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 undertaken, it’s not considered to be a particularly technical undertaking, but it is big. It’s sheer size, location, accessibility and the persistent presence of a cold, wet, 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.
Snowline was at about 19,000 feet. Camp 3 was just below that, meaning that our tents and cooking area were still 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 and slapping our faces and getting into our food until we’d summitted and were on our way down. Once back at Camp 3, I knew that the dirt and sand part of it would then all start up again. But, for the moment, there was just snow, crevasses, seracs and Bergschrunds. The Polish climbers were somewhere up above, likely already roped up, on the snow and headed toward High Camp. It was fitting that both us and the Poles were on the Polish Glacier Route. Amazingly, that little tidbit that had nothing to actually do with our climb, nonetheless made me feel more confident as our rope team moved forward.
It was as if no one else was on the mountain. With the Poles 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. As we worked at getting ready to move as a rope team, while we had no doubt that the summit was up above, from where we were right then, all we could see were humps, holes, slopes and ridges of snow that seemed to bleed away into what we figured was more of the same.
The plan was simple enough. 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 actually began just above that, and the plan was to work our way on up the glacier and establish a High Camp at about 21,000 feet. We’d spend a night there, leave our tent set up and go for the summit the following day, which we figured would take about 6 hours round trip. We’d then drop all the way back down to Camp 3, with a stop along the way at High Camp to pick up the tent and whatever camping gear we’d left behind.
The wind was fierce and stirred up the fresh snow, peppering us as we stood around on the bottom fringe of the Polish Glacier. Being the least experienced climber of the group, I was instructed to rope 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 it all out.
Clouds mixed in with what seemed to be an ever-present fog, which was streaming past us quickly from below to above and making it hard to see clearly. I was infatuated with how actual and visible clouds kept coming in from below and seemingly bunching up against the ones just ahead of them and how the whole mess just eventually blended into a fog. Before even beginning the climb on the upper mountain, I felt a chill begin to soak into and through my body, as a wet wind pierced the only sliver of exposed skin I had, which was just above my eyes. Was this the Viento Blanco? Is this what it felt and looked like? I’d read and heard a lot about it and the thought dominated my thoughts.
A visual picture of the frozen and long dead climber stuck in a patch of ice a couple of hundred yards back crept into my mind and mingled with what I was seeing and feeling. Even though I hadn’t ventured over to see it, just the idea that it was there added to my uneasiness. It was just another log on the fire of uneasiness building in my gut that I knew I didn’t need. At about that same time, almost thankfully my head began to throb as the headache I’d been experiencing for a while elevated from irritating to profound. At least the pounding and relentless dull pain it produced would give me something else to focus on, I thought, as I went about trying to tie-in to the rope, so that we could actually get moving.
Take a bite in the rope, wrap it around itself and clip a locking ‘biner into the loop and then clip the other end of it into your harness. It was simple enough, but I still struggled. My hands were like sticks and it all seemed so confusing. I slipped off the new mittens I had gotten for the trip, exposing my hands. It was cold, but somehow, almost strangely, my fingers felt warmer and, as a result, more flexible once they were unleashed. I somehow nimbly turned and twisted the Goldline climbing rope forming a loop of sorts into which I clipped myself. Thankfully, it had all come together just in time and I was securely connected to the rope and rope team just as everyone began to get to the point of being almost ready to go. Crampons were affixed. Ice axes in hand. Hoods and balaclavas pulled down. Water and snacks where you could get at them. I remembered my tan mittens at the last minute and slid them back onto my hands. When all was ready, backpacks were hoisted, knots checked and we actually began to move out– snaking 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, snow bridges, ridges, false summits, headaches, dehydration, altitude, Viento Blanco—there was a lot to think about 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 up ahead. I was resigned to the fact that most steps would be uphill, but somewhere in the back of my mind knew that each step forward was taking me one step closer to the summit. All the while, my headache, nausea, 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 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 with.
After that tug and realization, the only times I did look up from the trail of footprints was to make sure the rope, both in front and behind, was staying on my uphill side and wasn’t getting too loose or too tight. Periodically, I did have the urge to look up and out into the distance again at the clouds and surrounding terrain but knew better than to actually do it.
After an hour or so of plodding, we stopped. Word filtered back- a quick rest. The other team members took the time to adjust their clothing and pull out some water and snacks. I, instead, 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 loomed above a cloud bank. Farther off in the distance, peaks stretched out, many poking through what seemed to become a broken cloud layer. A lenticular cloud clung to some lonely peak off in the distant southeast. The sight of it sent an even deeper chill into my bones. Periodically, the clouds below would break for an instant and I could retrace parts of the route we’d followed up to our base camp through the Vacas valley. Just the thought that I could see it made me almost immediately feel hot and thirsty, as I thought back to the blaring Sun and dusty trail which’d led us up to where we were. 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. The break was over.
