Skiing Aconcagua via the Polish Glacier is definitely a high point (both figuratively and literally) of my ski mountaineering career! I hiked into Plaza Argentina and, after the snow was too deep on the Polish to climb, traversed to climb the Normal Route and descended by skiing the Polish Glacier in perfect powder!!!
After an awesome week in Vallecitos, I had an interesting transition day through Potrerillos to Penitentes, but managed to arrive by mid-afternoon. It was nice to have some downtime, and I met a cool guy from Australia and hung out with Fernando Grajales a bit . . . both of which helped me build confidence in my program as they’ve spent considerable time on the mountain.
In Penitentes, I organized my mule
and ran into an old friend from Las Lenas
Guest Services (oh how I love the small world of skiing!). The next morning Pablo dropped me off at the trailhead around 10am and I started walking . . . it was pretty nice to be travelling with a light pack and the scenery of the Vacas Valley was quite lovely.
Me and Pablo at the trailhead . . . felt weird when he drove away and I just started walking . . . but the nature of moving is that it’s easy to get a rhythm and the day became pretty pleasant pretty quickly!
The walk actually felt a lot like the Alaska wilderness as it transitioned from trails to the wide open river valley up higher. About 6pm, I arrived at Casa Piedra, having decided to walk directly to the second camp since I was feeling strong and already acclimatized. To my utter joy, the muleteers were cooking an asado that night and the whole camp joined in to enjoy classic Argentine fare, spiced up with new friends, some good laughs, a little wine, and some more Spanish practice. The mule drivers were super awesome – full of life and the Argentine spirit I have come to adore.
Oh, hello skis 🙂
Making progress upriver . . .
Does life get better than a full asado in the wilderness? Good times for sure! Mule-assisted travel definitely allows for some luxury!!
Sunday, I finally started gaining some elevation, hiking up to Plaza Argentina at 4200m. And with that elevation came a marked change in the weather as well, transitioning to the alpine with a proper snowstorm. I feel pretty lame admitting it, but I managed to lose the trail more-or-less within spitting distance of base camp (which is actually kind of hidden around a corner, tucked into a moraine) and spent a chunk of time wandering around in search of it.
Finally, as I was about to turn around and head down (knowing that at least I wouldn’t die of exposure that way, as I had given all my gear to the mules so only had the clothes in my day pack), I spotted camp . . . unfortunately, what I had intended to be somewhat of a rest day had instead turned into a pretty long hike, but all’s well that ends well, and the silver lining was that the base camp staff invited me in for tea and a little recovery which gave me a chance to get to know them a bit . . . Ultimately one of the highlights of the entire Aconcagua experience. I had used Grajales Expeditions for mule support and was truly impressed with the quality of the people who run it – a true joy! They also told me that there were two skiers from Aspen at camp, so I went over to their tent and introduced myself, realizing that we of course had mutual friends, but not staying too long to chat as I had to setup camp, eat, and crash.
The next morning in the cook tent, I ran into one of the Aspen boys, Ollie Nieuwland-Zlotnicki, and he informed me that he and his buddy Anton Sponar (owner/operator of Ski Arpa
, the cat skiing op outside Portillo!) were headed to camp 1 that afternoon, intending to move to camp 2 the next day and summit the 3rd . . . and that I was welcome to join them for as long as it made sense. Not being one to pass up opportunity, especially since the first weather window of the season seemed to be opening up, I decided to get my butt in gear and make it happen . . . who needs rest days anyway?!?! 2.5 hours later, we were headed up to camp 1, arriving within a few hours at 5050m.
Conveniently, I had a 3-person tent, so we found a reasonably protected spot and moved in to start the lovely process of making water . . . oh the joys of high altitude and the need to stay as hydrated as possible. The winds were pretty strong, increasing through the night, and becoming a full-on storm by morning. Given that travel to Camp 2 would have been downright miserable (as would erecting a tent in that kind of wind) and that our radio call indicated that the weather window was shifting out a day, we decided to hunker at Camp 1 and wait it out, ultimately bringing the Jetboil into the tent as the vestibule was filling with snow so badly that everything was getting wet. It was both a miserable and hilarious day, but I was thankful to have a down day both to rest up and to get to know my new climbing companions a little more.
Ollie and I killed time by drawing and coloring . . . look closely and you will see his steak, fries, and avocado with wine 🙂
Thankfully, the next day dawned blue, so we were able to dry things out and make our way to camp 2 in much more pleasant conditions. We arrived in mid-afternoon at the base of the Polish Glacier, my first chance to get a good look at the conditions and get psyched for our attempt in the morning. Much of the caution we’d heard was around blue ice and super alpine conditions, so I was pleasantly surprised to see that it looked pretty filled in and skiable. We spent the afternoon again making water and eating . . . trying to acclimatize, but resting at 5800m really doesn’t come that easily. My resting heart rate was actually a thumping 116 beats per minute!
