There are two types of people who judge Aconcagua. The first type are average Joe Shmoe’s like me who are amateur climbers and only do the sport a few times a year if that for a hobby. The second type are professionals who frequently do technical climbs around the world and here and there maybe even an 8,000 meter peak. Some professional climbers look down on mountains that are non-technical and are relatively straight routes to the summit. When you come across websites written by these types of people, you will hear things like, “one of the easiest high altitude mountains”, “wear your tennis shoes” “walk to the summit” “no experience necessary” etc. All these claims are actually true. Considering 8,000 and most 7,000 meter peaks, which would be the most difficult and dangerous in the world, Aconcagua is of course easy in comparison. The main routes don’t involve climbing walls or crossing crevasses, so no technical experience is essential. This information is good to be shared with other professional climbers, but it creates a problem for amateur climbers. Should a new climber go to Aconcagua with the mindset that this is an easy mountain where you ‘walk’ to the top and that no experience is necessary? Absolutely not!
It’s this mindset among inexperienced climbers that causes Aconcagua to have one of the highest failure rates and death tolls in the world. Common problems are people underestimating the cold and weather, underestimating the altitude, and not being physical fit. If you’ve never done any serious climbing and are interested in Aconcagua, then you should plan and expect this challenge to be the hardest thing you will have done so far in your life.
This information is easily found all over the internet, but I will also share my specific training that actually got me all the way up to the summit. First off, all of this information is different of course for every person, but in general you should train at least 4 months prior to arriving to Aconcagua. Of course if you’re completely out of shape then you may want to start as early as 6 months prior. Many websites suggest different types of training, but all agree that actually climbing mountains is the best way to get in shape for one. Depending on where you live, this might not be an option, so you’ll have to rely on the gym, stair climbing and other exercises. Below are some key workouts.
Like I said before, climbing mountains is the best way to get in shape for them. When I trained I carried a 70lb pack and hiked until I got an elevation gain of 2,200 feet. Websites suggest getting at least 3,000 feet gain, but where I live I didn’t have this option. The weight you carry should start off easy and slowly build up. The most I carried on Aconcagua was 45lbs, so training with 70lbs was more than enough.
After climbing mountains themselves, stair climbing is another great exercise. The mountains I trained in were over an hour away, so sometimes I went to a hotel and climbed to the 14th floor and then took the elevator down and then climbed back up again. The problem with stair climbing is you don’t get the random terrain that you’ll have when you’re on Aconcagua. With stairs they are all spaced the same distance and are all flat. On Aconcagua you’ll be on steep terrain and will take steps on uneven ground while balancing yourself and your pack.
The gym is a great place to get in shape of course. The biggest problem with the gym, at least for me, is that it gets very boring after an hour, where as if I go hiking I can easily do it for half the day. In the gym there are many exercises that can help you train for mountaineering. Of course you want to focus on your legs, doing things like squats, leg press, and calf exercises.
Running is good for burning fat and training your heart and lungs. By running often you can lower your heart rate and also build your long term endurance. I have read on another site about preparing for mountains where someone posted something to the effect of running for training purposes was a waste of time since you won’t be running on the actual expedition. Although it’s true that the best work outs for climbing are ones that you will actually be doing on the mountain, (ie carrying a heavy pack), I couldn’t disagree more with that statement. Running is one of the best work outs to train your lungs and it gets your body used to the lack of oxygen, increases your endurance and makes your breathing more efficient. This is something extremely important when you are at high altitude and your heart is beating out of your chest and you’re out of breathe despite your slow pace.
This is a fun sport that focuses on your legs and will build endurance. Like running, it will also help your heart and lungs. It’s best to find some hilly terrain to ride on rather than a flat neighborhood or street.
Plenty of other exercises can be beneficial as well. A big part of getting in shape though is not just working out but also getting enough sleep and watching what you eat. I’m terrible at eating out, for me its just something I do socially with my friends on a daily basis. Before climbing Aconcagua I had a very difficult time watching what I eat, but I did manage and stayed dedicated. Below is my actual training record. I believe keeping a record is a great way to see results and motivate yourself to keep training.
