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Expedition Nordic Fury
Rising 6962 meters over the Pacific, in the Argentine Andes, Aconcagua is the highest mountain in the world, outside of Asia. The tall and characteristic pyramid-like stature has inspired the local Inca Indians to name her Ancocahuac – “The White Sentinel”, referring to the steep, snowy slopes of the 1000 meter high Polish Glacier. That is our goal. Its 55° slopes and near vertical ice falls can either be negotiated with climbing gear and ice tools, or on a pair of skis. That’s our plan: speed for safety. And a lot more fun…
The expedition started where the road ended. At an altitude of around 3000 meters in the Argentinean Andes. On horseback and with our equipment loaded on mules, we started the ride up towards Base Camp through the very narrow and beautiful Rolinchos Valley.
After two days, when the valley turned left and got considerably steeper, we parted company with our four legged companions and continued on foot up to the camp at 4200 meters, set up our tent and set about preparing for the challenge at hand.
After two weeks of climbing and acclimatizing to the high altitude, we had finally established our high camp at 6000 meters. It might be difficult for someone not accustomed to mountaineering to understand how much this altitude affects your performance. The limit of human adaptation has been reached and each and every hour spent up here slowly eats away at you. Everything, physically as well as psychologically is incredibly slow. Martin amused himself by running cognitive experiments to determine the extent of our mental despair, as we prepared for the inevitable summit push. Then the dark clouds rolled in.
For two days the wind pounded our camp while we got snowed into our tent. At 1 o’clock the second night however, we were awakened by the sound of Martin’s voice: “It’s time to kick ass and chew bubble gum, and I’m all outta gum…”. The sky was clear and temperatures in the negative thirties as we immediately began to prepare for the final section of the climb. Putting on harnesses, crampons and stacking our racks with ice screws and snow anchors we finally left camp at 4 am, believing the storm had passed. We were wrong. Climbing the steep 45 degree slopes of the Polish Glacier, the snow was knee deep, effectively hiding crevasses and cracks in the fields of ice stalagmites. Slowly we forced our way through the difficult terrain, with our sights firmly set on the 55 degree ice at the Bottle Neck above us. When the sun rose, we had only reached 6300 meters and Petra made the best decision of the day by turning back and returning to camp. The risk of avalanches could no longer be ignored and we were forced to climb the steepest sections of the glacier where the snow had had a hard time sticking to the mountain. Still, there were sections of meter deep powder that had to be crossed.
The fatigue brought on by the altitude, snow and our packs slowly crept up on us as dense clouds once again began to appear on the horizon and the wind picked up. The exposed summit ridge, where we were hoping that the wind would have blown away all the snow, seemed however to be within our reach and we continued on up knowing we were making a serious mistake. Exhausted we finally reached the hard windpacked snow on the summit ridge at 5 o’clock. It was long and narrow, dropping several hundred meters on both sides. There was no denying that the storm had now returned in force, with visibility dropping below 20 meters and gusts of wind strong enough to knock us off our feet. We were well past our turn around time but the summit was only a kilometre away and we were not about to be denied. When the lightning struck, we can’t have been more than a hundred meters from our goal.
Olof was breaking trail when he suddenly cried out in pain, feeling a strong but unidentifiable burning sensation in his back. Tomas yelled that he could see a bolt of light going between the steel edges of Olof’s skis, mounted in an A-frame on his back. The pack was immediately taken off as we all went to ground just seconds before the lightning struck the ridge and everything went quiet.
Slowly we all got up again. The lightning rod had missed us by a mere few meters, and we all counted our blessings as we ran the last few meters to the top of the American continent at just below 7000 meters. 30 seconds later we were on our skies going back down again. Time was short and the storm all around us. It was now past 7 o’clock and less than an hour till sunset. Even with its last rays of light however, visibility was now down to a lowly 15 meters and without any means of navigating the massive glacier, we dropped straight down into the fall line. The flailing hail and poor visibility made skiing near impossible, and Olof could only watch as one of his skis fell 500 meters down the south face after an unfortunate fall. He continued, telemarking on one leg. Our descent slowed from a crawl to near stationary in the white soup we found ourselves in, where the only thing we had to orient ourselves by was the gradient of the terrain we were on. When the glacier eventually flattened out after 6 hours, Tomas was showing clear signs of frostbite to his face and was close to collapse from exhaustion. His speech was blurred and incomprehensible and he could no longer walk on his own. Martin and Olof began to dig a shelter and got emergency flares out of their packs in an attempt to find help. We knew that we were on a plateau, but were after two hours of walking in circles without finding our tent, no longer certain of where on the mountain we had ended up.
Knowing that we had been well beaten, we surrendered to the mountain and began to prepare for a wet and cold night, when a light suddenly appeared and Petra emerged out of the darkness. She had heard us over the storm and managed to guide us back to tent with the help of her head lamp. We had began to dig a snow cave just a hundred meters way from our camp. Still uncertain of whether we were hallucinating or not we stumbled towards the tent and the relative safety of our sleeping bags. We had made it up, but more importantly: We had made it down.
Cerro Aconcagua, 6962 m above sea level, Argentina, 2004
Members: Olof, Martin, Tomas, Petra
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Date: January, 2004
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