.
NIDO TO SUMMIT - 5,600m to 6,967m (18,372ft to 22,857ft)
It can’t be more than ten minutes above Nido when my left crampon pops off my shoe. Oh shit, I must not have attached it well, I think (it’s not entirely uncommon for a crampon to pop off if poorly placed; there’s a ton of force moving through them when climbing). But as I sit in the snow, I realize the problem is more serious.
My crampon has popped off because of one molar-sized screw, a screw far too small for its importance. This one screw essentially holds the two pieces (the forefoot and heel plates) of the crampon together. Without it, you have no way to create the tension necessary to keep the pieces attached to your sole.
The first miracle of the day is that, within a few minutes I find the little bastard in the snow, just a few paces down. Sitting in the snow, glad I’m wearing my snow-pants now, I expose my half-frozen fingers to the elements and do my best to squeeze and twist the screw back in place. My hands feel stiff and awkward, but finally I catch the thread of the screw and twist and it feels snug and I’m on my feet again and heading up.
The stop probably cost me close to half an hour and now I’m nervous as I follow the obvious snow track up towards the two really high camps at 6000m (19,685ft).
I figure that the torque on the crampon when it bends along its long plane is probably what loosened the screw (i.e. standing on your tiptoes, i.e. a lot of climbing on a steep snow-slope), so I do my best to avoid that particular foot placement, instead using the “French Step,” essentially a cross-over side-step vs. the more expedient “on your toes” front-facing climbing.
The French Step and the general anxiety are kind of kicking my ass, but I make it up to 6000m (19,685ft) in 50 minutes, even with my long stop, 5 hours 18 minutes total, still 33 minutes ahead of Karl.
The normal route then follows the ridge-line of the mountain up to my next mental check-in point, what we dubbed “The Great Schmenzer” at just under 6,500m (21,325ft). I’m beginning to feel the altitude and that feeling mostly manifests as an extreme desire to just stop and turn around.
An aside - I explained this to Scott later, but this is how I experience high altitude (when well acclimated): I don’t get headaches, I don’t feel dizzy or nauseated. I just get to a certain point up high where my Chimp Brain really, really wants me to turn around and give up.
It’s the contradiction between this extremely strong and immediate, instinctual evolutionary desire to retreat vs. the deeper, longer-term will to continue struggling and suffering that, in my mind, makes high altitude so fascinating. How can I be so ready to give up on something about which I care so tremendously? How can I work with my mind and my body in those moments to convince myself that, yes, this is fine, no problem, let’s just continue for another few minutes and everything will feel better.
Of course, things don’t feel better at 6,500m (21,325ft).
But, I pass the Great Schmenzer in 6h12 and now have less than 500m (1,640ft) to go. Even with my half-hour lost, I should be on the summit right around 7h00.
And then, it happens again. My crampon is suddenly not one crampon but two mini-halves-of-a-crampon. I’m on the long traverse under the summit, the nearly 1000m (3,280ft) of steep exposure down the rocky, icy west face and -- very carefully, with only one functional crampon -- desperately looking for that molar-sized screw again.
This time, I can’t find it. It’s gone, likely tumbling down the west face toward Mulas.
I scream the word “FUCK” a few times and pound my firsts in the snow and feel very sorry for myself, indeed. I’m so close. Why, how is this happening?
Parachute cord. I have some parachute cord (essentially a heavy-duty shoelace) in my pack. I pull out the fistful -- maybe 3 ft total -- and am now sitting on the edge of the west face at 6,600m, desperately trying to thread a frayed piece of cord through the tiny hole on that stupid little metal plate that holds the two stupid pieces of stupid spike plate to my stupid shoe. I lick the filthy string and push it through as hard as I can, my frozen, wooden fingers just about useless. I grab the other end with my teeth and -- AH HA! I am invincible! -- I pull the cord through.
I tie a convoluted knot, my oxygen-deprived brain still remembers some basics, and wrap the cord around both the crampon and my shoe. It’s not beautiful, but it should work. Brute force.
Finally, I’m back on my feet and take a few testing steps. Nothing pops off. Another thirty minutes lost, but I’m back on my feet and moving up again.
There are dozens of climbers between me and the summit now. Most are extremely generous as I ask, “Could I just scooch by on your left, please?” in my most polite and calm voice, but a few either don’t hear, or don’t speak English or Spanish, or are simply too cooked from the altitude to do anything other than stand and pant (which, who can blame them, honestly).
