South America: Aconcagua (6962m)
The highest peak outside the Himalaya it is located in Argentina near the border with Chile. It was first summited by Mathias Zurbriggen in 1897. It is the highest mountain in South America at 6962m and one of the 7 Summits. Most climbers fly into Santiago (Chile) or Mendoza (Argentina) and take a bus to Puente del Inca for the normal route or to Penitentes for the Polish Glacier, Polish Traverse and Vacas routes. There are no central statistics but about 3,500 climbers make a summit attempt each year with an estimated 30% success rate.
There are over 33 different routes towards the summit of witch some are very difficult.
The most difficult one is by the south wall. The medium difficult is over the Polish route or polish traverse. The Normal Route is the simplest route, sometimes incorrectly called North, since in fact it is the Northwest Route. In general no short-shafted ice axe or ropes are needed. For practical purposes, climbers use ski poles and crampons. Going up by this route there are several itineraries; therefore, it is common to set up two or three altitude camps (“Plaza Canadá”, “Nido de Cóndores” and “Berlín” or “Cólera”). This route is the most chosen by climbers as it does not present any technical difficulty; this means that the climbers don´t require a previous climbing experience on rocks or ice. It may be hiked, just by walking. You may have to use crampons and fixed ropes for your security, depending on the conditions of the route. The following link is a complete breakdown of the route with information, maps and photos.
There are no central statistics on summits but visitors to the park where Aconcagua resides are required to register. In the 2009/2010 season 3,712 climbers registered. Local guides estimate about a 30% success rate thus we can estimate about 1100 summits a year. Since it is only 80 miles from the Pacific ocean, Aconcagua gets hits with extremely high winds and storms, similar to Denali in Alaska. The wind chills can drop to 80 degrees below zero F. It is the weather and altitude that makes it dangerous. I usually hear of one or two deaths a year but again I am not aware of anyone keeping central statistics. As noted, January 2009 saw five deaths - an unusual amount.
Belgian Aconcagua expedition 2010
13 Feb 2010 Rudy VS and Sofie went with a small group of 7 people to climb Aconcagua . The expedition was non guided and self supported accepted with the facilities in basecamp.
After we had taken our permit we took a private bus to Los Penitentes 2600 m high.
First day we walked towards Camp Confluencia 3300 m with a backpack that weighted 19 kg.
Next day : From this large camp we went to a small self-made camp Ibanez 3800m , situated between Confluencia and basecamp Plaza di mulez 4300m so we can gradually get used to the altitude.
After basecamp, we used 3 high camps ;
Camp Alaska 5200m
Nido de condores 5500m
Berlin camp 5850m
Towards the summit 6962m you pass by Plaza Colera, following the traverse, into the canelleta 6500m and above the final stretch.
The expedition went well but 3 climbers did not make it to the summit due to Altitude Sickness .
In total 6 people of the group summited on 22 feb 2010 after 8 days expedition
If you like the whole story with detailed pictures, please take a look at Sofie's old blog : 8000dreams
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