Take it to the Top: Ten Great Alpine Adventures
Located in the Argentine Andes, 23,085-foot Aconcagua is the highest mountain in the Western Hemisphere, a peak so tall that it can be seen from the Chilean coast on a clear day. As one of the classic seven summits (the tallest peaks on each continent), it is one of the most sought-after goals in the world of mountaineering.
Numerous guide services from around the world run climbing expeditions to Aconcagua every year. Most take the Normal Route, a ridge trail that can be negotiated by most reasonably fit persons, after acclimatization. Unfortunately, the lower sections of the Normal Route are often littered with debris from the many expeditions that have passed along the way. We recommend that you take an alternate path, such as the Polish Route, up Aconcagua's lower flanks. Unless you have strong technical and glacier climbing skills, however, don't plan on finishing the climb via the Polish Routeit is just too tough. The best plan for most climbers is to traverse back to the Normal Route to finish the last 4,000 feet to Aconcagua's summit. Although this route does not present much of a technical challenge, the extreme altitude, lack of oxygen, and the danger of sudden, violent storms (the mountain creates its own climate) make experienced mountaineering judgment and leadership essential.
There are a variety of tour operator expedition options, each designed around different levels of mountaineering experience. After preparatory climbs of lesser peaks in the area, novice and intermediate climbers will attempt the summit via the Normal Route after taking the Polish Route to lower elevations. Those with previous alpine climbing experience, and the ability to follow a mid-fifth class route with heavy packs, will attempt a Polish Route ascent to the top.
Experienced climbers with some technical experience may prefer a more challenging route. From Puenta del Inca, the climbers travel with mules carrying most of their provisions for two days along the Vacas River to their first camp at 13,800-foot Plaza Argentina. The summit will be attempted along the Normal Route, after a gradual trek along the West Face the climbers come to Canaleta, a 1,000-foot couloir which leads to the summit ridge. Canaleta is steep and difficult, but once the top is reached it's a straightforward traverse to the summit.
If you've never tackled a big peak before, a 20-day Normal Route program that avoids the tough technical sections may be the best option. The hike in could be more scenic, but pack animals carry the heavy gear to the base camp. Ascend at your own speed, accompanied by guides who all the literal ropes of the climb.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication