by Frederic Crampe, Pedro Gonzalez and Eric Wintenberger
PART 1 PART 2 PART 3 PART 4
January 4: Summit day
We immediately got into action, starting to melt some snow to get water. We used the two stoves we had carried in order to go faster. We had a frugal breakfast, as we had had dinner not so long ago. We filled up the Camelbags and bottles with hot water and started to dress up. It was below -20C in the tent, so it is useless to say that we put all our layers on. At 1:30 am we got out of the tent, immediately aware of the freezing cold outside. At least there was no wind at all. We put harnesses and crampons on, finished to prepare our backpacks and we started in direction of the Glacier now glistening slightly in the dark of the night. Unfortunately for us, there was no moon to help us out, so we would have to be careful and use the bearings we had taken on the Glacier, at least until dawn. We started to go up among the icy penitentes, until we found a flatter part. We had decided not to rope up to go faster as long as everybody felt fine soloing the ice slopes. We managed to find our way up to the first rock band barring the right side of the Glacier, along which the Direct Route was lying. The slope increased gradually, and just below this first rock band, we entered a very steep part after realizing that we had to cross to the left. We would later notice that we could have avoided it by pushing to the left, but in the dark of the night, we just climbed it. This part was not very long, but scary as it was an ice slope of over 60 degrees. What made it even scarier is that just before, Pedro's and Fred's headlamps had died, probably because of the cold. I had to light them up perpetually as I was climbing, praying for my headlamp not to die. Despite all that, we managed to overcome this first tough obstacle, and rested thankfully at the top of the rock band. After this challenge, we agreed unanimously to rope up. We had been climbing for maybe 4 hours, and we were already very tired. The sun started to radiate its first rays towards us at the horizon, and we became more aware of our position on the Glacier. The first seracs hung threateningly right across in the Middle of the Glacier. We looked up towards the slopes covered with fresh snow above us. We still had a very long way to go. Pedro shared his water with us, as Fred's and mine had frozen two minutes after we left the tent ! It was really cold, as dawn is usually the coldest time. My feet felt a bit numb, I tried to wiggle my toes. My hands felt fine. We tried to eat, but the Powerbars that we had brought were so frozen that it was like trying to eat a piece of steel? Fortunately, we had a few glucose pills that gave us some more energy.
We started again, roped up this time. I began leading, we were simul-climbing at this stage, the slope was around 45 degrees. However, it became soon steeper and we started to set up belay stations. The climb was hard, as we could not use the preexisting tracks which had been filled with fresh snow. So we had to make our own track, and that was exhausting. Climbing at this altitude is definitely a tough challenge, especially when your iceaxes do not bite into the snow at once, and you have to hit several times before it finally holds. I was feeling confident so I started to lead most of the steep pitches. Fred and Pedro were climbing together, and were relaying me for leading several pitches. The scenery of the climb was just awesome: we would look down the slope under us and the base of the Glacier looked so far away, the summits around seemed so small: we felt so high ! We were surrounded by seracs, snow and rocks. The top of the Glacier still looked far away, like an inaccessible goal. The sun started to warm us a little bit, but I did not feel my feet any more, I guess they were really cold. As we would learn later, they actually had started to freeze? Anyway, I kept on climbing, trying to focus on the climb. It was so tiring that I had to rest on my iceaxes every 3 or 4 meters. We were protecting using icescrews whenever possible, or otherwise we would pitch a snowpicket or do dead man anchors. The climb went fine, I guess all the training we had done during the months before paid off. Some sections were steeper than expected: people had told us about 55 degree-slopes, but we now had to face slopes up to 70 degrees.
We climbed all day long, we did not see the hours fly by. Finally we got under the last rock band giving access to the ridge. I went ahead to try to find a way between the rocks, hoping this would be the last pitch before the ridge. However, I quickly realized that we would have to do another long, exhausting pitch. Fred and Pedro joined me and led the last pitch. I belayed them, starting to get cold because of inactivity and exhaustion. They were climbing slowly, in what seemed to me and endless pitch. I just wanted to get out on top of this ridge and head towards the summit. But I knew how tough the climb was in this last pitch, where the snow was knee-high at almost 6800m. At last I could climb as Fred belayed me and I made my way to the ridge. As soon as I arrived, I let myself fall deeply in the snow, a sign of how tired I was. But there were still 2 hours left to the summit. It was already 6 pm, and we had no time to lose if we wanted to make it back to the tent tonight. A German party behind us was in the same case, and they were hurrying at the bottom of the last pitch. I still took the time to admire the view, partially hidden by clouds moving because of the soft wind at the top. The light was beautiful, and the ridge separating the South Face from the Polish Glacier was shining. I began walking to the top, trying to focus on putting one step in front of the other. I felt so tired that I sank on my knees every 50 meters to rest. Now that the tension of the climb was gone, I realized how much energy I had spent and how little we had eaten and drunk. I was not the only one to be in such condition. Fred was resting regularly and Pedro was ahead trying to walk steadily to the summit. After passing too many false summits, I suddenly saw Fred and Pedro waiting for me near a rock section leading to a cross that I recognized as the summit cross ! I could not believe it: that was finally the summit ! At 7:30 pm, after more than 17 hours of climb, we stepped altogether at 6962m on the summit of Aconcagua !
