I first heard about Aconcagua in high school while reading “Seven Summits” – a book detailing Dick Bass and Frank Wells’ attempt to be the first people on earth to climb the highest mountain on every continent. Their descriptions of the mountains captured my imagination with images of vast high-altitude landscapes and the unique challenges and rewards that come with trekking/climbing in these alpine environments. These detailed mountaineering accounts combined with various descriptions of the vibrant cultures in Argentina and South America made a lasting impact on me and cemented Aconcagua as a long-term summit goal. So, years later, after climbing numerous 14ers in Colorado and following a strict multi-month training regiment, I felt that Aconcagua was a realistic goal to aim for. I began my research and after much deliberation, decided that I would make an attempt at the nearly 23,000’ foot peak in early 2020. What follows is the account of my summit bid, broken down into diary entries from each day of my journey. If you are specifically interested in my account of the mountain skip ahead to Day 4, for the final summit push see Day 14. Otherwise, I hope you enjoy my report and that in some small way it will inspire you seek out your own adventure, great or small!
Day 1 - Arrival in Argentina:
I arrived in Mendoza, Argentina (the closest major city to Aconcagua) a few days before we were set to leave for the expedition. This was more than enough time to enjoy the local cuisine, entertainment and culture of Mendoza, which lies within Argentina's wine country and is known for their beef and empanadas. The city was relaxed and leisurely with great parks and amenities.
After a few days in Mendoza, we made the 4-hour drive to Parque Provincial Aconcagua, the park that Aconcagua lies within. On the drive we passed through an area known for its wineries, an arid high plateau, slowly gaining elevation as we made our way through small mountain towns. For lunch, we stopped in Uspallata, a town at nearly 7,000’ known for its wine, natural stone bridges and rich history. We stayed a final night in a small chalet just outside of the park and enjoyed showering and sleeping in our beds for what would be our final opportunity for a couple of weeks.
We woke up early and got to the park entrance at opening in order to secure our permits for climbing the mountain and staying at each of the established camps along the way. However, when trying to get our permits we learned from park officials that due to a low snowfall year, the risk of rockslide was incredibly high. They told us the unfortunate news that the day before there had been a rockslide on the mountain and that someone had died. Although we were some of the final permits for the season, park officials were hesitant to issue our permits and were considering closing the mountain due to safety concerns. We nervously waited for 3 hours while park officials made calls to the local government in Aconcagua to come to a decision on if we could climb. Thankfully after several discussions they decided to honor the permits and let us proceed. We began the expedition behind schedule and anxious about the previous day’s accident.
The beginning of the trek was simple enough. For the first few days each climber is only required to carry a day pack with immediate essentials since we loaded mules with the majority of our gear and sent them to base camp ahead of us. We started with a short 4-hour trek to Confluencia Camp (11,090'). We walked a picturesque trail and admired the towering peaks that line the valley in all directions. Upon arriving in Confluencia, we quickly set up camp and enjoyed dinner before going to bed.
Day 4 - The Trek Begins:
The next day was an acclimatization day that had us moving from Confluencia to Plaza Francia camp and back. Francia sits at the base of the South Face of Aconcagua and is a staging area for some of the best climbers in the world as they make attempts on one of the most challenging alpine walls on earth.
We gained around 2,600' on the hike, had lunch while admiring the South Wall and then returned to Confluencia. After resting, we had dinner and prepared for the next day – our move to Base Camp.
The route to Plaza de Mulas (14,340') base camp is an 11-mile trek that gains over 3,200' in elevation. We started the day early and walked along the Horcones Superior River, through a vast and beautiful valley. Temperatures soared into the 90’s as we made our way and this valley was the final area we saw consistent amounts of vegetation.
After following the river for several miles, the trail rose to a lateral moraine next to the Horcones Glacier, offering incredible views of the surrounding area and opening up to base camp. We arrived tired but excited. The elevation at base camp was approaching a new high for me already and after prolonged exposure to these heights my first symptoms of real altitude sickness began to set in. That night I had pounding headaches, felt nauseous and could barely sleep. I finally drifted off and was thankful to know that the following 2 days would simply be rest days, aimed at recovery. We were scheduled to summit a nearby 16,647' peak – Mt. Bonete – but due to conditions would be unable to do so.
After two days of resting, hydrating and familiarizing ourselves with life in base camp, we were set to make our first carry climb to Camp 1 – "Camp Canadá" (16,570'). We carried up everything we would need for the expedition higher on the mountain; food, fuel and other supplies. We moved through penitentes (pinnacles of ice) and up steep switchbacks that steadily climbed to Camp Canadá. After arriving, caching our supplies and having a brief lunch, we set off back toward base camp.
