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An Adventurer’s Guide to Climbing Aconcagua

August 10, 2018

If you’d like to check one of the Seven Summits (the highest peak on each continent) off your bucket list, but you aren’t interested in technical climbing, Aconcagua may be the perfect destination for your next adventure.

The highest peak in South America (as well as the highest mountain outside of Asia), Aconcagua climbs to about 22,837 feet (6,960 meters) above sea level. It is commonly considered to be the highest peak in the world that you can summit by simply walking. But although it isn’t a technically demanding summit to complete, it presents plenty of challenges to those who attempt to scale its slopes.

For starters, the temperatures near the top of Aconcagua are incredibly cold. Glaciers dot the mountainside (including the 10-kilometer-long Ventisquero Horcones Inferior), and the peak remains covered in snow all year long.

Even during the summer, temperatures routinely fall to around 0 degrees Fahrenheit (-17 degrees Celsius) once you pass the 16,000-foot mark (5,000 meters). And once you reach the summit, you’ll be greeted by temperatures in the -20 F (-28 C) range. Of course, strong winds are also common at high elevations, which only makes the already-frigid temperatures feel that much colder.

However, the cold, inhospitable weather is only one of the major challenges presented by the mountain. Aconcagua also reaches heights that make altitude sickness a serious possibility for those who scale it. In fact, most climbers will suffer mild symptoms of altitude sickness, unless they spend an extended period of time acclimatizing to the altitude. However, unlike Everest and a number of other high peaks, oxygen is rarely used by those attempting to reach the top.

Accordingly, Aconcagua represents one of the most attainable, yet worthwhile of the Seven Summits to climb. But it still requires great respect – many people have died while trying to reach the top. So, if you want to take on this mountain, you’ll need to learn about the challenge and prepare well.

We’ll try to help you do exactly this below.

Getting to Aconcagua

Most adventurers will begin by flying into Buenos Aires, Argentina, although many guides and seasoned climbers recommend flying into Santiago, Chile, instead. In either case, you’ll need to make your way to Mendoza, in the heart of Argentina’s wine-growing region.

Mendoza serves as the last place to secure additional equipment or enjoy many of the creature comforts civilization provides. If you are traveling with a tour guide, you’ll likely meet here. From this point, you’ll need to make your way to Aconcagua Provincial Park, nestled firmly within the beautiful Andes Mountains.

At this point, it’ll be necessary to hike to Plaza Francia, before continuing to Base Camp – generally with the assistance of gear-hauling mules. You’ll take a few days at Base Camp to acclimatize before beginning your journey to the summit.

Typical Routes to the Summit

There are two basic routes by which climbers can reach the summit of Aconcagua, although one of the routes can be attempted in three slightly different ways.

Normal (Northwest) Route

The Normal or Northwest Route is far and away the most common route used to reach the summit, and the only one that most amateur adventurers should choose. This route does not require ropes, ice axes or pins to summit, but you will need trekking poles and crampons, as the snow and ice are quite challenging.

There are a number of camps found along the route:

  • Base Camp (13,800 feet)
  • Plaza Canadá (16,170 feet)
  • Nido de Condores (17,820 feet)
  • Piedras Blancas (19,200 feet)
  • Indepencia Refuge
  • Summit (22,837 feet)

You’ll camp one night at each site, although different tour guides recommend slightly different schedules. The entire journey will take approximately three weeks, with the climb itself requiring about 12 to 15 days.

Polish Glacier Route

The Polish Glacier Route starts from a different location – you’ll typically arrive from Plaza, Argentina. You’ll then travel through the Vacas Valley before starting up the northern side of the mountain. About two-thirds of the way up, you’ll encounter the Polish Glacier – from there you have three options:

  • Polish Glacier Traverse Route – This route traverses beneath the glacier and meets the Normal Route.
  • Polish Glacier Direct Route A – This route heads directly up the center of the glacier.
  • Polish Glacier Direct Route B – This route swings around to the far side of the glacier (known as the Polish Shoulder), before heading up a ridgeline.

Trip Timing

The winter temperatures near Aconcagua are extremely cold and storms are common, so you’ll need to schedule your trip for the summer. Just remember that the Southern Hemisphere summer is offset from the Northern Hemisphere summer by six months.

The official climbing season is from November 15th through March 31st each year, but the mountain is usually most crowded between December and late January.

