|Volume 6 | Issue 03 | March 2012|
An Aconcaguan Birth
WASFIA NAZREEN'S divine feminine leads her to realise that climbing mountains is not about conquering them but about uniting with nature.
"Life is either a daring adventure or nothing." - Helen Keller
Sixteenth December, 2011. Almost at 7,000 metres. Twenty-three thousand feet. I can see Markus standing atop the summit with his zoom lens pointed at me. Markus Roth -- a German doctor living and working with the Aborigines for so long that he could pass more as an Australian than anything -- is the toughest of my climbing partners here in the Andes.
Each step forward felt like a pain-stricken million years, as I helplessly glanced at his dotted silhouette on the summit a few metres away, under the harsh afternoon sun. I was being mindful of every drop of cold sweat that streamed over my skin and I was struggling to keep myself dry so not to form ice crystals in between my several layers of clothing. Dealing with the hypoxic atmosphere at this altitude constantly made me feel like the fishes I had seen back at home, throwing themselves in the air, caught between net-lines, as the fishers dragged them up from the sea.
According to many experts to have climbed the giants all over the world, Aconcagua, this monstrous sentinel that I was crusading against, represents an even greater physiological challenge than the same height of the Himalayas. Himalayas have vegetation up to 4,999m/16,400ft, while in the Central Andes Mountain range, the vegetation reaches only up to 3,505m/11,500ft. The lower atmospheric pressure this far south on the globe also adds up to the 'thinness' of the air. Outside of planet Mars, it is also the only place in the solar system where humans can nudge 7,000m without having to necessarily deal with snow. There are few glaciers on this high mountain as the winds and sunrays are so strong that most snow on it is either blown off the mountain or melted away quickly. The landscape of this Andean beast is desert-like, where on the trail we have had to walk through dry sea-beds, fields of los-penitentes, frozen-cold rivers, rough plateaus, rocky valleys, scree slopes and dangerously loose gravel paths.
She is the second highest amongst the Seven Summits, or the continental summits, and the highest mountain outside of the Himalayas, at 6,962 meters/22,975 feet. Cerro Acon, as they call her, is the highest peak of the Andes mountain range, as well as the highest mountain in the entire Western and Southern Hemispheres. Andes are a major mountain system that runs the length of the Pacific coast of South America almost like a spine! It extends more than 5,000 miles (8,000 km), with a continuous height of more than 10,000 feet (3,000 m).
Of the three approaches to the mountain, the one to the east side of Aconcagua, starts from Punta de Vacas, approximately 15km (9miles) from Puente del Inca on the road to Mendoza, Argentina's second largest city sharing the border with Chile. The base camp for this particular approach is Plaza Argentina, which can be reached via the Vacas Valley and Relinchos Valley. Instead of taking the regular route, otherwise referred as the normal "mule" route, we traversed through the False Polish Glacier, which combine a mixture of routes, and surely it made the journey all the more challenging and triple the pain and fun!
Aconcagua's name has roots in the Quechua language (a member of an American Indian people of Peru and parts of Bolivia, Chile, Colombia and Ecuador) meaning "The Sentinel of Stone." Inca Indians had explored the high Andes way before Columbus even discovered the New World. For matters of spirituality and religious connections, they were attracted to the summits. Many burial sites and artefacts have been found in remarkably high places. The highest such discovery being on the summit of Llullaillaco, a mountain only few hundred kilometres north of Aconcagua, at 6,720m (22,050ft)! Exploration history also marks the finding of a skeleton of a guanaco on the summit ridge and a well-preserved mummy at 5,200m (17,060ft) on the southwest ridge of Cerro Pyramidal, an Aconcagua sub-peak, in 1985.
There were many attempts on the mountain, aside from this. A German explorer called Paul Güssfeldt, who had discovered the mountain and traced for the first time the route up to 6,560 metres, made the first recorded ascent in modern times. He had to descend in the middle of a hurricane, and then 14 years later in 1897, an Englishman named Edward FitzGerald led a European team of nine men up the mountain. The summit was reached first by their other chief guide, Swiss Mathias Zurbriggen on January 14, 1897. The first female ascent was by Adriana Bance of France on March 7, 1940. Nearly 3,500 climbers in a year attempt to climb Aconcagua today but the success rates are well below 50%! Studies show that more people die on Aconcagua than on Denali, which is considered one of the toughest mountains. On Acon, everything is an expedition-style, that is we had to prepare our own camps, melt snow for water, carry our own luggage, do every stretch of camps twice to acclimatise, and so on.
