Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the Americas

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This article is part of Escalation online archive documenting the greatest mountains in climbing, such as Everestand its pioneering practitioners such as Marc-Andre Leclerc.

Aconcagua (22,838 feet) is both the tallest mountain in the Americas and the tallest mountain in the world outside of Asia. Located near Argentina’s border with Chile, 70 miles northwest of Mendoza, Aconcagua is also the second most prominent topographic peak in the world, after Mount Everest (8,848m/29,031ft). The origins of the name Aconcagua are debated, but it is thought to derive from the native Quechua accept cahuakmeaning “stone sentinel”, or the Aymara janq’u q’awameaning “white ravine”.

Via the standard route, Aconcagua is considered a relatively safe climb for its height, with no risk of crevasse, no ep/technical pitches, and no other hazards commonly encountered on other mountains of similar elevation. Despite being nearly 23,000 feet above sea level, Aconcagua is relatively snow-free for much of the year, and increasingly so in recent years due to climate change.

As a result, Aconcagua is often considered the highest “trekking peak” in the world. Although not a technical climb (via the standard route), Aconcagua’s high altitude, geographic location – far south of the equator and close to the ocean – and its status as one of the ‘seven summits’ means it is an extremely popular mountain, particularly for novice mountaineers.

The peak sees around 3,500 potential climbers each year. This high traffic, coupled with the inexperienced nature of many would-be climbers, means that despite its low technical difficulty and relative safety, Aconcagua records more fatalities than any other major peak in South America. The peak also at times dealt with a significant problem of human waste.

Aconcagua normal route, a walk almost all year round. Dealing with altitude is often the crux. Photo: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

Story

The Aconcagua was first attempted in 1883 by German geologist Paul Güssfeldt, reaching a high point of 21,300 feet after two attempts via the northwest ridge (now the “normal route”). In 1897, a team led by British mountaineer Edward Fitzgerald made the first recorded ascent. Fitzgerald was an experienced mountaineer, with extensive experience in New Zealand’s rugged Southern Alps, and although he failed to reach the summit himself – despite half a dozen attempts – a guide Swiss of his group, Matthias Zurbriggen, reached the summit alone on January 14. Two other expedition members reached the summit a month later on a subsequent attempt.

At the time, Aconcagua was the highest climbed peak in the world. However, William Woodman Graham’s claim of climbing Kabru (24,111ft) in the Himalayas in 1883 (if true) would instead win the prize, although Graham’s claim is generally considered a berth.

A six-man Polish team made the first ascent of Aconcagua from the east, on what is now known as the Polish Glacier Route, on March 4, 1934. Up to this point, all ascents of the summit took the standard route to the northwest. Crete. Aconcagua was not climbed in winter until 1954, when a trio of Argentine climbers reached the summit via the normal route between September 11 and 15.

Today, Aconcagua’s relative safety and accessibility make it the site of a number of altitude records and attempts. The tallest contemporary art gallery in the world—Nautilus– is located on the Aconcagua inside a tent in the Plaza de Mulas base camp at 14,100 feet. Nautilus presents the works of the post-impressionist Argentinian painter Miguel Doura. Among other recent records, Czech ultrarunner Martin Zhor set the fastest known time from Plaza de Mulas to the summit, climbing in just three hours and 38 minutes in December 2019.

Aconcagua is also the site of important archaeological finds dating back to the Inca period. In 1985, a mummified seven-year-old boy, the victim of a human sacrificial practice known as capacocha– was discovered 17,400 feet up the mountain, inside a semi-circular stone structure with a number of grave goods. The burial site, around 500 years old, is one of the highest archaeological sites in the world.

Climbing routes

There are two main routes on Aconcagua, the Normal Route and the Polish Glacier. The normal route is the easier and more popular of the two. Ascending the northwest ridge of the peak from the Río Horcones valley, the normal route is a relatively straightforward climb, with no technical sections or objective hazards except for altitude and weather. The Polish glacier is much tougher, with 50-70 degree snow and ice slopes requiring ropes and protection.

Besides the Normal Route, most games use the Polish crossinga combination of the Polish glacier and the normal route, also called fake polish Where 360° Itinerary. This line offers a little more variety than the standard route, without the technical climbing of the Polish glacier, and is the second most popular line on the summit. Although there are no permanent snowfields on the Polish crossing or the Normal Route, there is sometimes ice and/or packed snow, so crampons and ice axes may be necessary depending on the conditions.

Most climbers attempt Aconcagua between November and March, with a high season in December and January. Regardless of the route chosen, Aconcagua is a high altitude peak and there are accidents and fatalities every year, most often due to exposure, altitude or a combination of the two . It may be the easiest climb for a peak of its altitude, but it should never be underestimated. Many consider Aconcagua to be an excellent starting point for high altitude mountaineering, providing a taste of the conditions encountered when climbing 8,000 meters in the Himalayas or the Karakorum.

Facts and figures

  • Elevation: 22,838 feet
  • Range: Andes
  • First ascent: January 14, 1897
  • First climber: Matthias Zurbriggen
  • Annual attempts: 3,000 to 4,000
  • Average success rate: 30%
  • Average mortality rate: 0.3%
  • Average cost to climb: $7,500

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