Day 7, Saturday 20-Feb-2010: David got the clearance (uh-hmm?! 😉 to go ahead and we started our ascent. The road to Polaco Campo I was all loose rocks and gravel, sometime piled on top of ice glaciers. Other times, the path go through penitentes (sort of ice stalagmites some taller than me, called penitent because they resemble human ice sculptures standing still as though in prayer).
The path wasn’t so bad until the final hour where it turned to a steep climb up a scree mountain (loose gravel). We were all struggling with our backpack weight and for every 2 step up the gravel slides we were sliding 1 step back. As I was hiking up, without any warning, a landslide started underneath my feet. The gravel was rolling down the hill like a river of stones and I was in the middle of it. I was heading down and all I could see in front of me was a cone of sliding rocks. And this cone was getting bigger & wider, taking me with it… I dug my hands and knees into the rocks, trying to grab onto something only to see my limbs disappear under the sliding gravel.
Everyone was watching me scroll down and I let go a loud scream. I was really scared… if bigger rocks joined this roller coaster ride, I am as good as dead. 15 meters down, the slide slowed down and instinctively I jumped sideway to my left, followed by another few hopes until eventually clearing the rock river. Everyone was calling my name and shouting if I was OK. No I am not! “Carajo, I have to climb these 15 meters again!” ;).
We arrived to Polaco Campo I in less than 3 ½ hours and I was right behind Nano & Gordo and ahead of the rest. My knees did not give me too much pain; Sami was back in business! 🙂 But Americo and Gabriela warned; watch out for the “bajada” (the way down). I guess I’ll deal with that challenge in its appropriate time. The Chicos decided, since it was still early, to carry the food and benzina ½ ways to Polaco Campo II. My task was to setup camp, get water (tougher then you think, I had to climb far to find non-frozen water streams) and be ready for dinner.
They were back 4 hours later, happy and teasing me and calling me Samiciento 🙂 (from “Cenicienta”, Spanish for Cinderella) since I was taking care of the “house”. I guess that makes them my 2 evil stepsisters :). Fun aside, things where looking a little better. Americo radioed base camp which told him the winds are still coming on Sunday/Monday but at 60km/h with gusts at 80km/h and will last half a day. Normally this would be very bad news but for us, it was less severe than earlier predicted, so we just took it with a smile. We decided to still push ahead and reach Polaco Campo II on Sunday. We will setup shelter, build-up higher stone walls around our tent and weather the storm. From all the groups in Campo I, we were the only ones heading to Polaco Campo II. All the other groups will take the longer but easier route via Guanaco Campo III and wait out the storm. This route divides the climb into 2 parts done in normally in 3 days and then hook up with the Routa Normal to climb to Campo Berlin or Colera.
But I wanted to see the Polish Glacier and Aconcagua Southeast façades up-close and personal. The big downside was we will be exposed to the winds as these higher altitude camps hold little shelter from the storms. Making things a little more somber were the few climbers who went through Polaco Campo II and were coming down. They stopped to chat and all were telling us stories about the winds and freezing cold. Worst, quite a few of them never made it to the top. You can climb up to ~6,000m, but then cold, altitude sickness, fatigue… will get the better of you and force you to head back down. Ouch!
On our side, Gordo’s condition was not improving. He had constant headache due to altitude and couldn’t get a good night rest (although when he snores, the whole camp wakes up ;). But on Day 7, Sunday 21-Feb, he still saddled up and pushed ahead to Polaco Campo II. The first 2 hours, the road is common for all camps. Everyone climb to ~5,250 m.a.s.l. through a valley between Cerro Aconcagua and Cerro Ameghino. The climb is made of long zigzags on loose rock terrain until reaching the col between these 2 mountains. Here, all climbers will turn right and make a traverse to Guanaco Campo III while us, we turned left and kept going up.
It was a long non-stop ascent of about 3 ½ hours and we were pounded by the cold wind rushing down from the Polaco glacier. Every once in a while, I stopped and looked all around, below and behind me. The views were stunning. I was already standing as tall as the some of surrounding mountains. And to think I will sleep here tonight… before climbing even higher!
Polaco Campo II was empty, no one but us. At least, we could choose the best wind protected spot to put our tent up. But Campo II which lies at 5,830 m.a.s.l. is also a huge dump as people leave behind all the extra food, benzina and other stuff (now “garbage”) they carried up to here. You know, after base camp (Plaza Argentina or Plaza de Mulas), we’re supposed to carry back down with us all what we brought up, including our garbage as well as our “material fecal”. All you dog owners should feel right at home ;). The guardaparque check things out at the exit and they can impose a U$D200 fine in case of no “material” found. Or you can do what the chicos did on the way down prior to reaching the guardaparque: A mix of water, sand, oatmeal and chocolate… that’s a sweet smelling “material” but hey, it worked!
