Frolicking in the Alps

 

Rope Team 2
A Rope Team

 

I could tell the story from the trip about the Swiss barmaid that was hovering around outside my tent late one night asking for my tentmate, Matt. Or the one about Matt and I racing our Swiss guides back down from the top of the Argentine Miroir (a famous rock climb) to a nearby café where our group was waiting. Both occurred in the midst of an adventure trip that the two of us were leading and which included a wide variety of people of varying ages including teenagers, a doctor who was even older than me and my non alpinism-experienced wife. As one of the leaders, I was making every effort to look out for the well-being of the group, but nonetheless, those sorts of “things” kept happening.

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Aconcagua- The Polish Climbers

Aconcagua
Aconcagua with the Polish Glacier

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 3….

            The Polish Climbers

Continue reading “Aconcagua- The Polish Climbers”

Aconcagua- The Crampons

DSC07056
Gearing up for an alpine climb

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 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—the highest peak in the Western Hemisphere. After almost a full day of ascending, we’d finally reached the point where when you looked back down the way 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 it and it was proof  to each of us, that we were, indeed, making progress.

That particular 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 had maintained an exciting aura for most of that day. 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 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 and rope management which continued to keep me from considering the bigger picture.

The slog continued. 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 of the place.

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 is, 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 back up in the air, 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 out 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 all of pondering and false concluding, I stalled-out once again in my own crampon removal and while I wasn’t quite ready for sleep, I was certainly relaxed.

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.

Tents on snow
Tents on the snow

Aconcagua- The Climb

Climbing on the highest peak in the Western Hemisphere, 1985.

Summit Ridege- Huayna Potosi
Rope team ascending a big peak

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.

Continue reading “Aconcagua- The Climb”

Candy Bars on Mt. Hunter

Indigestion on Alaska’s Mt Hunter.

Climbers out on the Kahiltna Glacier near Mt. Hunter
The Kahiltna Glacier near Mt. Hunter

I now concede the fact that it was undoubtedly the five candy bars I ate in celebration of successfully getting across the avalanche debris field that caused the distress. I should’ve known better, but for a variety of reasons, it’d seemed like a good thing to do at the time. At least, I reasoned once back at home, the whole thing had taught me a good lesson.

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Crevasse

Tents on the snow, perhaps above a crevasse
A snow camp.

He was not a big person and since I outweighed him by 60 or so pounds, I was confident that I could hold him, if he were to break through and fall into a crevasse. There was no doubt that those sometimes-bottomless cracks found all over glaciers were running underneath us everywhere, although most were hidden beneath thin layers of the snow and ice of the Ruth Glacier. Probing out the route as we moved was tedious, but imperative—especially during the summer months when things were melting more than freezing. We knew the crevasse field was there, but were hoping to find a relatively safe way through it that could be used as a way to get our whole group up onto the ridge.

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Hamburgers and Lizard Head

A group of backpackers attempts to climb Lizard Head and learns the true meaning of climbing.

Pingora
Pingora, Cirque of the Towers, Wind River Range, Wyoming

Lizard Head is a big peak just to the north and east of the well-known, long and breathtakingly majestic line of mountains, ridges and spires in the Wind River Range, known as the Cirque of the Towers. On one particular trip, we backpacked into the area with two separate groups of 7, via different routes that both came in from the east and took us to Bear Lake. The lake sits just on the east side of Lizard Head and would be the location for our backcountry base camp on that trip.

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The Cup of Coffee on Huayna Potosi

Climbing Huayna Potosi in Bolivia without a morning cup of coffee.

Ice climbing practice on Huayna Potosi
Practicing ice climbing in Bolivia

It was cold and restless sleep at our high camp on Huayna Potosi. As I think back, it was actually more like quiet time, except for the relentless banging of the tent flap out in the frigid, high altitude night. When I’d gone out into it briefly in the middle of the night, I’d marveled at how clear and full of stars the sky was. But that marvel was tempered by my personal acknowledgement that ultimately the clear skies would just mean even colder temperatures.  At least, I reasoned, since there was no threat of snow, I wasn’t going to have to get up and shovel any of it away from the tent in the wee hours of the morning. Over and over again, I pushed myself deeper into my minus 25 bag and several times checked to make sure that the sleeping bag hood was cinched tightly down around my head. That checking and tightening, along with a persistent need to go outside and relieve myself, periodic dozing off, and a mental organization of the rope-up logistics occupied the bulk of my time. Continue reading “The Cup of Coffee on Huayna Potosi”

The Summit

Summit perspectives.

Measuring the summit elevation of Ancohuma
Summit of Ancohuma- Cordillera Real, Bolivia

The stillness was almost eerie. I’d never been on a mountain summit when there was anything less than a stiff wind blowing. Since I didn’t have to try and find any sort of wind break, there was extra time to sit and take it all in. A pure luxury. There was plenty of time, no approaching storm, all kinds of sunlight and we all had full water bottles and snacks to spare. Continue reading “The Summit”