Aconcagua offers the chance to ascend one of the 7 Summits, a massive Andean giant at just under 7000m above sea level without the technical skills required to climb many a smaller peak.
Name: Mount Aconcagua/ Cerro Aconcagua (Spanish)
Height: 6959m/ 22,831ft (official height) or 6961m/ 22,838ft (commonly quoted height)
Location: Andes Mountains in the Mendoza Province, Argentina.
First Climbed: 14th January 1897 by Matthias Zurbriggen.
Climb Time: 8-12 hours (from high camp). 10-14 days are required for whole approach and ascent.
Best Season to Climb: December - February
Introduction to Aconcagua.
The list of records attached to this mountain is as long as it is impressive.
Mount Aconcagua is the highest mountain outside of Asia, the highest in the western hemisphere and is the second highest of the Seven Summits. It is the second most isolated peak in the world (after Everest) and has the second highest prominence, (again, after Everest).
Unofficially Mount Aconcagua is regarded the highest non-technical mountain the world. Its Normal Route doesn’t require much more technical mountaineering experience beyond crampons and an ice axe. Yet it is still not a challenge to under-estimate. This is an adventure too far for many people who learn that the altitude sickness, cold weather, sudden white-outs and brutal winds can lead to failed attempts, or worse.
A small number of climbers die on the mountain each year, and local guides estimate that only a third of all attempts successfully reach on the summit. That said, of the Seven Summits, Mount Aconcagua is an attainable adventure challenge for almost any well-prepared, physically fit person. Individuals ranging from nine to 87 years old have made successful ascents.
A mighty presence in the middle of the spine of South America, Mount Aconcagua is an adventure focussed on its northern summit. Views of the Andes Mountains, plains of Chile and even the Pacific Ocean are within reach of anyone willing to take on this high altitude adventure.
History of Mount Aconcagua.
The land between Argentina and Chile was largely inaccessible and unexplored for a long time. As such the historical ownership of Mount Aconcagua is unclear. In the Treaty of 1881 between the two countries, the 5600km (3480mile) border was formally defined. This boundary line remains much the same today.
The Andes were long used by both the military and explorers searching for new lands. Mendoza, the city to the south-east of Mount Aconcagua, was once a Chilean city named after General Mendoza. He founded it following an expedition over the Andes in 1561. In 1817, General Don José de San Martín led an army the other way, marching from modern-day Argentina to liberate Chile from 300 years of Spanish rule.
The history of Mount Aconcagua’s name is somewhat disputed.
One claim comes from the ancient Inca language of Quechua. Acton Cahuak means ‘Sentinel of Stone’, or Anco Cahuac meaning ‘White Sentinel’, and both names have been attributed to the mountain.
Another possibility is the word Aconca-Hue from the indigenous Mapuche people, (‘people of the land’). it means ‘comes from the other side’ and makes reference to the mountain’s placement on the opposite side of the Aconcagua river to their traditional lands.
Finally, the Andean language Aymara offers a root in the word Janq’u Q’awa meaning ‘White Ravine/ Brook’.
Mount Aconcagua is strangely absent from local Inca legend, despite people inhabiting the area for the past 12-15,000 years. This might be due to the inaccessibility of the mountain, but still seems odd given the reverence the Inca’s typically had for mountains.
However, there is evidence of ancient ascents for the purpose of sacrifice that perhaps resolves this. The ancient remains of a guanaco, an ancestor of the llama and still common today, were found on the ridge-line between the peaks, hence its name Cresta del Guanaco.
The remains of a 500-year old young male Inca mummy in a damaged stone structure were also discovered up at 5200m (17,060ft) in 1982. He was also believed to have been a sacrifice. Other remnants of Inca culture have been discovered higher up still. These finds reflect the importance of and reverence for the dominating mountain, despite its conspicuous mythological absence.
Geography of Mount Aconcagua.
The high point of the spine of South America, Mount Aconcagua is in Argentina but only just. The mountain is around 12km (7.5miles) from the border with Chile. It’s located in the Aconcagua Provincial Park, a protected area established in 1983 and home to more than 11 mountains over 5000m (16,404ft).
Mount Aconcagua was once thought to have been a volcano, similar to the nearby stratovolcano Tupungato (6570m/ 21,555ft). But this has been discovered not to be the case. This mountain was formed by the collision of the Nazca and South American plates raising the mountain as many of the Andes Mountains were formed.
It was also previously thought that this process was relatively recent (within the last 10 million years), but new research suggests that Mount Aconcagua, and the Andes Mountains in general, began to rise more slowly around 30 million years ago.
