Aconcagua via the Polish Glacier Direct

02 Jan 2005 to 12 Jan 2005
Bill Geist, Chris Horley, Aron Ralston and me
Our luggage arrived 6 days late forcing us to race up the mountain. Bill came down with severe HAPE at basecamp and was evacuated. Chris, Aron and I continued up to the summit in great weather.
We all intended to do the Polish Glacier Direct (50 degree ice/snow) but with Bill's HAPE incident, Chris summitted via the Falsh Polish Traverse while Aron and I still climbed the direct.

At 22,840 feet Aconcagua is the highest mountain in South America and the highest mountain outside of the Himalaya. Aconcagua is located in the country of Argentina only a few miles from the border of Chile. It is about 90 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean. The normal route on the mountain is non-technical and is a demanding high altitude scree hike. The second most common route on the mountain is the Polish Glacier on the northeast side of the mountain. On the Polish Glacier there are three routes, the standard Polish Glacier route ascending the eastern-most edge of the glacier, the variation that winds through the crevasses and seracs in the middle of the glacier and the direct route which ascends a straight line up the western side of the glacier between the seracs in the middle and the rocks on the west side. The direct route generally involves roughly 3000 feet of 55-65 degree snow and ice that is commonly protected with ice screws and pickets and offers a direct and clean line up the glacier. This was our planned route. With this report I hope to give information to other would-be Aconcagua climbers about logistics, costs and schedule.
Getting There
Traveling to Aconcagua involves flying to Mendoza, Argentina. We flew from New Mexico to Atlanta to Santiago, Chile and then to Mendoza, Argentina. We flew Delta Airlines to Santiago and LAN Chile Airlines to Mendoza. Our roundtrip airfare was roughly $1300. Mendoza is a modern city with some wonderful architecture and friendly people. Very comfortable. From Mendoza we arranged private transport with an Aconcagua outfitter, Grajales, for the three hour drive to Penitentes and Punta de Vacas, the trailhead for the Polish Glacier route. The roundtrip private transport cost was $220 USD for our group. Split four ways this was reasonable for us. From Punta de Vacas is it very common to have mules transport the group gear to the basecamp for the Polish Glacier, Plaza Argentina (13,800 feet). We hired mules through Grajales as well and paid about $280 USD each way for the group. Once at Plaza Argentina we climbed the mountain in expedition fashion carrying loads up one day and then moving up to the higher camp the next day.
Monday, December 27th
We arrived in Mendoza in the evening to find out that our luggage had not arrived. However, Chris had flown American Airlines and his luggage had arrived. We were assured our bags would arrive the next day which wasn’t a problem as we had scheduled a day in Mendoza anyhow, so met up with our Grajales-arranged transport and went to our hotel, the El Portal Suites. The El Portal was a very nice hotel that cost us $55 per night per room double occupancy. This place was wonderful and if you are looking for nice lodging to skip the hostel scene, I recommend it. It is also quite centrally located with numerous mountaineering shops, grocery stores, banks and restaurants a short walk away.
Tuesday, December 28th
Assuming our baggage would arrive later that day, we took a taxi to the Aconcagua Provincial Parque office in Mendoza to purchase our climbing permits. After riding in the taxi we realized it is not necessary to take a taxi and one can walk to the park office within 30 minutes. Oh well, it was a cheap taxi ride. We went at 8am and beat the big guided groups to the office which helped our cause. Permits cost $300 USD per person and we were required to go to the bank, a very specific bank a few blocks away, to pay the fee. We then returned to the permit office, showed our receipts and had our permits in hand. Later that day we took a taxi to the airport only to find out our bags had not arrived that day. We were told they would be here the next day. Bummer—the baggage delay is cutting into our mountain climbing schedule now. We had planned to start climbing on Wednesday, Dec. 29th.

At the Aconcagua permit office.