You can see that this is only 3 months of working out and that I started off pretty light. I actually began to train 6 months prior but because of an injury I had to stop for 2 months. You can also see that I traveled during my training and it definitely took a toll but I was still able to do some type of exercises. If I can visit Sudan and go jogging and stair climbing then you should be able to do some type of work out in just about any country. I also tried to do at least one super work out per week. I consider a super work out any activity that is pretty intense and lasts over 4 hours.
Bringing the right gear is critical to being able to summit any major mountain. Below was my personal gear list and for major items the brand name is also included.
Cell Foam Pad – Cell foam pads are just light mattresses that you put on the floor of your tent. They provide a cushion between you and the cold bumpy floor. If you put a self-inflating pad directly on the ground you can risk it popping on a sharp surface.
Self-Inflating Pad – On Aconcagua this was my first time using a self-inflated pad. This is basically just an air mattress that goes over your cell foam pad and makes sleeping much more comfortable. It’s not absolutely necessary but the better you sleep the better you can climb the following day so I highly recommend one.
Compression Sacks – Compression sacks are just bags that have straps on them and are perfect for making extra room in your pack. Without a compression sack my sleeping bag and down jacket alone probably would have taken up over half my pack.
Silverware – I used some very light titanium silverware from a camping store. Bowl – My bowl was also made of titanium and I actually got it with a kit. Someone on the mountain suggested using either a plastic bowl or silverware because metal on metal can scratch each other and make it harder to clean.
Sunscreen – I would bring the strongest sunscreen you can find, at least rated at a 50. Also you’ll spend several weeks on Aconcagua so make sure you bring enough. Lip Balm – A small stick of lip balm is all you will need. It’s good for the sun and essential to prevent wind burned lips.
Lip Balm – A small stick of lip balm is all you will need. It’s good for the sun and essential to prevent wind burned lips.
Water Bottles – I brought two one liter bottles along with insulated containers for them. The insulation is essential because of the cold weather. On Mt. Elbrus I learned this when I brought a regular plastic bottle to carry water. On summit day I pulled it out for a drink and instead I only had a block of ice in my pack.
1 Liter Thermo – These can be pretty heavy but for some they are well worth it. Hot water keeps your warm and is also good for tea and coffee. Sometimes my other bottles would freeze even in their insulated containers, so adding a little hot water was enough to thaw out the ice.
Pee Bottle – This is by far the best mountaineering invention. Bring an extra bottle with you so that you can use it to pee in the middle of the night. On Elbrus I was sick and every 20 minutes I felt like I was getting dressed and going outside at 3 in the morning. I brought a 1 liter bottle to Aconcagua and found that it wasn’t enough for the night. I ended up upgrading to a 2.5 liter.
Knife – A small pocket knife is a useful tool for a variety of situations. I actually used mine to take apart my camera after I spilled juice into it and it would no longer turn on.
Hygiene Bag – I brought with me only a tooth brush, floss, and toothpaste. I wouldn’t worry about deodorant or razor blades.
Hand Sanitizer – This is good to wash your hands before you eat. Everything around you is usually frozen so you’re not likely to get sick, but a little bottle of hand sanitizer is worth it to be on the safe side.
First Aid Kit – If you do a guided climb your guide will have a large first aid kit. In this case you can just bring small items like some band-aids or mole skin.
Hand & Toe Warmers – I brought with me several pairs of hand and toe warmers and I didn’t use any of them. On summit day I felt warm in camp 3 in the morning which is the coldest part of the day so I left the warmers behind. Later my extremities began to get numb from the cold even though my body felt pretty warm. Many people get frost bite above 6,000 meters on Aconcagua and they are so light they are worth carrying. I would definitely bring these to Aconcagua if I were to climb it again, and more importantly bring them with you on summit day.
Trash Bags – These are so light you might as well bring them. They are good for lining your back pack and separating dirty clothes from clean clothes. Also of course its good for trash.
Head Lamp – I brought a Black Diamond LED headlamp that worked great. Petzl are also supposed to be a good brand.
Ski Hat – A normal wool ski hat found in an outdoor or ski shop is all you will need. This thing almost never left my head after I arrived to base camp.
