Aconcagua FAQ
Argentina
22,902 feet 6980 meters
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Aconcagua is a popular climb for those wanting to test themselves at high altitude. It is often a step before attempting Everest and of course one of the Seven Summits. I summited it on February 19, 2005 and again on January 8, 2008 one of my Memories are Everything®: The Road Back to Mt. Everest expeditions and again on January 29, 2011 as my 7 Summits for Alzheimer's project. I am asked many questions especially since I am not a professional climber. So here are the most popular questions with my answers. As always, this information is based on my experience and are my opinions so always consult with a professional before making any serious climbing decisions.

About Aconcagua Training, Gear & Communication Expedition Basics My Experience

About Aconcagua

Q: Where is Aconcagua?
A: Aconcagua is located in Argentina near the border with Chile. It is the highest mountain in South America at 22,902' 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. It is not part of the Andes mountain range but on an adjacent range thus stands out prominently above the surrounding peaks. In 2012, a GPS aided survey changed the official height from 22,822 to 22,902. View Aconcagua in a larger map

Q: When is it usually climbed?
A: Being in the southern hemisphere, the climbing season is best from December through March. However, the weather can be extremely cold and windy anytime.

Camp 1 Q: I read that Aconcagua is an easy climb, really just a high-altitude trek. How hard is it?
A: If you are in great aerobic shape, it can be "easy" on a perfect weather day on the normal routes. But as with most of the extreme altitude climbs, Aconcagua has brutal weather with cruel winds, driving snow and white-out conditions that can create a nightmare scenario. The 2012/13 season was particularly snowy after many years of somewhat dry conditions. Also, remember this is almost 7,000 meters, 23,000 feet so AMS, HAPE or HACE are always risks.

Q: How does the normal routes on Aconcagua compare with Denali since it is at a similar altitude or with Rainier?
A: It is a straightforward climb via the normal routes with no real objective danger except for the vicious weather. You carry everything yourself above base camp (mules can carry gear to BC on Aconcagua) and there is no support high on the mountain from porters or Sherpas like in Nepal. However, a recent trend for some commercial groups is to hire porters to carry gear down after a summit from the High Camps. On a Denali you climb on snow from day one to the summit. On Aconcagua, it is very dry and there was almost no snow down low but usually some snow near the summit. There is no crevasse danger like on Denali or Rainier on the normal routes.

Q: How does Aconcagua compare with Everest or other 8,000m peaks?
A: In all honesty, they are in a totally different league from Aconcagua. The expeditions are longer by more than twice and depending on the mountain, more technically challenging. They require significantly more logistics, gear, food and on mountain support. Your physical conditioning must be several notches higher than what is required on Aconcagua. And, probably most important, your mental state must be in a different place. Aconcagua is a relatively "simple" climb in that the approach is short and easy, there are a couple of High Camps, summit day should be no more than 12 hours. The 8,000m mountains take all this and amplifies it greatly.

Q: Is an Aconcagua climb dangerous?
A: Aconcagua is a relatively safe climb by the standard routes. However, there are always deaths on these big mountains and Aconcagua is no different. At least two climbers died in the 2012/13 season when the team switched from the normal route to the Polish Direct Glacier route which is significantly harder Five climbers died in January, 2009 alone: 2 were caught in a storm at 22,000', another died from a fall while descending solo on the Polish Glacier, the third of a heart attack near the summit (however an eyewitness reports a hard fall where the victim hit his head so it may not have been an heart attack)and finally a solo climber died from a fall at 16,200'. In 2000 four climbers died on the Polish Direct when one climber fell taking the others down with him to their deaths. Every year there are rescues, frostbite and worse. In 2005, some of our members came close to getting frostbite on their early summit morning. Climbing any mountain even if it is 10,000 feet can be dangerous since you can be effected by factors out of your control such as weather or avalanches. While we had no serious problems on my three climbs, we did see climbers taken away by helicopter who were suffering from AMS or frostbite.

Q: How many people had summited and how many people have died trying?
A: 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. Aconcagua Expeditions has a good chart of the park statistics.

Training, Gear & Communication

Q: How did you train for this climb?
A: I mostly ran for aerobic conditioning and lifted weights. Also I climbed my local 14,000 mountains to get "real-world" miles underneath me with a 30lb pack. As a note, I did not train quite as hard for Aconcagua as I did for my other climbs including Denali.

Q: Was altitude a problem on this climb?
A: Yes! Anytime you are above 8,000' you can experience problems. Aconcagua is a serious high altitude mountain. Even though the normal and False Polish routes are not technically difficult, the altitude takes it toll on climbers each year thus the 30% success rate. We had one member who had severe headaches from 9,000' up. He did summit but suffered a lot. He had to slow down and got behind the rest of the group.

Q: Can you prepare for the altitude?
A: Not really. The common approach is to move slowly up the mountain (1000' a day maximum) spending your days at a higher altitude than where you sleep up until your summit bid. The human body simply does not function well at high altitudes and especially above 8000m (26,300'). As you go higher, the barometric pressure decreases, although the air still contains 21% oxygen, every breath contains less molecules of oxygen.

