Books & Web Links: Anything and everything you've ever wanted to know about Aconcagua can be gleamed from Secor's book and Summitpost. After you've exhausted both of these sources Google is your friend.
Mendoza: Before and after you hit the peak, chow down on the best steak in the world. Frommer's will give you the low down on what's hot and what's not. Don't miss Anna Bistro where I ate what could possibly be the best meal I've ever had.
Logistical Support: If you want to go the pure gringo easy route then email Grajales and they can set you up with the full package: airport pickup, hotel reservations, transport to the staging area and mule support to and from base camp. Grajales can also set you up with base-camp meals, porter support and anything else you might want. There are numerous other mule services that can arrange the same thing but Fernando Grajales went out of his way to help us when we were figuring out how to get out of base camp without damaging Yvonne's toes. He fronted the money for helicopter transport from base camp to Penitentes. Once we got to Penitentes he arranged a ride for us back to Mendoza, hotel reservations, dinner reservations and a hotel room doctor visit from a frostbite specialist (which cost us a whopping $30). Any local can arrange your mule transport… but the professional service Fernando gave us was tour operator, bureaucratic support and health services all rolled into one.
Guide Services: Just about every mountain guide service in the world will take you to Aconcagua if you ask them to and there are hundreds of American and Euro guides who guide the peak multiple times a year... so if you plan on choosing a Euro / American guide then make sure they've been there and know the route - as opposed to someone who says they can do it. The big companies (Mountain Trip / Alpine Ascents) all lead trips there on a regular basis so ask around and get suggestions from people who have been there on a guided trip. If you want to hire a local guide Marcos Sokolovsky is the man you want…. He's about 7 feet tall and will comfortably carry 3x what you could ever hope to carry in your pack, knows every person on the mountain and is familiar with routes. He lives in Bariloche, Argentina and can be reached at [email protected]. He'll take you up any route you want.
Polish Glacier Direct Route Info: The Polish Direct is a totally conditions dependent route. If you happen to get to high camp during a spell of high pressure when the snow is firm and shortly after someone has put a boot track up the route you should be able to cruise the route camp to camp in about 15-18 hours. That said - those are pretty big ifs. Having clear still skies and a fresh boot track up 3,000' of snow, snice and ice is about as good as it can get - so don't expect it.
Most people who go to Aconcagua to do the Polish Glacier end up leaving all their extra gear either at the hotel or at base camp. It is very tempting to just take the easy way out and opt for the standard slog. It's safer, faster and your chances of making the summit are much higher. Most people realize this early on and change gears before committing to hauling all the extra gear from 14-19K.
Of those who do carry the extra gear - the majority either get shut down by weather or opt for the Polish Glacier Traverse at the last minute. There are lots of variables to consider: weather, snow/avalanche conditions, how much blue ice is showing, rockfall - as well as a myriad of personal reasons such as acclimatization, mental preparation and overall physical fitness.
Everyone gunning for a route like this has his or her own plan already in place so I won't offer too many suggestions. About all I'll add is:
Don't go to Aconcagua expecting to climb the Polish. This route is notoriously fickle in terms of conditions. Go to Aconcagua with the gear for the route - but be ready and willing to take the Traverse route if conditions don't look perfect. If you are dead set on the route and not the summit then this isn't really the peak for you unless you've been to the mountain before and for some reason want to go back. Be willing to take another route or there is a very good chance you'll blow a lot of money and a lot of time just to walk to high camp and back.
I would suggest hauling a load to 19K camp somewhere around day 10 or 11. Cache all your climbing gear and 4 days of food at high camp. Then return to 16 and wait for good weather. If a front is moving in don't try to make it to high camp and wait out the storm in the hopes of getting on the route as soon as it breaks. Waiting out a storm at 19,200' is a rough proposition and those we met who had attempted to do this ended up not sleeping (due to high winds and extreme cold) and having to descend without giving the route a try. A good expedition mountaineer can hole up for days in his tent without going stir crazy. Recreational drugs might help pass the time but I wouldn't suggest trying to purchase recreational drugs in South America so instead settle for some dense fiction.
