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Full Circle: how and why Sunny Stroeer became the first woman (and third person) to finish Aconcagua's 360 Route in a solo push
Posted on: June 27, 2018
Sunny Stroeer on Aconcagua (6962m). [Photo] Sunny Stroeer collection
On February 2, Sunny Stroeer was 24 hours into her solo of Aconcagua's 64-mile 360 Route. She'd just arrived at Camp III, the final stop before the 22,841-foot summit, and realized the water she'd cached there with a note the week before was gone. She checked her current supply: 700 milliliters of drinkable water remained.
"Screw this," she thought. "Why am I doing this?"
She sat down and contemplated what calling it quits might look like. She was already three hours behind schedule after settling permit requirements with rangers at the Punta de Vacas park entrance. Ahead of her were 2 miles and more than 3,000 feet of elevation gain to the summit, which, depending on how long it took her, could put her in dangerous afternoon snow conditions.
South America's highest peak is riddled with glaciers and flanked by volcanic rock. For some, standing atop Aconcagua is a lifetime accomplishment. For Stroeer, it's a hike she's done numerous times over the past four years. This particular time, however, she was approaching the summit in a different way.
Instead of ascending the "normal route" that snakes up Aconcagua's western flank, Stroeer's plan was to leave directly from her hostel in a town called Los Penitentes, run east up an adjacent valley, up the northern ridgeline to the summit, then continue down the west side, running the normal route back to her hostel—a 64-mile endeavor with 17,000 feet of elevation gain known as the 360 Route. If she could make it to the summit and finish the loop, she'd become only the third person to move solo and unsupported over those gnarled, muddy and icy trails (neither Aconcagua's normal route nor the 360 Route have any technical climbing or crevasse crossings, although the 360 has more ridge travel).
Now that she was nearly out of water with many miles and much vertical elevation still ahead, she wondered if it was worth it.
"That was almost a point of no return," she said. But she remembered the reason she'd quit her job and left her stable life behind two years ago; the "why" that fueled her mountain adventures. Stroeer was doing the 360 Route because she wanted to provide some more inspiration for women to decide on their own goals and not get hung up on expectations, permission-seeking or self-doubt.
"Tried" isn't as powerful of an example as "did," Stroeer thought. And she felt that her message—that women can follow through with dreams just as big and daring as those of men—needed to be as powerful of a message as she could muster.
Stroeer high on Aconcagua. [Photo] Julian Kusi
"So I decided to go for it," she said. Plus, she knew a friend was guiding on the mountain and would also be en route to the summit that day; if Stroeer got into any trouble (such as the exercise-induced asthma attack she'd suffered near the summit during her record-breaking base camp-to-summit speed ascent on Aconcagua the year before), she would probably have support nearby.
Stroeer put her head down and approached the slope one step at a time. "No stress, just training," she thought.
It took her seven hours to move those two miles and take a photo to verify she'd made it to the summit—where the atmospheric pressure is only 40 percent that of sea level—and then another 90 minutes to return to Camp III. It would be another dozen or so hours until she would finally rest.
By normal expedition standards, the 360 Route is a 15- to 18-day trek. To complete it in a single push requires a combination of skills that range from elite trail runner to high-altitude mountaineer and ultra-athlete.
"I've never actually been a particularly fast runner," Stroeer said. She's completed several 100-mile races, but organized ultra-racing never quite satisfied her: "I just don't have the motivation to train to try to compete against others."
Instead of following a preset course, the German-born adventure athlete has spent the past few years designing her own long-distance, high-altitude projects. Last year, she set the women's fastest known time (FKT) on Nepal's 136-mile Annapurna Circuit (just under four days), and before that, she set the women's FKT on Aconcagua's normal route. "It's different because I'm putting all the elements together, where I don't know what's going to happen," she said. "I have to take into account altitude, distance, sleep strategy, resupply strategy...I like being out there and experiencing something where I'm not sure what the outcome will be or how I'm going to react both physically and mentally," she said.
The same could be said for when she flipped her life inside out, willingly, in 2016.
"Everything started in 2014," Stroeer said. "Aconcagua was the first big mountain I did by myself...just a high-altitude trek, nothing out the ordinary."
This was when Stroeer was still a weekend warrior, vacation-adventuring as an international strategy consultant with a Harvard MBA and a comfortable home base in Houston, Texas. By most accounts she was forging a successful life—but not by all accounts.
During her introduction to Aconcagua, Stroeer realized a few things. Namely, there weren't many women on the mountain, and this wasn't all that different from the consulting world.
"I've seen what I'd call a lack of confidence among women," she said. "Not just in the mountains, but at my old job when it was almost always the same story: Women would step back and let somebody else take the lead in many cases."
