November 16th 2009. I am in the middle of the Southern Ocean on my way back from Antarctica on Ski Cruise. I have been in South America for almost a month, getting in ski shape for a few weeks road tripping in Chile and then ski touring the 7th continent, carting insane amounts of gear through more airports and bus stations that I care to remember. My intention was leave Ushuaia and join a group of 4 others to climb and ski the Polish Glacier on Aconcagua. As is the nature of travel, skiing, and well, life, things change – my connection to the original group had disintegrated. I took a minute to do a personal check-in, exercising my commitment to make everything in life as positive and constructive as I can. Do I feel like sulking around South America being bummed out that it didn’t happen? No. Do I feel like walking away from Aconcagua? Well, no. I had already made the sacrifices to be there – I may as well give it a go . . . what did I really have to lose?
So, I continued on my original plan to Mendoza, but decided to spend an acclimatization week in Vallecitos, Mendoza before heading over to Penitentes and into Aconcagua. Originally, one of the guides from Antarctica was going to have time to kill before guiding his own Aconcagua trip and it seemed more appealing to acclimatize and ski with company. As it turned out, he decided to go home for Thanksgiving instead, but I had already gotten my head around the idea and decided to do it as a solo trip instead. Over the past few years, I have slowly integrated solo wilderness travel and backcountry days into my program and I realized I was totally capable of pulling it off . . . so off I went.
Csaba, Pablo, and Juancho Salta . . . en route to Vallecitos. Csaba was a Dutch-Hungarian I’d met that morning in my hostel (and who wanted to spend some time in the mountains), Pablo was my transport driver and a good friend of the Refugio caretakers, and Juancho Salta was a folk singer from Salta who was kind enough to play guitar and sing for us upon our arrival!
Vallecitos turned out to be an awesome experience. I stayed two nights at the Refugio San Bernardo, doing an acclimatization hike to 4200m Cerro San Bernardo and then heading up to Campo Piedra Grande (3600m) and then on to Campo Salto de Agua (4200m) at the base of 5318m Cerro Rincon and 5435m Cerro Vallecitos. I had intended to ski the SuperCanaleta off Rincon, but it was totally burnt out and certain death to enter, so I started looking elsewhere, eventually finding a truly beautiful couloir off the shoulder of Cerro Vallecitos that looked downright delicious.
Csaba at dinner the first night – mmm mmm good!
Me on top of Cerro San Bernardo – pretty good terrain for earlier in the year!!!!
Sunset from my camp at Piedra Grande – this was such a relaxing night – I went to the creek to get water and just sat there, looking around and taking in the beautiful light . . . then perched at a rock in front of my tent for another contemplation session . . . I have memories of this being as content and peaceful as I’d been in awhile . . . it just felt good to be there.
Leaving Piedra Grande, headed to Campo Salto de Agua which is at the top of the morraine on the left. Cerro Vallecitos and Cerro Rincon (with the supercanaleta just over my left ski) are in the distance.
Chillin with the Slovakians at Salto de Agua . . . intially they were a little antisocial, but we got to be friends more and more each day . . . we eventually had a great re-union on Aconcagua at Plaza Argentina that warmed my heart, having gone from the first day when I could barely get a “hello” to a warm meeting of hugs and cheers . . .
It took me two days of poking around the surrounding areas to convince myself that the run went (it had a pretty choked exit) and that I trusted it enough to jump in and ski it. Where I landed was that the line was a total no-fall zone, period. The reality was that having a partner added a modicum of safety, but the reality is that I had no place in the line without total confidence in both myself and the snowpack. I had also made friends with an Argentine and Slovakian group at camp who would be on the main Vallecitos route and had offered to be my accountability parties. Really though, it was my deal . . .
A view of my my line from below . . .
The day I finally went up was actually the one I had intended to hike out, thinking that I needed to get over to Penitentes if I was really going to go to Aconcagua. But, after two days of nuking winds (having literally been blown over at the col), this particular morning was calm and beautiful. I had to give it one last try. So, up I went. I had a skin track and bootpack up the glacier to the col and made good time (considering the altitude), transitioning to the super-sonic trail from there to the summit . . . summer routes are rad! The wind didn’t abate nearly as much as I’d hoped, but the reality was that it wasn’t really a hazard as I would just get blown into the hillside ultimately landing on the trail . . . I could handle that concept, was warm enough, and had energy so I kept going.
The Argentine crew on the way out of camp. These guys had been super great entertainment at camp. Acclimatization leaves a decent amount of downtime, so we definitely had some good chatting, mate, picada-eating and laughing sessions 🙂
About 4 hours after leaving camp, I was on the summit, staring across the lovely Andes at Aconcagua, the great stone sentinel, himself. I would like to say I was moved and inspired, but mostly I was cold and curious about the couloir. I had looked down it on my way up, deciding it looked pretty darn good . . . so down the ridge I went, back to the entrance.
Token summit shot – Cerro Vallecitos (5435m – 17,664 ft)
Thankfully, the little entrance “col” was somehow protected from the wind that had been blasting me for awhile (I think wind really messes with your head!) and I could put my gear on in peace, knowing that it’s a completely different mindset to look down a run with ski gear on than without . . . so I transitioned peacefully, breathing deeply and taking it all in. I knew I was going for it and was getting in the space to do so. Before entering, I made a quick acknowledgement that it was Thanksgiving in the old USofA and quietly gave thanks for all the experiences and people that had brought me here, for the strength to have made it, and a little pre-thank you to the universe for letting me ski the line safely! And then I dropped in.
I can’t say I skied the line like a rockstar, having acknowledged that the highest risk was likely getting sluffed off the line, but rather a few turns at a time, making sure I stayed in total ski control and independent of any moving snow, moving from “safe” zone to safe zone . . . the snow went through a few transitions, from wet spring snow to super cold wind buffed snow to classic Argentine placa, finally transitioning to corn at the crux of the exit and into the apron. I made it through the crux without issue, crossed the bergshrund with a little air, and made some fun GS “I’m not dead!” celebration turns on the apron, finally returning to my skin track in utter elation that I had skied the line safely! It was an interesting moment – I don’t think I’ve ever really done something like that and was super overwhelmed and full of gratitude, amazement, and to some extent disbelief!
Looking down the line, feeling pretty good 🙂
I skied back to camp and took a few quiet moments, realizing that nobody else there were skiers and wouldn’t really understand the magnitude of what had just happened. Heck, maybe even skiers wouldn’t understand . . . I have no idea. All I know is that I had pushed my own limits, extended my own personal boundaries a bit, and was tasting the sweetness of having worked with my fear, used my experience, and managed to do something super cool, returning with full integrity of body and gear!
One last look back up before I went around the corner to camp and out of sight of the line . . . full of emotion, mostly adrenaline leftovers!
So, after a short rest, I packed up and headed back to the Refugio San Bernardo
to organize my junk show (which I learned the translation for that night: quilombo) and head to Penitentes the next day. I knew there would be at least one other ski party on the mountain and the Slovakian group from Vallecitos was headed that way a few days after me, also intending to climb the Polish, so I had a good feeling I’d work something out. But, at the same time, I was still ridiculously full of doubt and in the full practice of suspending that doubt. I had decided that I owed it to myself to at least walk into base camp, but was giving myself permission to call it there and walk back out totally satisfied if that’s what made sense.
After some lovely journaling and relaxing, I was ready to cart my super heavy pack down the mountain . . . was a bit of a bummer not to be able to ski down, but such is life! I had some good thoughts, met some more fun Argentines at the camps below, and made it back to the refugio for some quality time with the caretakers, who had pretty much become family at this point.
Stay tuned, more to come!!!!