Gay Outdoors Climbers Become First Gay Team To Conquer Highest Peak In Western Hemisphere
By Mike Boisvert.
They set out to make history. Gay Outdoors climbers Rob Jagnow, Jonny Rosenfield, and Bruce successfully stood on top of Aconcagua in the Argentina/Chile border on January 24, 2005 and became the first all-gay team to successfully ascend the enormous 22,840-foot peak in the Argentinean Andes. They did not use any guides and did it on their own. They could not have reached the top without the assistance of expedition leader Mike Boisvert, climber Jeff Weekley and climber Mark Street.
It's easier to get to than the Himalayas, and nearly as high. It's tougher than Kilimanjaro but easier than McKinley, Simply put, Aconcagua is the best all-around mountaineering experience of the seven continents' highest peaks. It's also more accessible than any of the other seven summits. You arrive at Mendoza, take a van to the traihead and pick up mules. That's it. You start hiking.
Aconcagua is situated on the border of Argentina and Chile, between the cities of Mendoza and Santiago. The mountain is not a volcano, but rather a wide marine sediment platform covered by an Andean volcano cap that forms part of its top. It is a high massif that has two summits: North – the highest at 6,980 meters (22,840 feet) – and South.
"When we told friends when we got back about our accomplishment the gay outdoors community went crazy," says Boisvert.
The Gay Outdoors (GO) Aconcagua Expedition Team completed the climb in 17 days, using every ounce of their stamina, strength and mental conditioning during the month of January.
Yet according to this six-gay men team, their true success lies not at the summit, but in the many steps along the way.
"For us it was a personal thing," says Boisvert. "It was a huge challenge."
That challenge began five years ago when Boisvert founded the active online community at www.gayoutdoors.org and started a home on the Internet for thousands of gay, bisexual, and gay-friendly outdoorzy men. Over the years the community evolved and formed a team by promoting the climb on its website.
"Everyone just clicked," said Boisvert, adding that the team is both special and unique.
"We brought something out in each other and the more we climbed together the more we learned that we shared a lot of the same goals and dreams."
With their common sexual orientation, the expedition members found strength and inspiration in their team, on improving their skills, finding new challenges and promoting the gay community by flying the rainbow flag near their tents.
The White Mountains of New Hampshire and the Sierras of California offered an ideal training ground to hone their skills.
"We concentrated on doing harder climbs," says Boisvert, who has led many trips for Gay Outdoors, adding that all team members met at least once for backpacking trips in the White Mountains including Presidential Range and Franconia Range Traverse trips. They also frequently put on heavy packs and went day hiking. "They are real confidence boosters," says Boisvert.
"Every time you finish a climb you just ask yourself, ‘What’s next?’ " said Boisvert. Boisvert wanted to return for an attempt to climb Aconcagua, which he failed to make in 1999.
"I’ve thought about returning and taking all the skills I’ve learned since then and putting them to the test," said Boisvert.
To prepare for such a climb, it's recommended that you do a combination of hour-long strength, cardiovascular, and hill workouts, four to five days a week, minimum. Training with a heavy pack on and working up from 15 pounds to 60 pounds over time up mountains is ideal.
Weekley and Street spoke Spanish fluently, Bruce had previously made the summit and was a certified EMT, Jagnow was also a certified EMT, Rosenfield had been to elevations of 18,000 feet in Nepal, Boisvert had been on this chosen climbing route before and was experienced with planning/leading expeditions --- so each brought something special to the team. Everyone wanted to climb a big mountain and South America provides accessibility and affordability.
The team paid for all of its own expenses and was sponsored by Gay Outdoors.
Aconcagua is the highest mountain in the Western Hemisphere, located in western Argentina, near the Chile border. Aconcagua is a gigantic mass of rock, not picturesque in the traditional Alpine sense, but magnificent by its size alone. It dominates the sky east of Santiago, Chile's capital city, and is visible from the pacific coast, 100 miles away. Though the mountain's summit crest and radiating ridges are largely windswept free of snow, large glaciers fill the valleys on all but the southern and western flanks.
Some climbing routes are relatively straightforward hikes to the top, but this is the very reason that Aconcagua has one of the highest mountain death tolls in the world. It is a popular mountain, and many of its climbers tend to move too swiftly up the mountain, with little respect for the elevation or the weather, which on Aconcagua can quickly become severe.
