Tuesday, January 4th
Happy birthday, Bill. However the morning was not so happy for Bill. The helicopter came in around 8am to pick up Bill and another female climber. We talked with Bill about his plans and he was supportive of us continuing our climb and he would head down to Patagonia for some low altitude hiking while we continued to climb Aconcagua and meet us in Mendoza on January 14th.
Bill gives us the “thumbs up” as he boards the helicopter.
It was very upsetting to see Bill leaving the mountain like that and some tears were shed by all in our group. As Bill is my close climbing partner it was particularly difficult for me to watch him leave. From here on out, the climb would not be the same and would be lacking a major component.
Well, we were behind schedule so rather than take a rest day, Aron and I made a carry to camp 1 while Chris took a rest day. We covered the 2500 vertical feet in 2.5 hours and descended back to basecamp in 1.5 hours. As we justified it, we still had the afternoon to rest!
Wednesday, January 5th
Chris was ready to move up to camp 1 and Aron and I felt good so we departed camp around 10:30am and began our move up to camp 1. The trail up from basecamp to camp 1 quickly enters a narrow gully where the Relinchos river flows through. We witnessed a small flash flood through the gully just moments before we entered the gully. Some ice or rock above must have finally given way to the building force. This made the narrow gully section a bit more dicey but we managed. We stopped at 15,500 feet to raid Bill’s cache and were impressed with the food and candy he had brought up. Thanks Bill! After ascending a few hundred feet of snow field just below camp 1, we arrived at camp 1 at 2:30pm. We found water running in a small stream out of a snow field just below camp. Again we were told it was unnecessary to treat the water so we did not. Camp 1 was a nice camp on a shelf overlooking the Relinchos valley with a great view up the rest of the mountain.
Aron and Chris moving to camp 1. The Polish Glacier is seen in semi-profile in the background.
Thursday, January 6th
The night had been calm with a great view of a distant lightning storm. The lightning show was so impressive that I actually looked forward to going outside the tent to pee! We decided we were still feeling good so Chris, Aron and I made a carry to camp 2 (19,300). It was exciting to be nearing the Polish Glacier and as we got higher and closer we could see the direct route was in great shape. Very little glare and good looking snow. I couldn’t say the same for the standard Polish Glacier as it appeared to have a ton of glare ice on it. It definitely wasn’t in shape and while the direct is renowned for being more difficult, it was obviously the better line this season.
We left camp 1 around 9:00am and arrived at camp 2 around 12:30pm. The weather was clear but very windy once we reached the ridge at 17,500 feet or so all the way to camp. We wanted to camp at the smaller camp 2 in the rocks at the base of the Polish Glacier but did not find any available sites. We talked with one group that was planning on leaving the next day so we cached our stuff next to their site hoping it would be available when we moved up. Despite it taking 3.5 hours to ascend to camp 2, it only took us 35 minutes to take the scree train back down to camp 1.
Friday, January 7th
Finally, a rest day! The night was super windy and sleep was not exactly plentiful. We later learned the same winds we experienced over night blew apart a Grajales gear storage tent at basecamp. Big time winds! We spent the day reading and relaxing. It was a cloudly, cool and windy day—a perfect day to be resting!
Saturday, January 8th
Time to move up. We departed shortly before 11am under a clear and mostly calm sky. I started out slow but started feeling good and started making some good time. I met a Polish solo hiker who was also hiking quickly so we paced each other informally and ascended the 3000 vertical feet to camp 2 in 3 hours. I was very pleased to be sustaining a 1000’/hour rate above 16,000 feet with a full load on my back. The wind was much less this day than the day we carried to camp 2. We were able to score a fantastic two-tent site in the rocks at camp 2 at the base of the Polish Glacier. We were able to get water from numerous small pools at the base of the glacier. These pools freeze up overnight but in the mid-afternoon they are plentiful. The day was absolutely beautiful with nearly no wind, warm sun and great views all around! I enjoyed some time resting in a natural stone chair atop one of the rocks by our camp. It was great to be there and stare up the Polish Glacier. From this vantage, the glacier looked very foreshortened and it looked like one could cruise up it in no time. But then I thought back to the view of the glacier from below basecamp and realized it is MUCH longer than it looked from camp 2.
The weather forecast rumor was for the next day to be beautiful with some weather starting to move in in two days. So we had a group pow-wow and decided that we’d make a summit attempt the next day to take advantage of the good weather. Chris decided he would take the false Polish traverse over to the normal route to the summit while Aron and I would head up the Polish Direct as planned.
Sunday, January 9th
I slept like crap. Weird dreams, intermittent sleeping spells and anxiety about heading for the summit kept me from getting much quality sleep. We awoke at 5am and started getting ready. It was, by most standards, a late start but with the sun not setting until nearly 9pm we knew we had lots of daylight and I wouldn’t mind letting the snow on the glacier warm up. At 6am we wished Chris good luck and he headed up. I was ready by 6am but it took Aron another hour to get fully ready so I did what I could to keep myself warm and motivated. A little after 7am we stepped foot on the glacier, strapped on our crampons and tied into our 8mm, 25m rope.
