Aconcagua Expedition — The Road To The Summit
Mountain Madness guide extraordinaire Arthur Herlitzka reflects on an expedition from last season, a trip with all the usual challenges and rewards. Some great insight on what to expect on the climb. View more info about the Aconcagua trip
As an Aconcagua climber this is where you want to be. High camp, camp Cólera at 19,600ft at sunset the night before the summit push. You have a weather window, you are acclimated, fit, and ready to dig deep to try to climb to the top of the highest mountain in South America, the highest mountain outside of Asia.
Do I have what it takes to climb Aconcagua?I’m sitting here camped on bureau of land management land just outside City of Rocks National Reserve in Idaho, reflecting on time spent only a few months ago in the Andes mountains of Argentina. Times sure were different then, what a drastic shift it has been. I’m reflecting on five weeks spent in Argentina, almost four of which guiding a Mountain Madness expedition on Cerro Aconcagua, 6960 meters i.e. 22,837 feet above sea level. I worked along side MM guide Paul Guerra, a veteran IFMGA certified mountain guide hailing from Ecuador. Adding some excitement to the mix, neither Paul or I had successfully summited the mountain before. Each of us had attempted— guiding MM groups in previous years, but turned back on each previous summit push due to dangerous weather and or altitude illness.
Here’s the crew, minus myself, under the massive south face of Aconcagua. L‑R Kevin, Greg, Alan, Tim, Matthew, Tim, and MM guide Paul Guerra
Our expedition was a team of all men this time around. Two guides, six guests. We had one Ecuadorian and seven US citizens ranging from the states of Texas, Colorado, New York and Washington. Paul was in for some serious culture shock!
I love Aconcagua expeditions for several reasons. Its the flow of the trip, the actual areas we are able to visit and most importantly the people and communities we interact with and become a part of. The climbing is cool too. What I like about the flow of the expedition is that we are exposed to different facets of Argentina. We don’t just go directly into the backcountry as a group of foreigners. We all meet in Mendoza, a city known for vineyards, fine wine and steak dinners, vibrant night life. (I suggest extending your trip and flying in a few days early to explore.) I personally ended up getting out sport climbing at crags near town. We are able to settle in, check our gear, as well as experience some of the culture of this region of Argentina. Mendoza is just above 3000ft in elevation, so the need is great to get moving to higher altitude to maximize our acclimatization and fitness come summit day, just three weeks away. The first goal of our expedition is to pack the mules and get to base camp at Plaza de Mulas. The flow goes Mendoza about 3000ft — > Hotel in Penitentes about 9000ft —> Confluencia Camp 11,300ft where we spend two nights acclimatizing —> Base camp at Plaza de Mulas 14,400ft.
View from the hotel in Mendoza. Beautiful town and sweet culture.
Gauchos and Mules are the spine of our expedition!
Do I have what it takes to climb Aconcagua?The logistics of this expedition are dialed. All our heavy gear gets transported directly to base camp by mules and their gauchos, so we get to hike with light packs for the first phase of the trip. We are served delicious meals by the basecamp chefs catered to our time needs. Most importantly, due to our scheduled itinerary. we are able to take the acclimatization slowly and not climb too high, too fast, which is key to success on summit day.
The works begins when we reach basecamp, and the backpacks become heavier. Our goal is to stock our camps on the upper mountain because from base camp there are still three more camps to go before our summit attempt.
This is where guests decide whether to fork some cash up for porter support. Each porter can carry up to 20kg, and let me tell you it is hard work if you don’t have any help. Each team member is responsible for their own gear, food, as well as their share of group expedition equipment. Having porter support definitely correlates statistically with success on summit day is all I’ll say.
Two examples of some strong people Making It Happen!
There are quite a few fond memories I have from our team’s time spent at basecamp. Games of the card game UNO until late into the night, laughing at Kevin’s constant flow of ‘arguably’ bad jokes, assigning nick names that we will keep unspoken in this blog post, and of course sharing the love we all have for quality time spent the mountains. We realized soon during the trip the value of cooperation and team work. We shared the value of the opinion that “we create the experience” and that an expedition like this isn’t just about reaching the top. Summit day is only one day out of almost 25 spent in Argentina, so you better be able to enjoy all the other days.
UNO games were competitive! Here’s Matt laughing.
Tim shared stories of growing up in Louisiana, alongside memories from other Mountain Madness climbs. One coincidence was that Tim and his son Matt were on the same MM Mount Elbrus expedition as Kevin was! The three arrived and already knew each other.
It was also cool hearing from everyone about their previous ascents with Mountain Madness from areas all across the world. Some spoke of glaciated peaks in the Pacific Northwest, high peaks in Ecuador and Peru, climbs in the Alps like Mt. Blanc and the Matterhorn, waterfall ice climbing in Ouray, Colorado. We also dreamed of big peaks in the Himalaya or Alaska. Maybe next time our trip will take us there. The fun part about climbing is that there is always another objective out there to fit your dreams.
Chefs hard at work at Nido de Condores camp 18,300ft
Another memory— it was dry in the Andes this season. Low winter snow levels and hot clear days meant that an already low level snow of was melting fast. We were the first MM expedition of the season and fortunately had the best odds for finding snow to melt into water in comparison with other expeditions to come later in the season. At the camps on the upper mountain, climbing teams are dependent on patches of snow and ice to melt for water. Occasionally at camp 1, camp Canada, there is running water to harvest.
Our water harvesting system this season was quite a contraption and pretty hilarious. But it did indeed do the job well! It helped gather water, and importantly clear water as opposed to the ‘willy wonka’s chocolate milk’ water that flows during mid-day when the temperatures are warm and the sun is shining. We opted to fill water at sunset, when the flow of chocolate milk slowly decreases and clear water begins to trickle. There is a 30 minute window where there is enough water to harvest that is clear until everything freezes solid. Check out the system.
Water harvesting system
There’s my current reflection on another expedition well spent on the flanks (and on the SUMMIT of) Cerro Aconcagua. While I am uncertain when the next time is when I will visit again, I hold the memories, the mountain, and the people in my heart until my return. I hope to see whoever reads this down in Argentina someday on a Madness expedition! Whenever we are able to explore the world freely once again.
…I’m not going to write anymore but check out some of the captioned photos listed below! Good memories and definitely had to include some sweet landscape shots.
Cheers all! ‑Arthur Herlitzka
Enjoy the photos and for a short blog about what it takes to climb Aconcagua go here