A network of valleys, through which access to the summit is typically achieved, surrounds the mountain. Valle de las Vacas wraps around the North and East sides of the mountain with the Valle de los Horcones Inferior to the West and South.
Mount Aconcagua has two summits connected by the Cresta del Guanaco ridge. The north summit is the higher point, with the south summit standing at 6930m (22,736ft).
The true height of the summit is debatable, with the official height from the Argentinian government being 6959m (22,832ft), the widely accepted actual height of 6961m (22,838ft) and recent measurements suggesting it may be as tall as 6967m (22,858ft).
Mount Aconcagua has a significant population of glaciers. The south and east sides of the mountain are covered in these ice flows, as is the region to the north. The best known glacier is the Polish glacier, named after an expedition by Polish climber in 1934 that created the alternate route to the summit, (see below).
The largest glacier is Ventisquero Horcones Inferior. It’s 10km long and descends down the dramatic south face to finish just above the Confluencia camp (3390m/ 11,122ft). Two other significant networks of glaciers are Ventisquero de las Vacas Sur and Glaciar Este/ Ventisquero Relinchos, both reaching around 5km long.
Wildlife of Aconcagua.
Given the altitude, and in comparison with some of the other Seven Summits, Mount Aconcagua has a fair amount of wildlife, concentrated in its lower reaches.
The cartoon-like yaretta cushion plant, common in the Andes,is found up to 4500m (14,764ft). They can grow to enormous sizes and be part of colonies thousands of years old.
In the lowlands, the open pastures are filled with a range of mountain grasses, including the toxic huecú. This grass, also known as ‘drunken horse grass’, was used as a defence against armies approaching on horseback. When consumed, the horses would stagger and, if they’d eaten enough, fall down dead.
Almost all animal life lives below 4000m (about 13,000ft), as the conditions further up, (cold weather, brutal wind and lack of vegetation), do not lend themselves to supporting animal life.
Perhaps the best-known animal traipsing up and down the mountain is the working mule. These domesticated pack animals provide an invaluable service for climbers attempting the climb, taking around 60kg of kit each in and out of the camps. Muleteers known locally as arrieros handle them.
In the wild, herds of guanacos are some of the largest of any animal in the Andes. An ancestor to the modern llama and a member of the camel family, these cinnamon-coloured four legged creatures can run at speeds in excess of 35miles per hour. That stunning predator, the puma, hunts them. However, you would be incredibly fortunate to spot one of these.
You might have more luck spying a bird of prey. Condors and purple eagles can be spotted soaring overhead. Lower down, red foxes and mountain rats can be seen, perhaps more than may be wished! Mountain hares have also been introduced successfully to the region, but their camouflage keeps them pretty well hidden.
Description of first climb.
In late 1896, British mountaineer Edward Fitzgerald led an expedition of nine men to attempt the summit Aconcagua. A failed attempt had taken place 13 years previously by a German geologist who was prospecting the mountain for ‘treasure’, but came up just short at 6500m (21,326ft).
Fitzgerald attempted the summit eight times between December 1896 and February 1897, but was unsuccessful each time. Despite this, a nearby peak, Cerro Fitzgerald (5317m/ 17,444ft), is named after him. Each of his attempts had followed the north-west route now known as the Normal Route. His colleagues Stuart Vines and Nicola Lanti did succeed during the final attempt on the 13th February 1897.
But it was his Swiss guide who succeeded to reach the summit first on 14th January 1897, and did so alone. The guide, Matthias Zurbriggen, is also known for his first solo ascent of Mount Cook/ Aoraki and the first ascent of the nearby Andean stratovolcano Tupungato (6570m/ 21,560ft). A prodigious climber who has several Alpine ridges named after him, he met an unfortunate end, found hanged in Geneva in 1917.
On the 9th March 1934, a Polish expedition achieved the first ascent from the east and set the route for the Polish Glacier Route (see below).
The first woman to ascend Mount Aconcagua (Normal Route) was Frenchwoman Adriana Bance in 1944. Unfortunately she died during her descent.
The far more difficult South Face was conquered over the course of a month in 1954. A French team of eight climbers reached the summit on the 25th February in the finest example of technical climbing until that time. The first woman to ascend this route was Marie Bouchard in 1984.
Climbing guide for Aconcagua.
As a southern hemisphere peak, it is best climbed between the summer months of December to March.
There are three routes commonly taken up the mountain. The first, the Normal Route, is most commonly used, with over half of all ascents taking this path. The Polish Glacier Route is taken by just under half of climbers, while the Polish Glacier Traverse Route is an alternate rarely used.
