Are you comfortable climbing the 14ers around Colorado? Think you've got the chops for higher peaks, but don't know what you should attempt next?
At an elevation of 23,837 feet (6960.8 meters) Aconcagua is one of the best mountains in the world to test yourself at high altitude mountaineering due to its non-technical nature. The mountain is the second highest of the "Seven Summits" and typically attempted after climbing Mount Elbrus or Kilimanjaro – for those trying to climb them all. For the rest of us just out for incredible adventures and life experiences, Aconcagua also does the trick.
The journey begins by flying into Mendoza, Argentina. A shuttle picks you up at your hotel and takes you to Penitentes, a ski resort about three hours drive away, where you will find the Vacas Valley and Horcones Valley trail heads.
Trips to Aconcagua, including time for acclimating, rest, and weather contingency, average 15 to 21 days on a guided expedition. One of the reasons this mountain is a bit more friendly than some of the other large peaks of the world is that logistically it’s a breeze. And depending on conditions, you may only need a light pair of aluminum crampons and mountaineering axe.
It's possible to hire logistics companies such as Fernando Grajales to shuttle nearly all your gear up the mountain on mules and with the help of the friendly porters. There are two well-accommodated base camps on either side of the mountain (Plaza Argentina and Plaza de Mulas) which have dome tents for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The cooks at basecamp have really done their homework and know how to cook at 14,000 feet.
With the assistance of the mules, we were able to hike with a light day pack (Airlite 28 or Airlight 26 SL) for the first three days on our way to basecamp. Each afternoon the arrieros (local cowboys) arrive in camp with all our expedition gear and we'd set up for the night. Argentina is known for amazing steaks so if you are approaching from the Vacas Valley, bring the biggest piece of red meat you can find and the arrieros will cook it for you (for a small tip).
You might feel a bit overwhelmed by the sheer size and height of this peak but with some good physical training and a positive mindset I believe it's an amazing way to the roof of the Americas. A certified guide company will assure that your safety is the number one priority and that the details have been ironed out so you can enjoy the trip. If you are a dialed backpacker with knowledge of acclimating properly and emergency protocols, Aconcagua is a great peak to step up your game on.
Approaching from the Vacas Valley, from basecamp at Plaza Argentina (13,800 feet), you will move to Camp 1 (16,300 feet), Camp 2 (18,000 feet) and High Camp, also known as Piedras Blancas (19,639 feet). The average summit day from Piedras Blancas is around 12 hours round trip. When climbing from basecamp to high camps, I would recommend a 75 litre pack such as the Deuter Aircontact. You can expect your loads to be around 35-60 pounds depending on your kit and porter assistance.
Expeditions such as these are not all about the summit. I cannot stress enough that it's about the experience you have with your team, the wilderness, the mountain, the locals, and most importantly the experience within your soul. These experiences are why I find my time in the mountains so rewarding. The joy I have found from the little moments of beauty watching the mountain light change and clouds fly by are what keep me coming back for more.
Don't get me wrong, I love reaching the tops of peaks around the world. But taken against the two weeks it took me to reach Aconcagua, the 20 minutes I spent on the top was a relatively small part of the trip. So try and avoid summit vision and enjoy the journey there and the friends you made along the way.
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