What it’s like to climb Aconcagua, the highest mountain outside of Asia.
Updated: Dec 11, 2019
As I waited at the airport in Santiago de Chile for the 45 minute flight over The Andes mountain range and across the boarder to Argentina, I couldn’t help but feel jittery, excited, and above all nervous. Eighteen months earlier, while I was in a cabin on Mount Elbrus, I’d received a message from an account on Instagram named “Andes Specialists” - a guiding company in South America. Maria, who ran the page, was very helpful and came across genuine and friendly - we joked about the crazy Elbrus weather and how the guides might not like the fact they were giving me pointers. It was after a failed attempt at climbing Mount Elbrus that I made the decision to book with Andes Specialists, and would join them on their first Aconcagua expedition of the 2018/2019 season. Initially, I hadn't intended to jump straight into Aconcagua after my Elbrus climb, I had planned to return to Nepal and complete a smaller 6000m peak first, however after chatting with Maria I was completely inspired.
Eighteen months I’d been planning this trip. Eighteen months of saving, planning, acquiring gear, training - and even another quick trip back to Russia scoring myself a summit of Elbrus in August of 2018, all in the lead up to this moment. It wasn’t until we were flying over the Andes range in the plane, when I finally saw Aconcagua’s peak towering over all the other mountains, that reality finally hit me - I was about to climb the highest mountain in South America and the Western Hemisphere, and the second highest of the "Seven Summits".
I arrived at Mendoza's international airport solo, leaving my family and partner at home, preparing myself to face Christmas alone. I had the unfortunate experience of being forgotten at the airport by the hotel when the concierge failed to arrange my taxi - you can guarantee this was made up by the upgrade to a beautiful suite and delicious deserts that were awaiting me in my room. I spent Christmas relaxing by the pool, ordering room service, doing some light cardio, FaceTiming my loved ones, and of course thanking my lucky stars that Home Alone 2 that was playing on TV and it was not in Spanish. Of course, most trekkers and climbers know it’s always best to arrive a few days early before long hikes or expeditions, not only to let your body adjust to the time difference and get over any jetlag, but to avoid any instances of baggage not meeting you at the other end when you disembark.
After a few days of relaxing in Mendoza, it was time for me to meet up with my group. Max Kausch, our lead guide, had added me to a Whatsapp group when I landed, he had passed along the hotel information and the time to arrive, he was going to stop by and do a gear check to make sure I had everything I needed for the 18 days on the mountain. I was also very excited as my friend Mikael from Denmark, who I had met a few years prior on Kilimanjaro and stayed in contact with, was joining me on this trip - he was arriving and would be at the hotel very soon.
After meeting our very large group, checking and hiring gear, arranging permits, buying supplies from the local supermarket, the following day it was finally time to head to Los Penitentes, an old ski resort in close proximity to the entrance to the Aconcagua Provincial Park. I also took the time to pick myself up a Movistar sim card, as the guides had let us know there was wifi and signal at Basecamp.
After arriving at Los Penitentes, we arranged our gear and split it up into multople duffles, from what would be sent directly to base camp on the Mules and what we would need for the first three days of trekking. Our climbing gear required for the higher camps would be heading straight to Basecamp. We had dinner together, and had an early night - it was quite a long trip from Mendoza and we were all feeling tired from the travel. The next morning, we set out towards the gate to begin our trek, after doing some sight seeing along the way.
We were climbing what is called the "Normal Route" on Aconcagua, which is the most popular and the most direct route up the mountain. It's an eighteen day expedition from start to finish, and travels through the "Horocones Valley". The first day is a fairly laid back walk from the gate to the first camp, which is named “Confluencia” and sits at about 3400m. It’s about a 3-4 hour fairly laid back walk, with a few washed out river crossings that requires a bit of assistance from the guides. A nice way to kick off the trekking portion of the expedition!
Confluencia is well equipped, with flushing toilets, running water and sinks, tables and chairs, and plenty of socialising with other climbers and trekkers. We spent one night with the following day being a long day of slow acclimatising while walking to the South Face viewpoint of Aconcagua. This day was extremely windy, cold, hot, sunny, long... and did I mention, windy? Although not difficult trekking, the sun and wind definitely takes it out of you.
