SI Vault
 
LAND OF THE WHITE WIND
Sam Moses
April 14, 1980
In the first Alpine-style ascent of the formidable South Face of Argentina's Cerro Aconcagua, the Western Hemisphere's highest peak, Guy Andrews (above) and two other intrepid Californians struggled across snowfields, up towers, over ledges. Then El Viento Blanco came howling in land of the white wind
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
April 14, 1980

Land Of The White Wind

In the first Alpine-style ascent of the formidable South Face of Argentina's Cerro Aconcagua, the Western Hemisphere's highest peak, Guy Andrews (above) and two other intrepid Californians struggled across snowfields, up towers, over ledges. Then El Viento Blanco came howling in land of the white wind

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

We camp in a small cwm [gully] at the base of the French Rib exhausted. About an-hour later the bergschrund [crevasse at the head of a glacier] behind us collapses [and generates a small avalanche big enough to bury 10 people] & misses us by 50 meters. We are too tired to celebrate our good fortune.

At this point the climbers were at the base of the route that the French had taken in 1954 and that most subsequent expeditions had used. Connor, Andrews and Bludworth thought they could ascend the French Rib—also called French Shoulder—in a day, and from there it would be a relatively simple trek over the summit plateau to the peak. But Connor had planned to reach the Ice Balcony in one day and it had taken three. Had he underestimated the French Rib as well?

Day Five:

Up and Andy at 10:30 after cold nite of spindrift & ice. We cross two steep bergschrunds (pulling Chuck out of the second one), move up a steep snow face onto the rib itself. Where is the walkoff we are wondering? Christ, there is a 5.8 or 5.9 [out of possible 5.12 degree of difficulty] rock pitch above. Why? Chuck ignores his bout with snowblindness to push the lead about 60 or 70 feet. He gets stuck and Guy goes up to finish the pitch. In his haste to find us a decent bivvy Guy does not take enough gear and ends up getting stuck about 50 feet above Chuck. I holler for a retreat to the stance I'm on but they feel a good ledge is above. Almost convinced, I start to jumar [go up a fixed rope] with my pack. As soon as I get 25 feet up to where I can see them, I realize there is no way to haul their packs up this pitch in any case, and we are really strung out with darkness & wind coming on fast. Then Chuck gets panicky & drops a glove which heightens his anxiety (and mine). Since I'm closer to the lower stance, I pass him one of my own along with a sharp order for both men to GET DOWN NOW!!! I beat it back to the stance & begin hacking at the snow with one numbing hand and shout for Guy to help Chuck get down. C.B. is quite blown out by this time & I half expect to see him just plummet in his state of anxiety.

"Chuck was the weakest member of the group, without question," says Connor. "He was in a little bit over his head. This was by far the biggest mountain he had ever been on, and I think he was intimidated by it. But we were prepared for that; I felt Guy and I could deal with a situation of such stress. That was more or less our justification for choosing Chuck in the first place; after all, here was this guy we didn't know who had never been to that altitude, chosen on the basis of availability and eagerness and ability to pay his way—and almost coincidentally on his climbing ability. I would have preferred going with somebody we'd been with before, but we just couldn't find anyone who was available.

"I was irritated with Chuck, but I think being around Guy kind of spoiled me. Here was a 20-year-old, five years Chuck's junior, but with better mountain chemistry. Guy had that little necessary ingredient, that mental toughness that—when things get rough up there—keeps you from moaning and groaning about it and telling everybody how hard it is. Christ, everybody knows that, they're there, too. So I was probably expecting Chuck to be just like Guy. Well, that's just not possible. Climbers like Guy are few and far between."

Guy will be one of the best. I can't even describe to him what is in store for him if he continues at his present pace. Ideal job, ideal physical attributes. Good mental attitude. I only hope to contribute to his development. He can be the Jack Nicklaus of climbing in a few years! Another Messner.

At the moment Andrews was stuck on the face, 50 feet above Bludworth. Fortunately, Andrews' problem was simply too few pitons to continue, so he was able to fix a rope and rappel back down to Bludworth. There Andrews talked enough composure into Bludworth so that he, too, was able to rappel down to the ledge Connor had been preparing for their bivouac.

"I would've hated to have seen Chuck try to come down without Guy's help because he was pretty panicked at this point," says Connor. "Sometimes you have to slap a guy and say, 'Hey, if you don't move from there you're gonna die!' "

The Argentinians have a name for the wind that blows on the South Face of Aconcagua: El Viento Blanco, the White Wind. It is a twisting wind that roars like a tidal wave when it passes, leaving everything in its wake a frozen white. The three climbers, physically and emotionally drained, were perched on a 3' X 4' ledge in the dark when El Viento Blanco engulfed them.

Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9