At an elevation of 22,841 feet, Aconcagua is the tallest mountain in both the Western and Southern Hemispheres. As South America’s tallest peak, it’s also one of the Seven Summits (highest point on each continent). Via most of the routes normally followed it’s not considered to be a particularly technical undertaking, but it is big. It’s sheer size, location, and the persistent presence of a cold, wet, and snowy wind known as the Viento Blanco have led to a variety of medical problems for climbers throughout the years. This particular expedition occurred in February, 1985.
This is the story of that climb in 3 parts—The Climb, The Crampons, and The Polish Climbers.
Part 1- The Climb
Snowline was at about 19,000 feet. Camp 3 was just below that and since that’s where we’d been camped the night before, our tents and cooking area had been on dry ground. I was aware that the previous night had been the last one that we’d spend with the dust and sand whipping up, slapping our faces, and getting into our food until we’d summited and were on our way back down. There was no doubt that once we got back to this same point, the dirt and sand part would be happening again. But, for the moment, there was just snow and the occasional rock. The Polish climbers were somewhere up above, likely already roped up and headed toward High Camp. It was fitting that both us and the Poles were on the Polish Glacier Route. With them invisibly up ahead somewhere in the clouds, the five of us Americans seemed to be all alone as we pulled out our climbing gear and roped up. Even though we had no doubt that the summit was somewhere up above, at that moment all we could see were humps, holes, and ridges of snow that seemed to bleed into what we figured was more of the same and the top seemed faraway.
The plan was simple enough. We’d persistently worked our way up to Camp 3 during the previous two weeks, getting ourselves and a good bit of gear up to that lofty perch. The glacier actually began just above that and we intended to climb up it and establish a High Camp at about 21,000 feet. We’d spend a night there, leave our tent set up, and then go for the summit from there on the following day. After reaching the top, we would climb all of the way back down to Camp 3 on that same day and spend that night there, with a stop en route to gather gear at High Camp. Finally, after one last night at 19,000 feet, we’d descend all the way back down to the relative predictability of our base camp at Plaza Argentina.
The wind was fierce and stirred up the fresh snow, peppering us with tiny ice shards as we stood around on the bottom fringe of the glacier preparing to head up. Being the least experienced climber in the group, I roped (or tied) in fourth. Mike, the guide and most experienced of the team, was going to lead and route-find. His wife, Peggy, would be next and would be helping with figuring the route out. Jim, who’d been on several big climbs before and was an RN would be third while Will, who was both a physician and experienced climber would bring up the rear.
Clouds mixed in with what seemed to be an ever-present fog, persistently streaming past us quickly from below to above and making it hard to see clearly. I was infatuated with how the clouds kept moving in from below and bunching up against the ones ahead of them to create an astoundingly thick and eerie fog. Before even beginning the climb on the upper mountain, I felt a chill begin to set in deep inside my body as a wet wind pierced its way into the only sliver of exposed skin that I had and which was just above my eyes. Was this the Viento Blanco? Is this what it felt and looked like, I wondered? I’d read and heard a lot about it and a certain amount of fascination regarding it dominated my thoughts. And then, almost thankfully my head began to throb as the headache that I’d been experiencing for hours elevated from irritating to profound. At least the relentless pounding dull pain gave me something else to think about.
I focused hard on trying to remember the steps for correctly connecting myself to the climbing rope and thus, the other climbers. It was a simple enough process, but I struggled with it, nonetheless. My hands were like sticks and it all seemed so confusing. I took off the new mittens that I’d gotten for the trip, exposing my hands. It was cold, but almost strangely, my fingers felt warmer and more flexible once they were unleashed. Ultimately, I turned and twisted the Goldline climbing rope and formed a loop of sorts into which I clipped myself. Thankfully, it’d all come together just in time and I was securely connected to the rope and rope team just as everyone else became ready to go. I remembered my tan mittens at the last minute and slid them back onto my hands. At that point, we hoisted our backpacks, checked each other’s knots, and then actually began to move forward and snaked our way out onto the snow.
