Three weeks of vacation. It is October 2007, 21 days of vacation on my payroll and I am thinking, what would be the best way to spend them. Hmmm...there is summer coming to South America. While browsing the net, Aconcagua caught my eye. I didn't want to do the normal route, but something more interesting, more technical. Unfortunately, I wasn't succesful in convincing friends around me so I had chosen going with agency. I found two, who were offering Polish glacier and out of those only one, which had the dates suitable enough. We didn't go for the Polish glacier after all, but still, the trip was awsome.
Day 1 - 2: Prague -> Mendoza
8 of January, midnight and I am waiting on Florenc bus station. List of equipment running through my head all over again and I am tryring to remember what things I forgot at home. On my back, many times repacked 20 kilo backpack and carry-on in my hand. As I am looking at it, I begin to think the negotiation in case, they wouldn't like the size of it at the gate. In a moment, bus is pulling over and then I slept during the rest of my journey to Vienna airport. At the Vienna airport I have to wait five hours for the flight, but it is nothing to compare with rest of the journey to Argentina.
Day 3: Mendoza
Arrival to Mendoza was like different world. Temperature 35 degrees Celsius, humid and I am wearing long pants, fleece jacket and trekking boots. There is our guide Sean and Osvaldo already waiting in the arrival hall and are transferring me to Horcones hotel, where I am meeting with rest of the expedition members, Guy and Gavin. Hotel is reasonable quality for South America. It is situated in the downtown of Mendoza and price for bed and breakfast was 25 USD. Same day, we get our permits to Aconcagua park in the tourist office. We spent the rest of the day by checking our gear and buying food in local supermarkets.
Day 4: Mendoza - Penitentes
We get a pick-up from hotel owned by mule company and head to Penitentes. Drive takes about 3,5 hours through nice landscape of Andes. It is refugio Cruz de Cana, where we get accommodated. In order to get aclimatised, we go for a short walk in local hills.
Day 5: Penitentes - rest day
After previous little walk, we found nice rock across the road. Having all the equipment for climbing the Polish, we go for little fun of rock climbing, or better call it scrambling. Every second hold stays in our palms and after while, I get the feeling as the whole rock would be kind of levitating. After this little adventure we get back to our refugio and we spent the rest of the day by preparing out luggage for the mules.
Day 6: Penitentes -> Punta de Vacas -> Pampa de Lenas
Around 10am we get a pick-up again, which takes us Punta de Vacas, starting point for three days trek to Argentina base camp. Objective for today is Pampa de Lenas campsite located at 2.800m. Unfortunately, I made these 15 kilometres a bit harder as I was carrying 20kg backpack, not knowing, that our stuff from mules will be available to us each night in a camp. So for next day, I made my rucksak little lighter by repacking some of my stuff to the mules. Trail to Pampa de Leoas goes along the Vacas river, which we are still having on our right hand side. At Leoas campsite, we have to show our permits to the park rangers, who also give us numbered plastic trash bag. At the evening, after arrival of mules and setting up the camp, muleteers made great barbecue with steaks, tomatoes and local tea, mate.
Day 7: Pampa de Lenas -> Casa de Piedra
Easy day. Trail to Casa de Piedra is only 400m higher, but a bit longer. We depart at 9am in order to walk in a shade and calm temperature for as long as possible. At 2:30p we are arriving to Casa de Piedra. You can see Cerro Aconcagua at the end of this day. Polish glacier looked really impressive.
Day 8: Casa de Piedra -> Plaza Argentina
Muleteer will usually ask you to leave early next day, as he has to come back to Casa Piedra the same day, so you should have the baggage for mules ready soon. The best experience of this day is crossing cold Vacas river. Really great wake up. Base camp, called Plaza Argentina, is the last stop for mules and our home for couple days. It is situated at 4.2000 m and you can feel less oxygen already. It is a bit smaller then Plaza de Mulas, but is offering similar comfort like satellite phone or pizza for 20 USD. Right after setting up our tents we go to rangers office, where we get popular "shit bag", in other words plastic bag for our biological waste. It has to be used anywhere above base camp.
