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.
Part 2- The Crampons
There wasn’t anything all that exciting about the upper part of the Polish Glacier, even though it had an exotic sound to it. Sure, there were crevasses, snowbridges, hummocks, seracs and an ever-steepening slope, but mostly, climbing toward the summit was just plodding, stepping into existing steps, managing the rope, and dealing with the cold, wind, blowing snow, and breathing challenges in the midst of a cold world covered by ice and snow. Probably the most exciting thing that we’d done that particular day was to put on our crampons, rope up and actually move out onto the snow. Once we’d started up the glacier, we’d persisted for hours, slowly snaking our way upward, aiming for the top of Aconcagua. After almost a full day of ascending, we’d finally reached the point where when you looked back down the way that you’d just come up, you could only see footprints and a line in the snow indicating that you’d actually come up that way. We could see the line and it was proof to each of us, that we were, indeed, making progress.
For that day, our goal was to simply move up the glacier and set up a High Camp at about 21,000 feet, which would put us in a good position for a lightweight assault on the summit the following day. Somehow, even with all of the slogging and plodding, the whole affair continued to maintain an aura of excitement throughout the climb. Maybe it would get technically tricky somewhere up ahead, I rationalized, but there was a pragmatic side to my thoughts which kept telling me that more than likely, there was just more, hard, slow work in less than ideal conditions up ahead. Whatever the case, I resolved that I’d just deal with it.
After walking for several hours, it began to seem to me that we must be getting close to High Camp. For some reason, I kept thinking that the place would somehow look different from the same terrain we’d been seeing for hours or that there’d be some sort of sign to designate it or tell us whenever we got to it. I’m not sure why I was thinking or assuming that, since I’d yet to see a sign anywhere up on the mountain. Luckily for me, the plodding forward, attempting to take a satisfying breath and working hard to get or stay warm were occupying most of my thoughts which at least kept me from thinking too hard about the various difficulties related to continuing to put one foot in front of the other or where we were actually trying to get to.
In reality, there was no designated High Camp. There was also no pre-set time that’d tell us that the day’s work was done or that we were supposed to be in camp and getting settled in for the night. As it turns out, we were simply looking for a decently flat spot that wasn’t on top of a crevasse, was somewhat protected, and close enough to the summit to allow us to get to up to it and back down in one day. Wherever that camp place might be, we’d just keep going toward it until we just got there
As the afternoon wore on, the temperature dropped, the south wind picked up and a strange sort of dampness set in which just made it all seem even colder. Fatigue and the high mountain elements began to take their toll, and our rope team’s pace went from slow to very slow. The situation was becoming more challenging all the while, but we continued to persist, one step in front of the next. Thankfully, I was preoccupied with thoughts of gear, the cold, an ever-present headache, altitude factoids and rope management which continued to keep me from considering the bigger picture.
The slog persisted. Several times, we began to approach likely looking spots only to keep moving past them as some sort of depression in the snow would invariably appear, indicating that something ominous was hidden somewhere down below the surface.
A few plodding steps turned into hundreds. The sky kept getting darker and it just kept getting colder. For much of the day, my feet, snugly tucked inside of my double boots, had been warm, and I hadn’t even really thought about them. But by this point, my toes were beginning to tingle and actually ache. I couldn’t think of anything to do about my feet, but did pull the drawstring on my hood in tighter which created an even smaller breathing and seeing hole. I kept thinking about any sort of clothing or combination of gear in my pack which might potentially make me warmer, but the options kept dwindling and then ultimately diminished to the point where I couldn’t think of anything. So, I resigned myself to the increasing cold. Oh well, I thought, just suck it up and keep moving.
We knew the Poles were somewhere up above. They, too, were moving up to High Camp that same day and were ahead of us. I consciously wiggled my toes to keep the blood flowing while picturing the four of them sitting up there already in their tent—dry, warm and having hot drinks while considering summit assault strategies. Just as my mind was really drifting up and into that place, a tug on the rope jerked me back into reality, just as a strong gust of wind sprayed me with snow. Just at that moment, I looked up at Mike and saw him take a sharp turn to his right. Did he see something? Did he see the sign for High Camp or the bright yellow tent of the Poles?
It did seem to me that the ridge above was flattening out and that Mike was certainly headed toward something. Judging from where he was looking, it seemed that whatever it was, was still somewhat off in the distance and by this time, it was almost dark. Luckily, we’d stopped a while back, taken out headlamps and put them on, so that all we had to do to light up the world around us, was to switch them on, which is what we did. I was thankful that at least we had light. Our field of vision was certainly smaller and narrower with the lights and I couldn’t help but wonder if the view from the front end of the rope was any better. Hopefully it was, I mused.
