From base camp we moved up a valley passing through fields of penitentes. Otherworldly is the only way I can describe these formations. You twist and turn through them and at times they tower almost head high. And of course you can't help but knock them down - a well placed smash with the ice axe or a shoulder butt and they come crashing down as you pass through them.
We staggered uphill with ridiculously heavy packs and made it to 16,500' in about 4 hours. Camp I was tucked into a valley surrounded by high cliffs. And crowded. At least 30 tents stacked in on top of each other along with lots of people. We crawled in our tent and slept off the altitude like recovering drunks.
That evening the camp was less crowded as more people moved up the mountain. We ate and slept and drank - and ducked inside the tent as a storm rolled into camp. The winds blew hard and we sat in our tent bracing the walls as they rocked with constant gusts and swirling snow. The next day brought clear skies and warmer weather. We opted for yet another rest day to ease headaches and acclimatize.
We began carrying loads to Camp II on our 9th day. Camp II was way up there - 19,200' and we needed to ascend 3,000' to reach it. The route up to the camp was easy walking - steep scree at the hardest but quite casual if you could forget that you were at 19,000. It took us about 4 ½ hours to reach the camp where we cached a load of food, climbing gear and fuel, and then hightailed it back down to 16,500' where the air actually felt somewhat thick.
Opting to be conservative we took yet another rest day for day 10 and awoke on day 11 to high winds and lenticular clouds drifting by. Common sense told us to stay put but we were antsy after spending 3 days at 16 camp. Plus all our good food was at Camp II so we packed it up and headed uphill. We made it to around 17,500' when the winds hit us hard and common sense prevailed - so we turned around and headed back to Camp I for yet another night.
Day 12 dawned clear and still and we packed up and moved up again - making it to high camp in about 4 hours where we stomped out a tent spot and set up camp to watch the route.
We spent a day acclimatizing and exercising our poker face around high camp. Two Spaniards moved in next door. Through Spanglish we figured out that we both were looking at the route but no one wanted to go first and break trail. On the other side of camp there was a guided group with a fast young pre-acclimatized guide ready to blitz the route. When we heard that they were gunning for the route tomorrow we told them that we'd be starting it later. A fresh boot track up a steep snow route would be ideal… but then they came over and told us they were taking another rest day.
All along I had kept an open mind. I really wanted to climb the Polish Glacier but I knew that most climbers who head up Aconcagua carry all the extra gear to the base of the route and then opt for the Polish Traverse to the Normal route. For the Polish Glacier we had hauled about 15-20 extra pounds of gear: a 60m rope, snow and ice protection (3 ice screws and 3 pickets), carabiners for the protection and glacier gear. We also each carried an ice tool and an ice axe.
You can hike up the Polish Traverse / Normal Route with trekking poles and lightweight crampons. No rope, no glacier gear, no heavy ice axe or ice tools. Even though the Polish Traverse / Normal Route is by all accounts 10-14 hours of scree slog drudgery there is something to be said about heading for the summit as fast as your lungs can carry you with light packs and minimal gear. Then again, there is something to be said about enduring a scree slog at 22,000' with a bunch of age 50+ businessmen looking to climb one of the 7 Summits. I hate scree… and I was starting to tire of the endless trains of people walking at a snail's pace on the standard routes.
The Polish Glacier Direct is a totally conditions-dependant climb. In early season it's a ski mountaineering objective that sees a handful of descents a year. By mid season the skiable snow changes to a mixture of snow, snice and ice. By late season it becomes hard snow and blue glacier ice. It begins with about 1,000' of moderate hiking up a 30-35 degree slope until the angle begins to steepen. You then have about 800' of snow in the 40 - 45 degree range until you reach the first crux: "The Bottleneck". The Bottleneck, which sits at 21,000', is where a rock band on climbers right pushes out against the glacier, and seracs from the Polish Glacier (on climbers left) jut out - forcing you to tip toe through a narrow steep gap riddled with crevasses. Above the Bottleneck the angle kicks up a little more and you encounter steep climbing around 50 degrees for another 1,000' until at 22,000' you reach the second crux: the second rock band. This second crux is a couloir that varies in steepness depending on the season and time of year. In early season it is apparently 200' of 50+ degree snow. In late season there is an ice bulge that some say is around 80 degrees for 50' before the angle eases off. This second crux is the big unknown. It may be 50 degree snow… it may be 80 degree ice. You won't know till you're up there!
After the second crux you reach the summit ridge and have a long hike to the summit. Time estimates for this portion of the route range from 2-4 hours - so this is another unknown. From the summit you can take the Normal Route back down to the Polish Traverse which will lead you back to high camp.
But most of all - the Polish Direct is a beautiful route. When you first see it you're overcome by how huge it looks. The fact that the crux lies at 22,000' is intimidating to everyone. A 50' ice step at sea level is casual - but at 22,000' it becomes a very different beast. Kicking steps up 3,000' of steep snow and ice would be fine back home… but it would be another story at this altitude. And thus as we sat in our tents with the vestibule window staring at the route we began to justify the extra weight, time and, inevitably, the extra risk.
|Aconcagua's Polish Direct
• Part I - Getting there
• Part II - Base Camp to Camp 2
• Part III - Summit Day
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