by Frederic Crampe, Pedro Gonzalez and Eric Wintenberger
PART 1 PART 2 PART 3 PART 4
December 26: Punta de Vacas - Casa de Piedra
The approach to Plaza Argentina starts from Punta de Vacas (2450m), which is located a few kilometers east of Puente del Inca. We had to go up north the Vacas Valley, where the Rio Vacas flows. Since we were already acclimatized, we decided to go fast and skipped one day by going directly to Casa de Piedra (3200m) and not stopping in Las Leñas (2800m) like most people do. So we walked for a long day in this valley very different from the one leading to Plaza de Mulas. Some vegetation was still present despite the altitude rising. The valley looked much less desert than on the other side of the mountain. We had to cross the Rio Vacas at Las Leñas in knee-deep water. Fortunately Pedro had his hiking poles and sandals that proved very helpful for crossing. The crossing was not easy and I almost fell in the middle of the river ! However, we were getting frustrated as we had no view on Aconcagua. The approach was long and quite flat. Finally, after 9 hours of hiking with 20kg backpacks, we arrived in Casa de Piedra. We were rewarded of our effort with our first sight of the Polish Glacier, shining with the sun setting down. The colors were extraordinary, and we immediately felt impatient to get to Camp 2, just at the bottom of the Glacier.
December 27: Casa de Piedra - Plaza Argentina
Taking a last look at the superb Polish Glacier, we started hiking in the morning after a very cold bath for the feet while crossing again the Rio Vacas. We entered the very narrow Relinchos Valley, where Aconcagua got hidden behind the tall and abrupt sides of the valley. We continued hiking the steep valley until we reached a shoulder after which the valley flattens until Plaza Argentina (4200m). As we reached the shoulder we got hit by a strong wind characteristic of the region. However, the view of the mountain motivated us to keep up our effort until the base camp that we reached after 5 hours. The summit was hidden in clouds moving with the wind. That was probably a very bad day for trying the summit. The problem with Aconcagua is that even if the weather is perfect, the wind can still prevent any party from getting to the summit as it can be extremely strong near the top. Almost every day, the summit gets cloudy in the afternoon. That's why it is strongly advisable to start early on summit day so as to get to the top before 3 or 4 pm.
December 28: Plaza Argentina
Today's a rest day ! After 2 days of intensive effort, we rested for one day in Plaza Argentina. That was part of our acclimatization schedule, because going up too fast certainly leads to altitude sickness. We were well acclimatized at this altitude and all felt great. However, this was expected after our acclimatization trekking. The first real test for altitude would be our climb to Camp 1. We rested for most of the day and started asking descending parties about the conditions up there on the Glacier. Apparently they were very good and the Direct Route was in great shape, hard snow with good tracks allowing very fast ascents. We met a lot of people and talked with them about their experience on the mountain, starting to gather information while knowing how relative this information was.
December 29: Plaza Argentina - Camp 1 - Plaza Argentina
We left Base Camp early to start going up the rocky slopes towards Camp 1 (5000m). Although Plaza Argentina is mostly surrounded by rocks, it is actually located on a glacier ! But this glacier is covered with a lot of rocks, making it difficult to guess except in some places where the ice is apparent. We had to go up among rocks and penitentes. Penitentes are very characteristic of the Aconcagua region: they are made of snow shaped by the added effects of the wind and the sun into tall (up to 1 or 2 meters) and thin silhouettes. It can be annoying to go up in a field of penitentes, as we experienced at the end of the trail up to Camp 1. On the way up, we experienced great views on the valley opening to the East Glacier and its steep slopes. The East Glacier bears one of the most difficult routes to the summit, after the South Face of course. Curiously it had not received a lot of snow this year while the Polish Glacier was covered with a thin layer of snow. The East Glacier was made of two bright ice slopes one atop the other, separated by a steep rock band. Despite its steepness, it was not the glacier itself that was worrying us, but more the tall cliffs on top of it that were to be climbed to gain access to the ridge. We would later meet an Australian party who told us that it had not been climbed since 1990. These guys made an attempt, but seracs fell very close to them during their climb, making them reconsider the try. Anyway, after 3 and a half hours of effort carrying our 25kg backpacks, we reached Camp 1 where we selected a good spot for our future camp. We stayed there for a couple of hours, feeling good, before leaving the gear we had carried and heading down to Base Camp that we reached after a bit more than one hour. When we were hiking up to Camp 1, we had met a Canadian girl who was heading down because she suffered from a pulmonary edema at Camp 2. She had apparently been led up the mountain too quickly and never really acclimatized to the altitude. She felt really bad when we saw her: she had fluid in her lungs, coughed badly and was very weak. Fortunately, the doctor at Base Camp took care of her and we saw her the next day, pleased to learn that she was feeling much better. She was still however to exit the mountain as soon as possible.
December 30: Plaza Argentina - Camp 1
Same thing as the day before, except that we carried slightly less weight
since we had tried to carry as much as possible the day before. We went
up with 20kg backpacks. It took us about the same time as the day before,
but Fred and I arrived at Camp 1 feeling very tired. We actually never
managed to take a regular and slow pace because we wanted to take pictures.
Too many stops on the way prevented us from taking the good pace that we
had found the day before. Moreover, we tried to make our way through a
long field of penitentes which gave us a hard time. Oddly, Pedro, who had
felt very weak the previous day, was in great shape when we arrived at