The alarm sounds at 2am. We awake to a very cold night and fire up the stove and manage to stomach some coffee and oatmeal. We pack slowly and apprehensively. Our packs are heavy… besides all the climbing gear we also have down jackets, puffy pants, bivy sacks and a stove. And then at 4am we set off… tiptoeing through the still night with our crampons scratching over rock.
We soon reach the base of the glacier and start kicking steps up the ice. The bottom of the glacier is firm crust and we meander our way up the route, following old boot tracks and staying just climbers left of the scree. These conditions persist for another hour - until we reach roughly 20,000' and start to encounter our first snow. We continued on for another ½ hour or so before stopping; both of us have extremely cold feet.
We dig out a snow bench and start stomping our feet to no avail. The altitude has caused our feet to swell and our boots are laced tight for climbing so we loosen the laces and stomp some more. Still no luck.
We remove our boots and start massaging the feet. They're cold… really cold and not getting warmer so we then lean back and put our feet on each other's stomach. The time is creeping by slowly - and the sun is almost up. Finally, just as the sun peeks over the horizon, we begin to feel our toes again. We've lost almost 1 1/2 hours warming up our feet but they feel fine and it's a beautiful day so we pack up and start moving again.
A little while later we rope up - the angle has steepened and the snow is getting funky. It has gone from firm glacier ice to breakable crust to variable. So we tie in and push a little further up and towards the glacier hoping for better conditions.
Around 20,500' the snowpack starts to change. The crisp Styrofoam snow that had made for perfect steps begins to get softer. Soon the snow becomes deeper - over the boot and as we climb higher it begins to get even deeper until we find ourselves wallowing uphill in knee deep snow. Deep snow and altitude make poor companions and uphill progress becomes painfully slow.
We trade leads to give each other breaks. I'll break trail for about 3 or 4 hundred feet and then step aside and let Yvonne put in a boot-track for a while. Progress is painfully slow. I had hoped to reach the Bottleneck by noon - but we don't reach the base of it until 2pm - 2 hours behind schedule. We're roughly half way and we've already been moving 10 hours.
At this point common sense dictates that we descend. Getting back to camp would be easy and safe; we'd just turn around, downclimb our tracks for a few hundred feet and then traverse to the low angle glacier bowl and hike back to camp. We'd be down and back to our bags in 3, maybe 4 hours. But it is times like this that bring justifications: maybe a little higher the snow will improve; if the snow improves we can move faster; the weather is perfect.
"Let's climb up just past the Bottleneck and see if snow improves," I say to Yvonne. "If it doesn't get better we can traverse left to the ridge and downclimb the ridge." Yvonne is game. She's feeling good and wants the summit and route as much as I do so we set off.
I lead through the Bottleneck. For all the hype it ends up being a simple snow ramp with well-bridged crevasse crossings. There is no sign of ice or rock fall and I'm soon through it and breaking trail up snow that is becoming less deep with every step.
I belay Yvonne up through the Bottleneck. She's liking the snowpack - travelling is getting easier - so we agree to keep going.
We push on… it is unspoken between us but we know we've moved past the turnaround point by now. Downclimbing the upper slopes, which have increased to around 50 degrees, and descending through the Bottleneck, would be possible but slow.
With every step the snowpack improves and travel becomes easier. Unfortunately the altitude offsets the improvement in snowpack. We're pushing 21,500' now and I have to push myself to keep climbing at a decent pace. Neither Yvonne nor I have ever been this high and we force ourselves to take 25 steps before allowing our bodies to double over and take deep gasps. The angle starts to creep up as we continue and we've stopped taking breaks and enjoying the climb. The weather is perfect - a still sky with only a couple wispy clouds but the day is ending. It is now a race against the sun, which is dropping fast.
I climb on and soon reach the base of the exit couloirs. The couloir we had looked at below looks steep and intimidating so I traverse left and take an alternate route. The alternate route has me bridge a couple of crevasses and soon I'm into a 6' wide couloir with ice steps that steepen to around 60 degrees. It twists and turns for 200' and is enjoyable climbing even though I'm fighting for oxygen at 22,000. Plus the sun has now gone behind the ridge and we know we still have a long way to go. I sink my ice tool in the ice and kick steps. At the top of the couloir I sink an ice screw and belay Yvonne up.
Yvonne joins me breathing deeply and we savor the view from our perch for a minute before I set off again. Above me is 400' of 50-degree snice leading to the summit ridge. Climbing has now has become robotic: Place ice tool. Kick. Stand up. Place ice axe. Kick. Stand up. Repeat. The last 400' feels like an eternity as I creep along. Finally the angle starts to ease and soon I'm standing on the summit ridge. I turn around … the setting sun has cast a shadow of Aconcagua's massif across the valleys below me and it is reflecting off a cloud that is bathed in the evening light.
