"Live a good life, and in the end, it’s not the years in the life, it’s the life in the years."


By on March 1, 2018 in Travel with 0 Comments

Nick Runions, carrying a 67-pound load during the descent, approaches the Plaza de Mulas base camp on the Ruta Normal.















By Marlene Farrell

Just after Christmas Nick Runions kissed his family goodbye. He was embarking on a trip to climb Aconcagua, the highest peak in the Western and Southern hemispheres.

Aconcagua began as an idealized image for Nick 25 years ago. He owned a t-shirt emblazoned with an artist’s rendition of the 22,841 foot high “sentinel of stone.”

Then, in his 20s, mountaineering formed one part of Nick’s pursuit of playing in the mountains, though he stayed close to home. He summited the Cascade volcanoes in the summers, and he spent winters skiing and working as a ski patroller.

The reality of climbing Aconcagua did not happen spontaneously. Rather, Nick based his decision upon the intersection of several motivating factors, mulled over for years. “I teach outdoor medical courses, and altitude medicine is always a component. I was motivated to get up to real altitude (for comparison, Rainier is only 14,441 feet), so I could speak about it from personal experience.”

Traveling to South America for the first time was another draw. “Also, I wanted to be a part of an expedition climb involving the logistics of porters, mules, advanced camps and acclimatization.”

Nick has a circle of friends who set and achieve adventurous goals, but none quite coincided with his dream of Aconcagua. “I knew I was on my own to make this happen.”

Timing was a delicate matter. The 23-day trip was not practical when his children, Chase and Paige, now 13 and 10, were little.

His wife, Diana, currently juggles work as a speech therapist and graduate school internships that take her from their home in Leavenworth to Waterville and Manson. They knew his absence would be a hardship, and yet this might be a last chance for Aconcagua.

When Diana finishes grad school the family plans to go abroad and sail in Canada.

To minimize the impact on his family during the planning phase, Nick signed on with Northwest Mountain School, owned and operated by his local friends, John and Olivia Race.

Nick set the stage for success by saving money over five years and training specifically for eight months. He cycled, ran, climbed Mount Baker again, and hiked on trails and on a treadmill with a pack weighing up to 70 pounds.

“At work (as a paramedic on Whidbey Island) I have time to be on the treadmill, so I’d listen to podcasts and set it to variable terrain for 90 minutes.” He purchased a used sleeping bag rated to -40 degrees and boots to add to his supply of outdoor gear.

Nick got a brief taste of Argentinian culture when the group flew in to Mendoza, the capital. The participants made introductions over steaks and wine. Less than 24 hours later, after a van ride to Los Penitentes Ski Resort and the trailhead at 7,800 feet, the trek began.

His companions for the expedition included three guides and eight other clients. Mule drivers leading trains of a couple dozen mules accompanied the group until base camp on day three. “The mules moved faster than we did, so they would leave later in the morning, pass us, and then when we got to camp we’d sort through our bags where they’d dropped them.”

They trekked through a palette of browns and reds. “There were a couple trees at the trailhead and that was it. The terrain was rock and gravel. We saw some free-range cattle and a few jackrabbits.”

Trekking felt easy. “We carried day packs and hiked for five hours each day.” Aconcagua’s imposing snowy silhouette loomed ever closer.

Above base camp at Plaza de Argentina the party shifted into climbing mode, which meant a day of carrying gear to a higher camp and returning to the lower camp, followed by a day of moving to the higher camp to stay, with rest days inserted for acclimatization. This occurred from Base Camp to Camp 1, 2 and 3. Some clients hired porters to take some of their loads; Nick, well-prepared from his hiking and treadmill training, carried all of his own gear.

Others in the group faced physical challenges, and only two other participants and two guides ended up summiting with Nick. “Thankfully, I felt healthy and strong the whole time and only had a hint of altitude sickness.”

He got a sense of the group dynamics of an expedition, how progress can hinge on each and every person’s ability to keep going, or not. The trip demanded complicated logistics to juggle the varying needs and abilities of nine clients, given only three guides. “John Race did an amazing job to make the trip a success without compromising safety.”

Summit day, Jan. 12, began with a 2:20 a.m. wake up. Finally, Nick used all the cold weather gear he’d been carrying, including a gorilla-style balaclava and insulated gaitors and parka. “I only got chilly toes.”

By the 6:30 a.m. sunrise, “we were taking three breaths with every step.” They gained 3,300 feet, walking up the steep inclines of rock and snow in crampons, carrying ice axes. The approach was non-technical; not being on a glacier meant no crevasses. They roped together for the final steepest, narrowest part of the ascent, through La Canaleta.

The winds coming from the Pacific Ocean can often rip atop Aconcagua, but Nick enjoyed 20 minutes of relative calm on the summit. He scattered the ashes of a friend’s wife, which added to his thoughts on why he was doing this.

The summit crew descended at the right moment; a storm developed, and they returned to Camp 3 in a whiteout.

The next day began the march back to civilization, when Nick felt his greatest fatigue. He recovered his salt balance with pizza and soda at the Plaza de Mulas base camp.

Climbing Aconcagua was a collective vision of Nick and Diana. Together, they made it happen.

Diana, no stranger to mountains herself, said, “Having a perspective on mountaineering definitely made it easier to support the idea of this trip.” Aconcagua was a reasonable and safe goal, more so than perhaps a climb on Denali (at 18,000 feet in Alaska) would have been.

Diana continued, “You are with your partner and see what they cherish. His big dream is also my big dream, even though he was the only one to go. It’s reciprocated. He supports my dreams too.”

“Diana absolutely put an equal amount of effort into this, while I was planning in the fall, helping with saving for the trip, taking care of the kids over winter break and then starting back into grad school,” Nick said. “She’s amazing. If we weren’t such a team, the trip or our marriage might have suffered.”

For the sake of his children, he added, “I wanted to model to my kids the pursuit of my dreams, being diligent and planning for it. I hope they’ll have perspective on a life well lived.”

The trip offered a chance to answer a question for Nick, 44, “Does this trip close the door on mountaineering for me? Am I content? Or does it reignite my passion?”

His adventure, thanks to meticulous planning and training, was flawless. He’s left feeling satisfied and ready to focus on family adventures next.

Through the fruition of a dream, planted as a seed long ago, comes the secret to the Runions’ happiness.

With thoughtful intention, one can have both deep and loving relationships and personal growth through challenging experiences. That’s one definition of a life well lived.

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