When you trundle up the trail, towards Plaza de Mulas along the regular route for Aconcagua, a few hours up the trail you pass a long curving valley heading right, up and around to a 3,000 meter face. Turn off into this oft passed valley and as you get closer, as big faces are won’t to do, the South Face just gets bigger and bigger.
By the time you stand at its base, rocks crashing down and ice melting and falling around you, just about any other way up Aconcagua seems to make more sense. But if you are looking for a big adventure and the big route in South America that still seems to be a classic test piece, you have come to the right place.
We probably should of been more afraid of Aconcagua South Face before we ever left for the route, but the aftermath of a new route on Everest’s Kangshung Face didn’t leave much room for fear, only confidence.
After all, the South Face of Aconcagua is only 3,000 metres high, 1,000 metres less than our Everest route, and our Camp 1 on the Kangshung Face had been nearly as high as the top of Aconcagua. With a summit under 7,000 metres it just shouldn’t be that difficult. Everest euphoria is a dangerous thing.
We were as ever, enthused by words from our Hero, Reinhold, who wrote in his book The Big Walls, and my climbing partner Paul Teare referred to perhaps more aptly, as ‘The Big Crawls‘.
“The summit itself, the highest in the Andes, is easily reached by its gentle ordinary route from the North, and so for many extreme climbers, the mountain holds no particular allure despite its height above sea level. But to climb the South Face is a different proposition altogether: for adventure, a mountaineering achievement, and an experience worth of profound respect.” Reinhold Messner
Maybe that was it – Paul and I had both just missed out on the top on our Everest without oxygen climb, so now we were just looking for some ‘profound respect.’
An ego is a dangerous thing if not managed properly.
Paul Teare met me in L.A. His floral patterned shirt was to set the scene for our retreat to South America in search of a “poncy California climbing holiday.” The L.A. airport intercom droned on with a repeated message, ‘Loading and unloading in the white zone only.’ Paul would soon be heard repeating this on the South Face every time my footsteps slowed on the ice.
We spent only a day lolling at sidewalk cafes in Mendoza, Argentina before an overly efficient guide service had us off to the mountain. Our plans for a rousing South American New Year were scotched as we found ourselves dropped at the bottom of the South Face after a 15 kilometre hike up the valley on the last day of the year. Reality hit us. The face was immense. To emphasize our audacity it proceeded to snow, hail and blow for two weeks.
A quick scurry onto the Face taught us only one thing: we were fools. I felt particularly foolish, nursing barely healed frostbitten fingers from Everest, watching Volkswagen sized rocks careening down the face, blow up on the glacier and avalanches cascade out into the valley.
But the face was smaller, it was lower, we were tougher. We said our prayers, perfected fried potatoes and eggs, listened to Mozart, while reading Maugham. Nobody ever really wants two weeks in a tent with two miles of vertical rotten rock and ice looming over you, much less read about it.
We were soon joined by the Planngger brothers from Italy , then a large and enthusiastic team of Ecuadorians showed up. The Italians had flashed the North Face of the Eiger and the Matterhorn in preparation and had para-gliders to fly from the summit. They had short scary ice axes and long front points. Their climbing gear was brightly colored and close fitting. Their scarves blew freely in the wind.
We bouldered the afternoons away, feigning mountaineering in our double boots, waiting for the weather to improve.
Boredom got the best of us in the end, we had to do something. So we set off up the Central Pillar route, it being the one less likely to be swept by avalanches after the storms, despite our daily search for something “new” to climb. Messner had described the central route as the only logical or ‘safe’ route on the mountain and we had to agree. The time we spent scanning the mountain for new routes was usually rewarded with a close up of an avalanche, a rock fall or simply rotten cliffs slowly tumbling down.
Safe was a relative word on Aconcagua. We related it to the fact that anything that fell off below us was unlikely to blow back up and hit us. The number of avalanches and rock slides we’d seen sweep the face by day, and echo loudly down the valley at night, left us no doubt just how safe, safe was.