They opted for a nontechnical, glacier-free route so they set their sights on climbing via the relatively gradual Polish Traverse, a route that has far less climbers than the popular normal route. The climb begins at 8,000 feet in the Vacas River Valley, then continues to base camp at Plaza de Argentina, which, at 13,800 feet, sits on a rocky glacial moraine. From there they trekked to high camp, where they joined the Normal Route at 20,600 feet.
"It’s provides more of a mountaineering experience with its remoteness and lack of crowds" said Boisvert.
The team flew into Mendoza, Argentina and took a 4-hour ride in a van to Los Penitentes, which operates as a kind of base area for the many climbers in the region. Here is where climbers rent mules to help bring all their gear to Base Camp.
The place felt quiet," said Boisvert, noting that the climbing season only lasts for three months. "It was eerie! I thought the town would be filled with people preparing to climb but we found few climbers around. However once we started, we met a lot of climbers on the way to Base Camp."
Make no mistate: this is a long,grueling climb at serious altitude, and a true expedition in every sense. Everyone has to carry their own 50-pound backpack up the mountain.
At the start Bruce came down with a chest cold or flu during his flight over and fought it for most of the climb. It was tough going for him in his weakened state but he never complained.
Rosenfield had a real tough time acclimatizing at base camp. His resting pulse rate was steady around 110 beats per minute while the norm for other team members ranged in the 70’s and 80’s. This made his first carry to Camp I extremely difficult. Team members began to think he would not make it.
"Having trouble acclimatizing was really disappointing and frustrating," said Rosenfield.
Some of them started to use the drug Diamox to speed up acclimatization. Especially when they started to feel sick.
After spending four nights at Base Camp to acclimatize and make one carry to Camp I, their health improved.
The team was ready to achieve their objective and establish three camps higher up: Camp I at 16,400 feet, Camp II at 17,650 feet, and Camp III at 19,350 feet. Establishing Camp I is the second most difficult achievement of the entire climb with the heavy loads that need to be carried on one’s back. It usually takes its toll on climbers.
At Camp I, both Jeff Weekley and Mark Street had trouble acclimatizing and were forced to return back to Base Camp. The climbing team kept in contact with Jeff and Mark each night via a CB radio.
Another strange sight "was this guy in silk pajamas at Base Camp," Rob said. "I thought the guy was gay but it turns out he was Swiss."
The team gave the Drama Queen Award to a climber named Evan who came from Vermont. "Within 200 feet of reaching the summit he told summit team members that he felt dizzy and thought he was coming down with cerebral edema," said Rosenfield. "He then started to babble and scream to me ‘I saw a skull. But there was no skull. I know there was no skull. But I saw one. Cho Oyu. Cho Oyu. Dexamethasone. I have to get down. Cerebral edema. Descend. Descend.’"
Team members agreed that he was weird. Evan did make it back safely to Camp III. To make matters worse, wherever the team went afterwards, Evan seemed to follow and show up unexpectedly. They ran into him on their hike down to Base Camp, again at their Base Camp celebration dinner at 'Danny Cortez’ (an outfitter who provides meals), again on their hike out to the trailhead, again at their outfitter where he wanted a ride back with them to Mendoza, and once again in Mendoza while having dinner.
During the climb the team found themselves in a snowstorm that dumped about 5 inches of new snow. "It turned the mountain landscape into a winter wonderland overnight, " said Boisvert. "It was so beautiful and we had the added benefit of better traction on the snow versus the notorious rock scree." Added Rosenfield, "It allowed Bruce to create these great snow walls to protect our tents from the wind at Camp II. It felt like we were enclosed within a partial snow igloo. It was awesome!"
Almost every night their tents shook as high winds hit their tents. While the wind was about 30 mph outside, inside the tents it felt like 100 mph. It made sleeping very difficult.
"One of the funniest moments was when I saw a ranger at Base Camp pull a strand of his hair and gently attach it to a horsefly," said Bruce. "He then would hold his strand of hair and the fly would buzz around him. Sort of like having a fly on a leash. He passed out a few of these to climbers. You saw folks walking around with this little fly on a leach. Hilarious!"The team spent time acclimatizing with the 3-day trek to Base Camp. They start at 7,628 feet and reach Plaza Argentina, their base camp at an elevation of 13,800 feet.
"One of the funny things we did to kill time in our tents is to imagine we were watching TV," Jagnow said. "We had the tent door open and various images would appear. One moment we would see people taking a pee or shit so we called that the Soft Porn Channel."
