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 snowbridges, massive hummocks, and an ever- steepening slope, but climbing toward the summit was mostly just plodding, stepping into existing snow steps, and dealing with the cold. The most exciting things that we’d done that particular day were to put on our crampons, rope up, and move out onto the snow. Once we’d started up the glacier, we’d persisted for hours, slowly snaking our way upward and aiming for the top. After almost a full day of ascending, we 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 that 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, from which we could climb on up to the summit in a few hours. Somehow, even with all of the slogging and plodding, the whole affair continued to maintain an aura of excitement. 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 most likely, there was just more slow and tedious work in less than ideal conditions up ahead. Whatever the case, I resolved to just deal with it as it came my way.
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 it would somehow look different from what we’d been seeing for hours or that there would be some sort of sign to designate it. I’m not sure why I was assuming that, since I’d yet to see a sign anywhere on the mountain. Luckily for me, the plodding, attempting to take a satisfying breath, and working to stay warm were occupying most of my thoughts which kept me from thinking too hard about how difficult it was to keep moving 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 would tell us that the day’s work was done or that we should 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 up to it and back down in one day. Wherever that camp place might be, we’d just keep going toward it until we got there.
As the afternoon wore on, the temperature dropped, the south wind picked up, and a strange sort of dampness set in which made it all seem even colder. Fatigue and the high mountain elements began to take their toll and eventually our pace went from slow to very slow. The situation became more challenging with each step, but even so we continued to persist. Thankfully, I was preoccupied with thoughts of rope management, altitude factoids, and camping gear which kept me from thinking much about the weather.
The slog persisted. A few steps turned into hundreds. The sky kept getting darker and it was only getting colder. My feet had been stuck inside my double boots for much of the day where they’d 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 pulled the drawstring on my hood tighter which created an even smaller breathing and seeing hole. I kept thinking of any sort of clothing or combination of gear in my pack which might make me warmer, but the options ultimately diminished to the point where I couldn’t think of anything. So, I just kept getting colder. 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. I consciously wiggled my toes to keep the blood flowing while picturing the four Scouts on the other team sitting up there in their tent—dry, warm, and having hot drinks while considering summit assault strategies. Just as my mind was really drifting up and into the Polish tent, a tug on the rope jerked me back into reality just as a strong gust of wind sprayed me with snow. 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? I was hopeful.
It did seem to me that the ridge above was flattening and he was certainly headed toward something. Whatever that was seemed to be somewhat off in the distance and by this time, it was almost dark. We needed light, I thought. Luckily, we’d stopped a while back and put on our headlamps, so that all we had to do at this point was switch them on. And then the world immediately around us lit up. Our field of vision was certainly smaller and narrower with the lights than it had been during the day, but I was hopeful that the artificial light would at least be good enough to get us to where we needed to be.
We kept persisting and then finally, not long after it’d become full blown night, it happened. Mike stopped and looked around. He turned and began taking in rope until Peggy was standing next to him. The two leaders appeared to be standing on top of some sort of surface feature, but I couldn’t actually see what was going on. Even so, it just made sense to me that they were at High Camp.
Peggy, in turn, belayed Jim up to her. Then, it was my turn and I was starting to get a sense of what was really happening. Jim had stopped up above, but still in view. He looked down at me as I slowly moved toward him. He was hip belaying and carefully taking in and coiling the extra rope with his left hand.
I kept moving up and eventually got close enough to see that the whole trio was standing in the middle of a flattish open spot. I was pleased to see that it was just big enough both for the five of us to stand and for our tent. The bright yellow one of the Poles was already there and an inviting stream of steam poured out through its partially unzipped door. We were there- it was High Camp. My senses were bombarded with information. I reached the flat spot, turned, and looked down at Will. Then, I braced myself the best I could, slung the rope around my back, and belayed him up. At that point, our team was together again, ready to set up camp, and begin preparing for summit day.
Jim was carrying the tent and soon had it off his pack, on the ground, and ready to be set up. Putting it up would be a team project, but we were all aware that we first needed to remove our crampons and place them off to the side where they would be less likely to cut something. Under normal circumstances, that process would just be a simple and quick thing. I had the newest, step-in bindings, which meant that all I needed to do in order to take mine off was to loosen one strap which would then allow the whole crampon to come free from the boot.
I sat down in the snow to take my crampons off. I was almost giddy about how simple it would be to do so. No awkward straps to deal with. I was pleased that I could do it while leaving my mittens on. I could see and almost feel the others in our 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’d all be sitting inside our dry tent in our sleeping bags, drinking hot drinks, and waiting for supper to cook.
But why was I so far behind in helping get us to that point? 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, stillness, and late hour were conspiring to comfort me and I decided to take a break for a few moments before getting on with the crampon, tent, and hot drink business. It felt good to just relax—a true luxury, I thought. And so, I just lay there on the snow and looked up.
I began to get drowsier and drowsier. Maybe just a quick nap, I reasoned. After everything I’d been through that day, I reckoned I deserved it. I figured that I could just close my eyes for a few short instants which would re-energize me for the crampon removal and camp set-up. It was 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. I remember thinking that she was quick and must have step-in bindings herself. Initially, even though they were all within 30 feet of me, I wondered where the rest of the team was and 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, that 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 have to take our crampons off. After coming to that conclusion, I stalled-out once again from my own crampon removal. 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.
Then, something grabbed me from behind. Somehow, my crampons just came off and I was pulled into a tent. But how, I wondered?. It seemed to have happened all in one continuous motion of some sort. 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 in one being handed a cup of hot soup and didn’t even know that there was water boiling. I was astounded by how fast it had all happened and confounded by the fact that it had 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 the next I was being dragged into a tent.
My body temperature began to rise. A blurry 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 their 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.