March 24, 2024

A number of you have asked how after the Aconcagua Expedition Call for Participation our expedition went. As time permits I am planning to write a series of articles about this adventure, starting with this summary article.

The Team

While many people expressed interest, in the end only four people ended up going. It is not the biggest surprise as this was a long expedition (almost 3 weeks), quite expensive. Also, few beginners want to start their mountain adventures by tackling almost 7000m mountain. I think the small team worked out pretty well in us all getting to know each other and as there were other teams going on the route we all made some new friends too.

You do meet a lot of cool people on this mountain! Taking on Aconcagua requires commitment! We met Doctors studying the human body at Altitude, Entrepreneurs, Ultra Marathon Runners, and Young folks who worked two jobs for years to save for this expedition. Many have done other cool mountains and their Instagram accounts will serve as inspiration, a good portion doing Aconcagua as part of “7 Summits” – a program to climb the highest mountain on every continent, including of course the Everest.

The Route

We ended up picking the Aconcagua 360 route (also known as Polish Glacier Traverse, Upper Guanacos, or Ameghino Traverse) rather than the “Normal Route” and we are glad we did – going back through the “Normal Route” I can say “360 Approach” is much more scenic and diverse as well as more adventurous. How about crossing a couple of deep ice-cold streams without a bridge? The opportunity to see the mountains on all sides was also fantastic.

The Outfitter

Inka Expeditions was the company we ended up going with, organizing a private tour for our team, rather than joining an existing group. This allowed us to pick a specific start date and also add another reserve day, we wanted to have because so many of us traveled far and wanted to minimize the risk of turning back because of bad weather. In retrospect, I’m not sure how much flexibility we were getting as all Inka guides liked to lead their groups in lockstep between the camps (which obviously has its merits).

The good thing about Inka is – this is one of the local outfitters which actually has a presence on the mountain – if you hire an American or European company, they will likely have their own guides but will rely on local companies for all the infrastructure – mules, camps, porters. Other companies we see having camps on 360 Route are – Grajales, Aconcagua Vision, and Aconcagua Expeditions.

I was not Wowed by Inka, but I’m not easy to please. In the end, I got to the top and got back with all my fingers and toes intact, but it was pretty vanilla and at times ridiculously expensive ($45 per 500MB of Internet in the age of Starlink for example)

The Guides

We got one Guide to lead us from Mendoza to Plaza Argentina, where he was joined by an assistant guide to continue with us until the end of the expedition. While the assistant guide was a cool young fun guy with a great level of energy, our lead guy was… Experienced. He had done the 50th summit of Aconcagua with us over the last 15 seasons or so but that’s it. He looked tired and unexcited. He would do minimal when it came to educating us about our surroundings or teaching us to be better mountaineers. For example, while we had a little glacier walk practice (which we barely used) he would not teach beginners in our groups about ways to navigate the scree, which was very typical on the mountain, or how to walk with “rest step” which is a key technique for 15h summit day.

Based on my “hit and miss” experience with guides in other expeditions I think it is best you’re not solely relying on guides, but self-sufficient as much as possible, counting on guides for convenience and extra measure of safety.

Another concern I have with those guides (Though this also could be Inka’s practices) is overly excessive care, especially on the lower altitude and easy trails. I very much prefer if guides allow you to maintain your pace and rest schedule, so you can stop to explore something by the trail or just take pictures or video recordings without requiring the group to wait for you. Instead, guides would insist where we go in the tight group 3 steps from each other, even when there was no safety reason to do it. Next time I would consider making this specific ask.

Finally, let’s touch on the South American definition of “English Speaking Guide”? This means a guide will be able to communicate critical information to you in English. This does not mean that the language of communication in Expedition will be English, as you might have thought. Guides would switch to Spanish on any possibility of talking Spanish between each other, or other group members who happen to speak Spanish and you will end up feeling like you miss a lot of what is going on. There does not seem to be a concept that exists in Northern Europe or many MultiNational Companies – if there is someone in the group who does not speak X, everyone is communicating in the language. If this is important for you, this might be a good reason to go with a company providing Native language speakers.

 The Mountain

Well, let me continue my bitching and moaning. Aconcagua is a great “Achievement Mountain ” – climb it and you have the Highest Mountain in the Americas, and everywhere outside of Asia in your bag. Yet it is far from the most beautiful, at least as it presented itself during this season. 

As you approach Aconcagua you are in the high cold dusty desert with mostly clay-colored streams running down the mountains. This is how I imagined Mordor when reading Lord of the Rings. In other places, it looks very much like Mars pictures. There is some desolate beauty and some cool snow peaks when you go higher but there is none of this path, you can see in other mountains when you can start blooming nature at the lower altitude and it slowly changes until rock and ice are on the top.