Thankfully, the way down turned out to be much more enjoyable than the climb up. Large loose scree fields covered the mountain side not far from the trail leading from base camp to Camp Canadá. We were able to run down the scree fields at full stride, covering in 15 minutes what took an hour to climb. We got back to base camp with weak legs from running at such high altitudes but glad to have cut considerable time off the descent. Dinner was served a few hours later and we got to bed early that night, looking forward to our rest day tomorrow.
We were ready to make our final carry to Camp Canadá and set up camp there for the night. We started mid-morning after a light breakfast and followed the same path as 2 days earlier, more confident in the trail this time and sporting lighter packs due to the previous carry climb. The group moved with confidence and we made it to Camp Canadá in noticeably shorter time.
Upon arrival, we immediately got to work with getting our tents set up and dinner started. We were treated to one of the best sunsets of the expedition and being at the first high camp signified the beginning of the serious climbing, true tests of body and spirit. I enjoyed the views while I could as this was a short stay. The next day we’d head straight to Camp 2 – “Nido de Cóndores” (18,270').
I awoke in Camp Canadá to the coldest, cloudiest and windiest conditions that I’d experienced so far on the expedition. Breaking down camp and preparing to leave and move even higher into the incoming storm was a challenge both physically and mentally. However, we eventually got our things in order and pushed up the mountain. We experienced strong winds in the beginning of the day that would sometimes stop us in our tracks to brace ourselves. However, to our luck and surprise the storm eventually broke and we were walking under clear skies. A testament to how weather conditions and morale can change drastically in the mountains, even just in the course of a day. We arrived to Nido de Cóndores behind schedule and rushed to set up camp. Exhausted, we crawled into our sleeping bags and ate dinner before falling asleep.
We were now at 18,270' and the effects of the extreme elevation were truly kicking in. It was easy to get dizzy and very fatigued from completing tasks that would normally seem extremely easy. This day, our second day at high camp 2, was scheduled to be a rest day. However, due to incoming snowstorms that were predicted to hit the peak on our planned summit day, we had to advance our schedule. Rather than getting the rest day we had anticipated, we instead packed up for a carry day to high camp 3, “Camp Colera” (19,690'). We loaded approximately half of the items we’d need for the high camp as well as our push to the summit. Although this was one of the lightest packs we’d need to carry up the mountain, we were now moving towards 19,690' and combination of thin air and accumulation of over 10 days of climbing made this carry climb extremely challenging.
We pushed up past former military high camps, across long traverses and up fixed lines to make it to Camp Colera. We arrived after 3 hours of exhausting trekking and unloaded our packs before taking a much-needed rest. We breathed heavily in the thin air as we looked back down over the route we’d just climbed and the surrounding area. The views here were fantastic as this was the highest we had been so far, but we weren’t staying for long. We put on our empty packs and trekked back down to Nido de Cóndores; a tough steep section of downhill hiking over loose terrain.
The next morning, we were ready to head to Camp Colera and set ourselves up for an early summit bid the day after. Due to the elevation, Camp Colera isn’t a suitable place to spend extended periods of time so it was the goal to get there later in the afternoon with just enough time for an early dinner and bedtime. We started trekking back up the same path as the day before, getting closer to Colera with each step. Our legs were significantly weakened at this point and it was a grueling trek to get back up. My climbing partner was fading fast, taking frequent and long breaks with little movement between. I pushed ahead, allowing him to move at his own pace with our guide.
Eventually, we all made it to Camp Colera and established our final camp before the summit bid. It was an amazing feeling to know that we were mere hours away from making our push to the top! However, after completing our final medical exam in camp, my partner was deemed unfit to continue due to low blood oxygen saturation. This was a major blow to the morale of our camp but we knew that we had to continue to push on. Although it was nearly impossible to sleep due to anxiety, anticipation and altitude sickness, we went to bed and tried our best to rest up for the following day.
Day 14 - Summit Day:
We awoke for our summit push at 4:30am and began to dress. Although I put on nearly every layer I could manage, I was still cold and was knocked around by the intense, howling winds. The forecast called for a calmer afternoon so we all hoped things would clear up by the time we neared the summit, the mountain allowing us to complete our challenge. However, once we started moving I quickly started doubting my abilities to continue to the summit. I felt exhausted and was having issues breathing. The winds were pushing me around and making my movements inefficient and even more tiring. My feet were freezing and in pain but I kept making myself push for each step and we eventually made it to our first resting point, “Independencia” (20,833'), a small A-frame emergency hut about 2 hours into the trek. We took a long break and I contemplated the amount of effort still remaining and if I had what it was going to take to make it all the way to the summit. Doubt set in and I began to wonder if I had wasted months of training, money and time by biting off more than I could chew.