Be sure to start planning your trip at least six to twelve months in advance of your desired arrival. This will give you enough time to secure a passport, hire a guide service (if desired) and obtain all of the necessary permits. Waiting until the last minute to make your plans courts disaster.

Staying Safe During Your Trip

Unfortunately, you’ll need to pass through a few relatively high-crime areas when trying to reach Aconcagua. Tourists traveling through Buenos Aires – including the airport – must remain alert and observant at all times, and there is also a significant amount of crime in Mendoza.

Robberies, including those involving violence or the threat of force, are quite common in and around Buenos Aires. Often, the perpetrators work in two-man teams, and they use motorcycles to make a quick getaway. Additionally, luggage theft is extremely common in the bus stations in Buenos Aires and Mendoza.

However, once you are in the Andes, you’ll notice that the population density is rather low, and the risk of crime becomes less likely. Nevertheless, solo hikers and campers have occasionally reported being assaulted near the Chile-Argentina border region.

Accordingly, it is wise to employ a few basic safety and security practices when traveling to Aconcagua. This includes:

  • Always be sure that someone back home knows your itinerary and is expecting periodic communication. You won’t find it very easy to remain in contact from Base Camp to the Summit, but you should still have a friend or family member who is anticipating your call. This is especially important for those traveling without a guide service.
  • Whenever possible, travel in groups. The more people who are in your party, the less likely you are to be targeted by criminals.
  • Keep your money, passport, wallet and other valuables in a safe place at all times. Typically, this means carrying these items on your person.
  • Always utilize marked, government-approved taxis and transportation companies, rather than independent operators.
  • While some travelers drink Argentinian tap water without suffering ill effects, it is wise to stick to bottled water while making your way to the mountain. There will be plenty of opportunities to do so, and it is simply not worth the risk to drink untreated water. Once you are in Aconcagua Provincial Park it becomes imperative to treat all drinking water.
  • If you are the victim of a crime, contact the local police to make a report. You can reach the police by dialing 911 in most parts of Argentina, however, in Mendoza, you’ll need to dial 101 instead. After reporting the crime to the local police, contact the U.S. Embassy.
  • Remember that an average of three people per year die while trying to ascend Aconcagua. So, just because it is one of the safest of the seven peaks to summit, doesn’t mean it isn’t dangerous.
  • Because of the inclement weather near the mountain, rescue operations are often impossible. This means that you’ll need to be especially careful when climbing Aconcagua.

Avoiding Altitude Sickness

As you approach Aconcagua, you’ll surely notice that the air begins to thin considerably. Even at the relatively low altitude of Base Camp (13,800 feet), the air will feel like it has about 40% less oxygen than it does at sea level. By the time you reach the summit, the air will have about 60% less oxygen than it does at sea level.

This means that your body will be struggling to acquire enough oxygen with every breath. If you breathe in this thin air for long at all, you’ll likely begin to suffer the symptoms of altitude sickness. Mild symptoms include things like headaches, fatigue, and nausea, but altitude sickness can also cause cerebral or pulmonary edema, which is fatal without treatment.

The only completely effective way to treat acute altitude sickness is by descending as rapidly as possible and returning to the thick air at lower altitudes. Some climbers tackling Everest, K2 or other significant peaks often use medications that can help treat altitude sickness, but these are rarely used outside of emergency situations on Aconcagua.

So, instead of planning to treat altitude sickness, it is preferable to avoid ever getting it in the first place. It may not be possible to avoid the symptoms completely when trekking this high, but you can certainly reduce the likelihood that these symptoms will become serious by doing one simple thing: acclimatizing.

The human body has an incredible ability to adapt to high altitudes. In effect, your body can become better at surviving while breathing thin air and adapt to the reduced oxygen levels found at high altitudes. To do so, you simply need to allow your body to adapt to the thin air gradually; you can accomplish this, in part, by ascending slowly.

Sometimes, this involves “climbing high and sleeping low.” To do so, you’ll keep hiking after reaching a given camp (you can stop and relax or set up your tent while you’re there) to a pre-determined altitude. You’ll then descend back to the campsite to sleep for the night.

Above all else, just be sure to watch out for signs of altitude sickness, be sure to drink plenty of water and proceed with caution. If you are traveling with a guide service, be sure to communicate with your guide often and let him or her know if you suspect you are beginning to suffer from altitude sickness.