It's 7pm, we're at 22,400' and about a mile from the summit. The sun is setting fast and the wind on the ridge is steady. The only way down is over the summit and our only thought is survival. At this altitude you're at the mercy of a congruent world that simply doesn't care (*). This route is full of stories of people who misjudged the altitude and weather and collapsed, fell or simply vanished. We wouldn't survive a night out on the summit ridge without deep frostbite. The skies are clear and calm - but if weather rolls in unexpectedly we'd be lucky to make it up to the summit and over to the Normal route.
All these thoughts swell to the front of our minds but as quick as they surface we push them aside. We know the weather is good. We know the snow has improved and travel will be easy. We know we have warm clothes, bivy sacks and a stove. If worse comes to worse we can push on until we find shelter and hunker down until dawn. In the dying light we put on our heavy down coats and then lower our heads and start trudging uphill.
"I don't want to bivy," Yvonne tells me when we stop for a breather. She has wide eyes and is scared. "If we bivy we'll die," she adds.
"Don't be dramatic" I reply. "It will suck, but we won't die." I'm fairly confident making that statement… but I really don't want to bivy. It would be a long cold night.
Darkness comes fast. It seems one minute I'm looking down at the mountain's shadow cast across the valleys below us. The next minute I'm beaming my dying headlamp up the route. Above us the stars come out deep and beautiful yet our minds can only concentrate on the rhythm of hiking up the icy ridge.
We keep pushing up the route. Yvonne is starting to bonk so I take to running out an entire ropelength and then reeling her in like a fish. She reaches me out of breath and gasping and I take off again till the rope goes tight - then I reel her in again and repeat the process.
After what seems to be an eternity we reach the rocky summit slopes. The ice ridge becomes broad and then the snow disappears all together. We stop, unrope, pull our crampons off and force down an energy gel packet. Yvonne has down pants, so she worms her way into them while I look at her warm legs and regret my decision to leave my puffy pants at camp.
We set off again - but Yvonne is really tired and starts to lag. I pull out a piece of cordellete and tie it into her and start short roping her towards the summit. She stumbles along behind me dying for a chance to sit down and rest. But the top is just a couple hundred feet above us and I know that if we sit down, we'll be too tired to get up and continue on.
We reach the summit at 11pm after 19 hours of climbing. After the route and ridge, it's anticlimactic. The summit dome is a rounded mass of rocks and scree. In the center there is a metal cross made out of two pieces of pipe and covered with prayer beads and flags that has been placed upright on a mound of rocks. We're at 22,841' and I try and take a couple photos but it's too cold for my fingers to find the buttons properly and my photos come out blurry and off center. Yvonne stands on the summit in a daze. She's wrapped up like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man but appears to be warm overall. I look in all directions trying to take in the view but all I can see is a sea of stars that surrounds us.
There's nothing magical or intense about the spot… in the darkness and wind it's just a windy point of land that juts above everything. At this point the only reason I'm happy to be there is so I can continue down the other side. Without any further pause we continue on.
I walk down an incline past remnants of an old weather station and prayer flags. The ground is rocky and easy walking but as I continue on it gets steeper and I begin to get worried. I can't see very far but it appears the ground drops off very steeply not too far in front of me. I know that we're above the steep abyss of the South face so I get nervous and turn around - retracing my steps back to the summit.
I try again - this time choosing a slightly different direction but once again I approach a drop off and get nervous. I go back up… I'm getting nervous. The top is supposed to have an easy walk off route and I'm not seeing it. Why oh why didn't I pack the guidebook? I set off again… but this time I immediately approach a drop off and get really worried. I'm tired and making bad decisions… if I keep this up something bad is bound to happen.
"We need to bivy," I say. Yvonne looks at me nodding. She's known it for a while and has accepted what we're up against.
Slightly below the summit is a snow drift and we stumble over to it. I pull out my ice axe and start chopping. Yvonne collapses on her pack in exhaustion. I chop and shovel with my hand… and then chop some more. After about an hour I've excavated a cave big enough for Yvonne to get all the way inside and me to get in half way. She pulls out her bivy sack and worms inside and pushes herself tight against the walls. I pull out the stove and start boiling water.
Boiling water at 22,841' doesn't work so well. The stove flickers and barely sputters along… but after a while I've melted and slightly heated 2 quarts of water. I dump a soup packet in each and then pass one off to Yvonne and suck mine down. Yvonne forces herself to drink but only manages to get half of it down before putting her head down and closing her eyes.
"Drink," I say. "Keep drinking." She lifts her head and sucks down a little more.