"We imagined we had a remote control and would switch stations," added Bruce. "We would sometimes see an image of climbers huddling together for discussion so we called that the Discovery Channel. And of course when we saw snow outside, we called that snow on our TV set and we couldn’t get anything," Bruce said grinning.
Conflict at 18,000 feet
The trip did not occur without conflict.
At Camp II, Jagnow/Bruce announced to Boisvert/Rosenfield that they were to skip a rest day at Camp III and go for the summit without them. "The weather had been marginal up to Camp II," Jagnow explains. The weather suddenly looked great. Bruce and I thought that based on the weather pattern, this might be our only shot at the summit."
"I was very surprised at this announcement," says Boisvert. "I explained that my vision was always for the whole gay team to stand on the summit together. This was definitely my worst moment on the expedition…worse than knowing I could not make the summit. I further explained to Rob that I understood that they had their own personal goals but I did not support their decision. I told them if they could prove to me that the weather forecast would be awful on the team’s planned summit day, Jonny and I would skip the rest day and join them." However Boisvert saw no reason for concern about the weather since the team had 2 bad weather days to spare.
The next day after establishing Camp III, Jagnow discussed the climb with Boisvert again. "I explained to Mike that it would be difficult for the entire team to summit simultaneously because of the different speeds of the members. In my mind, summitting at different times did not compromise the objective of being the first openly gay team to reach the summit."
Says Boisvert, "I told Rob that if he went to a climbing school, they would have told him the team is as fast as its slowest member. I shared with Rob my feeling that if I had known this is how the climb would have turned out, I would never have planned this expedition. That is how strongly I felt about their decision." Boisvert said. In the various expeditions he had been on previously, he never ran into members deciding to split up to make a summit attempt.
Once he understood how strongly Boisvert felt about summiting together, Jagnow agreed to stay with the team, and a compromise was reached. Jagnow and Bruce agreed to take a rest day and wait for Boisvert and Rosenfield. On summit day, Boisvert and Rosenfield would leave an hour before Jagnow and Bruce, and all four climbers would rendezvous higher up the mountain.
"I think Rob and Bruce realized that this entire experience is all about the process of making something happen, all about making a statement for the gay community. If you consider all the things that have to come together, not only the physical and mental aspects, but also the conditions, the logistics, and everything else — I’m amazed we pulled it off," said Boisvert.
That night, the tents rattled so much sleeping was difficult. The prospects of making a summit attempt did not appear hopeful. Waking at 4 a.m. with their tents rattling in the wind, Rosenfield and Boisvert reluctantly left their tent at 5:30 a.m. Jagnow and Bruce woke up at 5 a.m. and left at 7:00 a.m.
For Rosenfield and Boisvert, it was very cold at the start and they were thankful when the sun began to light up the mountain 90 minutes later. Once they reached the normal route, they caught their first glimpse of what their day would hold. The wind died down and the skies were clear. One could not have asked for better weather on a summit day.
"We used mostly switchbacks to reach the Independencia Hut at 21,000. Rob and Bruce caught up with us there," said Boisvert.
The next section leading to the base of the infamous Canaleta was windy at about 20 miles per hour.
"It was here where I started to run out of gas. I was forced to take four breaths for each step" said Boisvert. "When I looked straight up the Canaleta and then told there was another 2-1/2 hours to go I knew I simply did not have it." Says Rosenfield, "Leaving Mike behind and knowing how much he wanted to reach the summit was one of the worse moments of the trip for me. I found it difficult to leave him behind." Boisvert ended up waiting here while the three remaining members climbed up the summit. "I shed a few tears while the team continued. Coming so close, it was tough to accept. Especially since this was my second attempt. However I knew I had to come to terms with this and I did."
The Canaleta is the most notorious part of the summit climb. It is a 1,300-foot, 33-degree chute filled with disagreeably loose rocks. At some places it consists of mind-numbing scree, while in others the chute features rocks too large to be classified as scree but too small to be called talus but still loose the same.
For the next 2-1/2 hours, Jagnow, Bruce and Rosenfield fought the thin air and difficult breathing while they tested every ounce of their physical and mental capacity.
"It was hard to breathe so we were slow, but we were committed and decided to keep going," said Jagnow.
They continued to climb, completing the last 1300 vertical feet and finally reaching the summit. Bruce and Jagnow reached the top together. "It was amazing," said Bruce reaching the summit for the second time, "but I found this summit climb more difficult than my first.
