These notes have been prepared for Needle Sports by John Biggar, a qualified mountaineering instructor who leads and organises commercial trips to Aconcagua. They are intended to assist the climber who has already gained some knowledge of mountaineering and is fully aware of its risks but still wishes to climb mountains.
They are brief and not designed to be comprehensive in any way. Ultimately climbing is a dangerous sport and claims many casualties each year, even on as 'easy' a mountain as Aconcagua. One of the guiding principals of British climbing and mountaineering is that it is the individual climber is responsible for his or her own safety. If you cannot accept this then this site and probably climbing in general is unlikely to suit you. May we refer you to this very interesting site instead.
Q: Where is Aconcagua?
A: It is located entirely in Argentina (South America), but just near the Chilean border, at 33ºS. The nearest big cities are Mendoza in Argentina and Santiago, the capital of Chile.
Camp One (ca 4950m)
Q: How high is it?
A: It is 6959m high and is the highest mountain in South America and the highest in the world outside of Central Asia.
Q: How do I get there?
A: Very easily. For about £600-800 fly to Mendoza in Argentina either via Buenos Aires or Santiago. Get your permit here then hop on a bus along the main road towards Santiago (about $15). Get off at either Punta de Vacas (for the Vacas valley approach) or Puente del Inca (for the more popular Horcones valley approach).
Q: How hard is it?
A: Aconcagua has a reputation as the world's highest 'trekking' peak or the world's highest mountain that you can just walk up. This is certainly true and in about 70% of ascents I've made by the normal route we haven't even needed crampons and ice-axes. However, only about 10% of people who buy a permit for Aconcagua make the summit, and several die trying each year, so in one way it is quite hard. It's a very high and tough mountain with a very serious altiltude problem and a lot of people underestimate it. You need excellent expedition camping skills, sure footing on loose ground, and plenty of time to acclimatise before your summit day.
Neil Williams ascending to Camp Two at about 5200m
Q: When is it usually climbed?
A: The southern hemisphere summer is the only realistic time to climb Aconcagua. The best months are December, January and February.
Q: How should I prepare myself for this mountain?
A: I recommend training or experience for aerobic capacity, stamina and mental attitude. The altitude is seriously hard work and the fitter your heart and lungs are then the more oxygen you'll get to your muscles. You will probably end up carrying quite heavy loads on the mountain and summit days are usually 12-16 hours long, so make sure you have good stamina. You also need to be very familiar with your gear and able to establish or strip camps etc in a blizzard.
Q: So what kind of gear do I need?
A: You really don't need much technical mountaineering equipment, but you should take an ice axe and crampons. Plastic boots are highly recommended to minimise the chance of frostbite, though we do see people making successful ascents in modern well insulated leather boots. Also essential for walking at altitude are a pair of walking poles. You will need a top quality mountain tent and stove (MSR XGK recommended). Also extra clothes, to protect from the cold and the wind since it can get a little chilly up there. Also highly recommended is a wide mouth Nalgene Water Bottle or two, Platypusses don't work at -20Cº, and Sigg bottles freeze to your lips!
Q: What kind of clothing?
A: On the walk in I use long cotton trousers and a T-shirt, though many clients just wear shorts. Lightweight boots with at least some ankle support are recommended because it's rough underfoot in some sections and walking in would not be a good place to turn your ankle! Around the altitude of basecamp it's generally pleasant and warm during the day (usually with just one fleece on) but it gets cold at night and you'll want your down jacket then. However I have seen one metre of snow at basecamp, so be prepared. From Base Camp to Camp 1 I use similar clothing.
Higher on the mountain, and particularly on summit day I wear everything! That is usually 4-5 layers of fleece and thermal up top covered by a down jacket and (on windy days) a windproof goretex as well. I usually wear longjohns, fleece salopettes and Goretex salopettes down below. Sticky-thickies and mitts on my hands, two or more hats/balaclavas, a pair of glacier glasses to prevent snow blindness and a pair of goggles to prevent your eyes freezing over and that's about it. Oh yes, and a big rucksack to put it all in!!
Q: What sort of sleeping bag?
A: I would advise a 5 season down bag for the mountain with a zip so you can use the same bag as a duvet lower down. A liner is nicer to sleep in.
Q: What about food and water?