Argentina always held a very special place in my heart, and a lot of the credit goes to the fact that Gabriel Omar Batistuta, the legendary football player, was my very first love. I remember the first time I set my eyes on him through the television screen, and my heart had missed a beat. I wrote poetry addressing him before going to bed… I named my future kids after him, I taught myself tactics of football just in case someday I bump into him and have to carry on a conversation.
As time went by, he was not the only one. Every other Latin American longhaired man over the years, who 'appeared' through mass media and popular culture, became an object of fascination or curiosity. But then somewhere down the years, the act of seeking all those Diegos and Guevaras disappeared in to the ether. Somehow, "Batigol" was not interesting anymore (even though I still loved him) and I cannot recall exactly how or when it happened, but it did. There was a distinct shift in the motivation of this spirit: I was forced to push all my limits in search of "true-love", one of the many positive effects of coming from a broken-family! Though that process has not been easy, I could not be more grateful for anything else in my life. In search of love, this mind-stream surrendered to colossal self-quests of epic journeys within and around Mother Nature -- her land, her rhythms, her forests and her oceans. I strongly realised that it was time to let go of the men and all that resembled his energy (at least for the time-being!) and perhaps invest those hours to love our Earth instead. Perhaps she could benefit from some conscious exploration and that eventually became my path-line for this lifetime.
As women, we are naturally gifted to be more in tune with our inner voice. Like how the Moon controls the Ocean's tides we too work according to the flows of nature. So when we hear, honour and harness that feminine within, great shifts automatically take place in the universe that surround us. Since Earth herself is polarised more toward the masculine for many centuries now, interacting with the feminine can be deeply nourishing, sometimes joyfully enchanting and of course mysteriously beautiful and challenging. Most of our present day societies, and even more so in Bangladesh, whether in Dhaka high-society or Khulna "mophoshshol" town, a woman, ever so often is robbed of that place of nurturing the wombs of creativity. And most men are far from exploring it in the first place.
Mountain lifestyle can give one that sense of the divine feminine -- of beauty, stillness, simplicity and challenge -- that is very hard to obtain through other activities. Mountain lifestyle teaches one to survive on the very basics: food, warmth, shelter from elements and exposures -- basically the keys to life's existence anywhere on the planet. Like a mother who cradles and ready to give up anything for her offspring, we too learn how to take care of ourselves and others in epic settings! Another way of birthing is through self-absorption: critical observations and kind reflections, which is an every-second deal up at that altitude, and can potentially make one return from an expedition, feeling fully empowered to let go of more things from physical existence. Therefore, birthing a renewed self of the old.
Many people tend to think mountaineers are macho muscle-beings. An extremely patriarchal perspective indeed! Mountains are bound to defeat our muscles, if we got any. While physical strength is necessary, it is really more about gut endurance. And it's more about patience and understanding. It's about learning to never give up. It's about realising that humans of goodwill and generosity should be able to unite regardless of party or politics. It's about being honest with our connection to nature, and well, all who concerns us, and being humble to Mother Earth.
Mountains are also the very few places, where 'families' are birthed. Someone had told me once, that: "your family is a close circle of friends who love and support each other." Up there, even though we come from all corners of the globe and of various different backgrounds and beliefs, we function as a family, where our lifelines depend on our climbing partners. The mountains taught me, in her many ways, how we could always be prepared to not only help ourselves but others too in any extreme or non-extreme situations. Having obtained complete detachment from Batigol and the likes, I have been able to find my home and family in the mountains -- a lifetime of struggle-tested friendships.
Our limitations are only our imaginations or the feelings that rise and fall beneath our each breath. It is never too late to play outside or to nurture ourselves. Our mind (call it soul, spirit or consciousness) is in a marriage with our body, for an entire lifetime. If we fight against either of them, we become misaligned and our energies go haywire! That, in turn, reflects on our day-to-day activities. Most of the misdirected characteristics that we experience around us really stem from there -- where we have lost touch with ourselves, and we dwell in an ever-increasing imbalanced world of masculinity vs. femininity. Why then, when we know the key to our happiness, do we choose to live a life unfulfilled? Reconnecting with ourselves, not just the mind, but the body or chariot we drive, is absolutely essential in feeling alive or engaged.