Nature is also quite limited – yes there is a little bit of flowering meadows on the lower altitude but we only saw one Guanaco, Fox (feeding on the camp discards), and Condor. Not much for 2 weeks in the mountains. Maybe we just were unlucky.

What is also interesting about Aconcagua Park – there do not seem to be any local settlements, at least not the ones you interact with during your trip. In many other regions, there are local tribes living in the mountains, often with their own culture, which adds another dimension to the trip – Aconcagua instead is fully run by Companies and after you leave Mendoza you basically do not leave their clutches. 

On the positive side if you are into Geology Aconcagua is quite interesting. It is not considered a Volcano any longer… but it was one at some point in its long history. This means you can find Volcanic rocks and even smell some sulfur but also see some sedimentary rocks nearby

Each Mountain has its own challenges – I was told Aconcagua depending on the weather can be a non-technical “hike”, and it was for us (we did not use Ice Axes, only used crampons for 100m or so, which we could bypass if needed). We saw some fast people “running up” the summit even in hiking shoes. The challenges at Aconcagua are – Altitude, Wind and Cold, Dehydration, and Exhaustion. 

The Expedition

I plan to cover our Expedition Day by Day in other blog posts, so I will be brief here. You start and end at Mendoza. Mendoza is a big city and Mountain Tourism is not the main vibe here – it is no way like Kathmandu. We take a Transfer by Minibus to Penitentes, which serves as a base of the expedition, spend a night there, and take another Minibus for 20 minutes or so to the trailhead. From there we start our expedition. 

If you’re interested in time and distance breakdown – here is data from my GPS (Altitude Gain data for Summit Day was not correct for some reason)

Where you can think about the expedition in 5 parts, There is “Approach to Basecamp”, “Basecamp Acclimatization”, “High Camps”, “Summit Push” and “Exit” 

Approach to Basecamp – From the Trail Head to Plaza de Argentina (4200m). Takes 3 days – generally easy trail and mild altitude. You carry minimal equipment and most of your stuff is carried by Mules. Food is Good. 

Basecamp Acclimatization – Now you got to 4200m relatively quickly time to acclimatize. You spend several days at the base camp, including one “carry” to Camp 1. You have to pass a medical check at the base camp to be allowed to continue.

High Camps – High Camps are different as Mules can’t get to them so everything is carried there by you, or Porters hired by you. Facilities in High Camps are much more limited, Food is more basic. Our route through high camps was something untypical but more on this topic later. 

Summit Push – You’re in Camp 3 and Guides decided tonight is the night and you’re going to do Summit Attempt. This is the day you waited for, it is going to be long and hard. In the end, you come back to Camp 3, 

Exit – Summit Attempt Successful (or Not) you quickly go down to complete the expedition. You usually go from Camp 3 all the way to Base Camp (Plaza de Mules) in one day, and when cover another 2 days’ worth of distance (26km) in one day and back to Mendoza all in one day.

Different Seasons can bring different challenges. We barely saw any snow, while some folks returning from last year’s attempt said it was lots of snow and Aconcagua was closed for more than a week due to deep snow and avalanche Danger. In January 2024 the main issue was Wind – some days it was well over 100 Km/hour at the summit and very gusty at that. This can make trails that are trivial under normal conditions very dangerous. Trails were also so bad many camps had tents and other camp equipment and semi-permanent Geodomes destroyed. Some of the nights we slept felt like our tenders would fly away and we were wondering if the big rocks we tied them to were big enough.

We ended up having to delay our Summit push last minute (at about 3 AM guides told us we were not going due to wind) but Summit day (19 January 2024) was glorious – almost no wind to speak of – we ended up spending 1.5h at Summit and I could fly my drone. We got very lucky! While guides were telling us this was one of the worst seasons wind-wise they saw, it ended up being one of the most beautiful days to summit.

You probably wonder how our group did. We achieved a 50% summit rate, which is better than the Estimated 30% rate overall. One experienced member of our team got a surprise bout of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) in Plaza Argentina and had to get a Helicopter Ride out. Another one got a respiratory infection in High Camps and went down from Camp 3 to wait for the rest of the team in Plaza de Mulas. 

The two of us who Attempted the Summit made it to the top, and made it back to camp safely!

In the next Articles, as time permits I will cover our Trip in more detail.

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Patrick Galbraith

Excellent write-up! One of the most difficult, yet best experiences I’ve ever had!

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