Feb. 6: On Aconcagua, the little climber that could

Yesterday, Americas Quarterly published my story (with lots of good photos!) about Mila Marlina, the tiniest and unlikeliest climber on Aconcagua in December: 4’9” and 82 pounds, the 42-year-old Indonesian mom was skipping her daughter’s birthday and her family’s Christmas to disappear for weeks into the Andean mountains. Rock on, Mila!

I took a few video interviews with Mila during our two-week expedition, which happened to cross paths with the Spanish mountain runner Kílian Jornet Burgada, who was on Aconcagua at the same time to set a new speed ascent-descent of the tallest summit in the Americas.

The first video at left is of Mila and her fellow climber Magnus Lindkvist of Sweden while the two tried to stay warm at camp two (known as Nido de Cóndores, elevation 18,270 feet).

The second video is of Mila the following morning, telling me that she felt good to continue to camp three, despite her high blood pressure and low oxygen count. She had already been called into a “private” meeting with our lead guide, Heber Orona, which wasn’t so private because it was inside a tent and we could all hear the difficult discussion happening inside: Mila pleading, crying, “Heber, no! I won’t turn back! No!”

The third video is of Mila accepting the order from Orona (and three big mountain rangers) to return to base camp with four others from our group who were also suffering from altitude sickness and fatigue (which we all felt, but they felt in a debilitating way).

The fourth video is of me later that day, inside my tent at camp three (known as Camp Colera, elevation 19,690 feet), reflecting on Mila.

The last video is of me and my Australian tent-mate Robbie, talking about Mila’s emotional decision to turn back.

It was not entirely surprising that Mila could not make the summit — we had all been more surprised two weeks earlier when this tiny lady with a big smile walked into the office of Inka Expediciones and announced she was part of our expedition to the summit of the highest mountain in the Western Hemisphere. She was rail-thin and no bigger than a fourth-grader. Her best chance of reaching the summit seemed to be sneaking inside one of our backpacks.

But Mila grew on us all. And, as I wrote in Americas Quarterly, there was something very appropriate about her being on Aconcagua at the same time as the sky runner Kilian Jornet:

Jornet, at 5’6” and about 130 pounds, is a pair of oxygen-tank lungs atop two huge piston-like legs. Yet as different as he looked from petite Marlina, they shared something in common. In many ways, both are a product of the booming popularity of climbing and mountaineering worldwide, which is pushing climbers of all abilities to new heights—as also seen when two Americans in January conquered the world’s toughest rock climb in Yosemite National Park, or in the speed-climbing feats of “the Swiss machine” Ueli Steck. Aconcagua is no longer just the tallest peak of the Western Hemisphere; it has turned into something of a Summit of the Americas, a meeting place for people from around the world, which brings new risks and challenges.


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