Heading Toward Aconcagua

On June 11, 2008, after many days of bushwhacking through numerous willows in the Alaskan tundra, we newborn NOLS instructors were anxiously waiting for the bus along Alaskan Highway. It was raining a little bit, but the wetness and coldness couldn’t rub people’s spirit away. On the bus ride, the atmosphere reached the climax; people were screaming about who got the most letters after one month in the field and fighting over papers which were already two days old…and I got handed a card unexpectedly. It was from Seattle, and the cover of the card was a breathtaking shot of the snow-covered Rainier. “They reached the summit,” I exclaimed,“ and they remembered to send me a card to congratulate me; I am so touched.”

They are Geoff, Geno, and Mark. We climbed Denali together, and after that climb, we knew that we would climb together again. In fact, before Rainier, Geno and Mark had climbed another high peak in Mexico (~ 20,000 feet) while I was rock climbing in Red Rocks. They were planning to tackle Aconcagua and this time I had decided not to miss it again. Therefore, we three will celebrate the new year of 2009 at Plaza Argentina, where the base camp of Polish Glacier Route is.


Aconcagua is the highest peak of the Americas and is also the highest summit outside of Asia: its elevation is 22,841 feet (6,962 m). My biggest worry is therefore altitude sickness. Right now I can still remember the tears I dropped on Denali; I had to turn around from the summit at 19,400 feet because my body couldn’t receive well executed commands from an oxygen-deprived brain. Aconcagua is higher than Denali and much higher. I know that Denali might have higher physiological altitude, due to its higher latitude (see reference 1) and I know that previous high attitude experience does not necessarily imply how my body will react upon my next encounter; however, every time I think about this climb, I can’t help but keep telling myself “remember to drink water, breathe more, and you can always turn around.”

I did consider to bring diamox with me but it seemed that now taking diamox is forbidden on Aconcagua because park staff think diamox can mask the effects of HAPE (see reference 2). Besides, diamox is generally not recommended for Aconcagua because it can lead to dehydration and Aconcagua is an arid mountain. Therefore, in terms of dealing with high attitude, proper acclimatization and descent will be the key elements.

Route Selection

The first two popular routes leading to the summit of Aconcagua are Normal Route and Polish Glacier Traverse Route (also called False Polish Glacier Route). Normal Route travels through the Horcones River Valley and ascends the mountain along the western slopes. Polish Glacier Traverse Route travels through the Relinchos Valley and ascends the mountain on the peak’s east side. Upon hitting the base of the Polish Glacier, the route traverses the mountain towards Normal Route and eventually joins the Normal Route to the summit. Both of these routes present no technical difficulties: they are basically a “hike-up.” Altitude and weather are the two major objective hazards for both routes.

Since all our team members have moderate glacier travel and technical climbing experience, we decided to do something more challenging – the Polish Glacier Direct Route. This route has a few variations, many parties make their final decision at Camp 2 (19,000 feet; 5800 m) where they have a great view of the Polish Glacier. The deciding factors usually are the gradient of the slope, and the amount and conditions of snow and ice. After reading several trip reports and expedition description of some guiding services, we have learned that it’s possible that we will need to do some ice climbing or mixed climbing. In addition to running belays, many parties set up intermediate belay stations at more technical sections.

To conclude, we will attempt Polish Glacier Direct Route to reach the summit, take the Normal Route to descend and use Polish Glacier Traverse Route to get back to the high camp. The next section spells out our tentative itinerary.

Tentative Itinerary

Campsites: Most parties take three days to get to the base camp of Polish Glacier Route (Plaza Argentina), and many parties use two intermediate campsites between the base camp and the summit – Camp 1 & Camp 2. It means Camp 2 will also serve as the high camp. Some parties use an intermediate campsite between Camp 1 & 2, which is at Ameghino Col (17,700 feet). There are also potential camp spots between Camp 2 & the summit (see reference 3).

Route Description: We will starting hiking at Punta de Vacus (trailhead), reach the base camp at Plaza Argentina, use Polish Glacier Route to reach the summit and descend through Normal Route and then Polish Traverse back to Camp 2 and descend back to Punta de Vacus.

Day 1 (Mendoza):
Arrive at Mendoza, stay overnight

Day 2 (Mendoza):
Apply for permits, food buy, fuel buy, map buy, pack, reserve bus tickets to Los Penitentes

Day 3 (Los Penitetes):
take bus to Los Penitentes, arrange mule services

** Start Hiking ** Approach to the base camp - 3 days

Day 4 (Las Lenas):
from Punta de Vacus (trailhead), hike to Las Lenas (9,100 ft; 2,800m)

Day 5 (Casa de Piedra):
from Las Lenas to Casa de Piedra (10,500 ft; 3,200m)

Day 6 (Plaza Argentina - base camp):
from Casa de Piedra (13,700 ft; 4,200m)

Day 7 (Plaza Argentina - base camp):
Rest Day @ base camp

Day 8 (Plaza Argentina - base camp):
Ferry loads to Camp 1 and back

Day 9 (Camp 1):
Break camp and ascend to Camp 1 (16,240 ft; 4,950m)

Day 10 (Camp 1):
Rest Day @ Camp 1

** Here Camp 2 means the camp at 19,000 ft; usually it is also the High Camp. There is also an intermediate camp site which is the Ameghino Col at 17,700 ft. Keep this in mind as an option. **

Day 11 (Camp 1):
Ferry loads to Camp 2 and back

** There are also other options for High Camp **

Day 12 (Camp 2 / High Camp):
Break camp and ascend to Camp 2 (19,000 ft; 5,800m)

Day 13 (Camp 2 / High Camp):
Rest Day @ Camp 2

Day 14 - Day 16 (Camp 2 / High Camp):
Weather Day(s); Summit Day (portion of technical snow/ice/mixed climbing)
From the summit, descend the Normal Route via Independencia and then turn to Polish Traverse back to Camp 2

Day 17 (Plaza Argentina):
Descend to base camp

Day 18 - Day 19:
Two-day hike out to the trailhead and depends on the time of the day, might stay overnight @ Los Penitentes or Mendoza


  1. For more info regarding “physiological attitude,” please refer to Altitude Illness by Charles S. Houston, M.D. 1979. The American Alpine Journal Vol 22 Number 1 Issue 53, p153-159. For further reading on Altitude Illness, I recommend Chapter 21 & 22 of Medicine for Mountaineering & Other Wilderness Activities. 5th Edition. Edited by James A. Wilkerson, M.D. The Mountaineers Books.
  2. http://www.summitpost.org/mountain/rock/150197/aconcagua.html
  3. Aconcagua: A Climbing Guide. Second Edition. R.J. Sector. The Mountaineers Books.

6 thoughts on “Heading Toward Aconcagua”

  1. Pingback: LittlePo climbing Aconcagua | besthike.com - the blog

  2. Very exciting news LittlePo!
    Another great adventure waiting for you out there…
    Send me an email at my address if you might enjoy taking along a few Summit Stones for you and your rope team to this elusive summit!

  3. Pingback: LittlePo: An Outdoor Blog » Blog Archive » ClimbLog Updated!

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