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Aconcagua Revisited – originally published in the Irish Mountain Log.
Jim Ryan has been climbing the high Andes for seventeen years. His guidebook to Aconcagua and the Southern Andes was first published by Cicerone Press in 2004 and is universally regarded as the definitive guide to the High Andes. Jim has just returned from the area and the 2017 edition of his book will be issued later this year. Here he relates the changes that have occurred, from conditions at high altitude to costs, new regulations and route variations.
At 6962m Aconcagua is the highest of the seven summits after Everest. Since it was opened to climbers in 1983 the numbers making a summit attempt has risen from a few hundred to many thousands. During the 2008/2009 season the numbers peaked at 9,000, but have dropped back to 5,000.
The climbing season is during the South American summer, from mid-December to early February. A permit is required from the government offices in Mendoza. Since Mendoza airport caters only for domestic flights you must fly first either to Santiago in Chile or to Buenos Aires, and then fly or bus to Mendoza. The permit cost currently stands at €945 (or €800 is you choose to climb via the Ruta Normal). This is an exorbitant price that is the main cause of the reduced numbers entering the national park. It compares to €345 on Denali (McKinley), €75 for Kilimanjaro and zero for Tupungato 6565m just across the road from Aconcagua.
Although the Argentinean peso has fallen from parity with the dollar in 2000 to 16 to 1 in 2017 this has not benefitted the visitor since tourist costs remain on a par with those in Europe. Up until 2010 there were no porters above basecamp. Now there is, with a premium of €1,000 to take your gear from basecamp to top camp. The mountain is much cleaner now thanks to the policing by the rangers. No longer can you expect excrement behind every boulder; camps are devoid of rubbish with heavy penalties for violators.
There are two routes up the mountain, via the Vacas Valley (often referred to as the Polish Glacier route) and the Ruta Normal via Plaza de Mulas. The basecamp on the Vacas Valley route has an elevation of 4200m, whilst that on the Ruta Normal is at 4365m. The Vacas Valley route is longer and more arduous that its alternative, but this pays dividends to those who chose it because they become better acclimatised. Since both routes meet high up the mountain many now opt to climb via the Vacas Valley and descend via the Ruta Normal.
Aconcagua is a harsh mountain. The summit success rate for climbers is only one in four. Failures are due to weather, extreme cold and altitude sickness. Although global warming has reduced the incidence of snow and ice on the mountain, the winds from the cold Pacific Ocean gust up over 100 km/hour resulting in severe wind chill and difficult climbing. From Christmas Day 2016 to New Year’s Day 2017 very few made it to the summit. Storms confined climbers to basecamp, where tents were demolished in the high winds.
I celebrated Christmas with two Americans at Plaza de Mulas. They were very well prepared: they had acclimatised on other mountains; they had the best of gear; porters had been hired to take their bags to high camp; they had their own dedicated guide, a very experienced climber who had brought oxygen in case of emergencies. They only made it as far as Camp 1 (Camp Canada). High winds over three nights ended with the abandonment of their expedition and retreat back to Mendoza. Instead of walking out they paid the €2,500 cost for a helicopter ride.
A week later I was over at Plaza Argentina, basecamp on the Vacas Valley route. There the weather was good. The sun shines on the camp much earlier in the morning. Following the New Year’s celebrations more than twenty headed for Camp 1 in pleasant sunshine with hardly a puff of wind. Nevertheless of the twenty only a handful were successful on summit day.
High camp on the Ruta Normal was traditionally Camp Berlin 5850m, whilst that on the Vacas Valley route was at Camp 2 5830m. This entailed a significant climb of more than a thousand meters on summit day. Berlin was cramped and dirty and Camp 2 exposed. For the last few years virtually all climbers now make their summit attempt a little higher at the new Camp Cólera 5970m which is more sheltered.