Me on the way out of camp 1 – the route to Camp 2 goes up to the ridge and behind the pinnacles – the Polish Glacier and the summit can be seen in the distance.
Taking a breather on the way up . . . Ollie and Anton. The Normal Route is just to the looker’s left of Anton and continues more-or-less up the skyline ridge.
Arrival at camp 2 and celebration with Pringles and nacho cheese dip . . . mmmm mmmm good!
Thursday dawned pretty calm, so we were up early and left the tent at 5am . . . the first hour and a half of travel up the Polish was super efficient, making good progress up the wind-hardened sastrugi. We transitioned into deeper snow but were able to continue with decent vertical progress for awhile . . . and then it got deep. Waist deep soft snow. Uggh. Although soft snow, it was super consistent, so our slab avalanche concerns were minimized, but travel was downright painful. It got to the point that, with each step, I would have to pull the snow down from above me to make enough room to use my arms to lift my leg up high enough to put a step in, but ultimately sinking so far that I only made a few inches of upward progress. I kept thinking it had to change. There was no way that the snow could stay this deep all the way to the summit of one of the windiest mountains in the world. But after 3 hours of wallowing, we realized that it was pretty futile and decided to descend. It was a hard decision to make as we had the weather, but we were wasting ourselves in the undertaking and decided it would be much more prudent to make another attempt the next day by using the Polish Traverse route over to the Normal Route and ascending via the backside. So, down we went, realizing that the upside to super deep trail breaking is incredibly fun skiing! The snow skied like a dream, perfectly wind buffed and creamy, and not really even sluffing, despite the 40-45 degree angle of the slope . . . hmmmm, that’s promising! It was another afternoon of making water and eating whatever spare food we had – we were running pretty low on food and fuel, but had enough to make one more day a reality. By the afternoon, the day’s efforts hit me like a freight train . . . I was worked. But, conversations with a Spanish expedition (who had been getting weather reports via sat phone) indicated that the forecast was for partly cloudy, but with continued lower winds, until Saturday when the storm was forecast to come in, so all three of us were committed to giving it a go.
Umm, it’s a little dark to be hiking, no?!? Beautiful morning though, and good progress on the lower glacier!
We may not have made it up, but the skiing was super duper fun! Our camp is just at the toe, and the valley to the looker’s right of the glacier is base camp (Plaza Argentina) and the route back to the Rio Vacas.
Another short night of sleep, having to rise early to make more water, and we left camp at 5am again. The hike was pretty sluggish over to the Normal Route, and the winds on that side were nuking. With the wind chill, I was hiking in all of my layers and still cold. I have never been that cold while moving . . . I am the girl who hikes in a t-shirt even in super cold temps, but instead found myself feeling like the Michelin man with so many puff layers on I could barely see straight! But, much like Vallecitos, the hazard of the wind was one of blowing us over onto the trail, but wasn’t posing a huge risk at that juncture . . . so we kept going. We passed the Independencia Hut and took a quick food/water break, continuing on from there into the canaleta. The winds were nuking on the traverse over to the canaleta, but thankfully we were protected by the rock walls once we got into it . . . giving us the space to chill for a minute and agree on a turnaround time of 3pm. At that point, we were all feeling pretty decent and figured that 3pm would mean we’d leave ourselves a reasonable window to make the 4.5 hour retreat to camp if we needed to. Although all the other travelers on the route had turned around at this point, we kept going. I have thought back to this decision a few times, still not really being able to pinpoint why we continued and I guess it really came down to the fact that we had no reason to stop. Yes, we were tired but that’s just the way it goes when walking up big mountains and we had enough strength to keep going. Yes it was cold and windy, but we were warm enough. Yes there was a lenticular forming on the summit, but we had agreed to walk back off down the trail if it didn’t make sense to try the ski descent. So, it was mostly a case of “why not?” I have decided that the canaleta has to be one of the cruelest jokes of all time, as the last thing that anyone needs while walking up steep slopes in ski boots at almost 7000m is a scree field. One step forward, two steps back, was brutal at this point, but we made it through, up on to the last ridge traverse. At that point, Anton and I agreed this was about as physically taxed as we’d ever been . . . I was at the point I could take about 28 steps and then would have to stop and hyperventilate for a minute. Then I would get this wave over my body that felt a lot like seeing a cute boy (heart flutter, weak in the knees . . .) but slightly less pleasant, and then would transition back to heavy breathing until I was recovered enough to take another 28 steps. Oh the joys of finding one’s physical limits J As it turned out, however, our efforts paid off and at almost 3pm exactly, we topped out on the summit . . . Ollie had arrived first with Anton and I joining shortly thereafter for a group hug (partly to warm up!) and celebration. If the clouds weren’t moving in and the wind feeling like it was picking back up, I probably would have sat up there shedding tears of joy and disbelief over the fact that it had actually worked out and I was somehow standing on the summit with two amazing new friends only 5 days after leaving the road . . . but instead we realized that we really needed to get the heck outta there. So, we quickly got our stuff together, threw on harnesses and glacier gear, snapped a few photos, and clicked into our skis.
