Aconcagua – Polish Direct

Prologue

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.”


Planning

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.


Base Camp

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.


Aconcagua Base Camp.

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.


Base Camp to Camp II

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.


Camp 1.

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.

Camp 2
Camp 2.


The Polish Direct

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.


January 20th – Summit Day

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.

“I’m awake.”

“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.

Silence.


Bivouac

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.


Afterwards

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.


Resources

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.


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