While we sat breathing in the thin air, a second group came up the trail and joined us. They were tired but in good spirits and we decided that we’d join them when they were ready to push on. 10 minutes later we were back on the trail and moving at a much more manageable speed. The larger group made everyone move a little more cautiously and slowly as not to run into one another. This slower speed made progress much easier for me and I grew more and more confident as we continued on trailing this new group of climbers.
We moved methodically up a large ridge and across one of the most prominent summit day features, a traverse of the North Face of Aconcagua. Wind blasted up the side of the mountain and battered us in the process. The howling winds continued for the entirety of the nearly 2-hour traverse and my hands, feet and face were beginning to go numb by the time we climbed out of the traverse and to the beginning of the final stage of the climb, La Canaleta (~21817'). This super steep, loose scree field is like walking uphill in sand, except at elevation. We trudged up it for 3 hours, sliding backward with nearly every step. I sought out solid rock as much as possible and stayed high on the final ridge that would lead us to the summit. At this point, my guide and I were leading the group and choosing the most effective route. We carefully picked our way up the summit ridge until everything around us started to truly fall off. We stood only 10 meters from the top when my guide stopped me, congratulated me and told me to continue on to complete the climb. I carefully ascended and climbed over talus until I finally topped out on the massive summit.
I stood there, alone, on top of the highest mountain in the Western/Southern hemispheres, the roof of the Americas at nearly 22,837'! My guide and the remaining climbers from the second group made their way up behind me, one by one, until 8 total climbers stood atop the summit. We congratulated each other, hugged, took photos and marveled at the beauty and vastness of the surrounding Andes mountains.
We stayed at the summit for nearly 20 minutes before dark clouds began to roll in. We were all aware of how quickly storms can hit in this type of environment and quickly began moving down the mountain back to camp. However, on the way down we were hit with snow and light hail. Thick clouds and the falling precipitation made visibility a real challenge and there were several times I nearly lost my footing coming down the scree fields of La Canaleta and the rocky terrain of the North Face Traverse. The snow was picking up even more as we got back to Independencia but we were out of the more dangerous terrain by this point. Two more hours of snowy trekking got us back to Camp Colera. We were absolutely destroyed physically and were wet from the snow. I crashed into my tent, forcing down food and water before passing out with most of my clothes on and only half zipped into my sleeping bag. Despite this, I slept hard through the night and woke up the next morning knowing that the hardest challenges were behind me.
We very slowly got camp broken down and everyone prepared to make the long walk back to base camp. We’d skip Camp Colera and Canadá and go straight back to base camp. This long, tiresome walk ended with several cheeseburgers, Coca-Cola’s and Oreo cookies – one of the best and most satisfying meals of my life. That evening the mountain was hit with more snow and we watched it fall while we finished dinner and got ready for bed. Another amazing night’s sleep greeted me as I looked forward to getting back to a real bed the following night.
We woke on our final day on Aconcagua to a thick layer of snow that had come down overnight. We all mentioned how thankful we were for pushing up our summit date and chatted about the possibility of summiting in snow and whether or not we would have been able to do it. Everyone agreed that we were lucky to have made the call we did.
A long but relatively flat 15 mile trek took us all the way from base camp to the entrance of the park where our ride was waiting. Before we knew it, we had completed the drive back to Mendoza and at the hotel lobby. A stark, but welcomed contrast to the tent we had shared for nearly two weeks. We celebrated with wine and red meat until one by one, we headed to the airport to return to our homes.
This was an incredibly eye-opening and life changing journey for me and is something I will never forget. I am forever grateful to Montbell for the opportunity to go for this climb and am pleased it happened to end in good health and success. I look forward to the next adventure!
Aqua Gripper Sandals
The Aqua Gripper Sandals were a key component of my footwear selection for Aconcagua. I found myself utilizing these sandals primarily around camp and for river crossings. They pack flat, are light and were useful in letting my feet get some much-needed air while also staying protected.
These Gore-Tex Pro shells kept the harsh winds of the mountain at bay for days on end. I wore these pants as my outer layer in a multitude of conditions – from frigid cold temps with several layers under to warmer (but still windy) days with just a base layer underneath. They are breathable enough to work in many ways on the mountain. A truly must-have for a mountain known for its high winds.