It was a great feeling, mainly of accomplishment, for me. However, night was coming, so we took two quick pictures before heading down towards the Normal Route. I enjoyed the view on the South Summit and the South Face for a couple of minutes before following Pedro and Fred. The way down from the summit was just like hell: a big rockfall, with lots of loose rocks giving way under our tired legs. But we kept on going, driven by the idea of our warm sleeping bags waiting for us. We found our way on the Falso de Los Polacos, going down from the Normal Route and Independencia Hut towards Camp 2, before nighttime. We saw the two Germans behind us near the summit before going down, but we never saw them again after that. The descent was just a story of walking and resting but not for too long as we were falling asleep just sitting down two minutes. It was long and rough for our bodies empty of energy, especially the last crossings of the glaciers full of penitentes, but we finally made it back to the tent. We arrived at the tent at 11 pm, crashing in our sleeping bags after 24 hours of activity.
January 5: Camp 2 - Casa de Piedra
We woke up wrecked at 10 am, but with the rewarding thought that we had made it. We wanted to be down as soon as possible, at least to Base Camp, and maybe further, so as to be back to civilization as soon as possible. We were dreaming about fresh food? So we started moving after checking our feet which, we had noticed the previous night, had frozen and were totally insensitive. We wanted to see the doctor at Base Camp as soon as possible. As we started packing and unpitching the tent, we saw the two German guys arrive. At the beginning, I wondered "Where do these guys come from ?", but then I realized who they were and where they came from. They had very likely spent the night outside, because they could not make it back in time at the tent. They looked really tired and went straight into their tent. I hoped they were fine, but I remembered one of them saying during the climb that he could not feel his feet. Which meant frostbite, just like us. Anyway we hiked down to Base Camp, Fred and Pedro had sore feet, but mine were just totally numb, which was just as well for walking. We arrived at Base Camp around 3 pm and asked for the doctor. He examined our feet and my fingers (also frozen), gave us a bath for the feet and told us to go to the hospital in Mendoza as soon as possible. This implied that we had to keep on walking down, despite our desire to stay there and rest. So we continued our endless walk down until Casa de Piedra, after leaving some equipment that would be carried down by mule. The doctor wanted us to go down lighter than with our 30-odd kg backpacks. We arrived there at dusk, set up the tent and went to sleep.
January 6: Casa de Piedra - Punta de Vacas - Mendoza
Waking up at 6 am was not easy after the two very tiring days we had had, but we needed to do so if we were to be in time to catch the collectivo to Mendoza. Before leaving, I caught my last glimpse of the Polish Glacier, lit by the rising sun. Then we left, avoiding the crossing of the Rio Vacas by going down its right side. However, the trail proved to be a nightmare, as it was going through rocks and rocks and rocks, which were giving a miserable life to our sensible feet. We kept on hiking until we reached Pampa de Las Lenas after 5 hours of walking. There we were greeted by the rangers who had been warned of our coming. They were really nice and gave us drinks. We took the opportunity of putting our feet into the air, immediately becoming the local attractions. People asked us questions about the route, etc? We stayed there for an hour or so, and then moved down reluctantly. Another long 4 hours led us to Punta de Vacas where we arrived exhausted. Taking my shoes off, I realized that my left toe was not in the best shape ever, making me want to be in Mendoza really quickly...
After some more trouble, we managed to get into a bus direction Mendoza, where we arrived around 10 pm. We then took a cab straight to the hospital where we arrived in our long-worn smelly clothes... The doctors took care of us and we could finally relax after learning that we would keep our dear toes. Not that this thought came to my mind on the way down...
Anyway, after that awaited us a good shower, more than necessary after 12 days of continuous activity, and a good meal. The next day, we went to celebrate with pleasure in Mendoza. Back to civilization, we were now just happy to have made it and we would bring back with us great memories of this climb, along with some other souvenirs named "frostbites"...