Even before quitting her job, Stroeer was determined to create a platform that encouraged women to "get out there in a very tangible way. To say: 'Hey I'm leading a trip. It's going to be all girls; let's go do something.'"
She believed one way to encourage female participation in the mountains was to lead by example: "Just going out and pushing for stuff that a lot of women would look at and think 'Oh, no woman has done that before; I don't think I'm going to do that.' I'm going to go do those things, and hopefully there are going to be others who go look at what I do and go, 'Huh, there's a chick [who] did that, and she wasn't particularly fast...'
"I look around and watch somebody like Adam Ondra or Daniel Woods and I'm like, 'Holy crap, that is amazing what they're doing. That is so freaking hard, I'd never be able to do that. But then when I look at really strong women climbers, someone like Libby Sauter with the speed record on the Nose or Sasha DiGiulian training in the gym, I look and I'm like, 'Holy crap, if they can do it, maybe I can, too,'" Stroeer said.
"If you see somebody—who looks like you or who sounds like you—doing stuff you think is hard or impressive, I think it makes you much more likely to go and try and do it yourself than if it's someone who doesn't share your characteristics."
So, after returning from her first Aconcagua summit, she decided on her next goals. "I wanted to go back to Aconcagua and do it again, but do it differently. I wanted to get women out on the mountain, and do it in a way that was actually going to be fun," she said.
Stroeer quit her job at the end of 2015, bought a van, took a handsaw out to the roof of her parking garage and built herself a mobile living space. She set three goals for herself: climb, execute a multi-day stand-up paddleboard trip and take a women's team up Aconcagua.
"There is a much bigger diversity issue beyond just women in general," she said. "But that's the diversity and representation gap that I have observed and feel first-hand the most, so that's where I decided to do my part." From Mt. Kilimanjaro to a variety of Himalayan peaks, Stroeer has since orchestrated trips for women of all backgrounds. She's aware that other would-be female climbers don't have the same privileges and opportunities that she has had. Looking ahead, she's interested in planning expeditions and raising money in order to include local women as non-paying clients on her treks in addition to having as many female guides and female support staff as she can rally.
Stroeer's high school friends would've been shocked to hear she was guiding women on high-altitude expeditions. They all knew her as the girl who, during a one-year stint living in Switzerland's "outdoor capital of the world," hadn't left the town's limits more than once.
"Yeah, that was a bit of a waste of time," she laughs now. What wasn't wasted, she said, was an openness to change.
After moving to the US to finish her studies, Stroeer traveled to Africa and Asia and was gradually exposed to the world of adventure sports. While in Madagascar, she ran her first ultramarathon, and gravitated toward the backpackers, climbers and runners she met on the road. Getting to know them and their activities revealed a new lifestyle she didn't known existed, but which she loved.
Stroeer. [Photo] Sunny Stroeer collection
Only a couple years later, in 2017, Stroeer guided a group of women up Aconcagua. After shepherding her expedition along the normal route in January, Stroeer secured a new permit, scouted the 360 Route and spent an additional week reading, listening to TED Radio Hour talks and acclimating at Camp II, 18,200 feet up the mountain.
Originally, Stroeer didn't intend to try the 360. During the 2016-17 mountaineering season, she and famed Yosemite climber Libby Sauter had teamed up to attempt a new FKT on Aconcagua's normal route, running up the mountain's western slope. But they left the mountain after Sauter decided she needed to descend because of problems with the altitude. For the 2017-18 season, Sauter convinced Stroeer they should go back and try again.
Sauter had first met Stroeer at an Argentine hostel in 2016, preparing their first expedition together. "We were breaking the number one rule of expeditions," Sauter recalls with a laugh. It's unusual to meet a mountain teammate mere hours before an expedition. But Stroeer's demeanor quickly eased any worry Sauter might've had. "She's so even-keeled. She doesn't have these big ups and downs. She's so steadfast and dependable, and...capable like no one's business," Sauter said.
"She was walking with a 60-pound pack, instead of like the rest of us [who were] trying to get our packs down to 30 pounds, and she was just like, 'Don't worry I'll be fine,'" Sauter recalls from that first encounter.
In the 2017-18 season, both Stroeer and Sauter worked with the expedition team on the normal route. But Sauter was starting to feel that another bid for the speed record might not happen. That autumn, Sauter had been lamenting the accident of her friend Quinn Brett and was grieving the death of Niels Tietze.
"The mode of work that is [high-altitude mountaineering], it's slow, slogging uphill, non-technical," Sauter said. "So you're in your head. Or, the work is hanging around at altitude trying to acclimatize, which is also all this time in your head. I realized: I'm here because...I feel obligated and I have an ego to follow through on this thing I think I can do, and those aren't the right reasons to be in the mountains. I didn't have it in me."
