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The best non-technical route, Plaza Argentina (Vacas Valley) and a traverse of the mountain
We run a great Aconcagua expedition, summit success on all five expeditions that we have run, and fun too!
Everyone who capable of making the summit, did. Join our small team, eight climbers or less and climb in our unique style. Virtually all other groups will be 10-16 climbers, so our small team approach is distinctive, as is our approach to try to summit on each expedition hence extra days available and sound acclimatization; other companies are happy if you don't get up first time, you will be back. We are not as cynical.
If you want to climb Everest then sound preparation is the key so while climbing the 6980m Aconcagua we discuss everything Everest and 8000m. By the end you should feel fitter and better prepared for the highest mountains in the world. (6980m is Aconcagua's new altitude; previously it was listed as 6962m.)
If you are not interested in also climbing Everest, you are welcome to join all the same, and skip some of the in depth discussions.
Fancy a slog up a 2000+m scree slope? I don't, so avoid the standard Plaza de Mulas route; the Vacas Valley (Ameghino Valley) - Plaza Argentina - Guanacos (C2) - False Polish route with three camps on the mountain is the way to go.
Lastly most climbs from the Valle de Vacas, Plaza Argentina route, return that way. Instead we traverse, finishing with the beautiful and quick standard Plaza de Mulas route out.
Camp Cólera 5950m, the highest camp we use, photo taken in February when we returned
from the summit - Jamie
(Camp Berlin is around 200m away, the same altitude)
A glorious sunrise on the Andes with Camp Cólera 5950m in the bottom of the picture - Jamie
The last section of the Canaletta, the summit is just behind the mid-left bit - Jamie
This section is sometimes snow-free.
Nearing the end of the red scree at Plaza De Mulas, with a heavy pack - Jamie
We run things a little differently from most Aconcagua operators and although we are real experts in the Himalaya first and foremost, we do run a good - but slightly different - Aconcagua expedition.
We try not to load you with extras. We include gear return from BC (base camp) back to Mendoza and lightening of your load after summit success. Unlike our Nepal and India trips we do share hotel rooms for team-building (and flights are less tiresome too) and share tents to save weight.
Aside from the more pleasant route, most expeditions don't allow enough time for bad weather. Instead of an extra day or two, we have four extra days - and if we do finish early then you can hang out in Mendoza, no hardships in that!
Out of those extra 4 days, in five expeditions we have used all of them twice. In other words if we had had only three extra days then we would have failed twice. We monitor a range of at least six different weather forecasts/parameters and don't rely on the "snow forecast" that the rest do and that everybody admits is only accurate a day or two out. We can usually plan a summit push accurately, so we can actually really aim for a real weather window rather than just summitting by chance. This is a major difference to other Aconcagua operators, and the reason each of our expeditions so far have summitted.
We cook as a team on the way in to BC, salad and BBQ, muesli in the morning and a good packed lunch. At Base Camp we have meals, snacks and a dining tent provided, so really easy and practical too. It is on the mountain that we do things differently. Normally Argentinean guides cook for their group, so there are calls of "hot water" and "dinner ready", with an emphasis on quantity. Instead we provide the supplies and you decide what you want to cook, with one stove, two pots per tent. So each tent team is catering for themselves, tea/herbal tea/hot Tang/coffee when you want. Yes, perhaps a little more work, but also far more edible, and you can eat and drink when you want, and I help out a bit if you are feeling lazy...
Your gear is carried on mules to BC then above there we everything ourselves, ferrying loads ever higher, i.e. your personal gear and the meals and tents. Most teams work like this, and this is the reason fitness and appropriate gear are critical. This load ferrying helps with summit fitness, too. We don't usually use additional porters on the way up, as a summit bonus we do lighten our loads on the way down (included; local companies charge).
Using porters all the way up the mountain adds roughly $1000 on to the standard cost.
Strangely, the Base Camp doctors and many Argentinean guides and companies are completely against the use of Diamox, a drug that aids acclimatization, and is recommended when ascending faster than prudent rates - as we must on Aconcagua. There is no rationality on this, other than more people will be turned back thus saving money for them. Instead we understand the acclimatization process very well and recommend diamox, and bring supplies for everyone. So far on our expeditions nobody has turned back due to altitude/acclimatization issues.
There is one crucial place to spend lots of time so that you body can 'catch up' or acclimatization, and also prepare for higher, and that is at base camp where we spend on average a day longer than most other expeditions. Additionally if the wind is looking bad then we retreat to BC comfort, and head up again later, and in that case we are far stronger at altitude; virtually no other teams ever retreat like that.
The result is success. Each of our expeditions has reached the summit, sometimes a 100% success rate, at other times some of the team have turned back either due to reaching their physical limit or from prior medical issues. I can still say though, that everybody who was capable of reaching the summit, did get there. Logistics/bad weather were never the problem, so far, anyway.
Succeed with us!
It is essential you are fit for this expedition, and are not overweight. From BC we carry ALL of the expedition gear ourselves - no porters, and we cater for ourselves. We ferry loads so that we are not overloaded BUT even with this strategy you will need to carry around 16-22kgs / 35-50lbs for each load carry and when we move camp up, and this really feels its weight at 4000+m!
Our gear requirements are similar to our normal Nepal treks but with a few real differences, weight is CRITICAL. You don't need a climbing harness set. See our Aconcagua gear discussion.
Our first load carry from a camp will obviously be gear that we don't need at that camp for the night, so supplies (food, gas) for the higher camps, and perhaps also some of your warmest clothing and not needed lower on the mountain. This gear is cached at the next camp (that is what the ~55 litre stuff sack on the gear list is for), and we return to sleep at the lower camp. That means to clear the camp the next day we carry our personal gear, the kitchen gear and the tents. The loads work out to be roughly equal, and quite manageable.
