It was an interesting few days on the south face of Aconcagua. My buddy and I arrived on January 9th at the base of the wall hoping to start climbing the Argentine Route the following day. Though there was some fresh snow, it was light and we heard that it had just ended a two-week dry spell so the conditions seemed to be promising. We were hoping that the light new snow would become some good ice on the lower sections of the route so we could climb over the notoriously flaky rock with ice tools rather then our fingers. We waited for a couple days for the mountain to unshroud from the clouds and let the sun set the ice.
We started the climb on the 11th and quickly gained elevation to the steep traverse section on the right side of the wall. At first, as we had expected, the new snow had turned to ice and provided a nice alternative to scrambling on bad rock. Later, however, that expectation soon fell apart when we encountered the higher sections of the route where the rock was covered by only two inches of powder and no ice. The warmer temperatures of the previous couple days failed to reach the elevation of these more technical sections, so the ice that we had hoped for wasn't there. These conditions created a less then ideal climbing situation. We could neither effectively climb with our ice tools nor our hands. Using the tools and crampons the rock flaked and peeled under our weight. The alternative was to rock climb, but imagine trying to climb on two inches of snow with your bare hands at 17,000 ft.
We decided to climb with our ice gear and continued to make progress up the wall. It was both a mental and physical battle. At one point my partner almost blew it on an extremely exposed section above a sprawling 600 ft. cliff. I had successfully made the traverse but when I looked back at my partner he was struggling to stick to the rock with his points. Stepping, sliding and the rock flaking I thought he was going over the edge of the cliff. Fortunately, he was able find some stability at which point I got the rope ready to belay him over. The problem, however, was how the hell I was going to belay him over when I couldn´t place any protection in the blank and crumbling rock. I resorted to hacking an artificial crack into the wall with my ice tool so I could place a cam. After five minutes and a dull ice tool, I was able to get a placement. I flaked the rope and tied a partial figure-eight for my partner who was patiently waiting for either death or a belay. Fortunately, he got the rope and quickly tied in and began slipping and sliding up to the where I was. After a short rest we continued climbing getting higher on the wall while the sun was sinking behind the peaks. The climb continued to be a physical struggle as we encountered waist-deep snow sloping at 65 degrees. By this point, we were angry and exhausted and our language became as colorful as the sunset. By dusk, we had made it to the final ice wall that would lead us over the shoulder to our first bivy. We ended up doing four pitches of ice in the dark, the last two of which were done with one headlamp because I dropped mine, nailing my belayer in the face. We made it to our first bivy at midnight.
The following day we decided to rest and re-evaluate what the hell we were doing. All through the night the sound of ice falls thundered, shaking our motivation for this climb. Though the glaciers were moving and dropping their ice, we saw no snow avalanches over the past few days, not even on the upper reaches of the face. The thing that concerned us most was the fact the ice fall was inconsistent and falling at untypical hours, sometimes before dawn when the sun hadn't even begun to weaken the ice.
After a day of rest we began our approach to the ice fall. However, after four hours of swimming through waist-deep snow, the ice chunks continued to fall down our intended route ahead. By the time we got near the base of the hanging glacier another major ice fall occurred. We stopped. Sitting there, we collected our thoughts in the bottomless powder and 60 mph winds. We decided to turn around. Two days later we were sipping wine in Mendoza..