At the 22,835 foot summit they were rewarded with South America's best panorama: sharp snow ridges of the surrounding Andean peaks, the Argentine pampa, Chile, and all in one eyeful.
"At 200 feet below the summit, I came across Jonny, who was moving at a good pace," says Jagnow. "I indicated that there was no one else on the summit, and he indicated that he was hesitant to ascend alone. Knowing how important this was, I agreed to ascend the final 200 feet again to accompany Jonny to the top. Bruce continued back down toward Mike while Jonny and I fought our way back up the scree."
"I went up the Canaleta alone, something I never imagined would happen," said Rosenfield. "When Bruce saw me 200 feet below the summit, he made it clear that he was heading down, and Rob reluctantly, very reluctantly, checked in about whether I would be willing to go up to the summit alone. I felt like a beggar on the mountain, unable to be there in triumph and unity since we weren't really a team at that time."
But the exhilarating sensation of being on the summit only lasted a few minutes because the team knew they would have to keep moving to make it down safely. Says Rosenfield "it’s difficult to enjoy the summit when you know you’re only halfway done. "
"It was the hardest physical challenge of my life, an experience I doubt I'd attempt to repeat, but one that boosted my confidence and that altered my relationship to fear and self-doubt," said Rosenfield. "Maybe that is the core of the life-altering experience that we talked about: Every time in the future that I hold myself back because of fear or self-doubt, I will remember that I was that way once about Aconcagua too."
"It really was amazing," said Jagnow. "This whole experience has been a progression and it’s very exciting to feel confident in yourself and your skills."
"We made sure that we took pictures with the rainbow flag on the summit," said Jagnow.
Team Had Their Own Issues About Being Gay
Even with the goal being to publicize the gay mountaineering community and break down stereotypes, members did have to deal with their own issues about being gay. "Bruce and I had a picture taken of us on the summit with the rainbow flag by one of the paid guides from another group," Jagnow said. ""The guide didn’t know what the flag represented, but we chose not to speak up to avoid an uncomfortable situation."
Bruce was uncomfortable that the rainbow flag was near the tents during the expedition but he went along with it. "To me, Bruce's experience of being partly closeted only highlighted the importance of what we did," says Rosenfield, "the fact that all of us had at one time been closeted and that we all carry the residue, good and bad, that comes from the messages we got growing up about being gay."
The expedition members agree that even they still need to be more open about their sexuality in the mountaineering community. They feel that this expedition has helped them become more comfortable with this in the future.
The team descended and returned to their tents at 8 p.m. Boisvert was extremely tired and struggled to return back to Camp III. Bruce and Rosenfield assisted him. "Looking at Mike struggle back to Camp III was the worst moment of the trip for me," said Bruce.
Weekley and Street met the climbing team on their descent at Camp I to help carry the heavy loads back to Base Camp. For both of them, being reunited with the entire team was their best moment of the trip.
Jagnow and Weekley will use this expedition to speak to youth and adults about breaking down stereotypes. "As I often tell others, if I'd had the opportunity to meet someone like me when I was growing up, it could have saved me from years of anguish and confusion," says Jagnow. "As is common with gay athletes, it can be overwhelming to reconcile the image of the athlete with the stereotype of the gay man. If news of our expedition is able to save just one person from the emotional torment that I endured, then it's all worth while."
Jagnow continues by saying, "Even for some of the expedition members, this idea (openly gay expedition) was difficult to reconcile. As Bruce often said, ‘I represent the American flag, not the rainbow flag.’ The perspective is understandable - The popular media has painted a very narrow picture of what it means to be gay, and when it comes down to it, no one on our expedition fits that stereotype. Even in the gay community, we appear as outsiders. There are two solutions to the problem, the first is represented in Bruce's perspective: Choose not to identify with the gay community. The second is to change what it means to be gay. Part of the purpose of this expedition is to expand what the rainbow flag represents. After all, the colors of the flag are intended to denote diversity. How ironic, then, that the popular image of the gay male is so static."
"It’s nice to see attitudes changing," said Rosenfield with a smile. For example, when the rainbow flag was displayed at Base Camp, a woman pointed at the flag and waved. Later, a group of men spoke to Rosenfield about the flag, and advised him to take lots of pictures of the rainbow flag on the summit because it certainly would be the first time. And Boisvert received support from all the climbers he spoke to when he announced to them that they were gay and planning to be the first gay team to summit.
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