Aconcagua Expedition Basics by Alan Arnette
Q: Which routes are most popular?
A: The normal routes are on opposite sides of Aconcagua with approaches up the Horcones River valley or the Polish Traverse using the Vacas Valley. Both routes meet around 22,500' below the summit. The Polish Glacier is one of the most difficult routes on Aconcagua and is climbed by a minority of the teams. It is 50 to 70 degree snow and ice slopes requiring technical ice climbing skills, protection and roped climbing. This route requires significant planning, preparation, gear and skills. Climbers die on this one and all routes. In 2005, I turned back from the Polish Direct in favor of the Traverse when avalanche conditions looked bad.
Q: How long does a climb usually take?
A: My entire trips took about 20 days. 4 days to travel to Argentina from the US including a day or so in Mendoza. Then 3 days trek to base camp at 13,800'. After a couple days rest and getting used to the altitude at base camp we spent the 4 days climbing between Camp 1 and Camp 2 at 19,000' on acclimatization climbs, gear carries to the camps and finally moving to Camp 1, Camp 1.5 (2005 only) and Camp 2. On day 17 of the 2005 expedition we summited. The return to Mendoza was a swift two days.
Q: How much does a standard climb cost with and without a guide?
A: The costs can range from $3000 to $5000 depending on who you use. If you do everything yourself cut the highest cost in half or more. See my Guide page for more details.
Q: Do I need a permit to climb?
A: All climbers regardless of route or guides must buy a permit in Mendoza at the Aconcagua National Park office. There is a matrix of permits fees depending on route then low, mid and high season finally guided or unguided. The lowest permit costs USD$345 for the Horcones Valley route, guided in low season (Nov 15-30 then Feb 21 - March 15). The highest is USD$1,160 for unguided, Vacas Valley in high season between November 20 to February 20. I believe the financial penalty for without a guide service is a result of so many rescues over the past several years, a desire to raise more money and part of an effort to make Aconcagua more like Denali with a limited number of guide services. This is the site for the permit fees.
Q: Do I really need a guide for Aconcagua?
A: It all depends on your skills, money and time available. Aconcagua is a serious high-altitude climb. Many people climb without a formal guide and contract with local agencies for mules or carry everything themselves. There are usually a lot of climbers on Aconcagua so you would probably not be alone but easily could be. In harsh weather (white-outs) or in a medical emergency, you will be on your own so consider your skill level carefully. You must bring a two-way radio and a sat phone in my opinion and have the frequency or number of the local rescue resources already programmed in. As I mentioned, Aconcagua has brutal weather with cruel winds, driving snow and white-out conditions that can create a nightmare scenario.
Q: Are there local guides for Aconcagua?
A: Yes, there are many quality choices based out of Mendoza and elsewhere. Some are less expensive than traditional Western companies but most charge about the same price. My usual advice is to get recent references from a climber with a similar background and skill level as yourself. Get everything in writing. Especially understand the acclimatization schedule since local guides have been known to rush people up and down. Finally ask about food, group gear and language skills.
Q: How do you get on an expedition to climb Aconcagua?
A: Most reputable guides ask for your climbing resume and require some serious climbing experience. Ideally they want to see climbs of 14,000' mountains. Guides emphasize conditioning since most people take the non-technical routes. I think it is very, very helpful to had been on a few 14,000 - 17,000 mountains such as Mts Rainier, Tasman or Mont Blanc before you attempt Aconcagua.
Q: What is involved if I plan my own climb?
A: Basically everything: permits, travel, hotels, food, gear, routes, communications, emergency contentions - everything. There are local companies in Mendoza who can provide some services such as getting food or heavy tents to base camp. You can save a lot of money this way but as I said before, consider your skills in the event that something goes wrong - are you self sufficient? What are your medical skills? HAPE and HACE are real possibilities on Aconcagua - do you have the proper medicine and training to deal with it? And a hundred more questions. See my guide page for more
Aconcagua is a great climb for someone looking to see how their body performs at high altitude. The normal routes are pretty safe and do not require technical skills with ropes or crampons on most dry years. Without snow, it is extremely dirty and dusty. Well worn trails mark the majority of the normal routes. It can be crowded since it is low cost, easy to get to and has a reputation as a walk-up. I would recommend the Upper Vacas route to avoid the crowds. But it is dangerous and every year climbers die even on the normal routes. I liked Aconcagua as a warm-up for higher peaks or a climb with friends. Alan Arnette