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.¨
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
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.
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
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, like...me. 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.
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.
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