Wednesday, December 29th
There are two flights daily that arrive in Mendoza from Santiago, Chile--one at 11:20am and one at 6:40pm. We would become quite familiar with this schedule. We took a taxi twice daily to the airport in hopes of our baggage arriving. On this day, both of Bill’s bags arrived and one of my bags arrived. Neither of Aron’s bags had arrived. We spent the rest of the day walking around Mendoza and purchased white gas, bencina blanca, from the Pire mountain shop on Civit Avenue.
Thursday, December 30th
Now two days behind schedule we had high hopes of our luggage arriving this day and made the morning trip to the airport only to be denied again. This time Aron and I were given $50 USD each by LAN Chile for the inconvenience. A nice gesture but we were getting concerned. However, we happened to run into our friend Janet Lightburn whom we had climbed Denali with in 2003 at the airport so that was a pleasant surprise. She had tried to climb the normal route but had gotten sick and didn’t get higher than 6000m. At this point we began discussing the idea of Bill and Chris starting up the mountain the following day to start acclimatizing. They had all their gear and there was no point in them waiting with Aron and I. Aron and I would try to catch up with them as soon as our gear arrived. If our gear did not arrive by Sunday we would rent the equipment we were lacking and still try to catch up with them. We settled on that plan.
Friday, December 31st
Bill and Chris departed Mendoza at 8am with plans to hike from Punta de Vacas through the first camp, Pampa de Lenas, to the second camp, Casa Piedras, at 10,500 feet, to make up a bit of time. Aron and I made the two daily trips to the airport again and again returned to the hotel empty handed. This was getting frustrating and expensive as we did not plan to spend so many nights in the hotel and were really itching to start our climb. We were again told our luggage would arrive the following day. On the bright side we were in the city for New Years Eve and made the best of it by going out with a group of British climbers we had met for a night of way too much steak and wine consumption. (The ironic thing is, I never really drink wine but found myself consuming quite a bit that week.)

The daily ritual of killing time at the airport waiting for our baggage.

Saturday, January 1st
Happy New Year! And it was truly a happy near year as the rest of our baggage arrived on the morning flight that day. We were very excited and even took a bottle of wine to the LAN Chile representative, Carina, who had been putting up with us all week. We spent the afternoon packing and getting ready to leave the following morning to Punta de Vacas, five days behind schedule and a few days behind Chris and Bill.
Sunday, January 2nd
We left the hotel in Mendoza with our Grajales driver, Mauricio (a.k.a. Pollo), at 7am and arrived in Penitentes around 9:45am. There Grajales weighed our bags, we paid for our mule transport and then were transported the short drive to Punta de Vacas (7800 feet) to finally begin our climb. We were stoked. It felt great to be outside, looking up the valley and knowing we now had a purpose and a goal. If the weather and health were on our side, we could still summit the mountain. We began hiking at 10:30am with the intent of hiking through both lower camps, Pampa de Lenas and Casa Piedras, straight to basecamp, Plaza Argentina. We realized this idea of ascending 6,000 feet and covering roughly 22 miles in one day might be a bit much but nothing ventured, nothing gained. The one problem with this plan was that the mules could only make it to Casa Piedras that day so we were forced to carry our own sleeping bags and pads with us. After 7 miles we arrived at Pampa de Lenas (8,800 feet) at 2pm. We checked in with the ranger there and received our numbered trash bags that we would have to check out at the end of our trip. There is a spring running through a hose at Pampa de Lenas and we drank heavily from the spring without treating the water. It was a hot day and we needed to hydrate. At 3pm we began the next leg of the hike to Casa Piedras. We crossed the Vacas river on a nice bridge just upstream of the Pampa de Lenas camp. From here on, the hiker’s trail stays on the right side of the river all the way to Casa Piedras. At this point the hike began to feel like a death march of sorts. The temperature was reaching 100 degrees, the air was supremely dry and we were pooping out. We pushed on and celebrated as the sun got lower in the sky and shade began to engulf us. We reached the Casa Piedras camp (10,500) at 8:00pm. It was here that we got our first view of the mountain. It was magnificent, yet intimidating as the Polish Glacier looked steep and very long from this vantage. We also noticed some huge plumes of spin drift blowing near the summit. But we now had a large sign to beckon us up the Relinchos valley.

Aron hiking the hot, desert-like trail in the Vacas valley.

