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Parksville father-son team climbs huge mountain in Argentina

From left, Ballenas student Kevin Gourlay and his father Clarke Gourlay climbed Mount Aconcagua in December. - PHOTO SUBMITTED BY CLARKE GOURLA
From left, Ballenas student Kevin Gourlay and his father Clarke Gourlay climbed Mount Aconcagua in December.
— image credit: PHOTO SUBMITTED BY CLARKE GOURLA

It took a year of planning and training, but a local man and his son successfully summited the highest mountain in both the Western and Southern Hemispheres last month, and they did so completely unsupported.

Clarke Gourlay is part-owner and general manager at the Morningstar Farm in French Creek. The 49-year-old and his 17 year-old-son Kevin, who finished his coursework at Ballenas Secondary early in order to do the climb, summited Aconcagua in December. The mountain lies in the Andes mountain range, in the province of Mendoza, Argentina, and it sits at 6,960 metres or 22,837 feet.

While many people hire a guide or a porter at least a mule to carry their packs, Clarke and Kevin set out to complete the trek on their own, and Clarke thinks they may have been the only ones at that time.

"We didn't meet anyone else on the mountain that was doing it that way," he said.

After they had made the decision, Clarke described in his trip report (a tad sarcastically) how he and his son "often looked longingly at the mules as [they] slugged it in for 47 kms over three days with very heavy packs."

But in the end they saved some money and accomplished what they had set out to do, so he doesn't regret the choice, he said. But he certainly wouldn't describe the climb as an easy one, and in fact his son refers to it as the hardest thing he's ever done.

Clarke's infatuation with mountain climbing kicked into high gear when his eldest son was visiting Tanzania in 2010. Clarke and his middle son joined his eldest son and the three climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. Kevin, the third and youngest son, wasn't ready to do that climb back in 2010. But a couple years later Clarke and Kevin started planning their journey together up Aconcagua.

For their training, the two exhausted all the mountain climbing adventures possible on Vancouver Island, every time increasing the weight of their packs. They eventually set out on larger climbs off the Island, like Mount Whitney in California (14,505 feet) and Mount Rainier in Seattle (14,411 feet).

They left for Argentina on Dec.1 and once they arrived they embarked on an acclimatization climb of Mount Vallecitos, a popular Argentine destination and nearly 19,000 feet. This greatly helped their situation on Mount Aconcagua, as they were able to ascend the mountain at a faster pace and avoid the back-and-forth hiking scenarios people normally need to do to avoid altitude sickness.

Clarke and Kevin hiked an average of 6 hours-a-day at what seemed like a "painfully slow pace" at times, as they tried to catch their elusive breath. The weather would range from around 0 C in the day to -20 C or colder at night.

The two set up their tent at the designated camps each night, which were rocky but generally flat areas that had windbreaks set up where possible.

They decided to traverse the mountain, which means they combined two different routes instead of the one popular route, and saw both sides of the mountain, Clarke said.

"That made it much more interesting," he said, adding one side of the mountain was much quieter than the other.

On the day before their summit day, Clarke and Kevin took a rest day.

"We just laid out and read aloud, we read a novel to each other, laying out in the sun with a parka."

They began the push for the summit just after 5 a.m. the next morning where weather was reportedly -30 C. It turned out to be rather anticlimactic initially, Clarke laughed. They were following their GPS which was telling them to continue on another 40 meters to the summit.

"So we pushed on a little further ahead and then we were going down hill and we thought what's going on?"

The only other group to summit that day came along five minutes later, and the mountain guides confirmed that the GPS was wrong and they had reached the top.

"So there was a big hug and a yell and lots of photos," he said. "My son did 20 push-ups at the top just to prove that he could and we got that on video."

However, that video never made it down the mountain. The camera they had brought had broken earlier in the trip and they were using a phone for photos and video. Later that day, after 13 hours of hiking, their summit day came to an end. When they went to grab the camera phone, it was gone.

"Tragic," Clarke said.

Further down at a stop called Camp Canada they met a couple of hikers and explained their camera woes. The couple took a few photos and emailed them to Clarke.

And besides those few photos, they still have their great memories, Clarke added.

The Gourlays took 12 days to complete their trek on Aconcagua, a hike that usually takes much longer than that, but thanks to their acclimatization climb they were able to cut it down, Clarke said.

The best part about the whole adventure was accomplishing a tough goal with his 17-year-old son, Clarke said.

"Getting to the top and getting back safely, happily," he said.  "It was a great bonding time with Kevin."

Clarke said he'll take a bit of a break from climbing, but has Mount Robson in his sights for this summer. He said he enjoys the climbs partly because it gives him some escapism from his fairly intense work weeks, and partly because of the challenge.

"How do you stay young? You keep doing stuff," he said.

Clarke said Aconcagua is a fairly accessible mountain for people with some experience, and he would be happy to assist others if they were planning a trek up the mountain.

Contact him by email at clarke@cheeseworks.ca.

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