HE’D already trekked to the North Pole and climbed the highest mountain in Eurasia, but north Northumberland farmer Jamie Wood needed a new challenge – so he set his sights on conquering the biggest peak in the Americas.
And after a marathon trek to Argentina, the 32-year-old is now back enjoying the comforts of his home at Prendwick, near Whittingham, following the gruelling ascent of Aconcagua.
Jamie battled howling winds, sub-zero temperatures and severe altitude sickness to reach the summit of the 22,800-foot monster, whose base camp is at a higher altitude than Mont Blanc in France.
And when he finally reached the top, a white-out snowstorm meant he and his team-mates could only relish their achievement for a mere seven minutes before having to turn around and head back down.
All the way, he carried a photograph of his wife Nicola and one-year-old daughter Olivia to help keep his spirits up.
Jamie is no stranger to extremes of endurance, though. In 2008, his team won the North Pole Challenge Race, while in 2010, he crested Mount Elbrus, which, at 18,481 feet, is arguably the highest mountain in Europe, as it sits in the Russian Caucasus on the edge of the Asian continent.
It was the first of the Seven Summits – the highest mountains on each continent – completed by Jamie and set the ball rolling for his next expedition, to South America.
Aconcagua, which is believed to mean ‘white sentinel’ in the native Quechua language, is the highest in the Americas and the second-highest mountain in the world by prominence, after Everest.
Jamie said: “I went with a company from Ambleside called Adventure Peaks, which specialises in the Seven Summits. Getting to the mountain is not easy, unless you fly by helicopter, and because of the altitude of the base camp, it is very weather dependant.
“I flew on various flights, from Newcastle to Gatwick, then Madrid to Buenos Aires and finally Mendoza. Once we arrived there we had a four-hour bus journey to Penatentes, where we made last-minute preparations before trekking 35 miles up the Vacas Valley.
“It took three days, gaining 4,300m.
“All our main expeditionary gear was carried up by 19 mules and at each camp on the way up the mule-handlers would cook a barbecue with meat they have been carrying.
“The route was very dry and very windy. The dust stuck to your sweat and also made breathing more complicated.”
Reaching base camp was just the first hurdle, however.
Jamie said: “When I first saw the mountain from around eight miles away, I was stunned by its size.
“You see pictures but they never show you the actual scale. It was also blowing a gale and you couldn’t see the top as it had a cloud cap on.
“As we walked to the mountain, it never seemed to get closer and seemed to swallow you in. I was a little nervous but it was just adrenaline to think that you may be on top if all goes well.”
But as the team progressed to higher levels, the drop in air-pressure became apparent.
“Acclimatising is never easy because everyone is different and gets affected at different heights,” said Jamie. “When you are in a group you have to understand everyone.
“Base camp at Plaza Argentina is 4,200m, or 13,780ft, so you are already well up. On the last day of the trek to base camp, I could feel the symptoms of altitude – breathing became difficult and an incredible headache had appeared, but that’s the norm.
“When we arrived at base camp the symptoms had worsened to nausea and just wanting to do nothing but rest, so we had a rest day to allow to help acclimatise. On the second day, we did a lift to camp one, which is at 4,900m (16,076ft), with half our gear, weighing 20kg. It took six hours and that was a test for people, as it was mostly scree that made it hard work because your feet would just slip downhill.
“Once we arrived, we had to erect tents that we would leave there before returning to base camp.
“On the second leg to camp one, with a little heavier pack, I started to really feel the altitude.
“My head felt like it was going to pop with pressure. I kept taking pain-killers but it constantly throbbed and my breathing had become more difficult. That night at camp, I did not sleep at all and this was the start of insomnia.
“Once we reached camp two for the second time, at 5,850m (19,193ft), I had not slept for four nights. I also had developed a very bad cough. I was suffering from persistent headaches, insomnia, nausea, dizziness and shortness of breath, even when resting. Once we had a day’s rest at camp two, my symptoms became more mild, but we still had the hardest leg – summit day.
“When we woke on summit day, I think I had managed two hours’ sleep. The tent was lined with ice and it was very cold now. I’d lost about nine pounds of bodyweight and was struggling with altitude sickness. I didn’t think that I would reach the summit because we still had to climb another 1,112m (3,648ft) and I was worried that my symptoms would just worsen.
“We set off very slowly, as the attempt would take 15 hours to reach the summit and get back to camp two. As we travelled, my headache seemed to disappear and my adrenaline kicked in.
“When we were half-way to summit, at the caves, my symptoms worsened. I was feeling very ill and I kept thinking I was going to pass out. I was getting very dizzy and sleepy, but I knew that if I sat down I would go to sleep.”
But Jamie was not alone in feeling worse for wear.
“It was at the caves where five people from our group were told they could not carry on, as their health was too bad,” he said. “I carried on through all this up-front, constantly focusing on my feet and my breathing. If I didn’t, I was afraid my guides might turn me round.
“We had set off at 3am in the dark. The temperature was around minus-15C and clear skies. It remained sunny until we were 300m from the top, then it turned into a white-out and the temperature dropped to minus-30C.
“Just before the summit, tears started because of the pain and effort I had just put my body through, but it was an amazing feeling.
“The feeling is indescribable when you reach the summit. You are full of emotion, adrenaline and excitement, but you still have to control yourself as you are in a very dangerous location.
“One wrong move and it can all go badly. It was a white-out on the summit and it would have been nice to have some pictures, but that’s what happens up there.
“It’s unpredictable and happens in the blink of an eye. But knowing what you have just achieved is the most special feeling of all.”
Others who attempted the summit on that same day were not so lucky.
“When we turned up at the caves, there was a team of Americans that had just been turned round,” said Jamie.
“Two of them had ropes around them because they had lost their senses and needed help descending.
“They looked like they were drunk and staggering around.
“I had a picture off my one-year-old daughter Olivia and my wife in my altitude watch-window on my jacket and every time I felt down I looked at them. That’s what got me to the summit.
“When we got back to base camp it was like being at sea level – people that had just turned up to start the climb were lying around feeling the effects of altitude and we were running around as if we were on the beach,” said Jamie. “I couldn’t wait to get back to see my wife and little girl.”
After devouring what he describes as a ‘massive steak’ to celebrate at base camp, the expedition was finally over. Aconcagua had been conquered.
Jamie said: “Climbing a mountain is totally different to attempting to reach the North Pole.
“There, you are at sea level which, believe me, is a lot more comfortable than being at the height of a jumbo jet with atmospheric pressure of just 40 per cent. But I would still say the North Pole expedition was harder and more tiring. It was the equivalent of doing a marathon every day for 13 days, at minus-40C and dragging 120lbs over 100 miles of ice rubble fields.
“But the last four hours of the last 300m on summit day was probably the hardest moment of all my adventures.”
Getting back home in the dark also granted Jamie a new perspective on his native surroundings.
“Waking up to see our hills in Northumberland, they were tiny,” he said. “Almost flat.”
But he’s already planning the next obstacle to overcome – North America’s highest mountain, Mt McKinley, in Alaska.
At a mere 20,320 feet, however, it won’t be a breeze!