Tethered to my teammates, I was thankful that I didn’t have to figure out which way to go. Crevasses, false summits, and Viento Blanco—there was a lot of stuff that I didn’t know a much about to consider and besides, I wasn’t feeling all that good. Thankfully, all I had to do was watch the rope, keep the slack out of it, and put my feet down into the footprints of the people in front of me. I was resigned to the fact that most steps would be uphill, but clung to the idea that each step forward was taking me one step closer to the summit. All the while my headache and the Viento Blanco persisted.
As we walked, while I knew that I needed to focus my attention on the rope and the mechanics of moving forward, I kept finding myself looking up from the snow and out toward the south horizon. Spectacular Andean peaks stretched down into what I knew had to be Patagonia. At some point early on, while looking at and pondering the distant mountains, a sharp tug as Will stumbled a bit pulled me back into the immediate world of step, rest, step. I kept thinking, don’t look up, focus on where you’re going, and who you’re going there with.
After that tug and reality check, the only times I did look up from the trail of footprints was to make sure that the rope was staying on my uphill side and wasn’t getting too loose or too tight. From time to time, I had the urge to look up and out into the distance at the clouds and surrounding terrain, but quickly learned better than to actually do it.
After an hour or so of plodding along, we stopped. Word filtered back- it was a quick rest. The other team members took the time to adjust their clothing and pull out some water and snacks. But I took it as an opportunity to look up and out, first to the north where numerous smaller peaks filled the sky and then toward the south, where the summit pyramid of Tupungato stuck up above a cloud bank. Farther off in the distance, what seemed to be a continuous layer of mountains extended into the horizon, with many of the peaks poking up into what ultimately became a broken up cloud layer. A cold looking lenticular cloud clung to some lonely peak off in the distant southeast. The sight of it sent an even deeper chill into my bones. Ever so often, the clouds would break for an instant and I could retrace parts of the route that we’d followed up to our base camp and up through the Vacas valley. Just thinking that I could see it all down below made me feel hot and thirsty, as I thought back to the blaring Sun and dusty trail which’d led us up to there. I reached for my water bottle to quench my neglected thirst and took a quick gulp just as I noticed the others getting ready to move out. The swig was not quite enough and I wanted more water, but there just wasn’t time for that. At that point, the break was over.
The rope fed out and I once again began moving and was careful to keep from tugging on Jim. I noted that Will kept an attentive eye on the section between the two of us as it untangled itself and played out. Nobody wanted kinks, unnecessary knots, or tugs.
Eventually, our team spread out across the lower Polish Glacier. We were on a 150 foot rope and since we were all tied together, were limited as to how far apart from each other we could actually ever get. Up to this point, neither my headache or nausea were getting any better. There was nothing easy about each step. Periodically, I had thoughts of stopping and turning back, but each time I’d start to think through the actualities of doing that, I’d feel the rope tighten up, reminding me that I was connected to four others and that if they could do it, then I could.
I kept moving and continued to take solace in the fact that each step forward was one step closer to the top. But it was cold. The others must be cold also, I kept thinking. I wondered if their feet were as numb as mine? My head throbbed, but I was pretty certain that Mike and Peggy had headaches, too. After all, they’d split an aspirin the night before because theirs had gotten so bad. And for all I knew, Jim and Will had taken one as well. The snow was balling up on my crampons, but I could look around and see that it was doing the same thing on everyone else’s. I had my pains, doubts, and expectations, but realized that everyone else probably did, as well.
The wind gusted from the south and sent plumes of snow shooting up into the air. It must have been coming directly from the South Pole, I speculated. The stirred-up ice crystals stung the little bit of my bare skin that remained exposed and ultimately seemed to settle into every open crevice on my body. I was somehow sweating and freezing at the same time. I wanted to remove a layer and add one simultaneously and kept wondering how that would work.
