Free-flowing pizza, red wine, party music and flashing fairy lights.
This certainly wasn’t like any mountaineering expedition I’d experienced before, especially pre-summit. But then again, I wasn’t travelling with a standard mountaineering guide.
I’d joined an exclusive trip with Nepalese mountaineering legend Nimsdai Purja, who found overnight fame following his blockbuster Netflix documentary 14 Peaks: Nothing Is Impossible, in which he scales the world’s 14 highest peaks in a record-breaking time of six months and six days.
Sadie Whitelocks (left) went on an exclusive trip with Nimsdai Purja (right), who found overnight fame following his blockbuster Netflix documentary 14 Peaks: Nothing Is Impossible, in which he scales the world’s 14 highest peaks in a record-breaking time of six months and six days
The expedition took Sadie to the mountains of Mendoza, with the aim of summitting Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the Southern Hemisphere at 22,838ft (6,961m)
In total, there were 13 people in the expedition group, and all of them were keen to see what Nimsdai was like in real life
A view of Aconcagua’s basecamp from the surrounding hills on the way towards camp two
To get to Aconcagua, mountaineers fly into the Argentinian city of Mendoza
His go-getting attitude is inspiring on screen but even more so in person. To him, nothing is impossible, even with a hangover I learned.
Our aim, the day after partying the night away, was to summit Argentina’s Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the western hemisphere at 22,838ft (6,962m). In total, there were 13 in our group, and all of us had journeyed to the rugged peaks of the Andes keen to see what Nimsdai was like in real life.
He was late joining the expedition after getting held up in Antarctica, so he helicoptered into basecamp instead, in true film-star style, dressed in black, with his mirrored shades and signature baseball cap completing the look.
‘I haven’t slept for five days,’ he declared after touchdown. However, the lack of sleep didn’t appear to faze this machine of a man and he swiftly went about getting the camp into gear, coming up with an action plan for our summit and giving us a tutorial on how to dress for the mountain before uncorking the wine.
The expedition group get into the party swing of things, with red wine flowing at the dinner table
Sadie said the camp cooks were ‘magnificent’ and that they ‘whipped up restaurant-standard dishes in the most inhospitable of conditions’
Mesmerising: In this stunning shot by Sadie, Aconcagua is seen from basecamp with a starry sky above and high winds whipping the summit
Most groups tackle Aconcagua in three weeks. Sadie signed up for a fast-track trip, with the aim of venturing to the top on the 11th day after spending 10 days hiking from the park entrance to basecamp, which totalled some 23km (14 miles)
Nimsdai’s self-branded red wine – emblazoned with his famed slogan ‘Giving up is not in the blood Sir. It’s not in the blood’
‘I only take one thermos flask with me for summit day,’ he explained when running through his kit, adding: ‘I can make three litres of water with one flask because you can just use a bit of hot water to melt snow in the lid.
‘Another of my secret weapons on the mountain is an apple. I promise you – nothing tastes as good. Just have a little slice as you go. Coca Cola is another thing everyone should pack.’
After we’d all been given a military-style briefing – Nimsdai previously served in the military, spending six years as a Ghurkha and 10 years with the UK Special Forces (SBS) – we settled in for a pre-summit dinner, which swiftly descended into a scene of merriment.
Nimsdai’s self-branded red wine – emblazoned with his famed slogan ‘Giving up is not in the blood, Sir. It’s not in the blood’ – started hitting the table and it was hard not to be swept up by the party atmosphere.
Edwin, one of the assistant mountaineering guides from Peru, turned to me with a red-stained smile and said: ‘I never knew mountaineering could be this fun’ before taking another swig of ‘grape juice’, as Nimsdai called it.
I left for my tent to sleep around 11pm for a 6:30am wake-up the next day, but the party was still in full flow when I left.
The next morning, the party tunes kept rolling as we left for our rather ambitious summit push, with one person in our group carrying a portable boombox as we went.
Nimsdai’s Elite Expeditions company runs two trips each January to Aconcagua
An aerial view of the mountains surrounding Aconcagua, taken from a plane
The group’s pre-basecamp part of the itinerary included a couple of crucial acclimatisation camping trips above the clouds. Above, Sadie in her tent
Snowy mountain views from a tent at camp one on Aconcagua
On the day of their summit push, Sadie said there was a magnificent sunset (pictured), which made it look like the ‘sky was ablaze’
Nimsdai’s plan was to push from basecamp (13,780ft/4,200m) to camp two (18,208ft/5,550m), have a nap, and then go to the summit.
Most groups tackle Aconcagua in three weeks, but we’d signed up for a fast-track trip, with the aim of venturing to the top on the 11th day after spending 10 days hiking from the Aconcagua Provincial Park entrance to basecamp, which totalled some 23km (14 miles).
