by Frederic Crampe, Pedro Gonzalez and Eric Wintenberger
PART 1 PART 2 PART 3 PART 4
December 31: Camp 1
After two days of effort, we deserved one day of rest. Our acclimatization proved to be excellent, as nobody had any headache during the first night, which is generally the most likely time for one to feel altitude sickness. Since the Polish Glacier was hidden from our sight, we spent the day looking at the mountain facing Aconcagua on the east side, the Cerro Ameghino (5900m). Especially, two very nice icefalls just above us were teasing us? The ice looked in great condition and apparently nobody had climbed them. These icefalls were just at the base of the sheer cliffs of Ameghino, leading to this impressive summit far above our tent. We also talked a lot about the next days. Fred, who was the most experienced of us, as he had already climbed summits above 6000m, suggested that two carries up to Camp 2 might be too hard, as it was comparable to summitting two six-thousanders in two days. We therefore considered very seriously the option of doing only one carry to Camp 2. Of course the weight would be much higher, but then we would rest and this option would give us one more possible day for the summit. We ended up deciding to try it the next day. In the evening, we celebrated New Year?s Eve and the passage to 2000 with dry Beef Thai and some sardines: what a luxury ! No possibility for us to socialize or share our meal with anybody, since we were the only party in Camp 1 ! Obviously nobody really cared about the New Year as we were all focused on our objective. Still Pedro managed to keep up with the Spanish tradition of eating twelve raisins on the last twelve seconds before midnight. He wanted one of us to take a picture of him, but when he realized how well we were sleeping at this time, he did not dare to wake us up !
January 1: Camp 1 - Camp 2
We left Camp 1 with huge backpacks. We needed two hours to get ready in the morning and pack our 35kg backpacks. They were so heavy that we had trouble just hauling them off on our backs ! But once the backpacks well positioned on our backs, we started on a very slow pace to Camp 2 (5900m). The trail went mostly through scree slopes, and it was hard to go up, particularly near Camp 2 because the last slopes were very steep and slippery. However, after 5 hours of effort, we made it to Camp 2. I felt really bad when I arrived there, for I got sudden stomach cramps and felt weak. Fred and Pedro started to pitch the tent and to build a wall around it and I just went to rest. Fortunately, I started feeling better very shortly and was able to appreciate the magnificent view we had on the Polish Glacier. It was standing there, right in front of us. The tracks of the Direct Route were easily distinguished on the hard snow. It looked really huge and very steep near the top. The Glacier started going up smoothly on ice, its slope increasing until a first rock band from where the slope started to be around 55 degrees. From there on, snow covered most of the route until the top, which we found steeper than expected. The Polish Glacier had been named from the first expedition that climbed it, which came from Poland. The first ascent took place in 1934: Daszynski, Narkievictz, Osiecki and Ostowski reached the summit after following what is now called the Normal Polish Glacier Route, that goes up along the left bank of the Glacier, and setting up a high camp at 6300m. They ascended in alpine style, which made the first ascent of the Polish Glacier a climb far ahead of its time. The Direct Route, also known as the Argentine Variation, was first climbed in 1961 by Bravo, Bellomio and Liebich, all members of the Club Andino Tucuman in Argentina. Anyway, it was to be a great challenge for all of us. In the evening, we all got headaches since we were really high and had not followed our initial schedule of two carries. But aspirin and Diamox (medication against altitude sickness) made us feel much better.
January 2: Camp 2
We did not gain much sleep, maybe 3 or 4 hours for all night. It was really cold during the night, and the steam coming off our sleeping bags had condensed on the inside part of the tent and instantly frozen. So we woke up with a thin layer of ice on the sides of the tent, which started melting on our sleeping bags as the sun rose and warmed up the tent? After some more rest, we had lunch outside and Fred and I went for a walk on the base of the Glacier despite the cold wind. The view from Camp 2 on the other summits eastward was just amazing. Down under us, steep valleys were leading to different glaciers, some steep and narrow, some others wide and flatter. Snowy peaks emerged at the top of these glacier basins. We were so high that these peaks seemed small comparatively to Aconcagua, but they were all for sure above 5000m. One of them struck us as very similar to Alpamayo, famous for its iceflutes, as its south face was striped with long couloirs of ice separated by vertical rock bands. In the horizon, we could see two very high and massive peaks, based on a same extraordinarily wide glacier that spread out for miles. We observed for a while the Direct Route going up along the right bank of the Polish Glacier, noticing the different possible approaches avoiding the penitentes at the base of the Glacier. We tried to memorize the route as much as possible, since people had told us that once on the Glacier, it was so huge that it was easy to get somehow lost from the tracks. Then we walked up above our camp on the Glacier to the southern boundary of the Glacier, where huge seracs hung hundreds of meters above the valley of the East Glacier. We could get an idea of the thickness of the Glacier at this place, and admire the blue-ice seracs. We felt so small compared to this gigantic Glacier. We had decided to leave the next evening around 2 am if the conditions allowed us to do so.
January 3: Camp 2
In the evening of January 2, the wind started to blow really strongly. The tent was shaken all the time and it was very hard to get any sleep. We had scheduled to wake up around midnight, to have breakfast and start melting water. But when we woke up at this time, despite a clear sky, the wind was so violent that we decided not to go. The temperature also got down dramatically in the tent to a low of -20C. We computed that the equivalent temperature outside with the wind was below -50C. I realized then that we had been really wise in deciding not to go? Fred got a bit cold in his sleeping bag and asked to go in the middle, between Pedro and me. I realized with horror in the morning that my air mattress was flat and had a hole, but I could not repair it as the glue of the repair kit was unusable. This day was a day of frustration for all of us. We had been so ready to go the night before, and we had to delay our hopes until the next night. We had only 4 possible days for a summit ascent: what if the weather really got bad ? It could last for more than 4 days. We talked to some other guys at Camp 2, who thought that a cold front was arriving, which meant a radical change of weather. I must admit that I was worried at this point, especially when clouds arrived in the afternoon and it started to snow. At some point, it was snowing really hard and Fred, who was looking outside the tent every 5 minutes, looked disgusted by the weather. As a matter of fact, we all were, and I did not give us any chance of leaving the next night for the summit. We went to bed early, around 7 pm, with the alarm clock scheduled to ring at midnight. I did not think about the summit at all, unlike the night before, and I managed to get a decent sleep. But then, around 11 pm, I was awakened by Pedro who had heard the wind die. He had taken a look out of the tent and told us: "There?s no clouds !". I could not believe it as I was still half asleep, but I got completely awake when Fred said: "We go !".