Morning in the Camp 1 feels fine. The weather got better, the sun appeared and the clouds stay somewhere down in the valleys. We don’t hesitate and carry on upwards. Our aim for today is the Camp 2 - about thousand metres higher up (5850 m). There are other groups going uphill. We all go like slow motion. A single step takes about two or three seconds. It’s not like we couldn’t walk faster, but it’s simply not wise to sweat too much and to gain altitude too quickly, since this is not yet the summit attack. It’s about saving energy and allowing our bodies some time to adapt.
When leaving the camp we meet our friend from Cordón del Plata - Andrea. He’s been around for three days and says he doesn’t want to overdo it with speed, he takes his time. He joined in to a group of Americans and is happy. Andrea wants to try some sort of traverse to the “Normal Route” (now we know that he did that on 27 January – congratulations).
After several hours of slow walking with heavy backpacks we decide not to overstretch ourselves. We will scratch the planned day-off at the second altitude camp and instead split today’s kilometre leg in two parts. There are to saddles just ideally placed to do this. One lies exactly between Aconcagua (6962 m) and Ameghino (5883 m). It has an altitude of roughly 5350 m and is called “Ameghino Col”. The other one is rather a false saddle - just a tiny bit of somewhat shielded flat surface on the steep hill, with an altitude close to 5600 m. These to camps aren’t much used by the climbers and it’s quite a walk to reach running water (about half kilometre traverse heading towards the Normal Route). We pitched our tent at the Ameghino Col (5350 m) behind a very nice little wall built of rocks as a shield against strong winds. There was room exactly for four tents and one was free. The other three were taken by a commercial expedition with yellow tents North Face of the Alpine Ascent International Company. No one there. Apparently they were busy with carry-ups of their gear ... :-)
When they came back, there was something we would never have expected to happen in the mountains. We were just having our precisely measured dose of food when a broad-shouldered guy dashed in, took off his anorak, rolled up his sleeves, so we could see his lavishly tattooed forearms, and began to cackle in his American English: "You crawled into our tent!? Do you have shit in your heads?....that you pitch your tent just next to us? I built this wind barrier with my own hands and you put a tent here! I’ve been just about everywhere, even on K2, but this has never happened to me!" Then he continued, grumbling something like he will pull the wall down and move it elsewhere, repeating a couple of times his story about K2… and finally took his tent and dragged it somewhere into unshielded space of the saddle. The other five Americans didn’t say a word (except one girl who would make a loud blowing sound when breathing out, like an old steam locomotive). Mr. K2, as we nicknamed him, simply didn’t talk to us and behaved absolutely arrogant and aggressive.
We took a quick decision. In five minutes we packed up our stuff and in less than an hour our camp was standing ready at the second little plateau (5600 m). A stone wall was there too, as indeed in all the camps, because these walls are built step by step, everyone adding one or two stones. And there was absolutely no one there.
We don’t want to tar all people with the same brush. The vast majority of Americans were fine folks. But the style like “I’ve been here, I’ve been there, I’ve been almost everywhere… and on K2 especially – is simply difficult to stomach. So Mr. K2, we wish you the best of luck with your next climbs, but next time if you could just stay home where it really all belongs just to you ... :-)
The night was pretty rough. Wind was howling like mad.
Like absolutely every day breakfast consists of a bag of flavoured oat flakes with hot water, followed by a second course - an instant soup into the very same cup. Speaking about food, the next in order is dinner – a ready-made soup or pasta, or all mixed up. During the rest of the day we just nibble into chocolates and the like – everyone to his taste.
We continue to the Camp 2 (5850 m). It didn’t need an extra effort. Backpacks slowly lose weight. So do we.
Looking at the Polish Glacier is beautiful. We want to give it a try, at least once. Besides the view of the eastern icy wall of Aconcagua another great advantage of this camp is water. It’s in the small ponds under frozen ice. We just dig with ice-axe some 20 cm deep and don’t have to melt the snow to have water. In the evening the weather gets nasty.
It continues to snow during the night and the wind whistles. Morning - fog, wind and bloody cold. After midnight it was minus 15 Celsius in our tent. From now on every morning when we wake up after a sleepless night, we have to scrape off the glazed frost from the inner side of the tent, so that it can dry off a bit during the day.
The day is awful. Vlada with Ales went just for a short walk to the glacier, which looks really magnificent and commands a lot of respect. The weather still unchanged in the evening and night. We talk to other people in the camp. Many have a satellite phone, so we know that the weather is not going to get any better at least for the next day or two.
