The pain comes a few days later. Three, four days after you think you're home free, it descends crashing into your immune system. The first thing you notice when you wake up is your skin beginning to flake and peel. A couple days later it turns black and you try not to look at your hideous reflection for too long.
I thought I had escaped… no frostbite, no blisters. But the nose is something I can't ignore; chunks of skin the size of thumbnails turn colors then blister and peel. The cheeks go next. They too turn black and peel. Blood coagulates and then oozes out at random times. Afterwards the lips blister and crack and then random pains. Sharp shooting stabs from my hand shooting down my arm. Did I fall on it somewhere? (No it must be from driving my ice axe.) The feet swell - a touch of frostbite becomes obvious overnight on a big toe. I pop ibuprofen like candy and pretend to ignore it.
I'm lucky. My wife is lying in the hotel bed with her feet propped up. One toe is completely purple and blistered. The doctor came to the hotel room and announced that she'll be all right - but her toe throbs. Walking 3 blocks to dinner takes half an hour.
How does one come to this? That's always the question. It's never one step… one decision - but a series of … Conversations? Choices? Missteps? Another block of climbing; the decision to look at the crux; the choice to climb past the crux and see what's above. And then you start compromising: "The snow will improve above… We'll be able to find our way down in the dark… We can descend an easier route." And then the compromising becomes harder… justifications are voiced. "We have down jackets and a stove;" and "It's so close - we'll never be here again."
In the back of the mind the justifications get bolder. "What's frostbite on the nose? The skin grows back in 3 weeks. I'll be fine." It gets colder and you think, "What about toes? Is a touch of black worth this route? Are blisters worth it? Is it worth it to brave the altitude after dark?"
"How bad can it be?"
Things don't change instantly but there is a space in time when all your choices in the past hours come to a zenith. The sun disappears for a long night, the soft snow starts to crust, winds pick up. On the summit ridge the wind causes my wife to go blind in one eye. To get out of the wind and protect ourselves I dig a snow-cave in the summit snow drift. Lying in the dark you question your decision to stop and rest. "Can I afford to sleep for 5 minutes? Will my feet make it through the night?"
(Can I even feel my feet?)
Looking up at the stars I can feel my nose changing. It is freezing. It's happened before and I ignore the pain pushing my fears to the back of my mind. Justifications come back:
"We'll be fine."
"It's not that cold."
"My toes actually feel kind of warm."
Things change fast. My wife took a new job and she negotiated a month off in between gigs. Suddenly we could take a long vacation. The only problem is we only had a month to plan and pack. So we started to google for an insta-vacation. Where to go in January?
Rock climbing in Australia? "Too casual," said my wife.
Alpine climbing in New Zealand? "Too much like Alaska," I said.
Sport climbing in Thailand? "We did that already - remember?" my wife said. I do… but I want to go back. "No." End of discussion. I went to bed sulking.
A day or so later she said, "Aconcagua?" Are you serious? No way. Too long, boring and crowded. "I want to climb a big mountain." I try and fight it for a few days but she's convinced it will be fun so it is decided. My mother told me one must always please the wife. For some reason I don't think my mother was referring to agreeing to high altitude mountaineering vacations but regardless… I always listen to my mother.
Aconcagua is about as insta-vacation as you can get. Get on the phone and call the last 5 people you know who climbed it: "When did you go? What'd you take? Who'd you use to coordinate? How cold was it?" Packing for trips like this has become repetition. Find the bin labeled "glacier gear" and dump it into a bag; dust off the 5 year old Mountain House meals… and last but not least - find a dog sitter.
4 weeks after deciding to take a vacation the bags are packed, the food is prepped and we're catching the red eye from Anchorage to Seattle to Miami to Santiago to Mendoza where we step off the plane into hot sunshine.
Since we're insta-vacationeers we opt for the fully catered deal. Fernando Grajales Expeditions meets us at the airport and drives us to Hotel Nutibara where they drop us off with maps to grocery stores and instructions on where to get our peak permit. The 1.5 days pass in mad frenzy of food and gear ("Where did you put my fleece?" -- "What fleece?") shopping and then we're off to the staging area of Penitentes where another flurry of packing ensues and then precisely 3 days after leaving Anchorage we hike into the Vacas Valley jet lagged, exhausted and panting from heat.
It took us a total of three days to travel up the Vacas Valley. On our first day we hiked through the arid Andean landscape surrounded by birds, lizards and walls of red dirt towering above. After about an hour the trees grew fewer and shorter and finally gave way to scrub brush and sand. The first day was a short 5 mile hike which we gladly accepted, eating and crawling into our sleeping bags as soon as it got dark. I woke up once to behold an amazing sky… stars sparkled like I've never seen them and I caught my first view of the Southern Cross resting deep on the southern horizon. It was an alien sky I was unfamiliar with and I instinctively sought stars I knew… spinning until I caught sight of familiar Orion and then relaxing my gaze upward as 3 meteors passed overhead in the brief time I stood outside.
The next day we climbed above the river gorge we had been following and entered a wide valley with sandy slopes above. As we trekked, the valley kept expanding until we turned a corner to finally see the summit of Aconcagua soaring above everything. The Polish Glacier glistened… imposing and beautiful and my first reaction was to question why I hauled this heavy rope and gear for a route that looked so impossible from our viewpoint 11,000' below. Our camp that night was on a sandy perch with winds howling throughout the night filling our tent and packs with sand.
The final stretch to base camp was a pleasant hike up a tight valley to an open plain, the Polish Glacier standing over us all the while. The air was crisp and the wind not too strong and we took our time stopping to snap pictures and scramble up rocks for a better view. And finally after about 5 or 6 hours we scrambled over a mound of moraine where we were confronted with base camp at 13,700'.
Base Camp… how to describe it. Crowded, dirty, commercialized. The bathrooms resemble what you'd find in a New Delhi train station. Toilet paper floats by in the wind and trash is stuffed under every rock. If you need something - anything (and you have the cash) the workers will get it for you. There are showers, beds, meals, internet, sat phones, midnight drum circles, helicopters, giant buckets of shit and just about anything else you could think of. And like all base camps, climbers from all over the world to chat and trade stories with.
This is not to say that the area isn't beautiful. Too many climbers show up at base camp expecting a stunning vista and quiet NPS campground. When they're faced with hundreds of climbers, a huge support crew and daily migration of anywhere from 10 to 50 mules, they withdraw into sarcasm and expound on the "commercialization of the 7-summits". Of course this is after they've spent thousands in gear and plane tickets to tick off one of the summits. If you know what you're getting into it's not surprising. Yes - there is trash and signs of human impact but hike 10 minutes off the trail and you're in a high alpine wilderness.
The area is stunning: mountains bathed in red silt with blue glaciers creeping down them. Steep ice chimneys snaking up grey walls. Fields of surreal penitentes - towers of ice leftover from snowmelt - stark white against the brown earth. House-sized boulders chiseled by the wind and a sky that opens up every night so brilliant it is a constant reminder that you are moving higher and higher above this world.
We slept, ate and acclimatized; taking walks away from base camp to take in the sights. And then our 3 days of rest are up… and we awoke and moved up the mountain.
|Aconcagua's Polish Direct
• Part I - Getting there
• Part II - Base Camp to Camp 2
• Part III - Summit Day
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