As the Pacific Northwest hits the longest, darkest days of late December and early January I often find myself leading groups on climbing Expeditions to Aconcagua (22,841' - 6,962 m) in Argentina. As most climbers know this is the highest mountain in the Western Hemisphere and one of the Seven Summits. Because of this status it is a much sought after summit and each season it attracts close to 4000 people looking to reach the top.
I did my first Aconcagua trip in 1993 on the Plaza Argentina side where we climbed via the False Polish Glacier route. Back then there was almost no official presence on that side of the mountain, there were still cows in the Vacas Valley, and the place had a very remote feel to it. These days I still guide via the relatively less travelled Vacas/Plaza Argentina side, but times have changed and basecamp at Plaza Argentina is now a busy place with helicopters coming and going, an official park service ranger station, porters looking to carry loads, and outfitters offering everything from satellite phone and internet service to hot meals, hot showers, and even beds if you are willing to pay for it.
As a guide, one of the things that always amazes me is how often people make the same mistakes each season in planning and executing their expeditions. I am hoping this article helps you with your trip and gives you some ideas for how to have a great trip with a high chance of success. I will confess at the beginning that guides tend to go in for many things that cost money and as a result following these directions will likely add to the cost of your trip. I will try to focus on tips that increase your chance of success and avoid suggestions that simply add to the cost of your trip.
Tip #1: Cross train and lose weight if needed before the climb: People call us often looking for a training program that will work well for Aconcagua. Often what they are looking for is a routine that they can do each day indoors for an hour that will get them ready. In my experience this often does not work well or yield the type of fitness they are looking for. The best training for climbing is walking uphill with a pack. If you can't do this, then the next best is to mix up endurance training such as biking or even swimming with higher intensity activities. I tried Cross fit and thought it was good when mixed with my endurance activities as it built my core strength and always focused on the things I was not good at, thus never becoming routine. I often tell my clients that doing hard manual labor is the closest thing they can get to expedition climbing and they laugh, but I am serious.
Perhaps the biggest problem for many climbers is that they are simply over weight. Standards for fitness seem to be sliding over time and we often encounter clients who believe they are fit, but are in fact 20-30 pounds or more overweight. This leads to conversations about needing more water, tending to run hot, needing to go slow, etc. This makes sense as they are essentially climbing in a heavy wetsuit of extra weight that puts them at a disadvantage right from the get go. I would say that losing weight before a trip is the one thing that my average customers could do that would have the greatest effect on the outcome of their trip. Exercise, proper nutrition, and maintaining the right caloric balance are dull things indeed, but are the backbone to a successful climb of any mountain.
Tip #2: Take time to acclimate: Most parties simply get in too big a hurry to move higher on the mountain. The total distance covered on the climb is relatively short, so if you are going the right speed you will feel like you are going too slow. Most climbers tend to be obsessive trainers, which is great during preparation, but a fast pace will hose most on the mountain. To properly acclimate you should average about 1000' (300 meters) of elevation gain per day. If we move any faster than this we have tend to have people develop altitude illnesses and if we move at this rate or slower we tend to not have issues. On occasion weather forces our hand and we bump thing up a day, but usually at the expense of some discomfort or lower summit numbers. Oddly a slower itinerary tends to lead to a faster trip as you can sidestep having to move sick people down, which will always set you back.
With this in mind we use the following schedule for moving up the mountain:
- Day 1: Arrive in Mendoza in afternoon or early evening.
- Day 2: Drive to Penitentes (8200') pack mule loads, and spend night.
- Day 3: Drive to Vacas Valley (7,600'), hike to La Lena (8,850').
- Day 4: Hike to Casa Piedra (10,500')
- Day 5: Hike up Relinchos Valley to Plaza Argentina BC (13,800')
- Day 6: Rest Day at base camp.
- Day 7: Carry to Camp 1 (16,200') & return to base camp.
- Day 8: Rest Day at Base camp.
