Cordon del Plata: Day 7
“Jeremy and I attempted Pico Plata and came within 100/200 meters of the summit, but were turned back by weather.
Last night´s snowstorm ended around midnight and cold temps replaced the seemingly unending snow. At five, Jeremy made the call and in his southern preacher voice said, “the lord hath granted a beautiful day to climb a mountain!” By seven the first climbers from el Salto camp neared our camp and we took off just behind them.
Setting a slow and methodical pace, we quickly gained a rise midway to the col that separates Cerros Vallecitos from Cerro Plata. I arrived first, had some water and chatted with our argentine compañeros. Looking to the south, I saw again what always adds stress to my summer climbing days: fast rising cumulous clouds in the valleys below. Again… Maybe they will not develop today and just hang out as fair weather cumulous? Jeremy arrived, I pointed them out and we agreed that they warranted watching, but that we should continue climbing.
Soon we overtook the argentine group and continued thumping upward with a great pace. I got the first hint of a headache, so I took an Excedrine, drank some water and plodded onward. The recent snow from the night before covered the trail making the climb far prettier than the typical scree slog.
Soon enough, we had reached the col and were feeling great. No signs of altitude sickness. To the west towards Chile, the south faces of the high Andes spread out before us with one giant anomaly, Aconcagua, standing out far higher than any other. Nearest to us was a range of jagged minarets that resembled the minarets near Mammoth, the Sierra de la Jaula. The peaks had massive glaciers on their south faces, littered with crevasses and dirty red rock sitting atop blue and white ice and snow.
At the col I finally felt like I was in my element. I was breathing hard and placing one plastic boot in front of the other. “I really am in the Andes”, I thought. I yelled out to Jeremy,
“Dude, we are climbing a mountain and Aconcagua is in the background. Can you believe this?!?! After all the talk of quitting our jobs and going for it, here we are!”
We snapped some pictures in the intense light and plotted a course for Pico Plata, a subpeak of Cerro Plata that reaches into the mid 18,000ft range. My only concern was not turning our backs on the increasingly darkening clouds filling the valleys below. Jeremy and I observed that the cloudtops were not extending too high, and not making it over our ridge. Again we decided to climb on with caution and keep an eye on the weather.
For this stretch, Jeremy took the lead and we plodded across a wide, open bowl heading south and west. We climbed through windslabs, knee- high postholing drifts and barely- covered red scree. Occasionally we stopped to assess the weather to the east. We felt very strong and were thousands of feet higher than we had ever been before. Finally we reached a lone outcrop with nothing in sight that challenged its height. Nervous about the weather behind me and feeling the need to bag this and get down, I built up my energy in anticipation of reaching the summit.
Then I reached it. False summit. Intense disappointment. I looked up and to my right and could see two other rises over a mildly ascending ridgeline and 1/4 mile away, the real summit. It couldn´t have been more than 100-200 meters higher. I checked my altimeter, 18,053ft. Now I felt satisfied. I broke 18,000ft for the first time.
Jeremy and I discussed pressing on; it was 12:40 and the clouds to the east were now topping over us and the surrounding peaks. The valleys below looked grey and stormy. It was begining to flurry and spit snow pellets. To the west, it was beautiful. Grrrr. Jeremy wanted to push on til 2pm, then turn around. I took my more cautious stance of calling it where we were. I wanted to push on too, but the thickening clouds and a now growing fear of descending into a whiteout had me convinced that we should turn back, and we did.
As I began descending, I could see the argentine group below. They had turned back too. I started down quickly and fell in thigh high snow. I got on my feet, pulled out my ice axe and when I looked up, I could see nothing. The argentines were gone, I couldn’t see Jeremy and I was in a momentary whiteout. Now my memories of Krakour’s Into Thin Air came flooding back. “Todo tranquilo, keep calm and descend,” I told myself. I trudged downward and in a few minutes, I could see again. The argentines came back into view and so too did Jeremy, although I had gotten too far ahead in my haste to get down. I waited for him to make progress, then continued on and we rejoined at the col.
From the col, our tracks well worn from other climbers. The weather to the east continued to worsen. Then, Boom! Boom!! Crack/Boom! Excellent, more lightning at 16,000ft. Jeremy and I flew down the switchbacks to the rise and then back down to the moraines where our cluster of three, green BD tents awaited us.
The snow is still falling as I write, much like yesterday. It’s great to be back in my sleeping bag, warm, tired and satisfied after a good day out in the beautiful peaks.”