We kept persisting. In reality, there weren’t a whole lot of options. Eventually, the dinner hour passed and it became full blown night, but we kept on moving painfully slowly up toward whatever that something was. Then, it happened.
Mike stopped and looked around. He turned and began taking in rope until Peggy was standing next to him. The two leaders were stopped and definitely up on some sort of feature, I thought, although I couldn’t actually see exactly what was going on.
Peggy, in turn, belayed Jim up to her. Then, it was apparently my turn and I was starting to get a sense of what was really happening. Jim had stopped up above where there seemed to be some sort of high point, but where he was still in view. He looked down as I slowly moved toward him. He was hip belaying and carefully taking and coiling the extra rope with his left hand.
I kept moving up and eventually got close enough to see that the trio was standing in the middle of a flattish open spot. It had just enough room for the three of them to stand and for us to pitch our tent right next to a bright yellow one that was already there, and that had a stream of steam pouring out through the opening of a partially unzipped door. High Camp.
My senses were bombarded with information. I came to a stop on the flat spot, turned, looked down at Will, braced myself the best I could, slung the rope over my head so that it went around my back, braced myself, guided the rope with my right hand and belayed Will up with my left while piling the excess rope neatly on the snow. Will moved up toward us and within a few minutes, our team of five was together again, ready to set up camp and prepare for summit day.
Jim was carrying the tent and soon had it off his pack, on the ground and ready to be set up. It’d be a team project, but first, we all needed to remove our crampons and place them off to the side before unwittingly stepping on something or hurting someone.
Under normal circumstances, that process would be just a simple and quick thing. I had the newest, step-in bindings, which in theory meant that it’d be even easier for me. All I needed to do was loosen one strap on each side which would then allow the bails for the binding and, ultimately, the whole crampon to come free from the boot.
I sat down in the snow to deal with mine. I was almost giddy about how simple the whole process would be. There were no awkward straps to deal with and I was especially pleased with the fact that I could do it all while leaving my mittens on.
I heard some sort of commotion coming from the yellow tent. I saw and could almost feel the others in my group moving around and doing things. I thought of worker bees and ants all busily taking care of things. It was all happening. Soon, we would all be sitting in a dry tent in our sleeping bags, drinking hot drinks and waiting for supper. But why was I so far behind?
I was amazed by how warm and still it was down next to the ground. Was it like that up in the sky, I wondered. Maybe there was some sort of inversion. The warmth, flat ground, stillness and late hour had conspired to comfort me and I just decided to take a break for a few moments before getting on with the crampon, tent, hot drink and food business. It felt good to just relax—a true luxury, I thought.
I began feeling drowsier and drowsier. Maybe just a quick nap, I reasoned. After everything I’d been through that day, I reckoned I deserved it. I just figured I’d close my eyes for a few short instants which in turn would re-energize me for the crampon removal and camp set-up. First things first.
Before allowing myself to drift off, the vision of Peggy already dealing with the confusion known as tent poles plastered itself in my mind. She had gotten down to the task of tent set up quickly and I wondered if perhaps she had step-in bindings herself. For a moment, I wondered where the rest of the team was, but came to the conclusion that they were all likely dealing with their own various crampon issues and would be helping with tent and camp set-up shortly. I was once again satisfied by just how cutting edge and simple to remove mine were, even with mittens on. Yes, I thought, crampons had come a long way. Too bad, I concluded, everyone hadn’t bought into the idea.
The relaxation was nice. It was peaceful. Everything was good. Maybe we didn’t really even need a tent, because it was just fine outside and why go through all of the hassle? If we just stayed out on the snow, I reasoned, we wouldn’t even need to take our crampons off. With that conclusion, I stalled-out once again from my own crampon removal. I once again came to the conclusion that there was no need to do that right then. But, for the moment, I couldn’t quite go to sleep, because there were just too many things going on all around to just allow me to completely let loose.
And then, something grabbed me from behind. Somehow, my crampons just came off and I was pulled into a tent. But how, I thought. It seemed like it was all in one motion. How or why was there a tent? How did they ever figure out how to set it up? Suddenly, there were sleeping bags all around me and I was inside one of them and was being handed a cup of hot soup and I didn’t even know there was any water boiling. I was astounded by how fast it had all happened and confounded by the fact that it’d even taken place. One moment there were a bunch of things that needed to happen in order for High Camp to be up and running and then in another I was being dragged into a tent. How? Why? Where?
My body temperature began to rise. The fuzzy vision of the people surrounding me began to come into focus and eventually I could see Peggy, Will, Mike and Jim all busily working away to make the little piece of reality as warm and comfortable as possible. Everyone was there. Steam was rising. Soon, there would be more hot drinks, talk of summit day and finally, sleep. A few hours later it would be time to gear-up and head for the top. I would deal with that then, but for the moment it was simply first things, first.