Aconcagua facts andUnder The Gloss
The biggest and most important learning curve of going onto a bigger mountain like Aconcagua is that the likelihood of summiting lessens. Unfortunately the cost of going to bigger mountains also generally increases and this often creates a greater sense of expectation to summit, which itself can lead to wrong judgements being made.
Take a realistic approach to climbing a mountain nearly 7000 metres in height like Aconcagua, which has a complex and extreme weather pattern like many other big peaks, and accept that luck plays a prominent part in all the conditions dove-tailing together on the right day in order for you and the team to summit and get back down again.
Despite all the best preparations, and notwithstanding the long days spent acclimatising and managing to avoid all the small problems that can cumulatively conspire against you on the final day when you can actually think of summiting, success on big mountains is all about being pragmatic and fatalistic about what happens when you get out of the tent and start for the top. Weather is not easy to predict, especially when a big mountain generates its own micro climate, and don’t let summit fever overpower your better intuition.
Aconcagua is not classed as a technical peak, it’s often described as a high altitude walk or trek, none of which should fool you in the slightest; it’s not a pushover. Any mountain, technical or otherwise, is difficult when you have to climb to 7000 metres to stand on its top, it’s just that the difficulties are different. The weather can be brutal, the cold can be intense, the wind can be biblical and the physical and mental requirements are large. But it is not a precipitous climb, there are no severe objective climbing obstacles like crevasses and in the right weather, the summit day can be a dream.
It will also be an extreme test of your ability to self-preserve and manage cold weather conditions. This is the big difference between climbing, say, Kilimanjaro or Elbrus, and Aconcagua. You will be expected to show a great deal more experience and knowledge of self-preservation in the mountains, camping, cooking, keeping yourself healthy, sleeping well, hydrating, avoiding cold weather injuries, personal movement and working as a team in a mountain environment. This sort of knowledge does not just come from a book, it comes from experience, and those who are lacking will find this trip stressful.
Yes, it’s a learning experience in itself, but some time spent out on good Scottish winter days, camping out, carrying heavy sacks and cooking on a camp stove will be extremely useful preparation. People without the experience of being in a tent in a gale in very cold weather may find the trip quite frightening. The tent is very noisy in a high wind, it’s hard to do anything like putting a tent up, cooking a meal, boiling up 3 litres of water, preparing your bag for leaving in the dark in minus temperature. A lot of people can just stop operating, stop eating and drinking, and just lie in the sleeping bag, feeling disorientated and fearful. This is a dangerous position to be in, and it is important to say that although this is a guided trip, there is only so much that one or two guides can do.
You will be expected to display a level of self-sufficiency at the high camps. People who feel insecure and uncertain will generally exhibit quite wayward and often startling changes of character; they can become withdrawn, moody, angry, upset, and distraught. None of this is good for anyone, so be prepared for potentially extreme situations at the high camps and don’t start the trip believing that the guides will do everything.
The base camp facilities are fantastic:, a tented city with showers, bars, toilets, double walled mess tents with wooden floors, amazing food, lots of people to meet...it’s also noisy, often dirty and absolutely full of people in the high season. If you want mountain solitude, then you won’t find it at Plaze del Mulas or Plaza Argentina. This is a very busy place and it can get a bit overwhelming. Once up high you do get more of the sense of being out in the mountains though.
Illness is common, and predominantly because of a combination of high altitude symptoms and some small issue like a cough or a bit of diarrhoea. Remember that being at altitude is essentially like hypoxia to your system, so anything you get will be affected to a greater degree up there. It’s absolutely vital to stay as healthy as possible, keep clean and go slowly.
The toilets are metal long drops, perfectly acceptable, but don’t expect a sit down affair, and don’t expect it to be heated. In the morning, crouched freezing over a hole that has been missed by the last person, and with a queue of people standing outside, it’s not the most pleasant experience. Up high, you make your own toilet area, and carry all your waste and paper off the mountain. This is perhaps one of the worst aspects of the descent, when the sun is up and the contents have liquefied. Take lots of non-clear plastic bags and wrap it well.
Going to the summit even in good conditions is a real test of physical and mental reserve. It’s not a walk in the park by any means. The route is not difficult to follow, unless you end up in a whiteout in which case the huge slope below the Independencia Hut can be a nightmare to find your way off, but it is unrelenting and the wind whips across continually. Once you are at the base of the Canaleta, it’s tempting to think that you’re nearly there. In terms of distance and height gain, you are, but it’s still a lot of hard work going straight up the mess of rocks and snow, traversing the final bowl and scrambling up the top. The one saving grace is the simply astounding view of the South Face in the last half hour or so, which would give anyone a major emotional boost.
Remember to keep strength in reserve for the descent, it is a long way back to the tent and the weather may well have picked up in the afternoon; make sure you have supplies of food and drink and get a warm tea or coffee in there, and something to eat. A lot of people come back down in a state of near exhaustion, which might be fun to relate when you’re back in the bar at home, but no mountain guide would consider that to be a badge of honour. You come down with energy to spare, mind lucid, ready to put the water on to boil, and feeling nicely tired after a big day out.
Aconcagua has been described by some detractors as a great big slag heap with nothing really to say for itself, apart from being the highest peak in South America. Clearly this is a subjective opinion, but whatever the case, don’t let such comments diminish the size of the mountain and the potential danger up there. It’s always easy to criticise or demean things, but this is not an expedition to underestimate.