The third day at the second camp starts to look like a bit of a problem. One day more and we have nothing to eat! We eat up even our secret reserves and find out that we don’t have more than one day at this camp and just one day for the summit attack. It's Saturday, 26 January. Either tomorrow or on Monday, at the latest. Out of boredom we test out our material - drilling holes into the ice, testing sharpness of crampons. In the course of one test, however, we deprive ourselves even of a theoretical possibility to go the glacier. One of Ales´ crampons cracks. Decided - we will traverse to the Normal Route.
The fourth day of the lock-up at the second camp (5850 m) we pack our chores and in two and a half hours move to the White Rocks camp (6050 m) on the standard ascent route that leads from the base camp Plaza de Mulas (4300 m). Surprisingly, today the weather is nice, and we see that several people on the Normal Route tried out the final ascent. In the morning we will go too – in any weather. We just have to prepare good stocks of water. Each of us will need three litres and then something for dinner and breakfast for the next day. We have just one last gas cartridge and if we run out of gas, we won’t have water to cook the morning cereals and soup! The White Rocks Camp has one serious shortcoming, like most camps at this drier route - there's no water. We bring in some snow – but inside the tent it feels like in a freezer. Melt snow in a two-litre mess kit is an incredibly difficult job, it takes two hours. There’s still a bit of gas in the cartridge. Hopefully even for breakfast.
We get up at 4h00. Last bits of food for breakfast. We set off only at 5h45 and we can see the lights of the like-minded colleagues obsessed with the same goal. We move forward quite fast. An hour later, we are in the lead.
We have a first stop at the dilapidated Independencia Hut (6400 m), which is said to be the highest “refuge” in the world. So far, so good. It begins to dawn and Aconcagua casts a huge cone of shadow towards the Pacific, it’s marvellous. Not a single cloud on the sky and many surrounding peaks are finely lit by sunrays. It’s bloody cold. Although we have shell boots, two up to three layers of socks, Vladimir’s and my feet are freezing, we try to move our toes at least a bit with each step. It’s like they were burning and sometimes we can’t feel them at all. As for the hands, it’s slightly better but it was terrible at the start. Even the mighty anoraks of Sir Joseph brand aren’t enough. It must be around minus 30 Celsius, sometimes coupled with chilling wind. All of us have in beard under our noses little icicles, which are dripping all the time. But who cares about such details.
For the time being we go without crampons and head farther to Canaleta. Steep scree. Very exhausting part of the climb. Unnecessarily late, we put on the crampons just 250 metres beneath the summit. Even Ales´ crampon holds for now. In the last 150 metres, which turn into an endless swot, a German-speaking international group catches up with us. The terrain is sometimes very steep but quite doable with the crampons. I’ve got headache and must take a good dose of painkillers. It's more due to fatigue than height, because after so many days in the altitude of about six thousand metres, we have no problems with the thin air. We split totally. From now on everyone on his own.
Vlada is the first on the top. I join him only after extremely long and exhausting final ten minutes of crawling on all fours. Ales follows in another five minutes. It’s 28th January 2008, 13:40, and all four of us have just achieved what we had dreamt about. Just to dream is simply not enough.
After having shot some indispensable summit pictures, other people begin to arrive. We spent about 30 minutes at the top. The right time to leave. I gave a couple of energy gels to one guy from the German-speaking group, because he collapsed from a sheer exhaustion. We offered them some pills too, but the gels seemed enough. We just hoped that he was going to manage to get back safely ...
The way back to the White Rocks camp was fine. Again, we sat down for a while at the dilapidated wooden walls of the Independencia Hut (6400 m). At the same time there was perhaps the lunatic to still go up. Around four o'clock it's definitely much too late!
As quick as possible we try to pack sleeping bags, tent and all the gear. It's tough. We are exhausted and the energy from breakfast has long since been burned. We descend via the Nido de Condores campground (5380 m), then Canada camp (4900 m), where we gave up in 2006, up to the base camp of Plaza de Mulas (4350 m). Almost there. Tomorrow, we’ll just walk through the tens of kilometres long and hot Horcones valley to Puente del Inca, in the heavy shell boots.
At Plaza de Mulas we buy pizza for dinner. There are restaurants and even a hotel made of stone! Real consumismo! We are happy that we took Aconcagua from the other side. In the morning we just handed in our shit-bags and then walked for almost nine hours without breaks down the valley. Still with the backpacks, with which we had departed from Plaza Argentina on the other side of the mountain. Enjoying it all up until the end.
Manuel picked us up at the lower Ranger station in Horcones shortly after seven p. m. and gave us back our stuff that we had left at Plaza Argentina. In return, he got his $ 510 for the mule and we warmly said goodbye…just before hopping on the coach bound for Mendoza.
Let’s go for the great Argentine steaks, beer and wine ...