Day 9: Plaza Argentina - rest day
Nice day, in which we were sorting out our gear for following couple of days above BC. It also possible to go bouldering near the camp. Real fun in 4.000 m and with hikking boots on.
Day 10: Plaza Argentina -> Camp 1 -> Plaza Argentina
Game with altitude begins here. We start at 8am, fully loaded with finish at 5.000 m. In first load we are carrying tents, gas, climbing gear, ice axes, crampons and food for next seven days. Rocky path leads us along the glacier stream, which we have to cros later on and get on moraine. By my opinion, the hardest part is right below C1, where you are walking on scree field and afterwards in the middle of stream. We build up our tents in the camp and have a rest for an hour. All of us have little headaches on the descent to BC, but it is gone by the evening.
Day 11: Plaza Argentina -> Camp 1
Second carry to C1 seemed to be little easier than the first one as our bodies started to get used to high altitude. Even if our bags have the same weight as before, we climb to C1 slightly faster. During the day, lenticular cloud starts to build up above Aconcagua summit and it gets a lot cloudier afterwards with strong wind and it is snowing at the evening. Luckily, it wasn't Viente Bianco, famous wind, which can last from couple hours to couple days and its speed can reach up to 200 km/h. That night, we couldn't get enough sleep. Even with my earplugs, I could still hear the wind and our tents were shaking the whole night with all the stuff inside them.
Day 12: Camp 1 - rest day
We were just simply eating, drinking and sleeping.
Day 13: Camp 1 -> Camp 2 -> Camp 1
One of the many enjoyable hauls to camps. Trail to C2 is well visible and luckily, we don't have to cross over any penitentes, which are very nice glacier formations so typical for South America, but they are not pleasant once you need to get through them. Whole time you get really nice views on surrounding Andes.
Day 14: Camp 1 -> Camp 2
Finally, the last day of hauling. In C2, Sean starts to get doubts about climbing the Polish direct. Last decision if to climb it or not will take place after we inspect it next day. The truth was, we saw just two couples there during our whole trek, in which one of them climbed the top and other one descended from the middle of Polish glacier.
Day 15: Camp 2 - rest day
We were just simply drinking and sleeping. Who noticed we weren't eating, it is correct. At C2 the appetite for any food had lowered significantly. I had two serves of freeze dried food, but couldn't eat none. One had to really force to eat at least some cereal, nuts and chocolate. My only explanation to this behavior is, that body is saving its red blood cells to keep other, more important organs then stomach, functional. Anyway, the most importing thing is to keep hydrating yourself, minimum 2 liters a day, but we still got little headaches over the night. Same day in the afternoon, we have a little walk on the glacier to check the condition. It was really icy because it wasn't snowing for couple days and if it was, snow melted during the day. Sean makes the final decision, not to use the Polish direct, but False Polish route, also called Polish traverse. Big disappointment hits me immediately. The whole trip, I was looking forward to climbing serious route with two ice axes and now, I have to traverse with normal route. Well thats gonna be fun. It seemed, other guys from our group make it up really quickly. Seans arguments are: glacier condition, physical condition of team, fact, that we have seen only two couples going up the Polish glacier and last but not least, a lot harder possibility to descent earlier. It was windy whole day and it was snowing over the night. Day temperature - 5°C, night temperature - 20°C, so down jacket came in hand.
Day 16: Camp 2 - rest day
That day we were waiting for weather to improve. Still windy on the morning. Even though the day is supposed to be rest day, I had the feeling, even if didn't do anything, I was loosing energy. If the weather doesn't get better next day and we would have to wait for another day, our chances of reaching the top will significantly decrease. It was the race with our own bodies.