When Sauter returned home, Stroeer had a decision to make. She couldn't yet go back to the US (visa issues), and she didn't want to do the normal route again. Instinctively she pivoted towards a new goal.
"It goes back to the uncertainty," Stroeer said. By that point she'd done the normal route six or seven times. "I already know those trails—I know the slog. It would just be a matter of: Can I push hard enough to beat the record?"
While Stroeer and Sauter were on the mountain in 2017, they'd watched Ecuadorian runner Nicolas Miranda set the 360 speed record in 27 hours and 58 minutes. Stroeer tried to convince Sauter to attempt the 360 Route then, but Sauter had voiced doubts. What about the river crossings? The complicated logistics? They'd settled on the normal route that year, and the year after, but when Sauter flew back to the US in January, Stroeer contemplated the 360 once again. It represented another edge of her comfort zone.
"I'd never been out there before.... There are elements that make it more complicated than the normal route, and it's a bigger logistics challenge. But I thought, 'I'm here so I might as well give it a shot.'"
In the 47.5 hours that eventually elapsed between the time Stroeer left the hostel and the time she returned, the lack of water was not the only part of her plan that went awry.
At 4 a.m. on February 1, the day Stroeer would start the 360 and begin the longest no-sleep stint of her 32-year-old life, she woke up with a start. Though she hadn't planned to rise until 6 a.m., she couldn't fall back asleep. Outside her hostel room in Los Penitentes, Argentina, the weather still looked safe.
By 7:30 a.m. she'd gathered her small pack and left the hostel wearing technical running tights and a long-sleeved top, a sun hat, hydration vest and a walkie-talkie.
Rangers stopped her for three hours to verify her permits when she reached the mountain park's Punta de Vacas entry point. She considered turning back and starting another day, but her permit would expire if she pushed the endeavor too far back. Once the rangers cleared her, she set into a rhythm, whittling away the miles and altitude, snaking her way up the Vacas Valley. When the air got thinner and nighttime set in, she called upon her motto: "No stress; just training."
It was dark by the time Stroeer reached Plaza Argentina, the camp that sits at the top of Vacas Valley and intersects the ridge that cuts west to the summit. She immediately opened her first gear cache and transformed from trail runner into lightweight mountaineer. She donned a giant parka, and packed crampons, food and emergency bivy equipment. Stroeer had created her own shoe system for this kind of speed attempt: a stiff-soled, crampon-compatible trail shoe with a built-in gaiter and an insulated over-the-boot gaiter superglued on top, which she'd trimmed above the ankle to save weight. She wore heated, battery-operated socks to keep her toes from freezing.
Moving on from Plaza Argentina, Stroeer faced the technical ridge that breaks above 14,000 feet of elevation and joins the out-and-back summit trail. Stroeer scrolled through a playlist and selected a list of motivating tunes to accompany her overnight. Because she didn't have headphones, she played the music out loud, but it was so cold the battery soon died, leaving her with nothing but her own mind for company.
At 7 a.m. she reached Camp III. This was when she realized her water was gone.
"There are going to be times when it's not going to be OK, temporarily, and it's going to suck and it's going to be easy to quit," Stroeer said. "Just believe that it's going to change and be fine with that. It's all possible."
In 1974, Vera Watson was the first woman to reach Aconcagua's summit solo. This year is the 40th anniversary of Watson's death, which occurred on the slopes of Annapurna in the Nepal Himalaya in 1978 during the American Women's Himalayan Expedition that put the first Americans on the summit. Watson was a competent, self-assured climber who shattered the gender expectations of her time and challenged the status quo by doing what she loved.
"How many of us have run impossible distances or climbed impossible mountains because of this woman!" Fran Allen wrote in the American Alpine Journal the year after Watson's death. "A shy person, Vera was however a leader—encouraging, cajoling and inspiring people to try things they considered impossible."
As Stroeer schlepped up Aconcagua's final slope, she kick-stepped in the ghosts of her own footprints and those of Vera Watson. "No stress; just training," Stroeer repeated. When she hit the summit, she paused: Across the sprawling valleys and mountainscapes she noted the ruddy hues, silvery ascents and that place way down there at the foot of the mountain, where her hostel was, her warm bed tucked under the clouds, still another 12 hours of slow running away.
But before she even considered beginning the descent, Stroeer inhaled deeply—satisfied she'd finished something that, at the beginning, she didn't know she could do: she'd been there before, and it's likely she'll be back again.
Stroeer. [Photo] Sunny Stroeer collection
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