Back at Campo II, the chicos went on a treasure hunt throughout the camp and actually hit the jackpot. The found a small bottle of Tabasco! :). Our pasta dinner tonight never tasted so good. The other good thing about our campsite is it provided us with fresh glacier melting water… at least for today, as the next day, the temperature dropped and all froze.
Americo showed up a few hours later followed by Sebastien a further 1 hour behind. These guys intended on climbing the Polaco Glaciar up to the summit. It will be an impressive feat, as the Polaco Glaciar just hangs on the East rock face of Aconcagua and the whole climb will be ~900 meter high. Just looking at the glacier will leave you speechless. I had admiration for Americo and Sebast and their goal.
The night was cold but calm and we all took the opportunity to stay out and watch the colourful sunset; the monumental Aconcagua shadow slowly grew & covered the eastern mountains. From our high point, we could admire a crystal clear sky, with thousands of stars twinkling so bright and seemed to invite hundreds more to appear and shine upon us, as if it was the first time they did so. It reminded me of San Pedro de Atacama and I tried to find the different constellation. There was Orion, the “Jumaux”, the Dog, the Rabbit,… the Southern Cross was faithfully pointing south and we could clearly see Alpha Centauri.
By 22:00 the wind started to pick up: the storm was approaching. We rushed to our tent, checked all the tethers and went to sleep. But we all woke up around midnight to the roar of 60Km/h winds and 80Km/h gusts battering the tent. It was a deafening sound and the tent fiercely shook and flapped madly. While I was huddled in my sleeping bag, the tent’s side was blown so hard, it bent down and was nearly touching my face (check video “80Km/h winds”). It was also getting colder and I wrapped the sleeping bag harder around me, prayed that the tent will hold and tried to block the wind noise so I could go back to sleep. The storm lasted well into the morning: now, we were all awake yet no one spoke. We also couldn’t light up the gas stove to prepare breakfast or to warm water. Actually, I didn’t even want to drink as it will probably force me to go outside to the washroom.
We stayed huddled inside until noon time at which time the wind started to calm down. We ventured outside to move our legs, to answer nature’s calls and at last, to prepare food (we were starving). However, not all things were calming down: David headache worsened during the past night and we were faced with a tough choice: Since high altitude headache is the primary symptom of AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness), if it persists & worsens and analgesics do not help, the only solution is to go down to lower altitude. Otherwise, it can develop into a cerebral Edema which can be fatal. But David was not vomiting and his appetite did not diminish (the other symptoms of cerebral Edema), meaning he was stable, probably only suffering from mild AMS? Since it was still worrisome we elected to traverse to Campamento Colera which will allow us a faster descent to lower altitude in case David needed to, as well as immediately descend to lower camps after summit day. Dehydration was also another factor to David’s illness and I gave him some medicinal re-hydrating powder to mix with his water.
By 14:00 we put on our crampon, we carried the minimum food and gas needed (and left the rest behind… yeah, I know, don’t say it) and headed out to do the travesia to Campamento Colera. Less than 2 hours later, we stumbled upon a campsite of around 5 to 6 tents. To our great(and wonderful surprise, we were actually in Campamento Colera! Wow, so fast. Great! We had time to setup tent and eat. But wait, there were no running water. The chicos were really bad as they will take snow from the first pile of ice they see. Having witnessed how these camp sites are a vast dumpster, not only was it utterly disgusting, it was also calling for trouble. So I usually hike straight up a hundred meter or so via the most difficult slop, where I know no one will go and gather a bag of ice or snow. At Campamento Colera, I needed to do the same. Once back, Roy started the stove and got ready to cook. But it took forever to melt the snow: high altitude lack of oxygen and lower pressure made the flames so weak we had to use ½ of our remaining reserve of fuel to cook our pasta and get 4 liters of water needed for tomorrow’s ascent.
I also went around talking to other climbers. A couple, Tuck and his wife, were also attempting the ascent tomorrow. Tuck actually climbed Everest back in 2000 and tomorrow will try to climb Aconcagua for his 2nd instance, this time with his wife. He also had many type of medicines and he gave some to altitude sickness relief pills to David. By now, David was also gulping 2 aspirins every 8 hours to try and reduce his headache, with little effect. He was contemplating to head all the way down to Plaza de Mulas tomorrow, which lies at ~4,400 m.a.s.l.. Whatever his decision was, we were going to stick together and support him. He elected to wait until the morning and make the decision then. He mumbled: “Let’s go to sleep, try to get some rest and gather energy for tomorrow”.
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