The watch keeps ticking. I know I’ve lost a ton of time, but I also know I’m going to get the ascent record, unless my MacGyver-level-crampon fails me again.
I can see the true summit, right there, only a few more groups to pass, maybe one hundred more steps. Then the final little rock scramble, just as the clouds roll in, and I’m there. On top of the world.
Fun fact -- if you’re standing on top of Aconcagua at 6,962m (22,841ft), you’re likely the highest person on Earth with two feet on the ground. See, Aconcagua is climbed mostly from December to February, a time when the big mountains in the Himalaya, Karakoram, etc., are (almost entirely) off limits (unless, like Nims Purja of “14 Peaks” and Winter K2 fame who, coincidentally, had been on the mountain unbeknownst to us just a few days earlier, someone feels like climbing 7000m+ (22,965ft) mountains in winter at the same moment you’re standing on top of Aconcagua. It’s not likely. You’re probably the highest.)
I reach the top in 7 hours, 35 minutes and spend only a couple minutes there. Unlike the twenty other climbers with whom I share the summit, this moment is, for me, just another quick pause in a day where every minute counts.
SUMMIT TO NIDO - 6,962m to 5,600m (22,841ft to 18,372ft)
As I begin to descend, I know that, with all the time I’d lost on the way up, it’ll be very tight to break Karl’s round-trip record, even if things go perfectly from here. I also know that the worst thing that could happen would be for me to rush and fall and hurt myself or re-break my crampon again on this highest and most perilous part of the mountain.
I take my time from the summit back down to the Great Schmenzer and somehow, my feet and my gerry-rigged crampon don’t fail me. I’m just past the Schmenz when it finally happens: The cord has failed, ripped, and my two crampon halves again dangle uselessly as the connector disappears down the West Face. I stop and spend another oxygen-deprived few minutes just to get the tangled mess off my foot. Luckily, I’m past the steepest and most exposed pitches now and decide to just send it down the last thousand vertical meters of snow with one crampon.
Slipping and sliding, I scoot down the snow and ice and (now, after a few hours of bright sunlight), mud until I’m back at Nido de Condores and strip off my one remaining crampon and a couple layers.
For the first time all day, I’m behind Karl. I’d known I would lose time to him on this section -- his specialty is this type of super steep, super technical descent -- but I had assumed I’d have a much bigger buffer on the ascent. With nearly ninety minutes of stoppage time futzing with my crampon, I’d already burned through my entire advantage.
NIDO TO MULAS - 5,600m to 4,350m (18,372ft to 14,271ft)
I love the descent down from Nido to Mulas. Like the ascent, I’ve done it four or five times in training before today, and could send it in about twenty-three minutes all the way down. With nine hours of movement, my legs wobble just a bit -- probably a combination of a low-calorie bonk, a lot of time up high, and general muscle fatigue.
I slip and fall and land hard on my ass a few times and decide to lift my foot just a tiny bit off the gas. I’m still down to Mulas in twenty seven minutes but, as I jog into camp, I know it’s going to be essentially impossible to make up the lost time needed to break 11h52.
My stop in Mulas is my longest of the day. Scott has already headed down, so I swap my packs, put my EVO Speedgoats back on, take my pants off (it’s actually warm down here in the sun), and slam a few more Ritz crackers. The onlookers cheer me on as I run out of camp. 25km to go.
MULAS TO CONFLUENCIA - 4,350m to 3,400m (14,271ft to 11,154ft)
The trail back down to the Big Rock is treacherous on tired legs, so, again, my number one priority is not to fall and crack my skull open. I’m successful, but as I approach the end of the trail I see the ol’ Horcones River is going to cause us some problems.
See, in the morning, that super-runnable-flood-plain section had been bone dry, just a trickle of clear glacial melt dividing the middle. Now, after eight hours of direct sun on the high snow-fields, that stream had swollen to a tumescent, chocolate-milk-colored rager. The initial crossing, which I hopped over in the morning without so much as a second thought, now requires fording a 12-foot-long, 3-foot-deep, fast-moving span, just to get onto the floodplain. I don’t bother taking my shoes off, but simply wade into the absolutely fucking arctic water.
From there, the river has split into ten-thousand little off-shoots across the floodplain. I do my best to jog, but literally every minute or so, I’m coming to another dead-end and wading out into the water again. I finally come to a section lower down where the entire flood-plain is covered in knee-deep, brown water. With steep, loose walls on the edge of the valley, I have no choice but to hop in.