Tec Thermawrap Pants
These synthetic full zips were perfect for cold evenings and brisk mornings around camp. They were the first pair of pants I wanted to put on in the morning to ensure I stayed warm as I moved about camp and I could take them on/off even if I was wearing my double boots. The wind resistant 20 denier nylon paired with synthetic Exceloft insulation and DWR treatment makes for a great high-altitude hiking pant as well when the temperatures dip. These pants kept me the coziest climber in camp!
My go-to pants for most of the expedition. Once we got to base camp (14k+ feet) and above, these were my first choice for hiking pants. They could be worn alone on warmer days or paired with base layers and alpine pants to create a warm system for colder temperatures. The 4 way stretch and slim fit made them comfortable on their own or with layers.
Super Merino Wool M.W. High Neck Shirt
Super Merino Wool L.W. Tights
When looking at my pack weight and clothing system, I made the decision to only bring one pair of base layers for the expedition. I needed something versatile, odor resistant and moisture wicking. The super merino MW base layers checked all boxes. For higher elevations, once I put these on they rarely came off. I lived in these base layers for nearly 2 weeks and was comfortable the entire time.
My warm weather layer of choice! This super versatile hoodie offered sun protection and a cool, air permeable feel that was always comfortable. While I used this layer on the approach to base camp, the cool hoodie also acted as a great secondary base layer at higher elevations later in the expedition; typically paired over MW merino wool base layer.
U.L. Thermawrap Jacket
This ultra-light, packable and warm synthetic mid layer was one of the most important pieces of clothing I carried during the expedition. This jacket epitomizes versatility and I wore it during a range of temperatures and conditions. It fit comfortably under outer layers/shells but can also hold its own as a warm layer in mild conditions.
This bomber shell was key in keeping the high winds of Aconcagua at bay for the entirety of my expedition. The Gore-Tex Pro laminate was impenetrable yet breathable and the jacket's many alpine features made it a perfect outer layer. The spacious cut made it possible to fit several mid and base layers under the shell when needed.
Merino Wool SUPPORTEC Trekking Socks
Used in lower elevations and on days where support was key.
Merino Wool Expedition Socks
I preferred these socks for the high camps and sleeping.
The cool glove served as a light breathable layer for sun protection and gripping trekking poles while moving through lower elevations. I was impressed by how comfortable yet effective these gloves were. The Wickron Cool back allows for great breathability so even when worn in hot conditions, the gloves didn't cause overheating.
Winter Trekking gloves
These gloves were my "mid layer" gloves yet ended up being super important even on summit day above 20k feet. I wore these gloves mainly in the high camps. I planned on using expedition weight gloves for the summit push but they were too bulky to also grip my poles. My second option was the Winter Trekking Gloves and they proved to be more than capable! These gloves protected my hands all the way to the summit at nearly 23k feet.
Simple ball cap style hat used to shield against the sun. I like wearing my cool hoodie over a cap like this to give even broader sun protection.
One of the most important pieces of equipment I had on my expedition, without a doubt. These poles were incredibly light but robust and packed down so small that they'd fit anywhere. They offered unwavering support in high winds and rocky terrain.
Ridge Line Pack
Super lightweight, simple and durable. I used this pack getting to base camp and carried basic personal supplies. The structured aluminum frame offered great weight distribution and a comfortable fit.
U.L. Comfort System Alpine Pad 25 120
This sleeping pad was a perfect balance of lightweight and warmth. The inflatable foam provides great comfort and is thick enough to retain your body heat. Pair with a closed cell pad underneath for even more warmth retention.
Down Hugger 800 Expedition
So warm it's scary! The expedition sleeping bag was incredibly important to my success on this expedition. The 800 fill down kept me super warm even during the coldest nights on the mountain. Because of the bag's packability and lightweight nature, it barely took space in my pack. If you're going to be in super cold conditions, this is the bag to take.
U.L. Comfort System Pillow
This was a last-minute addition to my sleep system that I was extremely glad to have made. The inflatable pillow lets you air it up to your preferred firmness and attaches directly to the sleeping pad to prevent sliding in the night.
Clear Bottle 1.0L
Simple yet fundamental. Lightweight and colored.
Alpine Thermo Bottle 0.9L
The alpine thermo bottle was perfect for keeping coffee, tea and soup warm but also served as a cold container for chilled drinks like cold water and juices. This thermos kept liquids hot or cold for hours on end. At just under a Liter, it also helped me track my fluid intake accurately.
Alpine Stacking Plate 20
The flat bowl with round edges let me eat soups as well as solid foods from this singular dish. A great way to limit your load.