We were both wearing trail running shoes and opted to just ford the Vacas river with our shoes on. We crossed the river and headed up the Relinchos valley towards the stone sentinel. It was getting dark and by the light of our headlamps we ended up crossing the Relinchos river more than was necessary but pressed on as long as we could. We were fading fast now in the dark with cold feet and little water and after hiking about three or four miles up the valley we came to the conclusion that we would not be making it to basecamp that night. So at 11:30pm we called it quits for the day at 12,400 feet, laid our bags out and got some much needed sleep.
Monday, January 3rd
We awoke around 6:45am to some wonderful sunrise light on Aconcagua and took many photos. As is Aron’s habit, he went back to sleep and slept in until 8am or so. I was up well before that enjoying the surroundings and anxious to finish the hike to reunite with Bill and Chris. We started hiking at 9am and I turned on the jets a bit as I was ready to reach basecamp and get some rest.

Aron hiking the last bit towards basecamp on Monday morning. The Polish Glacier can be seen very well on Aconcagua from here.

We arrived at the Plaza Argentina basecamp (13,800) at 11:30am. We actually beat our mules, they arrived an hour after we did! We located Bill and Chris’ tent and saw that they were up making a carry to camp 1. So we setup our tent nearby and went for some water. There is a spring fed through a hose near the medical tent but we were also informed of a nice spring in the middle of the Relinchos river about 100 yards from our tent. We again did not worry about treating the water as we were told it was good. Around 2:00pm Chris got down from the camp and informed us that Bill was not doing well. Apparently Bill had been feeling weak that morning but continued to carry. At 15,500 feet, Bill realized he was coming down with some symptoms of HAPE and turned around. Chris had carried successfully to camp 1 (16,300). When Bill arrived back at camp we could hear the crackling in his lungs and knew that he did indeed have HAPE. However, Bill had experienced some light HAPE on Denali a couple years ago and, with the aid of diamox and rest, had overcome the HAPE and was able to summit. So Bill took some diamox and went to the tent to rest. However, later that afternoon he symptoms worsened and he decided to see the doctor stationed there at basecamp. Bill’s blood oxygen level was 48 percent and his pulse was high. The doctor commented that he had not ever seen an O2 level that low and immediately put Bill on oxygen. It was then determined Bill would need to be evacuated via helicopter the next day. I cooked up some dinner for Bill and Bill spent the night in the ranger’s hut so the doctor could monitor him and administer oxygen if necessary.

Tuesday, January 4th
Happy birthday, Bill. However the morning was not so happy for Bill. The helicopter came in around 8am to pick up Bill and another female climber. We talked with Bill about his plans and he was supportive of us continuing our climb and he would head down to Patagonia for some low altitude hiking while we continued to climb Aconcagua and meet us in Mendoza on January 14th.

Bill gives us the “thumbs up” as he boards the helicopter.

It was very upsetting to see Bill leaving the mountain like that and some tears were shed by all in our group. As Bill is my close climbing partner it was particularly difficult for me to watch him leave. From here on out, the climb would not be the same and would be lacking a major component. Well, we were behind schedule so rather than take a rest day, Aron and I made a carry to camp 1 while Chris took a rest day. We covered the 2500 vertical feet in 2.5 hours and descended back to basecamp in 1.5 hours. As we justified it, we still had the afternoon to rest!
Wednesday, January 5th
Chris was ready to move up to camp 1 and Aron and I felt good so we departed camp around 10:30am and began our move up to camp 1. The trail up from basecamp to camp 1 quickly enters a narrow gully where the Relinchos river flows through. We witnessed a small flash flood through the gully just moments before we entered the gully. Some ice or rock above must have finally given way to the building force. This made the narrow gully section a bit more dicey but we managed. We stopped at 15,500 feet to raid Bill’s cache and were impressed with the food and candy he had brought up. Thanks Bill! After ascending a few hundred feet of snow field just below camp 1, we arrived at camp 1 at 2:30pm. We found water running in a small stream out of a snow field just below camp. Again we were told it was unnecessary to treat the water so we did not. Camp 1 was a nice camp on a shelf overlooking the Relinchos valley with a great view up the rest of the mountain.

