The King of Aconcagua

Having the right guide can mean the difference between success and failure, particularly on a mountain like Aconcagua, where many guides don’t appreciate the great expense – financial, emotional and physical – that clients are putting into the climb, and end up turning them back far too early when reaching the summit is still possible. That’s why I’d like to pay tribute to the Peruvian guide Augusto Ortega, who has just become the first person to reach the summit of Aconcagua 60 times.

Augusto Ortega near Pampa de Leñas on the Vacas trail into Aconcagua
Augusto Ortega near Pampa de Leñas on the Vacas trail into Aconcagua

You don’t get a record like Augusto’s unless you’re as keen to get your clients to the summit as they are to reach it. This is certainly the impression I had of him when he led me up South America’s highest mountain in 2010 as part of a commercial trip with the US adventure travel company Aventuras Patagonicas. We’d had a lot of snow in the days leading up to our summit attempt, and nobody had reached the top in that period. On our summit day itself many parties were turning back, having decided there was still too much snow. When we reached the final traverse from the top of the Canaleta, the crux of the climb, below the summit ridge to the summit, another guide was waiting there with his client trying to make up his mind what to do. Augusto didn’t hesitate and broke trail through snow which at times was thigh deep. We were the first people to reach the top in a few days, but several teams followed in our (or rather Augusto’s) wake.

But perhaps the greatest testimony to Augusto’s determination to get his clients to the top lies along the route now known as the False Polish Glacier. On one expedition to climb Aconcagua via the Polish Glacier – a technical route on the eastern side of the mountain – Augusto realised conditions were too dangerous for climbing, so he traversed across scree slopes to the north for a few hours until he realised he was looking down on Berlin Huts, one of the high camps on Aconcagua’s Normal Route, thereby discovering a new route up the mountain. Today the False Polish Glacier Route is the mountain’s second most popular, and a far more enjoyable climb than the tedious Normal Route.

You can learn more about the story of how Augusto discovered the False Polish Glacier Route, and our summit day, in my expedition diary The True Peruvian Route, available on Amazon.

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