I was finishing up my season as an ice climbing guide in Seward, Alaska when my boss approached me with the idea to ski Aconcagua, South America's highest mountain. Ryan knew I was planning to spend my off season in South America and had long been interested in the mountain. "Check it out on Google Earth," he said, "you'll be stoked!"
So I did, and I was stoked. Skiing the 55º, heavily-crevassed Polish Glacier from the summit at 22,890 feet to the toe of the glacier at 19,000 feet looked totally doable as I examined the route through different angles on my computer screen.
We learned that to legally ski on Aconcagua you must make a $30,000 deposit into an Argentinean bank for rescue insurance and a special use ski permit
I figured the hardest part would be getting all of my gear to the base of the mountain and, for the most part, I was right. Prior to this expedition, I had been bike touring in Peru, so in order to get ahold of my ski mountaineering gear, I enlisted my mother to fly down and meet me in Santiago, Chile. She brought two 50-pound bags and together we rode in a slew of taxis and busses to cross the border to the desert oasis of Mendoza, Argentina, where all Aconcagua expeditions are organized.
Ryan Fisher walks below the formidable Polish Glacier, our original ski objective, which blankets the east face of the 22,841-foot Mt. Aconcagua. Turns out it's a lot gnarlier up close, in person, than Google Earth would lead you to believe.
In Mendoza, I met up with Ryan, and during our final preparations we learned that to legally ski on Aconcagua you must make a $30,000 deposit into an Argentinean bank for rescue insurance and a special use permit. If you don't get hurt, the money should make its way back to you.
Fuck that. If we were going to die up there, let us. We didn't expect to climb at altitude with a safety team on standby.
It's not like we didn't do our research; there is no mention of fees anywhere on the Park Service website that skiing is forbidden, nor was it mentioned when we purchased and signed our climbing permits at the Park Service headquarters.
However, we did wonder how superstar ski mountaineers Kit DesLaurieres and Andreas Fransson (in separate years) pulled off their ski descents of the Polish Glacier. Did they do it legally, with sponsors putting up the big bucks for permits? Or perhaps only in recent years, since they skied the Polish Glacier, have the permitting rules been changed.
The keen observer will notice in this video that we begin the approach without skis. We hired a mule to carry them to Plaza Argentina, the peak's base camp, at 14,000 feet past multiple ranger checkpoints that would have prevented us from taking skis further. Above base camp, we moved freely with the skis, as there were no rangers that regularly patrol the upper mountain.
"If you don't comply, the police will be waiting for you as your leave the mountain."
At 20,000 feet, on the eve of our summit attempt, a park ranger hiked 6000 feet up from base camp to look for us and question us about our skis. He explained that without a special use permit, we were breaking the law by skiing on the mountain. He insisted that we forfeit our skis to him, and that we would face fines upon leaving the mountain.
Ryan downright refused to give up his skis. I had similar sentiments. To this the ranger replied, "si no cumplias, se esperaran la policia cuando se bajan de la montana." I knew Spanish well enough to translate the statement. "If you don't comply, the police will be waiting for you as your leave the mountain."
Images from the TV show Locked Up Abroad flashed through mind. "Fuck this", I thought, "you can have them, I'm not going to jail over a pair of skis." Upon my insisting, Ryan gave his up as well. After an hour of heated arguing in broken mix of English and Spanish, the ranger and an enlisted porter headed back down the mountain with our skis strapped to their packs.
I now understand how fortunate to have spent my whole life climbing and skiing in places where access is virtually unlimited, and regulations few.
In a small stroke of mercy, they only carried our skis far enough to prevent us from skiing off the summit during our weather window. After summiting, on foot, we descending to 18,500 feet, where a different ranger returned our skis. From there we skied the last 4,500 feet to Plaza de Mulas (base camp on the north side), where, once again, our skis were confiscated.
The author (left) has a final word with the ranger and porter before they begin the descent with his skis from high camp at 20,000 feet on Mt. Aconcagua.
As unbearable as it was to have my gear confiscated twice - the skis were returned again in Mendoza, flying there on a helicopter without us - I have no regrets from this expedition.
I now understand how fortunate to have spent my whole life climbing and skiing in place where access is virtually unlimited, and regulations few. I grew up in Alaska, and have since lived in Montana and Wyoming, where this kind of situation is simply unimaginable.
Unfortunately, this is not always the case in the rest of the world. On mountains like Aconcagua that see high volumes of inexperienced climbers, regulations have sprung up to prevent accidents and deaths. We see this in the U.S. in places like Mt. Raier and Denali, where high traffic is responsible for numerous accidents.
I've learned that if you're going to climb on someone else's turf, you have to be prepared to play by their rules. Until the laws surrounding Aconcagua change, I will not attempt another ski descent, even though it kills me to have come so close. Maybe I will never get the opportunity, but as long as there are other mountains to explore, I think I'm okay with that.
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