The Stone Sentinel: return to Aconcagua (as usual)

Five years ago when I turned back on Aconcagua, the highest mountain in South America, 500 metres from the summit, I told myself I would never go back. It’s a boring mountain, the guides are too cautious, there are plenty of other higher and more interesting peaks – these were all the excuses I needed to give myself.

Yet this weekend, five years on from my first experience of Aconcagua, I will be doing just that, and I won’t be alone. For a “boring” mountain, a surprising number of people go back again and again.

The west face of Aconcagua from the summit of Cerro Bonete
The west face of Aconcagua from the summit of Cerro Bonete

The reason for this is harder to fathom. One of my mountaineering companions, also called Mark, has had no fewer than four attempts, which have failed for reasons as various as high winds, frostbite, and on one memorable occasion setting fire to his tent. Yet in spite of this it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if he returns for a fifth time.

For me, it’s more by accident than design – I had booked onto an expedition to climb Ojos del Salado in Chile, and when it fell through the tour operator offered me Aconcagua instead. Aconcagua certainly has some interesting routes. I’m hoping to climb one of them, the Polish Glacier, myself, but its failure rates are also high, and I know a number of experienced mountaineers who have tried and failed multiple times.

One of the reasons for the high rate of failure is that as well as being one of the Seven Summits (the highest mountains on each continent), it has a reputation for being the highest mountain in the world you can walk up, and consequently attracts people to climb it who don’t really know what they’re letting themselves in for. Many people under estimate it.

While the Normal Route on the mountain is non-technical, unlike Kilimanjaro, Aconcagua is not a trek but a serious mountaineering expedition. At 6959 metres high it is extremely high altitude and needs to be climbed expedition-style, by establishing a series of camps in relay, coming back down again to rest and acclimatise before pushing on up to the next one. Being located in a more developed country, Argentina, porters are harder to come by than in the Himalayas or Africa, so climbers generally have to do more load carrying between camps.

South Face of Aconcagua
South Face of Aconcagua

There is also an argument that because clients tend to be less experienced, guides are more cautious on Aconcagua than on other mountains, and are more inclined to turn their clients around or leave early where on other mountains you would keep trying until all your options have been exhausted. I certainly felt there was an element of this at play when we abandoned our attempt five years ago.

Finally itineraries tend to treat the mountain more like a trekking peak than an expedition peak, and allow less opportunity for a weather window. Where on a big Himalayan peak you might establish all your higher camps before returning to base camp to await a suitable weather window, Aconcagua itineraries tend only to allow one or two extra days once high camp has been established, meaning you have to keep your fingers crossed the weather is fine when your time comes. Often weather on Aconcagua is unreliable, with high winds and extreme cold common, so you really do have to trust to luck a great deal.

Yet despite knowing all this, here I am returning, just like everyone else who has tried and failed. No, I can’t really explain it, either. The tour operator offered me my money back; I could have said no, but I didn’t. Well, I had to really; this is Aconcagua, after all.

These mountaineers are crazy. Wish me luck – I’ll be needing it.

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