Balaclava – I found a balaclava extremely useful after base camp. It completely blocks the wind from your face and stops your nose from running all the time, makes climbing that much more comfortable.
Sun Hat -On the lower slopes you’ll definitely want a sun hat because its easy to get burned. I used a baseball cap.
Buff – I never used a buff until Aconcagua but from now on I think I’ll always bring one for outdoor trips. A buff is just an elastic gaiter that you can wear around your neck to protect you from the sun. Some people stretch it around their face and use it as a super light balaclava as well.
Bandanna – A bandanna is a useful item just because it’s flexible. Some people use it instead of a buff and wrap it around their neck. I prefer a buff to a bandanna and on my next trip I’ll probably leave the bandannas at home.
Glacier Glasses – These are nothing but sunglasses but with side shields to completely block out the sun.
Ski Goggles – On higher camps you’ll probably put your glacier glasses away and only wear the ski goggles. Ski goggles are great because they also block out the wind from your eyes.
Light Long Underwear – For light long underwear I simply bought some spandex type gear I got from a climbing store.
Heavy Long Underwear – My heavy long underwear for my legs was some thick wool I got from REI. For my upper body I used some random polyester and a north face fleece. I never ended up wearing the polyester top.
Soft Shell Jacket – A goretex windbreaker that I also used as my casual street jacket was my soft-shell.
Soft Shell Pants – Goretex mountain hardware pants were used for my legs. Make sure you have full side zippers.
Insulated Pants – Micropuff pants were suggested on the internet and I agree these are a nice warm pair of pants to have.
Expedition Down Parka – I bought the top of the line North Face Himalaya Parka. This $500 jacket was a great pillow in all my camps but I never wore it on summit day. I plan to use it on other mountains of course, but I’d still bring or rent one for Aconcagua because the weather is always unpredictable.
Fleece Gloves – I brought with me some Mountain Hardware Fulcrum gloves. These worked well until I lost one of them in base camp. Afterwards my guide gave me another pair of lighter gloves but I’m not sure what the brand was.
Hardshell Mitts – I brought some Black Diamond Expedition mitts that I love. On summit day I found that I didn’t need two pairs of gloves on, and the expedition mitts alone kept my hands really warm.
Plastic Double Boots – Supposedly the warmest boots ever made, I used Koflach’s Arctis Expe. I wear a size 10 street shoe and bought the size 10.5 Koflach boots. They were slightly too big but I think a 10 would have been too tight.
Trekking Shoes – Some low top hiking shoes would be perfect for Aconcagua, but with all the money I blew on gear I didn’t want to buy any and just wore my street shoes. My street shoes worked pretty good until I hit snow and brought out the boots.
Light Sandals – Light sandals are used to cross rivers mostly, but on the normal route in February we never had to use them. They were nice to use in base camp though on the days that were warm.
Gaiters – My pants have some built in gaiters so I didn’t use any additional ones even though I had carried some to Camp 3 just in case. Gaiters depend on your boots and pants, if you think there is a chance of getting snow inside then definitely bring them.
Wool Socks – I brought 3 pair of thick wool socks that were labeled for mountaineering.
Liner Socks – 3 pair of liner socks are essential to avoid blisters.
Ice Axe – You’ll probably only use an ice axe on summit day. On my first day climbing Mt. Elbrus a group of four climbers all died because they slipped and none of them brought ice axes to stop their fall.
Crampons – I wore Black Diamond Sabre Tooth crampons with my Koflachs. I saw some people wearing crampons in Camp II.
Ski Poles – These aren’t essential but they are a good tool that almost every enjoys using. I definitely wouldn’t climb without them since they are useful while trying to balance yourself and can avoid falling on slippery terrain.
What to Expect
Now that you’ve gotten all your gear and are in shape you’re ready for the actual climb. I’ll try to give a brief explanation of what you can expect on a day to day basis with the west buttress route and a quick comparison to other mountains.
From the park entrance you’ll have an easy mostly flat hike to Camp Confluencia. For the first few days you’ll carry only a day pack so won’t have to worry about extra weight. Once in Confluencia you will also do local acclimatization hikes to 4,000 meters before moving to base camp. I found all of these very easy.
