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Climbing for Sustainability

May, 2016
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Mt. Aconcagua is 6962m above sea level and the highest mountain in South America, as well as in the Southern and Western Hemispheres. It is one of the famed ‘7 Summits’ and sees between 3,000 to 4,000 climbers attempt its summit each year. Last February, I was one of those climbers.

I had been dreaming of Mt. Aconcagua since I found my love of hiking at high altitude doing Kilimanjaro and later Everest Base Camp. Someone once told me that there will be only 10 times in your life when you will have that euphoric feeling and realization of “this is exactly where I am supposed to be.” Two of those times for me have been when I am on a mountain.

I was finally able to live my dream this past Chinese New Year holiday and attempt the summit of this great peak. I joined a group of seven other climbers and together we embarked on a two-week journey. I wanted my climb to be one for a greater good, so I focused on raising awareness and funds for environmental, economic and social sustainability. I fundraised for two great causes: the WISS Cambodia Project and GOOD Travel.

I work at the Western International School of Shanghai (WISS), which is a community of givers. Through their generosity and kindness and that of my friends and family abroad, I was able to fundraise over US$2,000 for these projects and I was pleased to literally hold the WISS flag high!

My hiking group represented every livable continent with two Australians, two North Americans, a South African (that’s me), two men from France, one from Spain and two South American guides. We had all joined the group independently and started our climb as strangers (aside from the guides), but we finished the climb as great friends.

Mt. Aconcagua was certainly a challenge, compared to mountains such as Kilimanjaro. The terrain is more difficult, the weather more hostile and the altitude is over 1,000m higher. You are also carrying all your own gear past Base Camp, which is unlike most Kilimanjaro expeditions where you have porters almost all the way up. We were very lucky with beautiful weather, but even we had about four days of harsh winds. The winds blew you backwards when you walked and made it seem like your tent was going to blow away at any moment in the night. It also blew the dust into your eyes and slowly dried out and cracked your lips. The winds also dropped the temperature and inspired you to stay in your tent most of the day on rest days.

The terrain was exciting but challenging. Much of the higher mountain is loose rock and scree. When you are carrying a 20kg pack, this can be quite difficult. There are also large ice formations called penitentes. They were beautiful to walk through, but you had to watch your step because deep dips would be on either side. In many places, a fall would have been dangerous, so we looked down, literally watching our step at most times. When we stopped for a break, we could take a gander at the lunar world around us. It could be what Mars looks like: red, barren rocks and dirt covering layers of ice. Quite incredible.

We spent just under two weeks on the mountain. The first three days were a faster pace, through massive valleys, over old riverbeds and fresh rivers. Big blue skies against a mix of green and rock. Then we arrived at Plaza Argentina Base Camp. We had a three-day stay here, to acclimatize. Base Camp had everything you would need – we could even have a warm shower and get online. Mules help to carry some of your gear to base camp, but once you head to high camps, you are on your own! Next we moved to Camp 1, which was about 5,000m, where we had one rest day after carrying some gear to Camp 2. We then moved to Camp 2, which is 5,570m, spent one night and then carried all our gear to Camp 3, which is around the same altitude as Kilimanjaro’s Uhuru Peak at just under 6,000m. We spent one short night at Camp 3 and then began our summit the next morning.

Our days were spent mostly walking, drinking water and Tang, eating snacks and talking. We talked less while walking as the altitude got higher and the oxygen levels lower.

At night we enjoyed dinner together, or huddled in our tents to escape the wind and cold and then some of us would play cards to pass the time. Overall our group was in very high spirits and there was a lot of laughter. They were a wonderful group of people to share this experience with. In fact, they made the experience.

img_0221We started out on summit day feeling pretty good. It was the best weather our guides had seen in years, but it was still –10°C. I woke up that morning feeling pretty good. I layered up, drank some tea, had a snack and then set out, in darkness, our head torches lighting up the small area ahead of us. As I was walking, I realized how cold it was, as my hands numbed almost instantly even under my gloves. We were about 20 minutes in and I wanted to stop to put my down mittens on, when suddenly my chest closed up and I could not breathe at all. I removed my pack and many layers and after some minutes could regain my breath. However, my chances of summiting were not looking good with this happening so early. With the guides, we made a decision for me to return to camp and I coughed my whole way down, as well as the next two days. A throat or chest infection they thought, from the winds and cold. It was a short-lived summit attempt for me, but that is why mountains are so humbling. Two members of our group of eight reached the Summit, and we were all extremely proud of them.

Being in the mountains, testing yourself physically and mentally, gives you a very valuable perspective on life. I cherish these times and I try to hold onto the insights I gain for as long as I can afterwards. There is a beautiful world out there, removed from all the pressures and habits of daily life – a world free from materialism, from vanity, from ego. A mountain is humbling; it sees you just as you are, it shows you your strength to persevere and to move past your fears, it lets you be authentic and demands a respect for it and for nature. You walk down that mountain feeling quite different to how you felt when you walked up it. You also share this experience with incredible people and form close friendships with them in such a short space of time. That’s the beauty of climbing mountains, literally and figuratively.

The funds raised will be used to build the school building on our site in Cambodia and will also assist in the awareness of sustainable tourism globally. I am going to continue my quest of raising awareness about protecting our planet and maintaining communities through more climbs. I hope you’ll follow me as I do at www.goodsummit.org.


By Shelley Bragg,

Director of Marketing and Development at The Western International School of Shanghai (WISS)



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