Aconcagua Polish Glacier Direct Route

24 Dec - 9 Jan 2005 - by Tony Olejnicki

5th January 2005, I have completed the climb of Aconcagua solo and unsupported along Polish Glacier on the Direct (Argentinean) Route. What made it possible is the experience of over 40 climbs in Cascades and Mexico and U$2000 budget.

Solo means that my friends pull-out due to work commitments and unsupported means that I did not hire mule transportation to carry my 90lb pack to the Base Camp of Plaza Argentina, I carried it myself. I used mule transportation on my way down from Plaza de Mulas to the Horocones Trailhead to allow me to walk out fast (23 miles in 5 hrs).

This report will attempt to summarize the practical information on the logistics and resources essential for a successful planning and conduct of the trip and also will facilitate a simple orientation of the mountain. I have included my climbing diary with some personal comments to give the reader a feeling of a typical climbing experience.

Aconcagua, is located in Argentina 180km from Mendoza, some 20km from the Chilean border and 20km north of the international highway connecting Santiago de Chile and Mendoza. Due to its location it presents a very simple logistics for climbers. It is a versatile mountain due to a mix of climbing routes ranging from a very simple, non-technical normal route, which can be hiked by an experienced hiker to technical routes of the Polish and East glaciers and the South Wall being a mix of technical rock climbing and icy couloirs depending on time of the year and snow conditions as well West Wall.

The mountain can be approached through one of the two trails either starting from Punta de Vacas (7900ft) and following the Vacas river valley and the Relinchos valley to Plaza Argentina base camp or starting at Puenta de Incas (9000ft) and following the Horocones river valley, which leads to Plaza de Mulas base camp. Horocones valley is also used by the climbers attempting the South Wall routes from Plaza Francia.I have crossed over from Polish glacier camp two to the normal route in order to experience the other side of the mountain. On the last day from Plaza de Mulas to Puenta del Inca, I stopped counting people coming up at 300. Fortunately not all of them make to the top. The Vacas and Relinchos valleys approach is much less crowded by the factor of 10 or so. Each approach is different and beautiful in its own way.

VACAS/RELINCHOS APPROACH: This approach begins at Punta de Vacas, an outpost for truck customs control and Carabineros checkpoint. Punta de Vacas is located 150km from Mendoza. The approach is slightly longer then Horocones but much less crowded. First stage to Casa de Piedra is quite timid in comparison to Horocones approach and takes one through gentle climb via charming valley of the Vacas river with some tributaries sipping early in the season. However one should not be relaying on them for water. All the rivers are very micacious in the morning and outright muddy and unsuitable for drinking in the afternoon due to heavy snowmelt. Most of the climbers take 3 days to reach Plaza Argentina Base Camp, camping at Pampa de Lenas and at Casa de Piedra. At Lenas there is ranger station where all climbers approaching Plaza Argentina must register and present the permit.

At Casa de Piedra the rote changes direction from north to west and enters Relinchos river gorge, which changes later to a wide valley with scenic views of Aconcagua and Ameghino. The gorge is very spectacular with amazing view on muleteers herding their mule caravans down the hill. Upon reaching Plaza Argentina (14500ft), located at the bottom of the East glacier moraine, the view on the Polish and East glaciers open up and the shadow of Acongagua dominates during sunsets.

There are two camps above Plaza Argentina: Polacos 1 and Polacos 2 with two climbing options from Polacos 2, the Polish glacier and the False Polish traverse, which is an alternative approach to the normal route from east rather then west. Some people select this approach because is by far less crowded then Plaza de Mulas approach.

Polish glacier has two routes: the classic and direct. The classic rote is a glacier climb 30-40 of inclination. It is a long route and can take 12 hrs to climb, some people do it in 2 days approach by using an intermediate camp at 2/3 of the route (Piedra Bandera); there maybe some small crevasses along the way. The Direct (Argentinean) route is a wall of snow and ice 3300ft high 40-65 inclination and it is much shorter then the classic route. The challenge of this route is the steepness, possible ice conditions, possible strong wind and the length at the elevation from 19500ft to almost 23000ft. In order to approach safely this route the skill and fitness are of equal and paramount importance. One should be able to climb 400-500ft per hour with short breaks. It is a free climb using crampons, ax and an ice-tools and the 100% confidence of not coming off the wall is essential. Ice screws maybe useful when icy to provide an avchor point while resting.