I look at my watch and realize it’s taken me almost twenty minutes to cover this first mile -- and this is the section where I expected to fly. The water extends as far as I can see and now I know, for sure, Karl’s round-trip record is safe.
I wade for several miles. There are times where it’s more shallow and I’m actually able to high-knee-jog my way through, but the motion is exhausting, like running through ocean surf (at 12,000 ft)
Finally, I’m able to find a line through the rocks above water and jog the last minutes down the valley, up and over the little hill, down and across the canyon, and back to Confluencia.
CONFLUENCIA TO THE FINISH - 3,400m to 2,900m (11,154ft to 9,514ft)
I let myself really run this last piece. The trail is super technical until the bridge, so I start carefully, but from there, it’s smooth sailing and I enjoy these final minutes. I’m not running fast (about 6’00/km), but I feel surprisingly comfortable, like I could maintain this pace all day.
I push the last few minutes; I can see the orange wind-sock that marks the heli-pad at the finish. I know this is the end, not just of this run, but of this entire expedition, this multi-month block of training leading up to this moment, and I don’t want to finish feeling like I left any of the juice in the proverbial lime.
And then, with just as little fanfare as the pitch-black start some 13 hours earlier, it’s all over.
13 hours, 9 minutes.
I’d missed Karl’s round-trip mark by 77 minutes, but had registered the third-fastest time ever on the route and still broken the ascent record in the process.
It’s hard to stay mad at a one-centimeter piece of metal.
But it’s also impossible not to be frustrated, not to wonder “what if?”, not to feel anger and disappointment with myself and with that little screw. Why did I use those crampons? Why didn’t I buy a nicer, more expensive pair? Why did this happen today instead of during a training session last week?
All these questions race through my head as I catch my breath, warm up in Gustavo’s bright yellow taxi as we watch the helicopters land and take off at alarming angles in the now gale force winds.
From an outside perspective, both of the crampon-induced heartbreaks were my own fault. On Ojos, I should have known better than to continue upward with, in retrospect, obviously inadequate gear. And I should have wear-tested the Aconcagua pair more than I did. I should have bought a nicer pair from a more reliable manufacturer.
What can I do with these realizations? I can learn for the future. Obsessing about what-ifs will not change today’s result. I won’t get those precious minutes back on the high slopes; the watch doesn’t lie. And beating myself up won’t retroactively stop my fall on Ojos either. It won’t lift me up and gently nudge me backwards up the mountain and erase that memory, the flashbacks that still haunt me, and replace them with another happy summit. All that’s happened is non-negotiable.
All I can do is look forward. I won’t beat myself up, I’ll try not to constantly tongue at the wound on my ego. No, instead, I will celebrate what I have accomplished.
Two more mountain records on the highest peak in the Western Hemisphere, engraving my name next to two of my heroes, Karl and Kilian. Four other records in the build-up.
My healthiest and most productive training block in years.
And, maybe most importantly, the most joyful months I can remember preparing for the challenge. Progress that can be measured not just in pace and distance and elevation, but that true capital-H Happiness which can be so elusive, which has been so elusive for me these past years.
When I think about the heartbreak from these crampons, from those tiny slivers of metal, when I think about that phrase that echoes in my brain -- “I really fuckin’ hoped I wouldn’t die” -- I realize that the urge to survive flows from some newly found optimism.
It’s no secret that I’ve struggled with depression, often seeing the future through that lens of Sadness, but, now, something has shifted inside of me. I don’t want to imply that one fun training block cured my depression. It’s been a long and circuitous path here, with moments of joy and regressions into darkness. What I do know is that, even if part of me is disappointed, I am still here, still Happy about the present and the future. That’s not something I’ve been able to say for a long time.
As I see Scott coming down the trail, heroically hauling the last of our gear all the way down, and we reunite at the trailhead, I realize everything is finally over. There’s no second chances here, no do-overs. This has been my one shot, take it or leave it.
I don’t know if I’ll ever come back here, if I’ll try again. But I know that, because of the weeks I spent in that tent up high, the months before that as my body and mind slowly adjusted to the thin air of the Andes, the years spent dreaming about this summit, I’m a better, happier person.
“We did it,” I say to Scott, bumping fists as we unshoulder his pack.
“Another day in paradise.”
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