Hip hop hooray for making it to the summit!!!!!
A summit celebration . . . 6962m – 22,841 ft!!!
Clicking into skis: what a beautiful experience. In that moment, we went from tired-out hikers to focused skiers . . . the day’s efforts immediately forgotten in the realization of, “hell yes, we’re going skiing!!!!” Having not climbed the direct, we of course had some route finding to do to get over to the Polish Glacier, but had enough remaining visibility to do so, and the beta that the snowy ridge would take us directly there. I led down the ridge and within a few hundred feet saw the familiar landmarks I’d memorized from below, knowing we were there. To our joy, the soft snow we’d wallowed in the day before did actually last all the way to the summit, so were greeted with legitimately good skiing from the first turn. At the top of the line, we investigated the snow and found the same consistency we’d experienced the day before, increasing our confidence in skiing the line. It’s a big face, so we couldn’t really put a solid cut in, but were able to test and probe a bit before committing to the rollover and I was feeling pretty good about it by the time we dropped in. With my nerves building over the changing weather and the continued development of the clouds, I finally looked over at the boys and asked, “do you guys mind if I just go for it?” . . . they responded affirmative, and I was off. Oh sweet powder skiing, how I love you. Oh sweet steep skiing how I love you. Oh sweet steep powder skiing on beautiful glaciated high altitude faces how I truly adore you. I really don’t know how to describe the joy that skiing the Polish in the conditions we found was. It didn’t even feel like I was altitude as I made fast and powerful turns down the face, skiing a solid 500m before I stopped in the realization that I’d already made it to the bottleneck and a reasonably safe zone to pull out and wait for the boys to come down. It was as effortless as skiing gets – perfect wind-buff powder with almost no sluff, even above where the angles were a solid 50-55 degrees . . . insane! I enjoyed my perch, watching as snow poured over glaciated features from the boy’s turns above. They skied it a bit slower to actually stop and take some photos, but we were soon together again on the familiar lower face. At this point, we were starting to relax a lot more. We were out of the clouds and wind, back on the face we knew from the day before, and our slope angle was mellowing substantially. We milked the remaining 500ish meters of sweet pow before our short section of “paying the rent” in the hard sastrugi back to camp. When we arrived at the toe of the glacier, elation took over. We had been making regular radio calls to base camp and had appreciated the support and encouragement of our friends at Grajales and so immediately got the radio out and made the call: “Argentina, Argentina! Equipo Quilombo – hicimos cumbre y bajamos esquiando!!! Woohoo! Hooray!! AAAAAAAHHHHHH!!!!!!!” It is an understatement of the century to say we were excited. So much had gone into the journey for all of us. Those boys had spent 2 weeks tent-bound and load carrying from base camp dealing with super shitty weather and maintained a good attitude and spirit of commitment throughout. I had undergone the doubt of walking in alone and potentially climbing and skiing alone, suspending disbelief that such a miraculous union and successful climb could actually happen . . . and here we were together having pulled it off . . . wow. Back at the tent, we indulged in our remaining food, took a rest, and then packed up to begin the descent to base camp. We had to hike about halfway to camp 1, but could then put the skis back on and ski to within a few hundred meters of base camp when the penitentes got too bad.
Looking down the Polish . . . ummm, boys I think we found the spot!!!
Anton feeling it out . . . that lenticular was making me nervous – I was super glad we made it before it grew too much and the vis closed out!!! Beyond Anton is looking toward the Normal Route and the Plaza de Mulas.
Through the crux and on the lower face below the bottleneck . . . right over Anton’s head base camp
Ollie making it through the bottleneck with beautiful seracs behind him
And then we relaxed a little more . . . look closely to see Ollie in full spread eagle!!! Gotta love that guy 🙂
Equipo Quilombo was in full-effect at this point as our packs were full gypsy-wagon style to accommodate the sundry of gear that had gone up in carries and caches before. When we took off skis, I decided to hang back and walk in slowly, taking the chance to let it all sink in. The night sky was full of stars, the breeze a bit warmer and the air a bit thicker . . . all perfect conditions for daydreaming and reliving the wonder of the previous few days. I actually still can’t believe the series of amazingly fortunate events that came together in support of such an incredible descent. I eventually made it back to base camp to be greeted with hot soup and welcoming smiles from our peeps at Grajales . . . so wonderful to come “home.” Anton and Ollie were determined to get to steak asap and actually organized all their gear and left camp at midnight.