There is a body of the climber about 1200ft above camp Polacos 2, reminding one of the danger and a need for extreme concentration. During sunny and windless day all appears to be so easy for a fit climber. However with a strong wind it would be a dangerous climb. This route has a reputation of not climbable when the snow conditions are bad. I cannot comment on that because I have not experiences such type of conditions.

This route was conquered for the first time in February 1978 by Argentine climbers Guillermo Vieyro, Jorge Jasson and Edgardo Porcellana.

LOGISTICS: I have left Seattle 12/19/04 on Delta flight to Santiago arriving there at 10am on 12/20/04. The TUR-BUS bus company operates the airport service for $2.50 to its terminal. From there they operate a service to Mendoza departing every 1-2 hrs, which takes approximately 5 hrs duration. There are 2 other bus terminals in Santiago located nearby. One is located next to TUR-BUS and the other one (Borje) is located 500yards west and just one metro station away or 15 minutes of comfortable walk. There two other major bus companies, Pulman and El Rapido departing from these terminals and servicing Santiago-Mendoza route.

Bus follows the road connecting Santiago and Buenos Aires through Andean pass Coracoles, it actually uses the tunnel under the pass at 10500ft. It is very cool ride in the valley with rock walls towering some 2000ft above and passing through two skiing resorts Portillos 9500ft (Chile) and Penitentes 8500ft (Argentina). Penitentes having ample accommodation is used by some climbers for acclimatization and is located 1/2 way between two trailheads Punta de Vacas 7900ft and Puente del Inca 8800ft. Puente del Inca is also a touristy place due to Inca ruins and contains a reasonable accommodation and is also used by Horocones valley climbers as a first acclimatizing stop.

Mendoza is the gateway for Aconcagua, where the Aconcagua National Park Headquarter issues the climbing permit ($200 in 2004/2005 season). The Aconcagua Park Headquarter is located in the northeast corner of the Park at the extension of the pedestrian Mall, west of the Plaza Independencia. They issue a bill, which can be paid in pesos($) or U$ in the bank located 0.5mi from their office. Upon payment HQ issues the permit and you are ready to proceed with the climb. I obtained permit on 12/21/05.

There are two ways to get to Mendoza from the USA either through Santiago de Chile or Buenos Aires. There are some advantages to travel through Santiago:

1)There are more flights options to Santiago from USA (LAN-Chile, AA, Delta, Continental) and hence more flexibility and possibly cheaper fares;

2)One can take 5 hrs bus trip from Santiago, while 14 hrs bus trip from Buenos Aires is hardly appealing adding to the trip cost with domestic airfare;

3)Bus route goes next to Aconcagua, hence one can get an initial orientation;

4)The bus trip is spectacular, comfortable and inexpensive;

5)Arriving on the bus to Mendoza gets one right to the center of town, bus station has tourist agency (Turismo Estacion del Sol), www.turismoestacion.com.ar reserves@turismoestacion.com.ar, which can help to find accommodation without a fuss and provides a free map of Mendoza.

There are usually hotel agents at the bus offering variety of inexpensive accommodation and transportation to their hotels; Mendoza is a very compact town. There are a number of outdoor shops located at the pedestrian Mall with the original being El Refugo'. The white gas is available from any of these shops. Some provisions can be purchased in Mendoza such as trail mix' and fresh foods. However there is no freeze dry food available in Argentina or Chile and it should be carried from the USA. Please note that the fresh cooked meals are available at base camps for around $15(diner) and $10(breakfast and lunch) and for me it was really a welcomed break from the freeze dry.

Mountaineering shops in Mendoza offer many packages from equipment rental, organizing a mule transportation ($200/60kg load on the way up and $120 on the way down, these prices can be somewhat negotiated for the way down, where they have fewer customers) to a guided tour. All these arrangements are being done easily and efficiently; the shops are used to it and are very helpful. There is always someone in the shop who speaks English. In the base camps there are also porter services to take your load to higher camps, if you wish, as well as there are showers available. Self-respected climber however doesn't use them but if that is going to help you with staying strong, why not.

