Summit And Descent Of The 22,841ft Beast

Words: Ollie Nieuwland-Zlotnicki
Photos: Ollie Nieuwland-Zlotnicki & Anton Sponar

On Sunday the 1st, our group of three headed up. The weather was looking better and we retraced the now familiar steps to camp I. We set up camp, went to sleep, and promptly awoke ready to continue climbing the next day. I stuck my head out of the tent, saw nothing but clouds and some snow starting to fall. Within an hour though we were in a full on Blizzard. Here we go again, stuck at camp. At its worst we couldn't even leave the tent at all. The three of us spent the day getting much closer that any of us would have liked. Finally relenting by the next morning we broke down camp and prepared the move up as loose snow avalanches billowed off the slopes of Ameghino to our North. The weather day meant we would have only one chance at the summit – Wednesday.

Summit and Descent of Aconcagua

We arrived at Camp II and set up camp. We were surprised to find that we were the only group up there. We went to sleep early and prepared for a 3am wake up. The night was cold and crisp and eerily silent. This was Anton and my first day on Aconcagua without gusting wind. This was nice. We left camp and made quick work of the lower glacier. We paused only to admire one of the most spectacular sunrises ever, my first over 20,000ft. All the work to get here was paying off. As we moved up though, firm snow gave way to increasingly deep snow. By 7am we found ourselves wading through waist deep snow on the middle Polish Glacier. What the hell? In preparing, we had been worried that the glacier might be solid blue ice and unskiable, and now we arrived to find so much snow as to render it unclimable. We forged on though. I thought swimming through snow was tough at 12,000ft, but this was another level. After 3 hours of pushing, hoping against hope we might find firmer snow, we had to call it. We were at 21,000ft, 1,800 ft short of the summit, I was devastated.

The next morning we awoke at 3 am again. A slight breeze came with a frosty edge, but it looked as if we might get our second chance. We set off this time for the False Polish Traverse route – a long traverse that wraps around the mountain and summits from the North. It was hard to get excited about a long scree traverse after trying to climb the Polish glacier, but we didn't have a chance to worry about it as we were on borrowed time. For this summit attempt even the Iron mule shoe was coming with.

Summit and Descent of Aconcagua

We approached the Col where the False Polish route joins with the Normal route for the final summit push. The Col funneled the wind and chilled me to the core. I put on every layer I had – base, two fleeces, shell, and a down puffy, but still could not get warm. Here we ran into another American, the only climber moving up from the other side of the Mountain. Sadly, a few days later we would learn that he would not make it down. It is a humbling reminder of the power of mountains.

10 steps. Rest. 10 more steps. Rest. Finally, the summit. I wish I could have said I enjoyed this. But I was Cold. The wind had picked up again, and sinister clouds could be seen approaching from the West. There were no congratulations, as we still had the specter of the Polish Glacier hanging over our heads. We snapped the requisite summit shots and moved quickly and efficiently over to the ridge that would take us to the glacier. We were tired, but suddenly putting on my skis it was as if they came with a new set of legs. I was ready to ride.

Summit and Descent of Aconcagua

We pushed off and started skiing down. I couldn't believe it, but I was skiing ankle deep snow. I was expecting ice, rime, wind slab. Anything but this! We arrived at the roll over onto the Polish. We had been forwarded an email from Kit DesLauriers, the first person to ski from the Seven Summits, who had skied this several years ago. She recalled these as some of the steepest turn of her life, and she belayed into the top with rope due to terrible snow conditions. I couldn't believe our luck, the snow looked great. We opted to leave the rope in the pack, and Kellie dropped in first. She lit up the air with a rooster tail of snow. Powder? Really? During the snowstorms Anton and I had morosely joked that at least it meant powder snow on the Polish Glacier. It seems our gallows humor proved telling. Rather than scrape the slope clean the wind had funneled it all onto the glacier.

Summit and Descent of Aconcagua

I dropped in and made big Super G turns. I had spent 17 days getting here; I wasn't harvesting powder. I wanted to ski this slope the way I wanted to. Snow blasted me in the face with each turn. I couldn't believe it; we were skiing knee deep Powder at 22,000ft. The slope was steep, over 50 degrees, but with the great snow, I could only think about how much fun it was. As the slope mellowed out towards the bottom, we all cruised together as one big group. Tents began popping up at Camp II as the other groups from the mountain moved up. I hope they enjoyed the show. Back at Camp II we could finally relax. I shouted at the top of my lungs.

Summit and Descent of Aconcagua

The elation from skiing carried us all the way down to base camp. From here a new motivation took hold. Steak. Anton and I had been talking about this for days now. We packed up all our gear, and promptly started walking out. Never question a man's desire for red meat. We said good-bye to Kellie and the staff of Grajales and directly after summiting began our 22-mile walk out which would take us all through the night and next morning to Penitentes. 35 hours after starting to climb we sat down to our steak and fries. It felt great. I had food, I was warm, I didn't have to boil any more heavily sedimented snow for water. I sat with Anton, looking at some other surrounding peaks.

"So, Anton, what's next?"

"We're going to the beach."

Perfect, just the answer I was looking for.