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.
The Polish Climbers
We followed the Vacas River for three days, to get to Plaza Argentina, our base camp for the Polish Glacier Route. The trail had begun at about 9000 feet and had then slowly climbed through rough, open, hot and desolate high country for some 20 miles before arriving at the mostly flat, sandy/tundra mix and rocky spot which would more or less be our home for almost a month. Up to that point, the five of us felt like we had the mountain all to ourselves and that perhaps we’d found a unique and obscure way to get to where we were, but in reality, four Polish climbers or “Boy Scouts” as they most often referred to themselves, had walked that same trail only a few days before and had their two yellow tents already set up at the Base Camp when we got there. At that point, neither of our groups were yet aware of the other. Our paths had not yet crossed.
Sometime, during the mid-afternoon of Day 3, we arrived at that place, known as Base Camp, where our plan was to set up tents and organize both ourselves and gear for the actual climb of the peak. It looked as though the area could probably accommodate 15 or 16 tents and when we arrived, four were already set-up and occupying spots. Two of them were vacant as far as we could tell and most likely awaiting returning climbers, but the others were alive with activity and notably yellow. We picked our spot, a bit away from the two active tents, to set up our state of the art and more subtly colored North Face VE24’s and went to work doing just that. While the tents were going up, our backpacks were leaned up against rocks and covered, lightweight fleece jackets put on, headlamps located, cooking and eating gear set out on the ground and we did most all of the other chores that go along with setting up camp. Once our tents were actually up, pads and sleeping bags were laid out inside. Within only a few minutes, our base camp was up and running.
At first, we kept our distance and separation from the other group (the one with the yellow tents), although we did do a lot of active studying and hypothesizing about who they were and what their story might be. For those first few moments, it was almost as if there was some sort of physical border between us. That stalemate was eventually broken when our leader, Mike, just got up and wandered over to their camp with the pretense of asking about Base Camp area water. Undoubtedly, he was curious about the water etiquette, but we knew for a fact, that he was even more curious about who or what the other team was all about.
From our vantage point, and especially with the ever-present wind howling, it was impossible to hear what was being said, although we could see a lot of hand gesturing and smiling going on. And so, we surmised that something good must’ve been happening. Four men had come out of the mysterious two tents at first just to see what Mike wanted, but had then remained engaged as our leader and the four of them were obviously talking about more than the Base Camp water supply. After just a bit of watching and absorbing it all, it became obvious to us that perhaps they were just as interested in our story, as we were in theirs. None of those five seemed to be moving or going anywhere quickly, so after a few minutes, we strolled over to join in on the conversation. Mike had broken the ice and we would melt it.
I’m still not sure how we thought the conversation part was being conducted until we got into the middle of it, and then we still didn’t. It turned out the four men were Polish 20-somethings and spoke no English. Mike, spoke nothing but English, but somehow things had kept moving forward from the very start, although it’s likely a few things were misconstrued. After a bit of playing the point and guess game, one of the Scouts, Rick, said a word in Spanish and used what I considered to be a decent accent. Since I spoke some Spanish, I recognized his pronunciation, asked him a simple question in Spanish to which he responded in Spanish and for the next three and a half weeks, we were the translators.
It wasn’t that our two groups became one. We each had our own plans and would pretty much stick to them. We had peanut butter, they ate sardines. We wore Gore-tex, they’d just heard about it; Mike and Peggy had top of the line Chinourd ice screws, they had broken into a factory late one night and made their own; the Poles formed a Boy Scout troop so that the Soviets would let them travel to South America, we were on vacation. We wore plastic double boots, they wore leather.
Our two teams essentially leapfrogged up the mountain. Information, moments of rest, and occasional sunsets were shared, but mostly our two groups kept moving up the mountain, each in our own way.
And then, after days of hard work, we found ourselves together on the same snow platform, high up on the mountain and in position to make a final assault on the summit. The Poles were up there first and had passed across some hot soup to our tent either as a sort of congratulation gesture for having made it that far or perhaps to simply warm us up. Whatever the reasoning, it was welcomed.
The following morning’s alpine start came early, well before daylight. The Poles were stirring in their tent before we’d even begun to move– with headlamps shining and a stove blasting out heat as they melted snow for water. In our tent there was no real movement aimed toward getting up and organized for a summit assault. Overnight, Mike had developed an ugly sounding cough and needed to head back down, Peggy was not going to leave him, I was recovering from a bout with the cold alpine air the night before, and Jim (being an experienced nurse) was content to stay back and look after Mike, so the four of us weren’t planning to head any further up.
But Will……..well that was a different story. He’d gotten up to the High Camp, was feeling good enough and was ready and willing to do whatever it took to go on from there to the top, but just had no team to rope up with for the final push. Or did he? He unzipped the door slightly, and I watched as he shined his light straight into the partially open door of the Polish tent and looked face to face at Andres, the leader of the Polish team. Their eyes met, there were a few gestures, and it was all set. Will would go to the top with the Poles while the rest of us would go back down. Eventually, we’d all meet up back at Base Camp. Interestingly, there was no need for translation at that point and there were no doubts about any of it. And so, it happened.