Me with my “gypsy wagon” and the Polish behind me . . . what a day!!!!!
I was all too glad to take a nice restful evening and following day at camp, finally leaving after a hearty lunch and morning of socializing at about 2pm. I ran into my Slovakian friends from Vallecitos as well as the awesome muleteers from the asado on the way in, and enjoyed walking on dry ground again . . . not to mention the fact that I like to wander and chat almost as much as I like to climb and ski.
Me and my muleteer – super cool guy . . . the Grajales base camp tents are in the background
Basecamp . . . the route goes up just to the looker’s right of the peak in the center
Mmmm mmm good – my lunch before heading down to Campo de Lenas . . . super gourmet!!! But, better than the food was the chance to hang out with Gustavo, Veronica, and Tomas before leaving . . . they were so much fun!!!
If only I had seen this sign on the way in . . . 🙂
Suffice it to say I was completely blissed out on the way out . . . my hike in had been in a whiteout, so I relished in the views of the mountain all the way down, taking photos and gazing up at the Polish, still in utter amazement that I had been there the day before, that we had actually made it, and that it skied that well. It’s always so crazy when your dreams just come true right in front of you . . . what do you do with that? I guess you smile, relish in the feelings of deep and utter gratitude, do some headstands, smile some more, and remind yourself to never forget just how miraculous life is.
Celebratory headstand . . . would have been another good summit day, but I was glad to have it behind us and be walking out under the bright blue sunshine!!!!
I guess I got a little photo-happy on the way out! This one shows the Polish and entire route to basecamp . . . lovely!
My walk to the Rio Vacas went pretty quickly because I got to keep staring at the mountain, but started to feel a bit like a slog as I got to the river valley and I started realizing it would be about 11pm by the time I hit the road – uggh. But, since I had given my gear to the mules, I didn’t have anything to camp with at Campo de Lenas and was pretty much resigning myself to some bivy action . . . but then my good fortune continued. I arrived at camp and was immediately handed a cup of juice from the park ranger. And then, the muleteers were cooking an asado again, so I had some steak in my hands about 5 minutes later. Within about 15 minutes, I found out that two guys I had met at Vallecitos were in camp and within about 30 minutes, they’d loaned me their high-camp tent and puff clothes and I was set up with a super plush camp . . . wow! I enjoyed the rest of the evening with the park rangers and muleteers, at this point feeling super conversational with my Spanish and loving every chance I got to practice. I had a super incredible sleep and was off the next morning early so I’d make the bus in Penitentes.
Rob from North Carolina . . . one of the guys I had met at Vallecitos and helped to style me out in Campo de Lenas!!!!
Lee, from the UK – Rob’s climbing partner who kindly let me use his therma rest . . . thanks guys!!!!!
As I neared the road, I stared to see other hikers coming in and was of course psyched to chat with them, hear their stories, and share my excitement. The whole time, I had this feeling that one more amazing thing was going to happen to me – I was just sure of it. And then, within about a mile of the trailhead, I saw a guided group and did a double-take at the guy in the lead . . . one of my ski buddies and friends from Alaska – Zach Schlosar – no way!!!! Again elated, we hugged and did a quick catch-up before I wished them well and they continued in . . .
Me and Zach – I love how small the world is!!!! These guys had a super successful expedition as well – hooray!
I arrived at the road, hitched a ride with a Chilean truck driver, and arrived at Penitentes with 15 minutes to spare. Some quick gear organization and recovery of belongings I’d stored there and I was on a bus, en-route to Mendoza. It was almost too quick, but then again, it just kind of went with the way things had been going . . . perfect timing, almost seamless. I spent the bus ride listening to music and drinking in the incredible emotions running through my heart and body . . . I’ll be the first to admit I finally let the tears of joy just stream down my cheeks, feeling somewhat ridiculous, but also loving that I was able to be in touch with the true wonder of it all and fully engage in it. Again, I feel like I lack the words to really do it justice – I just can’t believe how magically it all worked out!
My Chilean truck driver . . .
Back at Penitentes . . . Pablo helping me take my stuff to the bus stop . . . super psyched to return to a familiar face at the roadside!!!
Making the bus meant I had time to find a hotel, call home, indulge in some medialunas con jamon y queso, wander the feria in the Plaza Independencia, and cap the day off by meeting up with Anton and Ollie to celebrate our trip and Ollie’s birthday! We had a fabulous meal in Mendoza, indulging in large quantities of wonderful Argentine food, wine, and ice cream before saying our good-byes and starting the journey home . . .
Anton, me, and Ollie. I can’t say enough good things about these guys – super strong, super talented, super fun. I am so thankful to have joined up with them and hope our paths cross again!!!