In Inca times, the tallest mountain in South America was known as the White Sentinel. At 6,962 metres, Aconcagua is the tallest mountain in the Americas, the tallest mountain outside of the Himalayas, and is one of the seven summits — the highest mountains on the seven continents.
Every year thousands of climbers travel to Argentina to attempt to summit Aconcagua and each year a few unfortunate souls die.
Less than one-third of the people who climb the White Sentinel successfully reach the summit. Most of those who do not, experience problems with altitude sickness or unpredictable weather conditions.
This past January Karen Riley, Vance Buchwald, and Candace Dunning of Red Deer travelled to Argentina to climb Mount Aconcagua.
Although the climb was extremely difficult, they were fortunate to encounter favourable weather conditions and only a few issues with the altitude and were able to stand on the summit of South America’s tallest mountain.
It was a great life moment for the three members of the Central Alberta Mountain Club.
There are several established routes for climbing Aconcagua and the Red Deer climbers decided to use a less common route called the False Polish Traverse. With hundreds of other climbers on the mountain, they hoped it would be less crowded than the regular route. There was a total of seven climbers and two guides in their group.
It took them three days to hike the 32-km into the first base camp on the mountain. Mules were used to carry in some of the gear to base camp, reducing the load on the climbers.
The pathway in was steep and treacherous with a lot of loose rock, but the Red Deer climbers fared well compared to the Europeans in their group.
“We’re used to hiking on loose rock and have encountered that many times in the Rockies,” explained Karen Riley.
“It’s always treacherous walking on loose rock, but it was easier for us than it was for the Europeans in our group who had never experienced that before. That being said, I was the one who sprained my ankle on route to the trailhead.”
At base camp, every climber must check in with a doctor before getting the go-ahead to continue up the mountain.
Some climbers have to turn back and others have to take medications or stay a while longer at base camp to allow their bodies to adjust to the altitude.
Once the group was cleared to proceed, the mules are left behind and each person carried approximately 18 kg of gear on their backs.
“You need to carry enough food and fuel to last for approximately 20 days,” explained Vance Buchwald.
“You also need your tent, sleeping bag, warm clothing, climbing gear and other survival essentials.”
In order to allow their bodies to adjust to the altitude, the group would “climb high and sleep low.” This meant that they would carry gear up to a higher point on the mountain and then return to a lower point on the mountain to make their camp.
Despite this, everyone experienced symptoms from the altitude.
“We all felt the symptoms of altitude sickness,” said Candace Dunning.
“At high altitudes you can have difficulty breathing, headaches, gastric problems, insomnia, high blood pressure, and difficulty thinking. Some members of our group had to take medications to deal with this. If symptoms become too bad, you have to go lower. The three of us were fortunate to be able to manage the altitude. It is the most challenging aspect of the climb.”
A great deal of time was spent melting snow, so that there would be enough water to drink. By the time they reached the third camp, it took almost 90-minutes to boil water from snow. Sometimes they had rest days to allow their bodies to adjust to the altitude. On one rest day they had a cook-off to see who could prepare the best meal from their limited supplies.
For the most part the scenery consisted of rocks, snow, and glaciers, but the night sky was particularly beautiful. “You’ve never seen stars until you have been that high up,” said Vance Buchwald. “You can’t capture it in a picture. It’s absolutely amazing.”
On summit day, the group began their ascent in the dark with light-weight day packs and limited supplies. They wore crampons all day and reached the summit by early afternoon where they took pictures and used a satellite phone to call their loved ones.
As they were preparing to come back down, they were approached by an Argentinean couple and their teen-aged son who asked if they could come down with them. The three were not travelling with a guide, had run out of food and water, and were showing signs of disorientation.
“Most of the people who die on Aconcagua actually die on the way down,” said Karen Riley. “Your brain doesn’t function properly at high altitudes and this becomes worse when you get dehydrated. I’m pretty sure this family would not have made it if we hadn’t helped them. It was hard though, because we gave them our water and we were all dehydrated. It was really hard to keep them moving and we didn’t get back to our camp until 8 p.m. When we got back, Candace and I were so exhausted that we climbed in our tent without any supper and helped one another out of our boots and gear.”
The weather turned poor shortly after the group reached the summit and it was several days before any other groups were able to make it to the top. Many groups climbing the mountain that week had to turn around and go back. The Red Deer climbers realized they were fortunate to have been able to stand on the summit of Aconcagua and celebrated their success for five days afterwards in the Argentinean city of Mendoza.
Get Started Mountaineering
• If you have always wanted to climb mountains, but don’t know where to begin – consider joining the Central Alberta Mountain Club. From April through October the club offers a number of organized trips that range from easy day hikes to advanced multi-day backpacking trips. The club brings people together to enjoy outdoor pursuits and helps them learn mountaineering skills. Membership fees are only $20 per year. For more information on the club or its upcoming trips, please visit: www.camchiking.ca or phone Doug Robson (403-896-1832) or Sandy Vradenburgh (403-352-0864).
Climbing Mount Aconcagua
• Aconcagua is located in Argentina near the border of Chile. At 6962 metres, it is the tallest mountain in South America..
• Most climbers fly into Santiago, Chile or Mendoza, Argentina and take a bus to Puente del Inca for the normal route or to Penitentes for the Polish Glacier, Polish Traverse and Vacas routes.
• Being in the southern hemisphere, the climbing season for Aconcagua is best from December through March (summer). Even during the warmer summer months, the weather can be extremely cold and windy.
• There are a number of local and international guiding companies offering climbs on Aconcagua. The Red Deer group was very happy with their guides, Henry Cookson and his assistant Travis Tucker; however, they had some issues with the guiding company – Alaskan Mountain Guides. Henry is now offering Aconcagua and other trips through his own company: Henry Cookson Adventures (www.henrycookson.com).
Debbie Olsen is a Lacombe-based freelance writer. If you have a travel story you would like to share or know someone with an interesting travel story that we might interview, please email: DOGO@telusplanet.net or write to: Debbie Olsen, c/o Red Deer Advocate, 2950 Bremner Ave., Red Deer, Alta., T4R 1M9.