The hike to base camp is about 8 hours from Confluencia. The majority of it is on very flat terrain until the very end. The last part is a called strong hill in Spanish and goes up a very steep hill for about 15 minutes. The hill was definitely more challenging than the other part of the trek but I didn’t find it very difficult. Someone in our group said he found this hill alone harder than summit day on Kilimanjaro. Statements like this are all a result from training. I can promise you this person hadn’t trained much for the climb and as a result didn’t summit. After climbing once a week with 70lbs, a steep 15 minute hill with a day pack wasn’t very difficult for me at all, while another person on the same trip felt it was extremely challenging.
After you reach base camp you’ll do some local hikes to acclimatize some more. Most of these were pretty easy, but we did a climb to 5,000 meters on a peak known as Cerro Bone. I found this day to be challenging, but I believe it was a result of acclimatizing and not physical fitness. Once on the summit I felt pretty mellow and wanted to go back down.
We reached Camp 1 twice on our expedition. Once to drop off some gear and then the second time on our way to the summit. The first time Camp 1 was dry and rocky and the terrain was kind of annoying. The second time it was covered in snow so a little easier. Camp 1 is at 4900 meters and we carried about 30lbs the first day to it. All of the high camps are challenging, but I felt Camp 1 of course was the easiest.
We carried about 40lb to Camp 2 taking about 4 hours. Our guide promised Camp 2 was the hardest camp to reach and that Camp 3 was easier. I didn’t find Camp 2 hard at all until the very end. The first 3 hours I felt like this was a joke, even with the 40lbs on my back. The last hour I couldn’t wait to reach camp even though the terrain wasn’t as steep as in the middle of the day.
Both myself and my climbing partner felt that the reaching Camp 3 was equal to or worse than Camp 2 even though our guide had said it wasn’t nearly as bad. While we hiked to Camp 3 we had terrible weather and a snow storm so this was probably the biggest reason for us feeling that way. Most of the hike was semi steep but the last 20 minutes were very steep.
When you reach base camp you’ll have an 8 hour hike, but most of the other days you won’t do more than 5 hours. On summit day prepare for 8 hours from Camp 3 to the top with another 3 or 4 hours back down. The biggest problem people have with summit day is the Canaleta which is a steep gravel like area causing people to slide backwards and making a frustrating climb. For us, the Canaleta was covered in snow so I found the traverse immediately before it much harder. Deep snow made the climbing difficult but most of it had been cleared by previous climbers. I never really felt like any area was extremely steep including the Canaleta. Prepare to climb up to 30 degrees on summit day with a day pack.
I think I had prepared very well for this trip as far as my gear and training goes, but descending was where I failed. After summit day I returned to Camp 3 and went to sleep like everyone else. No one eats dinner because it’s so late, but in the morning I listened to the altitude when it told me I wasn’t hungry and pretty much skipped breakfast. I figured we were going to base camp which wasn’t very far and I could eat whatever I wanted to there. How stupid can I be! While going up the mountain I was always right behind the guide and I never felt that I wouldn’t be strong enough to continue. During the descent I found that I was lagging behind everyone even though I wasn’t out of breathe and felt fine in regards to the altitude. The problem really was common sense, I must have burned 10,000 calories on summit day and never replaced them with anything. Going down I had no energy whatsoever and it took me a hell of a lot longer than it should have. Once in base Camp I ate plenty of food and the next day I was back to normal again. I’ve read about this mistake plenty of times but somehow I still let it happen to me, when you reach the top of the mountain you are only half way finished. Many people let their guard down, and this is why most accidents happen coming down, making a descent a on a mountain the most dangerous part.