Rubbish and human waste are well managed on Aconcagua. Up to and including Base Camp our rubbish and human waste is taken care of by the park and our local operator. Above BC we carry all our rubbish and toilet waste (not including pee). This means we have a rubbish bag each and a separate shit bag. It really doesn't get as heavy as you imagine, and with some tricks is clean to carry. We will discuss once there!
Aconcagua Park entrance fee
Parque Provincial Aconcagua, has a 2012-new system and entrance fees, and now has an online form too. We start in the mid-season which is approx US$240 cheaper than the peak season fee, of starting after 15 December. Note the fee could rise 10% for the 2013-14 season.
Day 0 - suggested early arrival
We encourage arriving early, give yourself time to recover from flights and discover why Mendoza is a slice of paradise. Note also international flight prices can be substantially different between weekdays and the weekend. Arrive even earlier if you like!
Day 1 - arrive Mendoza 750m
Meet at the hotel, evening trip discussion over a Mendocino late dinner.
2 - drive Penitentes 2750m
In the morning we get the Aconcagua Park permit (must be done in person, paid in pesos) and then in the afternoon we drive to the curious ski village of Penitentes and prepare loads for the mules. Overnight in the hotel there.
City gear can be left at the hotel in Mendoza.
3 - trek Pampa de Leñas 2860m
It is a few minutes drive to the start of the trek, and around a 5 hour hike. For today and until Plaza Argentina you carry a light pack, our gear is carried by the mules, and we cater for ourselves (barbequed steaks!), sharing the cooking and camp chores between us.
4 - trek Casa de Piedras 3250m
Glorious trekking! And another barbeque.
5 - trek Plaza Argentina 4200m
Another awesome days trekking brings us to our base camp, already set up. Here we have a dining tent and cooks prepare our meals - luxury!
We say adios, goodbye, to the mules and mule drivers, who drop our gear at BC.
6 - rest Plaza Argentina 4200m
It is critical to acclimatize several days here, we are already high. There's limited internet and we can check weather forecasts.
7 - rest Plaza Argentina 4200m
There are several good day trips possible, heading both below and above the base camp.
8 - Plaza Argentina 4200m
What, no sherpas? No! The hard work begins, we carry a load of climbing gear, mountain food and fuel (around 16kgs/35lbs each) to Camp 1.
9 - climb Camp 1 5000m
The park doctor checks everyone's acclimatization (oxygen saturation) prior to the climb, you are only allowed to proceed if they think you are ready. We carry our personal gear and tent up; anything not needed from this point on can be sent to Mendoza or around to Plaza de Mulas, eg trekking boots.
From this point on the mountain we cater for ourselves, sharing all the camp chores.
10 - Camp 1 5000m
Load carry to Camp 3 (actually our camp 2 but its correct name is Camp 3). This is only a few hours away, and part of our good acclimatization plan. We return to stay the night at Camp 1, so a second night at around 5000m to help acclimate.
11 - climb Camp 3 5500m
We move our tents and personal gear up, staying at Camp 3.
12 - Camp 3 5500m
We load carry to Camp Cólera, but stay at Camp 3, again, assisting with acclimatization.
13 - climb Camp Cólera 5950m
We move the last of our gear up. This is our highest camp, and the highest point for our traverse itinerary - in other words we are not carrying our camp gear over the mountain...
14 - Camp Cólera 5950m - summit 6962m
The big day! We start early. After summitting we stay at Camp Cólera, rather than trying to move down.
15 - descend to Plaza de Mulas 4260m
We carry everything in one go, no load ferrying... the reward is hamburgers, calzone pizza or steaks! At Plaza de Mulas meals are provided for us, and for the trek out.
16 - trek Horcones, drive Mendoza
Although we can break the trek with an overnight at Confluencia, most people prefer to trek out direct (6.5-8 hours out) and drive 3 hours to arrive late Mendoza.
17, 18, 19, 20 - spare
The weather is often extremely windy on Aconcagua and so we need spare days to have a real chance of summitting.
2012: Day 21 - depart
You can leave any time today. Looking to travel further afterwards? How about Iguazu Falls and Buenos Aires, and then hit the Salvador da Bahia Carnival ("World's largest party") starting early March, and/or the Rio Carnival...
Photo galleries from previous expeditions
Also see our summary of the 2010 expedition.
Your climbing choices
We hope that everyone who joins us is booking the right trip for themselves. Here is a rundown of your options.
Climb it alone
I don't recommend this, there is a better independent alternative, see the next on the list.
Basic logistics services from a local company
This suits independent types climbing in a team 2-4 good friends. Use mules arranged by the company and then the company also takes care of your rubbish and provides toilets at BC. Having BC meals supplied also makes the stay at BC luxurious.
Booking a local operator fixed departure expedition
Inka, Aymara, Grajales etc organize guided expeditions. There are usually multiple guides who cook for the large group on the mountain, and meals plus dining tent are provided at BC. The minuses are significant additional costs if you separate from the group, eg with altitude issues, and the itinerary is more or less fixed and so the team climbs up until either summitting or being turned back by strong winds.
Booking with an international guiding company
Do work out if they use a local operator for base camp catering (preferable) or not. Check if the guides are named, are porters provided and what is the maximum size of the team? There are some good options but all group sizes will be larger.
Do check out Alan Arnette's unbiased and comprehensive pages on climbing Aconcagua. Also for views, check out Grajales virtual tour 360 views, including the one on the summit to see summit clothing.
Aconcagua sunset from Plaza de Mulas (this is not the route up the mountain) - Jamie