The rope fed out and I once again began moving, careful to keep from tugging on Jim, the climber in front of me. I noted that Will, who was behind, watched the rope attentively as it untangled itself and played out between the two of us. Nobody wanted kinks, unnecessary knots or tugs. For the most part, Will was responsible for managing the rope between the two of us, just as I was responsible for the rope between Jim and I—thus was the rope team etiquette. Each person focused on the section of rope immediately in front of them.
Eventually, our team spread out across the lower Polish Glacier. We were on a single, 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 it seemed that every time I’d start to think through the steps 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 taking solace in that 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 it 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 likely 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 my 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 at the same time. I wanted to remove a layer and add one simultaneously. I kept wondering how that would work?
Take a step, bring the other foot up even with the other, tap your boot with your ice axe to clear the snow, manage the rope, try to breathe, don’t think about your stomach or head. A routine developed.
I wanted to stop and rest but felt like being stationary would just make me colder. I also kept wanting to look up and out at my surroundings but realized that I needed to stay focused on the rope. All the while, while I was doing my best to avoid looking for or thinking about it, I kept sensing the presence of the Viento Blanco just ahead. Step, rest, try to breathe, step, rest, try to breathe. Snow balling up, headache, thirsty, cold, snow, wind, stomach churning, Viento Blanco. Our team just kept moving- slowly, but surely, ever forward.
Were the others thirsty? Were they cold? Were their stomach’s 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, there was plenty of time to think. My current speculations about the others and what they might be feeling dominated my thoughts. Headache, thirsty, cold, snow, wind, stomach churning, Viento Blanco. The thoughts of stopping persisted, but kept fizzling away, mostly because the others kept moving forward, taking me with them.
And then, Mike stopped and stabbed his ice axe into the snow. Time for another break. I followed suit, momentarily forgetting about the cold. I’d been thirsty for a while and this time, immediately pulled my water bottle out and gulped some of the tepid, fuzz-filled water we’d created from melting snow the evening before. For that singular moment, my thirst was quenched and my body pleasantly warm. But soon, all of that changed. By stopping, my body temperature had dropped back down toward the normal level which it reached and hovered around for a moment and all felt well. But within minutes, it started plunging 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 to warm it back up and to that end knew I could just jump up and down in place or some such thing to accomplish the goal, but my entire body was just too tired for that and I concluded that it was probably just better to rest it. I realized that my head was 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 the penitentes were. 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 reached down, grabbed his ice axe, turned uphill and began moving. The break was over. Within moments, as anticipated, it was my turn. 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, rest, try to breathe. The routine started right back up. For a brief moment, as I got started up again, I wasn’t as thirsty as before and the snow, at least for the time being, hadn’t begun to ball up again, so what I initially experienced was just some sort of a modified version of the routine I’d come to know, without some of the bad stuff. All the while, I did keep attentively managing the rope. No tugs, keep the rope on the uphill side, be ready to self-arrest. Slowly, I drifted back into the routine of pain, headache, cold, nausea and try to breathe, that I’d become accustomed to and eventually the cold returned and the snow ultimately began balling up on my crampons.
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 to breathe. During a brief pause, I looked back behind and with my 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 could feel 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 seemed to keep skirting it up to that point. By now, I’d come to recognize a few certainties about the climb— those being that I was cold, tired, had both a head and stomach ache and way more than anything else a realization that we didn’t want to climb up into that dark cloud.
Morning drifted into afternoon. It became obvious that the light was now filtering through the clouds from a different angle and was losing steam. My watch confirmed that nightfall was creeping up.
By that 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 Sun 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, canyons, slopes, spires 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. And just at that moment, 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. At that point, 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. And then, 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. Just to get the camera out in order to use it, I’d certainly need to remove the gloves and use my bare hands just to be able to work the zippers and that thought brought a single, terrifying word to mind—frostbite. And then, there was the wind and the snow it was stirring up and finally, 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 time, 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 both realized and rationalized that what I was seeing and experiencing might 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 all, turned my focus back to the things happening in my immediate vicinity, and consciously let what I’d been actually seeing soak-in deeply to my memory and vowed to remember it all. And in another instant, it was all gone. The clouds thickened, the sky dropped, the horizon disappeared and the Viento Blanco sent a harsh breath my way, snapping me back into reality.
The summit of Aconcagua never came for our whole team. High Camp did. 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 hit me in the face. Temperatures soared. Food choices went from instant rice, to fresh beets and finally to steak. The Polish climbers went to the same High Camp, then made it to the summit, took Will with them and they all made it 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 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 because I know 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 blurts its way into my mind, taking charge and chasing everything else out.
Monstrous mountains, couloirs, jagged ridges, and hidden valleys fill a picture which paints itself in my mind. There are countless, unnamed lesser peaks everywhere, growing smaller as they melt toward the Antarctic. Shafts of sunshine connect clouds to ground, showcasing a variety of features and creating light that’s both brilliant and muted at the same time. The bulk of the sky is filled with thick, gray clouds, but all the while, some are managing to break free and soar past, creating glimpses of momentary 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 work alone, but when I clump them all together, they somehow do.