After our long, windy, and fairly tiring day, we spent one more night at Confluencia. The next day, we would make the even longer journey to Base Camp, which was an 11 hour walk through the Horocornes Valley. If you’re reading this because you’re looking to or preparing to climb Aconcagua, I must warn you that this day, excluding summit day, is definitely the most gruelling. Nothing feels better than taking those final few steps into Basecamp. Again, the trekking is not overly difficult, there are a few river crossings and some uphill slogs, but being on your feet in the sun and wind is quite exhausting and mentally draining.
After arriving to basecamp, we had another rest day. There isn't a whole lot to do at basecamp, but there are showers, wifi and charging stations and toilets that are cleaned daily, which is helpful and to be honest, feels fairly luxurious. We were very lucky to spend New Year's eve at Basecamp and enjoyed celebrating with the guides with beautiful champagne, a steak BBQ and CAKE! Although, it was almost far too cold to enjoy.
The following day we completed our first load carry to camp 1 - a much shorter day of only 3-4 hours of climbing, however the climb is quite steep in sections and requires wearing double boots, walking through Penitentes (which are sharp, elongated thin blades of hardened snow or ice) and switchbacks. Camp 1 sits at 4950m and perches itself on a bit of a ledge with some fantastic views - there are no luxuries here like taps or toilets. I was unfortunate enough to twist my knee on this day on the last third of the walk, however one of the guides George was happy to walk slowly with me and let me take my time. I felt quite emotional as I reached the camp just slightly behind the rest of my team, not sure if it was the altitude, the exhaustion or the fact I was fearing my climb was going to come to an end if my knee wasn't able to cope. After eating lunch and dropping some of our items, we descended back down to Basecamp (4300m). Georgia decided to take me an alternativeroute to descend from camp, fearing the pain in my knee would increase if I joined the group in taking the direct descent. We took it very easy, took our time, sat down in some areas and enjoyed the views and some snacks. This was a very good day.
When we returned to basecamp, the guides took us back to the penitents where a small ice slope sat. Here, we would do some ice arrest and crampon skills and practice. Although Aconcagua is generally a dry mountain, it is not unusual to encounter snows storms, and there can be some steep icy sections closer to the summit. Being from Brisbane, Australia, I am always happy to practice my snow skills as it's not often I get to spend time in the snow.
After another rest day, we packed up our gear that would be required for the higher camps and left our trekking items locked in our mess tend, and made our move up to camp 1. On arrival, Max showed us what how to manage our "duties" (for those at home, I'm referring to a number two) and the guides cooked us a delicious meal in their tents. Mountaineering is a lot of waiting around; there really isn't a lot to do once you get to camp apart from eat, rest, and usually spending a lot of time going to the "bathroom". By this time, I had made myself a close group of friends; Mikael, my friend from Denmark whom I met while on Kilimanjaro; Jon, a Norwegian man who had just finished attempting to climb Vinson in Antarctica, and Matt, a Canadian man who joined us later on the tour who had experience climbing Denali. Unfortunately due to that fact most of our expedition team mates were Brazilians, there was a bit of difficulty communicating. Nevertheless, it did not interfere with the friendships made among each of us. The following day, we would leave for Camp 2 at 5630m and we were to stay there for two nights.
Unfortunately, I do feel that this itinerary and the speed of our team, severely let down my acclimatisation. From everything I had read online before leaving for Aconcagua, I learnt it was ideal to do load carries and return back down to the previous camp for another night - the old "climb high, sleep low" is the best and only way when dealing with high altitude mountains. Alas, I trusted Max, the guides, and their experience.
During rest day at camp 2, I noticed a particular cloud hovering over the summit of Aconcagua and I asked Max what he thought. He told me this cloud meant precipitation, and that we were due to get a dumping of snow on the 7th of January, which was to be our summit day. We watched the skies and waited in anticipated - we just needed a few more days of what seemed like perfect weather. It was also upon entering camp 2 there was a huge decline in both mine and Matt's health. Matt had stumbled into camp and made the bad decision to lay down in his hot tent - increasing the risk of cerebral swelling. Max was trying his very hardest to get him up and walking, but Matt felt he wasn't going to go on much further. I, myself, was certainly feeling the effects of the altitude. I felt myself stumble out of my tent at one point, my head was pounding and swirling all at the same time. I couldn't eat, yet my stomach was so unwell. Mikael was trying his very hardest to encourage me, but every time he spoke to me I felt my head thump harder and harder. I continued to drink water, but I felt it was going through me faster than I could keep up.