Take a step, bring the other foot up even with the other, and tap your boots with your ice axe to clear the snow from your crampons. A routine developed. I kept resisting the urge to gaze out at the magnificence around me, since I knew I needed to stay focused on the rope and the people connected to it. While I was doing my best to avoid looking for it, I kept sensing the presence of the Viento Blanco always both just ahead and above. The routine continued. Take a step with one foot, bring the other one up, and then knock the snow off. All the while, every step we took kept getting us a little closer to the top.
Were the others thirsty? Were they cold? Were their stomachs churning? Was the wind whipping their faces? Was the snow balling up on their crampons? What would the Viento Blanco feel like to them? As I slogged along, I had plenty of time to ponder. My thoughts of stopping persisted, but kept fizzling away, mostly because the others kept moving forward and taking me with them.
And then, Mike stopped and stabbed his ice axe into the snow. It was time for another break, I realized. I followed suit, momentarily forgetting about the cold. I’d been thirsty for a while and so this time, immediately pulled my water bottle out and gulped some of the tepid fuzz-filled water that we’d created from melting snow the evening before. For that singular moment, my thirst was quenched and my body pleasantly warm. But soon, that changed. By stopping, my body temperature had dropped back down toward its normal level which it reached and then hovered around for a while and for that moment, all felt well. But within minutes, it started dropping below that and since my clothes were sweat soaked, a wet cold began chilling me from the inside out and I remembered once again that it was simply cold. I had thoughts of moving vigorously in place to warm back up, but I was just physically too tired for that. My head began throbbing once again and for some reason, I thought back to the glass of pear juice I’d unfortunately drunk back in Mendoza.
But then, thankfully I looked up and out. I could see the big snowfield down below where all of the penitentes were that we’d crossed through. At the top of that particular snowfield I could see where Camp 2 surely must’ve been, although I couldn’t actually see the big clump of boulders near the tent clearings. The Andes stretched out and then disappeared into the northern horizon. A big bird floated between two spires down below. Was it a Condor? The Sun broke through the clouds for an instant and lit up the west side of a lower peak off to the north. Jim was busying himself with equipment chores of some sort while Peggy and Mike looked up into the Viento Blanco. I looked back, and Will was pausing between gulps of water and looking back down the trail that we’d just created.
I turned and looked back up at Mike and could see what was about to happen, as he grabbed his ice axe, turned uphill, and began moving once again. The break was over. As anticipated, within moments it was my turn to move. For a short while, I’d been absorbed by the surroundings, but had been cognizant of the fact that all things come to an end. Step up, bring the other foot, clear the snow. The routine started right back up. For a brief moment, I wasn’t as thirsty as before and the snow wasn’t balling up like it had been and so moving was almost effortless. But then, all of that came to an end and my thirst returned, the headache resumed pounding, and the snow started collecting on the bottom my boots once again. All good things must come to an end, I recognized.
As the climb wore on, my legs began telling me that the pitch was getting steeper and, at the same time, it was getting harder for me breathe. During a brief pause, I looked back behind and with a new perspective, could very obviously see the abrupt increase in steepness. Just as I was absorbing that situation, Mike apparently came to some sort of decision about the route and after a hesitation of sorts, I felt the pace change. Even though I was keeping my focus on the rope, I couldn’t help but see that the Viento Blanco was still hovering just above. Thankfully, we’d somehow kept skirting it up to that point. By now, I’d come to recognize a few certainties about the climb— those being that it was cold, there was a lot of snow, and that we didn’t want to climb up into the dark cloud above us known as the Viento Blanco.
Morning drifted into afternoon. It became obvious that the light was filtering through the clouds from a different angle and losing strength and my watch confirmed that nightfall was creeping up.