The pre-basecamp part of the itinerary also included a couple of crucial acclimatisation camping trips above the clouds.
Nimsdai’s pace on summit day was quick, and we scooted from basecamp to camp two in just four hours – half the time it would usually take.
Admittedly, I was feeling a bit unsure about the pace at that point as I’m a bit more of a slow and steady person on the mountains, but I tried to put my concerns to one side and settle in for some kip ahead of the main event.
After tucking into some dinner rustled up by the magnificent camp cooks – who seemingly whipped up restaurant-standard dishes in the most inhospitable of conditions – and changing into my all-in-one down suit that made me look like the Michelin man, I was ready for the off.
Half of the group, the slightly slower ones, set off at 9pm, while Nimsdai and some of the speedier members set off at 10pm, so we could all find a good pace and regroup at some point on the mountain.
One of the expedition team members seen in her puffy all-in-one down summit suit at camp two
LEFT: The chefs give Sadie a wave as they prepare food inside a tiny tent. RIGHT: A guide helps the group fill up their flasks with some hot water, which Nimsdai says is useful for melting snow when on the mountain
One of the glaciers surrounding Aconcagua as seen on the way back to basecamp
For one member in Sadie’s group, it was a 20-hour roundtrip on summit day
The eight successful summiteers pose for a photo on the top of Aconcagua with guides Nimsdai and Edwin
Nimsdai is pictured here while filming 14 Peaks at the summit of Nanga Parbat, at an elevation of 26,660ft (8,125m)
Head for heights: This incredible shot shows Nimsdai in 14 Peaks nearing the top of K2
A magnificent sunset, which made it look like the sky was ablaze, gradually gave way to starry-skied darkness and we set off one foot in front of the other up the snowy slopes.
We hadn’t been going too long when one group member who had been suffering from a chesty cough peeled off, and a little later down the line, I was hit by a feeling of sheer exhaustion.
My legs felt like they were seizing up and when we got to camp three (19,685ft/6,000m), I felt completely wiped out.
‘Stop those feelings of negativity, Sadie. Just drink some Coca Cola, please. You sound fine. You’re fine,’ Nimsdai told me on the radio when I let him know that I was considering turning around.
He instructed me to join him by his side and I set off with his group.
He even broke out the apple in a bid to boost my energy levels. But nothing was working, to my frustration, and I decided to keep going with one guide so I could go at a slower pace.
After reaching around 20,669ft (6,300m), at a point on the mountain where a piercingly cold wind was battering us from every side, I finally decided to turn around.
While Aconcagua isn’t technically difficult, it makes for an extremely long summit day – especially when you push from basecamp on the same day!
The expedition group and mountain guides in high spirits ahead of their ambitious summit push
A view of the area where the group camped during an acclimatisation hike
LEFT: Sadie battling a blizzard. RIGHT: One of the expedition breakfasts served up with some stunning mountain views
A photo taken by expedition team member Beth Rudd on the way up to the summit. While Aconcagua isn’t technically difficult, Sadie says it makes for an extremely long summit day
A shot taken by Sadie during the trek to the expedition basecamp. Mules were used to cart the mountaineering gear uphill
Sadie writes of her attempt on the summit: ‘My legs felt like they were seizing up and when we got to camp three (19,685ft/6,000m), I felt completely wiped out’
Incredibly, eight people in our group made it to the top and it was more than a 20-hour round trip for one chap.
Even Nimsdai said when he got back to camp, that it had been one of the longest slogs on Aconcagua he’d experienced, with more snow than previous years to push through – almost waist-high at some points.
I beat myself up a bit about not making it to the top but, revealing a softer side, Nimsdai turned to me and told me ‘sometimes, we just have to learn to be satisfied’.
I’m not sure he would ever be satisfied with not reaching the top but my takeaway from the trip was certainly that sometimes it’s ok to just enjoy the journey. And it’s certainly a journey to be enjoyed when you’re around someone like Nimsdai.
On getting back to the city of Mendoza from the mountains for yet more partying, summiteer Brian Dorney, 35, from Boston, summed the trip up well.
‘A lot of the world is about limits and telling people what they cannot do, and it was wonderful to be around someone who believes anything is possible! Nimsdai’s mindset is contagious.’
I’ll raise a glass of ‘grape juice’ to that…
Nimsdai guides several mountaineering trips a year, including the classic peaks. His expedition company Elite Expeditions runs two trips each January to Aconcagua with dates and prices set to vary. For more information on booking visit www.eliteexped.com.
To watch Nimsdai’s mountaineering documentary visit www.nimsdai.com/14-peaks-film.
For accommodation in Buenos Aires, Park Tower a Luxury Collection Hotel has a convenient central location.