On Jan. 2nd, 2014, Alex Roth ES ’15 and Pek Shibao DC ’15 found themselves covered in ice.
They were at Nido de Condores, the second high camp on Mt. Aconcagua. Outside the paper-thin tent it was -25 degrees Celsius, and the 80 km/h wind howled. Pitched on an incline, they were both wrapped up in their -40 C gear and sleeping bags. As he slept, Shibao had rolled into Roth, who proceeded to push him back over. The push jolted Shibao awake. He then discovered that a thick layer of condensation and ice had frosted over their sleeping bags as they slumbered.
It wasn’t until this point, the two recall, that they realized the true implications of high-stakes climbing. Their bodies responded in kind, close to crumbling amid these extreme conditions.
It was 2 p.m. on Jan. 4th, 2014. They had started climbing the mountain on Dec. 25th, 2013, and were now on the last part of the summit push. They had begun the push at 4 a.m. and had now reached La Cueva. At 21,850 ft. above sea level, the air was incredibly thin. It took five breaths to even take one step forward.
So close to the top, Roth and Pek were told by one in their group that it was not advisable for them to continue — they were going so slowly in the hour leading up to this point they were unsure whether they would be able to make it to the summit. Close to physical collapse, and having been on the mountain for 11 days, these last few hours seemed nigh impossible.
“We’re continuing on,” Shibao told them.
The peak was in reach, but the potential for danger still loomed. Just a few days before their own summit push, on Dec. 28th, two American climbers had died from pulmonary edema — fluid in the lungs — as a result of altitude sickness just 700 ft. from reaching the top.
At this trying juncture, Shibao and Roth drew inspiration from another member of their group. At the third high camp, Camp Colera, he had expressed to them his joy at being exactly where they were; he felt completely fulfilled. If he made it to the summit, he said, it would be but a bonus.
The spirit of these words compelled them to soldier onward. The climb up the Canaleta, a journey that would have taken 10 minutes under normal conditions, took two hours. But, at 3:11 p.m. on Jan. 4th, they made it to the summit.
They had just arrived at the top of Mt. Aconcagua, one of the mountains necessary to climb in the Messner Seven Summits Challenge. It’s an incredible feat, to be sure, but for Shibao and Roth, it’s just the beginning.
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For many, Yale can feel like a very small place at times, a place in which it is far too easy to find oneself falling into the rut of the daily grind. Once in a while, it’s important to break away from the mould and do something extraordinary.
Shibao and Roth carry this banner daily. On a frigid Monday, we pile into a booth in the Davenport Dive — no small feat given the ample coats we’re wearing to protect against the bitter New England winter. The sense of camaraderie between the two of them is tangible.
Over winter break, Roth and Shibao achieved the kind of goal that most will only ever dream of. Together, they climbed Mt. Aconcagua in Argentina. Located in the Andes and peaking at 22,841 ft., Aconcagua is the highest mountain in the Americas and the second-tallest in the world after Mt. Everest.
When asked about their favorite parts of the trip, Roth joked: “It was more a series of unfortunate events that we learned to embrace as humorous.”
“It’s really Type B kind of fun,” Shibao concurred.
A true test of human endurance, the Seven Summits challenge consists of climbing the highest mountain on every continent: Everest in Asia, Aconcagua in South America, Denali in North America, Kilimanjaro in Africa, Elbrus in Europe, Vinson in Antarctica and Puncak Jaya in Australia. By climbing Mt. Aconcagua and Kilimanjaro, Shibao is two mountains deep into the Seven Summits challenge. Roth, co-coordinator of Yale Outdoors, still has six mountains to go.
In fact, it was at a Yale Outdoors meeting at the end of their sophomore year that Shibao voiced his desire to climb Aconcagua in order to take the next step of the Seven Summits Challenge. Shibao describes Yale Outdoors as having been the perfect place to find a person who would be willing to do something “so crazy” with him. Though the group tends to keep its 50 or so trips a year to within an hour of campus, many of its leaders and members participate in fall and spring break trips and plan more intense expeditions together outside of term-time.
“I did Kilimanjaro in Africa freshman summer with a couple of other friends. After, I decided it was time for something much more challenging, and Roth was down, so I decided to rope him in and we planned our trip to Argentina,” Shibao recalls.
Of course, preparing to climb a mountain like Aconcagua is no easy task. Beyond improving stamina, Shibao and Roth had to ready themselves to face altitude sickness, extreme weather conditions and a host of other physical and psychological challenges.
Each underwent a tough training regimen in the six months prior to their trip. Shibao’s workout of choice was carrying 40 lb. bags up and down the stairs of Payne Whitney. Due to a back problem, Roth was unable to follow a similar program, running 8 miles three times a week instead to increase red blood cell count, which intensified to every day in the weeks leading up to the climb.
Their love of mountains is undeniable, though it certainly isn’t rooted in the landscapes of their homes. Roth is from Indiana, which, with the exception of some rolling hills, is largely flat. Shibao’s homeland of Singapore also leaves something to be desired for those with hiking ambitions.
“We basically have no mountains of any sort,” Shibao laments. “Just tall buildings.”
Even so, both embraced every opportunity they could to travel. While Shibao’s affinity for the outdoors comes from his high school days when he got the chance to travel more, including to Korea and Japan for winter-climbing, Roth’s desire to climb mountains was inspired by his father, who is also a climber. Mountain climbing, he elaborates, came with both the opportunity to travel and to bond with his family, and as he grew older, Roth and his father tackled increasingly challenging climbs. Since then, his father has found himself incapable of completing the mountains he once could.
“In a way,” Roth explains, “some of my climbing is allowing my dad to live vicariously through me and be proud of my accomplishments. I try to share the experience with him as much as possible.”
Though coming from opposite ends of the globe and different walks of life, the deep dedication that carried them through training and the climb comes from a shared place of humility.
Reaching the summit of a mountain, while an extraordinary accomplishment, is about much more than the climber himself. Respect for the mountain, Shibao says, is of the utmost importance. And Roth agrees — “I see it as an exercise in defeating myself and my insecurities and pushing through them. The journey is always incredible and the view from the top is just as incredible.”
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For both Shibao and Roth, the view from the top of the Aconcagua, though stunning, is not enough. Several mountains remain in the Seven Summits challenge, and the two are already looking forward to the next.
Though Roth did not at first fully share Shibao’s dream of completing the Seven Summits challenge, since conquering Aconcagua he has experienced a change of heart, and is now looking to catch up with his friend by summiting Kilimanjaro. They intend to climb Denali together in the summer of 2015.
It’s a tall order, but one that Shibao and Roth both feel ready to take on.
Going forward, they will surely need this perseverance. Though Yale Outdoors provided them with a place to open conversation and brought them together, Roth and Shibao’s adventures must be funded entirely out of pocket. Yale will provide them no institutional backing.
One might look to the story of their final summit push up Aconcagua — that critical time when they were closest to giving up — in gauging their chances for success. Despite the physical strain and emotional hardship of the climb, Shibao and Roth revealed an equal commitment to the task at hand, foreshadowing a shared mentality for all climbs to come.
“It was a make or break moment,” Shibao remembers. “We’ve planned half a year to come here, and we’re not giving up now.”