By this time, the world had become all snow in every direction. There was no more seeing dirt down below or trees off in the distance. There was only white and frozen. Then, all at once, a ray of sunshine hit me in the eyes. I was startled by its unexpected slap. Instinctively, I flinched, turning my head away from the blinding light, while simultaneously looking out into the distance. Shafts of light were everywhere, reaching down from the sky and illuminating ridges, peaks, and valleys. Gray Cumulus Nimbus clouds seemed to be split apart at their seams and looked as if they were being sucked up higher into space. Everything was alive and in motion. The shapes, colors, and sizes of things all seemed different from what I’d been seeing only moments before. Was it the same place, I wondered?
It was captivating. Get your camera out and take some pictures, I kept thinking. While pondering the whole process involved in just getting to my camera, I remembered the anorak which I’d put on over my pile jacket, and how they were both on the outside of my bibs. Then, I thought about the suspenders on the bibs, which in turn caused me to visualize the various zippers and buckles that fastened and clipped it all together. On top of that, there were my hands. My mittens were bulky and they were covering glove liners. And even with all of the insulation inside the shell, my hands were still cold. It was clear to me, that in order for me to work the zippers and buckles just to get the camera out and to then even be able to push the shutter button, I’d need to remove my gloves and use my bare hands. The thought of that brought one terrifying word to mind— frostbite. And then, there was the wind, snow, and to top it all off, the Viento Blanco. The more I thought about it, the more I realized just how difficult the process would be. As I was coming to a decision about it all, a mental picture of Maurice Herzog headed down from the summit of Annapurna without his gloves on and his hands getting more and more frozen all the while, came to mind and there was suddenly no more reason to even think about it. The case was closed. There was no way I was going to get my camera out.
And besides all of that, I concluded that what I was seeing would likely go away even before I could ever get to the point of being able to snap a picture. So, I just stopped worrying about it and turned my focus back to the things happening all around me. I consciously let what I was seeing soak-in deeply to my memory and vowed to remember it all. And in another instant,as expected, it was gone. The clouds thickened, the horizon disappeared, and the Viento Blanco sent a harsh breath my way that snapped me back into reality.
The summit of Aconcagua never came for our whole team, but plenty of memories and outdoor adventure stories did. We all made it up to High Camp. The rope never broke and the knots held. My headache eventually went away, my thirst was quenched, and breathing ultimately became easier. Sand once again began pelting me in the face. Temperatures soared. Food choices went from instant rice, to fresh beets (yes, beets), and finally to steak. The Polish climbers went to the same High Camp as us, took Will with them to the summit, and made it safely back down.
Years later, word has it that at least some of the snow up high has never melted. People say that the Viento Blanco is as harsh as ever. I can find no mention, description, or images anywhere of the view from 20,000 feet up on the Polish Glacier looking south during an abrupt break in cloud cover, on a late February afternoon, and with low humidity. I don’t bother to look for a photo of my own which might have captured that magical moment of the wild mountain splendor I witnessed up there because I know that one doesn’t exist. There are times that I wish there was at least one. Something to somehow prove or reinforce that what I’d seen back then was real. The reality that nothing like that exists, saddens me for a moment whenever I think about it, but invariably at that point, a sort of image in motion of what I saw that day pushes its way into then overwhelms my mind.
Monstrous mountains, jagged ridges, and hidden valleys fill a picture which paints itself into my mind. Countless, unnamed peaks are everywhere, growing smaller as they melt toward the Antarctic. Shafts of sunshine connect clouds to ground, showcasing a variety of land features and creating a kind of light that’s both brilliant and muted. The sky is mostly filled with thick, gray clouds, but some manage to break free and soar on past, creating momentary glimpses of blue skies. An ominous, but somehow inviting fog hangs to the edge. I see the wind blowing from the south and smell it’s sound as it rises to the heavens.
I try to think of any single word to describe it all– spectacular, beautiful, amazing, overwhelming, complex, astounding, inexplicable, profound. and the list goes on. None of them individually do it justice, but when I clump them all together, they do.