Aconcagua – A Mountain Not To Be Underestimated

Geno, Mark and I have known each other since our NOLS Denali expedition in summer 2007. We reunited in Mendoza Argentina on the evening of December 26, 2008 for our climb of the highest peak of South America, Aconcagua. We had planned this trip months ago. Weighing the factors including our competency of technical skills and desire for challenge, we set our mind to summit Aconcagua thru Polish Glacier Route.

The Polish Glacier did not seem to have good conditions this season, we were told by another team who wanted to attempt the same route while we were all hanging out at Camp 1. The less steep Original Polish Glacier Route was super icy and the Polish Glacier Direct which usually has better snow conditions had many ice patches too. They said, “a person just died because of a fall.” This news was very unsettling but we didn’t realize how much we were affected by it until later. In any rate, we hadn’t even assessed the route ourselves yet.

On January 4, 2009, we ferried some load to Camp 2, which was also the common spot to set up the high camp for teams climbing Polish Glacier. The weather was good, and the visibility was high. Underneath the bluebird sky, the glacier was beautiful, breath-taking, and inviting. Both Geno and I were a little tired due to being at high altitude – I started to experience some mild headache since we hit 18,000 feet. We decided to head down right after we dropped our load despite our original plan – we planned to scout the glacier and find a higher spot to set up the high camp to shorten the summit day. We did give the glacier a few more glances before descending though. There was some red fiber hanging around, and we suspected that it was a tent from another team.

We moved our camp to Camp 2 the next day. The weather wasn’t that great. We had to pitch our tent to wait for a wind storm to die down. The wind never stopped; it just became more tolerable after a long nap. We kept pushing up, and we witnessed a few rangers dragging a body down. The body was not on a litter, or in a body bag. The body was just dragged down, tumbling on the ground. I had a weird feeling and I kept telling myself that he would not experience any more pain, but the feeling was like a fish bone stuck in my throat. I didn’t see his face, but his coat was in a recognizable red, the tent we thought we saw the previous day was apparently his coat. We three didn’t talk about this at that moment, not even the whole day. During the last push, I was cold so that I had to put my puffy jacket on while I was hiking. The wind was strong, but was the wind the reason I was feeling cold?

Wind storms; snow storms. We stayed in the tent for the most time on the 6th and 7th. On the 7th, we were out for a brief crevasse rescue practice. We had to fast forward the practice because the wind chill was unbearable. A few rangers came and asked us about 5 missing people before we headed back in the tent. Another accident? We reached the consensus of doing the False Polish Glacier Route instead without much discussion. We decided to give it a shot the next day as long as the weather was not too hindering.
False Polish Glacier Route is not technical but is very long, starting from the base of Polish Glacier, it traverses the mountain towards Normal Route and merges with Normal Route to reach the top. Many parties set up another camp between Camp 2 and the summit, but we didn’t have the luxury to do so because our food was running low.

We started our summit day at 5 am. The snow was fresh, soft and deep. Even though I was in the back, I still had to break trails. We didn’t have snowshoes, because usually snowshoes are not required here, and booting took forever. We got to 21,250 feet at around 11 am, six hours later. The clouds started to merge in and soon the road to the summit was less visible. We had a discussion. According to the weather patterns we had observed for the past few days, in addition to needing at least another good three hours to reach the top, we decided to turn around.

This was not the first time I turned my back to a summit. On the Denali summit day, my tears bursted out when I turned around at 19,400 feet. It was a hard moment, but it was not a hard decision, because I was seriously affected by altitude. This time, it was a hard decision for me. The condition of Normal Route was much better than the traverse section, and many other climbers were before us and after us. Say we might need to make it a 15-hour day but I knew I would be fine with 15 hours of hard work. I suspect the root reason for the difficult decision was me not wanting to turn around again. I didn’t try to justify the decision because there were too many variables involved, I just knew that I accepted the decision.

Before we planned this expedition, we knew that whether we would reach the top was based on efforts and chance combined. We didn’t expect to see or hear people die (two out of the five missing people died as well). I was not horrified but I was certainly made to be more full of awe. Aconcagua is a big mountain, and everything could happen there. I never try to underestimate any mountain but I know I will try to minimize its chance of happening in my future expedition planning after this trip.

Related Articles:
Heading Toward Aconcagua

4 thoughts on “Aconcagua – A Mountain Not To Be Underestimated”

  1. @Haricot,

    nice to hear from you again. thank you for your compliment. I wish I could have done more even though I know I have done many adventures. :p

  2. I have learned for years of climbing that you should never underestimate a mountain, weather can change, accidents happen. its always best to be prepared even for what seems to be an easy climb!

    check out this website, it will give you information on wilderness survival in case you get lost during a climb, this way you will know what to do!

    Survival Grounds Wilderness Survival Information

    Best of luck on your adventures, stay safe friends!

  3. You actually make it look so easy with your presentation, but I find this issue to be really something which I think I would never understand. It seems too multiplex and very broad for me. I am looking forward for your following post, I will try to get the hang of it.

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