Aron and Chris moving to camp 1. The Polish Glacier is seen in semi-profile in the background.

Thursday, January 6th
The night had been calm with a great view of a distant lightning storm. The lightning show was so impressive that I actually looked forward to going outside the tent to pee! We decided we were still feeling good so Chris, Aron and I made a carry to camp 2 (19,300). It was exciting to be nearing the Polish Glacier and as we got higher and closer we could see the direct route was in great shape. Very little glare and good looking snow. I couldn’t say the same for the standard Polish Glacier as it appeared to have a ton of glare ice on it. It definitely wasn’t in shape and while the direct is renowned for being more difficult, it was obviously the better line this season. We left camp 1 around 9:00am and arrived at camp 2 around 12:30pm. The weather was clear but very windy once we reached the ridge at 17,500 feet or so all the way to camp. We wanted to camp at the smaller camp 2 in the rocks at the base of the Polish Glacier but did not find any available sites. We talked with one group that was planning on leaving the next day so we cached our stuff next to their site hoping it would be available when we moved up. Despite it taking 3.5 hours to ascend to camp 2, it only took us 35 minutes to take the scree train back down to camp 1.
Friday, January 7th
Finally, a rest day! The night was super windy and sleep was not exactly plentiful. We later learned the same winds we experienced over night blew apart a Grajales gear storage tent at basecamp. Big time winds! We spent the day reading and relaxing. It was a cloudly, cool and windy day—a perfect day to be resting!
Saturday, January 8th
Time to move up. We departed shortly before 11am under a clear and mostly calm sky. I started out slow but started feeling good and started making some good time. I met a Polish solo hiker who was also hiking quickly so we paced each other informally and ascended the 3000 vertical feet to camp 2 in 3 hours. I was very pleased to be sustaining a 1000’/hour rate above 16,000 feet with a full load on my back. The wind was much less this day than the day we carried to camp 2. We were able to score a fantastic two-tent site in the rocks at camp 2 at the base of the Polish Glacier. We were able to get water from numerous small pools at the base of the glacier. These pools freeze up overnight but in the mid-afternoon they are plentiful. The day was absolutely beautiful with nearly no wind, warm sun and great views all around! I enjoyed some time resting in a natural stone chair atop one of the rocks by our camp. It was great to be there and stare up the Polish Glacier. From this vantage, the glacier looked very foreshortened and it looked like one could cruise up it in no time. But then I thought back to the view of the glacier from below basecamp and realized it is MUCH longer than it looked from camp 2. The weather forecast rumor was for the next day to be beautiful with some weather starting to move in in two days. So we had a group pow-wow and decided that we’d make a summit attempt the next day to take advantage of the good weather. Chris decided he would take the false Polish traverse over to the normal route to the summit while Aron and I would head up the Polish Direct as planned.
Sunday, January 9th
I slept like crap. Weird dreams, intermittent sleeping spells and anxiety about heading for the summit kept me from getting much quality sleep. We awoke at 5am and started getting ready. It was, by most standards, a late start but with the sun not setting until nearly 9pm we knew we had lots of daylight and I wouldn’t mind letting the snow on the glacier warm up. At 6am we wished Chris good luck and he headed up. I was ready by 6am but it took Aron another hour to get fully ready so I did what I could to keep myself warm and motivated. A little after 7am we stepped foot on the glacier, strapped on our crampons and tied into our 8mm, 25m rope.
Looking up the Polish Glacier at sunrise on summit day. The Polish Direct takes a straight line up the glacier staying just left of the rocks but right of the seracs in the middle of the glacier.

We started out slow and it was obvious that Aron was feeling a bit weak. After climbing the first 1000 vertical feet, we stopped in the glacier and discussed the situation. Aron said that it was not his day and he was feeling very weak. I empathized with him but told him I was feeling pretty good. He talked about descending and I talked about continuing up the route solo as conditions were very good looking. We decided to ditch his backpack, extra gear, SLR camera and 8-pound NBC-issue Sony digital video camera at that point and throw his stuff into my pack so he could continue with just a small hip pack. We carried on. Things were going slow, a couple hours for the first 1000 vertical feet, but the snow was fantastic, the weather beautiful and the view increasing in magnitude with each step. By 11am we had passed by the first bit of rocks while kicking good steps in the snow.