The immensity of the face was hard to fathom. We simply disappeared into a huge vertical void, following gullies, then ridges, then terraces of loose, crumbling rock. This went on for hours, then we would be another smidgen higher on our postcard guide to the face. As often on a big mountain alpine climb, there was nothing even related to traditional climbing. A detailed guide book even Ed Webster would of been proud to have written about our first day on the face would read:
From the ridge at 800 metres height, ascend directly up the crest of the dirt pinnacle (frayed ropes often in place, to inspire the wary) using classic French cramponing technique on the rock. From the fixed metre long tent stake driven behind the loose car sized flake, traverse below the cascading 50 metre waterfall best done in early morning (we didn’t), to the base of the flared chimney.
Leave pack here (we couldn’t) for 150 metres chimneying in a gradually tightening chimney (at which point I got stuck and began weeping loudly at lifes unfairness), to exit on the sloping first terrace, at which point classic frictioning up slabs, still in crampons, to conquer the odd bit of ice (at which point Paul soloed out of sight above me in the gathering dusk) leading onto an exposed icy ridge where you may chop a bivouac platform. Pick an area where there is less evidence of rockfall from above.
Paul revved up the stove, I admired the view and we chatted cheerfully, having completed a busy day of varied climbing, and vowing it couldn’t get worse. Besides, Paul reminded me, we are Everest veterens.
Morning, day 2. The ice wall 1,000 metres above cut loose a well directed barrage of ice, one which smashed into Paul’s leg. The brothers had climbed up behind us, we heard them talking through the night. When the ice came down in the morning they packed up and headed down with a wave. Hmm.
We skipped breakfast, tied our two ropes together and I led up the crest of the ridge while Paul stretched his leg out. It seems the weather was on our side, the mountain wasn’t.
We brewed up on a 50 degree slope at the base of the sandstone cliffs. The rock was supposed to be better, but only I suspect, because it was frozen together at this altitude. Paul’s leg recovered, and he did four rapid strung out leads with a bit of simo-climbing thrown in to speed things up. Ice runnels half a front point deep and rock glued onto rock, stuck magically together to form overhangs are weaved through. I lead off the top of the rock and into the ice above, across another terrace invisible from below rural in size that takes another hour to cross.
We are halfway into a more and more faceless face. Just acres of ice, then rock, then ice again, heaped up interminably. The ropes never seem quite long enough to finish a lead, the belays are mostly psychological, I give up counting pitches at 50 and we are only half way up the mountain.
A classic (number 7 of the route it seems) looms, the ice nose. 100 metres of vertical, toppling ice that extends from one side of the face to the other, a 2 kilometre wide barrier that every route on the face must somehow find a way through.
I hate situations that are pure luck. I’d hate our climb to be sacrificed to a stray ton or two of ice that just decides to fall off when we are on it. But we have no choice, it is only pure, unpleasant, gut survival ticking over, moving instinctively up to the base of the ice cliff, plugging in ice screws and Paul arriving to say “I’ve always hated pure ice belays’, as we hang off the screws.
I can see no way out. Paul meanders off to do 50 metres of vertical rotting ice, every tool placement dropping chunks and popping of icycles half a kilometre away with the reverberations of his placements. One cracks my helmet of 10 years, with it’s distinctive blue arrow pointing up, always up.
Paul got in a belay with two shaky screws, balancing placements in the ice with toppling something over on our heads from above. The ice above overhangs drastically, while a ramp leads out onto the nose itself and Paul sneaks left, leaping cracks that show the route below as we clamber along the suspended ice terrace. The rope goes tight and belay or not I set off, out into space, then ascend into a tunnel, come out in the depths of a crevasse and bridge up that to the top of the ice cliff.
Paul climbs off into the looming dusk above and we find a shallow ledge under a towering block. Darkness settles too soon and we have the worst ledge in South America to bivouac on. Ice lumps below and spin-drift whirls through the night as we fight for control of our small and ever shrinking flat space.