Looking up the Polish Glacier at sunrise on summit day. The Polish Direct takes a straight line up the glacier staying just left of the rocks but right of the seracs in the middle of the glacier.
We started out slow and it was obvious that Aron was feeling a bit weak. After climbing the first 1000 vertical feet, we stopped in the glacier and discussed the situation. Aron said that it was not his day and he was feeling very weak. I empathized with him but told him I was feeling pretty good. He talked about descending and I talked about continuing up the route solo as conditions were very good looking. We decided to ditch his backpack, extra gear, SLR camera and 8-pound NBC-issue Sony digital video camera at that point and throw his stuff into my pack so he could continue with just a small hip pack. We carried on.
Things were going slow, a couple hours for the first 1000 vertical feet, but the snow was fantastic, the weather beautiful and the view increasing in magnitude with each step.
By 11am we had passed by the first bit of rocks while kicking good steps in the snow.
Passing through the first small rock band with very good snow conditions.
Two hours later, ~1pm, we reached the first major crux of the route, an area we called the “bottleneck” around 21,100 feet, where the seracs in the middle of the glacier butted up against the first major rock band. It was here that we expected to run into some major ice. However, after placing a picket and a screw, I poked around the corner and looked up into the tight chute to find more good snow and only a bit of ice. We broke out our ice tool here so that we were climbing with an alpine axe in one hand and a ice tool in the other hand. I lead on through this section to some better snow and gave Aron a short boot/axe belay through it. Looking up we saw more good snow interrupted by a handful of 10-20 foot sections of good alpine ice. I lead off again and placed a screw for running protection in each of the short sections of ice. By this time though the steep angle of the snow and lack of good rest spots was taking its toll on us and we were moving very slow. Take a step, take four rest breaths, take another step. It was a good rhythm but it was slow. Around 22,000 feet, Aron and I took a short break and started climbing side by side as we were beginning to traverse to the left to pass the upper rock band on the eastern side. At one point our rope became pretty stuck on some sastrugi snow as a result of us traversing and climbing next to each other so I opted to untie for the most efficient means of “unsticking” the rope. Aron then continued on up past the rock band and up to the ridge with me following behind. This last little bit to the summit ridge was very difficult physically and mentally but I was very excited to be reaching the ridge and knew that would perk me up mentally.
BUT...once on the ridge at 22,300 feet, I had a view of how much more we had to go to the summit and could count at least two false summits between us and where the summit would be another 500 feet higher. UGH! So we snacked and gathered our gumption and set off on the ridge trudge to the summit. It was slow going and often times I would close my eyes for 20 or 30 steps at a time listening to the sound of Aron’s crampons as my guide. At times the snow would settle under my crampons a half inch and that little bit of extra work seemed like the worst thing that could possibly happen! Mentally I felt like I was in a sleepy, dream state. The kind of feeling one gets after two or three beers. Odd.
And then, finally, we were there! 5:10pm and we were on the summit. Just seven days after leaving the city of Mendoza and 10 hours after starting from camp 2, we were on the top of South America and what a beautiful view! There was no wind, the temperature was around 15 degrees F and the sun was shining. Beautiful! We spent about 30 minutes on top taking photos of a group of 5 British climbers there and signing in the register. Looking at the South Face of Aconcagua we imagined we had just climbed something like that but in reality we were nowhere close!
Aron and I on the summit. Big time stoke!
Then it was time to descend. From the stories I had heard about the Canaletta (normal route) and its loose rock, I wasn’t looking forward to the descent but it had to be done. It was a sketchy, loose rock descent indeed but certainly easier to descend than it would have been to ascend. I was still tired and found myself resting quite a bit on the descent but we located the traverse back to camp 2 and were back to camp 2.5 hours after leaving the summit. We were beat and I slept like a baby that night for sure!
Monday, January 10th
We packed up and limped down to basecamp picking up our remaining gear at camp 1 on the way down. We arrived at basecamp at 6pm too tired to cook so we talked with Gizella at the Grajales tent and she cooked us steak dinner with papas fritas for dinner that night for $20 USD each. It was odd but extremely enjoyable to be eating a juicy steak at 13,800 feet!
Tuesday, January 11th
We hiked with our sleeping bags and pads down to Pampa de Lenas and slept under the stars that night. Our mules carrying our gear down from Plaza Argentina wouldn’t get down until Wednesday afternoon so we hiked leisurely down.
Wednesday, January 12th
We hiked out from Pampa de Lenas in the morning, spent the afternoon in Penitentes awaiting the mules and then had transport back to Mendoza that night for a much needed shower and shave. We still had a few days in Mendoza after being reunited with Bill so we enjoyed some more good food and walking around the city. We also rented mountain bikes one day and did a self-propelled 35km day tour of a couple vineyards, the Museo Del Vino and Vina El Cerno, which was very enjoyable.
More photos from our trip are be available on my Sony Imagestation site. Also, see Dave Cooper’s excellent trip report about the same route for more information.