Day 17: Camp 2 -> Summit -> Camp 2
Luckily, weather gets better and we start our day "D" in the moonlight. We depart at 6am. Outside temperature - 23°C. Unfortunately after while, Guy decides to return back to the tent as his fingers are really cold and is afraid of frostbite. I can also feel my fingers getting cold, but knowing we will be in the sun within half an hour, I keep walking. We join the normal route some 100m below the Independcia hut. There are some crowds in front of us and even the sun is shining, strong wind is keeping us far beyond from being hot. We have a little break at Independcia hut (6.400m). Above it we have to pass two crowds of people, walking really slowly. At that moment, it wasn't hard to believe, summit will reach only every third person. I could see real exhaustion on some of the faces and it was still some 400m to go for the summit. I would like to know, if they also realize, they have to come back as well from the summit. However the worst view came at point called Canaleta, which is big overhanging rock. Some people probably used this point for return while some of them left their backpacks here and go for summit without it. Above Canaleta, Gavin decides not to continue to the summit, after lost about 45 minutes on us. I think he could physically make the summit, however not mentally. It was so easy just to turn back at that altitude and return. I was fighting this creepy thought for the whole climb above Canaleta, but what helped me the most was to imagine that huge steak, fries and beer after successful return back to Penitentes. Last 200 m was really hard and we reach the summit at 12:45. At that moment, I don't think I realized, I was standing on top of the American continent and in altitude almost seven thousand meters above sea level. After writing our names to summit book and couple summit pictures, we decide to descent. Weather suddenly changed and sun got hidden behind the big clouds. Descent was harder than I expected. Even if I was concentrating on each of my steps, I couldn't avoid tumble over a stone with one of my crampons, when I luckily broke one of my trekking poles.
Day 18: Camp 2 -> Plaza Argentina
We leave C2 at around 11am with heavy backpacks back to BC. After summit yesterday, I walk slower and can't wait to eat the pizza in one of the muleteers messing tents. Although it was just a dry pizza cake with some tomatoes, little cheese and onions for 20USD, it tasted great. Weather changes once again, BC gets nice snow cover and mountains around have totally different look. Same day we return the shit bags to local rangers.
Day 19: Plaza Argentina -> Punta de Vacas -> Penitentes
Very long and challenging day awaits. Total 40 km of descent on rocky path back to the road, where we started from. Once again we have to sign off in Pampa de Leoas campsite. By my opinion, the longest part was from that camp to Punta de Vacas, as it seemed to be endless. Our faces get a lot nicer look when we get a steak and beer in one of the local restaurants in
Day 20 - 25: Penitentes -> Mendoza
Mendoza is charming city situated in so called province, known for vineyards. You can do plenty of stuff there, from taking vine tours to rafting and enjoying steaks and vine in local restaurants. Disappointment from not reaching the summit via Polish direct route vanished and I was enjoying the South-American summer, when there were temperatures around zero in Czech Republic. It was really hard to leave South America and I was already thinking about next trip. What about Alpamayo or Ama Dablam?
Members of our team: Sean James, Gavin Turner, Guy Munson
Little notice to water resources:
During the trek to BC Plaza Argentina, there is running water in each campsite. There are water hoses in BC as well, but be careful, which one you use. Some of the expeditions messing tents had problems with it, saying, if we don't belong to their company go somewhere else. In C1, there is glacier stream, which is clear in the morning and gets dirty during afternoon, because of the melting ice above. We had two little frozen lakes in C2. However water in them was permanently frozen and in order to get some, we had to put plenty of energy to destroy the icy layer. Or, one could wait in the tent, until of the dehydrated mountaineers did the job for you. It is highly recommended to use water purification tablets for water filtration. Water filter is not needed.
Do not underestimate Aconcagua!
Even if it looks as easy climb, I wouldn't recommend it to anyone, who wouldn't have at least some glacier experience in the Alps. The worst thing about Aconcagua are immediate weather changes and temperatures, not mentioning Viente Bianco wind. It is not called little eight thousand, becase of very specific climate conditions.
Statistics of reaching the summit is clear: Horcones normal route 54,6%
and Polish glacier - traverse 45,4%
Data from season 2004/2005. Source: www.aconcagua.com
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