The divine feminine made me realise that "conquering" a mountain is never an option. To conquer something, means to defeat it, and I have trouble claiming that against such sacred spaces on Earth. Mother Nature's mercy has made those unions possible, above everything else. It is she who is allowing us to tread upon her, by not throwing us off with an avalanche or jet stream, so how can we so gallantly claim to have "conquered" her? It is truly in her mercy that we are able to wom(b)anifest such an act. It may sound funny for any media to report: "So and so has come to a unity with Mount Aconcagua on 16th December 2011…" but I would rather call it a union. If not a marriage.
After spending an hour on the summit (highly discouraged as more brain cells get killed the longer one spends up there), we leapfrogged each other downhill as it was getting dark and wind reached high-speed. Some of the descending sections were steep with absolutely nothing to hold onto. While the trumpet pitched wind blew my mind away, visibility became zero! Like the eerie lunar landscape, these barren cols reached out to us through the white-wind, in many forms and shapes, and our severely hypoxic mind-streams started playing tricks with ourselves. While laughing at my climbing partner who was seeing Mayan characters in all rock formations as if they were talking to him, I turned to my left to observe the last lights of the setting sun through the white powdered windy howl that was blowing at us from all directions. Call it a fortunate stroke of serendipity, a 60 foot or so Peter Pan, clad in a feather hat and lit cigar in his mouth, screeching backwards, like a car that geared in full-speed, appeared from the clouds on the same spot where I had gazed my stare at! He greeted me by blowing smoke rings and making funny gestures with his eyebrows! I got so excited seeing an animated giant snow Peter, I almost jumped to catch one of his rings before they'd disappear, when the right side of my brain screamed out "Wasfia you're tripping, this is only a hallucination!!" As I pulled off, simultaneously, now the left side of my brain said, "But this is so beautiful, you may never be able to experience this again so live it, go Wasfia, go touch Peter!"
A mortal desire, dealt with the little wisdom left within me after a 13-hour climb in the most horrifying exposures. I resisted myself from wanting him. But he did not cease to exist. He was there throughout, in dialogue with my sillier side, till we descended back to camp 3 safe and sound, where we spent the night, before the final descent the next morning.
People often ask, after Aconcagua, or other big mountains, why the need to take risks to climb any other mountain that high? The reply automatically surfaces: is it really about the heights reached?
In fact, it is never about the literal heights. These expeditions are pilgrimages, where defying gravity, defying all conventions, we just have to carry on. Like we women, constantly have to in this society. Like Helen Keller, the American author, political activist and lecturer extended onto say: "Security does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than exposure."
Climbing takes a heavens load of trusting, just like any other lifestyle in the sub-continent. Learning to take that leap in full confidence, learning to trust your feet, as my trainer friend Luke often tells me! Trusting that when we push ourselves out of our comfort-zones, with all honesty and integrity, the Universe will catch us before we fall. And should we fall, accepting that it is sometimes necessary to fall in order to learn how to rise.
Everyday, more and more women from all classes and backgrounds of our nation are pushing their fears and embracing their bodies and mindstreams to trust their feet, and give birth to new grounds. And rarely do I see a woman giving birth to feed her ego. I hope pushing our limits always remains about going back to the roots, finding our weaknesses and fears, dwelling deeper and deeper for the sake of being of better service to all of humankind and our country. No matter how high or far we venture, we are always meant to stem from love, from the womb of the divine feminine. No wonder -- when I return back to civilisation, each and every time I find myself a new-born, a new-found, like I still don't know much.
On the 101st International Women's Day, it is a matter of great pride to recognise that this century has already set out to be of peace and rebuilding, brought forward by women. May we all work to heal through the divine feminine where both men and women recognise, honour and harness Her not only in others, but also, first within ourselves.
Wasfia Nazreen is a member of DRISHTIPAT Writers' Collective (www.drishtipat.org/dpwriters) and the climber for Bangladesh on Seven Summits, a pioneering campaign which celebrates 40 years of Independence, resilience and progress of the Bangladeshi peoples. She can be reached at email@example.com.
The news of the sudden tragic death of Jalal Alamgir, our ever-smiling Drishtipat family member and a dear brother reached me on December 4,, just as we were departing from Mendoza to approach the ski village of Penitentes, the first leg of our journey on Aconcagua. Couple of weeks previous to that, sitting in Dhaka, Jalal bhai was rolling in laughter over our co-written "Bangladeshi mountain jokes." On this expedition, most of my thoughts were over his stupendous contributions in a short yet meaningful life fully lived. I know Jalal bhai would have invented more humorous sides to this expedition than most people I know.
This article is a small tribute to the irreplaceable memory of Jalal Alamgir (17 January 1971 3 December 2011).
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