A: You can buy lots of good quality food in Mendoza, which has big European style hypermarkets all over town. The only thing that might be worth bringing from home might be some freeze-dried (or similar) high altitude rations, though I personally prefer a tin of tuna fish and some noodles (available in Mendoza). For some strange reason the only thing you can't get in Argentina is chocolate bars like Mars or Twix, maybe something to do with the fact that it regularly gets to 40ºC in Mendoza. You need to drink lots, and an energy drink additive such as Hi-5 can help replace vital salts. Also, it is important to treat water and boiled snow as giardia is present in the area.
Q: Which route do you do?
A: Our guided trips are all by the quieter and more scenic Vacas valley, with a choice of summit day by the Polish glacier or the Falso traverse to join the normal route at 6300m. This is perhaps a slightly tougher route to the top than the full normal route by the Horcones valley but it is much nicer!. Full details of both of these routes are available in my guidebook, The Andes a Guide for Climbers.
Peter Clarke at about 6700m on the Polish Glacier Route
Q: How long will it take?
A: I run a 25 day itinerary which allows for two days in Mendoza, a 4 day acclimatisation trip to the Cordon del Plata (details of these mountains in my guidebook). We then have a14 or 15 day trip to them mountain including a 3 day
approach trek. You shouldn't really try Aconcagua in less than 2½ weeks as the risks of failing due to altitude illness become just too great.
Q: What kind of weather conditions will I experience?
A: Generally spells of 10-15 days of good settled weather are interspersed with stormier periods when high winds and/or afternoon snow showers are common, but each season is very different. We run 2 week trips in to the mountain and with over 20 twenty trips run over a ten year period we've had about 15% where weather prevented anyone summitting, about 50% with near perfect conditions and the remainder some sort of a mixture. Temperatures can drop to -5ºC at night at base camp but by day it usually quite pleasant. Above Camp 1 it can get to -20ºC at night, by day if there is no wind it can still be very pleasant, and I once managed to sit outside at 6000m in a T-shirt.
Hamish, John, Ed and Sergio in the Caneleta (a wide open couloir) not far below the summit
Q: What about altitude sickness?
A: Acute Mountain Sickness can be a problem when going over 3,500m (although some folk start to suffer at 2,500m!). Our itineraries are designed to maximise everyone's chance of getting to Base Camp in a fit state and clients have always found our acclimatisation trip to the Cordon del Plata to be particularly useful (as well as very pleasant what with grassy camping and cartons of wine!). On the mountain we have a few rest days and a window of three summit days built in to allow for some delays due to altitude problems.
I'm very much of the opinion that the way to deal with altitude is to be as fit as possible beforehand then do very little when you get there! - I do have a reputation for being lazy though. It may sound a bit facetious but that really is the way to avoid problems. Altitude problems tend to come on when people push themselves too hard, either on an individual day, or by just trying to make progress too fast up the mountain. So get fit, get lazy, chill out and brew up.
Q: What is the biggest problem most people face?
A: Aconcagua is a very straightforward mountain if you are fit and experienced and it's not your first time above 6000m. However the vast majority of people who come here fail. (Though thankfully our guided trips have a better success rate!!) While on the mountain there are a number of reasons for this, but they
probably all come down to one basic thing - get plenty of experience at high altitude before you come to Aconcagua. Climb a few
5000m peaks, then climb some 6000m peaks (Aconcagua really counts as a 7000'er). There are one hundred other 6000m peaks in the Andes, all lower than Aconcagua and many also easier (details of all in my guidebook). Practice pitching your tent in severe weather, learn how to cope with altitude and how to light your stove in a gale at -20ºC. Then go to Aconcagua and enjoy it!
Q: Can I do it?
A: If you have good general mountaineering experience, are fit and have previous experience at altitude (ideally over 6000m) then Aconcagua is for you. Some fit folk will manage even without previous experience at altitude. With proper preparation and a positive attitude, you can do it! But if you don't try, you will never know.
Q: Anything else I should know?
A: Aconcagua is also the highest peak in the world that can be seen from the sea!
Q: How much will it cost me?
A: £1995 in 2005-06, plus flights to Mendoza which will cost from £600 to £800 depending upon which company you go with and how early you book.
The last few metres to the summit. The top of the Canaleto can be seen beyond the climber in orange.
Please click for more information on John Biggar's climbing trips to Aconcagua.
On the summit of Aconcagua
© John Biggar 2004