I squirm in next to her. We're packed like sardines in the cave. The wind is blowing softly above us and I close my eyes and try to rest. 10 minutes later I open them again… there's no way I'm sleeping up here. "Wake up!" I nudge Yvonne. She opens her eyes.
"Are you OK?"
"I think so."
I ask the dreaded question no one wants to think about: "Can you feel your toes?"
"I think so."
"You think so?" I hiss. "What the hell does that mean?"
"Yes… yes I can feel my toes," she wearily responds. And then closes her eyes again. She's asleep in a second. I toss and turn… and then sit up. When I sit up the wind blasts my face and it jolts me fully awake. I twist and relight the stove and try melting some more water but the flame sputters and dies.
How do you write about a bivouac?
Lasting through the night in a snowcave at high altitude is hell. Your mind plays tricks on you: one minute you're shivering, the next you're comfortable. You can feel your feet and then you can't. You think about all the stories you've read about people who holed up in a snowcave and never woke up. It would be easy. All you have to do is fall asleep - stretch out, get comfortable. Maybe take those awful tight boots off? Deep inside your mind you know that if a storm comes you're dead. You'll be a passing footnote in a mountaineering journal about the perils of spending the night on top of a high peak. But at the same time you convince yourself again and again that the weather is good. Perfect to be exact. Couldn't ask for better weather.
Time creeps by at a glacial pace. You close your eyes and try to sleep but then open them wide thinking that the last thing you want to do is fall asleep. Kick your partner: "Are you awake? Are you alright?"
You try not to think about how you got here… never question what you could have done differently when you're in the middle of a shitstorm. In the back of my mind I tell myself that I've been in this situation before and made it though the night. I can do this… We can do this. It's hell but the night doesn't last forever.
And then just when you think you can't take it anymore you notice a faint glow on the horizon. It seems to get colder just before the sun comes up. Sleep is out of the question so we pile out of the snowcave and start pacing back and forth our eyes to the east.
To watch the sunrise after a night out on a high summit is surreal. The horizon burns; shadows appear out of the darkness - the rosy-fingered dawn as Homer called it. And then the sun pushes over the horizon and sunlight pierces you like a knife. The tongues of light change everything… your body suddenly feels warm, and your mind clears. The route that looked so imposing in the shadows begins to materialize.
We watch the South face start to glow in the morning light until the windswept ice face turns into a blazing wall of reflection. And as the sun rises the trail appears clearly in front us. We grab our packs and start down without a word.
Everything is going to be all right.
We made it down. The descent from the summit to high camp took me 4 hours. Yvonne was down an hour before me. Once back she pulled off her boots and found a purple toe. An EMT stopped by the tent, "Yes, you have frostbite." He told her. "It's not bad, but you want to get down as soon as possible."
We descended the next morning after a much needed sleep. It took us about 6 hours to reach base camp where the camp doctor stuck Yvonne's toes in a bath and informed her that she could ride a mule back to the road for $1000. Luckily a few phone calls, a very helpful base camp manager, and Grajales support got us a helicopter ride for a mere $1600. The exciting heli ride lasted all of 20 minutes and then we were in a van and heading back to Mendoza and asleep in a warm bed with a full stomach by midnight.
The doctor came by the room. He looked over Yvonne's feet but was only concerned about one toe. "Keep it warm, keep it dry, keep it clean, and your toe will be alright," he said. The visit cost $30.
Back in Anchorage the frostbite specialist looked at her toes and said, "Keep it warm, keep it dry, keep it clean, and your toe will be alright." His expert opinion cost us a lot more than the Argentinean doctor.
3 weeks later the skin died and constricted and the doctor cut it away with scissors. Yvonne bled and limped for another 3 weeks and then her toes started to toughen again. She was skiing by April.
My hands were numb for a week and I lost all the skin on my face. But that's happened before… nothing new about that. The skin grows back and you sit in front of a mirror and say: "It wasn't that bad."
Is it true? Was it really not that bad, or was it that we faced something and walked away from it with minimal scarring… and that the walking away part is what makes us better understand why we went there in the first place?
Perhaps the reason I don't know is that I refuse to face it. My skin on my nose grew back and Yvonne is ready to kick steps up couloirs and ski down them. We go about our day jobs and spend the weekends repeating the mantra, "In the mountains, there you feel free."
Do you keep going? Is there a threshold that you'll one day cross or does that threshold get pushed back every time you make it to the doorway and turn around?
I think about the guys I know who have crossed the threshold. Where are they? What did they see? Is it nihilistic to peer across hoping to catch a glimpse or I am just being dramatic? Maybe I read too much. Maybe I just need to train more, move faster and carry less.
After all... It wasn't that bad.
|Aconcagua's Polish Direct
• Part I - Getting there
• Part II - Base Camp to Camp 2
• Part III - Summit Day
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