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  Aconcagua 2004 Dispatch Eight

Dispatch Eight:  We Got Spanked!

On a rest day, Chris and I decided to climb an attractive neighboring 17,900' peak. 

Chris wanted to climb the peak only. I lobbied for a traverse of three peaks. We batted around many options. That was an important strength and weakness to our plan.

Chris is much stronger than I am. He has a wisdom born from working as a NOLS instructor, a military paramedic, 2 years in Antarctica in their safety program and guiding for several companies. On the other hand, I am nearly a couch potato. For the last few months, I have driven two hours each way from work and tried to not let too many things slip through the cracks.

It should have been a big warning flag when Chris arrived at the base of our proposed climb a half hour after I did. The day prior, Chris blazed up to the Berlin camp(19,500´) while Matt and I walked into our first camp at Nido de Condores (17,500´). He climbed fast and had come down with a common exercise induced asthma. He has never had it before. I am susceptible to it too. I try and simply avoid exercise.

There is a brilliant light in the fog in the hut here by the name of Thierry Francou. He is a UIAGM guide from France. In spending a little cherished time with him, I will be gaining insights for months. When we spoke with him about our plans, the knowledge and wisdom of his simple quiet question completely went over my head. ¨Are there and penitentes?¨ My response was,¨Not so bad.¨ 

Neve Penitentes are formed by dirt covering the snowpack. The darker material concentrates the sun´s heat into smaller and smaller areas. Shallow bowls, called suncups develop. Gravity assists the dirt in migrating to the depth of the suncup. The depressions get deeper until spires and fences form. These are called Neve Penitentes.

Our proposed route followed a steep glacial tongue about 200 feet wide ands maybe 500 feet high. We climbed it by karate chopping penitentes. The remaining bade became a hold for the empty hand, while the other had an axe- often placed in the ice. Prior holds usually became succeeding foothold. Our line wove between ice cliffs to our right and left. Above the slope angle layed back, but was more seriously covered with neve penitentes and hiding crevasses.

A common technique with penitentes is to kick through one and stand on the remaining base using a mild toe jambing force. While balancing there, the next one is kicked over. Each kick is convenient, the spires being about a foot apart. It is difficult to walk between them.

What we had guessed would take, maybe, two hours, took five.

Our options on returning were not simple, quick or obvious. We could have descended our line of descent but it would require a rappel, by now knee deep water and penitentes. Our original plan to traverse two more peaks would not work because we were moving too slowly. Another option was to follow a ridge back to Nido de Condores, but it would require losing 500 feet and a mile or so of penitentes. We stayed out of the penitentes by staying as near the ridge crest as possible. The crest is peopled by many gendarmes, requiring delicate traverses over loose rock, gravel, dirt, ice, snow and mud. Each little notch in the ridge was inspected for a scree slope leading to the valley floor below. About six notches finally found us on terrain leading us towards our destination.

All through the ridge traverse, Chris was troubled by his asthma type problem. He would often walk forty feet, then lean on his axe to rest. Compared to his normal self, his current condition made him look, well, I have always been an admirer of people with their backs against the wall and the action they take. A characteristic I saw in Chris Simmons was as the going got worse, the more calm, level headed and cooperative he got. It was such an unlikely grouping of traits I kept checking if he was hypoxic from pulmonary edema. No, this was the Chris Simmons approach to stress. With each passing hour I grew to admire him more. Were I him, I would have curled up like an Inca sacrifice on some remote Andean summit.

The gully we eventually descended started off promising enough, but cliffed out near the bottom. An old rappel anchor gave us a hint as to how to proceed. By the second of three rappels I swore I'd been here before. I even knew there was a piton anchor on the other side of the gully at the end of our rappel... a delusional mind, astral projection or someone putting something funny in my jelly beans? If it was a deja vu, why didn't I warn myself to descend the route we had climbed? 

Once off the ridge, we traversed loose scree for over an hour until we hit the normal route. My left shoulder would take the strain as my feet slipped out with nearly every step. My left knee had taken a beating in the penitentes. Chris was doing better as we descended, I was falling apart. Fortunately, it didn't get dark until we hit the trail.

The Normal climbing route, for Aconcagua, drops right into the Plaza de Mulas base camp. One half an hour's walk beyond lay our hut. Eduardo and his staff stayed around late and fed us when we came in at 10:30PM. You will not find a greater staff than at the Refugio. The food is excellent and the hot showers plentiful, for five minutes. Staying at the Refugio has been every bit the highlight as the fine park service,  the international crowd and the intriguing mountain above.

It has snowed all day today (1/15), at 14,000´. We are planning to move up to Nido de Condores (17,500´), for summit bids tomorrow.

Andy Politz

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