Aconcagua’s Polish Glacier: the best of two worlds
Climbing Aconcagua by the Polish Glacier Route offers the best of two worlds. The huge scale of this wild Andean glacier poses a demanding, Himalayan-like mountaineering challenge. At the same time, the straightforward logistics, well equipped camps and ease of access of Aconcagua makes it simpler than similar climbs in the more remote ranges. Add a long summit day at almost 7,000 meters, strenuous but protected by our fixed ropes, and the convenience of the climbing season (December to February), and you have the perfect preparation for a Himalayan expedition.
The Vacas Valley approach
The prominent Polish Glacier covers the northeast face of Mt Aconcagua, from 5,850 m to 6,700 m at the summit ridge. Most climbers complete the scenic hike to Plaza Argentina, its base camp, in three days. The trailhead, Punta de Vacas, is located at 180 km from the city of Mendoza.
With its gradual altitude gain, the gentle slopes of the pristine valley of the Río de las Vacas are ideal to acclimatize. Also, as 99% of the climbers hire mules to carry their gear and supplies to base camp, light backpacks add up to a relaxed hike in. The impressive views of the glacier and the traditional “asado” (Gaucho BBQ) are highlights of the approach. (The meals, service and big grins at Grajales Expeditions are highlights too, if we may say so).
It’s different from the Polish Traverse / 360º route!
Our guided expeditions use three altitude camps above BC, which are set up with the old, proven system of “carry high, sleep low”; carrying part of the gear to the next camp one day, coming back to sleep, and moving up with the rest of the gear the next day. Some unguided, strong parties skip one camp and go directly from camp 1 to the camp at the base of the glacier, in one long push.
The Polish Glacier Route shares the first two camps above BC with the Polish Traverse, also called False Polish, or 360º route. This non-technical route is one of the “normal” routes used to climb Aconcagua. Although the names look similar, it’s a completely different route. The Polish Traverse, as the name implies, traverses the mountain to the north towards Camp Colera, the high camp of the Normal Route.
The Polish Glacier route, on the other hand, remains on the north-east side of the mountain and has a high camp at the base of the glacier (at 5,863 m). Our guided groups –as do most climbers- attempt the summit from this camp. This results in a long summit day, with more than one thousand meters of vertical gain on technical terrain: this is one of the challenges of this climb.
First ascent of the Polish Glacier
The Polish Glacier owes its name to the first (known) expedition that explored the Upper Vacas Valley and successfully climbed the glacier. In the first months of 1934, a team of six strong Polish climbers performed an impressive raid of first ascents of 6000ers in the Central Andes. With self-designed boots with spikes and tents, the group climbed Mt. Mercedario (6,720 m) and other peaks in the Ramada Range. Then they set their sights on Aconcagua, at 6,960.80 m (the highest elevation in the Andes). By then the mountain had been climbed only a handful of times, always by its Normal, northwest face.
Instead, they hiked up the Vacas and Relincho valleys and set up a camp at 4,000 m. Then in four days (spending a night on the glacier) they completed a line that follows the left side of the glacier and then the long summit ridge. Four of them reached the main summit on March 8, 1934, and all six of them returned safely to base camp three days later.
Aconcagua Polish Glacier Direct Route with fixed ropes
In 1961 a team of climbers from Argentina opened a shorter line on the glacier. This route became known as the Polish Direct Route, and is the line of choice for our guides.
The Polish Glacier Direct Route avoids the now dangerous traverse across the glacier of the original Polish Route, and considerably shortens the long ridge climb to the summit. The “cost” of saving precious hours on summit day is a couple of steeper sections (around 55º snow and ice) above 6,500 m. But this is where our more than 1,000 meters of fixed rope make a big difference.
Each season a team of guides and porters from Grajales Expeditions carefully install this bomb-proof line of fixed rope on key sections of the Polish Glacier. This pioneering feature not only provides obvious advantages in safety and speed, but also brings the system used in the Himalaya to Aconcagua, thus providing the perfect training ground for Everest or its siblings.