- Day 9: Move to Camp 1.
- Day 10: Carry to Camp 2 (18,200') & return to Camp 1.
- Day 11: Rest at Camp 1.
- Day 12: Move to Camp 2.
- Day 13: Move to Camp 3 (19,600')
- Day 14: Possible Summit Day
- Day 15: Possible Summit Day
- Day 16: Possible Summit Day
- Day 17: Descend to Plaza Mulas on Ruta Normal
- Day 18: Complete hike out and return to Mendoza.
- Day 19: Extra Day
- Day 20: Return flight to your home country
Tip #3: Use the Mules: From time to time we bump into folks that are humping all their gear into basecamp in an effort to make the experience more "pure." This always strikes me as a bit odd as they usually used planes to get to Argentina, buses to get to the trailhead, etc. Once in a blue moon we see folks carry their own gear in and then do well on the mountain, but more often than not the hardship of the hike in leads to blisters, disorganization, or exhaustion early on, which plagues them for the whole trip. Style does matter, but skipping the mules to basecamp seems somehow irrelevant when folks are "soloing" a route alongside other climbers.
Tip #4: Use a local outfitter or guide service that uses one: There are many great Argentine outfitters and I believe that having a local partner will radically ease your logistical burden and at least get you to and from the base camps in the best possible health with the fewest mistakes. We use Grajales Expeditions and have worked with them since 1993. The business is run by Fernando Grajales and was started by his father, whom I also had the pleasure of working with. The main things that we have Grajales help us with are airport pickups, the permit process in Mendoza, transportation to/from Mendoza and Penitentes, to/from Penitentes and the trailheads, and mules to carry loads to/from the base camps. Many climbers are very leery of trusting the locals and you can trust these guys. If things go sideways on the mountain or enroute to/from the mountain they will have your back and they are way better at dealing with these types of logistics than a non-local. We do not have them cook for us at basecamp simply because it is expensive, but the food is great. I do often rent a tent from them for use at basecamp as my groups prefer to sit in a chair, out of the dust and wind.
Tip #5: Avoid all Freeze-dried Food: When people end their trip early it is often due to dreams of hot showers, thick steaks, and fresh OJ. Aconcagua is one place where you can afford to take good food to basecamp. We usually send some of our gear to Argentina in a cooler and then use the cooler to transport fresh veggies, bread, meat, and even eggs to basecamp. Packing these items is an art as things often get shaken beyond recognition on the trip in, but with careful buying and careful packing you can get some of these items to basecamp intact. Your outfitter will often loan or rent you a plastic barrel for transporting items. Mule loads are calculated by weight, so you can generally afford the small additional weight of a small barrel stuffed with great food. Above base camp we strive to prepare foods that we would eat at home as a good meal does wonders for your strength and motivation. Current favorites are rice curries, mac-n-cheese, burritos, quesadillas, and quick cooking pastas. Up really high it is hard to get pasta to cook completely, so we tend to eat this at the lower camps and focus on rice or tortilla based meals at the highest camps. Freeze-dried always provides the amusing game of name that dinner as climber gas from poorly rehydrated dehydrated meals overtakes the tent.
Tip #6: Get Someone back home to send weather forecasts: As guides we feel obligated to carry satellite phones and we primarily use the text feature to receive twice daily weather forecasts from our office in Washington State. I have the person doing the forecast focus on wind speed and direction and we start getting these forecasts early in the trip so that we can get a sense of which models are working best and how accurate the forecast is. I have had many trips here and on Denali where we have sat or gone based on wind speed forecast and had wildly better results than groups that did not have some sort of forecast. We also sometimes hire a meteorologist to do custom forecasts for our groups.
