Never waste an opportunity

By Pete McAfee


What would you do if you were given the opportunity to climb the highest mountain in the southern and western hemispheres? What kinds of questions would you ask yourself? Am I fit enough?  Do I have the mental strength for this?  Why would I do this? To complicate matters, I’m a right leg amputee… am I even physically capable of pulling this off?  These were the questions going through my mind when I got the call. 


I had entered to win a spot on an expedition to Aconcagua with Grajales Expeditions that deuter was putting on.  Who would’ve thought you could ever win anything on social media?  Well, let me tell you, this one was real, and I had five months to train before I left on this expedition.  

A Grajales tent at camp


Tanner Schaefer, my good friend and climbing partner, helped put my doubts to rest when I told him about my good fortune winning the contest. He told me that if this was an actual lottery, “they are the ones who got lucky, not you”.  Most of my self-doubt quickly faded away as I accepted the offer. To be fair, Tanner was right, at the very least I had just as good a chance at pulling this off as anyone.  I was already an avid skier and mountaineer.  I spend every other week playing in the mountains of northern California, and the Cascades of Oregon, and Southern Washington.  It wasn’t like I haven’t done hard things before. I’ve climbed multiple technical, and non-technical peaks as well as high altitude volcanoes in Ecuador. Heck, me, and a group of friends successfully climbed, and ski descended Denali less than two years ago and we did it unguided.  For those who don’t know, Denali is known for bad weather, is heavily glaciated and is the highest peak in North America. Tanner was right. My confidence was growing, and I was beginning to believe that I was the man for the job!


That being said, I wasn’t going to take this lightly. A huge opportunity was on the line, and I wasn’t going to let it go to waste. I upped my training, carrying a fully loaded deuter Aircontact X (~75lbs of weight) up mountains and upping my cardio work. I began spending longer days in the mountains and began climbing up and down, rather than climbing up and skiing down.  I preach a lot about setting yourself up to get lucky. I had a good cardio base and was spending ample time in the mountains. I was in a position to get lucky. 


Fast-forward five grueling months of training to January 26. My bags are packed, my gear is sorted and I’m hopping on a plane headed to Argentina. The next day I met my team for the first time. There were eight people total with two guides, and six clients. It was a very culturally diverse group of men and women, but we bonded immediately, and the team meshed very well.  We did a gear check and enjoyed eating our way around Mendoza. 

 An acclimatization hike to the neighboring Cerro Bonete


No expedition is complete without a little drama, and this was no exception. Due to abnormally high temps and potential flooding in the Vacas Valley, the government closed the Polish and Polish Traverse routes. This meant we wouldn’t be doing our planned route. While this was upsetting for some, I kept an open mindset and decided not to stress about things I can’t control. I was happy to adapt and move forward with the next best option, climbing the Normal Route


river crossing
1 The author taking on a water crossing
posing with pirate flag
2 The author posing with his signature pirate flag


Our team would spend the next 13 days working our way through beautiful and desolate valleys and up a rocky and arid mountain. The camps, up to and including basecamp, were extremely well established, and supported. They offered many amenities and delicious food provided by Grajales Expeditions. And I’m not kidding, these meals were gourmet. I’ve never eaten so well in my life. With each move to a higher camp came even more stunning views of the Andes and surrounding glaciers. I have never seen more beautiful sunsets than those experienced from Nido de Condores, high camp 2.  Once we moved to high camp 3, Camp Colera, 19,600’ elevation, the summit push was on.


Pete napping
1 McAfee napping on his Freescape Pro backpack
ice field crossing
2 Crossing a jagged ice field
glacier views
3 A glacier in the distance


It was already windy and cold and forecasted to get worse through the night.  That night I laid in my tent praying for an opportunity to even attempt the summit. I didn’t pray for a successful summit because that must be earned on one’s own. In the early morning hours, we launched a summit attempt in sub optimal weather conditions. Given that we were dealing with winds strong enough to knock a man over, extreme wind-chill and lenticular cloud formation on the upper mountain, I consider myself very fortunate to have successfully summited Aconcagua!  I am sad that none of my teammates were there to share the moment with me as they were all forced to turn back due to the extreme conditions. I was blessed to have shared the struggle with my guides and one other man from a different Grajales climbing team who I had come to know well throughout the trip. I am forever grateful to my amazing Grajales guides who believed in my ability and took a chance by letting us continue. Lesser experienced guides would have turned us around, but my lead guide had over 20 years of experience. I believe he had developed an eye for reading people on the mountain and knowing who’s going to make it and who’s not. He was on the cusp of turning us back several times that day, and I’m thankful he didn’t.  The only option for a summit in those conditions was to move very fast and we were the perfect team for doing just that. We shared a moment on a relatively deserted summit, a blessing of the weather, before heading down.  We spent the next three days working our way off the mountain and back to civilization. 

Sunrise at camp with glaciers in the background


I had no idea what I was getting into when I took a spot on this expedition. I made relationships that will last forever, and this mountain tested me. I experienced something that can’t be put into words. It’s something that not many people on earth get to experience and it made me a better person. I’d like to thank Grajales Expeditions and deuter for the expedition and giving me the chance to climb Aconcagua. I’d like to leave you with one piece of advice, “never let an opportunity pass you by”. 


Editor's Note: Pete used the Freescape Pro 40+ up to basecamp and for all of the acclimatization hikes. He switched to an Aircontact X 80+15 to move up to all of the high camps and on summit day. He was one of the only people who didn't use a porter to carry his personal gear. Congratulations Pete on your successful summit!


Freescape Pro taking a break


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