Comparing to Kilimanjaro
In a way, Aconcagua is like Kilimanjaro in the sense that it is high altitude and for the most part hiking, just that it is a whole 3,000 feet (1,000 meters) higher. In that regards many people who do Kilimanjaro consider Aconcagua the next logical step in climbing, but this might not always be a wise decision. By comparison, what this comes down to is Aconcagua is significantly harder in all aspects compared to Kilimanjaro. You will climb 1,000 meters higher, carry up to 40lbs of gear, spend three or four times longer on the mountain, experience harsher conditions and weather, and you’re level of fitness will need to be double the needs of Kilimanjaro. A climber I met who didn’t reach the summit of Aconcagua but did climb Kilimanjaro said that he felt Aconcagua was twice as hard, and I would agree with that. Back in 2000, I was also one of those who had recently climbed Kilimanjaro and immediately had my eyes set on Aconcagua. I had even emailed a climbing group and asked if I was ready and they had encouraged me to join. My training for Kilimanjaro was nothing more than running a few times a week which was enough to get me to the summit. There is no doubt in my mind if I had gone to Aconcagua at that time I would have been shocked by the demands of the mountain and suffered and failed miserably. Anyone who dedicates them self to training likely won’t find Aconcagua extremely difficult, but the bottom line is this is a long and challenging climb and it should never be underestimated!
Comparing to Denali
I believe that Aconcagua is twice as hard as Kilimanjaro, and that Denali is at least twice as hard as Aconcagua. I have heard some people say Aconcagua and Denali are about the same and as someone who has done both without porters, I have absolutely no idea how they have come to this conclusion.
For starters, I did well on both mountains except the decent on Aconcagua where I ran out of gas because I didn’t eat as much as I needed to. Aside from the decent I was very strong going up both mountains and think I can offer a fair comparison. So lets compare normal itinerary of Denali and Aconcagua.
Aconcagua – For the first few days, 95% of all climbers have mules carry their gear to base camp. Climbers will be hiking in warm weather with just a day pack. I was able to wear just a t-shirt and pants and found myself hot. This hike is just like any other summer hike you’d do back home.
Denali – Your first full week on Denali will be carrying well over a hundred pounds of gear. Plus setting up the tents and fortifying camp. If you consider that Denali is equal to 3,000 feet higher because its near the arctic then you’re essentially starting at the same altitude. (Add 3,000 feet to Denali’s starting point and that will put you at 10,000 feet, on Aconcagua you enter the park at 10,000 feet). The only difference is Denali is much colder and the huge loads you need to carry can’t compare to walking with a day pack and camera on Aconcagua. I have no idea how some people concluded pulling 130lbs between a sled and backpack on a glacier on Denali has the same difficulty as walking in 70 degree weather on Aconcagua’s lower altitude with a 5lb pack.
Aconcagua – Once you reach Aconcagua base camp, many people stay there a week to acclimatize and do local hikes. Basically you are enjoying yourself and not carrying any heavy loads and you even have the option of a shower and internet. From Aconcagua
Denali – You’ll normally spend a full week moving from Denali’s base camp to the advanced base camp at 14,000 feet. This involves pulling a sled and pack and doing cache carries in addition to fortifying camps. It’s likely you’ll be either wearing crampons or snow shoes while you do all of this work. You’re also likely to encounter some bad weather and find yourself pinned down in a storm.
Aconcagua – After a week in base camp you’ll pack up your tent and then for the first time on the expedition put a heavy backpack on and set up 3 camps as you approach the summit. I think this part of the trip could compare to Denali since the weight might be about the same, but something else to consider is it is your first time working hard while on Denali you were doing this from day 1. Something else to consider though is that the terrain is much easier, you aren’t traveling in a rope team, and setting up camp is much simpler than on Denali.
Denali – After high camp in Denali you will have to do cache carries and then move up to Camp 4. By this time you are usually two weeks into the expedition which is about the same amount of time it takes to reach the highest camp on Aconcagua. The main reason why Denali is harder at this point is because you have been working non stop with pulling sleds, doing cache carries and building camps while on Aconcagua you probably just started this a few days ago. Also with Aconcagua, it takes about 3 or 4 hours to reach a camp and once there you set up the tent you are done. On Denali we spent 6 or more hours moving to another camp over much more challenging terrain and then had to spend several hours building ice walls and fortifying camp which makes the day twice as long as a high camp day.
Summit Day: I do believe summit days on both mountains are about the same. This depends on factors like weather and temperatures but pound for pound I don’t feel like either one was easier or harder. Overall I would certainly consider Denali a much harder mountain for the reasons I stated above like weather, temperature, group gear, sled pulling, heavier packs, ice wall building and camp fortifying.