Shops can also offer you an efficient transportation to the trailhead. There is also a local bus, Uspallata Express, operating two daily schedules to Las Cuevas, the outpost at the Argentinean side of the Coracoles tunnel at 6am and 10am for U$3. It takes some 4 hrs to get to the trailhead using this bus. The bus returns at about 12pm and 4pm from Puenta del Inca and some 20 minutes later from Punta de Vacas. On the way out some of mules operators will arrange a pick-up from the Horocones TH (Puenta del Inca) by car hence saving 3 miles walk on the road. If you miss the bus from Puenta del Inca don't despair, there is boarder control at Puenta del Inca, where all international busses must stop, and they will allow you to catch an international bus there (international bus will not stop on the road on-demand). Boarder control people are used to it and are very friendly and helpful to climbers, it helps to speak Spanish and being polite and friendly as they are. The driver will accept you for the ride to Mendoza for around $20 (about U$7). Punta de Vacas TH is very close to the bus stop (500yards or so), so no transportation to the bus is necessary, however international bus will not stop there, and you must be on time to meet Usplallata Express.

Argentina is a meat eating country and doesn't really care much about us vegetarians, so one has to be prepared to compromise on the diet within Argentina by accepting fish (river trout is excellent there) and occasional meat dish. It is interesting though, that one can get easily a vegetarian food in the base camp, you will be asked you whether you prefer vegetarian meal. Say yes, it will be delicious especially after few days on freeze dry diet. All carnivores are in paradise in Mendoza in numerous parillas (grill restaurants, where they roast the whole animal in a charcoal open fire). In general food in Argentina is nice and tasty with the Spanish and Italian influenced cuisine. For those who cannot stay a day without a burger, there is a plenty of them and there are also McDonalds for those feeling homesick.

THE CLIMBING DIARY: I have arrived to the TH at Punta de Vacas 12/22/04 at about 2pm. The bus stop is some300yards west of the TH. There are two restaurants near the bus stop and one can purchase water there, food is not recommended unless you are desperate. Punta de Vacas is a Carabinieros checkpoint and they ask you what you are doing there even if you carry 90lb pack with the climbing gear. It probably is not obvious enough. They will also give you contradicting information. Don't despair, ignore them and just continue on the road for 300 yards back towards Mendoza and before you get to the Vacas river you will see the TH sign and the shelter on the left. Don't use this shelter unless it is raining (very unlikely). Continue for about 1000 yards until you get to another shelter (it is much better) or set your tent anywhere there. It is good acclimatization overnight at 7900ft

12/23/2004: It was a very tough day for me with 90lb pack on my shoulders despite gaining only 400ft over 6 miles. It took me 7hrs with countless rest stops. I was passed by several hikers with light packs and several caravans of mules.The walk itself is very pleasant for the first day with the pack, gentle climb and very nice scenery with some 12000ft peaks towering on both sides of the river gorge and some smaller with interesting rock formation and low vegetation of grasses, small bushes and lots of colorful flowers.There are various tributaries supplying the Vacas river, most of them did not flow however. There was one creak half way with clear water, which was very welcomed as I ran out of water at this stage. There was another active tributary just before Pampa de Lenas camp. I left TH at 10am and was at Lenas at 5pm. It was interesting and unusual camp with flushing toilet. There were 4 groups in the camp: Guided group from USA, two young Danish climbers, who failed to summit due to bad weather, and large Chilean and Italian groups, some 30 climbers. The temperature dropped overnight to 30F with a clear starry sky and dominated by majestic Southern Cross.

12/24/2004: I left Las Lenas Latino style at 10pm (thank you, it was very refreshing from the idea to start at 6am in Cascades) and I was the last to leave the camp. I just dreaded 90lb pack on my back again. The plan was to camp at Casa de Piedra, only 7 miles and 600ft of the elevation gain. The going was tougher then day before and 6 miles took me 7hrs with very frequent stops. Finally I got within less then a mile to the Casa de Piedra, I could see it. I have spotted a nice camp right on the river and decided to set-up the camp. It turned out to be a right decision as Casa de Piedra is a dreadful spot, with lots of March flies breading there due to presents of mules. At this stage I reached 9800ft and feeling really strong.