By late afternoon on that same day, the four of us Americans (minus Will) were once again sitting outside our two VE24’s, which by this time, had become our Base Camp tents. The Poles and Will made it to the summit, returned to High Camp and eventually back to Plaza Argentina the following day. They were all markedly excited by their success, but obviously energized to get back to Base Camp and see that all was well.
Sometime that day, an exchange of sorts began as we traded some of our modern, state-of-the-art gear for handmade woolen and otherwise Polish items. No real economic logic was applied to the trades, because they mostly made no sense, monetarily. In fact, many of the Polish items were not even on hand, but would be sent to us at a later date.
That night, to celebrate the climb, the Poles connected their two tents to create a larger space for our party. Our two teams piled inside, waved our arms around wildly, spoke strange languages that no one understood and ate what we assumed to be various Polish hors d’oeuvres including some highly anticipated sardines and strange sausages.
The walk-out, which took us back through the same hot, barren and dry country we’d crossed on the way in, began the following day. Both of our teams headed back down the Vacas Valley, separate and each at our own pace. It’d taken three days for both of our groups to walk in, but we all decided to do the walk out in two. Even though our teams camped in different locations on the one night spent out on the return, there was plenty of back and forth, attempts at conversation and intermingling during the course of the hike.
Eventually, we began trickling back into the trailhead at the Rio Vacas- tired, hot, dusty and thinking of little, but cold water. Rick and I arrived first, and I was immediately saddened to find that there was no water spigot anywhere around the parking area or even the hint of any sort of building within sight that might have one. My water bottle was even empty, since I hadn’t bothered to fill it at the last water stop after hypothesizing that we’d soon be at the end of the trail where we’d find plenty. In a word or two, I was desperately thirsty.
As mentioned, Rick and I’d been speaking bits and pieces of Spanish to each other and had been using all sorts of body movements and gestures for days as a way of communication, and by this point we’d developed our own strange sort of language where we were each completely sure that we knew what the other was saying. I could tell that he was not as concerned by the lack of a water source as me. And then, seemingly to confirm that fact, just told me to wait right there and that he’d be right back with a big surprise that would take care of my need for something good to drink. Satisfied that at least something truly exciting was about to come my way, I took my backpack off, stood it up against a big rock and then sat up on top of it and began fantasizing about chilled ice water dripping onto my face, filling my mouth and then drizzling down my throat, while I waited for his return.
After a few minutes, I saw dust rising from off in the direction of both the nearest store and the main highway and my anticipation grew, as I realized it just might be him perhaps driving something back our way. I watched as he pulled up in the Soviet transport truck that his team was using on their climbing tour of South America and screeched to a stop. Within seconds he crawled out of the driver’s seat with a look of total confidence on his face.
I watched as he walked to the back and pulled out a large trunk and set it on the ground. With little fanfare, but an ever-burgeoning look of total satisfaction, he unlocked the top and opened it up to show off the 16 quarts of lukewarm Soviet era box milk that was neatly stacked inside. After my initial thought of “you’re shitting me”, I mentally jumped right to my practical concern regarding whether or not it was actually safe to drink. It wasn’t the cool water or cold beer I’d been anticipating, but I came to the conclusion that it simply was what it was, and that I needed to at least come to some sort of educated conclusion that it might not kill me. While it didn’t get me all that excited, I’m sure he’d been thinking about it for hours, if not days, and it obviously did him. And so, we sat up on the rock and got drunk on warm milk as the others began showing up.
I have to admit that it did at least quench my thirst and that I enjoyed watching the other Americans walk up anxiously to the box, see the bounty inside and then react. All 4 Poles just smiled while the others invariably had looks of confusion on their faces. Whatever the case, everyone drank. After satiating thirsts, our two teams made a plan to meet up that evening down in the nearby city of Mendoza, where all things Aconcagua are based, as were we.
That evening, we met up and all loaded into the only transportation either of our teams had—which was their open-top Soviet transport complete with fender flags. The Soviet flags and sickle and hammer which adorned the side of the truck were particularly nice and valuable touches to the situation given the anti-West sentiment that was obvious in the streets of Mendoza in those recent post-Falkland War days. Before going out on the town, the Poles introduced us to their mysterious Russian “cook” who’d been waiting for them in a dingy hotel, collecting cigarette wrappers and undoubtedly wearing the same cheap suit for days and he joined our now larger group for all of the night’s activities. I noted that he was not overly gregarious and was, actually, a bit stand-offish and didn’t seem to actually fit in all that well with either group.
The next morning, we all met up at the Mendoza airport for goodbyes, such as they might be. We were flying to Buenos Aires and eventually on to the US. The Poles were headed west and north as their climbing trip continued. As the four of them waited for us to board, amidst all kinds of gesturing and goodbyes, a newspaper came out with a very large front page headline concerning the latest happenings with the Solidarity movement back in Poland. It caught Rick’s attention. Strange words were uttered, the Poles looked up to make sure the cook was not close-by, and then huddled up around the paper to try and figure out what it said. We, realizing the significance, crowded in as well. At that moment, all of us were trying to read the words and understand, but it was written in a language we couldn’t quite make out.