Everest legend Tom Hornbein explained it to the American Lung Association this way:

The lower oxygen stimulates chemoreceptors that initiate an increase in breathing, resulting in a lowering of the partial pressure of CO2 and hence more alkaline blood pH. The kidneys begin to unload bicarbonate to compensate. Though this adaptation can take many days, up to 80% occurs just in the first 48 to 72 hours. There are many other physiologic changes going on, among them the stimulus of low oxygen to release the hormone, erythropoietin to stimulate more red blood cell production, a physiological and still acceptable form of blood doping that enhances endurance performance at low altitudes. Adaptive changes are not always good for one’s health. Some South American high altitude residents can have what’s called chronic mountain sickness, resulting from too many red blood cells; their blood can be up to 84-85% red blood cells. The increased blood viscosity and sometimes associated pulmonary hypertension can result in right heart failure.

You cannot do much to acclimatize while at a low altitude but there are companies that claim to help the acclimatization process through specially designed tents that simulate the reduced oxygen levels at higher elevations. I have no personal experience with these systems but you can find more details at the Hypoxico website. They cost about $7,000 or can be rented for about $170 a week. Outside Magazine posted an article in 2013 questioning their effectiveness.



Q: What kind of equipment did you use?
Click for a larger view of my Everest gear. A: Mostly I use the same gear I used on Denali. Lot's of layers. It is always critical to protect my toes, fingers and face since these are most susceptible to frost bite. As for warmth, I always wear a knit cap and at least liner gloves when I get the least bit cool - regardless of the outside temp. I use a 3 layer system of Merino wool base layer (top and bottom), heavier fleece as in the Mountain Hardware Power Stretch (a Farmer's John kind of suit) or just my Patagonia Guide pants depending on how cold it is that day then my top wind or warmth layer e.g. Patagonia Micro Puff and/or JetStream Shell. I did get horribly cold in January 2008 on our summit push near the summit when the winds hit 50 m.p.h. and the air temp neared 0F. I stopped and put on a full Gortex bib along with my Feather Friends 850 Fill down jacket and was fine. It is was kind of scary how quickly I became so cold. I was glad I had packed an additional 'emergency' layer. See my gear page for a complete discussion and my gear list updated for 2013. I am very pleased with all my gear but had a few standouts that I note on my gear page.

This a gear video I created for my 2011 Summit climb:



Q: Anything special in your gear for Aconcagua?
A: I wanted to go as light as possible so for me there were two considerations: sleeping bag and heavy down jacket. I brought my 0F degree sleeping bag and was just fine, especially with two people in a tent. Be careful about recommendations from your guide or friends to specify Fahrenheit or Centigrade. I used my Koflach Artic Expe' double plastic boots with two pairs of wool socks. I used regular trekking shoes for the approach to base camp at 14,000'. Use good approach shoes since the terrain is rough and the scree is sharp on shoes.

Q: Was there web site coverage?
A: I posted dispatches for all three climbs years on this site at Aconcagua Dispatches using satellite phones.

Q: How did the Sat Phones work?
A: I used Global Star in 2001 and Iridium in 2007 and 2011. They had mixed performances but was able to post dispatches both years. The route is surrounded by high peaks and is in deep valleys. Sat phones require line of site so it is difficult to get a strong signal that lasts. Also both of these systems use satellites that are in constant motion so you gain a signal then lose it however the signal is supposed to be transferred automatically to the next satellite. The system works great at the High Camp or on the summit since you have a clear view of the sky but not in low valleys. I did not see any use of cell phones in 2011. For details on my expedition communications, please see this tutorial.


Expedition Basics:

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.

Aconcagua 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


My 2005, 2008 and 2011 Experiences

Q: Did you summit?
A: Yes, three times: in late February in 2005 and early January in 2008 via the Polish Traverse route from the Vacas Valley and January 2011 using a variation of the Polish Traverse.

Q: Why did you choose Field Touring (FTA) as a guide service in 2005 and how was it?
A: I followed their Gasherbrum climbs in 2004 with the aim of joining them in 2005. But due to the unrest in that region plus some work considerations, I changed my plans to Aconcagua. They run low cost trips and attract more independent climbers. I liked the freedom to go at my own pace yet have the basic logistical support given my experience in 2011. Their performance was adequate for this relatively simple expedition. All expectations were met. On our climb, 6 of 7 clients summited. There were no serious surprises. The real uniqueness - and risk - with FTA is their philosophy of not "guiding" but rather leading clients and serving as a safety net. This is a fine line in that some clients want to be "told what to do" but others left alone. If the guides are on the wrong side of this line, clients feel over controlled or left out. Stu and Martin did an excellent job in this respect. An example was on summit night, a clear and windless rarity on Aconcagua, two climbers wanted to start at 1:00AM instead of the agreed upon 5:00. They were told to go ahead but turn back at the first sign of bad weather. They returned 20 minutes later as it started to drizzle. They felt empowered yet understood the safety boundaries, however it was a risky move given their experience that I would never endorse. The base camp services were extremely basic and surprisingly sparse. The group gear (tents, etc.) and meals prepared by FTA were very basic. The pre-trip information was slightly confusing with respect to weight allowances and amount of food we were required to bring but it all worked out. Stu was fun to climb with but their logistics and oversight wanting for inexperienced clients.

