The first ascent of the South Face of Aconcagua

A day’s drive up the Trans-Andean Highway from Mendoza, in one of Argentina’s prime wine-growing regions, is the ranger station at the entrance to Aconcagua Provincial Park. Here climbers on Aconcagua’s Normal Route will stare up the Horcones Valley and get their first good sight of the mountain they have come to climb.

At 6,959m, Aconcagua is one of the Seven Summits. It is the highest mountain in South America, the Southern Hemisphere, and the Western Hemisphere (whatever the *£$! that means).

The view may not encourage them. In 1898 the explorer and mountaineer Martin Conway stood on that very spot and made the following observation:

A climber beholding the mountain from this side would hardly be likely to choose the Horcones Valley for his first attempt.

The reason for this was because he was staring at the fearsome South Face, a giant 3,000m wall of rock and ice. From the bottom end of the valley it’s a mighty fortress of white rising up behind brown desert hills, smudged with green.

The world is full of mountains that look ridiculous from one side, but offer a relatively straightforward way up from another. Climbers (trekkers even, if they are strong enough) can skirt around the western slopes and come up the backside (so to speak). They will find themselves on Aconcagua’s Normal Route, which in ordinary conditions presents no technical difficulties (though other factors, such as the altitude and the wind, should not be underestimated).

It’s a good place to take photographs though, especially if you’re going up the Normal Route, on the off chance somebody might take a look at them and say “you didn’t really get up that did you?”

From the bottom end of the Horcones Valley Aconcagua is a mighty fortress of white rising up behind brown desert hills, smudged with green
From the bottom end of the Horcones Valley Aconcagua is a mighty fortress of white rising up behind brown desert hills, smudged with green

The South Face, with its tumble of icy seracs and snow chutes, has long been attractive to extreme alpinists who need a liberal sprinkling of danger with their climbing. One of the routes is named after Reinhold Messner, who did for high-altitude mountaineering what Evel Knievel did for driving. So as you can see, the South Face must be pretty hardcore.

A few weeks ago I wrote about the first ascent of Annapurna by a French team in 1950, a bold and historic climb which, however, had its fair share of mishaps, not least of which was that the expedition leader, Maurice Herzog, lost all his fingers and toes to frostbite, and had to be carried back to civilisation by piggy-back.

At the risk of stereotyping, if there’s a nation more likely than any other to be seen doing unusually perilous things up mountains, then it’s the French. It’s no surprise then, that the first team to find a way up the horrendous avalanche-laden death wall that is the South Face of Aconcagua, was a French one.

During my first attempt on Aconcagua in 2005, I had a rest day at Confluencia, on my way up the Horcones Valley to base camp at Plaza de Mulas. As its name implies, the semi-permanent tented camp of Confluencia is situated at the confluence of the main Horcones river, coming down from base camp to the northwest, and a side stream, the Rio Horcones Inferior. This latter branch rises beneath the South Face itself, and makes for an interesting detour. Confluencia is sited at 3,400m, so it’s a good place to spend a rest day acclimatising.

We took the opportunity to take a stroll up the side valley to get a closer look at the South Face. It looked truly terrifying, with tiers of giant hanging glaciers bulging over vertical walls of loose rock. My expedition leader Chris had brought along a photograph with all the main routes marked on it, but even to my untrained eye none of them looked safe from major avalanches.

The South Face of Aconcagua: er ... no thanks
The South Face of Aconcagua: er … no thanks

Like Maurice Herzog, the French team of 1954 who made the first ascent, returned with severe frostbite, an affliction which you might be forgiven for thinking in the 1950s must have been considered a point of national pride in France (rather than, say, a cock-up).

The team fixed 400m of rope up vertical cliffs of rotten rock at the foot of the route, which led them to another rock band beneath the South Face’s main hanging glacier. As well as the constant threat of an avalanche on this section, they were plagued by the mountain’s legendary winds. It took them seven hours to pass through the second rock band by means of a vertical rock chimney.

After a month of effort on the wall six climbers – Robert Pagarot, Edmond Denis, Pierre Lasueur, Lucien Berardini, Andrien Dagory and Guy Poulet (who in fairness certainly wasn’t living up to his name) were poised at 6,400m for the final summit assault. But they were unable to complete it in a single push as a storm raged around them. They were forced to bivouac on the face, but reached the summit at 8pm on the second day.

They descended via the Normal Route, but in the gathering darkness two of them were unable to find the hut at Independencia, and were rescued by some Chilean climbers and an army patrol.

In those days it was believed the best way to get warmth back into frozen fingers and toes was by whipping them with a knotted rope. This form of high altitude flagellation is now known to exacerbate frostbite, rather than prevent it. Like Herzog on Annapurna all except one of the climbers needed amputations in Mendoza.

I don’t know what the mood of the climbers was at that stage, whether they were elated and felt their achievement outweighed their injuries.

Me approaching Aconcagua's summit, with the South Face dropping away abruptly to the left behind me (Photo: Augusto Ortega)
Me approaching Aconcagua’s summit, with the South Face dropping away abruptly to the left behind me (Photo: Augusto Ortega)

I’m not sure what to make of climbers such as these, who risk life and limb to lunatic degrees to chalk up a first ascent. I know that for some people they are heroes, worthy of the highest praise. I’m more of hiker than a climber though, and I go to the mountains for different reasons. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I wouldn’t sacrifice a single finger for a first ascent, however significant, any more than I would sacrifice my John Thomas for a night in a Turkish harem.

Aconcagua by one of its easier routes formed an important part of my journey to Everest. Far from being an easy trek, it was my first experience of expedition-style mountaineering. It marked something of a rite of passage, and I wrote about the experience at length in my book Seven Steps from Snowdon to Everest. Some people think it’s a boring mountain, but I loved the eastern Vacas Valley side, a trip I also wrote about in one of my diaries, The True Peruvian Route.

I’d like an excuse to go back to Mendoza some day as well. Perhaps one day I’ll climb nearby Tupungato, which at 6,570m would be no pushover.

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