Magazine article Geographical

Fathers and Sons: Children on the Summit of Aconcagua Are a Rare Sight. James Egemont-Lee Recounts How He and Friend Ben Freeth Travelled with Their Sons to the Highest Summit outside of the Himalayas

Magazine article Geographical

Fathers and Sons: Children on the Summit of Aconcagua Are a Rare Sight. James Egemont-Lee Recounts How He and Friend Ben Freeth Travelled with Their Sons to the Highest Summit outside of the Himalayas

Article excerpt

It was Ben's idea. To climb Aconcagua in Argentina. In the 30 years we have been friends, some of his ideas for adventure had been pure brilliance. Others complete lunacy. But what crowned this as a particularly good idea, and not simply some excess of middle-aged fancy, was that it was to be a trip with our sons: Ben's two boys and my son Tristan. A small team of five, we would set out from our home in Zimbabwe to climb the highest peak in the world outside of the Himalayas.

With an average summit success rate of one in every three climbers, the mountain was to be taken seriously. We knew that each short, summer climbing season, people succumb to altitude, cold and exhaustion in their attempts to reach the top, keeping rescue services busy. Some lose fingers or toes to the cold. Some die. Was I right to expose my own son, who would turn 14 just before the climb, to three weeks of this kind of hardship? I knew he was never going to say no to the opportunity, inspired as he always has been by Ben's older boys, Joshua and Steven.

At just over 40 kilograms, Tristan is small and young-looking for his age. However, it was no pushy over-ambition that led me to encourage him to join the expedition. In the last two years, with the privilege of being a child of Africa, he had ridden horses through the Bale Mountains of Ethiopia, walked for several days through the Zambezi Valley while sleeping rough among big game, dealt with a crocodile jumping into his canoe in a remote part of the Runde River and relocated a number of deadly snakes from people's gardens. I felt he had proven himself capable.

We arrived in Argentina in early December and set about applying for climbing permits. Noticing our papers were being met with disconcerting expressions of puzzlement by the friendly permitting staff, we realised that ours was not going to be a simple case. Two fathers and three children from Zimbabwe, climbing solo without guides or part of a package tour? We had some explaining to do.

The decision to climb Aconcagua by ourselves had been easy. It was in our DNA to be independent. In the 1990s, Ben and I had explored some of the most remote corners of Africa together, revelling in a taste of adventure gleaned from searching out the unknown. Subsequent travels with our families were similarly exciting and often unpredictable. Exasperated wives and forgiving children had tolerated being lost, stuck, hungry and uncomfortable, but all in the spirit of freedom and discovery. We wanted the same in the Andes. And it was not the case that heading into the mountains unguided was irresponsible. Ben had been schooled in the Alps and had spent years going feral with his school mates in the mountains, developing a skill set that saw him to the top of many of the most challenging Alpine peaks.

But our Argentinian gatekeepers did not initially see eye-to-eye. Legal advice was sought and our case debated behind closed doors. The kids fooled around outside the office on borrowed bicycles. Ben and I maintained seriousness and attempted to look like reliable mountaineers. It worked. We had the blessing of the Aconcagua authorities to take the kids up the 6,962m mountain.

We chose to approach Aconcagua via the Vacas valley, a lesser travelled route requiring three days hike to base camp. The walk was delightful. The energetic Vacas stream, brown with glacial meltwater from mountains far upstream, is framed by a harsh desert of scree and rock stretching high on each side. Together with our colorful team of laden pack mules, we walked under perfect blue skies and a glaring sun.

Arrival at Base Camp 'Plaza Argentina at 4,200m saw the beginning of our essential acclimatisation process. We had planned to spend plenty of time adapting to the altitude, allocating a number of spare days on the mountain for the slow business of headaches or nausea to subside. We quickly made friends with fellow climbers and camp staff, many of whom were drawn to the novelty of seeing children on the mountain. …

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