Morning again. We wonder lost in a maze of crevasses. The Messner direct finish looms late in the day but still far above. Usually you just have bergshrunds at the base of a mountain, here every terrace sports one. Leading up onto the next ice-field we find a cave to dig into, huddle in the back to shelter us from the rocks and ice still showering down from above.
We know there is no going down, the ice cliff below, the dirtstone, the clouds in the valley below, not even worth thinking about. It is only out and up. The first alpine ascent of the face was done by three Americans, reaching this point when a storm hit. Unable to descend they climbed up and up, one then another stalling, finally only one reaching the ridge at the top and able to sneak down the normal route to safety.
Day ? South Face junkies, the weather a miraculous dream, the climbers down to baby food, a few hours sleep in 4 days, calf muscles ripped from front pointing, thighs pulled from snow wallowing across the immense terrace, arms wrecked from 14 hours of ice a day. Paul smiles ‘…a poncy California climbing holiday.’ and hands me the sharp end of the rope to get us out of here and up to the cliffs above.
We tie the two ropes together and I run them out to a saddle of ice I hollow out and sit on to belay, an ice screw into rotten rock as our anchor. Paul jogs up and past to tackle the steeper rock above. His specialty, is getting us up what to me looks impossible and then traversing over sloping slabs and into the summit ice fields.
Aconcagua summit ice-fields, the altitude, the crisp ice, the sun shining, the rhythm of climbing alpinists dream of. Only 300 measily metres to go. It starts like that, but the days early leads, the tricky traversing, the last of the immense slope ends in pitch black on a heaven sent snowy ledge formed by a crevasse at 6,500 metres.
There is little above to fall on us, we have so little food that tea must suffice, supplemented by the bottomless box of baby food. We didn’t know it was baby food when we bought it, our Spanish of limited ability. But it has served us well and calmed us in our dire moments.
A real sleep ensues. Then sunrise, the weather still a perfect day, breezes leading to winds, but still 5 of the best days of mountain weather imaginable. We romp up the slopes, climbing together, stepping onto the thin ridge at the top of the face. The wind hits us and renews us, it is a short jog up and right to the summit, not a person in sight. Paul takes a picture of me, I of him and we hug happily.
Our front points are dull and axe pics dented, the rope is frayed, a few mashed pitons dangle off my harness, dirt stone still clinging to them. Paul knocks the ice out of the screws and off we go. Down, a novel concept.
Weaving down the normal routes sidewalk we meet the first people we have seen since the start of the climb. We are in the midst of the Canaleta and fittingly it is the first of many meetings I will have over the years with Vern Tejas, guiding his group to the top.
Then it is down, down, down, our double boots playing through ice, then rock, into the scree and then the dirt and sand, to the end of the trail to Plaza de Mulas.
Our Ecuadorian friends come running from camp and hug us – having spent the days below the South Face with us and waving us off onto the climb they at first seem too overjoyed to see us. Then they relate that three days after we started up the route, the ice cliffs and the ice nose had all come down in a huge avalanche and they had thought we would of still been below it and swept away. They buy us beers and toast our return to life.
Flat ground is so comforting, so easy after our climb, it is easy to settle back into. Only a 25 mile walk for Paul and the rent a mule, $1 a mile ride for me and we are back to civilization.
In Mendoza we meet up with Peter Athans, a friend met first on the West Ridge Direct on Everest and who comes along for our summit and my birthday celebration, from steak house, to bar to night club to finish as the sun rises over the hotel pool – a fitting end and prelude to our return to the lights of Mendoza.
The face is shrouded in clouds as we start our journey back to North America, shading the face as it lurks in the background. Paul has ordered a second Malbec and the airplane happily obliges.
We are tired but undamaged, skinny but strong. We probably won’t be eating baby food or porridge again for a very long time.
Edited and updated from articles previously published in Mountain, U.K. and Adventure Magazine, New Zealand.Amazon.