Q: Why did you choose Mountain Professionals as a guide service for 2008?
A: I was climbing Everest with them later in 2008 so I wanted to build the bonds. Plus I climbed on Broad Peak with Ryan in 2006. They performed very well for this climb. We had no surprises. I found Dave and Cristina very professional. The had several opportunities to demonstrate their skills in handling challenging client situations. The food and group gear was good. Dave led one client successfully to the summit via the Polish Glacier - they had a great time.

Q: Why did you choose International Mountain Guides (IMG) as a guide service in 2011 and how would you rate their performance
A: I returned to Aconcagua as part of my 7 Summits for Alzheimer's project and used IMG for most of those climbs in 2010/11. I used a guide service so I could concentrate on my fund raising and not the logistics of a climb. IMG was outstanding - extremely professional and safest conscious without being overbearing or regimented. We had 100% success wish 11 of 11 climbers on the summit, no frostbite and down safely. The guides Peter Anderson, Josh Tapp and local guide Leo were quite skilled in both climbing and people skills. They showed a level of professionalism you would expect from a service like IMG.

Q: Which route did you take?
A: Polish Traverse in 2005 and 2008. We had camps at 13.8K, 16K, 17.5K (2001 only) and 19.5K for the summit at 22.8K. In 2005 four of us intended to take the Polish Direct route and the rest the False Polish or the Traverse to the Normal route. But on our summit morning as we standing about 600' above Camp 2 on the edge of the glacier putting on our crampons, harnesses and getting ready to rope up Stu and I saw a car size block of ice calve off a gap we were targeting. It followed the fall line on the glacier spawning hundreds of pieces. We took into account that the Polish Glacier was supposed to be a stable (if any glacier ever is!). However it had been quite warm the past week with bright sun and warm winds. We finally determined the risk were unnecessary and we abandoned the glacier for the traverse.

Q: How was the Traverse?
A: Other than climbing from 19,000' to almost 23,000' it was not that difficult. 2005, was very dry so there were only a few small snowfields above Camp 2. Some teams used crampons and I saw a few people short-roped. The route was well worn and crowded. From Camp 2 at 19,000' or from camp Colera at 20,000' (where the rest of our team started in 2005) the route has a continuous rise but not too serious. This continues for several hours until you reach the Canaleta, a 1,000 foot u-shaped couloir of loose rock at a 45-degree angle. This is at 21,800' so it was getting more difficult to breath. Interestingly enough most people, including Stu and I, left our packs at the base of the Canaleta and took only cameras, water bottles and sat phone to the summit. In 2008, the Canaleta looked like a war zone with people from other teams lying all over the place in various stages of AMS.

Q: Describe the variation in 2011?
A: We took the Vacus Valley hike to Plaza de Argentina and then the route to Camp 1. From there we climbed to what is commonly known as Camp 3 on the Guanacos route or sometimes the Helicopter or Chopper Camp due to some nearby crash debris. From there we climbed to Camp Colera and established out High Camp. We made our summit push from there joining the normal route to the Canaleta and the summit. We returned via Plaza de Mules and the normal route.

Alan on Aconcagua Summit Q: And the summit?
A: Seeing the famous Aconcagua cross was exciting. The summit is about half the size of a football field. It is all rock. You can see the Pacific Ocean, the surrounding mountains and glaciers in both Argentina and Chili. It was also incredibly windy and cold!

Q: How long did the summit push take?
A: About 12 hours roundtrip for all three climbs.

Q: What kind of weather conditions did you have?
A: My late February 2005 climb was warmer than my January climb in 2008. It was very warm for the trek to base camp. Then it gradually got colder we gained altitude. It was always windy. Some nights the wind were relentless. It was a straight-line wind, not swirling, that easily blew tents and climbers around. You had to use large rocks to keep your tent secure and leave nothing loose outside. We had no snow but a couple of nights of light rain during the walk-in. The 2011 climb was quite snowy and windy throughout the climb with more snow than the other two climbs.

Q: Anything different from 2005 to 2008 to 2011?
A: There was much more snow on the route in 2011 but the weather was always cold and windy!

Q: Did you use bottled oxygen?
A: No, supplemental oxygen is usually only used above 26,500'.

Q: Would you climb Aconcagua again?
A: Yes, even after 3 successful summits but only if I could take the Polish Glacier route. Aconcagua was not my favorite climb in the world due to how dusty it is and the lack of some serious challenges but I would return with friends anytime.


Bottom Line

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.