‘Felices Navidad!’ hollered the voice at the end of the distorted phone line. Irritated at having Christmas lunch disturbed, the family was instantly placated by the sound of my brother’s voice coming down a satellite phone from camp one, high on the flank of Aconcagua.
He was a member of the Walon UK & Toyota (GB) plc team of four that, in association with a commercial company and eight others, was attempting to scale the ‘Stone Sentinel’ by the Normal Route in aid of the charity Wooden Spoon.
At 6,962m, Aconcagua is the highest peak in Argentina, the highest peak in the Andes and the highest peak in the western and southern hemispheres. Indeed, it’s the highest peak anywhere in the world outside of the Himalayas. Set on the Chile-Argentina border, it is the single most dramatic, formidable fence between two of the finest wine growing valleys in the world. It also has a reputation as the highest peak in the world that can be climbed without any technical mountaineering skills. Nonetheless, it is far from simply being a walk in the park. The climbing season is a short two months due to the weather, which can be ferocious with winds reaching 100mph and temperatures plummeting to -30°C. The scree fields are relentless and at over 6,500m snow and ice make the use of crampons and ice axes advisable. The mountain also has the sobering privilege of having the highest death rate of any Andean peak.
Mathias Zubriggen completed the first modern climb in 1897. However, there is evidence to support the theory that the ancient Incas used to climb the mountain in order to conduct sacrifices and celebrate their deities. In 1947 the body of a guanaco, a relative of the llama, was discovered on the summit ridge. The approach to the summit is, consequently, known as the Cresta del Guanaco.
Having caught a bus from Mendoza to Puente del Inca, through gorges and beside bare mountains, along the line of an old Inca road, the group had hiked up the Horcones Valley through a dead, dusty landscape, using mules to transport the bulk of their gear to base camp. Aconcagua is clearly visible throughout this approach, dominating the view. It stands, forbiddingly foreshortened, adorned with glaciers and ice, high above the surrounding ridges. The sheer south face looms almost two vertical miles above the plain, accessible from the Confluencia camp via the Lower Horcones valley, and offers some of the most extreme alpine climbing options in the world.
While acclimatising at the well-organised base camp – Plaza de Mulas – the group had undertaken several sorties higher on the mountain in order to cache food and kit for the summit approach and to further aid acclimatisation. From base camp each member of the team would carry all of their own equipment as the path zig-zagged towards camp one, Camp Canada, at 4,900m and on to camp two, Nido de Condores, at 5,350m. An arduous haul continues up the north-western ridge and would take them to Camp Berlin at 5,950m, from where the final summit bid across the top of the Gran Accareo and into the infamous Canaleta – a 400m, 40° chute full of scrappy, loose scree – would begin.
By this stage the original group of 12 had shrunk to eight, several members having succumbed to exhaustion and altitude sickness. Even one of the guides, who had been suffering from a cold at the outset, had retreated at 5,400m. Herein lies the problem on Aconcagua. As a member of a guided, organised trek, the individual pays their money and hopes to be led to the summit just like that. Unfortunately, you can’t simply expect to make it. The mountain deserves far more respect than that. A multitude of factors can get in the way of your one shot at the top, and there really is only one chance to make it. The two biggest factors that climbers have no control over are the weather, which is essentially a lottery, and altitude. The effects of altitude sickness can be minimized by having a well-planned acclimatisation schedule, commercial companies do however try to ‘fast-track’ their clients into acclimatising. For many this schedule is too physically punishing given the time span and becomes mentally demoralising.
Beginning without ceremony, the final summit bid would take seven-10 hours and have epic potential. There would be little to distract from the endless and enormous task of stepping in the dumb footsteps of the climber ahead of them. The monotony of the tedious, tough climb on loose, soul-destroying scree would offer no chance to unsnag their thoughts from stuck-record snippets of song or snatches of conversation on heavy rotation. However, the effort and exertion would be more than rewarded by unparalleled views of hundreds of Andean peaks to the north and the sight of Aconcagua’s shadow stretching to the horizon. The elation of climbing to such an altitude far outweighs the hardships endured and the experience comes highly recommended.
Eventually, three of the 12 climbers that set out would arrive at the small metal cross that denotes the highest point in the Americas. In the meantime, thousands of miles and a world away, a distant voice on a crackly line wished everyone ‘Happy Christmas’, signed off and vanished, to return to the camp, to the mountainside, to the glaciers and to the peak.
Russell Brown & Gareth Stewart of Walon UK (a major player in the automotive logistics industry) and Mike & Lorelei Sturgeon of Toyota (GB) plc climbed Aconcagua over Christmas 2003 as part of a joint partnership raising sponsorship for the charity Wooden Spoon. The charity relies on sponsorship from a wide variety of events and aims to benefit children and young people disadvantaged in life. They have supported work that takes on cancer, cystic fibrosis and autism and have assisted those disadvantaged socially, physically and mentally.
The 1:50,000 scale American Alpine Club folded map of the peak shows surrounding land up to a distance of 10km, contours at 500m and spot heights, with ridges, views and glaciers. Again at a scale of 1:50,000, the Cordee folded schematic map shows ridges, contours at 500m intervals, base camps, glaciers and moraines. Aconcagua: A Climbing Guide contains 27 routes from three different approaches, along with seasonal and background information, and equipment advice.
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Author: Alex Stewart