12/25/2004: I had another day Latino style leaving the camp at 10am. I was at Casa de Piedra at 11am and decided to have some food there to replenish my energy for next steep section despite the March flies annoying me, over next 90 minutes lots of them died in the battle for my blood. There is running water at the camp. Two young muleteers arrived with climber's packs. I started talking to one of them. He wanted to take my pack to Plaza Argentina, it was an evil temptation, which I resisted being in a very vulnerable position and maintained my solo and unsupported effort.I have put my gaiters on and crossed the Vacas river with dry feet, it was less then 6 inch deep (at midday rivers are still relatively calm and shallow) and started a steep assent in the Relinchos gorge. Again I have found going really hard, however my body started get used to the load. I did about 1.5miles to the middle of the gorge and found a very nice campsite about 3pm. I have decided to stop for overnight to have a good rest and to cleanup in the tributary creak with the water coming from the spring just above my camp. It was a good and sheltered camp and temperature stayed at high 30's the whole night. I looked at caravans of mules coming down at tremendous speeds on a very steep path through the gorge and passing just 50 ft below me.

12/26/2004: I had only 4 miles or so to the base camp at Plaza Argentina but 3400ft of elevation gain. I was not looking forward to attack about 1500ft of the steep gorge next morning. However all turned out to be much easier then anticipated. I was definitely getting used to the load.Once reached the top of the gorge, the path became gradual until the Plaza Argentina with tremendous views of Aconcagua and Ameghino. The same routine with muleteers shuttling up and down. The weather was perfect, sunny and warm with a slight cooling breeze. The scenery is beautiful in the valley with different rock formations and rich colors of the soil contrasting with green, yellows and purples of the vegetation. Again hikers caught up with me somewhere within the mile of Plaza Argentina. There was Californian couple with the girl suffering with sinus congestion; my Sudafed came really handy here. There was a Swedish group as well (two males and one female). I have arrived to Plaza Argentina at 5pm and decided to have diner with outfitters rather then facing freeze dry again, it was very nice, it is amazing how deprivation improves taste of ordinary food. I have setup my tent next to two Germans and large group of Italians, all doing False Polish route.

12/27/2004: Rest day at Plaza Argentina. The weather deteriorated with an overcast and strong cold wind. I have explored the camp, talked to different outfitters and climbers, all of them really friendly and helpful. There were no American climbers doing Polish glacier, all were doing normal route. So were my German neighbors. I have discovered that only 3 people so far did Polish glacier; one solo Argentinean climber and 2 Austrians. I started to talk to other climbers, there were four Chileans, six Mexicans and four Italians thinking Direct route, so I had a chance for a company and at minimum I had a good conversation in German, Spanish and Italian.The day rest did me very well. I felt slight effect to 14000ft, when I have arrived to PA but after spending day and night I felt great and ready to proceed to camp Polaco 1.

12/28/2004: I started the day with an early breakfast, pack-up my gear for camp one and started climbing at 9am arriving at camp-one at 1pm. The weather turned really bed with strong wind and blowing snow. There was lots of a fresh snow at camp one alredy. Concerned about the weather I have decided to get to Plaza Argentina as quick as possible. It took me only 1hr20 to get down, a bit too fast and I developed a headache. Some rest however and Ibuprofen helped to ease it. I had a diner at the outfitters and was ready to move to camp 1 following day. 12/29/2004: The weather has improved overnight and the pressure was on the way up. I have moved to camp 1. Also Italians, Mexicans and Chileans moved up. They had a discussion and Chileans lost confidence and decided to do a normal route as two of them developed symptoms of high elevations and decided to descend to Plaza Argentina. Same with Mexicans, the only people talking still Polish Glacier were four Italians. There were two people who were evacuated with Pulmonary Edema, one late 40ties Alaskan man and one Russian Canadian in his late 20ties. I discovered now that the helicopter rescue is free, basically U$200 climbing fee covers the rescue insurance. Argentinean rescue is very effective. The rangers came up to camp-one and evacuated the injured to Plaza Argentina from where the helicopter picked them up for a short flight to Puenta del Inca followed by the 150km ambulance ride to the hospital in Mendoza.

