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 a mostly non-technical undertaking, although 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:
Snowline was at about 19,000 feet. Camp 3 was just below it, and since we had been camped there the night before, our tents and cooking area were on dry ground. I was aware that the previous night was 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 the same spot, the dirt and sand part would start 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 somehow seemed fitting that we were on the Polish Glacier Route since the Poles were just ahead of us. 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. We didn’t doubt that the summit was somewhere up above, but 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.
The plan was simple enough. During the previous two weeks, we’d persistently worked our way up to Camp 3, getting ourselves and a good bit of gear up to that lofty perch. The glacier began just above that, and we intended to climb up it and establish a High Camp on the snow 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 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 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 ascend. Being the least experienced climber in the group, I tied-in fourth on the rope. 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 would be third while Will, who was both a physician and an experienced climber, would bring up the rear.
Clouds mixed in with what seemed to be an ever-present fog that was persistently streamed past us from below to above, making it hard to see clearly. I was captivated by the way the clouds kept moving upward and bunching against the ones ahead of them and creating a soupy and eerie fog. Before we began the climb on the upper mountain, I felt a chill start to set-in deep inside my body as a wet wind pierced its way into the only sliver of exposed skin that I had. Is this the Viento Blanco? Is this what it feels like, I wondered? I’d read and heard a lot about it, and was fascinated by the uncertainty of what it was. 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 process for correctly connecting myself (or tieing-in) to the climbing rope and, thus, the other climbers. It was simple enough, 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 uncovered. Ultimately, I turned and twisted the Goldline climbing rope and formed a loop of sorts that I clipped myself into. Somehow, it all came 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 finally began to move forward 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 completely comprehend, 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 in front of me. I was resigned to the fact that most steps would be uphill but clung to the thought that each step forward was taking me one step closer to the summit. All the while, my headache, and the Viento Blanco persisted.
While I knew that I needed to keep my attention focussed on the rope and the mechanics of moving forward, I kept finding myself looking up from the snow and out toward the southern 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 came from behind as Will stumbled a bit and pulled me back into the world of step, rest, step. I kept thinking, don’t look up, think about who you’re with, and focus on where you’re going.
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 tight. Periodically, I had the urge to once again look up and out at the clouds and surrounding terrain. But I had learned better and didn’t.
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 at my surroundings, 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. It consisted of multiple peaks poking up into what ultimately became a broken cloud layer. A cold looking lenticular cloud clung to some unnamed 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 though the Vacas Valley to our base camp. Just the thought that I could see it down below made me feel hot and thirsty as I thought back to the blaring sun and dusty trail, which had led us 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, but there wasn’t time for that. 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 of rope between the two of us as it untangled itself and played out. Nobody wanted kinks, unnecessary knots, or tugs, I realized.
Eventually, our team spread out across the lower Polish Glacier. We were all tied-in to the same 150-foot rope. Since we were connected, we were limited as to how far apart from each other we could get. Up to this point, neither my headache nor nausea were getting any better. There was nothing easy about each step. Periodically, I had thoughts of stopping and turning back. But each time that I’d start to think through the actualities of doing that, I’d feel the rope tighten up, reminding me that indeed, I four others were connected to me 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. And I kept thinking about how the other four were likely cold as well. I wondered if their feet were as numb as mine. My head throbbed, but I was pretty sure that Mike and Peggy had headaches, too. After all, they’d split an aspirin the night before to deal with theirs. 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, too.
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 bare skin that remained exposed and ultimately seemed to settle into every open crevice on my body. I was somehow sweating and freezing simultaneously. I wanted to both remove and add a layer of clothing 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, kept going through my mind. A routine developed. I kept resisting the urge to gaze out at the surrounding magnificence 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.
Were the others thirsty and cold, I wondered? Were their stomachs churning? I speculated about whether the wind was whipping their faces? And 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. I wondered what he was doing but then realized that it was just a break. I followed suit and momentarily forgot about the cold. I’d been thirsty for a while. And so this time, I 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 moment in time, my thirst was quenched, and my body was pleasantly warm. But that soon changed. By stopping, my body temperature dropped back to its normal level, and for a while, I felt warm and comfortable. But within minutes, it continued dropping below that. And since my clothes were sweat-soaked, a wet cold began chilling me from the inside, and I remembered once again that it was just plain old cold outside. 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 unfortunate glass of pear juice that I’d had back in Mendoza.
But then, I once again looked up and out. I could see the big snowfield down below where all of the penitentes were. Above that, I guessed where Camp 2 was, although I couldn’t quite 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, just 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. Step up with one foot, lift the other, 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 as it had been, and was moving with little effort. But within minutes, the comfort and ease of movement ended, my thirst returned, and the snow resumed collecting on the bottom of my boots. All good things must come to an end, I realized.
As the climb wore on, my legs began telling me that the pitch was getting steeper, and, all the while, it kept getting harder to breathe. During a brief pause, I looked back behind and, with a new perspective, saw the abrupt increase in steepness. Even though I was keeping my focus on the rope, I couldn’t help but notice that the Viento Blanco was still hovering just above. Thankfully, it had kept moving higher as we did. By this point, I’d come to recognize a few certainties about the climb— 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 the afternoon. It became apparent 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 seen only moments before. Was it the same place, I wondered?
It was captivating. Get your camera out and take some pictures, I thought. But then I thought about my anorak and pile jacket that 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.
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 to work the zippers and buckles to get the camera out and then 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 complicated the process would be. The case was closed. There was no way I was going to get my camera out.
Besides, I realized that what I was seeing would likely vanish before I could ever even get to the point of being able to snap a picture, anyway. So, I just stopped worrying about it and turned my focus back to the things happening all around me. I consciously let what I saw soak-in deeply to my memory and vowed to remember it all. And in another instant, as expected, it was gone. Almost abruptly, the clouds thickened, the horizon disappeared, and the Viento Blanco sent me a harsh breath that snapped me back into my cold 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 got 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 were at least one. Something to somehow prove or reinforce that what I’d seen back then was real. The fact that nothing like that exists saddens me for a moment whenever I think about it. But invariably, a sort of image-in-motion of what I saw that day pushes its way into and then overwhelms my senses, and I can feel the moment.
Monstrous mountains, jagged ridges, and hidden valleys fill a picture that paints itself into my mind. Countless, unnamed peaks are everywhere, growing smaller as they melt toward the Antarctic. Shafts of sunshine connect the clouds to the ground, showcasing a variety of land features and creating a kind of light that’s both brilliant and muted. The sky is full of thick, gray clouds, some of which 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. While no single one does it justice, when clumped together, they all do.