The first instalment in Daniel Neilson’s series of posts about the best outdoor activities in Argentina.
Aconcagua is one of the world’s great mountains. It rises 6,959 metres (22,841ft) up into Argentina’s sky in the Andes. Despite being the highest mountain in the Americas, in fact the highest mountain outside of the Himalayas, it is also relatively straightforward to climb with almost no technical sections. Beware, straightforward does not mean easy – it’s one of the deadliest mountains and an extremely challenging undertaking.
Its fairly simple rise can be misleading, however, suggesting to some that Aconcagua is a boring mountain to look at. But Aconcagua is a fantastic looking peak – an asset surprisingly important in the mountaineering world. It is pyramidal in shape, rising up to two fairly clear peaks along a thin, winding ridge and towers well above its neighbouring peaks. It is a true mountain. A mountain with soul.
Aconcagua; Photo courtesy of Jorge Díaz.
Aconcagua is in the very heart of the dramatic Andes mountain range, 112 kilometres north west of Mendoza city, the capital of Argentina’s principal winegrowing region (melt waters from these mountains irrigate the vineyards), while its summit is only five kilometres from Chile.
Aconcagua’s allure (its shape, its superlatives, its accessibility, its non-technical routes) have proved irresistible for experienced mountaineers and adventurous novices making it one of the most climbed high mountains, with more than 3,000 people attempting the climb every year.
Snow formations on Aconcagua; Photo courtesy of Desbiens_Jean.
The first European attempt to summit Aconcagua was in 1883, with a German party led by Paul Gussfeldt, one of Europe’s great mountaineers, who allegedly bribed local porters saying that there was treasure on the mountain. However, in the early 1950s climbers found the carcass of a guanaco, thought by some to suggest an Inca presence on the mountain earlier.
The first true ascent was in 1897 by Alpinist Matthias Zurbriggen. Since then, thousands of people take the challenge, from a 10-year-old boy to an 87-year-old man.
Despite its non-technical status on one of the routes – no ropes are required – it isn’t a trip to be taken lightly. People die most years attempting the climb. The cold and lack of altitude acclimatisation are principal reasons for casualties. Almost half of the people attempting the climb do not make the summit.
In this guide we will assume that the easiest Normal Route or the Polish Glacier Traverse will be taken, rather than the much more difficult alternative climbing routes.
When to go
Aconcagua, via the Normal Route, can only be climbed without winter climbing experience between December and January, although climbers do it between mid-November and March. Flexibility is very important. Bad weather can scupper any trip, with some weeks during the window not seeing anyone summit.
There are two principal walk-up routes: the Normal Route and the Polish Glacier Traverse (also known as False Polish Glacier Route). The Normal Route, outlined in the itinerary below, is by far the most common, requiring no climbing, and sometimes even without an ice axe and crampons. The Polish Glacier Traverse (different from the more difficult Polish Glacier Route, the true route of the original Polish climbers) is generally considered more beautiful and shorter, but more difficult and specialist. It crosses a fairly wide river (mules are often on hand), and rises almost 800m up a glacier that can be dangerous.
Camp 1 on the descent from Aconcagua; Photo courtesy of Winky.
Most expeditions take 15-20 days from the city of Mendoza. A fairly common organised itinerary for the Normal Route is as follows:
Day 1: From the National Park entrance by Puente del Incas trek to Confluencia (3,395m).
Day 2: Trek to Plaza Francia at 4,000m to acclimatize.
Day 3: Walk to Base Camp at Plaza de Mulas (4,365m).
Day 4: Remain at Base Camp.
Day 5: Climb Bonete Peak. Another acclimatizing trek, back to Base Camp.
Day 6. Climb to Canada Place on Aconcagua (5,050m) to sleep.
Day 7: Climb to camp at Nido de Condores.
Day 8: Acclimatization at Nido de Condores.
Day 9: Climb to Berlin Huts (5,933m).
Day 10-13: Summit bid days – about 10 hours from Berlin Huts.
Day 14: Return to base camp.
Day 15: Back to Mendoza.
Climbing Aconcagua on scree; Photo courtesy of .Luc..
The conditions on the mountain can change by the minute. Much of the walking is on scree, however packed snow can be often found on the upper section (this is favourable), meaning that crampons and an ice axe are essential – we would highly recommend taking crampons and an ice axe unless you can be 100 per cent sure there is no snow on the route.
Other essential equipment includes: 4/5 season sleeping bag, down jacket, mountaineering boots, long underwear, winter climbing trousers, waterproof trousers and jacket, sun hat, balaclava, headlamp, glacier goggles, thin gloves, mittens, overmitts, gaiters, thick socks, sleeping mat, knife, water bottle, sun screen, first aid kit and a camera (it is lovely up there!).
Parque Provincial Aconcagua; Photo courtesy of Miradas.com.br.
Guides and tour operators
Guides are not absolutely required, but they are highly recommended. Most expedition companies offer leaders, guides and occasionally porters who will cook, but not carry personal effects. Prices are $3,000 or more.
Access & permits
A permit is required to climb Aconcagua. This is available from the headquarters of Aconcagua National Park in Mendoza in person only. The permit charge is US$700 for ascent in the high season (Dec 15-Jan 31); US$500 (Dec 1-Dec 14; Feb 1-Feb 20); US$300 Nov 15-Nov 30), only some organized expeditions include this in the total price. You’ll need your passport and insurance certificate to get the permit.
Don’t let the words “walk-up” suggest this is an easy undertaking, it’s not. Anything at this altitude is serious. More than 125 people have died on the mountain, making it one of the most deadly summits (partly due to the sheer number of people climbing). Most climbers will have reasonable winter mountaineering experience in the Alps or Scotland and altitude acclimatisation is essential – anything above 5,400 metres is known as the ‘death zone’.
You’ll need to be very fit. It is a long, long slog to the top. Medical officers at Plaza de Mulas base camp assess each climber for fitness.
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