12/30/2004: I have developed severe nasal congestion during the night and got no sleep at all. It was only in the morning, when I have diagnosed as Aerosinusitis, being a combination of drying mixture of blood and mucus due to extreme low humidity and high elevation. I was too tired to proceed to camp Polacos 2 and I have decided to take an additional rest day. There was a perfect day and I was wasting time by not proceeding to next camp, however on the other hand a rest day helped me to get stronger and better acclimatized for the summit day. It also gave me chance to meet other climbers and practice Italian and Spanish.

12/31/2005: The weather turned really bad again with strong wind and blowing snow. No one left camp this day, we all were waiting, resting and hoping for a better weather for the next day.

1/1/2005: The weather cleared to a beautiful and sunny day. I have packed up 1/2 of my gear and headed up to camp Polacos-2 at 8am. First 1500ft were very easy up the snow and scree switchback path of the spectacular Ameghino basin. Above 18000ft the effects of high elevation kicked in and the going was much slower and harder with frequent breaks. I have achieved a good timing to camp 2 of 4 hrs, usually takes 4-6 hrs for this trip. The views from camp 2 are stunning on the Ameghino summit and the range of mountains behind with peaks 18000-20000ft. Very interesting range of dramatic peaks covered with glaciers and snowfields, definitely worth exploring in the future. Somewhere there Uruguayan Airplane crashed on October 13th, 1972; it was subject to a riveting movie; check interesting report of Richardo Pena, www.climber.org/TripReports/2005/1378.html. I felt elevation effect now with a slight headache and tiredness. On the way down headache intensified due to jarring effect of stepping on uneven and steep path and plunge-stepping down the snowfield. However good dose of Ibuprofin and a couple of hours rest helped me to overcome the headache in the late evening. I was feeling strong again for another climb to camp 2 the following day.1/2/2005 SundayNot taking any chances I started climbing to camp 2 with the rest of the gear very slowly. It took me 6 hrs but no headache at the top. I have setup my camp with perfect weather and pressure on the way up looking forward to an exciting climb. Two of Italians were also in the camp, the other two developed elevation symptoms and down-climbed to back to Plaza Argentina. Italians were not very confident and were asking me lots of questions about the climb, I could sensed that they were a little concerned with the difficulty of it, not sure of the conditions on the top. The major concern was the amount of snow and ice. Just looking at the glacier it did not look that difficult to me. The beginning of it is about 30 deg and then steepens up to 50 and 55with middle section of 600ft or so 65. The snow conditions looked quite good with some ice glistening about 1/2 way the glacier. Past that the view was obstructed by steepness and the rock.

1/3/2005: The climbing day. I woke up at 4am, dressed-up, put my forty below gaiters and the crampons, breakfast and started going at 5am. Italians followed me some 100ft behind. One of them seemed to be stronger.I kicked the steps at constant pace of 500ft/hr for 3hrs with Italians dropping about 20 minutes behind. I have decided to have a rest on a small rock outcrop sticking from the snow and allow Italians to catch-up. When they arrived I focus my attention on the other outcrop slightly below with some parts of cloth and strange looking bits sticking out. On a closer look it turned out to be a human skeleton. It certainly focused my concentration for the rest of the climb. The stronger Italian offered to share step-kicking but he gave up after 50ft or so and I was again up the front. I'd rather do this then having to deal with them exhausted. It is a double edge climbing with other people, it is safer on one hand but sometimes it can be risky with unknown people. Next 600ft or so were very icy but with some patches of blown in snow, so for the most part it was possible to kick meager steps. After this patch of 600ft the condition improved when the inclination got back from 65 to 50. The snow was holding better at smaller inclinations. Finally when we came closer to the ridge, at some 300ft from the summit the inclination dropped back to 30 and for a moment snow become 1 ft deep. It did not last to long, we got to summit plateau and snow turned hard again, comfortable for about 1km slog to the summit via small false summit. On the summit there was a zoo. Lots of people popping up from the normal route to take their photographs, lots of Latino and Japanese guided groups. The day was so beautiful and I had plenty of time so I could effort an hour on the summit. It is unusual for the mountain to cooperate to this extent but I guess I was lucky and I really appreciated it. Down climb from the summit was a big let down after adrenaline pumping excitement of the climb. It took me 3hrs to drop down to Independencia camp and to traverse back to the tent for some dry freeze diner. If I was to compare this climb to Cascades it reminded me so much on the Adams glacier, but physically was much more demanding due to its elevation.