Avoiding Cold-Weather Injuries

Most of the injuries that occur during Aconcagua ascents are the result of the cold temperatures. Hypothermia and frostbite are the most common problems that occur, and each can represent a very serious risk to your health.

For the most part, a proper tent, sleeping bag and sleeping pad will help you endure the cold nights safely, although you’ll likely want to wear most of your cold-weather gear to stay warm. Many experienced guides recommend bringing along a “pee bottle,” so that you don’t have to exit the tent at night to relieve yourself.

While trekking during the day, be sure to adjust your layers to keep you warm without sweating. However, you’ll want to be sure to avoid leaving any skin exposed as you approach the summit.

This means wearing appropriate ski goggles and keeping your face and ears covered with a head wrap or hood. Gloves are also imperative, as frostbite often strikes the fingers first. In fact, most experienced guides will recommend bringing along a pair of cold-weather mittens for the day of the summit.

Packing and Preparing for Your Trip

You’ll need to bring the proper clothing and equipment on any adventure, but this is especially true when tackling remote and challenging locations like Aconcagua.

And while you should always tailor your exact equipment list to suit your needs and your guide’s recommendations (if you are traveling with an organized expedition), the following represents the basic items you’ll need:

Clothing

  • Heavyweight base layers (top and bottom)
  • Lightweight base layers (top and bottom)
  • Warm socks (at least two pairs)
  • Fleece or synthetic mid-layers (top and bottom)
  • Raingear (including a jacket and pants)
  • Heavy outer coat
  • Hiking pants (lightweight)
  • Long sleeve shirts (at least two)
  • Winter gloves
  • Winter mittens (for summiting)
  • Winter hat
  • Warm-weather hat
  • Cotton t-shirt and shorts (for use during traveling)
  • Hiking boots
  • High-altitude mountaineering boots
  • Sandals/camp shoes
  • High-rise gaiters
  • Sunglasses
  • Ski goggles

Equipment

  • Ice ax
  • Crampons
  • Climbing helmet (optional)
  • Carabiners
  • Webbing
  • Internal frame pack with a minimum 85-liter capacity
  • Daypack
  • Four-season tent
  • Sleeping bag
  • Sleeping pad
  • Stuff sacks
  • Water bottle/hydration system
  • First-aid kit
  • Sunscreen
  • Lip balm
  • Propane stove
  • Mess kit
  • Trekking poles
  • Toiletries
  • GPS / Compass / Map
  • Route guide
  • Camera
  • Water filter/purification tablets
  • Lighter / fire starter
  • Multi-tool

Note that the mules who’ll be helping you haul some of your equipment will carry two bags each. Each bag must weigh no more than 66 pounds. Also, you may not need everything listed above if you are traveling with a guide service, so be sure to check the literature provided, as they’ll surely include a pack list.

Logistical Considerations and General Traveling Tips

Half of the challenge of climbing Aconcagua is simply getting yourself to Aconcagua Provincial Park. It’s a long journey to the Southern Hemisphere, and you’ll need to prepare carefully to ensure you enjoy a smooth trip. The following tips should help reduce the chances of problems and ensure that you enjoy the adventure of a lifetime.

  • Be sure to use a TSA-approved padlock on your luggage – thieves in Buenos Aires often open traveler’s bags to steal the items contained inside.
  • You’ll need a valid passport to enter Argentina. It must be valid for at least six months longer than your anticipated date of departure.
  • As long as you aren’t planning to stay for more than 90 days, you don’t need a travel visa to enter Argentina.
  • You’ll also need a W.H.O. card verifying your immunizations to enter Argentina.
  • You’ll need to make arrangements for toilet access during your climb. Most tour operators include this as part of the basic travel package, but if you are not, you’ll need to pay for access upon reaching Base Camp.
  • Remember that you are subject to all local laws while traveling in Argentina. If you are arrested, contact the U.S. Embassy as soon as possible.

Aconcagua is one of the most exciting destinations for outdoor adventurers, and it provides a fantastic chance to climb one of the Seven Summits without having to use technical climbing gear. Just remember to prepare for the exceptionally cold temperatures at the summit and give yourself plenty of time to acclimatize to the altitude.

With sufficient preparation and a positive mindset, you’ll likely have a great time climbing Aconcagua and make memories that’ll last a lifetime.

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