SKIING THE ROOF OF THE AMERICAS:
Aconcagua (22,841ft) Ski Descent
Words: Ollie Nieuwland-Zlotnicki
Photos: Ollie Nieuwland-Zlotnicki & Anton Sponar
[Editor's note: This is part 1 of a 2 part exclusive web story chronicling the ski descent of the massive Aconcagua on the Argentina/Chile border. Check back soon for part 2.]
At 6962m (22,841ft) Aconcagua is the roof of the Americas. What it ostensibly lacks in technical mountaineering difficulty it makes up for in extreme altitude and winds. Aconcagua is oft reserved as a stepping stone for climbers looking to climb the Himalayas. For those with the resources or at least the financial prudence to save for such adventures, the summit is attainable with one of a myriad of guiding companies. For those like me on a shoestring and a propensity to blow off work for a powder day, a guide or even base camp logistical support was out of the question. Complicating matters further, I was due in two weeks for arthroscopic Bankhart repair surgery to fix a constantly dislocating surgery. What did I get myself into?
Stretching for over 4,000 miles, the Andes form the backbone of the South American Continent. Lying on a spur which straddles the Chilean and Argentinean borders, Aconcagua rises dramatically over its surrounding peaks. This dramatic prominence gives it great cultural significance in both ancient and contemporary South American cultures, but more significantly for mountaineers means there is nothing that lies between the mountain and the storms that sweep in from the Pacific. Raging winds constantly beat down on the mountain, wiping clean most of the snow that falls on the peak, and giving rise to the 'viento blanco' or white wind for which Aconcagua is known. The name Aconcagua derives from the native Que Chua word for 'stone sentinel' – unfortunately not the great white one. The sole skiable route from the summit down descends the Polish Glacier on its Eastern lee flank.
As a Seven Summit, Aconcagua is attempted by nearly 2,000 people per year. Over 90 percent attempt the mountain via the Normal Route, a sinuous scree filled affair which winds up the North slopes. The remaining climbers attempt the False-Polish Traverse, The Polish Glacier, or the Polish Glacier Direct Routes, ordered in increasingly difficulty. For the truly courageous, the South Wall offers 9,000ft of technical mountaineering. During my convalescence I was thoroughly entertained by the story of the establishment of the Slovene Route on the South Wall. Due to warm temperatures and ensuing rockfall the Slovenian team had to put up the majority of the high-altitude route under cover of night.
Anton and I were coworkers in Aspen, although we hardly knew each other. I might be able to pick him out of a Police line-up, but only with that innate ability that one skier tends to recognize another. Other than that I was traveling to the other side of the world to climb a 23,000 ft peak with someone I hardly knew.
Outside of Aspen, Anton has spent the last three Northern Hemisphere summers working as a guide at El Arpa, a snowcat skiing operation in Chile. "El Arpa's slogan is skiing in the shadow of Aconcagua," Anton explains to me. "You can see it so clearly from Arpa. Every week someone asks me if I've climbed it, and I have to say no. You can see the disappointment in their eyes. I've stared at that mountain long enough." I can respect that, and with that a new team of two was formed.
November 7th I arrived in Santiago, Chile. Cloud cover hid the mountains as my eyes scanned the horizon for a view of Aconcagua. I was disappointed I couldn't see it, but more pressing matters ensued. Hmmm, how to find a guy I barely knew at the airport? Perfect – The only really lanky and really white guy at the airport wearing a Powder shirt – Anton. He spotted me right away. I was the only one exiting baggage claim with a mountain of gear. I knew skiers could always find their own. As quickly as I arrived in Chile, we were off to our first peak: Cerro del Plomo. Plomo, tucked behind the ski centers of La Parva, El Colorado, Valle Nevado and Farrellones, is only a short drive from Santiago. At 17,995ft. it provides a quick and easy chance to begin acclimatizing and gave us Colorado boys our first taste of air over 14,000ft. and the bite of Andean wind.