1/5/2005: The down climbing day. A strong wind started at night and did not stop when I got up at 7am. I had difficulties to break the camp and pack-up properly. Took me 2 hrs to get going. It was supposed to be an easy day with 300ft climb to Nido de Condores and then some 7000ft down to Plaza de Mulas. I have dropped down to False Polacos camp 2 and it supposed to be up hill from there. The wind was strong with blowing snow causing poor visibility, I took an obvious path and followed it, it was very easy and it dropped me some 200ft in no time to a very steep slope near the ridge, I knew I was in a wrong place. I have decided to stop regroup and have a rest for a while, I had my heavy pack again but this time at 20000ft instead 14000ft and it was painful. The wind slowed down and I saw Nido de Condores now some 500ft above me, depressing, as it was I picked up my pack again and started climbing on a steep slope but in the right direction this time. Surprisingly it did not take me that long; I have lost only 2 hrs through this mistake, but it was not a big deal, from Nido it was only a down climb, even with a heavy pack it was a piece of cake' relatively speaking.Nido de Condores is a very spectacular camp and worth the trip anyway. The down climb with a heavy pack to Plaza de Mulas on the lose scree was ugly. I was glad that it was not the up climb. Bird view on the Plaza de Mulas and the Horocones valley is spectacular as well as it is the view on Aconcagua and towering peaks around Plaza de Mulas.I have decided to stay in the Plaza de Mulas hotel to have a shower and walkout light the following day. For me the climb was over and I personally do not care much about hiking, it is just a necessary evil to get to the climb.The hotel is located 20 minutes walk from the Plaza de Mulas, slightly up and crossing two creaks. But with the heavy pack and at the end of a long day, it was the long way for me. It was worth it to experience the hotel despite not being able to have a shower as I arrived too late, they allow showers from 2-7pm only. I got there at 7:15pm and had to satisfy myself with the wash-up only; it was nice to wash-up in a warm water (depravation can change perception and standards in a dramatic way), I had to postpone a proper shower for Mendoza on the following day.The hotel itself is very cool, with nice people, reasonable food and lots of memorabilia from different groups staying there. It was worth it spending U$48, although I could have got better shower and food in the camp itself.

1/5/2005: The down-climbing day to Puenta del Inca. It was truly relaxing day, down-hill and no pack, just some water, some energy food, light windbreak just in case and of course the camera. I had my breakfast Latino style at 9am, talk to new Italian and Brazilian friends I have met in the hotel, speaking a mixture of Italian and Spanish. I have packed my gear for mule transportation, it was collected at 10am; I have paid my bill and strolled to the Plaza de Mulas to see rangers and to report on the glacier condition. I have decided to do so because there are so few people doing the route and the ranger just doesn't have enough information to advise the climbers and it was really appreciated. And I wanted to explore the camp. I was feeling terrific without the heavy pack, like a bird just released from the cage. Also at low elevation of 14000ft there was so much O2 I could run without any problems. Acclimatization at high elevation makes one very energetic at low elevation, it is a great sensation. I wasted too much time at the camp and left only at 11:30am. I was aiming to be at the Horocones trailhead at 4pm to catch the bus at 4:45pm i.e. 23 miles in 4 1/2 hrs. It took me 5hrs and then mules didn't arrive until 5pm so I missed the bus.The agent picked me up from the trailhead and took me to the boarder control, where I got on international bus at about 7pm arriving to Mendoza at 9:30pm.

TRIP COST: I completed Aconcagua climb within my budget of U$2000 including airfare from Seattle (Delta Airline Seattle to Santiago U$1100), climbing permit (U$200), Chile Entry Visa (U$30, traveled on Australian passport), Bus fares ($60), 4 nights accommodation in Mendoza ($70), Food in Mendoza and Santiago including drinks ($200), Hotel Plaza de Mulas ($50), Food at Plaza Argentina ($65), and mule transportation ($120) totaling to $1895. Please note that if you travel on US passport the visa will cost U$100.

CONTACT: If you have any questions contact author tolejnicki@hotmail.com


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