In February 2005, together with fellow climber Vanessa Wills from Australia, we formed a small independent two person team to attempt to ascend the Polish Glacier direct route on Aconcagua, then traverse the mountain and descend the normal route. Aconcagua is a huge mountain, the tallest in South America and lies in Argentina. Its summit is as 6970m ASL.
There is a standard route up it which the majority of people walk up. This route is a non-technical scree plod. We descended this route. It would be very physical to climb up it due to the scree and rock, however it is not a mountaineering route, more like a hill walk, and not at all nice. If you have any mountaineering skill, please don’t settle for the normal route, it a boring, crowded plod and not a ‘climb’ as such.
We had chosen the Polish Glacier Direct route. (Not to be confused with a route called the ‘Polish Traverse’ or the ‘False Polish” which heads up to the base of the Polish Glacier then shoots off around to the side linking with the normal route to the summit – hence entirely missing the Polish Glacier).
We hired a mule to take one duffel of gear shared between us into basecamp. We had chosen to acclimatise in an area away from Aconcagua itself before the trip. This was so that when we arrived on Aconcagua we could climb more quickly on the mountain. Without the need for so many boring rest days waiting to acclimatise. I always prefer an active acclimatisation strategy. If possible I like to travel to a different area away from my main objective beforehand, and acclimatise climbing smaller peaks. The area we acclimatised in was called Vallecitos – you can read more about the 4 peaks we acclimatised on here.
We did the normal 3 day walk up the Vacas Valley into basecamp in 2 days. This was because we were fit and acclimatised, but also because our gear went up the wrong valley the first day by mule (the muleteer’s mistake) and we lost a day waiting for it to come back again. When it did come back my duffel bag was completely ripped open. The muleteers treat your gear rough so be warned!
Our climb went pretty smoothly – here was our itinerary
Day One: Walk up the Vacas Valley to Casa Piedra
Day Two: Walk to Base camp – Plaza Argentina
Day Three: Load carry to Camp one – back down to Plaza Argentina to sleep
Day Four: Move up to Camp one
Day Five: Load carry up 500m and dump gear in a cache, overnight in camp one
Day Six: Climb to Camp two, overnight in camp two
Day Seven: Drop back down to pick up load dumped on day five, overnight at camp 2
Day Eight: Rest Day at camp 2 – walk up to base of Polish Glacier and scope the route
Day Nine: Early start, around 4AM – climb Polish Glacier direct – take rope and ice climbing gear but end up soloing the entire route. Mainly good snow and ice which steepens to a crux near the top of the ridge. I estimate it to be about 60 degrees at the top. Getting through two rock bands on the way up is the most fun with a few mixed moves on rock and ice required. It got very soft between the rock bands which was a real struggle to get through. The last 200m to the ridge is steep but lucky it was hard snow which was ideal for step kicking. Very tired once we got onto the summit ridge for the last long trudge up to the summit. I go some mild Ataxia as I descended and kept losing my balance and falling over coming down the Canaleta. 14.5 hour day round trip when we reached camp. Overnight camp two.
Day Ten: Packed up camp – planned to cross to normal route and descend to Basecamp on normal route: Plaza de Argentina. Got caught in a very cold blizzard after one hour. Ended up setting up emergency camp at the white rocks for the night. I got very cold hands, so Vanessa set the tent-up. My mistake for not putting on warmer gloves more quickly. In the morning I got up first and made tea in the cooking pot. As I sat drinking it Vanessa came out and told me she had to take a piss in that pot during the night during the storm.
Day Eleven: Descended all the way to Plaza de Mulas basecamp, overnight here.
Day Twelve: Hired half a mule to carry one small bag out for us. Walked out all the way to road head and took a bus back to Mendoza. Tired, skinny, dusty and very fit. Then I stocked up on Malbec wine, nectarines, steak and chips, Quilmes beer and Spanish lessons from a very pretty girl for 7 days before heading for the next adventure – an attempt on Mt Tronador.