As for the route itself… it's pretty obvious when you look at it from below. We thought the Bottleneck was pretty mellow but I can see how in some years it might be spooky due to rockfall and crevasses. For us the exit couloirs were the big mystery. When you talk to people about the route they'll say the final couloir is anywhere from 50 to 80 degrees. We reached the base of the final couloir and opted to head left and take a slightly easier line. However in retrospect I think the extra traversing was probably just as hard as pushing up though the notch, which looked to have one ice step in the 70ish(-) degree range. However it's very short and there is gear if you want it. The couloir we took ended up having a 60-degree step and the gear sucked - so choose your poison.
Once you're on the summit ridge you're still a very long ways from the summit. People will tell you anything from 2-4 hours so factor that into your time when deciding whether you can make it or not.
And finally… I must mention the ever-present threat of an open bivouac. When we came down from the summit we met a lot of people who were just blown away that we had bivied up there. However since our climb I have read a number of accounts and talked to a few people who have - or know someone who has - bivied on the summit ridge or summit. Of those who do endure an open bivy, most end up getting frostbite. In a sense we were lucky; Yvonne's toe was bad but given the circumstances we got off easy.
Yvonne was wearing older Scarpa Inverno boots that were laced quite tightly. Would she have gotten frostbite if she wore overboots or newer warmer boots or loosened her boots earlier? We'll never know… frostbite is often caused by a combination of factors (like dehydration and cold) and Yvonne didn't drink enough so it's impossible to say. I drank a full 2 quarts during the day and another quart at night, had newer Invernos and only got a touch of frost-nip on my feet. Whether my lack of frostnip was due to my boots, hydration or pure luck we'll never know.
As for how to avoid it - the obvious way is to know when to turn back. You have 2 chances to turn around on the route: before you reach the Bottleneck you can just turn around and downclimb the route - or - after you pass the Bottleneck you can traverse climbers left to the ridge and downclimb the standard Polish Glacier route. However, once you're past the second turn off spot you'll probably be committed. If this is the case and it starts to get late then you'll want to be familiar with the descent route. During the day the Normal route is quite obvious… but in the dark it's really easy to miss. Familiarize yourself with photos and by talking to people on the route. If you make the summit you should start pushing your way down. The Normal Route is pretty easy and if you keep pushing you'll make it.
IF you don't make it to the summit or can't get down for whatever reason, then keep the following in mind: Just below the summit we found a snowdrift that was just large enough for a snowcave. I wouldn't recommend it - but if you have to use it, you can probably dig it out again. If you can't make it to the summit then keep pushing till you're off the summit ridge and into the rocks. Once you reach the rocks you can poke around on the NE Face (climber's right) for a rock alcove that will offer some shelter. This might offer more shelter than the summit snow cave but come morning you'll still have to climb uphill which will be pretty tough after a night out at that altitude. Whatever you do, don't poke around on the SW side of the ridge (if you fall off here they won't even bother looking for you) and don't sit out the night in the open (the winds will do a Beck Weathers job on your nose). Find shelter and bundle up - the night will be long and cold.
So to summarize: (a) be prepared to climb something else; (b) be patient and wait for good weather; (c) be prepared for a potentially long day and aware that people sometimes bivouac on this route.
Gear: We carried a 60m rope, glacier gear, 3 screws and 3 pickets. We each carried 1 ice tool and 1 ice axe. You can get away with 2 pickets and 2 screws. Your glacier gear can be heavily edited down to prusik cord and biners since the glacier is pretty mellow. Be aware that if you are trying the Polish the park requires that you have a radio.
|Aconcagua's Polish Direct
• Part I - Getting there
• Part II - Base Camp to Camp 2
• Part III - Summit Day
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