Every day at camp, Max would check our vitals. He made the comment that my heart was struggling, which is disappointing yet unavoidable for someone who relies on Thyroxine medication to survive, as it certainly increases heart rate.
After two painful , yet boring, nights at camp 2, we woke up to clear skies that very quickly turned grey. Matt had made that decision that he would give his everything to join us and continue on to High Camp or what they call "Camp Colera" (and yes, that's for a reason). Colera sits at about 6000m, and although I was feeling dreadful, I would also join the rest of my team mates and continue on. For most of the way up to high camp, my head was simultaneously swirling and pounding, and I felt Max closely keep an eye on the fact I was very much off balance. I was about 100m off Colera when I felt I could not safely continue and told Max I would need to rest for a bit. Max had told me Matt had turned back, and asked me what I wanted to do. He could see the swelling in my hands and face, and I was starting to slur my words as I felt my tongue was tied up in a knot - these are clear signs that one is not acclimatising. At this point, the skies were grey, the winds were picking up and it was starting to snow, and I made the very difficult decision to call it quits on my summit bid. Max gave me a hit of dexamethasone, which stops the swelling in the brain enough so you can get yourself down to a safer altitude and found a porter to bring both Matt , who was waiting near camp 2 at the medical hut, and I all the way down to Basecamp.
After a hug and a high-5, porter and I started our descent, picking up Matt along the way. Slowly, the clouds got thicker and darker, the thunder got louder and the snow got heavier. The further we descended, the more it sounded like the thunder was right beside us, and the more static our hair became. I'd heard stories of climbers being struck by lightning in storms, and usually the first sign of lightning, is static hair. We ran down as fast as we could, but the snow kept coming. By the time we got to basecamp, we were in a full blown snow storm that just kept coming - we were cold and our clothes were wet. The tents at basecamp were completely covered with snow and we had nowhere warm to bunker down. We found refuge in our mess tent with our bags and found some dry clothes, while the kind people from INKA expeditions found us some food and somewhere to sleep.
Thankfully there was a room free with two sets of bunk beds that were occupied. Basecamp was completely covered with snow, it was dark and we were all freezing. I wondered how the rest of our team were doing up at camp 3 and hoped that the storm wasn't as bad for them up there. In the morning, the snow and wind continued but started to ease later in the day. Matt and I kept a close eye on the Spot Tracking device - we saw it move briefly, but for the most part it stayed still. We waited in our snow covered mess tent in anticipation, hoping for some positive news from our team. Finally, one of the INKA guys came into our tent - she has word that the team were on their way back down, and eventually one by one, they returned to camp. They told us that the storm was brutal at Colera, with almost 100km/hr wind that destroyed three of the tents. There was so much snow that they would have had to break trail to the summit - they felt there was no chance at a safe summit attempt and had to wait out the storm to make a safe descent without even being able to cook and eat dinner.
And that was that - with winds continuing to pick up at the summit, we were to leave Aconcagua the following day and trek out all the way back to the gate. To be honest, I was a little disappointed that we didn't make use of our rest days, but again, I trusted our guides in that the weather would continue to be too dangerous for another summit attempt. We walked all the way from Basecamp through Confluencia and back to the gate. We then jumped on our bus and then continued straight through back to Mendoza, arriving at the hotel at 2pm, feeling exhausted, sad, but also a little bit relieved that the experience was over. As much as I love being in the mountains and feel disappointed any time a climb isn't successful, there is always a bit of excitement to be had about that first shower and being able to facetime my loved ones.
We had a final goodbye dinner together, and then it was goodbye to Mendoza, Andes Specialists and my group. Although I told myself I wouldn't return to Aconcagua for at least another 2 years, I ended up booking again for this coming season (February 2020). This time, I am climbing with Mike Hamill's company Climbing the Seven Summits, via a variation of the False Polish route. I've decided to go with CTSS and via this route as it is 20% longer and less populated, giving myself(hopefully) a better chance at acclimatising, but also for a change of scenery. I'll be sure to keep you posted on my second attempt at Aconcagua!