Tip #7: Keep it simple. The rise of services on Aconcagua has tricked many into thinking that most of the trip will be easy and they can endure the brief days of discomfort at high camp and above. This is a false conclusion. All of these things can make the lower mountain much easier and much more comfortable, but it puts you that much farther from the reality of the cold, difficult summit day that remains unchanged. At basecamp and subsequent camps we favor keeping the infrastructure to a minimum and prefer to carry our own loads as it prepares us mentally and physically for the summit day, which is always a challenge. I prefer to live like I am on an expedition and thus avoid most of the luxuries of basecamp until my trip is over. A simple camp is lighter, there is less to deal with, and I see no evidence that it improves people's performance up high. In fact, I think having everything in place almost makes it harder for people to wrap their heads around the difficulties on the summit climb.
Tip #8: Pack light: Much of this is covered in a post I did called Aconcagua Packing Tips, but the basics are as follows:
- Take the necessities and leave the rest: A necessity is a need. You need a sleeping bag, so bring a nice, light (-20F) one with a compression sack. You need warm boots, you need a headlamp. You do not need camp booties, you do not need more cutlery than a light cup, bowl, and spoon, you do not need a special pad for sitting at dinner, you can use your sleeping pad etc.. With each item ask yourself if you "need" this and if your answer is "well, it would be NICE to have this," then it is likely extra. Extra stuff adds up to weigh a lot and if you would rather have the stuff than the summit, fine, but if not then leave it behind. I do encourage people to bring a ipod and a small book or some cards as you need a certain amount of distraction when stuck in your tent, but keep it really simple and light. Other common extras include: Heavy video cameras, GoPros, most toiletries, pack covers, etc.
- Buy lightweight gear, focusing on getting the most bang for your buck: My 75L pack weighs 3.5 lbs empty vs. 7-8 lbs. for the average pack, I take a -20F down bag instead of a -40F down bag, I use an LED headlamp, my Gore-tex layers are very light, I avoid the huge parka and instead combine several down and synthetic insulation layers, etc. I also carry 2 short pads and place my legs on my empty pack each night. It all adds up to a kit that weighs 10-12 lbs less than my average customers gear. Drop 20 lbs of body weight, drop 10 lbs. from your pack, and suddenly you are leaving camp each day with 30 lbs. less overall each day....you get the picture.
Tip #9: Know the summit day is much harder than other days of the trip: If you are climbing Denali, the first day out of basecamp is tough, so is the second day. The move on Denali from 14K to 17K is a hard day. As a result the summit day on Denali is usually just another hard day in a string of hard days and people are mentally ready for it. Aconcagua, on the other hand, plays out like a challenging trek with a Denali summit day tossed on at the end. The days leading up to summit day are a lot easier than the summit day. For some this is no big deal, but for people that find the lead up to the summit challenging, the summit day often destroys them. The summit day is physically harder and almost always colder and windier than other days. For this reason I often advise people to climb Denali first and then Aconcagua second.
Tip #10: It is just a mountain: Ever try to hit a golf ball or ski a steep ski run when you are stressed out versus relaxed? Go into Aconcagua knowing that your summit is not going to change the history of climbing, and that when push comes to shove you are those close to you are really the only ones who care about your experience. Get hurt or killed and you will have a big impact on the world around you. If you are relaxed, happy, and not too attached to getting into "summit or plummet" mode and you will oddly have a much better chance of summiting. There is no worse fate than being in the mountains with someone who hates climbing and is simply there to tick off the top. Enjoy the ride, get as high as you can, realize that it is only important to you personally, and be kind to others and you will more than likely get lucky.
Looking for an Aconcagua Guide?: We run a few climbs to Aconcagua each season. If you are looking for guide's we would be happy to discuss possibilities with you. If we can help with advice as you plan your trip, let us know. In addition to running the Northwest Mountain School we have also worked for International Mountain Guides, Alpine Ascents, and Rainier Mountaineering, so we have a pretty solid understanding of the scene and the differences between different guide services. Here are details on the Northwest Mountain School's Aconcagua Climbs. ~John & Olivia Race, IFMGA Guides