Passing through the first small rock band with very good snow conditions.

Two hours later, ~1pm, we reached the first major crux of the route, an area we called the “bottleneck” around 21,100 feet, where the seracs in the middle of the glacier butted up against the first major rock band. It was here that we expected to run into some major ice. However, after placing a picket and a screw, I poked around the corner and looked up into the tight chute to find more good snow and only a bit of ice. We broke out our ice tool here so that we were climbing with an alpine axe in one hand and a ice tool in the other hand. I lead on through this section to some better snow and gave Aron a short boot/axe belay through it. Looking up we saw more good snow interrupted by a handful of 10-20 foot sections of good alpine ice. I lead off again and placed a screw for running protection in each of the short sections of ice. By this time though the steep angle of the snow and lack of good rest spots was taking its toll on us and we were moving very slow. Take a step, take four rest breaths, take another step. It was a good rhythm but it was slow. Around 22,000 feet, Aron and I took a short break and started climbing side by side as we were beginning to traverse to the left to pass the upper rock band on the eastern side. At one point our rope became pretty stuck on some sastrugi snow as a result of us traversing and climbing next to each other so I opted to untie for the most efficient means of “unsticking” the rope. Aron then continued on up past the rock band and up to the ridge with me following behind. This last little bit to the summit ridge was very difficult physically and mentally but I was very excited to be reaching the ridge and knew that would perk me up mentally. BUT...once on the ridge at 22,300 feet, I had a view of how much more we had to go to the summit and could count at least two false summits between us and where the summit would be another 500 feet higher. UGH! So we snacked and gathered our gumption and set off on the ridge trudge to the summit. It was slow going and often times I would close my eyes for 20 or 30 steps at a time listening to the sound of Aron’s crampons as my guide. At times the snow would settle under my crampons a half inch and that little bit of extra work seemed like the worst thing that could possibly happen! Mentally I felt like I was in a sleepy, dream state. The kind of feeling one gets after two or three beers. Odd. And then, finally, we were there! 5:10pm and we were on the summit. Just seven days after leaving the city of Mendoza and 10 hours after starting from camp 2, we were on the top of South America and what a beautiful view! There was no wind, the temperature was around 15 degrees F and the sun was shining. Beautiful! We spent about 30 minutes on top taking photos of a group of 5 British climbers there and signing in the register. Looking at the South Face of Aconcagua we imagined we had just climbed something like that but in reality we were nowhere close!

Aron and I on the summit. Big time stoke!

Then it was time to descend. From the stories I had heard about the Canaletta (normal route) and its loose rock, I wasn’t looking forward to the descent but it had to be done. It was a sketchy, loose rock descent indeed but certainly easier to descend than it would have been to ascend. I was still tired and found myself resting quite a bit on the descent but we located the traverse back to camp 2 and were back to camp 2.5 hours after leaving the summit. We were beat and I slept like a baby that night for sure!
Monday, January 10th
We packed up and limped down to basecamp picking up our remaining gear at camp 1 on the way down. We arrived at basecamp at 6pm too tired to cook so we talked with Gizella at the Grajales tent and she cooked us steak dinner with papas fritas for dinner that night for $20 USD each. It was odd but extremely enjoyable to be eating a juicy steak at 13,800 feet!
Tuesday, January 11th
We hiked with our sleeping bags and pads down to Pampa de Lenas and slept under the stars that night. Our mules carrying our gear down from Plaza Argentina wouldn’t get down until Wednesday afternoon so we hiked leisurely down.
Wednesday, January 12th
We hiked out from Pampa de Lenas in the morning, spent the afternoon in Penitentes awaiting the mules and then had transport back to Mendoza that night for a much needed shower and shave. We still had a few days in Mendoza after being reunited with Bill so we enjoyed some more good food and walking around the city. We also rented mountain bikes one day and did a self-propelled 35km day tour of a couple vineyards, the Museo Del Vino and Vina El Cerno, which was very enjoyable.
Written by Jason Halladay on 01 February 2005.