- Read our Guide to the Andes Mountain Range
- Click here for a list of guide books and tales of adventure in the Andes
Routes from the south and south-west are considered considerably more technical, and so aren’t explored here.
From Plaza des Mulas this route heads up the North-west Ridge.
For much of the adventure you will be walking over scree. As there are no permanent snowfields, scree can be underfoot all the way to the summit in the height of dry summer. Some ice on the final ascent is actually a positive, as climbing over scree much more of a challenge. This ascent requires only crampons and ice axes, along with sufficient cold weather gear.
You should allow 13 days for the whole trip. Transferring from camp to camp normally consists of three day cycles: a day moving kit, a day moving yourself and a rest day. The ascent to the summit from Camp 3 is a 8-12 hour day.
As there are a number of camps en route, we have outlined a typical route, followed by a list of other camps that can be used. (As with the overall height, a variety of altitudes abound for each camp, so those listed are the most consistently accurate available at the time of writing.)
Beginning at Puenta del Inca (2740m/ 8990ft), head to base camp at Plaza des Mules (4260m/ 13,976ft) over two days via Confluence camp (3390m/ 11,122ft). Camp 2/ Camp Canadá (4910m/ 16,108ft) is a day’s climb from here and Camp 3/ Berlin (5933m/ 19,465ft) another day’s walking. From here, you would attempt the summit return in a day, then descend from camp 3 to base camp the next day.
- Camp Alaska – 5200m (17,060ft), not commonly used,
- Nido de Cóndores – 5580m (18,307ft),
- Camp Colera – 5970m, (19,587ft),
- Piedras Blancas (6150m/ 20,177ft) and Independencia (6390m/ 20,965ft) can be used for a bivouac, though they are very exposed and are more of emergency options.
Polish Glacier Route.
This is a more technical route taken by fewer people. It requires some ice climbing and the potential for rope work.
14 days should be allowed for the whole trip. The ascent to the summit from Camp 2 is a 10-12 hour day, starting early in the morning.
Beginning east at Pampa Iaina (3250m/ 10,662ft) at the end of the Vacas valley head up to base camp at Plaza Argentina (4180m/ 13,714ft) over three days. Polacos (Polish) Camp 1 is at 4707m (15,443ft) and Polacos Camp II or high camp is at 5300m (17,388ft). From here, you would attempt the summit return over a single long day descending all the way back to base camp.
From Camp 2, there are two possible routes. The first is to head up the Polish Glacier to the summit. An alternate route is to traverse the glacier and join the Normal Route at Independencia (6390m/ 20,965ft).
A small minority of climber take this route, known as the Polish Glacier Traverse Route/ Falso de los Polacos. As the traverse takes a lot of energy at the beginning of the summit attempt, most who have approached this way will continue up the glacier.
Important info for the climb.
By far the biggest challenge of any route to the summit is altitude sickness and its consequences. Taking enough rest days to acclimatise is essential to enjoying a successful adventure to the top.
Weather is also a challenge, as it would be on any mountain this high. With fierce winds blowing in from the nearby Pacific Ocean, wind chill can reach -60ºC and the temperature averages -22ºC on the summit. Combined with sudden snowstorms, all climbers should have a preoccupation with the weather on any ascent. If in doubt, turn back.
However, before you even start for the summit, there are a few mandatory steps to take.
First you need to obtain a permit to enter the Aconcagua Provincial Park. These are obtained in San Martín at the Subsecretaría de Turismo, and must be presented to Rangers throughout any adventure.
The cost of tariffs may be a shock when you first see them, until you remember that £1 is almost 20 Argentine Peso. As such, the most expensive tariff, covering 20-days of climbing, is a little over £150.
There are also a series of fees applying to littering, fires, etc. This includes a requirement to carry a numbered garbage bag for excrement that must be handed in, suitably filled, to the Ranger on your return. It’s best to seek some local advice on how to avoid unfortunate leakage from this into your rucksack.
Once at base camp, you will need to register with the Park Ranger and undergo a medical exam with the resident doctor. Given the dangers of altitude sickness on such a high ascent, this is a responsible approach from the local authorities to ensure everyone who goes up is fit enough to do so.
As for food, you’ll need to carry what you need in and out. There is water available at the camps, but on the approaches in particular, carry the water you’ll need for that day from the start.
Finally, you’ll probably want to take a couple of mules up with you to base camp or some of the lower camps. These can set you back 150USD a day for a mule driver and two mules (carrying 120kg between them). You’ll probably think it money well spent once you’re there!