We spent the first night at the base of La Parva, now closed for the summer season. From camp we could see the bright lights of Santiago in the distance. We enjoyed a peaceful nights rest before skinning up La Parva the following day burdened by 70lb. packs. We spent the day touring around and skiing another valley before establishing camp only about 1.5km East of La Parva. We spent the next day practicing glacier travel, crevasse rescue, and testing gear for Aconcagua. This left us with one day for Plomo – a route normally done in 3 to 4 days. We left all equipment at camp and traveled fast and light. We awoke at 3am and left camp at 4am. We made fast progress during the night and reached La Olla, typically the final camp just after sunrise. However, progress slowed significantly as the wind picked up. We made our way slowly up a scree ridge, pausing every 20 steps, as the wind made walking impossible. The Skis strapped to our packs acted as giant sails – Damn those fat skis! However, to our right was our motivation, a 3000 vertical feet perfectly pitched 35 degree snow slope.
By 2pm we finally reached the summit ridge. We zig-zagged along as we would take one step forward and the wind would blow us three steps to the side. However, we made it and were rewarded with a massive descent. The surface was skiable wind slab, and I arced turns in the biggest mountains I'd ever been in. It was surreal skiing a single steep face with the same vertical drop as the whole mountain back home. Welcome to the Andes.
Aconcagua beckoned. We boarded buses and left Los Andes for the ride to Mendoza. The road switchbacks up steep hills through the backbone of the Americas. On the Chilean side, black rock and a dearth of vegetation give a sense of foreboding. This Alien landscape is not for humans. The road continues past the trailheads for Aconcagua, but once again the stone sentinel stood silently in the clouds. In Mendoza we enjoyed our last days in flip-flops and t-shirts. Last minute preparations were made, food purchased, and climbing permits arranged. "Hey Anton, are we really doing this." "Oh, yeah!" Unequivocally yes, we were doing this.
We returned to the trailhead where we had arranged mules. We loaded up our packs and put the remaining gear on the mules. We then began the three-day trek into Plaza Argentina. Clouds hugged the surrounding peaks, the word was a storm was on the way.
Following the bends and turns of the Rio Vacas and Rio Relinchos we arrived at Plaza Argentina. At 13,900ft, base camp approaches the summits of the highest peaks in the Lower 48. We had not seen anyone in days save two Germans who were exiting camp. They had weathered 4 days in a tent at camp at Camp I at 16,600ft and given up. Not a good sign. At base camp we found only a group of 8 Italians – mountain guides from Val Gardhena – and the camp for Daniel Lopez expeditions. Not even the Park Rangers or Medics had arrived. Being without base camp support, we set up our tent in a far corner of camp between two large rocks and surrounded by rock walls.
Aconcagua is a disproportionately deadly mountain. Most fall victim to the twin perils of altitude and exposure. It is necessary to move up slowly. We followed the old adage of mountaineering, 'climb high, sleep low.' The next week Anton and I spent portering gear up to Camps I and II. Normally this should have been light work, but the weather had not relented. Beautiful blue skies extended toward the East, and to the West the summit of Aconcagua stood mired in weather. Fighting gale force winds we moved gear up. At night we tried to sleep to the sound of winding rocking the tent. It sounded like a freight train.
Persistence paid off, and after a week we became the first to reach Camp II for the season. We also got a break in the clouds. 9 days after entering the camp we finally saw the Polish Glacier, our objective. I saw Aconcagua summit for the first time, too. Steep. We could also see ominous clouds extending to the North and West, more weather was on the way. We descended back to base camp, shocked to find a little city under way. At this point several other expeditions had arrived including a Spanish expedition also intent on skiing. Our mule carriers, Fernando Grajales Expeditions, had also arrived by this point to establish their base camp for their guided groups, by far the nicest spread in Base Camp. The extremely friendly base camp staff was happy to share weather reports – more clouds and more wind.
At Grajales base camp, they tell me they usually only see a group of skiers every 1 or two years. This year I count 4 groups with skiers at Plaza Argentina, and on the other side of the mountain at the other base camp there is at least one other. We were in good company. We also meet Kellie, an Alaskan on her own, and the first person we met roughing it like us without logistical support. That earns her points. She had just come from the IceAxe.tv Antarctica expedition and needed partners for Aconcagua. We invited her to join us.