Strictly speaking, my “winter” love story took place in a whole other season. Although it was January, my girlfriend and I were visiting Argentina, at the height of the Austral summer. But we were in the Andes, 4,000 metres above sea level, surrounded by ice and snow. If that doesn’t count as winter, I don’t know what does.
At this point in 2003, Jane and I had been travelling for 10 months – the New Guinea Highlands, Easter Island, Angkor Wat … and we had experience-fatigue.
We had made it to Argentina and, for reasons ranging from the aforementioned travellers’ ennui to the peso crisis making Argentina dirt cheap, had decided to climb Mount Aconcagua. At 6,962 metres (almost 23,000ft), this is the highest peak in the Andes (and the western hemisphere).
You don’t need any special mountaineering skills to climb it. Nonetheless, it is a very serious mountain and has killed more than 100 climbers. Most people who attempt it train for months beforehand. They bulk up, too, because you burn a lot of calories climbing high peaks. We were pretty fit, although 10 months’ travel meant we had bulked down. I normally weigh 73kg (11st 7lb) but I was 57kg back then.
Our wintry tale starts with us at about 3,600 metres, where it was a sunny 17C. All our cold-weather kit had been sent by mule with our guide to Plaza de Mulas (PDM), the base camp, which is at 4,370 metres. We were looking forward to an easy six-hour hike to PDM through tawny desert landscapes that look like the American west.
The day dawned bright and clear, but it didn’t stay that way. After a few hours, we were walking into a 100kph wind. Soon, snow was falling and visibility was getting poor. At 5pm, we called a halt and pitched our tent, figuring that the weather would improve and we would walk up the next day in blazing Andean sunshine.
But the snow was the start of the worst blizzard in 20 years. So we hunkered down and snuggled up. People ask, “Wasn’t it romantic?” Well, we zipped our sleeping bags together and cuddled for warmth, but this is where any romcom similarities end. We were in a high-altitude tent designed to cope with howling gales, which resembled a cramped 70cm-high orange envelope.
The next morning, I unzipped the tent. Complete whiteout. We knew what to do: sit tight. It was annoying because PDM was only 90 minutes’ walk away, but we also knew that the people who die in blizzards are those who leave their tents.
So we went back to bed. We played Travel Scrabble – game after game after game. In those long ago, pre-smartphone days, a lot of travelling was waiting around with very little to do. In Indonesian Papua we had waited a fortnight for a flight in a dull little frontier town. Mostly we’d played the card game shithead – sometimes for eight hours straight.
These things are not romantic per se. But spending all day, every day with another person with no real diversions and not getting on each other’s nerves is an excellent test of whether you can spend your life with them. Especially when you’re trapped together in less than two cubic metres.
By the afternoon of day two, any novelty had been replaced by hunger. We did an inventory. Food-wise, we had milk powder, two onions and a surprisingly comprehensive selection of herbs. We had a gas stove but not enough gas to melt snow. The river was five minutes’ walk away, but in the blizzard this meant remembering a dozen landmarks because visibility was so low and, y’know, death. I survived and Jane made cream of onion soup, our first meal in 30 hours.
And so it went. We talked – increasingly about food – and we played Scrabble.
The next morning we woke and opened the tent. Another wall of white. We reassured each other it would be fine – we just had to resist the urge to move. And then something terrible happened. Nature was calling – and not a number one. I looked at Jane. “The loo roll went up on the mules,” she said.
I squatted behind a pyramid-shaped rock in the howling snow. In the absence of toilet paper, I looked around me … Well, the solution was soft and white: you make snowballs and keep wiping until they come out clean. When I got back into the tent, Jane asked how it was.
“Not as bad as you’d think,” I replied. “But still very bad.”
I went down to the river again. On my way back a man appeared out of the whiteness. His beard and moustache were rimed in white and he was leading a pair of ice-shellacked mules. He looked like something from a horror film: an Arctic explorer minutes before death. We wished each other luck and he disappeared into the whiteness, leaving me wondering if he had been there at all.
Back in the tent, we ate the last of the onion soup.
We talked about how you can live without food for weeks, and played Scrabble. We talked about how we would stay in the five-star Hyatt in Mendoza, how we would drink malbec and eat steak and sink into high-thread-count sheets. We talked about deep, perfumed baths, about the future, about buying houses and marriage and children. We talked about everything.
By the third evening we had been in the blizzard for 50 hours and eaten two bowls of soup. We were ravenous, although one upside of not eating is not having to use snowballs as toilet paper. Months ago, in the Himalayas, we had learned there’s not much to do in the mountains at night so you sleep for 12 hours. We slept.
The next day, I poked my head out of the tent. Still white. “It might be a bit brighter,” I said, more optimistically than I felt. But an hour after that I saw blue sky, the first in three days. We went outside and did a hungry, smelly dance. Two hours later, we were eating beef and beans at PDM.
In the end, we never made it to the top. Jane dropped out at 6,000 metres and I got to about 6,700 – which seems incredibly close. But it wasn’t really – at that height, a few dozen steps feels like the battle of Stalingrad and, besides, I could feel altitude sickness coming on.
Back at the Hyatt, we bumped into climbers who had been caught in the blizzard much higher than us. There was a lot of frostbite – hands bandaged like mittens. Some of them would lose fingers and toes, which rather put my failure to summit into perspective.
That was 18 years ago, and we’re still together and have two lovely daughters. It’s an unromantic test of romance, but if you can spend 65 hours together, unwashed, in a tiny tent playing Scrabble, you’re in it for the long haul. Needless to say, the three Rigby women reliably veto my occasional suggestions that we go on a walking holiday in the Andes.