My Crazy Bid to See a Solar Eclipse at 20,000 Feet
Two bold men, one reckless plan: to watch the sun go dark atop a huge snow-covered peak in South America. You won't believe what happened next.
Ho and Hsi were the court astrologers for Chinese emperor Chung K’ang in 2136 B.C. Throughout history, Chinese rulers—who were sometimes paranoid megalomaniacs—used astronomical divination to justify their often eccentric decisions, and a total solar eclipse was believed to be a bad omen.
According to legend, Ho and Hsi failed to predict the eclipse that occurred on October 22—4,156 years ago—and both were beheaded. It still seems like a bum rap: no one would be able to predict the precise timing of a solar eclipse, within a few minutes, until 1715.
Luckily, my friend Large and I, despite getting almost everything wrong about the eclipse in South America last summer, only lost our heads metaphorically.
Our goal was to be the first confirmed humans to witness a total solar eclipse from a peak above 20,000 feet. This half-baked scheme came to me while watching the 2017 eclipse from inside the zone of totality—specifically, from a prairie bluff in central Wyoming. The strangeness of seeing the world go black in the middle of the day was so provocative, so entrancing, that it made me wonder: What would it be like to experience an eclipse from the summit of a high peak?
Research indicated that the 2019 total solar eclipse would be fully visible from a 20,548-foot Argentinean peak called Majadita, on July 2 at 5:40 P.M. A relatively unknown knob along the spine of the Andes, Majadita rises at Argentina’s border with Chile, 155 miles north of Aconcagua, which at 22,831 feet is the highest mountain in the Western Hemisphere. First climbed in 1965, Majadita has seen only a handful of ascents since.
I cross-checked NASA’s eclipse logs with the American and British alpine journals and found no mention of anyone being at high altitude during an eclipse. Obviously, countless humans living in elevated places—the Himalayas, the Karakorum, the Andes—were witness to total solar eclipses over the past few thousand years, but above 20,000 feet? It’s damn cold and barren up there; without down parkas and double boots, you freeze to death. The likelihood seemed small.
Putting my plan in motion, I called Matt “Large” Hebard, a native of eastern Wisconsin who now lives in suburban Denver and is always dying to get after it, whatever it happens to be. Large is physically large—nearly six feet, 200 pounds of solid muscle—but he earned his nickname mainly because he’s large of spirit. When he graduated from high school in 1995, pudgy, neglected, and poor, he went directly to work in a toilet-seat factory. He stayed there two years before deciding college wasn’t the worst idea. He got a degree, moved to the Rockies, got another degree, then another, and now runs a forest preschool. (There are no classrooms; kids are outside the whole time.) Along the way, he rode bikes hard or climbed mountains fast nearly every weekend for two decades.
“Large!” I shouted into the phone. “Want to do an expedition to the Andes?”
“I’m in,” he said, without a split second of hesitation. “I’ll bring the cheese.”
He didn’t even know which mountain we were going to. What’s more, his wife, Cherie, was pregnant. But the trip as I described it seemed simple and hard to resist: fly to Chile, catch a ride to the base of Majadita, make camp, climb the thing, put on protective eyewear, and wait for the big event.
“When we going?” he asked.
I gave him the dates.
“I’ll get tickets.”